Dreams are Desires

by Silvia Bombino, January 12, 2020


Photography by David Needleman

If you type Federico Marchetti into Google, the first three results are dedicated to his younger namesake, the Genoa goalkeeper. "I never googled myself, and I don't like football," says Federico Marchetti - entrepreneur, the visionary who in 2000 invented an e-commerce site for clothing, Yoox, now YNAP, following the merger between Yoox and Net-A-Porter. Then he lights up: "But if you search for me from America ... I'm the first." In fact, Marchetti, who left Ravenna, now leads the company with offices in 8 countries, not one, with logistics centres the size of 100 football fields. Other records: over 3 and a half million customers in 180 countries, 12 million photos per year, 8 by YOOX label created with artificial intelligence, a newly signed joint venture with Alibaba for the Chinese market. And that’s not all. At his house Tilda Swinton and James Ivory come to see him, he shares a passion for Fellini with Bill Gates ("He knew all about Amarcord, while the founder of a famous social media app, whose name I will not say, asked me “The one from La Vita è Bella?”"), he recently dined with Demi Moore, finding it very pleasant. "But this list doesn’t mean anything," smiles Marchetti.

You keep a low profile, but in Italy you are a pioneer: in 2000 the Internet had only just arrived in Italy, you managed to get financed by the venture capitalist Elserino PioI, who had already helped Renato Soru with Tiscali.


At that historic moment, mobile phones had the shape of a telephone booth, e-commerce did not exist for us, and overseas, Amazon sold books. How did you get the idea?

"I'd always wanted to be an entrepreneur. So, I’ve always had many ideas since I was a teenager: if I didn't accomplish them, it was because they were too crazy."

Give some examples?

"One of the crazy ones… I wanted to solve the problem of hunger in Africa by making mozzarella from the wildebeests, because I discovered that they belonged to the same family as the buffalo. But there was a problem: they cannot be milked, they are wild beast, wild animals. So, I stopped»."

Other ideas?

"I was among the very first to have a cell phone when I was at university. I was curious about it, I said to myself: if it's so big, can't it also be a camera? But I was not an engineer who could have prototyped this product: I saw myself explaining the idea at Nokia in Finland (the biggest mobile phone manufacturer at the time), and them replying: Great, but we can do it by ourselves."

After Bocconi University, you went to work at Lehman Brothers in Milan. Why did you turn to finance?

"I knew it would have been great training: they were actually three very formative years. I'd do it again. But then I enrolled at a master at Columbia, in New York, to go back to making projects: while I was studying I had the idea of a business plan for a fast food concept, but with a slow food philosophy: a middle ground between La Piadineria and Eataly."

“Have you ever thought about that project of exporting the wrap from Emilia Romagna” used to sing Samuele Bersani in 1994…

"I had thought about a fast food chain with high quality food, made in Italy. But I abandoned the idea."

Your dad was a warehouseman in Fiat, your mother a teacher and Sip employee. It must have been tough for them to sustain you in Milan and at a private university.

"True, but I had always been very good at school, and I won many scholarships. I used to live in a one-room apartment on Navigli, sharing a sofa bed with another person."

Roaring years?

"I had fun. It was the end of the 80s. We founded a university fan club for Christian de Sica: we invited him to our events, very self-ironic. We made t-shirts with phrases from his movies and we sold a lot at Christmas: you could already see the entrepreneur in me at that time."

With the YOOX business plan in hand, did you ever have some uncertainties?

"No, they were very short-lived."

Were you also lucky?

"Luck certainly accompanied me, but I also took risks. Luck and risk have always gone hand in hand in my life: uncertainty is also positive, it opens you to luck."

Why did you choose fashion as the core of your business?

"An entrepreneur knows that for many years they will have to focus on a product, that they need to like at least, and I’ve always been intrigued by clothes. That’s also the reason why I didn’t end up working with food…"

Don't you have a passion for food?

"I'm not a spaghetti eater, and I don't eat meat. I discovered that the term that corresponds to me is pescetarian, a diet of fish, vegetables and cheeses. Having a global business and traveling a lot between Milan, London, New York, China and Japan, I learned to love other culinary traditions."

When did you realize that you had become rich?

"I don’t remember. I like art and therefore I bought some important pieces: my idea of luxury is more internal than external, like contemplating a painting while having breakfast, more than showing off a car. Even for the clothing I buy on Yoox, I privilege the quality of the fabrics, rather than the brand."

Your business generates a lot of wealth: how does it return it?

"Yoox was born making sure that all the people who accompanied me from the beginning had many stock options, so when we listed ourselves, many became millionaires, and many, with whom I am still in contact, are enjoying it around the world: I am happy for them."

Have you ever thought about leaving?

"No, I've been here for twenty years, I work like crazy, and I still enjoy myself. Going back to giving back: we are a global company, we could not only sell clothes, so we focused on women. We must be their mirror, so two thirds of the employees are women, half of the executive roles are entrusted to women. And we launched the Incredible Girls of the Future competition, in which we invited young girls to invent a fashion app. Then we turned to the environment, and ten years ago we launched YOOXYGEN, a project on sustainable fashion that also meant equipping the company with hybrid, electric cars, reducing the environmental impact at 360 degrees. We exported these practices to the British after the merger. In this picture, Prince Charles is inserted too."

Tell us about him.

"He has always been the biggest sustainability champion in the world. He truly believes it, it is authentic, it is not a facade commitment. He came to visit us at our Tech Hub, in London, two years ago, and we met there."

Were you excited the first time you met him?

He sighs. "I’ve also met the Pope, Bill Gates..."

You’re used to it.

"This is my strength: I’m always myself and, as a good romagnolo, I’m very straightforward, straight to the point, without disrespect. I followed the label with Prince Charles: the first time you have to say 'Your Royal Highness', or 'His Royal Highness', after you can say 'Sir'. Now we often write to each other."

By e-mail?

"Are you kidding? Letters! And with the sealing wax. Wonderful: when they arrive it's a big party at home. A good relationship has been established between us. He invited me to visit him in Scotland, and from there on I started thinking about how to involve his Foundation. With YNAP being an Anglo-Italian company, I wanted very much to create a bond that would make people talk beyond passports, beyond Brexit, beyond populists. After the environment and women, we are committed to education, in particular coding in schools. So, we had students of the Politecnico of Milan collaborate with British craftsmen in the The Modern Artisan project, using the millions pieces of data from our customers as a tool, for a sustainable luxury collection that will be launched for YNAP’s twentieth anniversary." ​

Why is it important to teach coding today?​

"It’s the new art. Italian girls are very far from technology, we have done a research that says that 80% don't feel competent in computer science: you have to approach them."

You have a daughter, Maggie, in elementary school. Does she study coding?

"Sure. As children are taught English or music, today, as soon as possible, coding must be taught, it’s another language. I always say that the new Coco Chanel is already born and will be a computer programmer."

You have just turned 50, YNAP turns 20 in June. How have customers changed in twenty years?

"It’s hard to say. The thing that has changed the most is the price resistance. To think that in 2000 the first order arrived from the Netherlands to buy a Versace dress for 88 thousand lire, discounted, while from 2016 our customers also buy jewelry and watches, objects worth over 100 thousand euros."

Have you thought about inviting that Dutch girl to your June party?

"We can't reveal anything, it's a secret. It will be a party full of surprises."​​​

Pubblicato su Vanity Fair Italia