The founder of Farfetch looks upon fashion as an emotional demand that can be satiated by digital prowess

If you’re among the estimated 87 per cent of people who browse, research and increasingly buy their fashion online, the chances are you already know who Jose Neves is. At the very least you’re probably familiar with the Portuguese businessman’s brainchild and one of the internet’s most audacious shopping platforms, Farfetch.

Launched 12 years ago as a radical new retail concept – in an era of many other daring new ideas – Farfetch had a simple premise: to connect the fashion customer to small, independent and often highly niche boutiques around the globe. It removed the need to get on a plane to bag a vintage Chanel piece from Amore in Tokyo, or a showstopping evening gown from Aquerreta 1964 in Spain, and instead placed access to all of it at our fingertips. In turn, Neves offered a new opportunity to small, often family-run boutiques that might otherwise struggle to compete in an increasingly tough retail market.

This lateral thinking did not come from a fashion mentality, however. Despite launching a company that would help shake up the retail landscape, Neves comes instead from the world of technology. “I began programming computers when I was eight, I was a real geek,” he tells me when he was in Dubai to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the company’s regional website. “I started a tech company first, so it wasn’t until later that I fell in love with fashion – I was 21 when I discovered it. At the time, I became a shoe designer and launched a store in London.”

That shoe store is Swear, which was founded in 1997, and tapped into the city’s energetic streetwear and music scene, creating platform trainers that quickly gathered a cult following. Neves then turned his attention to the wider market and began to envisage a service that would connect the customer in one country to a boutique in another. With Net-a-Porter having paved the way for online shopping when it launched in 2000 (its founder, Natalie Massenet, is now part of Neves’s team), Neves launched Farfetch in 2007.

“Back then it was really hard to get backing for anything online. I mean, I would go and explain my idea to people and they would have no idea what I was talking about,” he says. “I was approaching these little shops, and saying we will help sell your stock, connect you to a wider audience and we will even build your website for you. But these were family-­run businesses, so in would come son, dad and grandfather, and they would all stare at me. It was hard,” he admits.

Neves was not the only one who found things difficult. “When Natalie started Net-a-Porter, she did it on dial-up internet. Can you imagine?” he says with a laugh. Once in business, though, Neves watched as the orders started to roll in from not only London, where he lived, but from countries as far afield as Japan and China. “That’s when I realised that this could be huge,” he says. “We started Farfetch as a platform to connect all these beautiful boutiques, which I thought were the best in the world, with the whole world.”

William Vintage chose Farfetch as the platform to unveil its Gianni Versace archive
William Vintage chose Farfetch as the platform to unveil its Gianni Versace archive

Unfortunately for Neves, the globe tipped into a financial crisis a year later. With banks and companies folding, and many people losing their livelihoods, it was not exactly the best time to be offering luxury fashion. “The global crash was very hard,” he says. “I started this company with my own money and what was meant to be a one-year investment tuned into more than three years. That was very tough. But as well as being this difficult thing, it was also amazing, as suddenly everyone was thinking the world is going to end tomorrow, so why not? What have we got to lose?

“A lot more companies agreed to sign up with us, and so from something negative came something fantastic. Even though many people still didn’t really understand what we were trying to do, they said ‘OK’ anyway.”

Farfetch not only survived, it blossomed. Today the company employs about 3,500 people, works with more than 700 boutiques and brand partners, has 14 offices worldwide and operates in 14 languages.

Farfetch launched an Arabic version of its website in 2018
Farfetch launched an Arabic version of its website in 2018

One of those languages is Arabic, and Farfetch launched its dual-language UAE-based website last year. In March, the company launched Get Together, a campaign led by photographers, film­makers, jewellery designers and models from the Middle East, which puts the spotlight on modern interpretations of modest dressing. Last month, Saudi Arabian retailer Rubaiyat made its e-commerce entry by partnering with the company.

“We have always said think global, and by that we mean think local, too,” Neves says. “Yes, the world is all connected, but still, everyone lives in a community. I mean, if a VIP customer in the UAE needs a new dress for an event, we need to know about that event. If an influencer was on TV yesterday in the latest Gucci kimono, we need to know about it. We need to have local knowledge and local sensibilities. One company we have invested in here is The Modist and they are a prime example of what we mean by having local knowledge. They gather the latest and best pieces from all the right names, and offer them in a way that fits with modest dressing.

Clothing from Layeur Exclusive for the FarFetch Get Together campaign, which celebrates modern modestwear
Clothing from Layeur Exclusive for the FarFetch Get Together campaign, which celebrates modern modestwear

“The population here is sophisticated, fast-moving and up-to-date with the latest tech and the latest fashion. They are very receptive to new ideas. The Middle East is still one of our biggest markets. It’s bigger than Russia, bigger than China even, which is remarkable. The woman here is very knowledgeable, very sophisticated and, yes, very demanding.”

In 2017, Neves asked his former business rival Massenet to join Farfetch as non-executive ­co-chairperson. Neves is quick to explain that getting her on board was a natural fit for the company. I ask if Massenet is the fashion brains to Neves’s tech knowledge. “Actually, she is both,” he acknowledges. “She understands fashion very well. She has a real feel for what is going to be the next big thing, she is a consumer and she understands the markets. Having started NaP, she also understands the tech side. We brainstorm a lot, almost too much. The team have to reel us back inand sometimes they would like a moratorium on any ideas from Natalie and Jose. She is an entrepreneur and an interesting woman.”

Remember, all these big fashion companies are getting involved with online sales, too, and so they can see the problem first-hand. They are getting feedback from us and their customers, who are saying: ‘I bought [my]size, but it doesn’t fit me. Why is that?

Jose Neves

With a record turnover last year of $1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn) and a 45 per cent increase in active consumers in the fourth quarter alone, Farfetch is now a large and powerful company. Crucially, it can track and analyse sales and returns, putting it in a position to influence even the largest of fashion labels. One such area is the issue of non-uniform sizing (the bugbear of every shopper), where it varies not only from brand to brand, but can even fluctuate from collection to collection.

“It’s frustrating for the customer that things that should fit, don’t,” Neves says. “Remember, all these big fashion companies are getting involved with online sales, too, and so they can see the problem first-hand. They are getting feedback from us and their customers, who are saying: ‘I bought [my] size, but it doesn’t fit me. Why is that?’”

Naturally, Neves’s team found a digital solution to a physical problem. “We have something called a sizing predictor, which goes by your track record of sales and returns, and has an algorithm that can tell that if you are a certain size in, say, Prada, then this size in Valentino will fit you,” he says.

“Fashion is emotion; it is the need to be part of a group, a tribe, as well as the need to be an individual. That is what drives this whole thing. That fundamental need we all have to belong, to be recognised as being part of something. And within that we all want to show that we are unique. That’s when I realised I could build a community where people can exchange ideas and be inspired. That is very powerful, and something worth investing in.”


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