Having launched womenswear etailer Avenue 32 at just 26, former finance high-flyer Roberta Benteler reveals the highs and lows of swapping private equity for fashion, and how it is still all an investment game.
In the commotion outside the catwalk shows at February’s London Fashion Week, one woman caught my eye. With long blonde hair and a young, elfin face, she strode through the crowds flanked by a flurry of street style photographers eager to capture her latest outfit.
“Who’s that?” someone asked. She wasn’t a celebrity or a new social media starlet, but one of the fashion industry’s rising names: Roberta Benteler, the 33-year-old founder of womenswear etailer Avenue 32, going about her day job.
Rewind a little over five years and Benteler’s working environment was somewhat different to the buzz of buying at international fashion weeks. Born in Paderborn, Germany, and educated in London, she found herself with a master’s degree in finance and a job in private equity in New York.
The idea was to be that place where you discover special new brands that you don’t find somewhere else
“I always wanted to work in fashion,” she admits from Avenue 32’s offices in London’s west Kensington a few days later. “But my father said: ‘You can do whatever you want, but if you study fashion and change your mind, you are stuck with it. If you study business, you have flexibility and can start your own business properly.’”
She followed his advice but ended up taking finance jobs instead of following her dream. However, as the financial crisis hit and frustration set in, she took the plunge and applied for “everything and anything” in fashion. She was helping a friend’s up-and-coming womenswear brand in London when the lightbulb moment came.
“Working in finance I was very time poor, so I always shopped online when possible. I was on Net-a-Porter straight after it launched. I just fell in love with ecommerce,” she says. “And my dad, who mentored me, said I should do something that exists but do it better. And it has to be scalable. Ecommerce is the perfect example of something that is scalable.” At her friend’s fledgling label she found a niche to fill: supporting and showcasing emerging designers in a way no other online retailers were.
And so Avenue 32 was created, and went live on 20 December 2011. Benteler was just 26.
“The concept behind it was to bring back discovery,” she explains. “I’m a treasure hunter, so the idea was to be that place where you discover special new brands that you don’t find somewhere else.”
And, as she points out, the concept is the same today: “We just did a study and we have about 70 designers [out of 150] that aren’t stocked on Net-a-Porter, Matchesfashion.com or Mytheresa,” she says proudly. “And with the ones we do have in common, our selection is usually pretty different. And we [stocked] them first,” she adds with a wink.
You invest, you gamble, you see something in a brand, and you go all in and bet on it
Benteler came up with the name on a whim – “I wish there was a better story, because everyone asks” – and launched the site “by outsourcing, basically”. She bought in former Browns buying director Erin Mullaney, who opened the door to brands, on a freelance basis.
“We went everywhere. I even had lunch with Jonathan Saunders,” she says excitedly. “I was like: ‘This is so weird, I’m 26, I’ve never worked in fashion’. But he was so nice.”
Despite this access, the launch was not smooth, Benteler admits: “We hardly had any designers [when we launched] because last minute one of our competitors blocked us. So we started with about 10 designers that were virtually unknown. We spoke to all these [brands] – Erdem said yes, Roksanda said yes, Jonathan [Saunders] said yes – we were super-happy.
“But when one after the other called and pulled out – it was all in one week – it was clear that something had happened,” she says. “At first I thought my life was over, it was really terrible. That was the first time I’ve ever experienced existential fear,” she adds, half joking.
But Benteler believes this early setback was for the best: the site was full of bugs and, as a total unknown, it attracted few customers in the beginning: “Those unknown designers didn’t mind, but a big brand might have pulled out and never come back.”
Another decision that benefited the business in the early days was to start on a consignment basis, negating the risk of inventory costs: “My dad said [the business] has to be scaleable – but that means both ways: scale up and scale down. So the aim was always flexibility in every way, and in the beginning the consignment model gave us that.” Benteler adds that this was great to motivate brands in the beginning, but now runs almost entirely on a wholesale model.
As Avenue 32 grew and neared its fifth anniversary, Benteler bought in a flurry of changes: new offices, a new buying director, a new UK warehouse and a new web platform – seeing Avenue 32 all but relaunch over 2016.
The investment in the new, mobile-first, responsive web platform, developed with Tryzens and Salesforce Ecommerce, was the result of a nine-month project that reinvented the site. Tryzens reports improved website “stickiness”, in the form of a 10% increase in pages per session, a 4% reduction in bounce rate and an all-important 28% increase in average order value.
“There was also a 100% increase in orders year on year over the Black Friday weekend, which resulted in a staggering 200% increase in year-on-year revenue,” says Tryzens CEO Andy Burton. “This was helped in part by a website that was 16% faster than the previous year and Avenue 32 subsequently exceeded its targeted growth by 50%.”
“Compared with many other retailers, the customer journey is slick, visually impactful and interactive. Customers want to stay on the site longer and explore more. The checkout process is exceptional, offering guest checkout, multiple delivery options – including same-day delivery within London – and even something as thoughtful as different packaging options,” adds Burton. “They are one of few retailers that fully embrace omnichannel shopping and have reaped the benefits – that is what consumers are demanding, and they are listening.”
Another important element of what Benteler calls the “revamp” was Liberty head of fashion buying and merchandising Stephen Ayres joining as fashion director.
“After working for department stores for 15 years, I felt that I wanted a new challenge. With the future of retail being online it was a logical decision and Avenue 32 appealed to me as a young and exciting business,” says Ayres.
He joined in September 2015 and his changes were felt immediately. By March 2016 almost 50 brands had been dropped.
“I discontinued several categories, including denim, lingerie and all basics or commodity-driven brands to enable us to develop a more focused point of view,” explains Ayres. “Last year we introduced more than 100 new brands to the site across all categories, which has been received really well: 10 of our top 20 brands last year were new additions.”
Now the site carries 150 brands. Top sellers include Vivetta, Saks Potts, Kiini, Shrimps and Coliac, most of which Benteler calls “in-house discoveries”. Is she proud of that? “Yes, totally. That’s what we stand for,” she says. “I see this job almost as an investment game – it’s very similar to finance in that sense. You invest, you gamble, you see something in a brand, and you go all in and bet on it being successful. And when it works that’s brilliant.”
London’s Shrimps is the perfect example. “They were my first stockist,” says the brand’s founder Hannah Weiland. “I was put in touch with Avenue 32 at the very early stages – I had one coat sample. It was my first experience with a buyer, I had no line-sheet and no pricing, but the team were so supportive.
“Looking back now it’s amazing to think how supportive and invested they were to a young designer.”
People say to me every day: ‘There’s always something new on Avenue 32’
Kim Hersov, co-founder of Talitha, agrees: “I love the website for its strong, very personal point of view and curation. I am always inspired when looking on the site.” She adds: “I like the way they buy Talitha, as it has a point of view and a clear understanding of what their customer wants.”
While these smaller, under-the-radar brands might sustain the business now, will this focus allow the business to really grow and expand? Benteler confidently believes so: “All the brands we sell really well, that make up our business, are smaller brands that we launched. So the fashion consumer has evolved now – they want something different, not just the big-name brands.” Its largest ever single order topped £51,000 and dresses are its biggest-selling category.
Right now, the UK market remains its biggest, followed by the US, and then fast-growing markets such as Germany, France, Australia and Korea. Although she declines to reveal figures, Benteler does say sales grew 75% year on year in 2016.
“Right now we’re just starting to see the rewards of last year’s investment. It was a very big financial commitment, so we’re happy to focus on growth for now,” she says, although ever ambitious, she adds: “We’d like to open more distribution centres, though. We only have one in England at the moment but we really need one in the US.”
“The nicest thing about my job now is that people say to me every day: ‘There’s always something new on Avenue 32’. I just love finding new designers. That’s the aim, and that’s the fun,” she says, beaming. So she does she miss the world of finance and private equity? “God no!” she says instantly. “No, no, no.”