Easily said but less easily done, one of the oldest – and possibly most annoying – pieces of advice is to be true to yourself. The problem with this cliché is that those who lack self-knowledge will have a difficult time figuring themselves out, while those who do won’t need to be told.
Clearly belonging to the latter category is Vestiaire Collective, an online luxury-goods resale business that had its start in Paris in 2009 when six women discovered they each had a pile of old and unwanted clothing that needed new homes. And so they formed a business plan.
Fanny Moizant, a co-founder of the platform who now oversees its Asian operations from Hong Kong, explains.“The initial vision was to fight waste, because 10 years ago,what we all had in common was that we all love fashion. We all had nice wardrobes and each of us had a pile of clothes that was just lying there. We thought it was completely unsustainable and we wanted to breathe new life into those items. It was that feeling that our things were treasures for us once and they could be treasures somewhere else and start anew.”
The concept of vintage clothing wasn’t new to the six Parisians, who all had plenty of experience carefully combing through musty stores for hidden gems. “We said OK, we’re leaving the stigmas of all second-hand stores in Paris,” says Moizant. “Those places are amazing but also dusty and old-school. You have to go through everything and deal with the smell.”
Their solution was to set up Vestiaire Collective, an online platform that allows fashion-loving females to sell and buy a vast assortment of clothing without the traditional hunting on hands and knees associated with vintage shopping. “Initially we just thought, let’s not waste what we have and let’s make sure these go to another fashion lover and let’s actually create that community of fashion people,” says Moizant.
She explains that in order to enable members of this community to swap, sell and buy each other’s wardrobes, the team needed to figure out a way to stand out to seasoned vintage shoppers while also attracting fashion mavens. “We wanted to make the experience cool and inspiring and new, and very creative, because among second-hand stores you can find anything and everything, but we want ours to be curated from accessible prices to very expensive ones. And we really wanted real photography of the fashion.”
The site went live after the co-founders had rifled through their own wardrobes and asked their friends to do the same with theirs, eventually coming up with 3,000 items for sale. Their active community was created almost overnight but as the business grew, so did the issue of authenticity.
“We disrupted the second-hand market by bringing trust,” says Moizant, recalling her own experience. “In real life, I know who you are and I feel confident buying from you, but there’s none of that on this type of platform. I wouldn’t know the girl I would buy from so I had to make sure. There’s a trust component between me, the buyer and the centre and we needed to figure out how to build something that prevents that kind of fear that we’d experience as consumers on eBay 10 to 15 years ago. This is why we feel that the physical check – where the product goes from their home to our centres to be authenticated before being sent to its new home – is so necessary.”
True to its name, the site has built a strong social component. “When we thought it up, we imagined it as swapping closet contents among a group of friends. We wanted to keep that social element very strong on the platform,” says Moizant. “So we wanted to build a social network, rather than pure and traditional e-commerce. That’s why there’s profile-to-profile interaction. Customers can speak to the seller and exchange information. They can follow each other. There are many social aspects.”
It’s an element that’s crucial to the buying and verification process, Moizant explains, because what often happens is that if an item is a fake, the seller doesn’t know it – “because it’s so beautiful, they were using it themselves. The quality of fakes is becoming more accurate and many are very good.”
Now every item of second-hand merchandise sold through the Vestiaire website is examined by one of the team’s 20 experts, each of whom has in-depth experience gained either working at one of the fashion houses or with an auctioneer, and in areas such as watches, jewellery and leather goods.
When the company expanded to Asia, it brought experts with it “who are now working here and who have been trained for years at Vestiaire. We’ve even built an academy within the company so that every new ‘expert’ we hire enters the school and has programmes they must go through. Then they’ll be coached by a senior expert for a few months, so we’re really building up a system to have our experts up to speed with our requirements,” says Moizant.
Each step of the purchasing process on the website is also filtered for fakes. “We cross curate,” she says, “so we havepeople selecting the products on the database. At that step we already have a lot of mechanisms in place to detect weird behaviour, new sellers who come and drop a tonne of weird things.” (On which subject, Moizant recalls a man who once tried to sell his car on the platform and another a wig. Some bags of garments also contained years of unpaid parking tickets and others wads of cash. And, of course, she’ll always remember the fluorescent pink crocodile Birkin costing more than €200,000 (approximately HK$1.7 million), its hardware entirely paved with diamonds, which was driven to the company’s headquarters in a Brinks armoured truck before the seller experienced remorse and had it returned.)
It makes the form, which each new seller must complete along with providing proof of purchase, a key factor in the process. “Imagine that a fake product has passed through this initial step – which is unlikely – and goes on to the site,” says Moizant. “But we also have the community, which is a huge help for us to identify suspicious products. We receive comments telling us we might have a fake bag on the site and so we have a second check, we go back to the seller to ask more questions and so on. Of course, if it really is a fake, we take the product out. And if there’s more doubt, we even go to the luxury brands.”
Getting luxury brands on board has been a notable achievement for Vestiaire Collective and demonstrates howfar the company and its efforts to educate consumers andthe industry about the online luxury resale market have come. Luxury brands were once wary of the Vestiaire Collective business model – “They were a bit curious, suspicious – not in a bad way, but wondering where we were going – and 10 years ago they weren’t really willing to consider us or even sit together,” says Moizant.
That’s a far cry from today. Luxury houses have signed an anti counterfeit charter with Vestiaire Collective and now send brand representatives to train the site’s authentication experts. “They finally understood that we’re working on the same page,” says Moizant. “They understood that we want to protect them, their image and their product, and so they jumped at the opportunity to work together. That’s been amazing.”
And even though Moizant’s eyes have now grown accustomed to the diamonds, the exotics and almost all the variations of Birkins, the business still touches her. “I think it’s a caring business,” she says. “On a personal level, this is all about respecting craftsmanship, quality and scarcity. This industry is one that adds value.”