Matches Fashion is a global e-commerce fashion giant. But last year it bought a four-storey townhouse in West London that’s become part store, part broadcasting hub.
In 32 years, the company has gone from a single shop in Wimbledon to now seeing 95% of its global sales (it made £293m in revenue last year) come through the website, 80% of which are international.
Despite its rapid rise among the fashion elite, it’s only in the past few years that the marketing strategy has been overhauled. Global brand director Jess Christie is leading the evolution at the company in an approach she says was born from the demise of celebrity fuelled “it” culture.
“The customer is their own curator. They're curating their lifestyle where everything's a choice and a reflection of their personality. They're curating their own lifestyle,” she explains, highlighting the role social media apps like Instagram have played in this shift.
“When people used to buy things it identified what tribe you were in, now it's about being clever and finding these interesting things that you wear and see and are in your home. It's a big change from buying the ‘it’ bag to being clever and finding something different.”
Matches is at the heart of this shift. In the past it has, Christie admits, shunned “traditional” advertising. It wasn’t a “brand” itself and got by on word of mouth and people flocking to its site safe in the knowledge that it would have the latest designer to be worn by a celeb. But that’s is no longer enough of a draw for shoppers and today it needs to be the source of inspiration.
So it opened 5 Carlos Place in response to this change in dynamic. It’s a townhouse in London’s upmarket Mayfair, with the two bottom floors dedicated to retail and the top housing a small café and an events space. In the past year it’s run over 130 events, ranging from intimate dinners and cocktail parties to floristry classes and most recently a Hot Chip gig.
Christie describes as a “broadcasting hub” where it's creating content that will be shared across its website and social channels, globally.
“On Monday we did an event with the artist Mark Quinn and conversation with Dylan Jones and a refugee on the idea of social change. So, we did a conversation for 60 guests and then a dinner for 20 people,” she says.
“Everything is amplified. That conversation with Mark Quinn was 60 people then when we can broadcast it through Facebook Live, our podcast series and on social media.”
And over time it’s found that the loyalty and retention “really goes up” among customers that engage with Matches through Carlos Place or the different platforms it uses to showcase the content coming from it.
In the first year of Carlos Place’s existence, the company grew its customer base in terms of new customers by more than 32%. This is in part thanks to the massive volume of international sales it achieves. Christie’s thoughts have now turned to how to take Carlos Place abroad. It’s started to experiment with pop-ups in cities like LA and New York during “cultural moments” like the Frieze Art Fair.
It’s also taken the concept to water, renting a boat in Italy that it took on tour to host events that were then broadcast around the world.
Thinking like broadcaster
As it’s started to “think” like a broadcaster it’s also had to act like a broadcaster. It set up a content studio in East London that’s a hub to produce its own videos, podcasts and any images it needs for social media or the website and has been hiring talent from the likes of Vogue, The Guardian, as well as other “credible journalists”, to populate its in-house team.
YouTube’s director of fashion and beauty Derek Blasberg has also been a guiding force. Christie says he’s helped Matches move from creating overly-styled “polished” films to videos that are more rough-and-ready, giving people the “behind the scenes” view on high fashion.
“[Blasberg] has been basically saying that it's not the polished stuff that performs, it’s not why people are going to that medium. They don't want to see perfection, they want to see the making of the perfection. So, we’re taking the shutters down.”
When asked how it’s able to take all these expensive experiments in broadcasting and tie it back to retail sales, Christie launches into a glowing review of its parent company, Apax Partners, who she says have been quick to reckon with the idea that “not everything can be tied back to ROI". “Otherwise, you're not going to try new things and you're not going to be credible to your customer if everything is just about the direct sale,” she says.
It measures the success of Carlos Place, for example, not in terms of footfall or sales through the till, but "impressions." She says its reached over two billion people since launch, with social coverage achieving over five million impressions on Instagram alone since launch.
And slowly, commercial opportunities have presented themselves. The East London content team, for example, now work with brands on campaigns and editorial. These same brands are in talks about how to integrate with its other ventures, though Christie says it’s so far resisted the urge.
“We've been asked by brands for the past 10 years to put banner adverts on our website and we haven’t,” she explains. “And they would pay a lot of money. We've always said no, because to us it starts to dilute the credibility.”
The same goes, then, for brand adverts in podcasts or overly commercialising its Carlos Place events. “But there are definitely commercial relationships you can have,” she hints, pointing to a deal it struck with British Airways where its content is hosted in the airline’s fashion channel on long-haul flights.
The shift in mindset within the brand has also spawned a new way of working with the fashion’s most loved, and loathed, talent – the infleuncer.
Unlike many brands, Matches realised that the currency of “reach” was a red herring. A fashion influencer with three million followers was about as effective as someone with three.
“What we've always realised is the people with the biggest numbers aren't necessarily the people who are going to be relevant or engaged with our audience,” Christie explains.
With the new “broadcast” mentality it’s found key subjects it knows its shoppers are interested in beyond fashion, namely art, travel and food. The infleuncer marketing approach its adopted is to simply work with the interesting people within these areas.
“It goes back into these storytelling cultural pillars,” she says. “We pick people from these areas who resonate much better than somebody who is just in fashion because that's a bit one dimensional and not as engaging. We've moved away from what was the typical kind of influencer pools. It's almost an inverse affiliate model. And they often bring us a new customer, so there's a good split then in terms of that customer acquisition piece as well as engaging the existing customer.”
Despite the seemingly endless reports detailing retail's struggles amid Brexit, and a more recent study from the IPA that said declining ad budgets are being siphoned into safe-bet areas where short-term returns are guaranteed, Christie said Matchesfashion.com is sheltered from the headwinds thanks to its international growth.
A new chief executive to replace Ulric Jerome, who left last year, is also on the way. Christie says there's great expectations that the replacement will continue to back the test-and-learn broadcast strategy.