ENSURING THE FUTURE: A CONVERSATION WITH ELEVENTY CO-FOUNDER/CREATIVE DIRECTOR MARCO BALDESSARI
Smart luxury. Modern styling. Strong value proposition. Ask retailers about the upscale Italian brand Eleventy, and these are some phrases you’ll hear. No wonder the brand has become a mainstay in fine stores like Harry Rosen, Nordstrom, Holt Renfrew, Selfridges and Harrods, numerous independents, shop-in-shops and 11 company-owned stores worldwide. (Soon-to-open stores in Aspen and Miami will bring the U.S. store count to 7.)
While global business over the years has evolved to 65% wholesale/35% retail, Baldessari projects a 50/50 balance down the road. To get there, he’s making some bold moves to alleviate the supply chain issues that have plagued the entire industry of late. Here, we chat with him about these plans.
I thought the pandemic-induced supply chain situation was improving; is this not true?
It’s improving, but for small- to medium-sized manufacturers, it’s still problematic. It’s a supply-demand situation: the major luxury brands tend to buy up all the production from top mills, even paying above asking price to meet their needs. There are too many big luxury brands going after too few suppliers, causing shortages and delays for the rest of us. We must think ahead in order to guarantee delivery and meet our sales projections. What’s the point of opening retail shops across the globe if we’re not able to offer the right quality at the right time?
For this reason, we recently started looking for potential strategic partners, companies known for creating exceptional luxury fabrics. We’re close to finalizing a partnership with a wonderful family business near Sicily. They know and love our brand; they’re glad and proud to work with us, and we feel grateful for this. By verticalizing our business with a strategic partner, we’ll have more control of getting the goods we want when we want them. To support our planned growth, it’s necessary to have a tighter grip on our production.
How problematic are recent price increases?
Price increases are industry-wide but less problematic in the luxury sector. If you’re a moderately-priced maker, it’s about haggling for every dollar. So for us, it’s paramount that we continue to elevate all aspects of our business to ensure we maintain our value-priced luxury position. This involves not just exceptional product, but also the special service, hospitality, and experience we offer our clients.
What’s so special about the experience you offer? (Editor’s note: I ask, while sitting comfortably in their tranquil Madison Ave boutique, sipping a perfect cappuccino, munching exquisite Italian pastries.)
We try to inject a signature look to each location, but always with our Eleventy DNA. So the Palm Beach store has a more resort feel, the NY store more citified; all our stores are welcoming with a pervasive sense of calm. I’ve been in so many luxury shops where the sales associates have an attitude and barely look at you. Our salespeople are innately friendly and warm. We also differentiate the buying for each store so that assortments are somewhat unique. Our customers travel: we need to give them a reason to visit different stores.
You haven’t mentioned online: is that not a key component of your strategy?
For us, online is the window to increase brand awareness. Yes, we do some online selling but it’s not how I like to sell. Did you know that Chanel does no selling online? They want their customers to come into the stores. I realize we’re not Chanel, but I too prefer to connect personally with the clients. Of course, I realize online is the future so we’re working on expanding content to somehow personalize this portion of the business.
But don’t people shop online for speed and convenience, not conversation…
Of course. But our business moves so incredibly fast as it is. It is so intense, so busy, with so many factors to consider: environmental impact, new markets, advertising decisions; we’re starting from scratch every season. So I like to think that the experience of shopping for clothes should be slower, more deliberate, more enjoyable. I buy vitamins online because I choose the same ones each time: I don’t need to have an “experience” shopping for vitamins. But shopping for clothes, I want to relax, be pampered, take my time…
How much of your business is men’s vs. women’s?
It’s 75 percent men’s but women’s is a huge area of opportunity. In many of our store locations, female shoppers outnumber males. And we’ve recently introduced a Bambino collection, to widespread acclaim. (Editor’s note: Who can resist these cool layered looks in kids’ sizes?)
In terms of department store accounts in the U.S., you seem limited…
We believe that to be a luxury brand, the product cannot be distributed everywhere. For this reason, Eleventy has a very controlled distribution strategy, both wholesale and retail, in all our global markets. Nordstrom perfectly reflects our Smart Luxury DNA in the States.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made since launching the business in 2007?
Early on, we opened stores because a location became available or because of advantageous economic conditions. This was a mistake: not all locations have a customer base that understands and appreciates our vision. We’ve since learned to wait for the ideal positioning of the brand and when we do, strong sales are immediately apparent.
That said, I believe mistakes are okay if you learn from them. If we didn’t make mistakes, we’d be machines, not humans. Much better to be humans.