Brigitte Chartrand: (R)e-tailing young talent
Words Mahoro Seward
SSENSE’s Senior Director of Womenswear Buying discusses how the multichannel retailer engages with talent, why e-commerce trumps brick-and-mortar for young designers, and what you need to have in check before you can start selling.
With its cobbles, gimmicky gift shops, and very own Gothic Revivalist Notre-Dame, Montreal’s Old Port can feel a little like a theme park facsimile of a generically Parisian tableau. Recently, however, the arrival of SSENSE MONTREAL to one of the neighbourhood’s brooding townhouses has brought a more contemporary flair to the quarter’s twee lanes. Nonetheless, impressive as the five-story flagship may be, it’s global e-commerce platform, ssense.com, remains the company’s bread and butter. Originally built by founder Rami Atallah as part of his graduate thesis for a computer engineering degree, ssense.com has since grown up to figure among the most influential forces in the ever-lucrative field of luxury e-tail. Its sales revenues are projected to break the $1bn CAD (around £610m) ceiling by 2020. And while names like Gucci, Balenciaga, and Maison Margiela expectedly appear on their roll-call of brands, it’s SSENSE’s active commitment to stocking and promoting young talent with rigour and enthusiasm that sets them apart.
Leading the charge here is Brigitte Chartrand, SSENSE’s Senior Director of Womenswear Buying. A key figure in the discovery and launch of talents like Marine Serre, Kwaidan Editions and Charlotte Knowles, Brigitte and her team have provided instrumental business mentorship, as well as access to a sales platform with enviable international traffic, to designers that are often fresh out of – and in some cases still in – the classroom.
Brigitte shares her thoughts on why—lovely as the brick-and-mortar experience is—good e-commerce visibility is crucial for today’s young designers, the benefits of gaining some corporate experience, and why you need to have your production in check before you even think about selling.
Let’s begin by discussing SSENSE’s customer base; it’s quite a millennial-oriented platform, isn’t it?
Yes, you’re pretty spot-on, our target customers are definitely millennials. Close to 80% of our customers are in the 18-34 age bracket. Our male customers tend to be on the younger side, between 16 and 24, while our female customers are a little older, though still in the millennial bracket: they’re typically between 24 and 35.
What’s the breakdown of your customer base when it comes to the types of products they gravitate towards? For example, do younger customers tend to opt for ‘entry-level’ products, like small accessories, while older customers spend on big-ticket pieces?
It’s pretty diverse, actually. Our customers are generally quite knowledgeable when it comes to new trends, brands, and the industry at large. Information is, after all, so easy to access nowadays. Something that has altered things a bit is the emergence of the resale market. I think that it’s quite common among members of our audience to buy something, wear it for a little while, and then sell it on. I’m not sure if they’re necessarily as attached to what they purchase as people used to be. Like me, I’m from the collectors’ years, so I don’t resell merchandise—I still have pieces that I bought back in the late 90s and early 00s! I guess that our customers want to start their businesses at an early age! [laughs]
Yes, it’s so enterprising! In any case, though the Montreal flagship has become a shopping destination in its own right, the city still doesn’t quite have the shopping cachet or volume of clients that you’ll find in, say, New York, Paris, or London. Is there a difference between your approach to buying for the brick-and-mortar space and your approach to buying for the e-commerce platform?
Well, brick-and-mortar has always been at the top of our agenda, it’s without a doubt one of our key channels. Of course, we’re best known as an international e-commerce platform, but we don’t necessarily buy thinking, ‘This will go online, this will be sold in the space’. I’d say that we adopt more of an overall strategy when it comes to buying.
How do you think young designers in particular fare in a market increasingly dominated by e-commerce platforms? Do you think that such settings present any particular advantages or disadvantages?
I actually feel that the opportunities e-commerce platforms open up for young designers are extremely positive. On SSENSE, for example, the traffic we have allows them heightened visibility and the ability to develop brand awareness. Don’t get me wrong, I love the brick-and-mortar experience—it’s certainly important for people to be able to see a product in person—but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to take the time out of their days to actually head into a shop. Consequently, e-commerce visibility is now extremely important for young designers. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, it has to be the right platform: it has to feel like an authentic pairing. Over the years, we’ve become rather well-known for being the first to discover talents such as KWAIDAN EDITIONS, Charlotte Knowles, Mowalola, Marine Serre and Cecilie Bahnsen, and contributing to their development. Because of that, our customers come to our platform looking for fresh talent—or perhaps they’re already aware of them and know that SSENSE will be the place to find them.
Yes, SSENSE has a particular reputation for the accent it places on young designers. It’s also known for its editorial platform—how does your promotion of new talent interact with your content strategy?
We work very closely with the editorial team. Mowalola, for example, was actually suggested to me by one of our editors—she sent me her Instagram account. I loved it straight away and asked one of my buyers to DM her to arrange a meeting in Paris, and launched it from there. When we find something interesting, we’ll work closely with the editorial team to ensure that we feature them in a significant way—which could be more than once a season. In Mowalola’s case, she’d been featured pretty extensively prior to launching, and the continuous mentions led to very successful sell-through within a few weeks of the brand going live.
“I think that it’s quite common among members of our audience to buy something, wear it for a little while, and then sell it on. I’m not sure if they’re necessarily as attached to what they purchase as people used to be.”
I also noticed that SSENSE published a feature on Charlotte Knowles just before their first solo show on the London Fashion Week schedule, mentioning the brand’s forthcoming exclusive capsule for SSENSE.
Social media is a huge part of it too. We work very closely with our communications team to ensure there’s a 360-degree plan for the brand. We have weekly meetings for brand launches where the key stakeholders from each department—from studio to social to editorial to casting—come together to ensure that all of our road maps are properly aligned.
It’d be great to learn more about SSENSE’s exclusive partnerships with young brands. The benefits for SSENSE as the discovering force behind younger brands are evident, but what primary benefits do designers enjoy in such relationships?
Well, some of the talents that we find are still in school. Like Paolina Russo—we’ll be launching her soon and she’s still on her MA at CSM. You can think of the support we give as mentoring, more or less: we offer insights and suggestions with regard to costings, retail pricing, margins, logistics… The designers we work with don’t necessarily have that experience, so we’re quite hands-on and will really guide them. It’s quite demanding on our end, which is part of the reason why we want to have a certain degree of exclusivity: we’re a key part of their brand development, and we often become their main partner in many respects.
The exclusive model has been so successful for us. From Charlotte Knowles to Mowalola, we’ve seen high sell-through for both from the very beginning. We’ve also just launched Nensi Dojaka, which we’re very excited about! She’s produced a tweaked version of her MA collection. With her, we discussed merchandising ideas—say, taking a dress and asking for a version as a top—as well as our production requirements in terms of quality.
From your end, what is the process of seeing the initial spark in an MA collection to launching a fully-fledged brand like?
First of all, we meet the designer for something similar to an interview: it’s an opportunity to get to know the person and, over the course of a simple conversation, get a feel for their business aptitude, as well as how organised they are, and how they present their products. We’ll then decide whether or not to go forward. But I can’t stress enough how important having an organisational skillset is for us. We’ll ask, for example, questions regarding their access to production facilities, and the sort of relationship they have with the people producing their collection. If things are really up in the air there, it’s not the greatest indicator. We don’t handle that aspect of the business or offer suggestions concerning it, so it’s imperative that they’re able to handle that side of things. We then offer them pricepoint guidelines and show them what’s worked for us across different categories. We’ll give them enough information for them to return to us with a sort of a proposal and we’ll go back and forth from there until we’re set.
How long would you typically say it takes from noticing a designer to actually bringing them to market?
We met Nensi in March, and we’re launching in a couple of weeks! When we take a shine to someone, we’ll keep them as one of our priorities and will be very responsive. As long as the communication is constant from their side, we can launch within a year.
So much for slowing the fashion system down!
[Laughs] Well, it’s not always as quick as that. With Mowalola, for example, we met her last September during Paris Fashion Week. We could have launched sooner, but we had some issues with merchandise getting stuck at customs. We still managed to launch within a year though.
The press loves young designers, and are often keen to promote a fresh-out-of-school designer as ‘the next big thing’, with little concern for the commercial viability of the clothes themselves. Do you think this sets designers up with false expectations when it comes to their relationships with buyers? After all, someone clicking ‘like’ on an article isn’t the same as someone clicking to buy that piece.
Yes, that’s very true! But I think it all depends on what their objectives are. Some designers’ demonstrate extremely high levels of creativity, and they may not want to introduce a more commercial angle to their brand. At Central Saint Martins, for example, they really push the designers to really define their individuality and personality, and really push for innovation in that respect rather than focussing on whether the collection’s saleable. If you’re interested in showing some more commercially viable pieces, it can sometimes be an idea to put on a follow-up presentation, rather than a runway, with such garments on show. I think Craig Green is a great example of someone who presents work that’s almost installation-like but is married to a core uniform that’s wearable and sellable.
I also don’t think it’s a bad thing for students to go and spend some time working at a house: Marine Serre is an amazing example of someone it really helped. She’s quite business-minded, and it’s great to see a young designer that was able to build such a strong corporate structure at such a fast pace. I often think that fresh graduates could definitely benefit from being part of a corporate environment so they can see and get to grips with parts of the puzzle they may not have been aware of.
Do you think it could be useful for designers to spend time in fashion beyond design? A bit of time interning in PR or in a showroom, perhaps?
I definitely think it’s important to be surrounded by those things and to be exposed to effective team management. If you’re running a business, that’s especially important—you want to be able to keep hold of the people that work for you, and it’s not easy to retain top-tier talent. Management, marketing and some basic accounting knowledge are all really necessary. Or, if you don’t have that, you need to be sure you have someone to help.
What are the key things that affect your decision-making process? Many designers seem to feel that there are certain pathways that need to be followed in order to achieve ‘success’, like going to a certain school, winning certain awards, being part of certain initiatives. How important are those achievements to you when you’re looking at young designers? And how important is your intuition in spite of the above?
Personally, I don’t necessarily look at all the press that they get, so there’s also a lot of intuition in my process—I’m speaking for myself here—but I believe in my gut. It’s been working for me for the last few years! The institution they’ve attended is definitely something I look at, but it ultimately comes down to the product, having a chat with them and getting a feel for how authentic and personal their work is. The more personal it is, the more you can see it in the final product. It’s also a matter of building a relationship; there needs to be a connection if we’re going to be working together for seasons to come!
“You can think of the support we give as mentoring, more or less: we offer insights and suggestions with regard to costings, retail pricing, margins, logistics… The designers we work with don’t necessarily have that experience, so we’re quite hands-on and will really guide them. It’s quite demanding on our end, which is part of the reason why we want to have a certain degree of exclusivity.”
When you mention the importance of the school attended, is that down to marketing potential for the work of graduates from certain schools?
Not particularly, it’s more a question of the strength of the programme, the people that are behind it, the mentorship that the students are getting, and the rigour of the work being produced, which is something you see with the work coming out of Central Saint Martins and Antwerp’s Royal Academy. There’s also the fact that they’re difficult schools to gain access to. Take Thomas Tait as an example: he’s from Montreal and worked with me here before moving to London to study on CSM’s MA programme under Louise Wilson. I was in touch with him the entire time he was there, and, while he had a pretty hard time, what he came out with was so beautiful. You can see that the school’s offering is substantial.
When you’re looking at a designer, whether you’ve decided to stock them, or you’re keeping them on your horizon, what are you typically looking for in terms of their development over the first few seasons?
Above all, consistency in their messaging, for sure. Product development, in terms of broadening their product offering, is also key: are they pushing themselves and developing items and ranges that weren’t necessarily offered in the beginning? Having that sense of growth and expansion is crucial. It’s also important for us to understand what they want to do in terms of distribution, and for them to closely communicate with us so that we’re able to offer the best advice. It all comes down to having a good brand strategy, basically!
What affects the volume of the orders that you place with younger designers?
Our decision-making at SSENSE is very data-driven, we have a lot of information when we’re launching certain niche brands. For us, it’s generally a matter of going wide and offering more styles rather than going deep on the quantities. But, of course, that depends on the product, the price point and other aspects. Naturally, the gut also plays an important part: our particular approach is really a mix of left and right brain.
When we launch a collection, our requirement is 12-16 SKUs [distinct types of item]. When we upload to the site, that brand will always be at the top of the page for at least 24 hours. If you’re on a desktop, 12-16 SKUs gives you 3-4 rows of product which allows for a full visual impact. If that then proves successful, we then prefer to increase the width of the product range in order to be able to continue increasing demand.
With the size of your reach, you must need a pretty ample spread of options… But how much time do you spend seeking out younger brands during fashion months?
It’s actually something that we find ourselves doing throughout the year. That said, we do try to schedule appointments during fashion month to meet the designers in person: some are follow-ups, others are first-time meetings. I usually attend all of them, and I would say that it takes up around 20-25% of my time if I had to put a number on it.
How necessary is it to show during fashion weeks, and spend large sums of money on showroom participation when Instagram is becoming an increasingly viable way for people to discover a brand? How valuable do you think it is for young designers to be taking part in fashion weeks, whether it’s through shows and presentations, private multi-brand showrooms, or fashion council-run showrooms?
I don’t think that doing a showroom alone is the easiest way to grow. And so much depends on what stage you’re at with the brand. In fact, when things are still getting started, we actually prefer that they’re not in a showroom, as we’re still working on building the brand. Eventually, it may make sense to participate in one, but it really varies from case to case and depends so much on the product you’re offering. You need to be sure that a showroom makes sense for what you do, and be sure of the type of traffic they attract. It’s also important to consider that taking part in a large multi-brand showroom may not be the best choice at first—if you meet hundreds of buyers, are you really going to be able to fulfil orders for all of them? Ultimately, the most crucial aspect is ensuring that you’re working with people that know the right people. The community that you build around your brand shouldn’t begin and end with your final customers, but should also include a professional network that’s right for your brand. That always differs: what worked for Marine Serre won’t necessarily work for Kwaidan Editions or Mowalola.
In the last couple of years, it feels like there’s been such fierce interest in young designers, and the awareness that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution isn’t necessarily commonplace. Graduates see their recent predecessors doing very well, very quickly, and think they need to follow a similar path.
My advice would simply be to not look at what other people do! [laughs] It’s important to do what makes sense for you. It’s just about focussing on what makes sense and whether a decision really feels like the right one to take. Which, admittedly, is difficult in light of the increased visibility that Instagram allows into what everyone is doing all the time.
On the topic of Instagram, how do you think it has changed the way that designers work?
There are two main ways of looking at it. Where emerging talent is concerned, it’s amazing, as it really allows them to build a community. It’s really important that they’re able to build an authentic community that’s engaged with who they are and what they’ve developed. Thanks to Instagram, you can do that wherever you are in the world. For Canadian designers, for example, it used to be so difficult to gain renown outside of Canada, but the platform has really broadened access—you don’t need to live in London to build a community.
For traditional luxury brands, I think that the high visibility of certain products poses something of a challenge. Back in the day, you needed to buy a copy of Vogue Paris and flip through a magazine to find a certain bag or a pair of shoes. Now, however, I sometimes think that we see too much of the same product too often, which has made their life cycle much shorter than it was even three years ago. People get tired of things much quicker than they used to in the past—but that’s not limited to traditional luxury brands, it applies to everything.
“I often think that fresh graduates could definitely benefit from being part of a corporate environment so they can see and get to grips with parts of the puzzle they may not have been aware of.”
How important do you think it is for designers to have well-curated social media accounts with engaged followings?
If you don’t have an Instagram account yet, and I think the product is fantastic, we’ll just suggest that it would be helpful to start an account and start posting in order to develop your community before we launch. I’m a bit more old school though—I’m not even on Instagram myself—so the number of followers a designer has doesn’t necessarily influence my decisions. But I still look at their account, for brand positioning and messaging purposes. I look at it like I would at a website, which it now serves as the new version of in many respects, to the degree that you no longer need to have a website any more.
Jumping back to what you were saying about the importance of building a professional network, how receptive are you to designers reaching out directly to introduce themselves and their work? Do you prefer to discover designers through familiar channels?
I love it when people reach out! That said we do most of the reaching out ourselves, and over the years, we’ve developed a great network of people who refer to us. But we do look at every single email that designers send us, and it’s part of our core responsibilities of the buying team to develop new brands, so it is something we take to heart.
There’s often an onus placed on young people to be extreme go-getters, but there’s also a fine line between eagerness and pushiness, isn’t there?
I like eager! It shows that they’re eager to work with us, so it already shows a key quality. Naturally, there’s a need for a certain tact, but it’s a great quality, especially in this industry! It’s a competitive environment, and if you’re too passive, it’s going to be very difficult for you to succeed.
Difficult as it is to define, sustainability is the key conversation being had across the industry: how closely do you look into a brand’s production chain when you’re making a decision?
Sustainability is top of mind for us, and we’ve developed a Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] department here at SSENSE, and we’re active in implementing meaningful initiatives throughout the year, throughout the company. This includes using e-commerce boxes and tissue paper made from recycled content to minimise environmental impact, working with a local organisation that empowers women by providing a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life, and we’ve also partnered with a non-profit to teach kids to code. SSENSE also offers its employees subsidies for public transit passes and gives financial incentives to those who bike to work to support sustainable transportation options. Where the brands we work with are concerned, many are making great efforts in the field, like Matthew Williams’ ALYX and its supply chain innovation, or Marine Serre who’s doing her green line. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s part of our current strategy to solely seek out brands that position themselves as sustainable, but whenever we come across a brand that’s able to do sustainability in a meaningful way, rather than as a marketing tactic, we support it.
Buying decisions ultimately trigger production: what key efforts need to be made on the part of buyers in ensuring we move towards a more sustainable fashion industry? And how do you think the buying landscape will shift as calls to produce and purchase less increase?
Because our decision-making is so data-driven, we know exactly how much product we’ve sold and so our decision-making is very thought through where quantities are concerned. We also have an extremely rigorous approval process: the buyers write their orders, I’ll review them, then they have to be reviewed by our planning department to ensure that the numbers add up—there are quite a few steps to go through before any orders are sent out! And we try to ensure that we’re not flooding the market and that we’re selling as much of what we buy at full price as possible.
Another particularly pertinent industry conversation is body diversity. As such a far-reaching platform, how do you approach this?
Again, it all comes down to the data! We have extensive information on size performance, so if we see that the largest size went particularly quickly last season, not only will we increase the quantity available in that size, we’ll also buy the next size up. We’re really trying to be more inclusive in that respect, and it’s been part of our strategy to really increase our offering in extreme sizes, from very small to much larger, for both men and women. And often, we’ll buy a lot of menswear brands for the women’s side, and shoot them on women. And the menswear team will do likewise, Grace Wales Bonner being a great example.
Do you often take a gender-blind approach in your buying?
Well, Mowalola presents as a menswear brand, but it was us, not the menswear team that bought it! Kenneth Ize is another example. There are, however, times when we’ll ask designers to make gendered garments: with Kenneth, we’ve asked him to make a skirt. Or with Marine Serre, we asked her to produce a menswear collection for us, so we had to go through her work together to see what would or wouldn’t be an option.
Returning to our discussion of how fresh graduates can often be a little lost on the business side of things, where do you think schools should come into the equation? Where and when do you think it’s most important for them to begin preparing students for the business-oriented side of the industry?
I think it could be something optional in their final year, just after their internal exam. I think it would be quite interesting to find out who’s interested in commercial strategy… but it’s also something I want to do more of, working more closely with schools. At the moment, we’re reaching out directly to the students, but I’d definitely like to look into the possibility of SSENSE working more closely with the institutions.