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Fashion Forward

In a world brimming with startups, only a select few will ever be in the right place at the right time to achieve a market value of $1 billion or more. Those that do are called ‘unicorns’ in financial circles, because they’re so rare. Farfetch is one of them.

This fast-growing London based company has changed the way people all over the world shop for luxury fashion. Affluent customers come to farfetch.com to find out what’s in stock in more than 500 independent boutiques and over 200 brands’ flagship stores in far-flung cities worldwide – and to order hard-to-find luxury items which will reach their front door a few days later, personally wrapped and packaged by the boutique staff.

Farfetch founder José Neves had the idea for the business in 2007. It took about a year to figure out the technology and logistics needed in order to digitize the boutique fashion shopping experience on a global scale. Many people told him it couldn’t be done.

City Life stopped by the Farfetch global HQ in Old Street to hear what’s next for this fast-moving company – and what nuggets of inspiration and wisdom the Farfetch story can offer those with big ambitions and a similarly disruptive idea.

Above: Farfetch offices at The Bower, Old Street, London EC1

Play to your strengths.

José had been coding since he was eight years old and founded his first software company at age 19 while studying economics at the Universidade do Porto. He also knew about the logistics of fashion, having started other successful fashion-related businesses in London. That rare combination of skills positioned him well to take on the challenges of getting Farfetch off the ground.

Risk everything.

When venture capital didn’t materialise because of the global financial crisis, José initially financed Farfetch himself – by borrowing against his two existing enterprises. If Farfetch had failed to take off, the other two companies would have gone down with it. It was an all or nothing strategy. And it paid off massively.

Focus on customers, not competitors.

José says he and his team spend about 2% of their time thinking about what their competitors are up to. That’s good business discipline. But it also reflects the happy reality of growing a business within a sector – online (or more precisely, omnichannel) luxury fashion – that’s growing by leaps and bounds itself: there’s plenty of market share to go around.

It’s important to be in the right place(s).

‘It was always my dream to move to London,’ José says. ‘It’s a key city for fashion and technology and an important base for Farfetch. We now have around 300 people in our London office, but that’s only a small part of the puzzle when you consider that we have a total of over 1,500 people in 11 local offices in cities including New York, Porto, Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow and Sao Paolo.’ Being on the ground in these key cities means Farfetch always has its finger on the pulse of what local customers need and like.

But people are most important.

Farfetch’s HR department is called ‘People and Talent’, a shorthand for its people-centred approach. The company reaches out far and wide to recruit the right people. Farfetch’s chief technology officer has been working with José for around 20 years. He’s based in Portugal, as is most of the Farfetch technology team, because Porto and Lisbon are both hubs for great tech talent.

Never stop innovating.

‘If you’re going to fail, fail big’, José tells his staff. A culture of constant experimentation is the secret to Farfetch’s off-the-charts growth. In 2015 the company bought its first bricks and mortar retail store – Browns, the legendary London high-fashion boutique – which it plans to use as a testing ground for internet-inspired ideas that could change how we all think of in-store shopping in the near future.

Above: Browns fashion boutique

Farfetch moved its global HQ to The Bower in Old Street, London EC1 in 2016. Find them at farfetch.com.