José Neves talks to Caroline Issa

Text by Caroline Issa

Photography by Daniel Swallow, the online fashion marketplace was founded by switched-on entrepreneur José Neves in 2008. In just four years, farfetch has raised close to $25 million of funding, enabling it to attract a truly eclectic portfolio of progressive retailers from otherwise hard to reach locations and similarly market itself as a force to be reckoned within the saturated global marketplace. We sat down with the CEO to find out more about his mission to bring the independent boutique back to the forefront of fashion and his passion for bricks and mortar retail establishments.

Caroline Issa What was it that sparked the idea of farfetch?
José Neves When I was a kid, I already got into computer programming, and continued with this into university. My first business was a small software concern; we developed management software for the fashion industry. That business always ran parallel with a shoe brand, Swear and the b-store boutique in London. So I always had this passion of bringing these two worlds together: technology and fashion.

The farfetch concept came from talking with many boutiques, as it became very clear that online was crucial to their future. But, it's really difficult for an independent boutique to have a professional online presence. If you look at the industry, there are a handful of them that do it very successfully, but invariably they have teams of 20-25 who exclusively handle online. They also have millions of pounds of investment, and most of them have actually transformed themselves from being boutiques with an online business to being online businesses with a boutique. They are the likes of Luisa via Roma, Mytheresa, and even Sarah Currin who started my-wardrobe as a boutique which eventually became an online only venture. So it's a really big investment, and in many cases it's not what the founders of these boutiques want to do in life anyway; they love fashion, and they love curating fashion. They don't want to manage 25 tech people because it's not their métier, not what they are passionate about.

My software company eventually became farfetch, as I took all the programmers and directed them all into the new company, when I went ahead with what farfetch could offer.

CI And what is that exactly?
JN Farfetch has become the solution provider to independent fashion businesses - unleashing the potential of these amazing retailers and connecting the global audience with them.

Boutiques like Penelope in Brescia or RA in Antwerp are utterly incredible with a global point of view in fashion. However, while Antwerp is a beautiful city, it's not a big one. It still has its tourism, but it's very difficult for fans of these boutiques to stay in touch without an online channel. And in case of Penelope in Brescia… Brescia is not even a touristic place. So it struck me that a lot of these visionary retailers have a global demand: people in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil and the west would love to shop with them, and only the internet allows for that to happen. So we work for the retailer and the consumer, connecting both sides of the equation. And it's really resonated, as we've seen after launching farfetch, with a global audience.

CI The number of boutiques you showcase has quadrupled since you have started. How do you manage who is in your network?
JN It's absolutely essential and it really is a cornerstone of the company. We call ourselves "a curator of curators", with the boutiques being curators themselves. We are like an art gallery and we curate the artists. So we are not artists ourselves. We don't buy; that's the boutiques' role. It's really important that all the boutiques on farfetch have a strong, unique vision of fashion. We wanted to be really eclectic. And what I find beautiful about the project is that we meet the old and the new, so we have boutiques like Al Duca D'Aosta in Venice. They've been around for a 110 years; they were the first international customers for Burberry outside the UK. They are the last Cartier franchisees in the world, owning the Cartier store in Venice. So we have these third generation businesses, and then we have stores like RA or people like Henrik Vibskov in Copenhagen. And that's how the fashionistas shop - they like both the experience of tradition as well as the new, unusual and quirky. It's about bringing these different viewpoints in fashion to one place. But the essential thing is that they all must be amazing curators in their own right. So we are very selective.

CI The interesting thing about your business model is that you actually take the pain of taking all the product images for the web and boutiques send you their buy, you shoot all the things, so everything has a consistency on the website.
JN Farfetch's philosophy is that we will do everything for these retailers, because we want the best, independently of whether they know how to send an e-mail or not. We've set up e-mail accounts for some of them, created their POS systems, etc. I think the secret sauce of farfetch is first being the curator of curators, and then doing everything for them and making sure that they can do what they love doing and what they are great at, which is buying, selecting and scouting for interesting labels and objects. We do the rest, taking the e-commerce pain out of equation for them.

CI What do you think of physical stores and how their customer experience fares next to the online experience?
JN We have a very particular view on the online versus offline debate because actually I think that the future is in the multi-channel and cross channel route. In the electronics industry, most of the purchases these days are multi-channel, so people are comparing prices online, then going to the store and getting advice by the shop assistant, or the other way round.

I think in fashion it will become even more like this. I actually don't dream that online will become the dominant channel in fashion. But it has happened in books, it has happened in music… 

CI Why don't you dream so?
JN Because the physical experience of going to a store, talking to a shop assistant who is eloquent with fashion and trends, and the product that they are selling, is irreplaceable. The pleasure of coming out from the store with a shopping bag and touching the fabric, wearing it straight away. All the reasons why everyone said e-commerce would never work. Those reasons are still there. But the thing is people sometimes want the convenience, wanting to do their shopping while they drinking glass of wine at 1am. The future of the farfetch concept is really about merging the offline with the online. We have loads of ideas on how to leverage that, how to bring people to our boutiques and also how to make the boutiques co-operate with each other, so that if, for example, they don't have the size of a particular piece in one boutique then they could be serviced by another. It won't be easy, it has its challenges. But that is really the future.

CI We have been saying that the best thing on the internet is that there is so much choice and the worst thing is that there is so much choice. What is your view on that? Yes, you're providing incredible choice. But sometimes too much choice is too much?
JN We are working a lot on ideas, technology, to help personalise experience. After a few clicks and after a few screens you learn what you want to see. We kind of surface the content, which is more relevant. It is a challenge in terms of technology. It is the Holy Grail for us.

CI What do you hope the next five years will be like?
JN We want to create a community of the best independent fashion companies worldwide, connecting them with fashion lovers on the global level, and creating the next multi-channel experience in designer fashion. We could put independent fashion retailers back in the centre of the action. If you think that 20-30 years ago, the independent fashion retailer was at the helm of the fashion industry... but not today. They have become these poor relatives of the industry. Yet ironically, what people thought would be their final-nail-in-the-coffin shifter - the internet - is in fact possibly their saviour. Why not? If you think that there is technology now which can empower them - to give services like click and collect, to use mobile technology to tell customers who are wondering around: "Come and visit my store!" - when you think that you can tap into all these technologies, they will become relevant again. Growing the business is great, but changing the way in which people shop for fashion is what excites me the most. § 

  • Jose Neves