It Took a Former Tesla Executive to Blow Up Luxury Fashion

It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday, and the night shift just started working at a studio space in lower Manhattan. Fashion photographers scurry about, shooting looks that just days earlier were draped over top models strutting the catwalk at New York Fashion Week.

In this studio, however, the models—some outfitted with Jason Wu pinstripe dresses and black tulle outfits from Red Valentino—are mannequins. They represent a radically different way to sell fashion in America and, soon, around the world—a shift led by a company that’s raised almost $300 million and is now run by a former Tesla Inc. executive.

For the uninitiated, the relationship between haute couture and that sweater you bought at Bergdorf Goodman is opaque at best. Designers create their collections to display at fashion shows, the biggest being in February and September. Huge clothing retailers and boutiques were once the gatekeepers, sending their minions (the ones sitting behind the celebrities) to pick what they think will sell best. They served as curators, choosing clothing that, in six months, would hang from store racks. They also decided which items would never be seen again.

But not anymore. Moda Operandi enables clothes-crazed shoppers to buy directly from a designer’s complete runway collection, not just the ones picked by Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York or any other retailer for that matter. Through special arrangement with fashion houses, Moda can get you any look that appeared on the runway, allowing you to preorder before it’s made in a factory.

For those wowed by a $4,500 lace dress from Zimmermann or a pair of $1,300 Proenza Schouler mules that just hit the runway, Moda’s website offers you the opportunity to be seriously fashion-forward. As of now, the site carries more than 1,000 different labels, a mix of well-known fashion houses and upstart designers. Some of its biggest brands include Givenchy, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Prada and Oscar de la Renta.

Ordering on Moda requires shoppers to put down a deposit, since the item is being made just for them. Depending on the label, it can also take months for it to arrive, so it’s not always that quick. And the offers don’t last forever—each collection disappears from Moda’s website after four to six weeks.

And now the company faces competition. There’s a growing push by fashion labels to sell their own items right after runway shows—what the industry calls “see now, buy now.” It’s a strategy that’s been adopted by major labels such as Burberry, Moschino, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. It provides them with a way to sell some of their own clothes immediately without waiting for a nod from retailers.

In a quest for growth, Moda decided it needed to expand its horizons.

That’s where Ganesh Srivats came in. At Tesla, Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk assigned the then-vice president of sales the job of launching the Model X SUV and the Model 3 sedan. Now at Moda, Srivats said his goal is to collect customer data while expanding the company’s reach into one of the most lucrative luxury markets: China.

Srivats, 42, is the latest of a growing number of Silicon Valley expats who decamped for the fashion industry. Two more Tesla executives joined him—Puja Clarke, who ran global merchandise and e-commerce, and consumer communications director Alexandra Valasek. More recently, executive Preston Bottomy came aboard to run Moda’s corporate strategy. Also hired were Kristina Salen, the former finance chief of Etsy; Josh Peskowitz, from Bloomingdale’s; and Lisa Aiken, from Net-a-Porter.

Srivats’s new post isn’t his first in the style game. Before getting into the electric car business, he spent a decade at Burberry, the British luxury fashion label best known for its $2,000 trench coats and check patterns. His mission now merges both threads of his professional background. By analyzing real-time data to predict which looks will trend months later, Srivats said, he hopes to provide retailers with critical information while their production window is still open. When a line of alligator handbags hits the runway, how would a traditional retailer know which colors are going to be best-sellers? They don’t—they have to guess.

“What are people going to like, pink or green? Who the hell knows,” said Srivats. Here’s the thing: Moda knows. It crunches the data from its orders to help identify hot items before they’re actually hot, let alone being made in the factory. “We would love to be the merchandiser for the high-fashion industry and help them reshape their inventory bets.”

Armed with almost $300 million in venture capital, Moda has around 300 employees and is looking to grow. The last round, in late 2017, was a $165 million injection led by investor Apax Digital and K11 Investment Co. (Moda, which said it’s not seeking additional funding right now, declined to share revenue figures.)

Thanks to Srivats, Moda Operandi may be having its moment, but it’s been around for a while. The company was started in 2010 by Lauren Santo Domingo and Aslaug Magnusdottir with a simple goal: instant fashionista gratification.

“They see what’s coming out on the runway, but they know they can’t actually buy it, and they won’t even know for four to six months what’s actually coming to their local store,” Srivats said. “That’s huge asymmetry.”

Since Moda arrived, the modern fashion show has morphed into a theatrical marketing device rather than a true sales event. Nowadays, everyone knows what designers are making the minute the clothes appear on the runway. Attendees share photos and videos on Instagram, and glossy magazines like Vogue and Elle post every single look.

That dynamic created an opening for Moda. In years past, even the most fashion-obsessed weren’t able to see designers’ collections until they appeared in print. Now they can browse through all the looks instantly and, thanks to Moda, buy it right now.

“We want to be able to take the entirety of high-fashion content and present it to customers without editing it, and we want to let them decide what appeals to them,” said Srivats. “It allows for more quirky and eccentric and interesting tastes to come up.”

Srivats plans to enter China with a website suited to a domestic shopper there. The Chinese market has become vital to the luxury industry, both through tourist spending and local shopping. Moda is looking to launch in the summer or fall of this year.

International growth, Srivats said, is “a big part of the agenda.”

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