For too long, consumers have had too few fashion shopping choices. Department stores morphed from emporiums of the latest designs to vast undifferentiated caverns of stuff along the mantra of “pile high and let it fly!” This evolved into channel consolidation and ultimately channel contraction. Specialty retailers with their unique fashion points of view, improved CRM offerings, and sharper price/value equations captured market share, but they got boring too. Fashion is always about what’s new, but department stores, the brands they offer — both private label, exclusives and national brands — aren’t exciting anymore. The same can be said for most specialty apparel stores.
Change + New is What Shoppers Want
Thank God for technology, lowering the barriers to entry for new brands to delight us, and new retail concepts to serve us. While big retailers are focusing on Amazon and blaming Amazon for declining sales and profits, the dearth of engaging retail concepts and must-have apparel and accessories has heightened the entrepreneurial bent among many of today’s young female shoppers. They are surveying the landscape, not finding what they want, and in the words of founder and CEO of online jewelry retailer, Swoonery’s Jean Z. Poh, “designing and creating product they want, with their aesthetic and values.”
Two alternatives I’ve recently come across are growing rapidly: Orchard Mile and m.gemi. Both launched little more than two years ago spearheaded by women seeking alternatives to an Amazon-like online catalog shopping experience. Romance, storytelling, personalization, customization, scarcity and treasure all designed to appeal to the women searching for a fashion discovery that resonates with who she is and who she wants to be, and reflect her life and her values.
Modern Luxury: Artisan Quality, DTC Access and Unpretentious Price Points
Direct-to-consumer brand, m.gemi, provides high-end “Made in Italy” footwear for a fraction of the cost of its designer competition. Italy, the birthplace of so many creative luxury houses and where they really know how to make shoes and bags, is part of the m.gemi story. Handcrafted in various regions of Italy (at some of the same factories used by well-known designers), m.gemi delights you with artisan quality footwear that is in limited supply at about one-third the price of a pair of Tod’s, Chloés or Chanel. Another angle is the smart storytelling and constrained marketing messages. The company drops a new style on Mondays in an email (and in two m.gemi stores) accompanied by a story that is informative and engaging. As a shopper, you are rewarded for being so smart, a cognoscenti similar to a Warby Parker aha moment. Your secret Italian cobbler, a must for every shoe lover!
The three co-founders, Ben Fischman, Cheryl Kaplan and Maria Gangemi, who met at Rue La La (founded by Fischman) where they put designer flash sales on the map, are revolutionizing modern luxury with m.gemi. Fischman is a serial entrepreneur in the best sense, having founded LIDS Corporation while in college in 1993, SmartBargains.com (2004) and Rue La La (2008), and LAUNCH (2013) a venture capital/private equity firm devoted to reinventing multi-channel consumer experiences. m.gemi is the first portfolio business within LAUNCH.
The m.gemi digital experience is compelling, but it took a trip to the SoHo location to complete the transaction for me. As wonderful as Italian footwear is, there is little consistency with sizing (and m.gemi attempts to guide you to the right size of the various styles with “fit tips” as well as access to fit experts via phone or text), plus the buy-two return-one practice is so tiresome. The brand DNA is as consistent in store as with my digital engagements and the sales associates were well informed about product and brand. I purchased three pairs (different sizes) and returned for a fourth; two were sent from the Boston store and two were sent directly from the SoHo store to my home (because frankly walking around NYC with bags is so cumbersome). Kaplan’s role at Rue La La was Chief Member Advocate, is surely impacting the CRM at m.gemi in a good way. For instance, the October 16 drop of the Lustro 70 in suede and calf leather is “as requested, listening to our clients and giving them exactly what they want” in a lower heel—and I did request it! Now how many luxury brands are doing that?
m.gemi has raised a total of $47.2 million, most recently Series C funding in June 2017, raising $16 million. This year, physical retail is a priority, having just opened its second Boston-based store in June, and another three or four are planned over the coming 12 months. Rapid revenue growth has m.gemi on a $50 million run rate this year.
Access and Personalization at Orchard Mile
Co-founders Jennie Baik, Julia LeClair and Mortimer Singer believe online shopping should be as luxurious an experience as a stroll down your favorite shopping street, hospitable and inviting and simple. Together they are building Orchard Mile (named in deference to Singapore’s famed retail and entertainment district, Orchard Road and Chicago’s Miracle Mile) to be the largest and most intelligent shopping street in the world. Orchard Mile is an online marketplace, basically, a brand cooperative that doesn’t carry inventory, and clones about 130 luxury and contemporary brand sites offering full collections at one destination. This is clearly a win for digital fashionistas. Personalization is key, as shoppers can create their own shopping street, “My Mile’ where they customize brand, category and size to reduce the paralysis that accompanies too much choice. And My Mile gets smarter with use. A luxury marketplace curated by you the shopper. Did I hear you just say heavenly? Orchard Mile offers personalized brand and product recommendations for shoppers while providing brands with customer shopping data leading to actionable brand insights.
Speaking at Luxury Daily’s Women in Luxury conference (September 26), Baik commented, “We have a sandbox of 130 brands, who are saying typical marketing and retail strategies aren’t working for us. They want to try something new with Orchard Mile. We bring all digital assets to one multi-brand environment, with multi-brand traffic and monobrand economics. Shoppers create their own digital Rodeo Drive with My Mile. We think about what is innovative and serves the brand purpose and is not going to kill shoppers’ surprise and delight. When people think about Amazon they think about left-brain. Execution of left brain doesn’t have to feel left-brain. We use data-driven analysis in a brand-appropriate, luxury appropriate way.”
Orchard Mile was built to appeal to luxury brands as well, provide the right “neighborhood’ that enhances shopper experience and brand image. This focuses on authenticity, inventory and price control, and the customer database while providing superior margins, 20% versus the typical 25%-30% other marketplaces charge. Integration is seamless. Mass focused marketplaces just can’t compete, for now, Un-Amazonable! Its worth noting that Orchard Mile has an exclusive partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue.
For now, brick-and-mortar is not part of the plan, though My Orchard did employ a pop-up at Brookfield Place (downtown Manhattan) last holiday aptly named, Gift Box. Spanning Black Friday through Christmas Day, Orchard Mile offered numerous brands in the shop available on the site: Roland Mouret, Temperley London, Rebecca Minkoff plus more while providing online access with iPads and the opportunity for one lucky shopper to win a $6000 shopping spree (meanwhile, of course, capturing the emails and contact info of the many shoppers that popped-in). For now, stores are not part of the game plan, but Baik commented, “never say never!”
Orchard Mile’s GMV (gross merchandise value) recently surpassed a $10 million run rate driven by 1.7 million (and growing) unique visitors spending an average $400+ per transaction. Orchard Mile raised and an undisclosed amount in late 2015 and is currently in market raising its next round of funding.