I’ve always been frustrated with our industry’s lack of accountability and sterile group-think when it comes to actionable steps that will progress fashion as a whole – especially when it comes to environmental responsibility and how it relates to the workers behind the brands. I’m part of that problem for frequently promoting brands and products that you, the reader, might not need. But this doesn’t mean we at Highsnobiety can’t spend a part of our time and digital real estate on educating those whose attention we already have.
Now, being a publisher I believe there is an obligation to transparently, within reason, pass on the learnings we obtain behind the scenes from our conversations with brands, designers, and each other. But what if you’re a fashion house? Or a multi-brand retailer? How transparent does the dialogue with the end consumer need to be? Especially when it comes to how responsible your company is?
Over the past few years, I’ve seen how scared brands are in speaking out about this topic. There’s a reasonable fear of being called out, of being stamped as performative for not doing enough. So to what extent should brands and retailers do the right thing, now that consumers no longer expect, but demand, companies stand for more than mere sellers of goods?
Last month, influential Italian fashion retailer Luisa Via Roma invited me to Capri, Italy, for their fourth annual summer charity auction for UNICEF. John Legend and Katy Perry performed. Orlando Bloom sat in a Steve McQueen race car which was auctioned off for $1 million by a celebrated Sotheby’s auctioneer. There were celebrities, there was sun, champagne and models in couture, and I had to remind myself that this was all for charity.
And there’s that question again. Can doing good and using your marketing budget and access to the one percent to raise awareness coexist with leveraging the same event for company growth? At last, a perfect opportunity to hear the answer directly from the horse's mouth and straight up ask Luisa Via Roma CEO Andrea Panconesi (along with writer and curator Raffaele Panizza) how he balances both at his company, as it doubles down on turning ‘changemaking’ into a key differentiator that will set it apart from other retailers.
Christopher Morency: What I always find contrasting to hear is when brands, and now retailers, go into the sustainability and charity spaces. They often produce clothing, they sell clothing, but then they speak out for sustainability. I wonder why, and how, you cover both growth and giving back.
Andrea Panconesi: It’s very simple. Both in the store, but even more on the web, which has become 95 percent of our businesses, we have the same as everybody else. We sell the same products, we sell Gucci, Prada, Saint Laurent etc, and also young designers which we put a lot of effort into to promote. So we’re no different than anyone else who sells the same things online. What I strongly believe is that clients want to buy something from a company that is clean, and that sensibly [tackles] problems in the world. If you have the same price, the same product, and you have a choice, you’d rather buy from somebody who does good. It’s as simple as that. By doing good, we’ve experienced that we get good back.
Morency: In what way?
Panconesi: We started this experience [of raising money for Unicef through a gala] four years ago, which was the idea of my daughter. She’s a mother of two children. I’m their grandfather. And so, of course, she’s very sensible about the children. One day she told me, "I want to do something for the children. Let’s create a foundation for them." I didn’t know what to answer. I never want to say no to my children, whatever they ask. I spoil them as much as I can. But in this case, I couldn’t afford to create a foundation. So I told her, "Please, let's make a deal and try to find somebody who knows how to do this better than us, and who does it well." So we started this partnership with UNICEF.
In short, by doing good by giving UNICEF in Italy over eight million euros for the children, we’ve doubled our market in Italy in just two years. Of course we’re advantaged because we’re an Italian company, but this [single] even gave us that boost.
Morency: So you’re saying that by hosting a charity gala, you’ve directly seen your business grow by doing good?
Panconesi: Yes. I just looked at the numbers and we increased 66 percent [in revenue] in Italy in one year. And of course that makes sense as our store has been in Florence since 1930 in the same location (and we’ve had e-commerce there since 1999). Florence is the center of the whole Western civilization. It’s not Paris, it’s not Berlin, it’s not Amsterdam, it’s not Milan. It’s Florence. Why? Because of the Renaissance. Rome was an ancient civilization, Greece was even before, and Egypt before that. Florence in the 1300s. Michelangelo, Alfredo, Leonardo. They all lived in Florence and the result of that was that most of the American prestigious universities have their headquarters in Florence. Why? Because the parents want to send their children here to be educated. They come and visit them in Florence, they get married in Florence. And then they come to Luisa Via Roma to visit the store and they might buy something. So our biggest clients were even before e-commerce. The web then gave us the possibility to keep in touch with them, all year round, so the US was our biggest market for 18 years.
Morency: How will you revert this “doing good” as a retailer when capitalizing on this big market?
Panconesi: As I mentioned, by doing good, you get back. The US is now our second biggest market. The market grows 35 percent year-on-year, along with our global yearly growth of 35 percent. In Italy, we’re growing nearly twice as much. So we decided to repeat the same experience with UNICEF Italy in America. I can exclusively say we’re going to do a big event in America in Saint Barths on the 29th of December. So it will be the Luisa Via Roma for UNICEF Winter Gala at Eden Rock where Dua Lipa will perform. We’re going to do the same thing that we do in Italy in the summer and raise even more money for UNICEF in the US.
Morency: Outside of these blockbuster events, you’re now branching out in what is this new pillar of “doing good” I heard, tell me how.
Panconesi: The young generation isn’t going to buy with their eyes closed. They want to put their money in for a good cause and a good purpose. So one thing is the future of humanity and our children. The other half is the environment because we have to ensure that you want to leave a nice place for your children and your grandchildren to live.
Morency: What does that involvement as a retailer look like?
Raffaele Panizza: So Luisa Via Roma is partnering with Extreme E, which is the first off-road electric race. They travel all the cars and all the boxes and the mechanics by boats, all over the world. Now, they're traveling from Senegal to Greenland, for example. They calculated that they’re saving 17 percent of carbon emissions by doing that, instead of taking planes. And in every place they race, they try to sensibilize the world about environmental linked issues. We’re the fashion partner but how can we actually make a difference? That’s how we came up with "MY EARTH IS BEATING." So I built up a team including the most important environmental photographer in the world Luca Locatelli, and Gabriele Galimberti, who is one of the most important portrait photographers in the world. Every trip we try to find a solution and how we can solve the problems there. And Luisa Via Roma doesn’t tell us what to document, they don’t say ‘you can’t be too strong in [showing the local problems] because we sell clothes.’.
Panconesi: This is the reason why the [fashion] press has gone down, because they weren’t serving the final reader, they were serving the brands. I don’t know what they’re doing but they’re not serving us. And for our brand, I’m proud of [doing things this way]. It makes a difference.
Morency: I like to use the word facilitator, which I think is applicable here. As a fashion retailer, you’re facilitating these conversations to be had on your platform and through your involvement.
Panconesi: I don’t need more money, I have enough money. But we want to add something extra and we want to work as much as we can for a better future. When I was young, I couldn’t care less honestly. You’re not aware. You’re ignorant. But it’s something that once you become a father and a grandfather, you’re aware of. Nowadays, the young generation is much more aware. They want to put their money where they think they can take action which is remarkable. That’s what gives me a good feeling about the future.
Morency: I’ve always found that retailers never really cracked the code to meaningful content. How do you feel that your approach fits into this landscape of content and commerce?
Panconesi: We don't even have time to appropriately do what we [want to]. So we don't have time to see what others do. Honestly, I don't know what the other people do. I'm not very interested. I want to do what I feel is good for us. Also, honestly, we can't compete with the others because they have 10 times more money to invest on Google, on Facebook, and on [other] social media. I realized a few years ago that I don't want to invest my money in that direction. I understood that I had to find a different way. And this is a result after five years of investing in a partnership with UNICEF. And now, with Extreme E, I am even more sure that it was the right decision.