THE OUT­SIDER RISK- TAK­ERS

ELLE (Canada) - - Special - NANCY WON

At a time when Cana­dian lux­ury play­ers are fac­ing un­prece­dented com­pe­ti­tion in an in­creas­ingly dog-eat-dog mar­ket, one re­tailer has man­aged to avoid the con­ver­sa­tion al­to­gether. For Mon­tre­al­based Ssense— which launched in 2003 as a fash­ion boutique in the Old Port and is now a global e-commerce force—it’s busi­ness as usual. But then again, Ssense has al­ways op­er­ated out­side the comfy con­fines of the tra­di­tional fash­ion sphere. How? With un­con­ven­tional buys, strong con­nec­tions to art, mu­sic and cre­ativ­ity and a so­phis­ti­cated blur­ring of streetwear and high fash­ion long be­fore Yeezy and Vete­ments made it de rigueur. Ssense’s suc­cess has been built on do­ing things en­tirely its own way.

The com­pany started out as a phys­i­cal store­front 14 years ago, and COO Bas­sel Atal­lah, who founded it with his two brothers, Rami and Fi­ras, says they had their eyes on the dig­i­tal prize from day one. “It was the early days of the Web, and Rami saw a big op­por­tu­nity in lux­ury e-commerce,” says Atal­lah. “Back then, brands were very re­luc­tant to sell on­line, so we opened the store to make them feel a lit­tle more com­fort­able with the con­cept. Then, in 2006, we launched the web­site. We’d all fin­ished our stud­ies by then and had more time on our hands.”

That’s right—fin­ished their stud­ies. CFO Fi­ras, the el­dest, was just 25 years old at the time, CEO Rami, 24, and Bas­sel, 21. In other words: They’re Mil­len­ni­als—a fact that, com­bined with their bla­tant fash­ion-out­sider sta­tus (their back­grounds are in bank­ing, com­puter en­gi­neer­ing and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing), might ex­plain their un­ortho­dox ap­proach. “We cater to a Mil­len­nial au­di­ence be­cause we are in that age group our­selves,” says Atal­lah. Ac­cord­ing to Ssense, al­most 80 per­cent of its cus­tomers are be­tween 18 and 34—an as­ton­ish­ing stat for a lux­ury re­tailer, given that, among high-end brands, lur­ing Mil­len­ni­als has be­come the golden ticket no one knows how to cash. It’s a huge win that Atal­lah at­tributes to an in­ter­nal cul­ture of in­no­va­tion and out­side-the-box think­ing. “If you come to our of­fices, you’ll see that the av­er­age age of our em­ploy­ees is in that bracket as well,” he says. “Mil­len­ni­als are hy­per-con­nected; they live in the present, and they tend to make the trends in­stead of fol­low them—there’s a real en­ergy to that.” Let’s state the ob­vi­ous: Build­ing a lux­ury busi­ness around selling $1,500 hood­ies and $ 2,000 sneak­ers to 22- year- olds is risky, to say the least. But given that Ssense now em­ploys over 300 full-time staffers, re­ceives 32 mil­lion page views a month and has had 82 per­cent com­pound an­nual sales growth since its first year, it looks like it’s work­ing.

Atal­lah in­sists they didn’t ini­tially set out to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo or upend the sys­tem. “We were young and didn’t have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence, so we nat­u­rally took a more an­a­lyt­i­cal, en­gi­neer­ing ap­proach,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and er­ror, more by need than by in­ten­tion.” h

“WE WERE YOUNG AND DIDN’T HAVE A LOT OF EX­PE­RI­ENCE.... IT WAS A LOT OF TRIAL AN DERROR, MORE BY NEED THAN BY IN­TEN­TION.”

This year will see Ssense con­tinue to swim against the re­tail cur­rent. The com­pany is in the process of con­struct­ing a five-storey David Chip­per­field-de­signed flag­ship store in Mon­treal. Set to open later this year, it will be not only eight times larger than its orig­i­nal shop but also, ac­cord­ing to Atal­lah, fully “dig­i­tally in­te­grated.” When pushed for more in­for­ma­tion, he says that with the rise of dig­i­tal, “the con­cept of phys­i­cal re­tail is un­der­go­ing its big­gest trans­for­ma­tion in his­tory.” He also adds that when­ever the con­cept of merg­ing on­line and off­line is in­tro­duced, “peo­ple tend to ex­pect a ‘store of the fu­ture.’ We are re­think­ing the role of the phys­i­cal space as a means to crys­tal­lize our brand vi­sion in a tan­gi­ble way.”

The de­ci­sion to in­vest in bricks and mor­tar in an in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal cul­ture may seem, again, coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but that’s what we’ve come to ex­pect from Ssense. “Al­most 90 per­cent of sales in the lux­ury in­dus­try still hap­pen off-line,” says Atal­lah, “so there is def­i­nitely a huge op­por­tu­nity there, not only fi­nan­cially but also in terms of mak­ing another con­nec­tion with our cus­tomer.” And as a self-ad­mit­ted “Cana­dian re­tailer with a global mind­set,” tak­ing that IRL con­nec­tion beyond Mon­treal via phys­i­cal flag­ships in other cities will be the next step in Ssense’s bound­ary-bust­ing vi­sion. “We want to con­tinue to build Ssense into the best com­pany it can pos­si­bly be—to achieve its full po­ten­tial,” he says. “We’re grow­ing at a fast pace, and there’s a lot go­ing on, but there’s plenty to be ex­cited about in 2017.”

“AL­MOST 90 PER­CENT OF SALES IN THE LUX­URY IN­DUS­TRY STILL HAP­PEN OFF­LINE, SO THERE IS DEF­I­NITELY A HUGE OP­POR­TU­NITY THERE, NOT ONLY F INANCIALLY BUT ALSO IN TERMS OF MAK­ING ANOTHER CON­NEC­TION WITH OUR CUS­TOMER.”

Fi­ras, Rami and Bas­sel Atal­lah; the Ssense head of­fice in Mon­treal

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