Industry publications have been obsessed with the topic of fashion’s “problems” – namely, the industry’s hesitation to adopt new retail models that deliver products to the consumer at the accelerated pace she demands. Today’s shopper is experiencing “consumer fatigue” because she is so inundated with product imagery on social media that she is tired of the product before it even hits the shelves. Fashion’s accelerated pace is also problematic for designers, who are being wrung dry by the constant demand to be creative, while simultaneously producing to drive an increased return on investment. As the media continues its speculation about the future of fashion, online luxury retailer Moda Operandi is sitting above the fray, having already pioneered a solution to the problem. By offering pre-order capabilities for full collections, straight from the runway, it is offering its clients the ability to invest in new products immediately, thereby meeting their needs at an astonishing rate, and preventing consumer fatigue.
What is so exciting about Moda Operandi’s pioneering retail model is that it is being used to the benefit of many Middle Eastern designers, including Madiyah Al Sharqi, Elie Saab, Noor Fares, and many others. In fact, Savoir Flair was granted the opportunity to interview the CEO of Moda Operandi, Deborah Nicodemus, and Moda Operandi’s Vice President of Merchandising & Planning, Mary Chiam, right after the two landed in Dubai to scout new Middle Eastern talent at Fashion Forward.
In this exclusive interview with Nicodemus and Chiam, we discuss Moda Operandi’s innovative business model, its relationship with Middle Eastern clients, and what the team is looking for on their regional scouting mission.
More than ever, the Middle Eastern shopper is seeing her culture represented in the products she shops for on international websites. For instance, when she goes to Moda Operandi, she’ll see familiar names like Madiyah Al Sharqi and Sabine Getty. What prompted Moda Operandi to start looking at the Middle East as a viable luxury market?
Mary: It comes down to all of the great new designers emerging from the Middle East. We have a lot of clients in the market, and they continually provide feedback about talent coming from the Middle East, which has paved the way for us to come in and discover designers that we typically wouldn’t know about.
Deborah: Our client in the Middle East is very sophisticated. She is quite knowledgeable of the trends and the brands – particularly the international luxury brands. So, when she looks to Moda Operandi, she loves our high-touch service, and through that, we are able to give her access via trunk shows, which means she has access to a collection that isn’t edited because it’s coming straight off the runway. Our key mission here in the marketplace is to identify emerging designers and give them a spectacular platform to showcase their collections.
Our client, because she is so sophisticated, comes to us often looking for occasion-wear pieces with beautiful embroidery, beautiful lace, and beautiful textiles, which are qualities we find a lot from designers in the Middle East.
How did regional designers like Mira Mikati, Noor Fares, and Nathalie Trad first come to your attention?
Mary: Our discovery usually happens on the ground. We go to the marketplace in question and talk to the clients and industry professionals there. You mentioned Mira Mikati, and she actually came on our radar when we were in Paris having lunch with a publisher who was wearing Mira’s staple bomber jacket. We’ll discover new talent when we’re sitting at a café and see someone wearing something beautiful, or when we’re looking in a showroom. From there, we do research on the brand and designer to see if they make sense to feature on our global website.
Deborah: About 20 percent of our marketing team is comprised of former editors from various magazines, and they have key insight into merchandising and who the emerging brands are that we should be looking for. So, it’s really a collaborative process between merchandising and the marketing team. As former editors, they are able to come at this from a perspective of what works in a particular region, and trends across the region as well.
What are you looking for on your scouting mission to the UAE?
Mary: It really is about uniqueness. We are looking for products that typically can’t be found already available on our website, or in specific regions like Europe. When we brought Mira Mikati in, at the time, no one else was doing what she was doing. I’m definitely looking for romantic, ladylike pieces – they do extremely well on our website. Our client, because she is so sophisticated, comes to us often looking for occasion-wear pieces with beautiful embroidery, beautiful lace, and beautiful textiles, which are qualities we find a lot from designers in the Middle East. That’s something I am really looking forward to discovering.
What can Moda Operandi do for these emerging regional designers?
Mary: Once we actually find them, we’re very excited to work directly with the designers themselves and feature their collection in full. One of the major benefits of being on Moda Operandi is that we are able to present collections in full, whereas, if it had been picked up by another retailer it would be edited down in the buyer’s voice. We have the ability to work closely with the designers to share their vision and the inspiration behind their collections. As we work on producing a trunk show, we are careful to accurately translate a designer’s message; for example, our editorial team interviews the designer so that we can run an interview alongside the collection. Additionally, when Moda Operandi discovers new emerging talent, we are able to promote them across all our global regions and give them international exposure. One thing we find, season after season, is that when we launch somebody, they are able to easily reach a global audience that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Deborah: After the trunk show, we share the statistical information with the designer. We share what the best-sellers were by category, fabric, price point, and color. We also make recommendations in terms of price points. We have a very high AOV (Average Order Value), so we aim to help designers bring their AOV up, for example by adding embellishment or honing in on craftsmanship of the product.
We are looking for products that typically can’t be found already available on our website, or in specific regions like Europe.
While Moda Operandi is a wonderful retail site, I would also say you’re an emerging-talent incubator if you’re guiding designers through the retail process like this on such an intimate level.
Deborah: Absolutely. We want to be a close partner to the designers and help them build their business, which is why we provide them with this level of insight. Our feedback is really specific to their business. We’re not sharing information regarding other brands or making those comparisons. We’re trying to help them be the best, according to their specific vision. We are always asking, “How might a designer improve his business?” So, we share with them results by country, what was the best performing country, the further marketplace potential of that particular country, and how they can build their profile in other countries as well.
Weddings are a big market in the Middle East. How does Moda Operandi meet the needs of the luxury customer who has a wedding in the near future?
Deborah: I want to really give you a global view of this business in terms of bridal, and when I’m referring to bridal I’m really referring to the wedding dress itself. The wedding dress is a very high-touch business. It’s very intimate, because you’re helping an individual with an occasion of high importance. So the bridal experience is very consistent with couture, because couture also involves a high-end purchase for an important occasion. At Moda Operandi, there is a strong connection between the stylist and bridal and couture clients. This ties back to the way Moda Operandi differentiates itself in the market place. We want to continue to have very high AOV while servicing the client in a personal way.
Our mission is to have a showroom in Dubai, which is a long-term commitment that we’re making.
Mary: When it comes to the bridal experience at Moda Operandi, our stylists really take the lead on that. We are stocked with the best full-range bridal collections from the top designers in the world, so when a client comes to us she has all of that at her disposal, as well as our experienced stylist’s recommendations, our customization options – we want this dress to really represent the bride accurately. We want her to walk away with exactly what she’s looking for.
Deborah: You can probably tell now that merchandising has a very pivotal role in the company, because they’re not only working with the marketing team; they’re working with the styling team and tech teams too.
Can you discuss the dual nature of Moda Operandi’s business model?
Deborah: There is the e-commerce side, which we are well known for, and we also have a showroom business. We first launched the showroom business in London in 2014. Our mission is to also launch a showroom in New York around September. Additionally, our mission is to have a showroom in Dubai, which is a long-term commitment that we’re making. Our showrooms serve an important function – one-on-one engagement with the client. Ultimately, our goal is to go a step further and develop a real relationship with them.
The fashion industry is in a current state of upheaval. How would you describe the modern consumer? How has her behavior changed over the past few years?
Deborah: What is unique in how she is changing is that she is tired of seeing the same thing in every department store she visits. Our clients are looking to buy very unique products, products that are more avant-garde. She is buying the most expressive part of the collection, whereas in the past those items that are seen on the runway would typically never make it into the commercial line! Now designers are seeing that there are women who are not only willing to buy that product, but also wait five months to get it. I think that is a very unique revelation in the retail industry.
Another important change is the “direct to consumer” retail model, where a collection is being designed and produced and presented simultaneously. I think this will be more important for the US and younger brands, but in terms of high luxury there will always be a runway show, because that is where designers can show the highest points of their creativity. It would be quite disappointing if designers decided to stop doing runway shows, but I am quite confident they’ll go forward with runway.
It would be quite disappointing if designers decided to stop doing runway shows, but I am quite confident they’ll go forward with runway.
Mary: Also, there’s a new element of social media, and clients expect engagement via social media. As soon as something walks the runway or a collection is presented, whether she sees it on Moda Operandi or social media, she’s definitely seeing it somewhere, and she’s making mental notes. That is why Moda Operandi offers the ability to pre-order collections straight from the runway.
If a brand chooses to adopt a consumer-facing model, that could change the way the designer is producing clothes. So, it becomes a matter of a buyer or a wholesale partner dictating what gets made for the commercial line or what gets put into production. Do you think that could have negative consequences for the creative side of fashion?
Deborah: First, I’d like to say that I love that you see this too. That was also one of my first concerns. Right now, the client or consumer keeps seeing the same thing repeatedly throughout every department store, just variations on a certain look. The same thing could happen to emerging talent, and that would be terrible. I would say that letting a buyer or wholesale partner dictate what goes into a collection will definitely have an impact on emerging designers, but that’s the last thing we want to see happen. When you start doing that, the work becomes very lukewarm. You should never edit down the creativity of an emerging artist. Moda Operandi wants to support designers and help their businesses flourish.