“In the beginning I had no interest in fashion whatsoever,” says Andrea Panconesi, ceo of Italian luxury retailer LuisaViaRoma. “I thought taking care of this little shop set up by my mother and grandmother, and buying and selling clothes, was not a big problem and it would give me a lot of time to do what I wanted to do: travel.”
That was decades ago. What began as a job of convenience has led to a lifelong career, with Panconesi transforming a tiny Florentine boutique into a global retailer with e-commerce sites localised in nine languages, including Korean, Russian, German and Japanese. In 2016 the company raked in €120m in revenue, with 92 per cent of sales down to e-commerce (the rest is from its two physical shops in Florence). Panconesi is a digital pioneer, the first in the industry to take luxury fashion online. Launched in 1999, luisaviaroma.com pre-dates Net-a-Porter, which launched in 2000. Some 53 million visitors logged on in 2017. Not bad going for a quaint womenswear boutique that opened in 1929 selling lingerie.
Panconesi is in a celebratory mood. This year marks 30 years since he took over the business; it’s also the 90th anniversary of the original shop opening. But what first piqued his interest in clothes? Kenzo, apparently (see page 228). “My family told me that something was going on in Paris with a Japanese guy who was inventing these incredible clothes,” he says. He’s referring to Kenzo’s first collection in 1970, spearheading the ready-to-wear category as it is today. Prior to that, fashion houses were making only couture.
Panconesi placed an order immediately. “It didn’t sell for two or three collections,” he says. “Kenzo was mixing cotton with heavy wool, doing Japanese style with European fabrics.” In other words, making things that Italian women were not accustomed to wearing. “All of a sudden it became very successful. After that I was excited to search for other designers doing something different, like Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. We started to buy those collections too.”
Today LuisaViaRoma stocks Thom Browne, Loewe and Rick Owens alongside Italian label such as Gucci and Max Mara. Panconesi’s time on the shop floor getting to know his customers informed his perspective. “From a male point of view it wasn’t easy to understand the way women dress,” he says. “I made an extra effort to understand, to talk to them.” He also gave his loyal customers advance previews of forthcoming collections by drawing sketches of the clothes; later on he showed them Polaroid pictures.
The digital awakening came when Panconesi met Nicola Antonelli – now his CMO – who explained the internet to him. It was 1998 and Google had just launched. “I realised that by pressing a button I could be in touch with a client who would otherwise need contacting by fax or by post,” he says. “I invested all my energy and money in it. I hired engineers from university to create the programme, to copy what I was doing physically in-store.” Until recently Italians were “afraid to shop online” so Panconesi launched the site in English; the US and the UK quickly became his biggest markets.
Online still presents challenges. In the shop he has three or four generations browsing together; online is different. To keep users coming back to the site he launched LVR Editions: exclusive collections from high-end designers that dropped once a month. He also created an LVR loyalty system, where shoppers were given points with each purchase, and a “sneaker club” designed to attract the millennial and Gen Z demographic. In 2018, LuisaViaRoma staged its first fashion show, in Florence during Pitti Uomo. “I figured every designer does their own show because of ego, to show only their own collection,” he says. “As a multi-brand distributor it’s not my duty to represent fashion [in that way]. It’s my duty to sell to paying clients.” It was so successful that Italy soon became the company’s primary market.
Now he’s turning his Florentine bricks-and-mortar boutiques into “shops of the future”. “People say that the experience of the shop is finished; that in Italy the physical experience of buying goods is the same as it was 20 years ago,” he says. “Actually now is the time for a new type of retail store – one with experience at its core.”
Panconesi remains tight lipped about his exact plans, as you’d expect from a man who likes to be the first to do anything. “There is this phrase in Italian: that it is better to be last than to be second,” he says. “You don’t want to borrow or copy something which is already done. You want to be the original, the first to do something extravagant.”
LuisaViaRoma in numbers:
E-commerce site launched: 1999
Top-performing brands: Dsquared2, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Nike and Balenciaga