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"You can’t find it here," she’d say of her body-hugging magenta dress with all the cutouts, encapsulating the entirety of these United States of America in a syllable — "here" — and a shrug. "It’s from Italy." Some of her clothes were produced by big name designers, while others bore Italian-named labels we’d never heard of. But who made the garments mattered less than where in the world they came from. Because Italy. Italy. I feel expensive just saying the country’s name.
Online shopping, of course, has proven a great equalizer for luxury fashion lovers. Gone are the days where filling out an enviable closet necessitated some laser-focused globetrotting. Because internet. Here, business partners Diego Abba and Raffaele Giovine saw an opportunity. Italist, the website touts, is "the first online marketplace fully dedicated to Italian luxury multi-brand retailers."
"What we’re trying to replicate, in a sense, is the fun of going and buying in Italy," says Italist CEO Abba. "We can replicate that experience at home."
Abba likens Italian boutiques to high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Barney’s in that they too carry an array of luxury brands and place huge value on, well, value, selling only the best of the best. Neiman Marcus and Barney’s, however, are recognized as resellers worldwide, with numerous brick and mortar locations, established online storefronts, and famed identities that connote the same level of grandeur as the fashion houses they provide access to. Independent boutiques, meanwhile, trade largely on foot traffic. Italist, says Abba, seeks to level the playing field in terms of visibility.
"Their unique angle is that they’re helping these potentially mom-and-pop boutiques better sell their products, and better market their products," says Tristan Pollock, Venture Partner at 500 Startups, a seed fund and startup accelerator that serves as an advisor to Italist. "So [Italist is] providing some expertise on that front so that [boutiques] are able to make money."
"They’re helping these potentially mom-and-pop boutiques better sell their products, and better market their products."
Italist is something of an Italian boutique aggregator, culling high-end clothing and accessories from a number of sources, operating on a similar model as Farfetch and Net-a-Porter. Italian boutiques sell their products through Italist’s platform, and Italist distributes on their behalf.
"We take care of everything," says Abba. Everything includes: scouting boutiques, coordinating product offerings, processing payment, managing the shipping process, managing the returns process, maintaining fraud detection (both on the product-end, ensuring that all items are authentic, and on the consumer-end), marketing, etc., selling in 85 countries. While Abba could not disclose specifics on the financials, he says that Italist takes a percentage out of the backend.
And, he adds, there’s tremendous potential for growth in this market. "The luxury market worldwide is worth about $150 billion in what we sell, which is apparel and accessories. If you include jewelry, watches, and beauty, you go to $300 billion. And of all this, only 5-6 percent is transacted online."
TechCrunch reported in January 2015 that Italist had "grown to a $1m revenue run rate, with over 70 boutiques on the platform." The number of boutiques offered has since shot up to 120.
Only 22 boutiques are listed on Italist right now, though. Many of those 22 are unfamiliar names to non-Italian, amateur shoppers, but the largest single shop among them seems to be a fashion synecdoche, an all-in-one package for an unknown number of unnamed boutiques. "Italist Selection is every fashionista’s secret dream come to life," says the store page, which lists Milan as the "boutique’s" location before detailing a 48-line long block of text, replete with individual brand names.
"That huge body of text under ‘Brand’ is not a good look," says Michelle Alleyne, fashion marketing professor at Parsons School of Design and founder of M Shop NYC via email. It is confusing — why are the boutiques offered on Italist Selection not listed by name? And what’s the rationale behind combining so many boutiques under the Italist Selection umbrella?
Says Abba, "We are focusing on branding our site," which he adds will relaunch in June. "Hence ‘Italist,’ and not the names of individual boutiques."
Why are the boutiques offered on Italist Selection not listed by name? And what’s the rationale behind combining so many boutiques under the Italist Selection umbrella?
More or less a Russian nesting doll of a shop, Italist Selection is a catch-all name representing most of the reasons why shoppers might come to Italist in the first place — your Dolce & Gabbana, your Celine — and effectively concealing the identities of the boutiques that sell these brands on Italist’s platform. Abba confirms that brands have direct relationships with Italist’s boutiques. Italist, he adds, is the marketplace.
Racked reached out to 20 designer brands sold by Italist Selection, and asked if they partnered directly with boutiques to be included on the platform.
"We inform you that our customer service is dedicated only to online purchases made on our official website," says Dolce & Gabbana’s customer care department, answering our straightforward q with a total non-answer. Does this mean that Dolce & Gabbana doesn’t sell through Italist at all? Or does this mean that they can’t help us if they do the thing they’re not saying they don’t do? Which brings us to a more serious question: did Dolce & Gabbana’s customer care department send us an eighteen word approximation of a shruggie? "Celine does not distribute its models through the mentioned website," says Celine’s press representative. (The clarity! Celine, you are a blessing, and a rarity. A unicorn emoji to you.)
Plenty of fashion e-commerce businesses do buy directly from designers at wholesale, like Rent the Runway, but it’s not necessarily unusual for a third-party company to sell a brand sans distribution deal with that brand. Take Farfetch, for instance. Fast Company reported in 2014 that Farfetch "does not hold inventory," and Business of Fashion disclosed in 2015 that instead of direct purchase from distributors, Farfetch takes a rumored "25 percent commission from its current boutique partners" off of goods sold. However, each item offered on Farfetch details which one of its 400 storied boutiques around the world will sell that particular garment. Shoppers know exactly where their Farfetch finds come from. Shoppers of Italist Selection do not.
Racked purchased a Gucci belt offered on Italist Selection to see if we could learn more. After an easy online ordering process, the belt arrived in less than a week, in a Gucci dust bag, and in great condition. The shipping label names Ovojo SRL in Milan as the package’s point of origin.
Could Ovojo SRL be a super-secret Italist Selection boutique?!
No, it could not. Ovojo SRL is an online retailer and distributor, whose contact information on Bloomberg links to Italist’s website.
"We did not change the name to Italist yet, but it is 100 percent owned by Italist, as our support in Italy," clarifies Abba via email. "Please note that Ovojo SRL is just the name of a corporation that we have in Italy (it could have been ‘Italist SRL’). It is not a store." (SRL is an Italian version of an LLC.)
Does boutique specificity really matter to the consumer, though, so long as the products are authentic? Perhaps not, especially if Italist offers something that other e-commerce sites don’t: deals. While Italist is chagrin to position itself as a discount warehouse, many products sold on Italist are available for lower prices than offered by the brands themselves — brands that typically do not mark down their wares.
Does boutique specificity really matter to the consumer, though, so long as the products are authentic?
"Luxury brands cannot ‘cheapen’ their brands by frequent discounts and price promotions," says NYU professor of business and marketing Tulin Erdem. "It is inconsistent with their brand identity since if they do so their brand equity will be diluted. Most luxury brands have a sense of exclusivity and reflect a unique style, [and] too many people using these [discounts] will damage exclusivity and uniqueness."
In true luxury brand form, Italist avoids promoting its less-than-retail-price products as any kind of steal. Says Pollock, "Italist always prices at standard retail price." Is it still standard, though, if Italist’s prices are lower than offered elsewhere?
"It’s not really below retail price," says Abba. "The correct way to say it is ‘Italian retail price.’"
Yes, Italian retail price. Just like how "espresso" sounds infinitely more romantic than "really strong coffee," the phrase "Italian retail price" exudes moneyed exoticism. It’s worth mentioning that not one of the academics we reached out to were familiar with the phrase "Italian retail price." What it seems to boil down to, however, is tax law.
"It must for sure have tax-related implications," says Erdem. "There might be import taxes which may make Italian luxury items, for example, more expensive here than in Italy, keeping everything else constant."
Last month Italist offered a Sicilian inspired Dolce & Gabbana handbag for €1,434.42, or $1,580.16. The exact same clutch is available on Dolce & Gabbana’s official site for €1,750, or $1,931.12. Some lucky consumer nabbed that D&G bag at a huge discount, whether they were purchasing in the US or not.
"They do have a direct relationship with the house," says Abba of the Italian boutiques available on Italist. "And they don’t go through other countries where you have an importer, a distributor, and then you have different retailer markup depending on the cost of running the business." Italian-made, for Italist, means Italian-bought and Italian-sold — and even though the Italy label may connote all things luxe, that doesn’t mean that luxe-lovers don’t dig that thou-shalt-not-be-named deal.
A thread on PurseForum spells it out: Is Italist too good to be true? One user wrote, "They have some fantastic prices on Giorgio Armani bags. I was afraid of getting scammed so I emailed them and asked ‘what’s the catch’ and ‘why are your prices so low’ and ‘why can’t I find a single person who has bought from you?’"
A thread on PurseForum spells it out: Is Italist too good to be true?
Abba stakes Italist’s reputation on the quality and authenticity of its products. The boutique selection process, he says, is a careful one. "We don’t want to have a sub-par store. Our boutiques are sort of the premiere of Italy. We are sure about the quality of the buying, and also the selection. For us it’s very important that the store has a very good reputation."
But what is Italist’s reputation? Very little has been written about the online platform to date, despite its launching over a year ago. Is Italist fashion e-commerce’s best kept secret? Does Italist want to be a secret?
"If retail businesses were ‘secret’ they would die," says Pollock. "Retail needs customers walking in the door to survive. [...] Italist-supported boutiques are legit family businesses in Italy, and [Italist] helps them by giving them another revenue stream. It's very important, because retail businesses are hard, especially if you aren't Nike or Apple or Warby Parker with incredible sales and square footage."
"Luxury" and "helping out the little guy" aren’t concepts that often go hand in hand, but that unusual point of view could be the innovation that will lend Italist staying power — if it’s able to make itself known. When will that day come? Perhaps we’ll know the company’s hit its mark when "I got it in Italy" is replaced by "I got it on Italist."