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Matches Co-Founder Ruth Chapman on Gaining Ground in the U.S. and Using Brick-and-Mortar Stores as Marketing Tools

The 27-year-old British retailer, which celebrated Joseph Altuzarra in New York on Thursday night, says that 20 percent of its online sales are happening Stateside.

If you buy a lot of designer clothes, you've likely stumbled upon Matches, the U.K. retailer started in 1987 by co-founders and CEOs Tom and Ruth Chapman. Known for its elegant mix of new guard designers -- Christopher Kane, Erdem, Peter Pilotto -- and lasting favorites -- Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Givenchy -- Matches has 11 stores around the fancier parts of London. But its web presence at is growing fast. So fast, in fact, that the Chapmans raised £20m in 2012 to help keep up with online demand. 

A big part of that growth is in the U.S., which makes up 20 percent of Matches' online sales. And there's more to come, they hope. To kick off their next phase of U.S. development, the Chapmans hosted a dinner at SoHo's Sant Ambroeus' on Thursday night in honor of Joseph Altuzarra, whose label has long been a Matches favorite. Before we sat down to dinner, I spoke with Ruth Chapman about how she found her U.S. customer, the company's unique approach to brick and mortar, and whether a Matches boutique will be opening in New York any time soon. 

Despite being a London store, you have an impressive online business in the States. How did you make that happen? 

The online business started seven years ago and it grew very organically. We took investment in the business two years ago, and at that point, we had a real obligation to work hard and think more strategically. The U.S., for us, was already a strong market. We had a core bunch of fashion devotees shopping with us. The U.S. now is about 20 percent of our [online] business, and it's growing about 120 percent every year. So we're seeing a real shift. It's interesting. Joseph [Altuzarra] is an American brand. We're buying American brands and we're shipping them back to the U.S.

Why do you think that is? Because your buy is special? 

That has a lot to do with it, but I also think it's about the mix of brands, and the way that we mix them back to each other. When we're looking for new talent, we're looking for a certain kind of talent that we think is going to have longevity. We picked up Joseph really early on, we picked up Christopher Kane really early, Roksanda [Ilincic]... and now we're starting to work with a few more that we really believe in. We'll nurture them and help them grow. We've got a great platform, because we've got millions of visitors to our Style Report [Matches' weekly web magazine]. We can give our clients a real education about designers who they haven't heard of, which they love. They respond to it. 

What are some of the newer brands that you're looking at right now? 

In the U.S., we just started working with Wes Gordon, whom we're really excited about. And we also picked up Charles Harbison. Have you seen the robe coat? We really, really believe in him. Fine jewelers, too: Monique Pean, Alison Lou. We work with so many U.S. designers, actually. We've got a long, long relationship with Marc Jacobs, because before we were online we were a bricks and mortar retailer. So we have that long history with many designers. 

You've been in business since 1987. How has the customer changed since you started, other than the fact that they're shopping online more and more?

They're more demanding and fashion literate than ever. They expect a lot. It used to be that our demographic was 35-70, because those were the women who could afford to shop with us. That remains, and that's growing steadily, but there's a new, younger customer coming through who is in her twenties that responds to the fashion pieces. She's quite aspirational. It's interesting how it's broadening. 

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How do you meet their demands?

When we're buying, we don't buy the pieces -- even if they're super-nice -- that don't have an interesting fashion aspect. We all travel, we all go through airports, we all see a lot of product out there. If we're spending $1,000 on something, it's got to have something unique about it. It's got to be special, beautifully made, and delivered with great service. And they're really vocal--they'll give you so much feedback, which we love. We love a critic.

Do you think the American luxury customer is really that different from Europeans in the way she shops? 

It's an interesting question. I do think that often, in a really broad sense, the American customer has a different aesthetic. But I think that our customer has the same aesthetic all over. Women who are really interested in fashion and beautifully made things, they generally have a similar aesthetic worldwide, whether they're in Sydney or Berlin or New York or Los Angeles. The lifestyle might be different, but they're looking for similar pieces.

Your brick-and-mortar strategy has changed over the years. Can you talk a little bit about your approach?

Our retail stores have become much more of a marketing possibility. They're important to our top brands, like Joseph, and we want to showcase them in store. But more and more, when the customer is coming into the store, they will engage with product almost as a gallery. It's very transactional, they do buy, but we can't show our entire inventory in a retail space. The customer can buy what's not available in store through an iPad and the help of a salesperson. It just makes total sense to us, really. There are lots of customers who still haven't shopped online, but when they're in the store and someone does it for them, then they realize that it's simple. When it arrives in their home and they unwrap some lovely parcel, then they like it and want to do it again. 

Reverse conversions! Would you ever consider opening a store in New York?

We get asked that a lot, and we debate it between the two of us a lot as well. Tom is always trying to slow me down. We have a lot to do right now, a lot of things we have to make better. But it's something that I dream of doing. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Homepage photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images