The Net-a-Porter name is practically synonymous with online luxury retail. But under former Lane Crawford fashion director Sarah Rutson, who joined Net-a-Porter's New York office as vice president of global buying in January, it's the retailer's contemporary buy that is undergoing the biggest transformation.
"Net-a-Porter has an extraordinary designer ready-to-wear business, but I felt that contemporary was really highly under-potentialized," says Rutson, noting that no one wears designer price points head-to-toe these days. For the fall 2015 and coming spring 2016 season, the retailer has increased its investment in brands like Tibi, Joseph and Elizabeth & James, and introduced new designers like Vanessa Seward, Goen.J, Sam Edelman and Self-Portrait.
Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester, says the move into contemporary is essential for a retailer like Net-a-Porter, which officially became part of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group last month. "You can't grow as a retailer if you only sell haute couture," she argues. "The industry is too limited in size."
We spoke to Rutson about the shift in Net-a-Porter's buying strategy and why designer brands, too, are re-thinking their price assortment.
I understand you are expanding your contemporary buy. Can you tell me how and when that started?
It started for the fall 2015 [season]. Net-a-Porter has an extraordinary designer ready-to-wear business, but I felt that contemporary was really highly under-potentialized, especially with the opportunities to build exclusive collaborations with contemporary brands — it's far easier to do than with designer brands. From a business standpoint, the designer brand margins are much lower than contemporary brands, so that's important.
And fundamentally, it's about really engaging with the customer. We all buy — it's a much overused word but a reality — high/low. No one wears designer price points head-to-toe. And now that Net-a-Porter is 15 years old, shipping to 170 countries, we've got a new customer base and a younger customer base, so there's quite a number of things we can do there.
Are there particular brands you've invested in?
We have had extraordinary results with Joseph from London and Elizabeth and James. Self-Portrait also — we're tripling, quadrupling our buys and still not seeing a ceiling. We want to make sure when they open the Net-a-Porter boxes, there's extraordinary product inside. It's not just about cheaper product.
Do you seek out more casual pieces from contemporary designers? Or is it the same mix?
The criteria is always the same: to build a good product architecture, making sure there's good/better/best, making sure you're looking at the coat business, tops, pants, what percentage of the business is going to be blouses, dresses, skirts. Then obviously there are certain brands that are very strong in certain categories. That's about the edit. We're not here to buy a bit of everything from brands, we're here to buy the best from the brands.
The British Fashion Council has been throwing more support behind designers working at a contemporary price point. Are you seeing more momentum in London's contemporary category in general?
We're seeing designer brands at a far better price point at the high-end now — Marques'Almeida, a designer we've been with since the beginning, is very interesting, and brands out of Paris like Jacquemus are really well-priced. And then there are incredible brands like Christopher Kane. We got behind a certain pleated skirt and knit [he made] — it's a designer product outfit for under £800, which has never happened before. People are really looking closely at how can you capture a new customer. Everyone's just being much smarter. The consumer today, regardless of how much they have in their wallet, regardless of what customer demographic they come from, is very, very savvy.
Is there a different customer that goes for your contemporary pieces? Or are you seeing a lot of overlap?
Actually what it's doing is layering into the customer we already have, giving her opportunities to shop high/low. It's bringing in a newer customer and a younger customer as well. We're here not to be one-dimensional, but to service the modern woman today, and that's how a modern woman shops.
What's really interesting is that the designer brands are looking at the price architecture as well to bring in a newer customer base. You can buy designer handbags now at around $800 — you used to never be able to get that from a designer.
You said you're doing many more exclusives with contemporary brands. What's working?
Elizabeth and James is a good one to mention. I found a feather sweater five years ago from [the label], and everywhere I wore it last fall, everyone said, 'Oh I love that sweater,' they were obsessed with it, so we went to Elizabeth and James and they did a turnaround for us. It doesn't happen like that in the designer world; it's far, far harder to get exclusives, and there's a lot of emotion around a designer brand and point of view. It's no longer just enough to say it's "exclusive," there's a glut of collaborations out there, so it has to fill a gap and it has to be spectacular product to work.
Net-a-Porter is known as a destination for luxury fashion. How have you gone about — or how do you plan to let customers know — that Net-a-Porter is broadening its price range?
It's been quite organic in certain respects. It's been really refreshing for me that the customer has noticed. Word spreads very, very quickly, and I think our advantage at Net-a-Porter is the fact that we curate so well, and curation in the contemporary arena has to be very, very strong because there can be a lot of noise in there. We're not here ever to be a mono brand for any brand.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Net-a-Porter ships to 180 countries. It ships to 170.