Two years ago, when Ian Rogers became LVMH’s chief digital officer, his good friend Mike D (of Beastie Boys fame) pointed out that Rogers’s fashion sense seemed to be inspired largely by Jay Z. “That was his version of saying, ‘You’re not the most fashionable guy I know,'” Rogers tells me, with a smile.
In some ways, Rogers isn’t the most obvious person to reimagine LVMH for the modern shopper. While the 45 year old spends his workdays in the plush, beautifully furnished Paris offices of the world’s largest luxury conglomerate–which counts Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Givenchy among its 70 brands–he often thinks back to humbler times. He spent his teenage years in Goshen, Indiana, crisscrossing the concrete on his skateboard, wearing baggy Carhartt and Dickie’s clothes purchased from Walmart. “We were literally dressed like janitors,” Rogers recalls.
But what Rogers lacks in haute couture experience, he makes up with a proven talent for helping industries transition from the analog world to a digital one. For 21 years, he worked in the music industry, helping to shape how people accessed artists and bands online. Along those same lines, he’s now tasked with translating the in-store luxury shopping experience for the internet.
For months Rogers has been working on a top-secret project, known only by the code name Babylon. Today, LVMH is revealing the fruits of his labor with the launch of 24 Sèvres, an online version of the high-end 180-year-old Parisian department store Le Bon Marché. This new e-commerce operation will be LVMH’s opportunity to experiment with new approaches to selling luxury to the digital shopper. Le Bon Marché is owned by LVMH, so this will be the only place that some brands within the portfolio, such as Dior and Vuitton, will be sold by a multi-brand online store. But 24 Sèvres will also include many brands that are not owned by LVMH. While Rogers has been helping strategize how this site will unfold, he’s been working closely with Eric Goguey, the site’s CEO, who runs its day-to-day operations.
LVMH’s CEO, Bernard Arnault, brought Rogers on because there is a feeling at the company that the $1.2 trillion luxury fashion industry is on the verge of major disruption. At present, 98% of luxury purchases happen in brick-and-mortar stores, and 40% of luxury brands don’t sell their products online at all. But consumer behavior appears to be shifting. Between 2003 and 2016, online luxury sales grew 20-fold. And the pace of change is quickening: In 2016 alone, the online luxury goods market grew by 13%, far outpacing the rest of the luxury goods market, which only grew by 4%. “Retail is about to change fundamentally, in much the same way that music changed,” Rogers says.
He would know. For 21 years, he helped make it easier for music fans to access their favorite artists, transitioning from CDs to MP3s to streaming services. Each twist changed the way consumers discovered music and how much they were willing to pay for it. He ran the Beastie Boys website right out of computer science grad school, then moved onto Yahoo Music, then Beats Music, which was acquired by Apple for $3 billion. Before joining LVMH, he was a senior director at Apple Music. “The way that that music is discovered and consumed is 100% different than it was 20 years ago,” Rogers says. “Retail is going to go through exactly the same thing.”
Luxury Love Is A Tricky Thing
It’s clear that a segment of luxury shoppers–particularly younger ones–want to buy products online. But luxury brands have struggled to figure out exactly how to translate the brick-and-mortar luxury experience online. At stores, shoppers receive personalized attention from well-trained staff and they can touch products to examine how well-crafted they are. The same level of intimacy, personalization, and service is not easy to replicate in an e-commerce experience.
Case in point: In 2009, LVMH launched a website called e-Luxury that was a spectacular failure. Customers found the site boring and the service subpar, and international shoppers were annoyed by the fact that the company wouldn’t ship outside the U.S. Other luxury e-commerce sites, like Net-a-Porter and FarFetch, quickly stepped in to fill the gap, taking an editorial approach to presenting brands and collections. Every week on Net-A-Porter, for instance, clothes and accessories are presented in an online magazine called The Edit with written commentary about how to style each item, alongside celebrity interviews and lifestyle content like information about detox retreats.
LVMH believes it’s time for a fresh different approach. “Everybody is doing what Natalie Massenet [Net-a-Porter’s founder] pioneered in 1999, which was editorial plus commerce,” Rogers says. “But the internet has grown into a visual medium. So I really believe that the future of luxury e-commerce has not yet been invented.”
Away from LVMH’s headquarters, where executives all wear the finest tailored suits and cashmere blend jackets, the employees of 24 Sèvres are coming up with new approaches to selling luxury online in an open-plan office that looks like it belongs to a Silicon Valley startup. This workforce is a good deal younger and more global than the one at the parent company, and most people joined the team in the last six months. “This is quite new for LVMH,” Eric Goguey tells me. “Our development process is very agile, so what is true on Monday might not be true on Wednesday. You have people here wearing shorts, whereas you will never ever ever see someone at Le Bon Marché wearing shorts.”
A Visual Experience
With 24 Sèvres, Rogers and Goguey have pushed for the site to offer customers a rich viewing experience, inspired by the most immersive visual social media sites–Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and the like. Le Bon Marché is known for its elaborate in-store displays. The store often invites artists to create vast exhibits in the building’s central hall. Ai Wei Wei, for instance, installed enormous monster sculptures that appeared to be floating in midair. This artwork gives people a reason to stop by the store and elevates the space beyond the everyday shopping experience.
24 Sèvres will bring a similar approach to the website. Artists and designers will be invited to create interactive digital storytelling displays about some sort of topic, such as castles or animals. The images will change each month, so customers will want to return to the site. Some of this art will incorporate products, but much of it will just be aesthetically pleasing. This is a trick that Instagram bloggers discovered long ago: By leading with gorgeous imagery, rather than just product suggestions, followers will want to spend time in the online world that they’ve created. “We’ve created a canvas, if you will, which we call the ‘window,'” Rogers explains. “In the real world, visual merchandising for Vuitton and Dior is an art installation. It’s not commerce or marketing; it’s just an expression of the brand.”
Goguey explains that 24 Sèvres will tap into the talent that is involved with creating the physical windows for the brands within the LVMH portfolio, including Faye McLeod, Louis Vuitton’s visual image director. “We have access to crazy creative people who have this expertise,” says Goguey. “24 Sèvres is a fascinating marriage between the geeks and the creatives.”
The site will also take a different approach to how the products are displayed. In most luxury e-commerce, each item is generally shot against a white background with a couple of model shots, much like Amazon or any other retailer. But in stores, products are presented in a lush ambiance. (Think of those high-end watches that are displayed on velvet stands in gleaming glass cases.) 24 Sèvres will take a similar approach, photographing products against colorful, textured backgrounds. All of this is designed to present products within a broader luxury brand experience. “It’s an artistic vision,” Goguey says. “We’re always using props, whether it’s a stone or wood, that puts the product in context. It’s what we do in a store, but translated into a digital medium, meaning we’re taking the same creativity and playing around with it online.”
The brand will also try to take an elevated approach to service. Besides the things that customers have come to expect online–plenty of exclusive products, fast shipping to 70 countries, free returns, easy pickups in stores, a loyalty program–24 Sèvres will also have live assistants on hand to help with styling or product selection. “From the app, you click to talk to a stylist and, boom, you get a real Parisian woman who can walk you through the site and help you pick something out in a way that is very similar to what you would have in store.”
For now, none of this is set in stone. Goguey and Rogers say 24 Sèvres is going to continue to experiment with new approaches and tweak the format as time goes on. But this kind of iterative approach is exactly what has kept traditional high fashion houses away from the internet for so long, particularly when it comes to multi-brand e-commerce sites. “Each one of these brands has a unique DNA and they want to be sure that the service that we are going to offer is in line with the quality of the products they are selling,” Goguey explains. “We’ve been working closely with the brands to offer a much better expression of each brand’s identity than they can get anywhere else online.”
The prospect of tinkering with a brand’s image online can feel frightening to brands that have been carefully cultivating their identities for decades–if not centuries. They don’t want to lose their exclusivity, status, and prestige with a few unfortunate missteps in the digital realm. Rogers has been working to make the case that their reputations will not disintegrate on the internet. “Online doesn’t change exclusivity at all,” he says. “Anybody can walk into Bloomingdales and Vuitton–that experience is not only available to some people. The price point of the products and the limited editions means that the brands are only available to some people.”
What’s changed, Rogers argues, is that luxury culture used to only exist in big cities, but now “even if you live in small-town Indiana, where I grew up, you can buy a Louis Vuitton handbag online, the same way as anybody else.”