Yours truly had the exciting opportunity to sit down with Adam Bernhard- the founder and CEO of the popular and ever-growing e-commerce site, Hautelook. What amazes me is that the company is only two years old and is doing remarkably well [whether growing internally with employees or externally with its member base] during this economy. For this interview, I did something a little different. I not only asked some of my own questions, but reached out of my fans as well, asking them ‘if they had one thing to ask the CEO of Hautelook, what would it be?’
LAFashionsnob: What made you want to get into fashion?
Adam Bernhard: I’ve been around fashion since I was a kid. My mother’s in the fashion business. She owned a textile company and buying office. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store- Fred Segal when I was 17 years old…and so I worked there for years. Even while I was in college I worked at Fred Segal. I always loved being around clothes. It was kind of a family industry that we were in.
LAFS: Of all the names you could have named the company, why “Hautelook”?
AB: Hautelook represents a couple things in the fashion business: ‘Haute-couture’ for one, which is high or high fashion, ‘Haute’ the word in and of itself, in French means ‘high’, so the concept of it being a aspirational site we wanted to make sure the name carried with it aspirational thought process. Psychologically, you think ‘Haute’ is a very elegant word and the word,”look” actually is a word used in the fashion business. So on photo shoots, no one really says, “oh I like that outfit”, they say, “oh I like that look” and when you’re backstage at fashion shows they call the different outfits “look 1, look 2, look 3″..etc…depending on when the girls are walking out. In fashion always, there’s the new “look”…The word ‘look’ is highly correlated to the fashion business. So ‘haute’ which is ‘high’ and ‘look’ which is very ‘industry terminology’…just seem to go well together.
LAFS:What is the purpose behind the “legendary big comfy green chair”?
AB: When I had just started the liquidation business, I had just come off running a label called, “Joie” and I was in my apartment and every morning .. I would get up like I was going to work, take a shower, get dressed and go sit in that chair like it was my office. I would start to call my friends in the business and see if they had extra goods for me to sell. ( My friend had an office up the street from my apartment and when I needed to send a fax I would go to his office and I would sneak in there and I would send faxes from his fax machine because I didn’t have one in my apartment. ) And so that chair lives on and I won’t let anyone throw it away.
LAFS: What sets Hautelook apart from the other companies (ie Gilt, Rue La La)?
AB: Part of it I think, is the culture and the roots of our business. This business comes from me being in the apparel business. We had never seen this idea. We had a liquidation business (post my running a label) and the business really came out of us wanting to provide brands with a better way to clear their access inventory by protecting the brand from anything that would harm their brand identity and we wanted to figure out a way to make more margin for them. So it was a fortuative timing that we happen to launch the site during one of the worst economic downturns that this country has ever seen. So we were fortunate enough to have that on our side and we had the wind in our back and it really just took off so quickly.
LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): Given the proliferation of similar sites, how do you continue to differentiate Hautelook and retain/extend your community?
AB: As a first-mover we have an advantage that our site is recognized as one of the leaders in the space. We are able to leverage that because we are a west-coast based company in and of itself the culture and the brand of Hautelook is more of a casual-lifestyle brand,compared to the east-coast players in the space who are much more New York based and east-coastcentric so we have more of an inviting atmosphere of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness and we wanna make sure that our membership continues to grow with that feeling of being a member is open as an invitation to all people no matter who they are, where they are, at what social bracket they’re in, what ethnicity they are, the gender…Now we have mens. So our focus is to differentiate by being inclusive rather than exclusive and we are letting brands know that we’re reaching a huge customer base of customers that wanna know more about what’s going on w/style as opposed to us dictating what we think style is.
LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): Why should a designer consider a sale through a company like Hautelook? Any success stories to share?
AB: When we first started the site, it was an exhaust vehicle for brands to be able to clear their inventory. What we quickly realized was that this was a incredible marketing vehicle for brands to be able to reach our close to three million customers on a regular basis. Seventy-five percent of our member sales , when they buy something from the sale from the brand, they go to that brand’s website . Fifty percent of the people that buy something from one of our sales they go and go buy and purchased that brand post the sale at either brick-and-mortar or online store and twenty percent said they bought an item from that brand post the sale at full price. So we’re getting brands a new member into their the brand culture and this is the real exciting part of what’s happening in the flash sales base that is not just a exhaust vehicle, but it’s a marketing vehicle.
LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): How does Hautelook promote itself off-domain?
AB: We have been fortunate enough to have our community of members basically build our business. The bloggersphere has really retold our story, brought sixty percent of our members into our membership base into our database and it’s been really a fantastic word of mouth growth . Plain and simple, it’s one of those phenomenons where people like to talk about it. It’s one of those things, people like to hear about it, it’s great, they like to share. Like the proliferation of the social web , people like to share what they’re doing more so then ever. So as they continue to share (girls love to share about their shopping experience) so we are continuing to escalate our ability to allow them to share information. And you’ll see something coming out in our iphone and ipad apps in the next couple months.
LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): What excites you about coming to work each day?
AB: I think it’s the atmosphere and the people here.We’re doing so many new things every day it’s a undiscovered territory where our business is there’s no road map in doing what we’re doing. It’s the discovery similar to every night we re-merchandise our store so every morning there’s new discovery for our members and it’s similar for me when I come to the office . There’s new challenges every day, there’s new exciting frontiers , new problems, there’s always something new for us to focus on. This is a very young atmosphere here, the employees are all very young and it’s exciting to see how everybody’s just working towards the same goal and it’s a very pleasurable place to work.
LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): What are three things you wish you had known before you launched Hautelook?
AB: I think not knowing sometimes allows you not to have fear. There’s a lot of things that if I knew it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to build this business as big as it is. The three things I wish I didn’t know, I still wish I didn’t know. So I know now what I knew then, I probably wouldn’t have started this business. My advice would be: don’t worry about you don’t know, learn what you don’t know and don’t be afraid. You have to just go with your intuition some of this obviously when your building a business from scratch it’s all about that feeling that you’re gonna have to make a decision and once you make a decision you’re have to stick with it. You have to be big enough to admit you’re wrong. At some point, when you know something’s not going your way you have to cut bait and move on.
LAFS (on behalf of Rebekka Lien): What is your life goal?
AB: I enjoy life. So I live as hard as I work and my goal is to experience life as it comes to me. I want to see the world. I love travel. I love that we (here at Hautelook) put a stamp on a new form of doing something, which is the new form of retail. So for us to have a lasting impression on the mindset and way in which people shop, that’s really exciting for me.
LAFS (on behalf of Emma Zerner-model/singer/actress): How do you always look and feel “haute” and meanwhile retain your sense of self?
AB: Hautelook doesn’t define me. It’s a company that we have all built together so I am still me and I think part of our ability to build this business was my relationships out there in the marketplace and I think it’s you need to be true to who you are -always . People who change over time, I guarantee you, people from grade school will say I’m the same guy I was then , nothing has changed about me, I do exactly the same things I was doing before . Like everybody else, I eat, I sleep, I breathe, I exercise. I have the ability to meet with people that because of this business allow me to continue to collect deeper levels of information because we have garnered a status here at Hautelook of a “frontier blazer,” and so that’s exciting for me . I now am able to spend time with individuals that are leaders of business to completely understand how we can develop our business.
LAFS (on behalf of Jane Chen): What are your favorite stores or places that you go to that always has that something special for everyone?
AB: I’m very particular with my gift-giving. There isn’t one particular store where I shop. When I buy gifts , I really think about what that person’s likes are and anytime people ask me what I should get them I say what do they do? What are they into?What are their hobbies and passions? Mine are pretty evident, you see around the office, I have modern architecture books, art books, calenders by famous artists… So for me, I’m pretty transparent. Art, architecture and travel are my passions so when people buy me things, they know and so when I say to my friends and when I go to buy gifts for people, I really focus on who they are and what they like rather then the stores i find appealing to me because I’m buying something for someone else.
LAFS: In closing, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs wanting to start their business, and in this shaky economy?
AB: This is the best time to start a business. It’s all about change right now. It’s all about evolution. People are looking for different ways to do pretty much everything. So I believe this is the one of the most opportunistic times we’ll have in our lifetime. The economy has turned in a way where there’s a lot of great talent out there on the streets of if you’re able to start a business and get some great people, whatever you do, do it with conviction. If you believe in it, you gotta go for it, that ‘s the number one thing. I think being an entrepreneur is one of the most exciting things you can ever do. but what you need to understand when you’re an entrepreneur is the highs are very high and the lows are very low. so you better be thick skinned if you’re gonna start a business. You gotta be able to ride the wave and be able to understand that there’s gonna be good days and there’s gonna be bad days. If you just go to work somewhere and you’re just getting a check every week, yes that could be fulfilling, but if you’re going to go the route of an entrepreneur, you have to have that mindset of when it’s going great, that’s when you need to worry, because it can turn in a second. and so you need to be able to ride the highs and ride the lows and keep a calm, cool and collected head.
NOTE: Many thanks to Executive Assistant Christine Elmassian for helping to set up the interview, to Adam and to Kate Petreccia of Paqit for providing five boxes of Paqit for my five fans that provided me with questions. And the lovely people who provided me with questions: Crosby Noricks, Rebekka Lien, Jane Chen and Emma Zerner!!
**You can sign up to become a member of Hautelook on my blog. Thanks!**
**Photo of Adam provided by Hautelook….. 2nd photo is of the Legendary Green Chair (taken by me)**