While it’s very encouraging to see the recent growth in awareness (amongst both brands and customers) towards finding more sustainable ways to consume fashion, pre-owned luxury etailer Vestiaire Collective has been doing so for almost a decade. The Parisian site, launched in 2009, started out with an aim to extend the lifespan of luxury fashion pieces by offering an affordable alternative over fast-fashion — a concept that has proven to be well-received by fashion savvies all over Europe as well as the United States.
Today, Vestiaire Collective has successfully garnered an impressive community base of 7 million members from over 50 countries, and is now in the midst of branching out across the Asia Pacific region, with Hong Kong as its very first stop. For this month’s How To Succeed, we sat down with Fanny Moizant, one of the co-founders of Vestiaire Collective, to learn more about how the entire concept came along, the challenges along the way, and her advice on building a successful business online.
Yes it is. I graduated from business school, then after that I worked for six years in a French company in Paris doing mainly home decoration. Before that I briefly had a job at John Galliano, and another luxury company. So I worked for seven years and then I stopped to take care of my babies. In between the two girls, I graduated from a fashion school called L’Institut Français de la Mode (IFM) in Paris. After that I launched Vestiaire Collective. It was my first company after six to seven years of experience and two babies.
Yes. I think that’s because growing up my mom used to own a few shops and one of them was about fashion. I was a teenager at the time and was studying, so I used to work with her a lot and spent time there. She of course gave me things to do, and I became deeply interested in fashion, so I think it stayed with me and that was what I wanted to do.
Yes, and that’s the key, because my mom, dad, brother, my grandparents and everybody in the family are entrepreneurs, so I think it helped in connecting the dots. Knowing that I wanted to work in fashion and that I couldn’t find any job that I wanted to do after fashion school, I decided to go the entrepreneurial way and launch my business, and that’s how it happened.
Yes, the best one was from an entrepreneurial course at the fashion school. During that course the teacher told us ‘Okay, you all want to do something and to launch a business, but first you’ll want to find an idea.’ About the idea, he told us to ‘bring a notebook everywhere you go, and on a daily base you’ll face some dissatisfaction. It could be tiny little things, such as your coffee is not hot enough, or perhaps it was delivered too late. Make the habit of writing these things down and come back to it regularly, then you’ll see that someday, amongst your daily dissatisfactions, they might convey an idea for a business.’
If you feel that dissatisfaction, the ten or a hundred people around you feel the same; if you manage to fix that problem, then that’s a business. If there’s a need, there’s a company, and there’s a business. So actually it was a very good idea to look at business from a problem point of view, and then try to solve the problem. That was very good advice.
It happened exactly like what the teacher said. I was in love with fashion, but since I had my two babies back to back, for three years I didn’t dress up or buy anything. I started to lose weight after that and I wanted to go back to the normal fashion routine. Back then I spotted that some friends and bloggers were starting to resell old clothes on their blogs, and I found it quite interesting to be able to buy something secondhand from a person that you find has interesting style. It wasn’t only about the bloggers themselves, it was about the way of buying more cleverly and in a more sustainable way as well.
My dissatisfaction was that I had those five or six blogs that I visited everyday, and if I ever wanted to buy something off them, I would have to send an email saying ‘Hey, can I buy this item?’ Then they’ll go ‘Yes okay, I’ll reserve this for you now, send me a cheque,’ and after that I’d have to wait for the cheque to be cashed and so on. It was a nightmare and was quite impossible especially when you’re busy doing something else, which, in my case, was raising two babies.
That was a problem I was facing, so I thought ‘Okay those girls have potentially interesting things to sell, but they don’t have the structure, what I need is to build a platform for them.’ I would have to provide as much service as possible, so to make it easy for everyone to simply press a button to purchase a product and get it delivered. I was trying to fix a problem that I was facing on a daily basis, and that’s exactly what I’ve done with my fellow co-founders.
Through my brother, actually, it was very strange because I was working on my own business plan, and it was still at a very early stage. One day my brother, without knowing at all what I was working on, sent me an email saying ‘Hey, look, I have a friend who is developing a side business. I’m sure you’ll love it because I know you love fashion, and you might be one of their first clients…’ I looked at the email and it was exactly the same as my idea, written in summary. I went ‘Wow, oh my God’ and cried for two or three days.
I tried to develop a few ideas before which were a bit crap, but I really believed in this one, so I was terribly upset to know someone else was working on it. I called my brother and said “Right, introduce me to your friends, and we’ll see if one day we’ll work together, or if we’ll become competitors.” I ended up meeting three of them, Sébastien, Sophie and Henrique, and we realised we all have very different backgrounds. One was into internet and business development, Sophie was good with products as she used to be a stylist, the other one specialised in logistics, and I was bringing in the marketing and communications. Afterwards we took in two tech guys and it was perfect, because we were all matching each others’ skills. It was a very lucky moment.
My husband and I lived in Hong Kong for a few months a long time ago, so we were very in love with this place. He took me to have foot massages a few times and I started going every day. I felt it to be so amazing and I wanted to import that — a massage place with a nice atmosphere — to Paris. Well, it was a nightmare to get the right people to do the massages and then have a proper place to do it and work very long hours. The business plan was really showing that it was going to be hard to make anything out of it. Then I wanted to launch a clothing company for kids; I had a few ideas like this, but you’ll know as you work through each idea and you’re like ‘Hmmmmm, I’m not sure.’
I start by digging into it and try to understand how I can make it happen in the marketing area, and then also the numbers. For the foot massage idea, I started crunching the numbers by thinking how much it would cost to have a shop in Paris, then how many people I should hire, etc. Do your P&L (profit and loss statement) properly to see if there is a future or if you better stop before even starting. I was going through those different steps and then the Vestiaire idea came along. It was very different and I felt very deeply about it. I felt it to be a good idea at the right moment, so I pursued this one rather than the other ones.
Once we launched, I think the biggest challenge that we had to face was to do two things at the same time. The first one was inventing a business because what we’ve done with Vestiaire didn’t exist before, so you have to build everything from scratch. It seems easy now that it’s done, but 10 years ago, creating all the processes, imagining ‘Okay, when a seller sells, what is the best way to collect the product? When should we do the authenticity check? How do we repackage?’ etc. — every single step had to be built. It wasn’t like you could copy/paste from whatever company. It took a lot of time, and at the same time we were growing so fast from the very early days. It was challenging to do both — building something, running it and at the same time trying to keep up with the growth.
The name of the company. We started with an amazing name, which was Vestiaire de Copines, and it means ‘Your friend’s wardrobe’. We started with that name in Paris. It was an amazing name and the buzz was perfect, but after a year and a half we noticed we were having more and more clients from abroad such as the UK and also all over Europe. Then there came the problem of having to fix the name because even though ‘Vestiaire de Copines’ worked brilliantly in France, it means nothing outside of the country. It was also difficult for the English ladies, for example, to type on Google. It was a nightmare. So despite being such a young company we had to change our name, rebrand and go through that stage over again. It was quite painful.
In order to expand internationally, we called ourselves Vestiaire Collective two years or so following our initial launch. I remember that the members in France were so attached to ‘Vestiaire de Copines’ that when we announced our new name, they were so upset and pissed off, saying ‘Oh but it’s not the same.’ Of course, a few months later it was all okay and everything settled down, but it was quite a painful transition.
From the very early days of Vestiaire, we defined four pillars. The two main ones, to answer your question, are first the ‘selection’ and then the ‘quality control’. Imagine I want to sell my bracelet on the site: I will go on the app and fill out a form, take a picture, define my price and send it digitally to the first curation team based in Paris. The purpose of that first step is to build a desirable but also qualitative inventory, meaning the team will check whether the product is on trend, or if it’s a good brand, etc. They will also check whether they think the product is genuine. If they have any doubts, for example, if it’s from a first time seller or that the product looks weird, they will ask more questions such as the proof of purchase and so on. We’ve also, however, very quickly decided that you cannot tell whether a product is genuine just by looking at a picture, so that first step was only there as a starting point, in which we eliminate random people who are trying to sell fakes.
Once that bracelet is on the website where someone can buy it, I, the seller, will be asked to ship the product to the quality control team in Paris, Hong Kong or New York where it will be physically examined. We have two teams for that, the quality control team to make sure everything on the description that I’ve provide — such as no scratches, comes with original box — matches with everything found on the product, then the authentication team will go on and prove its authenticity.
Yes. As you said, quality control and authentication are very important steps for our business, so for that we’ve signed the anti-counterfeiting charter, developed by the French government, in Paris in 2012. It is a charter that enables our platform to work with the brands themselves. It basically includes all the luxury houses from the LVMH Group to Chanel, Burberry and Christian Louboutin. These brands will send specialists to train our experts on the latest products, telling us which detailed elements to look at to make sure the product is authentic. We also make sure that we share everything on the site with them, so if they spot something they have doubts about, we’re going to send the products over to them. It’s a behind-the-scenes collaboration to fight this massive counterfeit problem, and it’s a very big engagement for us since we are backed by all these luxury houses, which help us do our job even better.
That physical examination is done after someone has purchased the item on the site. When that happens, we will ask the seller to first send it to us, then we will ship it to the buyer after it passes the quality control and authentication checks. Never ever will a seller ship directly to the buyer.
Regarding the fakes and the counterfeiting problems, it’s less than 0.5%. That’s because the girls at Vestiaire are already asking lots of the questions at the first step, and tend to refuse everything that is a bit dodgy. We end up by having very few percentage of fakes because of that, and for most of the fakes we end up catching, the sellers themselves didn’t know they were fakes. They were probably gifts from others, or they bought the items from unreliable sources. In addition, we also have a community of 7 million people who know these products inside-out. If you ever post a picture of a product that looks a bit strange, they will be able to spot the details and leave many comments. As we read those comments, we immediately take out the products.
The straightforward answer is to kill the rest, which is my social life. Basically at some point you’ll have to choose between your friends, family and your business. Family for me is so important, I cannot spend days without seeing my children, so I barely go out to see my friends as much as I would love to. I need to find the right balance. To be able to get some rest while still being a mom and be able to spend time and take care of kids, the answer, for me, is less social life and more family time.
That’s because I don’t believe in the first option you just mentioned. I mean, it depends on the job, if you’re a brand or a designer it might be different. However, for a business like ours, I think you really have to understand the market you are entering, and to also understand the culture to be able to work with the local team. Otherwise, running an office in Asia from Europe would be a nightmare.
The cultural element is critical, and there’s a big gap between Asia and Europe. There’s a difference even between France and the UK. I remember in the beginning it was really tough to understand the UK team, because we didn’t share the same codes or the same culture. They were saying something and we understood that in a different way. They also didn’t get the brand and were operating in a slightly different way than how we would have done it, so I think it’s really down to understanding your own team and how they work, while also sharing with them the DNA of the company.
To summarise, we need to understand the culture, the market itself, the buyers and sellers, to really be able to find the right balance and the slight adaptation we need to do in order to succeed. I don’t believe in flying in every other week, and say ‘Hey, I’m here and it’s going to be fine.’ It doesn’t work that way. Every single market is unique and come with different challenges, so you really need to live through those challenges to be able understand them and to apply the right methods.
Women don’t shop the same way, they don’t react to secondhand the same way. For example in Europe, the secondhand market is more mature compared to here in Hong Kong and the fear of buying fakes is way bigger here than there, so we really have to show how we operate in terms of quality control and authentication in order to get that trust from the consumers. Then there’s also the way women dress, what they love and what they shop. In Asia, women are more petite, so they like smaller bags though we like bigger ones. They are more feminine in the way they dress and they love colours. It’s all about the tiniest things but it’s so important.
At some point you might understand them from crunching data, but it’s even better to understand them in real life so you can immediately adapt and do different merchandising and communicate with the right code. Here, for example, we have some amazingly wealthy customers that are after the most luxurious bags such as the Hermes Birkin, the Kelly, and also the ones in crocodile leather and all these exotic skins. That means we need to build and offer special services for them, because these types of clients simply don’t exist in Europe. All these tiny things need to be adapted in every single country, so it takes lots of time and energy to make things right.
We now have 12 people in the team and are aiming for more. I think by next year, we will be somewhere between 20 to 30 people. Right now we are overseeing Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Next year we will open up every South East Asia country, plus potentially Japan and Korea, so then it will become a big playground.
No I think it’s the opposite. We need both in a very complementary way, because even for us we feel the need to do things like pop-up events in real life. While it’s amazing to be digital, at some point you need to interact with the people who will also become your clients, your partners and also the influencers and all. You desperately need that physical presence too.
I believe that retailers need to be online as well for that massive global audience, so I truly believe that the future of commerce is a mix between the two channels. One is not going to take over the other, I think both need to adapt to this new reality. Stores will potentially start to transform as well. It will be different, but we will still need both brick-and-mortar and digital platforms.
There are several keys obviously, but the one common mistake that I’ve been seeing around me, is that some people want to develop a business and so they build their websites and everything and then they put it live and think it’s done. Just because they’ve put so much energy and money into building those elements — which are, in fact, mandatory — they think the work is almost done and the business will start growing. That’s actually completely wrong because once your product is online, who is going to find it organically? You will then need to really start another job, which is more about the marketing, PR and communications to tell the world that you exist and that they have to come to you.
I think when you’re building a digital business you need to have several competencies to really be able succeed and grow. By just having an idea and building your site is never enough, and I don’t think one person can ever do the whole thing alone. It’s very rare. You need to know your own strength and expertise, and surround yourself with the best experts of all the other things you don’t know how to do. Once you’re a bunch of people capable of executing all the different layers of the business, then you have a chance to be successful.
In between all of that, remember to always build your brand, because building an online thing is great, but people are relating to a brand. That’s also one of the strengths that makes Vestiaire Collective stands out amongst all the competitors. I hope that after 10 years, we can really say we’ve built a brand that is consistent, appealing, that speaks to people, and has a decent awareness across different markets. A brand is what keeps the story alive through the years; so invest time and money in your own brand, because that’s what makes the customers follow you.