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LifestyleFashion & Watches

Net-a-Porter comes to Asia-Pacific

Net-a-Porter is bringing its world-beating brand of luxurye-commerce to Asia, its fashion director tellsVivian Chen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 10:35am

When she arrived in Hong Kong from London on Monday morning, Holli Rogers, fashion director for Net-a-Porter didn't know what to expect of the online luxury fashion retailer's new office space in the centre of Causeway Bay. Looking fresh in a cashmere knit and leather skirt despite the long-haul flight, Rogers is excited about Net-a-Porter's expansion into the region.

Spanning about 4,000 sq ft, the spacious office is the company's first branch in the Asia-Pacific region, adding to its two bases in London and two others in New York. A location in Shanghai is also scheduled to open next year.

The London-based e-tailer will launch net-a-porter.com in Chinese in spring next year. This follows its acquisition and relaunch of luxury fashion e-commerce site shouke.com as TheOutnet.cn, the Asian counterpart to Net-a-Porter's off-price site TheOutnet.com.

Customers will be able to pay in their local currencies - Hong Kong dollars and yuan - for both sites. A warehouse in the New Territories is being built to ensure same-day delivery for local customers.

Net-a-Porter's Asia-Pacific partner, also the founder of shouke.com, is entrepreneur Adrienne Ma, whose mother, Joyce Ma, is the name behind Hong Kong's high fashion multi-brand retailer. Adrienne Ma worked closely with her mother as president of Joyce before turning to a consultancy role in 2008. She is now senior vice-president of its operations in the Asia-Pacific.

She describes her e-commerce venture as a tough learning curve but an exciting one. "I think I learned a bit in my Joyce days and now, working with Net-a-Porter, I'm fortunate enough to be in a situation to learn more," she says.

Having been with the company since 2002, Rogers says the past 10 years have felt like a perpetual roller-coaster ride.

"We grew so fast that it doesn't even feel like 10 years have passed by," she says. "You know you are part of helping something grow and fundamentally that has been the most rewarding part. It's been pretty phenomenal."

It was founded by former fashion journalist Natalie Massenet in 2000 in a minuscule artist's studio in Chelsea, London. The site was valued at an estimated GBP350 million (HK$4.31 billion) by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont when it acquired stakes from Massenet in 2010.

"Our first office was literally a house," says Rogers. "I was sharing a desk with someone else. The warehouse portion? You could hardly even call it that. We had a bathtub in the toilet and it was filled with hangers and shoeboxes."

Today the group has moved its London headquarters to a 66,000 sq ft penthouse office atop Westfield London, Europe's biggest shopping mall. It sells about 350 brands across 170 countries through net-a-porter.com, its menswear site MrPorter.com and its off-price site TheOutNet.com.

Its selection of brands is a mixture of established fashion houses such as Valentino, Chloe and Bottega Veneta as well as hip, up-and-coming labels such as Isabel Marant, Sophie Hulme, Rag & Bone and Sophia Webster, a new launch for spring-summer 2013.

"It's been a huge challenge, too," says Rogers. "Now, online shopping is commonplace, but back then we were basically questioning everybody's ideas about the way people buy fashion - and expensive fashion."

Rogers was formerly an assistant buyer with Neiman Marcus and later developed a ready-to-wear collection for Chanel in New York. She says buying for an online retailer is vastly different from buying for a bricks-and-mortar store.

"When I was buying for Neiman, you got very stuck into spending patterns. But when you are buying for the website, you don't really have that visible pattern any more, so it's actually been liberating," she says.

"There are nuances in terms of body sizes in different markets. But beyond that we believe there's a certain segment of clients who are global. It's important not just to give people what they want but also to challenge what they want."

Net-a-Porter, like other online retailers, has a marketing team that creates e-campaigns, newsletters, online magazines and smartphone apps to interact with customers. Rogers says these also provide useful platforms to introduce aspiring designers to the site's client base.

Net-a-Porter's latest recruit, Lucy Yeomans, who was the editor of Harper's Bazaar for 12 years, is now the editor-in-chief of the site.

Meanwhile, Rogers is always looking out for a good design - she scouted designer Alessandra Rich, for example, in the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton in Paris.

"When I'm at a cocktail party, I'll walk up to people and ask them about their amazing dress or a piece of jewellery they're wearing. I do it all the time. You see great products and you ask, and then we hunt them down like we are fashion hunters," she says.

A late bloomer in tackling the mainland Chinese market, Net-A-Porter is taking on sites such as yoox.com, Shopbop and Lane Crawford's bilingual online store, which also offers same-day delivery.

Judging from the prices offered by the major players in the mainland's online luxury market, the e-stores are not targeting bargain hunters, although discounts on items sold by the local fashion retail chains are always attractive to savvy shoppers.

"Allowing people to shop in their own language and pay in their own currency is actually not as easy as you would think," says Rogers. "It's even more work than planting a store here on the street."

Rogers says it took a lot of effort for Net-a-Porter to dominate what has become a saturated market. "We cover a lot of those things that other sites haven't done such as including tax and duties in our price. We have such a closely knit network, from the editorial content all the way down to the marketing. We've have at least 12 colleagues who are celebrating their 10th anniversary with the company this year," she says.

Having an original fashion direction and offering exclusive collaborations also keep customers coming back. The e-store worked with Karl Lagerfeld on the KARL collection in January, and often launches collaboration collections, including a festive jumper capsule collection for Christmas with labels such as Preen, Moschino and Richard Nicoll.

"We have customers who want the latest labels out there," she says. "Even before they can pronounce it, they still want it - like Mary Katrantzou. There are others who are willing to take risks, but still want their Gucci or Valentino. So we get well-established fashion houses in among the others. I think that's how people dress these days - mixing high and low, established ones and up-and-coming ones."

vivian.chen@scmp.com

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