Roberta Benteler, founder of U.K.-based e-tailer Avenue 32, has never been one for convention. Case in point: She started the site, which specializes in a heady mix of established and emerging designers (think A.P.C. alongside Eudon Choi), at just 26 with little to no retail experience—in spite of the recession.
“I was working in finance [first as asset manager at Deutsche Bank, and later in private equity] but my passion was always fashion,” explains Benteler, now 30. “When the economic crisis hit in 2008 and the industry slowed down, I thought: Maybe this is the perfect time to finally follow my dream.”
After quitting her job, Benteler took a gig with designer Saloni Lodha. It was there, in 2010, that Benteler had her lightbulb moment: “I saw that there were so many young brands that didn’t have an e-commerce outlet and that couldn’t afford to build their own online store,” she says. “And at the same time, as a consumer, I had gotten bored of seeing the same brands at all the department stores and major online retailers.” Benteler was convinced she could create a site that would solve both problems.
Her finance roots in play, she immediately set about putting together a business plan. “The concept behind Avenue 32 was to re-create that exciting street—like a Fifth Avenue or Bond Street—but online,” she explains. “Each designer would have their own little e-boutique where they could tell their story.”
It was important to Benteler that Avenue 32 carry niche, under-the-radar designers that most retailers wouldn’t yet take a chance on. To minimize the risk associated with stocking untested brands she took an unconventional approach. “We came up with a revenue-share model,” explains Benteler. Instead of paying the wholesale price for items, Avenue 32 covers the cost of warehousing, photographing and showcasing each product online—and if it sells, the site splits the profit with the label. Benteler collaborates with the designers in selecting what to put on the site. The atypical model means that in addition to more commercial pieces, Avenue 32 will also sell runway (read: less mainstream) items. “It’s nice to be able to show the collection the way it was originally envisioned, especially if people don’t get the essence of the brand yet.” In 2011, Avenue 32 launched with a diverse list of labels—from 3.1. Phillip Lim to fledgling contemporary line Felder Felder. “We really wanted to be the place you go to discover talent,” says Benteler.
Benteler’s ability to think outside the box has served her well in a market that is constantly changing. “One of the biggest challenges is that the online landscape moves so quickly,” she says. “It’s not like a traditional industry where you can look at historical data and see what’s performed well. Even numbers from two years ago aren’t going to be relevant because everything will have changed—there will be new systems, new technology.”
One of the biggest developments has been the advent of Instagram. Benteler notes that the social media platform is one of the site’s biggest purchase-drivers. “If we Instagram a celebrity wearing a product we carry, it might sell out in one day.”
Instagram has also become an important tool for Benteler and her team of buyers to discover new labels, like American sneaker designer Joshua Sanders, Russian ready-to-wear brand A.W.A.K.E. by Natalia Alaverdian and swimwear line Kiini. “We all noticed Dree Hemingway wearing Kiini on Instagram so we tracked down the designer’s e-mail and set up an appointment to meet in New York,” says Benteler. “Now she’s one of our bestsellers.”
Benteler’s enthusiasm for innovation can be seen in the site’s ever-expanding roster of new talent. The site launched with just 35 labels—it now carries over 135. “And counting,” she says. The company is growing so fast it needs to look for new headquarters. “We’ve gone from three employees to 30,” she says. “We’re hoping to move to a bigger office soon.”
As for what’s next, Benteler remains coy—but she promises big things to come in 2015. “Watch this space,” she says.