Holly Sage, Head of Legal (Corporate/Commercial) discusses the strong company culture at Farfetch, the recent IPO and the company’s initiatives that keep Farfetch ahead of its game.
Farfetch - a disruptive luxury retail leader
Farfetch, the global fashion behemoth founded by Jose Neves in 2007, was launched by way of an unassuming curated collection of 25 boutiques selling into five countries. Over the following decade, the company emerged as a disruptive luxury retail leader, staking a claim through strategic acquisition, fearless tech adoption and audacious collaborations. From sneakers to Chanel, start-up incubation initiatives and careful expansion into China and the Middle East, the luxury label has it nailed.
Luxury Law Alliance: Firstly, a brief bio - what led you to Farfetch?
Holly Sage: My legal career started at Slaughter and May in 2008 where I secured a training contract that included an international secondment to the law firm Uría Mendéndez in Madrid. Two years after qualifying into one of the Corporate teams at Slaughter and May, I opted for a change of scene and moved to Charles Russell Speechlys in 2012 to obtain further M&A and private equity experience. Inspired by the passion of Farfetch’s then-Head of Legal (now General Counsel James Maynard) and the unmissable opportunity to be part of the growth of an exciting tech company, I made the decision to cross over to in-house life in 2015. I have always been drawn to the human element of a company, and I knew immediately that Farfetch was the right fit for me. Having navigated the early days of joining when the learning curve was steep, and the challenges came thick and fast, I now feel comfortable at the helm of my Corporate/Commercial legal team family. In just four short years our global team has grown from two to seventeen lawyers plus two paralegals across five jurisdictions, and I haven’t looked back.
LLA: Farfetch has undergone rapid progression since its inception just over 10 years ago. What is the secret
that has kept the company ahead and in control of managing its innovative and tech-driven evolution?
HS: Without the unique Farfetch culture that has permeated the company over the last 10 years, none of our achievements would be possible. The Farfetch culture is based on six values that are at the heart of everything we do. Incredibly, the original values remain unchanged since their formulation in 2013 with the addition of just one more, ‘Amaze Customers’ which reflects the importance of the Farfetch consumer to our daily working lives. These six values (Be Brilliant; Be Revolutionary; Think Global; Todos Juntos; Be Human; and Amaze Customers) are the cornerstone of what we do, and enable Farfetch to manage a rapidly growing workforce which is constantly innovating and leading the luxury e-commerce market.
LLA: What tips do you have for other legal heads in companies dealing with the uncharted waters of emerging tech?
HS: On an emotional level, not being afraid of the unknown is key, together with the ability to adapt to the unexpected. On a professional level, building a team of like-minded people is obviously very important, and I’m lucky enough to have an exceptional team of corporate/commercial lawyers. Farfetch does things that have never been done before, and as a legal team, responding to that can be a challenge sometimes. For me, the legal team needs to reflect the company that it supports so in the same way that Farfetch does not shy away from innovation, neither do we. Therefore think outside the box, be dynamic, and get involved early!
LLA: Can you talk through some of the most recent and interesting challenges/opportunities for the company?
HS: Farfetch has had an incredibly busy 2018 and start of 2019. Highlights, to name just a few, include kickstarting the “Dream Assembly” programme (our accelerator for start-ups), unveiling multiple new websites for clients through our Black & White Solutions offering, launching Arabic language websites in the Middle East, welcoming Harvey Nichols (our first department store) to the Farfetch Marketplace and creating the fine jewellery hub also on the Marketplace, launching Saint Laurent in China and announcing two exciting acquisitions, Curiosity China and Stadium Goods.
And of course, no summary of recent milestones would be complete without mentioning the IPO. This was a huge group effort with everyone involved in the process having a key part to play. As Jose says, this is just the start of Chapter 2….
LLA: Farfetch has a distinct knack for attracting other luxury brands for collaboration. What sets you apart in appealing to luxury brands who want in?
HS: What sets us apart is that we operate the only truly global luxury digital marketplace at scale. Other marketplaces exist of course, but these have traditionally focused on shifting high volume, mixed value product. Where consistency of imagery, tone of voice, and a luxury experience from start to finish are uppermost in a seller’s mind, Farfetch steps in. We help these luxury sellers grow their businesses with an enhanced online presence, powerful tools and superior economics. All this, whilst allowing brands to retain control, which is critical to them. Our purpose-built platform offers a number of attractive products that a luxury seller can choose from, ranging from selling through our Marketplace, to using our Black & White Solutions offering to build a website, or taking advantage of the Store of the Future technology to supplement in-store applications. This technology, combined with the brand relationships we have nurtured for a decade, help to ensure other luxury sellers want to collaborate with us, reinforcing the message and continuing the journey.
LLA: How is your legal function structured? Who do you use externally and what do you look for in outside counsel?
HS: Our legal team is structured by region and, within the UK only, by two principal specialisms: Corporate/Commercial on the one hand, and IP/Commercial on the other. We also have a company secretariat and equity team function. The regions where we have local in-house teams are (in addition to UK) China, Portugal, Russia and US. All these areas are where Farfetch already has offices housing other functions and we have expanded the legal team thoughtfully over the past 4 years principally in response to: (i) the need to have local lawyers to navigate complex and unfamiliar regulatory backdrops (China and Russia); (ii) specific developments (e.g. the IPO in the US); and (iii) the Farfetch group structure (i.e. we have our largest office in Portugal and therefore it made sense to have legal support on the ground).
We use a range of firms externally who are all chosen for their technical expertise, their ability to fully understand the complex Farfetch business and operating structure (ensuring that they focus on the right points), those who negotiate commercially and pragmatically and, crucially, have a great culture fit with us.
LLA: What are the challenges and opportunities that you see in the luxury fashion sector in general right now?
HS: This industry is still in its digital infancy. As of November 2018, only 10% of luxury sales took place online; this is both a challenge and an opportunity. For brands, the challenge is how they position themselves in this digital evolution. Ideally positioned to be their trusted innovation partner, Farfetch has the opportunity to address this challenge via the Marketplace and Black & White Solutions (through amplifying the brands’ global online audience), but also through our Store of the Future as we believe that even those sales that are still happening in physical retail will be revolutionised by digital technologies. Thus the opportunity exists for the luxury sellers, consumers and digital enablers alike to reap the rewards of a mutually beneficial network effect.
LLA: What are you most proud of regarding your work at Farfetch?
HS: I’m extremely proud of the team we have built at Farfetch and the range of work that we cover, which spans brand partner agreements, concession agreements, regulatory matters, litigation, employment, real estate, IP and brand protection, joint venture agreements and M&A. The saying “there’s never a dull day” was made for Farfetch, and I love that we enable the business to undertake such an exciting and varied mix of projects – without losing our humour in the process.
As professional milestones go, I was hugely privileged to be part of the core team charged with planning and executing the IPO. Standing on the trading floor of the NYSE as Jose ‘rang the bell’ was an unforgettable career high. It will certainly be hard to beat!