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 Montreal-based 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.”
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.”
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