Federico Marchetti, the father of luxury e-commerce, on the future of fashion
by Luke Leitch, September 7, 2023
Photography by Jacopo M. Raule/Getty Images
Asked where he would focus his energies in 2023 as a budding entrepreneur, Federico Marchetti doesn’t hesitate: “If I was starting out now, it would be at the intersection of sustainability and technology, and of innovation more broadly. That’s not only because there would be money available from venture capitalists also looking to explore it, but also because this is the magic intersection. It will make a better world.”
Marchetti, 54, is speaking on the terrace of his family’s new Milan home in a just- completed Daniel Libeskind-designed building. Before talking, we tour an interior designed by the film director Luca Guadagnino to a Brazilian theme: the impressive space is full of plants, Wallpaper*-level important furniture, and pieces from Marchetti’s art collection. Marchetti’s wife, the journalist Kerry Olsen, observes that I am their first-ever guest as she heads out with their daughter, Margherita.
Both apartment and art are among the fruits of an entrepreneurial journey that he’s reflecting on now. In 2000, the Ravenna-born Italian founded Yoox, which alongside Net-a-Porter spearheaded the first wave of luxury e-commerce. As a prime agent in that big bang moment for fashion’s acceleration — and today a prominent agitator in the sustainability space — Marchetti qualifies for the Oppenheimer question: does he feel any responsibility for the negative environmental impact of the industry?
“When I started Yoox, its motivation was to give a second life to fashion items,” he says. “Although I was not primarily motivated by the environment, but by the waste in fashion — this was the problem where I saw an opportunity.” Where Net-a-Porter sought to replicate bricks-and-mortar multi-brand wholesale online, Yoox focused on selling overstock.
Yoox also began selling vintage pieces in 2001, he adds. Later in the decade it partnered with companies including Kering Group, Valentino and Armani to power their fledgling monobrand e-commerce sites.
Today, says Marchetti, he believes that: “Selling monobrand makes more sense in terms of margin, customer data, ownership, control, image, pricing — everything... If I were Gucci, I would put a priority on selling at Gucci.com rather than Farfetch. And by definition the more monobrand grows, the more multi-brand suffers... so I think multi- brand will have to come up with new solutions to be profitable.” He adds that Yoox, which is still primarily a seller of overstock, is “a different story”.
Marchetti took the business public in 2009 before retaining control in the tempestuous 2015 merger with Net-A-Porter and creating Italy’s first “unicorn”. When Richemont agreed to acquire Yoox Net-a-Porter group (YNAP) in 2018 in a deal valuing the group at €5.3 billion, Marchetti owned 4 per cent of the business. He stepped down as YNAP CEO in 2021, before Richemont sold 47.5 per cent of the group to Farfetch in August 2022.
He says: “Once you sell your company you can continue to work a management position, or you can start another business: but I thought ‘I have been lucky once so I’m not going to try and twice’. Or you can be a venture capitalist, but in the end... I know the finance world. At the time [of building Yoox] I loved it, but I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.” Today Marchetti says his primary occupation is “giving advice without taking a position”. As well as sitting on the board of Giorgio Armani Spa (the first non-family member to do so), Marchetti leads the Fashion Task Force in the Sustainable Markets Initiative.
Marchetti was in part recruited for the role by the then Charles III, then Prince of Wales. He met Charles in 2017 when YNAP opened its tech hub in London’s White City, “when everyone was leaving because of Brexit”, Marchetti says. They bonded over shoes: the monarch was wearing a pair that was nearly 30 years old while Marchetti’s were 15.
Launched by the now-monarch at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, the Sustainable Markets Initiative consists of 20 industry-specific task forces — all chaired by acting CEOs, says Marchetti, except for his — in order to develop innovative sustainable practice and then cross-pollinate it. The Fashion Task Force is working to introduce a Digital Passport scheme among its members, based on an idea first developed for Mr Porter own brand Mr P, and developing in-house regenerative agriculture schemes for materials inducing cotton (Armani, in Puglia) and cashmere (Brunello Cucinelli, in Mongolia). “It’s almost anti-competitive,” says Marchetti, of the ethos in a group that also includes Burberry, Chloe, Selfridges, Stella McCartney and Zalando. He says: “I’ve always been kind of like Switzerland, in fashion: I’ve always treated everybody the same way and I’m neutral.”
One new platform for Marchetti will be his autobiography, Adventure of an Innovator, that will be published in Italy later this year. Its introduction is written by Giorgio Armani. Marchetti says: “My idea is that it can be a tool for people who want to start something... In the end what I did was the American dream, but Made In Italy.”
The book, he says, will recount many “Sliding Doors moments” in Marchetti’s journey. One of those was first meeting Armani after his niece, Roberta, crashed a house party Marchetti was hosting while working at Lehman Brothers in 1995. Armani eventually wrote the recommendation letter for Marchetti’s application to do an MBA at Columbia. “It is not a manual but I hope through the experience of my life you can extract something useful,” says Marchetti. “Many things happened by mistake, or by chance, or through good timing.”
He concludes: “At the core of innovation is to be able to look at things in a different way. At Yoox I did not invent anything, I just created an intersection of things.” And will he really never try to build another unicorn? “Maybe in two years I will need to, and I will change my mind... But for now, I think I should try and give my expertise and advice to as many people as I can. And because I have a daughter I want her to travel and see the world, because I think boundaries are the worst thing that can happen.”
Originally published in Vogue Business