Despite the fact that there are literally hundreds of e-commerce sites, very few online-only sites have managed to crack the mainstream market. Even fewer have cracked the online luxury market. Net-a-Porter, founded in 2000, has pretty much ruled the online-only luxury market with an iron first for the past 10 years--but that could soon be changing.
As more brands and retailers go online, consumers and CEOs are beginning to look at online-only luxury differently, heralding a new batch of innovative e-commerce sites.
One of those sites is the UK-based Avenue 32.
Launched in 2011 by Roberta Benteler, Avenue 32 takes a unique approach to the e-commerce game, fostering a kind of symbiotic relationship with emerging designers like Eudon Choi and Huishan Zhang, as well as established high-end brands like Narciso Rodriguez and Zac Posen--and contemporary staples like A.P.C. and J.Brand. For Avenue 32, it's as much about the designers as it is about the sale.
"We're trying to create a platform for designers--whether it's young designers or established designers--where they really have control over their online presence within that multi-brand environment," Benteler told us when we caught up with her and her right-hand woman, former Browns buying director Erin Mullaney (both of whom happen to be gorgeous and impeccably dressed) in London a few weeks ago.
To that end, designers help shape the way their labels are seen on the site, supplying brand videos, imagery and, in some cases, interviews.
"I think that's what's so appealing about us," Benteler said. "Especially for a younger designer who rarely has the chance or the financial means to really exhibit a wider view into their collection or even certain categories."
Stocking up-and-coming designers is definitely Avenue 32's forte--a fact that owes as much credit to Mullaney's sharp eye as Benteler's unconventional background--not in fashion, but in investment banking. With a mind for finance, Benteler wanted to create a site she would actually want to shop--with amazing emerging young designers--without taking on a boatload of financial risk. So, Benteler came up with the innovative idea to buy all of Avenue 32's merchandise on a commission basis.
"If we had a budget, we couldn't [foster young designers and take risks stocking new designers]," Benteler said. "What Erin and I really enjoy is trying to find [that next big designer.]"
Looking over Avenue 32's stock list reads like a who's who of the up-and-coming international design scene: There's Felipe Oliveira Baptista, Folk, Roksanda Ilincic, Priory of Ten, Calla, and many others whose names even we didn't recognize. Which is what makes Avenue 32 so awesome: You're bound to discover amazing new talent you've never even heard of.
For luxury e-commerce sites that operate on the traditional wholesale buying model, it would be too risky to buy such untested, young talent. Which is why Avenue 32 is often a launching pad of sorts. The site was the first online store to stock Eudon Choi, for instance. Now, a few seasons later, every online retailer is scrambling to get him.
"We have so many exclusive designers that we couldn't afford to take onto the site if it were wholesale because obviously there is a risk involved," Benteler said
Mullaney, who certainly knows her stuff thanks to a long stint at Browns, has an amazing eye for talent--something the highly respected buyer really gets to indulge in at Avenue 32. "Young designers sometimes don't sell for a few seasons--it takes a year or two to get them going. That's a risk I wouldn't normally take. [But at Avenue 32] we can take that risk."
Investing in emerging talent has proven to be a boon for the designers, too. "A lot of magazines, like Vogue, won't feature designers unless they have a stockist where customers can buy," Benteler explained. "So, when we pick up [these young designers] it often opens the door for them to get credits in high profile magazines. And then we also make the sale."
Since Benteler and Mullaney are so good at picking out young emerging talent--particularly in their native London--we had them name the up-and-comers who will soon be making waves in the fashion industry--the next J.W. Andersons, Jonathan Saunders, and Sophia Websters. Read on for their top five.