Tech entrepreneur turned fashion CEO Ulric Jerome was the ideal choice to help transform an independent retailer into an innovative, industry-leading international digital empire.
Matchesfashion started life as an independent boutique in south London’s affluent Wimbledon Village in 1987, opened by husband and wife Tom and Ruth Chapman. Thirty-one years later, it has transformed into one of the world’s leading luxury retailers.
Selling womenswear and menswear, it stocks 450 labels, including Gucci, Prada and Balenciaga, as well as own brand Raey. Catering to the broader lifestyles of its customers, it also sells skiwear, fine jewellery and homeware, and its website hosts glossy editorial content such as guides to international hotels and luxury spas.
Having launched online early in 2007, Matchesfashion has evolved into a global digital player. Today, 95% of sales are made via its website. Dedicated UK, US, Australian, French and South Korean domains attract 100 million visitors a year, and the average basket size is an impressive £542. Competitor Yoox Net-a-Porter Group’s average order size was €328 (£288) in 2017.
It is headquartered across 48,000 sq ft of London’s tallest building, The Shard. Its new 500,000 sq ft London distribution centre, which opened early this year, can ship up to 4 million orders a year to 176 destinations, and allows for 90-minute delivery in central London.
America is now its largest single market, and 82% of sales come from outside of the UK.
Despite rebranding as Matchesfashion.com in 2013 to reflect its digital prowess, it maintains three stores in London’s Marylebone, Notting Hill and Wimbledon. A townhouse, 5 Carlos Place in Mayfair, is the latest bricks-and-mortar addition – a tech-enhanced personal shopping-meets-experience hub, which opened in September.
In its latest results, Matchesfashion reported a 44% increase in revenue, reaching £293m for the year to 31 January 2018. Gross profit was £105m, and EBITDA was £26m. Online sales grew by 73%, website visits increased 36% year on year, and international sales were up 80%.
The Chapmans’ story has become one of retail legend, having sold a majority stake in the business to private equity firm Apax Partners in 2017. Although details were not disclosed, the deal was rumoured to be worth £800m.
But while their tenacity and vision certainly nurtured the business, there is another element that helped to spearhead its speedy expansion, initiate a technology overhaul and transform it from a growing omnichannel retailer into the empire it is today. His name is Ulric Jerome – a French, 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who joined the business in 2013 as chief operating officer, and took the reins as CEO when the Chapmans stepped down as joint CEOs in 2015.
“It was an opportunity to rewrite a page of ecommerce history,” says Jerome, in his energetic manner. And although he and the Chapmans arguably made history with Matchesfashion’s rapid growth and landmark sale, Jerome firmly believes it is just the beginning of the story.
Wearing suede Gucci loafers – with no socks – slim trousers and a collarless shirt unbuttoned low on his chest, Jerome is stylish and well groomed. Although he can comfortably namecheck designers and brands, he had no fashion experience before joining Matchesfashion.
After graduating with an economics degree from Montreal’s Concordia University in 2001, he became a founding partner of French online business Pixmania, selling consumer electronics. As managing director for northern Europe and the UK, Jerome was responsible for more than 70% of total group turnover and helped it to grow from €1.7m to €650m (£1.5m to £575m) between 2002 and 2007, and was seen as a potential European equivalent to Amazon. It was bought by Dixons in 2006 for an undisclosed sum.
Jerome left in 2012 and became a non-executive director at multichannel gambling company Paddy Power, and a non-executive board member at Zooplus, Europe’s biggest online retailer of pet products.
“I was looking to do something else in ecommerce. I knew that I didn’t want to compete against Amazon [any more]. I’d done it for 12 years and that was enough,” he says.
At the end of the day you serve a customer. That’s number one, and execution is king
After meeting Matchesfashion’s founders through a mutual acquaintance, he quickly realised the business’s potential and found himself a job in fashion: “[Matchesfashion] came out of nowhere. I did not know it. People forget that six years ago it wasn’t a global brand and many people outside of the UK hadn’t heard of it, so it was an amazing opportunity to evolve the business, in a very small amount of years, into a global player. It was totally possible, and we knew it.”
At the time Jerome was an unexpected choice for the retailer, but his hiring is an early example of fashion businesses looking outside of the industry for fresh leadership – particularly to tech- and data-proficient digital experts. He believes the skills are transferable.
“At the end of the day you serve a customer. That’s number one, and execution is king,” he says of his transferable skillset. “You can sell a luxury garment, pet food, or an electronic product, but the customer chooses you because you have a proposition that stands out. Everything we do relates back to how to best to serve the customer, regardless of the industry.”
Focusing on “getting the operation right” and “building the global brand”, Jerome kicked off a tech overhaul and international attack, funded by £19m investment from venture capitalists SEP and Highland Capital Europe in 2012. Quickly, Matchesfashion stepped up to compete with the big luxury retailers – namely, pureplays Net-a-Porter and Farfetch.
Part of Matchesfashion’s success has been how it has maintained its uniqueness. This arguably stems from its independent retail origins – it is what Jerome constantly refers to as its “personal” touch.
For instance, products still come wrapped in the retailer’s signature marbled boxes, whether they are bought over the counter of its stores or via its online delivery. If bought online, purchases come with a handwritten note from the product packer.
Its brand mix also remains individual and boutique-driven – big-name luxury labels are all present, but Matchesfashion, led by buying director Natalie Kingham, has continued to curate a unique product mix.
“Our first season working together was also my first season presenting womenswear,” says menswear-focused designer Edward Crutchley of his eponymous brand. “Matchesfashion were the very first people to pick up on these pieces. They’re such a joy [to work with].”
“Matches picked up my first season and we have worked closely ever since,” echoes Richard Quinn, the rising star designer who received the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design from the Queen herself at February’s London Fashion Week. Buying catwalk styles alongside custom pieces, he praises Matchesfashion’s unique attitude: “It’s a really fresh approach and seems like a new way of working that feels modern and pushes the product forward in an interesting way.” The result: Quinn’s collection quickly sold out, and Matchesfashion reordered.
Furthermore, even as the business’s digital platform became the main source of sales, it has stayed true to its original bricks-and-mortar proposition. Jerome reveals that the stores remain “growing and profitable”, adding: “They give us a massive advantage over a pureplay. We talk to our customers every day. And it keeps us grounded.”
Nonetheless, with online being so vital – accounting for 95% of sales – some in the industry were surprised when Jerome decided to invest in another store this September.
However, 5 Carlos Place is not a traditional store. A 7,000 sq ft townhouse situated opposite The Connaught hotel in Mayfair, it acts as a physical version of the Matchesfashion website’s homepage. With retail floors, a cafe, event space and a content broadcasting hub, it brings together the best parts of experiential, luxury bricks-and-mortar shops with the convenience, speed and data-driven personalisation of online.
Two floors are also dedicated to personal shopping. This is a smart choice, considering 35% of sales come from the top 3% of its spenders – a shopper that loves the exclusivity of private experiences.
The Carlos Place townhouse is also a physical representation of Jerome’s tech influence, not that you would know it.
“Do you see touch screens and digital mirrors?” he asks, showing Drapers around. “No. Do we believe that this is what customers want? Absolutely not. Tech is core but it should be an amplifier,” he implores passionately.
Here, apart from discreet QR codes that connect customers’ phones to the retailer’s app tech is very much “behind the scenes”. Central to this is Matchesfashion’s algorithm, which has been built using artificial intelligence and machine learning and combines shoppers’ sizes, purchase history, brand preferences and browsing history to create a personalised offer, whether it be in store as a member of staff makes recommendations, or digitally via uniquely personalised emails and a responsive website.
“For us, technology is about reaching the maximum amount of people and reaching the relevant people. It’s about having the right level of data that enables you to offer the maximum personal experience, the optimal one, and that’s extremely important,” Jerome says.
He also readily admits that 5 Carlos Place is an “amazing exercise in brand awareness”, bringing Matchesfashion to life. Events, exhibitions and experiences – 40 in September and October – will draw shoppers in locally, but also be broadcast internationally thanks to its media hub via a dedicated tab on the Matchesfashion website, called “What’s On”.
This focus on content also makes sense, as Jerome reveals that 40% of online sales now come via an interaction with its editorial content: “On average, when someone interacts with a piece of content, they stay 13 minutes on the site. The more they stay, the higher the probability that they will convert. 5 Carlos Place is an investment in the Matchesfashion brand. And it’s worth every penny. The return on investment is going to be extremely fast.”
Ulric brings new innovations, but I don’t think he steps outside of Matchesfashion’s core
Frances Card, retail consultant
Ever innovative, Matchesfashion is leading in what luxury, and omnichannel retailing means today, though Jerome is not a fan of that definition.
“There are a lot of words I don’t like,” he laughs with characteristic candidness, referring to omnichannel. “It’s just commerce at the end of the day – it’s both [offline and online] worlds together. It should just be about what the customer wants, and today it’s the ability to have the maximum amount of convenience and the greatest experience, offline or online.”
Always looking to the future, Jerome is cagey on details but reveals that international is the main focus, alongside menswear, which currently accounts for 20% of sales but is set to increase to 30% “in a short period of time”. Guardedly, he also reveals he is “enthusiastic” about new categories, the latest of which was the launch of homeware in July and is already proving a “success”.
“Our mission statement is to be the biggest personal shopping experience in the world,” says Jerome. But can he achieve it?
“Tom and Ruth had that little extra brilliance, which made the business such a sleeping jewel,” says Frances Card, luxury retail consultant and former Matchesfashion chief operating officer. “I haven’t worked with Ulric, but it is clear he has absorbed all of that – he has that magic essence. He brings new innovations, but I don’t think he steps outside of Matchesfashion’s core. He understands it. He has managed to keep the essence and DNA going.”
Jerome certainly has the digital experience, but beyond his impressive CV it is this understanding of the Matchesfashion customer and their desire for a modern, innovative, luxury experience that makes this the perfect match.
“And this is just the beginning,” he smiles.