Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Marianna Ferro has lived and worked in Europe, South America and China. Her first work experience was in fashion e-commerce before starting a career in finance, as a sales trader for international banks, private equity advisor and in international development, focussing on financial intervention. She has been an ambassador for Acumen Fund and a mentor for Virgin Start-Up. She holds a BSc and MSc in Business Administration and Finance from Milan’s Bocconi University and an MSc in History from the London School of Economics. She is the founder and CEO of Flair Atelier, a platform that enables each woman to customise online garments that reflect her style and fit, with a new sustainable production model.
Marianna, how did you get into fashion tech?
I was interested in the huge potential of fashion e-commerce since my university days: back in 2000/01, I worked first for a luxury accessories e-commerce (luxlook.com) and then for YOOX, when it was just a promising startup. I ended up writing my dissertation on successful models for luxury e-commerce. After more than 15 years in finance and business consulting, Flair Atelier feels like returning to my first love.
What is the idea behind Flair Atelier and how did you come up with it?
Flair Atelier is unlike any other e-commerce experience: we aim to be the ultimate destination for any woman looking for unique and timeless garments. Every time I went shopping I found all working dresses to be the same and the research for the perfect dress to be extremely stressful and time-consuming. My goal, when founding Flair Atelier, was to create something that would allow working women to find the perfect dress by optimising their time through a seamless and straightforward shopping experience.
When did you start with that business, how did you start a and do you have other members in your team? How long did it take you to be where you are now?
We founded the company as a side project while I was working as a consultant. We did a very complex first collection, with plenty of designs and fabrics, and we sold it offline, at events. We knew there was a great market for customisable garments, and by doing our offline events, we proved we could have customers. But we didn't have the platform and the logistics in place to support, we were adding too much complexity, without having the structure and the right team in place. And we needed a more define style for our garments. So we stopped the project for an entire year entire year to reflect.
That time of reflection was incredibly useful, we understood what we were doing wrong and we got to think about solution. With that awareness and a bit of luck we met and manage to and get on board the amazing professionals from both traditional fashion and technology that made possible our journey so far. We have now a truly great team covering all the areas of expertise, a brilliant platform, and so many plans to implement!
What was the biggest obstacle?
Finding the right people and work on a budget, having to learn many jobs in a very short time. Starting a company is not like any other job, it requires to develop skills and a very different mindset than any other professional job. As a professional, in the years you come to master your job. In a startup environment you really never feel you are an expert - there are too many areas and competencies required to cover all the aspects, and usually, the resources are limited. You learn something every day, and that’s the beauty of it.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in?
I guess that being an entrepreneur is both exciting and terrifying. Whatever business you are in, most likely, you have to try and experiment every day to be ahead of the curve, and you have to push your boundaries as you are competing with much more established companies. One of the main challenges is to keep the concentration and the determination to overcome the difficult moments.
How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
I think that being a woman is a plus when coming to entrepreneurship: women run to succeed, far more than men that often consider their personal realisation something they own and belongs to them as a right. Many women run a business, but also run houses, families, children and this requires being extremely multitasking in life as well as on the job and gives a person the flexibility to overcome difficulty with ease.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Every day an achievement in the sense that we move one step ahead and the idea is taking shape. Having great people in the team, and amazing partners, I think so far it's been the greatest achievement, as success comes from teamwork and an entrepreneur can succeed only when working with the right people.
What are your projects you are currently working on?
We are designing new, exciting collections and developing an amazing 3D visualisation - Flair Atelier will be a pioneer among fashion company to implement special effects techniques from the movies to garment visualisation. We are considering e-sizing features to enrich the website and further the unique customer journey.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Things are hopefully changing fast, as more and more women are involved in tech and in all aspects of the fashion business. My impression is that so far have been mostly men that have developed the technology for women, without fully understanding our preferences and our needs - an industry so catered to women is run mostly by men, isn't fair at all! (Though females make up 70% of the fashion workforce, they hold less than 25% of senior-level positions.)
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I see personalisation being one of the key trends - from the product to the shopping experience to the marketing: the client wants to feel unique.
Sustainability, as we become more and more aware of the impact of our choices as customers.
Together with this goes artificial intelligence as a support to all the value chain.
And factory automation - preparing garments fast and having the basic work done by machines will allow true craftsmanship of the expert tailors and seamstresses to emerge to add real value to the garments.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech?
Camen Busquets - Venezuelan entrepreneur and investor who was an early champion of the fashion-tech space. She was a co-founder investor and an original board director of Net-a-Porter.
Áslaug Magnusdottir - co-founder and former CEO of Moda Operandi and a co-founder of TSM Capital. In 2009, Áslaug came up with the idea for Moda Operandi, a business that lets consumers pre-order items directly from the runway.
Katrina Lake - she has taken Stitch Fix, a customized one-stop-shop box of clothes sent directly to your door, to a Silicon Valley unicorn valued at more than $2 billion, with 5,800 employees.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.