He’s been called the most powerful man in fashion that nobody’s heard of. Federico Marchetti, the man who founded the hugely successful online retailer Yoox and helped engineer its merger with the other online heavyweight, Net-a-Porter, is about to become an even more influential player in the lucrative world of mouse-click fashion.
The fame might take a little longer. Marchetti, although not shy or retiring, does not actively court publicity, satisfied with being known, and respected, among industry insiders. As well as founding Yoox and its various fashion subsidiaries, including the upmarket thecorner.com, the entrepreneur has acted as consultant for major Italian brands launching online boutiques.
The formalising of the merger with Net-a-Porter this autumn will lead to the emergence of a formidable online retail operation, combining the low-key but meticulously organised operational expertise of Yoox with the flair and publicity savvy of Net-a-Porter.
It’s hard to imagine just how innovative Marchetti’s idea was around 15 years ago – to persuade people to spend large amounts of money on fancy duds, forgoing the traditional boutique-browsing experience in favour of looking, and ordering, via a computer screen.
More than a few people in the industry shook their heads at the sheer audacity of asking people to pay huge sums for mail-delivered items of expensive clothing. In essence, he was proposing that shoppers abandon habits that had been in place for centuries.
“When you start something and you are the first one, you have to have courage as well as the means and investment,” says Marchetti. “It was not a eureka moment, it was very rational. I feel like I’m a shopkeeper, but I do things in perhaps a more innovative way than a traditional shopkeeper would do. The satisfaction comes with seeing ideas become reality. I have a passion for retail, I love the customers. Everything comes with a price and there have been a lot of sacrifices in the last 15 years, working and thinking about Yoox every day. It’s fun but also very absorbing.”
Every stage of that phenomenal growth has been plotted, planned and executed by Marchetti, a handson CEO, who can rattle off figures and statistics at bullet speed. The main Yoox warehouse, in the Italian city of Bologna, ships a dress, a cardigan or a pair of shoes every 10 seconds; shoppers in China are the highest spenders of any nationality; the average transaction worldwide is around US$250 per customer.
As well as business acumen,another asset in his intellectual armoury is a photographic memory that’s able to recall names, faces and events from many years earlier. His fussily neat personal style, and his mannerisms, suggest a supremely well-organised individual, a trait he’s proud to confirm.
He says: “I’m very efficient and super organised; you need to be when you have so much to do and so many things to follow. If you’re not organised, you’re dead. This I learned when I was a kid, going swimming and then to judo and then, to please my parents, I was also doing piano lessons. This was multi tasking and I think it helped me to become very efficient in studying. In business, I think the key to success is never to give up. Every day is a challenge, every person you deal with can be a problem, or a great thing. When something goes wrong I always think from this problem how can I make it an opportunity, and it works.”
Few would imagine that Marchetti, with his sharp dress sense and impeccable manners, was once a laid-back surfer dude whose main ambition was to go in search of challenging waves. The businessman’s childhood was spent in the Italian city of Ravenna, where sporting activity was a major part of growing up. When recalling those years, he becomes reflective, remembering how he managed to combine academic excellence with a passion for tennis, swimming, surfing and judo. He becomes misty-eyed at the memory of a trip with teen pals, where they travelled all over Europe in search of great waves.
But the focused sportsman and the corporate personas are not as disparate as they seem. When Marchetti applies his attention to an activity, whether as the surfer or tennis player of his younger days or as the innovative entrepreneur of his adult life, he’s single-minded and determined to be the very best.
The surfing metaphor is also apposite when it comes to business: the online shopping wave was created by Yoox and will grow in an even more significant way now that Yoox and Net-a-Porter are merged. When the deal is finalised, discussion can begin on how the two formidably successful companies can best utilise their respective assets. But, as Marchetti told the Financial Times recently, there will only be one big boss – him.
Yoox is definitely stronger in the world’s fastest growing luxury market, China. The average age of the customer there is under 30 – younger than the international average, with customers known as being higher spenders and price-conscious bargain seekers. Increased knowledge of international fashion has led to more discerning tastes: demand for lesser-known niche brands is increasing as buyers look beyond the obvious logo-prominent names.
The company founder himself is something of a niche-brand individual, opting for a crisply smart look that identifies him instantly as a style-conscious executive – most likely someone associated with the creative area. A typical outfit would be a Martin Margiela suit, shoes by Comme des Garçons, a shirt from a Milan tailor, spectacles by Oliver Peoples and, on the wrist, one of the two vintage watches he owns, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
When pressed on exactly how many suits he owns, Marchetti ducks and weaves for a while before sheepishly admitting that the collection nudges the 100 mark. All of them, of course, carefully coordinated by colour and style, but not necessarily purchased online.
He says: “I mix it. For trousers I still love to buy offline. For me, it’s the most complicated item to buy, it’s a bit tricky because maybe the day before you have eaten or drunk, and the body has changed.”
There are also the physiological effects of a gruelling annual travel schedule: around one-third of the head honcho’s year is spent travelling, paying visits to the Yoox group operations in different parts of the world; there are five logistical centres, three of them in Asia.
The main operation in Bologna has more than 5 million items in stock at any one time, with more than 8,000 orders processed daily. The company has a dedicated team of photographers and stylists who shoot all the new arrivals at inhouse studios, ready to post on the website for the delectation of stylehungry shoppers.
The well-oiled slickness of the operations side allows Marchetti to concentrate on more cerebral matters, planning the merger and making projections for the future. While outgoing and chatty, he’s not in the least bit flamboyant, or a publicity hound. Time away from work is spent at home with his British fashion-writer wife and
He adds: “I’m a businessman but the creative component is quite strong. If I was only doing business I would get bored. For the internet and fashion together we’ve invented a lot of things and have helped to educate people in a new way of thinking, the brands and the customers. In this way I think I’m influential as an adviser and have taken them by the hand into an unknown world.”