Q&A: Incoming BFC chair Stephanie Phair on Farfetch, fashion and the future of the industry

I first met Stephanie just after she had returned to the UK following ten years ensconced in the New York fashion world. She had by that point risen rapidly, beginning at a PR startup before a role at Issey Miyake and then a period at Vogue where she worked to define the positioning of the editorial team. It didn’t take a career in executive search to know from the moment I met her that Stephanie had great potential to be a future leader (although it certainly helped!).

Once in the UK Stephanie was appointed as the president of The Outnet, Net-a-Porter’s yet to be launched online outlet for high fashion. It is easy to forget how quickly the industry has changed, but the Outnet was, and is, truly ground-breaking in its approach and Stephanie played a key role in shaping and driving the strategy that led the business to grow from two staff to hundreds in just a few short years.

From there, Stephanie transitioned to her current role as director of strategy at Farfetch, where she has been at the forefront of transforming the fashion industry’s present and future.

And, importantly, she’s done it all before her fortieth birthday.

I couldn’t think of a better person to have been nominated to take over the chair role from Natalie Massenet at the British Fashion Council. Both women are innovative thinkers and boundary pushers, both have been at the cutting edge of the disruption, change and opportunity that has swept across fashion and both have a keen eye for the trends shaping the industry and invaluable insight on how to adapt to them.

Last week I sat down with Stephanie to discuss her appointment, fashion, Farfetch and the future. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

First off, congratulations on your appointment to the chairpersonship at the BFC! You’ve had an amazing career both here and in the USA and you have held global roles – how do you think this diversity of experience will impact your new role?

Thank you Moira and thank you for your support all these years! It’s an exciting role to take on at this time, building on the great work that Natalie Massenet and Caroline Rush did over the past few years and pushing the agenda forward during this period of change for the industry.

I am lucky to have had a career so far where I have had a 360-degree viewpoint from various parts of the fashion industry, so I can understand the challenges faced by different players, from brands at Issey Miyake to editorial at American Vogue to ecommerce and business with a marketing and comms focus from my early days in PR, and also technology as an enabler at Farfetch. All of these roles have always had a large global approach and that is more important than ever – digital is global and has brought down barriers and the fashion industry can leverage and embrace this.

I have developed a programme called Boards of the Future and have been working with Chairs in the FTSE encouraging them to put millennials onto their Boards. Most of the candidates happen to work in digital and tech. How important is it for the fashion industry itself to prepare for the customers of the future?

I think it is as important as ever to be customer-centric because with technology the balance of power has shifted increasingly to the consumer – and diversity on boards is important, aside from being the right thing to do, because it is commercially valuable. Those making decisions then best represent the cross sample of customers they are speaking to.

You worked for what is now a leading brand recognised worldwide, Net-a-Porter – is Farfetch a brand?

In addition to being the global technology platform for the luxury fashion industry, Farfetch is a brand and one that our customers know and love.

Jose Neves, our CEO and founder, was originally a shoe designer and manufacturer and a retailer; he started Farfetch for the love of fashion because he knew and understood the industry and its challenges. We believe that fashion is the ultimate expression of individuality and so we offer lovers of fashion around the world the opportunity to discover and buy an unrivalled range of luxury fashion from the best curators and creators across the globe.

Mark Sebba and Natalie Massenet

You were instrumental in developing the Outnet. Why do you think it is that many outlet companies do not have ecommerce operations?

It is the case that having some outlet stock is an inevitable side product of the industry and the desire for newness. Brands need to mitigate this by connecting supply and demand better through technology and enforcing a full price season; however, for the stock that is a season or two old, The Outnet was the first to position this as beautiful, timeless, valuable product that well merchandized could have a second life. It was the first time that an outlet had the editorial, positioning and service of a full price business which is why we gained such a loyal following among fashion lovers.

What have been the challenges for Farfetch of preserving an innovative and forward-thinking culture while undergoing rapid growth and professionalisation?

Innovation is in the DNA of Farfetch and part of the company’s values: Be Revolutionary. You see it in the talent that the business hires. But as the business has grown and reaches a level of maturity, we have developed a robust framework around innovation as a way to enable all the right ideas to bubble up from inside or to seek out the best outside-in technologies.

Could you tell us a little bit about why Farfetch pivoted to bricks-and-mortar retail when so many others are turning away?

Farfetch has always been omnichannel from day one. The business model when Jose founded the company in 2008 was to connect unique and differentiated multi-label boutiques to a global audience through technology. We believe the future of luxury retail will be defined by reinventing the customer experience by connecting the online and offline retail worlds. We call this vision Augmented Retail. Last year, we unveiled our Augmented Retail vision and launched Farfetch Store of the Future – a suite of technologies which will enhance the consumer experience both in-store and online.

How difficult has it been to integrate what has traditionally been a creative and content-led industry with data?

There might have been resistance in the early days but the value of data becomes clear when the customer asks for more personalization, recommendations and a better service. But it is never either/or. In the creative industries data and content have to build on each other in the same way that in the Store of the Future, for example, the technology is not designed to be front and centre but is there to empower humans to do their job better with data to rely on, to make better decisions.

Further to that, can content & editorial and data teams ever really speak to each other in a common language?

I believe they can and it often starts with how the teams are organized. Content is a form of marketing and it cannot be separated out from the quantitative side of marketing in the same way that digital at a brand cannot be a separate silo but should touch on every aspect of the business.

My colleague Maria has recently written about the growing sustainability agenda in fashion – how important do you think it will be for the industry five, or even ten years down the line?

It will be critical for a number of reasons. Consumers want to understand how the companies they buy from look at responsible business and sustainability and companies can benefit from an increased focus on this too.

Finally, are millennials changing the way we think about fashion, especially in regards to the erosion of the distinctions between high fashion and streetwear?

Yes, fashion is changing in front of our eyes; it has become even more of a cultural signifier. But what has not changed is that fashion then and now is the most visible form of individual expression for a person and that is why the importance of design and empowering difference is something that shouldn’t change.

Stephanie Phair: Quick facts

What are you reading at the moment? I just finished Chaos Monkeys, it’s a really funny account from inside Facebook and looks at the players forming part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Just like fashion, it’s got its own rules and particularities.

Who is your favourite designer? There are many.

Where will you be in the Summer? NY and the Hamptons for a little and Tarifa in Spain.

Who is your mentor? There have been many along the way but I wouldn’t have had the chance I had to build a business had it not been for Natalie Massenet and Mark Sebba who have been so supportive.

Moira@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup