When our Editor-in-Chief Haleh Nia met Patrick Herning, the founder of luxury plus-size e-tailer 11 Honoré, he revealed that he knew members of the Savoir Flair team shopped on his site. “I’m obsessed with customer care,” he confessed, but the care and attention to detail he levels at every iota of his business is less obsessive and more astonishing. It also speaks to who Herning is as a human, a CEO, and a visionary retailer who is breaking ground in the fashion industry by doing the most obvious thing ever: believing that plus-size women are just as deserving of access to luxury as their straight-sized sisters.
Today, he’s serving an underserved, ignored, and oft-dismissed audience – not because he saw dollar signs, but because he saw a gaping hole in the market. Oh, and he also knows what it feels like to be marginalized. 11 Honoré is delivering gorgeous ready-to-wear to plus-size women, making their sartorial dreams come true. Sizes US 10 to 24 are represented on the site by brands like Jonathan Simkhai, Christopher Kane, and Altuzarra, all of whom had never offered anything in the plus category before. Instead of perpetually standing on the outside of the high-fashion conversation, plus-size women are now being given a seat at the table thanks to Herning’s pioneering efforts.
In conversation, he seems almost restless to advance his cause, imbued with the same eagerness and conviction as a wide-eyed college graduate determined to save the world. Yet, his ideas proved so necessary and the ground for them so fertile that 11 Honoré is racing to scale its business, expand its offerings, and open up new markets – like the Middle East. With the announcement that 11 Honoré now delivers to the GCC, an occasion marked with an exclusive pop-up, Savoir Flair took the opportunity to learn more about the man behind one of the most exciting new retailers in recent memory.
What started all of this?
I spent ten years in tech during the early dot-com phase. I was 26 and it was my first major job out of college, selling 25¢ chairs for $55 – it was like riding the wave. I then took some time off. Got sober. Moved to Los Angeles. And these dates are super important because I’m really weird about numbers – hence the name 11 Honoré. I moved to Los Angeles on May 7th, 2006, which is also my sobriety date.
Where were you prior?
San Francisco. In fact, I was back in San Francisco on May 20th for my sister’s graduation when someone asked me what I was up to and I said, “I’m starting a PR company.” I just said it. By June 1st, Mercedes-Benz was a client. It was nuts. I built this really cool brand because, at the time, I was from San Francisco and living in Los Angeles. Prior to the 2009 crash, Orange County was a massive consumer-facing market.
Brands like Fendi and Prada would hire me to do their secondary market activations. I would do the list, I would do the press, and I would do the event. The New York-based agency HL Group and I shared a client. They bought my company, so I expanded their Los Angeles footprint from 2010 to 2015, and then disengaged to start something more. I launched my consulting practice at the beginning of 2016. It was amazing. Seven figures a year, a house in the hills – it was like, ‘This is it!’
It was the dream.
It was! This is why people work so hard. My clients were my family. They were my life. If a client would call me on Christmas and ask me to travel, I would. I was always so grateful for the work that I just lived and breathed work. My client at the time was the head of communications for Max Mara and she said she needed a favor. Marina Rinaldi was doing an activation in Los Angeles, and they didn’t know who else to call. I had never been exposed to plus-size fashion. I’d known about it, it was interesting as a business category, but I had never worked with a plus brand before. I pulled together an event with young influencers because Italy wanted it young, and I had access to a tremendous amount of product to gift. I was very surprised by the breadth of product.
As someone who is sober, gratitude is incredibly important to me. On paper, I had it all, but there was something missing. This one woman who I work with kept assuring me that the missing piece was ‘coming’, that it was going to happen before Labor Day. I was at the birthday party of a client’s daughter, where a friend started talking about how she was trying to sell her brand to Nordstrom, but Nordstrom wasn’t having it. It pushed back saying, ‘Do you make it in plus?’ She said no, but that she would do a plus-size capsule collection and they bought it sight unseen.
So then I was at a huge meditation practice – I’m a huge kundalini meditation practitioner – and at this point, Net-a-Porter had been a client of mine for maybe four years. I say aloud to myself, ‘Interesting that Nordstrom is the retailer for plus. Who is the Net-a-Porter for plus?’ I said those words out loud, and then I’m on my phone searching all weekend long. Nothing. I kid you not, from August 27th in 2016 to me sitting on this couch right here right now, I have not stopped. I went from concept that day to customer on August 8th the following year.
It’s my number. It’s my lucky number. I was born on the 11th. It’s very auspicious.
And why Honoré?
Honoré is translated as ‘honored’. 11 gives it a physical address. 11 Honoré is where the plus-size customer is honored.
How did the sobriety play into everything? Are you still sober?
Yeah, I’ve been sober 12 years. I moved to Los Angeles to get sober, you know.
Who moves to Los Angeles to get sober?
I know! Well, I went to Promises rehabilitation center. And everyone laughs at that, but I was ready.
Did you ever fail at it?
Uh-huh. I got out [of Promises] in March, but really got sober in May.
You’re very open about it.
Well, for me, it’s about accountability. What’s there not to be open about? No secrets. How can somebody judge you for being open about a struggle that you’ve overcome?
That’s so true, especially in the world we live in today. Transparency just makes you so much more approachable.
I think people appreciate that. At the end of the day, one of the greatest gifts is sobriety. Sobriety gives you self-awareness. As a CEO and Founder, one of my greatest strengths is being self-aware. Let me tell you, I am the first to raise my hand when I know something, and I will fight you to the mat. But when I don’t know something – without any ego – I’m like, ‘Who’s the smartest person in the room and can answer that question?’
Do you feel added pressure now that you’re the one being heralded for championing, well, do we call it ‘plus-size’ or ‘curve’?
I think that word is overthought.
You don’t think it’s politically incorrect to say ‘plus’?
No, I don’t think so. I am building a business for this customer. I am proud to use that word. I think we’re attaching too much power to that word. It’s an identifier. Sometimes I use ‘curve’, sometimes I use ‘plus’, sometimes I use ‘fashion in your size’.
What do you call the opposite of plus?
Do you feel that pressure, then, that you’re the role model for plus?
I do. The pressure comes from the customer. It’s also a self-imposed pressure. I DM with my customer, I am friends with my customer, I get emotional with my customer, I am emotional about my customer. My customer texts me images and asks me which dress I like. I can’t believe I get to be a champion for change on her behalf. I get very, very, very emotional even talking about it. I take that very seriously. When you’re the first mover, there’s even more pressure because you need to meet or exceed expectations every time. Even if she isn’t asking for it, the pressure I put on myself to be better, to have more options, to increase size offerings – it’s like I literally don’t sleep anymore.
I am friends with my customer, I get emotional with my customer, I am emotional about my customer.
Did people think you were crazy when you first approached designers and started proposing this concept?
I think people thought it was a great idea, but I don’t think they thought I would be able to move as quickly as I did.
How did you convince designers like Prabal Gurung, Zac Posen, and Mary Katrantzou that this was the right move?
Here’s the thing, designers don’t get enough credit for their role in this. The stop gap in this has been retailers. If we’re going to point fingers, that’s where it starts. Take Monique Lhuillier. I’ve been friends with her forever, threw her a baby shower and everything. She has been designing for this customer for a decade. For years, Prabal would extend his sizes up to a 24 and buyers wouldn’t buy them. Zac’s number one customer is a size 22! Designers are not the ones who had a problem with plus customers. Because we presented it on a sophisticated platform, and because of my experience, people trusted us. I was also able to use these great personal relationships to build on. Prior to this, I had worked with every major luxury brand in the world. They trusted that I would create a platform that would represent their brand properly.
So what do you say to designers who do say we can’t do plus sizes because it requires a totally different cut, more fabric, different fit models?
I say, ‘Great! Let me help you.’
So you’re mentoring them?
No, paying. A great example? Phillip Lim. That’s a caring brand. It does an edit, our consulting team does the pattern development. We return it back to the brand. Once the samples are made, they use our fit models. I invest in that.
You are very passionate about this.
Oh, yeah. What I found is that I need to remove all roadblocks to entry. I have streamlined the entire process in case someone needs something, but can’t get it. Other than sizes and stigma, there’s no reason you can’t join 11 Honoré. Brands have to evolve. Conversations have to evolve. We happen to be a brand that is leading an evolving conversation – we are shifting the mindset through visual storytelling.
It’s such a primitive idea that you have to cater to one type of woman or another.
Right! I have yet to meet someone who says, ‘If Dolce & Gabbana dresses a woman who is a size 16, I am going to stop buying their clothes.’ That’s insane.
It is insane, but it does happen. I have heard fashion people say this about Ashley Graham, who in my eyes is a complete goddess. They were horrified to see her on the runway.
I do not do ‘mean girl’. There’s no place for mean girls in my company nor this conversation. And there’s no place for a mean girl fashion editor who is going to make a judgment on a brand that is size-inclusive.
You’ve scaled the business so rapidly in just over a year. What’s next?
Money, it takes tons of money. We are blessed to have great investment partners. They all feel like co-founders more than anything else. My job is to make sure the house doesn’t burn down. That’s harder some days than others. Also, to ensure you’ve got the smartest people on the bus – and we do – and money in the bank. We’re on a third round of financing. I need people who understand this business as a business, but also understand that we are a very serious, mission-driven company.
The mission trumps everything else?
How do you future-proof the business? What if every other retailer decides to jump on the bandwagon you’ve created?
Well first, 99 percent of the brands you see here have an inclusive trademark with us. We’re exclusive for multiple seasons against a one-to-one competitor. It’s very nuanced in terms of other e-tailers getting in the space, as you know. To think you can just start stocking larger sizes and instantly attract a plus customer is very naive. We are creating a community through action, and a commitment to our customer is the best defensibility I can think of.
What kind of feedback are you getting from consumers about what they’re buying?
Like any retailer, it’s about fit. What we know is we accrue a 50 percent return rate. We know after the second transaction, it reduces to a 20 percent return rate. When we find her in real life, it’s less than a five percent return rate. So, really speaking to her, educating her about her perfect fit is the most important part. This is a shopper who hasn’t had options, but is still savvy and sophisticated, so she has nothing to compare it to. And the plus market still has lots of size discrepancies to contend with. With our next round of funding, we are going to introduce a proprietary size filter so the customer will have access to a much more accurate fit prediction when shopping online.
For a lot of your clients, could it be said it’s their first time shopping designer, even if they’ve had disposable income their entire lives?
Exactly! That’s the point. People thought these women wouldn’t spend money on clothes. Ridiculous. I challenge you. Go to the Beverly Hills Hotel and have lunch. In 90 minutes, you will see Chanel flats, Cartier ‘Love’ bracelets, Birkin bags, and a Rolls-Royce pulling up to drop them off.
And what clothes are they wearing?
Eileen Fisher [laughs].
We have so much to do in terms of brand acquisition, so I want to stay in our lane and do what we do best. When we’re comfortable, we’ll divest a bit. I think we’ll start with collaborations; I’d love to do something with Jimmy Choo and Perrin Paris for instance. But for now, there’s still so much work to be done. Also, there’s a lot of evangelizing still to be done. For example, I didn’t realize how far behind the Middle East still is in terms of the curve conversation.
For the first time ever, 11 Honoré will show at New York Fashion Week. The Fall/Winter 2019 season will see the luxury e-commerce platform host a presentation filled with exclusive designs by the likes of Altuzarra, Brandon Maxwell, Christopher Kane, Derek Lam, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Reem Acra, Roland Mouret, and dozens of other high-end brands. About time, right?