Into high gear with Moda Operandi’s Lau­ren Santo Domingo

Moda Operandi’s co-founder Lau­ren Santo Domingo talks women driv­ing in Saudi Ara­bia, her royal con­nec­tions and world dom­i­na­tion

Emirates Woman - - Contents - WORDS: EMMA DAY

E xcuse me, I’m a lit­tle jet­lagged,” she apol­o­gises, along­side a warm hand­shake.

How­ever, de­spite her gru­elling 13-hour flight from the US to Dubai just days ear­lier, Lau­ren Santo Domingo looks any­thing but, clad in an em­broi­dered ki­mono, sheath dress and barely-there makeup. The co-founder of lux­ury on­line re­tailer Moda Operandi jet­ted into the UAE last month to launch a col­lab­o­ra­tion with a group of ground­break­ing women, the Ara­bian Gazelles. “Some­one in the of­fice in­tro­duced me to the group and I was im­me­di­ately in­spired,” says Santo Domingo of the fe­male-only su­per­car club based in Dubai and founded by Hanan Ma­zouzi.

“I was re­ally drawn to the con­fi­dence of a woman driv­ing a su­per­car. That’s ob­vi­ously a re­ally strong and dy­namic woman, and that’s who I nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­wards as friends.”

Moda, the high-end, e-com­merce hub launched by Santo Domingo in 2011, af­ter she cut her teeth at Vogue US, will work with the group over the next year, blend­ing flash rides with high fash­ion. It’s a move fit­tingly ahead of the curve for a for­ward­think­ing busi­ness that al­lows cus­tomers to pre-or­der cat­walk looks months be­fore they hit stores. “Things come to us all the time, but I was re­ally ex­cited about this,” says Santo Domingo of the part­ner­ship, ad­mit­ting with a smile that her ul­ti­mate goal is to host a sim­i­lar event in Saudi Ara­bia.

“Right in the mid­dle of the #MeToo move­ment was the an­nounce­ment that women in Saudi will be able to drive,” she says of King Sal­man’s his­toric re­form last year. “I think we see that a win for a woman in Saudi is a win for women any­where. The law passes on June 24, so the plan is to go there and cel­e­brate women drivers in Saudi Ara­bia. And nor­malise it as quickly as pos­si­ble.” Luck­ily, the Connecticut-born style muse and fash­ion ed­i­tor has plenty of lo­cal con­tacts, ad­mit­ting she’s filed away the num­bers of many in­flu­en­tial women across the Mid­dle East over the years.

It’s be­cause of such friends that her busi­ness has seen grow­ing suc­cess in the re­gion, Santo Domingo believes. “We’ve been so lucky. I hap­pen to have – just from my own life and my own trav­els – lots of friends in Saudi Ara­bia, and strong con­nec­tions to a lot of women in the royal fam­ily. They have opened so many doors in terms of cus­tomers and ad­vice,” she says. “They tell us ‘these are what our ex­pec­ta­tions are, this is what we don’t ap­pre­ci­ate’. So we’ve not re­ally been fly­ing blind.” It’s not just the re­gional shop­per that Santo Domingo has de­vel­oped a deep un­der­stand­ing of – she’s been watch­ing the Mid­dle East’s emerg­ing de­sign ta­lent for years, cit­ing Zayan The La­bel as one of her favourites.

“I think here there is def­i­nitely a more glam­orous and dressed-up ap­proach, but at the same time it’s done with a bit more ease,” she says. “Peo­ple, from what I can tell, still get dressed up here and make an ef­fort.”

Dress­ing for af­ter-dark is a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion for Santo Domingo, who en­thuses “there’s no go-to any more”.

“It used to be for evening you would wear a beaded oneshoul­der dress, a beaded strap­less dress, or a taffeta ball­gown.

“Now you see cut-outs, a peas­ant blouse with a ball skirt and a flat san­dals, any­thing goes. Evening’s be­come more fash­ion.” In Santo Domingo’s own life, with a style she calls “evolv­ing”, you’ll of­ten find her in ev­ery­thing from Ellery to Jo­hanna Or­tiz, though one par­tic­u­lar la­bel is close to her heart: Proenza Schouler. “They’re two of my best friends,” she says of the US brand helmed by Jack McCol­lough and Lazaro Her­nan­dez. “Selfishly, they de­sign with me in mind, so it’s ob­vi­ous that I’m go­ing to like ev­ery­thing they make.”

The de­sign duo have in fact been be­hind some of Santo Domingo’s most beloved looks, such as the marigold cheongsam-in­spired dress she wore to the 2015 Met Gala.

For this year’s bash, the New York res­i­dent worked with Raf Si­mons on a creation, blend­ing an an­gelic pal­ette of creams in a con­tem­po­rary two-piece.

“Of course, it’s great to buy a dress off the run­way, but it’s re­ally fun and spe­cial [to have one cus­tom-made],” she says. “I get that I’m so lucky to be able to call these de­sign­ers and do this.” It was at the Met, Santo Domingo re­veals, that she hit a ca­reer high, spon­sor­ing the sar­to­rial ex­trav­a­ganza back in 2013, just a few years af­ter Moda first launched. “That was prob­a­bly a real flag in the ground,” she re­mem­bers.

“We were con­sid­ered a re­ally small start-up, and peo­ple though it was just a fun project. I don’t think any­one re­ally re­alised how big and how quickly we were grow­ing, and how am­bi­tious we were.” It’s that am­bi­tion that has seen Moda grow into a for­mi­da­ble shop­ping be­he­moth, with the av­er­age cus­tomer spend­ing US$1,400 (Dhs5,142) per or­der, seven times a year, ac­cord­ing to Busi­ness of Fash­ion.

How­ever, the busi­ness – and Santo Domingo – won’t rest on their lau­rels, con­stantly look­ing for ways to evolve, such as launch­ing an in­cu­ba­tor for emerg­ing ta­lent last year. It’s that de­sire for in­no­va­tion that Moda prides it­self on, fos­ter­ing up-and-com­ing names and not stock­ing “ba­sics”. “We’ve spent a lot of time ed­u­cat­ing our cus­tomer… and get­ting them con­fi­dent in putting down the Chanel suit, putting down the Hermès Birkin, putting the Louboutins in the drawer and try­ing some­thing new,” says Santo Domingo. “We want to stay ag­ile,” the entrepreneur says, “with that start-up men­tal­ity to do new things, stay scrappy, and look ahead”.

Her hope for the next few years is to per­me­ate the day­dreams of those hop­ing for a ca­reer in the in­dus­try. “When there’s some­one sit­ting in their child­hood bed­room, dream­ing of be­ing a de­signer, I want them to think of Moda first,” Santo Domingo says. She pauses, mulling over what she con­sid­ers her end goal, be­fore sum­ming it up in two words with a grin.

“World dom­i­na­tion.”

Above: Lau­renSan­toDomin­gowith­Marti­naMon­dadori andHananMa­zouzi­inDubai

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