The Future of Fashion
by Stefano Roncato, April 17, 2020
Photography by David Needleman
Connection activated. Smart interview, of course. Here is Federico Marchetti's face that appears on one of the dials of the screen. With a smile. After all, if he's built a digital realm for fashion, technology is certainly a realm for his teeth. And if you have ever frequented his office with a meeting room with transparent but soundproofed glass for top secret meetings, you can see that connecting brains remotely is the norm. But the curiosity is there. How will the man who has defined a virtual fashion-nevralgic system live?
The cam helps with the connection from home. A big bookstore behind him, full of publications, of course. First clue, a record player, reveals a passion for vinyl. And then a yellow notebook with pages written in pen, which at a certain point shows in your hands. "It's my analogical part", jokes Marchetti, who, as far as business is concerned, is not joking at all. President and CEO of Yoox Net-a-porter group, the retailer that counts the not exactly symbolic 4.3 million customers. And that includes the multibrand e-stores Net-a-porter, Mr Porter, Yoox and The outnet, as well as online flagship brands from Giorgio Armani to Valentino, Bottega veneta and Balenciaga. A colossus that since 2018 has passed under the control of Richemont with the delisting from Piazza Affari.
There was supposed to be some news, but in light of the covid-19 emergency, Marchetti decided he wanted to lead the company "until we return to calm waters" and "work tirelessly to protect the employees and the future of the group", as we read in an internal communication. Marchetti always looks ahead, almost a mantra of his path. He is preparing the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the birth of Yoox and Net-a-porter next June. But he already thinks about the next decade and tells his adventure that comes to life in his mind like a Disney movie, a company he would have liked to work for. Futuristic mobile phones as big as phone booths. Bocconi and the listing with Unicorn status. Prince Charles of England, Bill Gates and Malcolm McLaren. The years of Live Aid and the Coronavirus. The support to new talent, sustainability, digital education. Coding as Esperanto. The Alpha generation and artificial intelligence. As Marchetti himself told in the exclusive interview for the cover story on the new issue of MFF - Magazine For Fashion. "The new Coco Chanel is already born and is a digital programmer". An interview that becomes a science fiction film, leads to imagination and dream. Matrix meets Federico Fellini.
What happened? From Bocconi to the unpredictability of fashion?
My dream as a child has always been to be an entrepreneur. As a Romagnolo from Ravenna I wanted to equip myself with all the possible tools to make my dream future come true. I knew I would become one and I wanted to make the least amount of mistakes as possible.
Is it true that you would have liked to work at Walt Disney?
Yes, it’s true, very true. I even sent a resume but it wasn’t considered. It’s hard to hire outsiders in the U.S., after all. And I wasn’t interested in working from Italy. I wanted to be there where the decisions were made. It’s a company I’ve always loved. Last October, so many years later, I was invited to the West Coast at the WSJ Tech Live panel and I found myself at a table with the legendary ceo of Walt Disney, Bob Iger, who was about to launch Disney+. Since I was little Walt Disney has been the brand that told the story of my dreams, my imagination. Another one who narrated my imagination was Federico Fellini. Everything that has to do with imagination fascinates me.
«Imagination» is the key word that follows you?
Let’s say it was one of the words. The other, in my opinion, is anticipating, anticipating time. It’s trying to always look ahead, always arrive first and then anticipate, anticipate things as much as possible. In order to to this, you must use your imagination. The two things cannot be separated... No, they live together. Have you had such strong intuitions since your childhood? Yes, but they weren’t all necessarily good ones. Trying to understand and see things that aren’t there, finding the holes to fill with something brilliant... I have always tried to imagine the world with different eyes, from the most bizarre to the most practical things, always with an idea of entrepreneurship. Always thinking about how this imagination can also be transformed into a business model.
A creator with an entrepreneurial spirit?
Let’s say so. Thank you.
I read somewhere that at some point you wanted to do something in Africa with wildebeest mozzarella…
Yeah, it was one of several bizarre ideas I had that we could talk about all afternoon. It could also be a good piece on Federico Marchetti’s bizarre ideas before launching Yoox. Let’s say that the mozzarella idea was more of a humanitarian one rather than a business one, more to help Africa beat hunger. Give a chance with a humanitarian project... Also because they were the years of charity events and mega concerts like Live Aid. It’s a great pity that they are no longer there. At some point I hope they do the same thing post-Coronavirus. Are we going to see it with a Yoox aid? Let’s just say all the stars of the world should be mobilized for that. Yoox couldn’t be the director of an operation like this. Maybe Disney...
Back in Africa, what was the plan?
I had discovered that wildebeests belong to the family of buffaloes. And it’s true that with their milk you can make mozzarella cheese. The real problem is that from a practical point of view wildebeests cannot be milked. They’re very wild. So it was an idea that lasted five minutes.
And who did you tell these ideas to?
I was always confronting myself. Sometimes even with friends, sometimes with my older brother. I’ve never had a sparring partner, I’ve always had a circle of trustworthy people with whom I confronted myself with, obviously starting from my ideas. Live Aid, the very authentic 80’s, where there were the yuppies, then the Nineties with the first mobile phones as big as telephone booths.
What triggered your intuition for Yoox?
Speaking of the phone, because it’s an interesting thing, I remember it from my Bocconi University days. I don’t know what year I had it, but I was one of the very first ones always to anticipate trends. It was practically a briefcase (laughs, ed.). Because obviously I’ve always been very interested in everything related to technology. I’m a technology lover, not in and of itself but what it can do, what it can bring. And so the mobile phone has been one of the most important purchases of my life.
How did you know the mobile phone could get into people’s lives?
From reality. Like when you teach kids to keep their hands free so they can protect themselves, putting them forward in case they fall. I started thinking about when in one hand you were holding a really big phone and in the other hand a camera. That’s when I imagined the two things together, a mobile phone and a camera. That, unlike the mozzarella, was actually a good idea.
Did you propose this to someone?
I wrote it down and threw it away, with business models and presentations. But I stopped when I focused on what my limits were. I understood that I could be an inventor, yes, but not an engineer. And so I imagined that if I went to a phone company, I wouldn’t have any way of saying, "This is my idea, let’s be partners". Most likely they would have just appropriated it. So I said to myself, "Well, maybe somebody else will."
What about getting fashion online? What did you think at that moment?
I think it’s that spark that can trigger in the entrepreneur, to see things before others. Essentially it was the imagination that, together with the anticipation of time, showed me how at a certain point, in the years to come, fashion and the mobile phone would merge more and more together. Back in the days it wasn’t really talked about... Both the world of fashion and the world of telephony were progressing and it was necessary to make sure that the trajectory could then converge. I wanted to be the trait d’union between these two things.
Was there a particular moment where you realized that everything was going to start from there?
It was the autumn of 1999, one night I was working from the computer at home and I was looking for a name for this dream of mine. I thought about Yoox.com... There was very little chance of finding a four-letter name that was free. But when I saw that domain name was available...
That’s him. That’s him.
You don’t seem like a man that does things accidentally. Does the word Yoox mean anything?
Y and X are the chromosomes of man and woman, the 0 comes from the binary code that forms the Dna of technology. And so let’s say that this word is like the summary of my entrepreneurial adventure, because there has always been a balance between humanity and the machine. Everything we do is based on the balance between man and machine.
A few months ago, with the visit of the mayor Beppe Sala to your headquarters in Milan, you presented a new project with an avatar. But where will we get to with technology?
We’ll get where we want to go. We could invest a lot more in the machine but we decided to keep this balance. It’s a will. Everything we’re learning at the system level is about facilitating human talent, not replacing it. It’s all about balance. Machines can help mankind. Technology is helping us a lot right now, we’re all in smart working.
This year marks an important milestone for you, which is 20 years since Yoox was founded?
More than a milestone, it’s a celebration.
What do you think when they call you the visionary Golden Boy or talk about you as an innovator...
More than visionary, I’m just someone who has a sense of timing and looks to the future. I have courage and propensity for risk, qualities that cannot be lacking if you want to be an entrepreneur.
Then you must have a vision, but it’s all about identifying with the client. I am client number 1. ...the flattery? Are you happy with that?
I’m glad (smiling). But I’ve never settled. I’ve never stopped wanting to do more.
Do you think you’re an example to some people?
I hope so. From an ethical point of view, looking at what I’ve been doing for 20 years. I also try to lead by example with my co-workers and employees. Also as a company I think we have been very consistent. And I’ve always tried to keep the Italian flag high. What will happen in the next ten years? We were the future 20 years ago, but we’re still the future now. We’re still thinking about what tomorrow might be. Artificial intelligence, technological innovation are part of our Dna. Like a virtuous circle. It has always been a unique company, it has united fashion, technology and design for the first time and there is no real competitor with the same characteristics. We were born before Facebook, LinkedIn, iPhone, Twitter, Instagram… We were also innovative in the way we communicate. We have always focused on the customer, our audience and we will continue to do so, play an entertailer role. Surely sustainability will be a key issue. The younger generations tend to rely on brands that take a stand and reward companies that show a strong awareness of these issues. Again, I started talking about it in unsuspicious times and launched Yooxygen, the sustainable area of Yoox, in 2009. At that time, no one was talking about it.
What will the key words for this new decade be?
The team is based on inclusiveness and diversity. I am convinced that a company’s culture that promotes diversity of talent, diversity of culture, diversity of gender, diversity of background and diversity of orientation, is essential to a company’s success. Yoox Net-a-porter is committed to numerous initiatives to achieve even more ambitious goals. Starting with Empowering women to support new talent. But then I think about other innovative things we’ve done. There was a project called The Wild Bunch, a name that was suggested to me by Malcolm McLaren.
The former partner of Vivienne Westwood, the founder of punk...
He was a visionary. I had become very close to him, the name was suggested to me in 2004. And it was a project of many capsule collections open to as many young designers like Jeremy Scott, Chalayan... In the end it wasn’t that different from Moncler’s Genius.
How did you meet Malcolm McLaren?
I was at the birthday party of a friend of mine who was turning 50 in America. It was supposed to be a one-day thing, but it lasted three because we got stuck at the hotel due to the snow.
Stuck in the hotel because of the snow. Something a bit The Shining, but which ends well... What about Bill Gates talking to you about Fellini?
He know him very well. Bill Gates is a big screen enthusiast. He’s got a real movie theater in his house. I had been invited to dinner at his place and I had brought a copy of Amarcord as a gift, the version of which we took care of the restoration and digitalization together with the Cineteca di Bologna in 2015. I certainly met some interesting people. Like Prince Charles of England...
And with Prince Charles, the project The Modern Artisan was born. Is he nice?
He’s a special person, as well as being very attentive to sustainability. He’s been fighting plastic since 1969. That happens to be the year I was born.
I heard you send each other letters, not emails. Maybe they’ll be sealed with lacquer wax, because you must have a bit of a British aplomb...
It’s not new to me, I’ve written letters many times and, although I’m a man of technology, I also have an analogical aspect. Here in my studio there is a record player, there is a vinyl, I often take notes on a notebook.
This analog part you can sometimes feel...
For example, I also used the letters with some fashion entrepreneurs, with some strategic partners. For the simple fact that with all the emails one sends and receives every day, the risk is that some will be lost. After Millenials, we are already talking about Generation Alpha, i.e. those born from 2010.
Are you studying it? What characteristics does it have?
It is the first generation which is born connected to the web. Their fingers touch a tablet before a pen. They learn to share photos before they speak. The oldest of them is almost 10 years old. They are the most technological generation ever. That’s why as a group we are committed to promoting digital education. For many years we have been investing in digital education for young people. We want to inspire young people of all ages to become the innovators of tomorrow, helping them to develop the skills needed to face a thriving digital economy. Through our Digital Education Program, we inspire the younger generation, particularly girls, to pursue careers in technology, thanks to the support of our partners including Fondazione Golinelli in Bologna and Imperial College of London. Since 2016, it has reached over 6,000 children and young people, over 50% of whom are girls.
You say that there is already a new Coco Chanel and that she will be a programmer...
Yes, I do, I do. We are very committed to digital education, starting with the young girls who are usually very far away from technology. It’s a mission that we’ve given ourselves, that I’ve given myself. It’s going to help them find jobs. Coding is like learning a new language. Just as one cannot do without knowing English today, one cannot do without knowing the language of programming tomorrow. Coding is like Esperanto. That is why I am convinced that the next Coco Chanel is already born and will be a computer programmer.
What will these new generations want?
Being born with an iPad before a pen, compared to us they have a different touch.
The mobile phone?
With this form, it’s still a primitive tool. It will evolve. It’s been said they’re doing their own experiments with integration in the body... Back to the machine talk, I know that something is being done in Sweden with great success. I’m thinking more like something to do with Matrix, with images moving through the air.
A bit like Minority Report, where you move screens in the air...
I can’t answer exactly, but I think it will be an evolution of the object. The phone I bought while I was in Bocconi was just the beginning of a story. In 2000, when I invented Yoox, there was no iPhone, only Blackberry. And we didn’t know that our phone would generate most of our sales.
More than 50% of sales come from mobile phones?
And youngsters will keep buying with the mobiles more and more?
Yes. And what a mobile phone will be like, that’s something we need to see...
How will shopping change with artificial intelligence?
We launched the line 8 by Yoox on this very reflection. Artificial intelligence and big data analysis will help us to build more personalized services for customers and improve the shopping experience. Yooxmirror has changed the way customers can try products, virtually mixing & matching garments directly on an avatar of themselves. Using images, we started teaching style to a neural network, incorporating our 20 years of experience in care and styling. Images are the new data. Our researchers are exploring the power of artificial intelligence to process our huge archive of images.
Was the number 8 chosen because it symbolizes infinity?
Like two 0’s that joined together and turned give you an 8... That’s right. So 8 by Yoox is basically a brand that uses even more declined data in a moodboard taken from social platforms and the web as well as our insights. There is a new product development, but the product has to be interpreted.
There is always the man as an intermediate filter...
That’s a choice too. It is not a proposal in competition with designers because it starts from the bottom, from the voice of a billion people. It’s just the opposite of what fashion says…
So it comes from the need of the customer, from the social platforms that are the people. Like a pyramid, but you go down from the tip...
While 8 by Yoox starts from the bottom.
Speaking of starting to rise, when you first started, even financially it was another situation. Less investment was needed. The competition was less. And then you started with someone who believed in you, a kind of business angel. What is the world of start-ups like today?
Well, it depends on a lot of factors. Depends on where, of course. For example, there’s still no venture capitalist in Italy. What I always suggest is to never just have Italy in mind but to look at the world. You have to think big. Only the most ambitious or almost impossible projects can last forever.
How hard is it?
There are thousands of start-ups in the world that only last a few months. They will only succeed if they are truly innovative and meet real needs. It takes a healthy, crazy, visionary mindset. Yoox has satisfied an unexpressed but very strong need. That is to consume luxury in a different way from the traditional one.
Do you have someone to thank?
Yes, a lot of people. First of all, the employees, collaborators and managers who have made these great dreams of mine come true. And the designers who have put their trust in me, just like Mr Rupert and the Richemont Group. And the people who taught me a profession.
Which creatives were the first to believe in Yoox?
In the beginning I was an outsider, I lacked key contacts in the industry, not many people believed in e-commerce and some magazines even asked me "are you crazy?". But historic maisons like Armani and Valentino opened their doors to me, giving me the confidence I needed. They knew that the future would be global and that’s why they joined, demonstrating that fashion is not a closed sector and that Italians are not anchored to the past.
But are you happy?
In this case, you seem like a very quiet person...
I’m just the way that you see me. I’m pretty good at managing stress.
Is that your number one talent?
One of my talents is what I told you before. I’m good at imagining things. Then keep imagining...
Is there anyone you would have liked to work with?
Federico Fellini, without a doubt.
Originally published in MF Fashion.