Can Moda Operandi Break Into the Fashionista Circles in China?

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On a rainy afternoon at Shanghai’s Middle House, a small group of fashion editors and influencers gathered for Moda Operandi’s first trunk show in China. Inside, a male stylist from the e-commerce platform introduced one of the company’s hottest designers, Johanna Ortiz, while models walked around in dresses, transforming the boutique hotel into a private haute couture showroom.

High fashion is built on exclusivity and privilege, but Moda Operandi, founded by the former fashion editor and American socialite Lauren Santo Domingo, was created to help democratize this heavily-guarded system. It allows consumers with the means and love for high fashion to pre-order the latest runway pieces from top designers, no matter where they are.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Moda as well as its debut in the China market — the latter offering both a massive opportunity and challenge for the fashion newcomer. For a platform like Moda, 2019 feels a bit late to start marketing in China. Similar foreign e-commerce companies like Net-a-Porter and Farfetch have already gained strong momentum there thanks to partnerships with Alibaba and, respectively, while local players still own a good foothold with mainstream Chinese consumers.

Because of this, the available market share for Moda right now seems small. But Moda’s business model, which is betting on fashion’s trendsetters who closely watch the runway shows and rush to buy the latest high-priced fashions, purposefully aims at a smaller, more affluent group of consumers. To unleash the consumption potential of this demographic, Moda must first figure out: who in the country has the spending power, and are runway obsessed yet still needing the access? Where are they located? And for this crowd, how irreplaceable can Moda become?

“Before I was appointed, I knew a lot of people from China already shopped on Moda,” says Yang Ming, Managing Director of the e-commerce platform, about her decision to come on board. “The platform has already generated a lot of organic demand.” Ming is an e-commerce veteran with a background in computer engineering and immersive working experience in the fashion industry. Before Moda, she headed Farfetch’s China division and held executive positions at Best Buy and Amazon.  And Moda’s users agree with Ming, stating that the site’s unparalleled and exclusive access to products is naturally fueling demand. “I often like to shop on overseas websites,” says the jewelry designer He Chaoqiu. “I became a Moda user in 2013. It’s my destination to pre-order runway showpieces.”

Realizing the potential of China’s market, Moda arrived having already performed a lot of essential tasks for localizing — both online and offline. It launched a Mini Program on WeChat (featuring over 300 products) that offers a fast review and checkout experience and is currently preparing a .cn website for even easier sales logistics. To acquire new users, it’s been actively building up influencer networks offline and leveraging good word-of-mouth from their existing VIPs in order to recruit new users. But to really thrive in China, Moda is also eyeing a bigger demographic that’s still fairly untapped by foreign e-commerce players: consumers in third- and fourth-tier cities.

“I was surprised to discover that we have people even from the third to fourth-tier cities shopping on the platform,” says Ming. China is home to over 600 cities classified as third-tier or below, and the people living in these cities account for 70 percent of the country’s total population and 59 percent of its GDP. But the majority of those people are trend-followers unlike the typical Moda trendsetter customers, so consumer education will be important. Ming also emphasized one strategy that involves gaining access to consumers through local buyer’s stores, as the owners are usually KOLs themselves. In essence, Moda would trade access to their exclusive goods for the store’s clients. Additionally, it plans to host pop-ups and other offline experiences for clients with stylists giving suggestions and answering questions. In other words, it wants to offer a luxury experience that most e-commerce platforms don’t.

Will Moda Operandi break into these Chinese fashionista circles? By combining technology’s democratic outreach with the alluring exclusivity of high fashion, this platform seems better positioned to do so than most. But as Chinese consumers are presented with more choices than ever, we shall see how far this newcomer can go.

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