The View magazine had a chat with Aslaug Magnusdottir, the co-founder of Tinker Tailor and Moda Operandi, the leading online fashion luxury retailer. We talk about her career, first endeavors into fashion, and what made her start Moda Operandi.
TV: Hi Aslaug, how are you? Tell us a bit about you.
AM: I was born in Reykjavik, Iceland and lived there for the first 5 years of my life. When I was 5 my parents moved to Los Angeles for 6 years so most of my elementary school years were spent there.
The two cities – Reykjavik and Los Angeles – could hardly have been more different at the time. Beyond the obvious differences in climate, Reykjavik at the time was home to only around 100,000 people. Iceland has one of the most homogenous gene pools in the world and back when I was growing up there were hardly any tourists visiting the country. So everyone pretty much looked the same, dressed the same (in grey or black!) and had the same culture and religion. In Los Angeles I was all of a sudden exposed to a world of multi-culturalism, multi-ethnicity, and, of course, a variety of bright colored clothes! Having these two experiences at an early age was very important to me and made me excited to explore the world.
From an early age I had a fascination with fashion. When I was 4 and 5 I made my mother read the same book to me every night – “Princess Penelope’s 365 Dresses”. I knew the book by heart. I dreamt of having closets full of beautiful dresses. Back then it was impossible to buy high fashion in Iceland but my mother and her seven sisters would make clothes for me on a regular basis.
When I moved back to Reykjavik at age 11 after living in Los Angeles, I started training as a ballerina at the ballet school of the National Theater. For several years I was focused on becoming a ballerina. Eventually I chose a more practical academic route and studied law in college. When I graduated I worked as a lawyer for 3 years in Iceland and then decided it was time to go back to the US for my graduate studies. I planned to spend one year at Duke pursuing my LLM (Master in Law) and then to return to Iceland. However, once I got back to the US I decided I wanted to have a more international career and stayed on, going to Harvard to get an MBA. Then I moved to London for 6 years where I worked at McKinsey before finding my way into the investment world of fashion. I joined a family office that specialized in investments in retail and fashion.
In 2006 I moved to New York and joined Bloomingdales legend, Marvin Traub as a partner in his consulting firm. In 2009 I started working at Gilt Groupe and it was during that time that I came up with the concept for Moda Operandi. I founded Moda in 2010 and it went live during New York Fashion Week in February 2011. The concept immediately took off and during my 3 years as CEO we signed up approximately 300 brand partners, sold to customers in over 150 countries and raised over $50 million in capital from LVMH, Conde Nast and leading VCs. In 2013 I started working on the concept for Tinker Tailor and the business went live in May of 2014. We are the first site for customization and creation of luxury women’s fashion across multiple brands.
TV: When did you get in touch with creativity and entrepreneurship for the first times? Looking back, would you say that was a defining moment?
AM: When I was 27, the Icelandic Minister of Education and Culture asked me to take on the role of Chairwoman of the national ballet company of Iceland. My role was to restructure the ballet company. It was my first time working at the intersection of business and creativity. The experience was a defining experience and made me realize that I was very passionate about working with creative talent, whether it be dancers, designers or other artists.
TV: What attracted you to study law? Did you have being a lawyer in mind when you started?
AM: Living in Iceland, I felt like I needed to be practical in my choices. Law seemed like a good foundation for a successful career in business. I worked as a lawyer for about 3 years after finishing my studies and then headed to North Carolina to do my LLM at Duke.
TV: And then a MBA?
AM: While I was working on my LLM, I came to the conclusion that I wanted a more international career and I felt that a business degree would give me more flexibility to live and work in different places around the world. So I applied for business school and went straight to do my MBA after I finished my LLM. I never ended up going back to law and I still have not returned to live in Iceland.
TV: Take us through your career before becoming active in fashion.
AM: Some of my fellow classmates at HBS had worked at big fashion houses such as Gucci and Prada. After speaking with them about their experiences, I realized that a career in fashion was a real possibility. However, I didn’t immediately find my way into fashion. I first worked as a consultant at McKinsey, where I worked across multiple industries and traveled the world on assignments. The McKinsey experience was an extraordinary learning experience – it was basically a second business school degree. But even then I felt I was missing something – I was dying to work in a creative industry with creative people. When I finally had the opportunity to join a family office in London that made investments in British and Scandinavian retail and fashion companies, I knew I had found my passion: fashion was the career for me.
TV: At some point you thought, I love fashion, I want more of that in my life?
AM: Growing up in Iceland it never even occurred to me that I could have a career in fashion. But once I was exposed to the industry in London and New York I quickly realized that this was something I wanted to pursue.
TV: You co-founded Moda Operandi, what were the trends and insights that triggered you to start this? Have you always wanted to have your own company?
AM: I always wanted my own company but I must say that at the time I decided to start Moda Operandi, I really wasn’t looking to do a startup. It was more about me being so compelled by the idea of Moda that I realized I had to build this business. In 2009, when I started thinking about the concept for Moda Operandi, online fashion was focused on the discount flash sale model. I believed there was a different luxury customer online being neglected who really wanted access to new and special pieces and would pay full price for them. The luxury sector had been going through a difficult transitional time. Designers were frustrated that some of their favorite pieces designed for the runway were never bought by stores and therefore never making it to the end customer. At the same time, I was frustrated by seeing a dress I loved on a site like Vogue.com or Style.com – and wanting to buy that piece – only to find out that it wasn’t being produced, since no store had ordered it. There seemed to be a real disconnect here between designers who wanted to sell special pieces and customers who wanted to buy them. Moda Operandi provided that bridge.
TV: How did the fashion world responded to your pitches? Instantly excited, did they get it?
AM: I was really glad that the fashion world immediately understood and applauded the concept. Designers’ reactions were typically something like, “Why didn’t someone come up with this earlier?” or “This is a designer’s dream!”. VCs weren’t necessarily as quick to understand it. But as designers and customers got on board and proved demand for the concept, they got on board as well.
TV: Followed by founding Tinker Tailor, tell us about that.
AM: Tinker Tailor represents the future of online fashion. Luxury customers are now shopping online to get access to very special items. We all have different tastes, lifestyles and needs and we want fashion to work for us. Tinker Tailor allows women to take luxury pieces and customize them for them – including adding sleeves to a dress, lengthening a hem line, adding embellishments, and more. Tinker Tailor provides a couture-like experience but one that is offered at a ready to wear price.
TV: How do you see the near future of fashion? What will we see more, or less? What will be the biggest change, specifically in terms of connection with the consumer?
AM: Tinker Tailor is at the forefront of something revolutionary. In the near future, I believe we will see a big movement towards customization and personalization. We are already seeing evidence of this sea change among some of the most successful fashion brands in the world. And the biggest part of this revolution is the empowerment of the consumer to interact with the design process. Designs will no longer be simply fabricated in a one way downstream direction from designer to consumer. Rather, fashion will become a two way street, where a designer sets the foundation but the customer’s feedback is integrated into the end product.
TV: Do you see yourself as a business woman in fashion, or a fashion woman in business?
AM: I would like to think of myself as both. I studied business but I have a strong passion for fashion. I believe this might be my biggest strength in my role as a fashion tech entrepreneur: the ability to understand both the fashion side and the business side; to successfully communicate and collaborate with designers and business people alike.
TV: What advice would you give to people who admire a career in fashion?
AM: It is always good to learn as much as you can about an industry you want to be involved with – both on the business and creative side. To get started in the industry you need to find your “in”. Analyze yourself: what are your biggest strengths? How can you immediately add value to a fashion company? Start there and once you have assessed your best area of contribution, learn as much as you can about everything in the space as quickly as you can. Whether you approach fashion as a designer or business person, you are much more likely to be successful in your career if you try to understand all aspects of the business.
TV: How do you relax after a full week of hard work?
AM: I do a 90 minute session of Ballet Beautiful every Saturday and Sunday. Even though this program is a tough workout, it really helps me relax and unwind. Beyond that I like to spend as much time as I can with close friends and family – enjoying nice dinners out on the town or at home on our terrace.
TV: Thank you Aslaug!
Minimally edited to keep authenticity.
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Check out more on the Tinker Tailor and Moda Operandi websites.