Maximilian Bittner, CEO of resale giant Vestiaire Collective, details his ambitious, industry-shifting ambitions for the fast-growing luxury platform.
In the concrete jungle of Paris’s 15th Arrondissement, hidden between monolithic office blocks and the French Ministry of Defence, the resale giant Vestiaire Collective is sowing the seeds of a fashion revolution.
Founded by a team of six in 2009, Vestiaire Collective is now the largest authenticated luxury resale platform in the world.
The site lists roughly 900,000 items at any given moment to 8 million members in 50 markets around the world. Behind the site, 340 staff work in offices in London, Paris and New York.
We want to connect and curate the world’s most attractive and appealing wardrobes
Roughly 140,000 new members sign up per month, and while the company declines to reveal financial information, in May 2019 it saw 30% year on year growth on the number of products submitted to the site.
The business has seen phenomenal growth and to date has secured more than €116m (£99.5m) in funding – investors include Zadig & Voltaire, Condé Nast International, and finance houses Ventech, Balderton Capital, Idinvest, Eurazeo and Vitruvian.
Now, the business is moving into a new stage of growth. In January, Vestiaire Collective appointed Maximilian Bittner, founder of south-east Asian ecommerce juggernaut Lazada, as its new CEO.
When Drapers meets Bittner, the German native is sitting in Vestiaire’s serene Paris headquarters wearing jeans, white trainers and a trendy Ami sweater, and is ready to take the business to the next level. His ambitions would see the business reshaping retail in a digital, community-driven and sustainable way.
“I wouldn’t be doing something if I didn’t really believe it could and will be an extremely big business,” he shrugs with a coolly relaxed demeanour. “It will be somewhere we can fundamentally change the way we consume. That’s a very exciting prospect.”
The underlying premise of Vestiaire Collective is simple: sellers list unwanted luxury items on the site for anyone to buy. When a shopper purchases a product, it is sent to one of Vestiaire’s authentication hubs for verification by in-house experts. This is part of what makes Vestiaire’s offer unique – every single item sold is physically checked to guarantee authenticity to buyers.
Once completed, the item is repacked and sent to the customer. The seller is charged commission by Vestiaire, typically between 20% and 25% of the selling price, and the buyer is charged an authentication fee – up to 2% of the item’s cost.
Bittner describes Vestiaire as a “treasure hunt” for customers: “We want to connect and curate the world’s most attractive and appealing wardrobes,” he explains. “If we can connect these closets in a way that is trusted and sustainable, then we can really fulfil the need of the time.”
“People are looking for instant gratification, they look for that one thing that is right for them. They want to differentiate themselves and find ways to tell their stories.”
Vestiaire in the vanguard
The business is in a strong position, at the vanguard of the thriving resale sector. Vestiaire estimates that the luxury resale market is growing 21 times faster than the general luxury sector. The general resale market is anticipated to be worth €35bn (£30bn) globally by 2021.
Sites such as US-based platform The RealReal, young fashion-focused Depop and sneaker site StockX have seen huge growth. In May, luxury fashion platform Farfetch launched its own resale pilot, eager to tap into the growing trend.
We’re rewarding the seller who does good versus penalising those that don’t
“Vestiaire Collective was one of the first sites to really offer a counterpoint to the notion that re-commerce was a secondary or even last resort option,” notes Katie Baron, head of retail at trend intelligence company Stylus. “In many ways it reframed reselling as a key part of the luxury sector.”
Before joining Vestiaire, Bittner founded the south-east Asian ecommerce site Lazada in 2012, developing the business into the leading ecommerce player in the market – operating in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.
In 2016, Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba bought a controlling stake in the business in a deal reported to be worth more than $1bn (£790m) and a year later invested a further $1bn (£790m) to take its stake in the business to 83%.
With his experience building Lazada – a forward-looking, large-scale, mobile-first and logistically sophisticated tech business – Bittner brings operational and scaling expertise that, if he succeeds in his ambitious goals, could well drive Vestiaire to new and impressive heights.
He is staunch in his belief that fashion, retail and luxury are crying out for disruption, and sees his role at Vestiaire as to encourage and drive these changes.
He aims to build on the existing foundations of the business with his own expertise – and ecommerce best practice is an early focus.
You have this incredible emotional connection between the consumers, the sellers and the products
“The brand and its fashion DNA are extremely strong,” he says. “What I bring to the table with the experience that I had building Lazada – is the importance of ecommerce best practice.
“People have a certain expectation level for ecommerce now, educated by the likes of Amazon. Potentially, in the past Vestiaire did not keep up with some of those basic expectations.”
The founder of another, smaller-scale, resale business agrees that Vestiaire has work to do if it wants to match high customer expectations: “Despite positioning itself as a luxury retailer, there are elements of the site that do not give a luxury experience. The quality of the photography can be quite poor, navigation is challenging and delivery is slow. Net-a-Porter offers 30-minute delivery in London, and as a large luxury retailer Vestiaire should be competing with that.”
Bittner has identified user experience (UX), customer experience (CX), search filters, search functions, pricing, logistics and presentation as key areas for improvement.
However, with so much of the end user’s ecommerce experience dependent on the sellers – who take product imagery, describe products and ship items themselves – upgrading the experience is not a simple task. To achieve this Bittner is seeking to “gamify” the ecommerce experience and engage more with sellers – rewarding sellers for good ecommerce practice.
“We need to make the seller understand that providing good customer experience is not just good for us but also good for them,” he says. “Rewarding the seller who does good versus penalising those that don’t. We need to find a way to get you to think: ‘now is a good time to sell’.”
Engagement is another essential component in Bittner’s plans for Vestiaire to drive the site’s sense of community.
“What makes Vestiaire so unique is that you have this incredible emotional connection between the consumers, the sellers and the products,” he says. “We need to empower this through tech.”
He flags chat functions, newsfeeds and seller information sound bites – “wouldn’t you like to know what the resale price of the bag you just bought will be in six months’ time?” – as tools that encourage this, alongside the enhancement of website basics.
“Gamification is everything which makes the ecommerce shopping experience more than just search, add to cart and checkout as easily as possible,” he says. “It brings together that shopping mall culture that my generation grew up with and translates that online.”
A tangent to Bittner’s pursuit of an empowered, engaged community is his mission to integrate the idea of resale into the wider fashion ecosystem. Sustainability is a key motivator for this – in particular, the drive for a more circular industry.
“Increasing the use of clothing is one of the most effective ways to reduce waste and pollution in the fashion industry. This means resale has an important role in making fashion circular,” explains Francois Souchet, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “Raising awareness is not enough. For customers to adopt circular habits at scale, you have to make it convenient and rewarding.”
“Circularity is not something that we drive by ourselves,” notes Bittner. “We drive through the education of the consumers on the sellers and buyers’ side, but also through the education of brands and retailers.”
“There is a real need to do something, and there is a very real thing people can through our business. We see ourselves as a front runner and pioneer in how consumers can drive the way we can save the planet. Resale is not only a good thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Not only are you spending smartly but you’re also saving the planet by buying quality stuff over mass market stuff.”
This desire perhaps explains Bittner’s surprising approach to competitors. He refers to sites such as Depop, The RealReal and Vinted as “brothers in arms” rather than adversaries, driving for the same industry changes. However, he notes there are still relatively few credible competitors in the luxury space.
“We’re seeing more new style models, more categorisation: different models appealing to different customer needs,” he says. “The increased competition is educating the consumers that buying second hand is not only a smart thing to do, but is also the right thing to do from a sustainability perspective.”
Despite its sustainable model, Bittner is frank that other aspects of the business need to be improved. “There is a lot of homework we still need to do around sustainability,” he says. “I would not say we’re best in class in day-to-day operations.”
There is never an end state when it comes to sustainability
The company effectively ships all products twice – once to an authentication hub and again to the customer – as such, shipping optimisation is one priority. The company transports items via air freight, and Bittner highlights package size and shape optimisation as one possible development.
“The company has done a lot of good things, but there are more good things that we could be doing,” he says. “There is never an end state when it comes to sustainability.”
Bittner may jovially refer to resale “brothers”, but he has already made dramatic changes to the business, geared to keep Vestiaire ahead of the pack.
In April, he overhauled the existing commission structure for sellers. Rates were reduced for sellers, and a cap of £1,300 was introduced on items over £6,500. In addition, a small “authentication fee” of up to 2% of an item’s listed price was introduced for buyers. The main motivation behind this was to make the service more “competitive” in its offer by lessening the cost to the seller.
“Our goal is to make the transactions on our platform as attractive as possible for buyers and sellers,” says Bittner. “We shouldn’t get too greedy as a platform. We should encourage the sales.”
In the business itself, he is determined to uphold an innovative and entrepreneurial tech-focused mindset to support growth.
“We need to continuously challenge everything we do and continue innovating,” he says. “Vestiaire was built around an innovation. We need to continue keeping that spirit.”
“The reason I’m in this business, and all my colleagues are all in this business is because we want to change things. Change requires being innovative because the world is changing at a million miles an hour.”
Change requires being innovative because the world is changing at a million miles an hou
He highlights the implementation of new technologies, and the scaling of tech as one aspect that gathers importance as a business grows, and Vestiaire is in the early stages of implementing both AI into its systems and working with blockchain technology.
“Our job as a platform is to build the relevant knowledge to figure out what the right solutions are, the most scalable solutions are and the most transferable solutions are,” he says.
While he is reluctant to reveal details, blockchain has been widely cited as a potential game changer for authentication – allowing products to be traced back to their origin through sophisticated data networks. For Vestiaire, this would take its already impressive authentication guarantee to the next level.
“During the next six months someone could come and eat us for breakfast,” he says. “It’s a constant fight for survival and to stay relevant. If we’re not moving and not innovating, then we’ll be yesterday’s news very fast.”
There is no doubt that Vestiaire Collective is an interesting and innovative business and Bittner is shaping it for a digitally driven, sustainably focused future. In a turbulent and rapidly shifting industry, his lack of complacency and acknowledgement of the business’s flaws is refreshing, and he exudes a pragmatic sense of focus on the task that lies ahead – scaling Vestiaire for the fashion landscape of the future ahead.