For young designers, finding a retail partner can be the difference between making it and closing. But every once in a while, a partnership between a retailer and a brand is so special that it launches new talent to the next level — think Barneys New York and Proenza Schouler, or Moda Operandi and Johanna Ortiz.
The latter pairing was certainly at top of mind for e-tailer Moda Operandi when its team conceived of "The Platform," a new incubator for emerging brands. Ortiz had been working on her brand for over a decade in her native Colombia when Moda picked up her off-the-shoulder tops for a trunkshow in 2014. Now, there is barely a shoulder in fashion that hasn't been graced by one of Ortiz's ruffles — or at least, one inspired by them. And Moda did more than put Ortiz on the map; they also helped her build out her business.
"We grew from her main collection into exclusive collections [that] really spoke to the femininity of Moda and what our best selling colors are," chief executive Deborah Nicodemus told Business of Fashion. "We started forecasting what her sales were going to be, by style and collection, to help her do forecasting as well."
With that success under its belt, Moda is hoping to recreate those results for four emerging designers: Eleanor Balfour, Lake Studio, Markarian and Yeon. In exchange for offering their goods exclusively through Moda's website (though they are welcome to partner with other brick-and-mortar retailers), the e-commerce giant will help the designers with marketing, brand-building and mentoring.
Moda intends to add designers to The Platform bi-annually, working with each for a minimum of three seasons, but we caught up with the inaugural crew to get a feel for what Moda is looking for in its new talent. While the brands all have distinctly different aesthetics, they share a love of luxury fabrications and special detailing — ideal for Moda's jet-setting customer.
Meet the four brands kicking off Moda's new initiative.
An alum of both Central Saint Martins and Parsons, Eleanor Balfour launched her line with a resort collection in 2016. She spent time selling direct-to-consumer and doing trunk shows to figure out what her customer wanted, but it wasn't until the Fall/Winter 2017 collection that the London-based designer really went to market. Of course, Moda Operandi was precisely the kind of retail partner Balfour was looking for.
"Moda's been very supportive from the very beginning with us — and honestly, their customer is exactly our kind of girl," she says. "She's very transatlantic, she travels a lot, so, she would have to be wearing clothes for every season, really."
Balfour designs her clothes to feature removable details, like feathered hems, that easily take the garments from day to night. Her best-seller is a shirtdress, dubbed the "Xenia," which unbuttons down the front to serve as either a tunic over pants or as a dress. It will be a staple in all her collections, changing color or fabrication. But with the help of Moda, Balfour hopes to add in knits and maybe even show at fashion week in the near future.
"We'll be growing much quicker than we usually would if we did it any other way," she says. "They're helping us grow and evolve, and that is very supportive, to have that in every way possible. I've seen a huge difference already, and it's been two weeks."
Since launching in in 2014, designers Olesya Kononova and Anastasia Riabokon have seen their brand Lake Studio be named "Best Womenswear Designers" in their native Ukraine — and it's not hard to see why. Their silky, streamlined designs are both simple and sexy, whether in the form of a knotted slipdress or a printed and embroidered robe. Working with Moda was the fastest way to give their young brand an international audience.
"It's an opportunity for us as an emerging brand and a way to say more about Ukraine in our own way through unique hand embroidery and exclusive prints that we create in collaboration with local artists," the duo says via email. "It’s also a step forward for Lake Studio since everything is going digital and online sales grow rapidly."
The first step for Lake Studio is a launch event at Moda's New York City flagship, where they'll present their summer collection. They're also working on pre-fall, as well as their Fall 2018 fashion show, which typically happen at Kiev Fashion Week. Having the backing of a retailer like Moda Operandi will just help them kick all of that into higher gear.
"Moda is one of the top players in luxury online retail and got the best expertise in selling emerging brands," the duo says. "We were very happy with our trunk-show results on Moda Operandi before so the decision to join The Platform came naturally for us."
In terms of fashion brands, Markarian is practically a newborn; designer Alexandra O'Neill only launched it in March of this year. But you'd never guess it by looking at her dreamy, feminine designs — and her celebrity clients, ranging from Emily Ratajkowski and Ashley Graham to Emma Roberts and Erin Foster.
"It went by so fast, I know!" says O'Neill. "I launched with a spring collection that I started selling on my own website, and also with the fall collection that I was going to start showing people, and Moda ended up picking me up for the first two seasons. They did a joint spring and fall trunk show with me."
The Moda woman will surely be drawn to O'Neill's otherworldly aesthetic. "Markarian" is named after a group of galaxies, and the line is full of details hand-done in India. "Moda is my ideal client," says the designer. "My girl loves to get dressed up and wear very feminine and beautiful things, and has an appreciation for the quality and for luxurious fabrics, something that's well-made and special."
O'Neill doesn't have plans to expand the brand on too massive a scale, as retaining that special quality is essential to the brand's identity. Right now, the business is largely made-to-order. For the designer, the benefit of working with Moda is being able to expand her business while still retaining that bespoke quality for her clients.
"I don't want to be one the brands that's everywhere, and that you see everywhere," O'Neill says. "I honestly think that everything is so mass market these days; my client is looking for something that's a little more special and can be just for them."
While working for an unnamed fashion company, designer Yeon decided she missed working on the creative side of the industry. "I always focused on how to make garments cheaper," she says. "I started thinking about having my own collection, and really working with quality fabric."
From there, she researched factories and developing fabrics for two years before soft-launching Yeon in 2014. Instead of designing trend-based clothes, Yeon focuses on what she considers to be timeless designs, intended to be kept and passed down through generations. The line was still tight when Yeon began working with Moda, first through a trunkshow and then through the retailer's Madison Avenue flagship and their showroom in Dubai.
"It's hard to find a retailer who really wants to work with young designers and really incubate them these days," she says. "What I know about Moda Operandi — how they really invest their energy and time with emerging designers — I was thrilled with their business model."
Having that platform means that Yeon can continue to build out her audience, not just through Moda but also through other speciality retailers likely attracted to the association with an international e-commerce site like Moda. There are also hopes to build out the direct-to-consumer business, which allows Yeon to be even more directly in touch with her clientele.