The retail giant needs no introduction. Like the Concorde of the e-commerce world, the shopping site was the first of its kind to offer ready-to-wear collections online from fashion's most coveted labels. More than a decade ago, searching for that dazzling party dress meant planning a trip into town to scour the physical racks — the world had the Internet by then, but not the foresight of founder Natalie Massenet. Launching the e-portal in 2001, it took a couple of years before brands were willing to place their bets on what seemed like merely a novelty. Today, it's impact as a game-changing retail service is undisputed. But unlike the Concorde, 15 years on and Net-a-Porter's hardly losing steam — in fact, it's only gaining speed.
Currently heading the fashion direction of the site's retail domain is Lisa Aiken, a bright-eyed and affable individual who boasts the chops — and sense of style — to steer the platform towards uncharted territories: Picking up and nuturing under-the-radar labels; distilling the season's trends to advise calculated buys; and, venturing into regions that's relatively untapped in terms of fast-growing fashion talent. In short? It's that first-mover advantage that has all of us returning to the site. As Aiken describes, "You feel like you're getting something that no one else knows about and that's part of the beauty of Net-a-Porter."
True to form, the e-tailer is set to release 91 new brands across its categories for the coming season, with a curation built upon a sundry of trends projected for spring/summer 2017. The rise of the rainbow shades, striking yellow, sculptural ruffles and boyish tailoring are just a drop in the ocean of their upcoming retail framework. Here, Aiken chats about the factors that go into expanding their brand portfolio, the key trends which've spilled over from SS16, and the streetwear avalanche that's taken the world by storm.
To put it in commercial context, our spend on the Vetements runway has grown so much it now sits alongside Prada, Gucci and Chloé.
Let's begin with the Net-a-Porter customer. What is she after?
We talk about this a lot as we put our woman at the centre of everything we do on the website, and what's interesting is that she's not one woman. As a business, it's our job to give all of those different women what they're looking for — whether it's new brands or new styling ideas. We've got the very runway focused customer, the contemporary woman, someone who's embracing sport and streetwear, and also, those who like feeling very modern for evening.
And what is your personal style like?
I'm very eclectic — I get very excited about lots of styles and I like new ideas. I think the day I stop being inspired by what's happening every season is the day I probably need to leave the industry [laughs]. I would say that I have quite a mixed style, but I love when women have a uniform. I think that's so amazing. You stick to it, but you evolve every season, and I just can't do that — I get too excited. But, I think I can never wear anything head-to-toe as I have to have one element that's maybe dressed down because that counterbalance is always important.
Working with the buying team, which region have you noticed that's really coming forth with a strong selection of promising labels?
When I went to Sydney for fashion week in May, I think we came away with five or six brands, and I really wasn't expecting to do so. I arrived and, witihin the first two days, found two or three things that I really fell in love with. I think the success of a brand like Ellery for example, has really raised their profile and encouraged us to look at them more. It also inspires the designers there to really step up and see themselves as part of an international fashion city. Recently, Russia also has our attention. One of my favourite new brands is A.W.A.K.E. The designer Natalia lives between Moscow and London and she talks about how it's really a blend of the two places, which gives you a very cool and directional girl. Finally, I'm also very keen on seeing what's coming out of Copenhagen and Stockholm at the moment. We launched Ganni this year and that has done so well for us. It's not everywhere and you feel like you're getting something that no one else knows about and that's part of the beauty of Net-a-Porter; we're able to bring these labels from all over the world and put them in one place.
What factors do you consider before bringing a new label on board?
It's a very considered process. You walk into a showroom and you nautrally have a gut reaction to a collection, and if that gut isn't 100% convinced, you need to go and see it again next season. I look at the previous seasons from these brands because, to know where they're going to go, you have to know where they've come from. It's also their social media presence — which doesn't necessarily affect my decision to buy — but it may attract me to go down to their showroom in the first place. That's sort of becoming more of a factor in terms of getting attention on a new brand. Of course, we also consider the commercial side of things, such as: Are they able to produce and finance themselves, but also, do they feel like this is the moment they want to be on Net-a-Porter. The instant reaction I'm sure is yes, but I've looked at some brands and thought, "You've come so far, if you had just one more season, you might produce the best collection of your life." And, you do want to launch with the best you can get of them — it's also about the timing for both parties.
What do you do if you don't think it's the right time, but still love the label?
I try to spend time with all new brands that I see, but it's hard. If I think they've got potential, I'll say maybe we can refine their sourcing and where the fabrics are coming from. Sarah, our global vice-president of buying has mentored many brands over her career — and it's also one of the most exciting parts of my job. I've got the best job in the world [laughs]. Once, I went to see a designer and after I shut the door, she started screaming on the other side because she was so excited. I had goosebumps. I was thinking: Oh my god, I've made this woman's dream come true — how amazing it is to be able to say you can do that. But of course, it's not just me! There's a buying team involved. But in that moment, I was like it's all me [laughs].
With the upcoming SS17 season, what are some of the biggest trends you're seeing when it comes to the buy?
Streetwear is a big focus and we've seen huge success with this. To put it in commercial context, our spend on the Vetements runway has grown so much it now sits alongside Prada, Gucci and Chloé. It's huge, and things sell out so quickly. We put so many units behind it but we just can't seem to keep it in stock. We've also seen an evolution from maximalism, where a lot of statement bright colours and prints came through, but it doesn't have the same eclectic quality that maximalism has had in the previous seasons. It's much cleaner and bolder, all while still being very visual. Something that's grown from SS16 into SS17 would be the reworked shirt and shirting in general; the idea of cotton and playing with masculine elements. The deconstructed shirt is definitely something we're seeing big commercial success with already, and will only continue to grow for SS17.
With the site being one of the pioneers of online shopping, how do you intend to keep innovating digitally in terms of the consumer shopping experience, as well as editorially on The Edit?
Over 50% of our sales come from mobile, and that's a big focus for us in terms of where we're seeing technological development. We're making it as fast and easy to shop as possible, while still giving you all the content you need to make those purchasing decisions. Editorially, we've got some things in motion and we're launching a new editorial platform within the next six to 12 months. It's not a huge step away from where we are now, but it caters to the speed of how everyone is being engaged. Well, you work at Buro 24/7 so you must know how it's like...
It's in the name [laughs].
Yes, exactly! It's just constant and everyone wants more, and they want what's new. It'll be a way for us to keep up with that as every decision that we make for the website has that in mind.
Speaking of the shopping experience on the site, I love how detailed the product descriptions are. I've made purchases because Net-a-Porter reveals specifications that aren't stated on other e-tailers. Often, these details end up being the deciding factor that made me purchase the item.
Yes, and likewise, I don't think I've purchased anything in years without watching how the item looks on video. It's the biggest thing to see how it moves, works and fits.
You can really pin things into place when shooting a photo but for a video...
Exactly. There's no cheating with the video [laughs].
With the holiday season coming up, what are your tips on buying smart and perhaps, not splurging on a full-on sequinned dress that's only good for certain parties, for example.
I think shoes are the biggest investment you can make. I mean, they're so easy to dress up or down! Did you see the Sarah Jessica Parker collection we launched?
Yes, and there was that really cool video interview that went along with it.
We've just done this collaboration with her and I had the pink ones on — these to me are the perfect party dressing investment. I can wear it during the holiday season and then come January, I'm wearing them with my shredded jeans. It's that easy switch-in, switch-out. Evening tops are also a big category for us. I'm wearing Rosie Assoulin now, and again, I wear them with my shredded jeans, but I could put this same top on with a tuxedo pant and it's great for the evening. So shoes and evening tops... and also, those '80s style earrings that I really love right now. You know those big Saint Laurent ones from the last runway? When I was out and about during shows, I just wanted to wear those with a white T-shirt — it just looked so interesting and modern. But put it on with a black dress and you've somehow got that '80s vibe that's happening right now for eveningwear.
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If you could only pick one item, what would you say is your best purchase of 2016?
That'll have to be my Simon Miller bag. I'm not really a bag girl as I prefer shoes and ready-to-wear, but when I find a bag that I love... It's small, but I fit so much in it. It's also at an amazing price point. At 400 pounds, I think that's a great purchase for a fashion bag, and it's my best purchase this year.
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