How the super-rich go shopping
Lauren Santo Domingo - LSD to her friends - is the kind of rangy-limbed, blonde, 40-year-old habituee of American Vogue's social pages who can appear at major social events on both sides of the globe, seemingly within a 24-hour frame. Glossy is an understatement.
It is confounding, therefore, to hear her describe the voracious spending habits of today's fashionistas as "unsettling. Shopping has acquired an addictive edge, especially online," she says, in elongated, singsong American vowels that should sound East Coast, but have a touch of Californian valley girl.
"It's worrying. I recognise it in myself. I try to get round it by putting things in my shopping basket, but not checking them out."
For someone who is expensively dressed in a Saint Laurent blazer and skinny black Martin Grant trousers, carrying the latest Louis Vuitton city steamer bag, this might seem self-contradictory. But once you know that she's also the co-founder of Moda Operandi, an e-tailer that specialises in selling high-end, hard-to-find clothes, it begins to sound like a shrewd sales pitch.
Moda Operandi is unlike any other upmarket fashion website in that it requires customers to pay 50 per cent of their purchase price months ahead of receiving the product. This is because, unlike any other upmarket fashion website, it hands customers a degree of power that was previously the preserve of professional store buyers. Where conventional retailers and etailers offer an edit - usually quite a small, safe one - of a designer's catwalk collection, MO allows its customers to see the entire catwalk show and order whatever they please, including what used to be called "catwalk-only" pieces - ie, outfits that were made for pictorial impact, rather than real lives.
When I first heard about MO, shortly after it launched in 2009, I assumed LSD had taken leave of her senses. Who'd want to pay up front for something so expensive that no store would risk ordering it?
Lots of women, it turns out. Business is thriving.
"The thing is, I'd go to all these black-tie events in New York in beautiful samples that I'd borrowed from the designers and women were forever asking me where they could get hold of something like it. The truth was, nowhere, because they nearly always didn't get put into production."
Working as she then did as a market editor for American Vogue, LSD's job was to ensure the clothes the magazine's stylists used would be available to buy come publication time. So she had established good relationships with designers. But what made her think she could turn it into a business so soon after the financial crash? "The crash. The department stores were empty, because they were playing it so safe and what they had on the rail was so boring. Women were desperate to be seduced."
LSD is the perfect seductress, not least because she lives a similar life to MO customers, and because she has style and confidence. She is clearly her father's daughter: Ronald Davis is the former CEO of the Perrier Group of America. "I used to think I could never be in business like my father because I wasn't a numbers person. But then I realised he wasn't either. He was a marketing genius, though."
Contrary to expectations, MO regulars are not "fashion obsessives, but women who plan their social calendars months ahead. They're not buying the insane pieces," explains Santo Domingo, " but considered statements, often in hard-to-get sizes, sometimes with different sleeves or in a modified length."
Herewith, confounding LSD fact number three: she's more than happy to talk sizing in an industry that notoriously deals with the issue by pretending there isn't one. "There so is," says Santo Domingo. One customer was buying duplicates of everything in a size 12. A gentle enquiry established that this wasn't a mistake - the client was having her purchases sewn together so that they would fit.
Santo Domingo's reputation as a fashion-savvy socialite - she is married to Andres Santo Domingo, son of a Colombian business magnate, and they have two young children - means designers tend to listen to her as a mediator. She tells it straight, informing one designer who was creating clothes for an imaginary 20-year-old hipster on Manhattan's Lower East Side that his customer was 55 and living in the Midwest.
She proffers her advice both as a disarmingly passionate fan and a perceptive analyst.
"Moda Operandi has some of the most sophisticated proprietary software and psychographics," she says proudly. Translation: the company has invested heavily in developing its own software that tracks the detailed habits of its users. "I am fascinated by the psychology of shopping," she says. "I love the idea that fashion is transformative, a mask, a character. We love to teach our customers to get the most out of it, to examine their own spending and extrapolate. A lot of women repeat-buy the same things, often because that's all they find. We keep track of their purchases and encourage them not to buy more of the same, but items that complement what they already have." As well as the rarer items (which can reach upwards of US$400,000), there is a large choice of see-now, buy-now ready-to-wear, starting at around US$300.
Moda Operandi employs about 15 full-time stylists, each of whom can service around 100 clients, although the highest spenders (one woman dropped US$500,000 in one transaction) receive more individual attention.
This is gold-card shopping: a loyal client can make an appointment at one of the two bricks-and-mortar properties the company currently owns. There's Moda Townhouse on Madison Avenue in New York and Moda Mews in London's Mayfair. "We can only buy property that starts with an M," jokes LSD. At least I think she's joking.
In these pastel havens (like the Duchess of Windsor, LSD has the walls of all her properties painted a complexion-flattering shade of blush pink), a client can have her sales adviser pull in an entire season's worth of looks, plus accessories, in her size. Or she can attend one of the trunk shows the brand organises each season, where the designer greets and meets clients, answers their questions, has dinner with them, listens to their woes. If clients can't make it to Madison Avenue or Mayfair, MO will fly to them. Additionally, the trunk shows are streamed on the website for seven days after the event.
The more you listen to her, the more you're inclined to view Moda Operandi as the fourth emergency service for the discerning shopper. The sales staff and buying teams - helpful, knowledgeable souls who are also, to judge by their blogs on the site, enviably stylish - are not on vast commissions. "I don't want to promote a hard-selling environment," says LSD, "because that leads to impulsive behaviour on the customer's part."
- The Telegraph, London