Two Friends + Passion for Fashion = One Success Story

By Features FOXBusiness

Started by close friends Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson in 2007, Gilt Groupe is an invitation-based, luxury Web site that offers men’s, women’s and children’s designer clothing for up to 70% off retail prices to members. You receive daily e-mail alerts about a particular sale on big designer names like L.A.M.B., Zac Posen, and Carolina Herrera. Brand-specific sales go on for 36-48 hours, or until all of the items are sold.

The Gilt Groupe purchases all merchandise straight from the designer, with a guarantee to buyers that what you see on the site is what you’ll get shipped to your door. All of the clothes are photographed on models to show how they fit, and the site offers the ability to zoom in on intricate details.

FOXBusiness.com: How did you come up with the idea for your company?

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Maybank: We started building the Web site in June 2007. We drew inspiration for the idea from a long, long personal history of jumping out of work to attend sample sales, which in New York City generate a lot of excitement … just a lot of general excitement around the shopping process. It seemed like a fantastic thing to bring online to a national audience.

We partnered with a guy named Kevin Ryan, who started something called AlleyCorp here in New York. With a small founding team, we set out building out the idea of how we create this experience and what to call it. Alexandra spent time going out to her personal contacts in the industry to generate our partner list, which has grown to almost 700 brands. We spent a lot of time figuring out who the initial customer would be and how we would reach those customers. When we launched Gilt Groupe in November 2007, we initially launched it and offered it first to our friends, colleagues and classmates who we know would be interested in this model. From there it has grown mostly virally to where it is today.

FOXBusiness.com: Do you have any intentions of taking it public in the future?

Maybank: Right now we are so incredibly focused on just building the best possible customer experience -- going into many different categories, expanding from our core of women’s and men’s further into home and children’s offerings as well as Jetsetter, which is our travel offering. Right now we’re pretty focused on just growing to meet our customer demand. I feel we’d be fortunate in the future to have either a public offering or something else happen but for now, we're doing something really right.

FOXBusiness.com: Who is your customer base?

Wilson: They tend to be congregated in cities; they tend to be very urban, very fashion forward, interested in brand discovery. Alexis and I hear over and over -- we meet with a lot of our customers on a regular basis, especially when we travel -- we hear in just about every conversation with our customers comments like, “You introduced me to such and such designer and now I’m such a fan. I buy that designer from your site and also full price because I’m officially hooked.”

FOXBusiness.com: How do you try to set your site apart from competitors such as Rue La La and Hautelook?

Maybank: We’ve branched out into almost every lifestyle category you could imagine. Basically, brands, experiences and services that would cause a member to drop everything in order to get that coveted product. From a lifestyle perspective, we’re featuring so many items that our customers want and beyond that, we invest a lot into how products are displayed -- the site aesthetic, the shopping experience so that you can very quickly come on, the items photographed beautifully -- but in a way so you can have an understanding of how they might fit and how they might move. We offer a shopping experience so that you could come on and buy in under three clicks -- or under three minutes. It is a very fast experience.

FOXBusiness.com: How do your personal strengths and weaknesses play off of each other?

Wilson:
We’re longtime friends. We met in college at Harvard in 1995 and then again were classmates at Harvard Business School. I think it’s great to start a business with someone you really know and trust. I think trust is incredibly important.

Another thing that’s great about us as a team is that we complement one another. Alexis had earned her stripes as one of the early employees at eBay and really has focused exclusively on online consumers and businesses, and really understands the Internet space, whereas I got my training at Louis Vuitton and Bulgari prior to launching Gilt. Having grown up in New York City, I was always interested in the fashion industry and had relevant experience. I think that has served us very well.

Also, our personalities are quite different. I think Alexis always is quite visionary. She can look many steps ahead in to the future. She’s very good at finding opportunities, whereas one of my strengths is that I can execute the tasks at hand and focus on getting the immediate job done.

Maybank: If you look at all the best companies that are out there, if you look at Google and Microsoft, they all started with groups of people who are friends. Also, dating back to lifelong or childhood friends. There’s just something great about starting a business with a friend. What is a must is that you have that underlying trust and respect from the very beginning. … I truly believe that’s the best way to start a business. If you look at past track records, there are a lot of examples out there that have led to the most innovative businesses.

FOXBusiness.com: What is your personal style (or favorite brands), and how do you incorporate this into the site?

Maybank: From a product standpoint, I like a lot of the more structured designers -- Proenza Schouler, some of the brands that for me, personally, fit my body type. I admire how they bring structural design into fashion. I’m also very outdoor-oriented and involved with many things about conservation. I’m always pushing us to get more high-end outer gear and outer-wear brands on the site too.

Wilson: I tend to gravitate to classic looks that can work well from day to evening, that maybe can have a little fun twist. For example, an Alexander McQueen dress that looks more conservative but may have some color, some leather trim or something fun like that. I love accessories—I worked in jewelry prior to founding Gilt. I love handbags, shoes, whether they’d be comfortable flats or high heels, which are always necessary when navigating through the fashion industry. Like Alexis, one of the things we do share in common is a love of travel. The two of us have traveled to many places around the world—I think it’s about five continents and 30 countries together. But I tend to choose more sunny environments as opposed to Alexis, who likes a more adventurous environment.

FOXBusiness.com: Since the site’s launch, the role of the Internet has increased 10-fold. How has that changed the dynamic of the company?

Wilson: It’s really exciting around the start of a sale—you really see the activity and buzz on Twitter and on our Facebook page really start to take off. From our standpoint, it keeps us very close to what the consumer is saying, and it allows us to get a sense of what the consumer likes and does it in an open and direct communication pathway with our members. We reply very quickly to any posts or comments or questions that they put up. It’s a highly beneficial way to maintain that one-to-one contact with members who follow us, who reach out to us. That’s not always easy to do when you’re scaling with over 2 million members. It’s a really instantaneous way for us to stay on top of what’s happening in mainstream and trends in general.

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