Moda Operandi co-founder Lauren Santo Domingo had already successfully transitioned from globe-trotting model to Vogue market editor when she handed in her Condé Nast pass for a far riskier proposition: a start-up driven by one game-changing idea.
Lauren’s idea was as simple as it was smart: an upmarket fashion website that did something quite different to conventional retailers. Her business would allow women to not only see the entire catwalk show, but also let them order whatever they wanted (with a 50 per cent deposit, of course). And since 2011, Moda Operandi (or Moda) has gone from strength to strength, proving Lauren’s instincts were spot on.
She is as passionate about fashion – and helping women enjoy it – as she is about the clever psychographics and data that underpin her work at Moda, allowing her to better understand her client. From where she travels, to the events she attends and the designer pieces she covets, Lauren is passionate about giving the Moda girl what she wants. And it’s clear that this savvy entrepreneur and New York style icon is just getting started. Here, she talks to Wardrobe ICONS about the work/life balance, her ever-expanding wardrobe and the guilty pleasure she just can’t kick.
What ignited your love for fashion when you were younger?
I was never really interested in fashion, but always had an interest in style. I grew up in a very conservative East Coast town in the US, but I travelled frequently in the summer and always brought home the newest things – Vuarnet sunglasses, Fiorucci jackets, fluorescent t-shirts, slip-on Vans; this was the 80s after all. I liked to be ahead of the curve and have things before anyone else. When I went to college in Los Angeles all the girls wore outrageous designer clothes. I was a bit horrified. I thought it was a bit vulgar, but gladly went to Fred Segel on the weekends. I told my father that Ron Herman was my math tutor when charges from the boutique appeared on his credit card statement!
How did your early work as a model and then fashion editor inform your decision to start Moda Operandi?
I loved the idea of being a model – the independence, the pay cheques and the travel. It was an experience I wouldn’t trade, but the reality was not what it seemed. I wanted to be a fashion editor, and it was working with Andrea Linett, the legendary Sassy magazine editor, that sealed my fate. I wanted her job. Then at Vogue, I learned the importance of being excellent. But I always knew I wanted to start my own company, to be my own boss, and I knew that was not going to happen being an assistant for another four years.
With Moda Operandi, you’ve had a chance to set the work culture from the get-go. Tell us about how you approach that aspect of your job.
For me, it’s all about finding the fun. I hire people who I want to hang out with and I focus my job on the work I really enjoy, which is creatively innovating. So, looking at what we know from the data and challenging that or making changes to adapt – that constant change is what keeps me engaged and excited. And then I skip the stuff I’m bad at or don’t enjoy, and find people who are good at it and love it too. And we can laugh about how different we are and learn from each other. I always think back to what Vera Wang said: “If I wanted boring, I would have worked in a bank.” When I moved to New York all I wanted was a job where I got to dress up and go out at night, and now I’ve built this life that I dreamed of having and I’m certainly not going complain.
You have access to so many beautiful clothes, and seem to really have fun with fashion. What are the basics in your wardrobe?
When it comes to outerwear, it’s always Proenza Schouler for me. Whether it’s a bomber or trench or biker jacket, their outerwear is the best made and always has a tough point of view. I always feel cool putting it on – not basic at all. I live in Rochas slides and loafers. And again, that’s because they are a twisted classic. The loafer will have a fun heel or an oversized bow, or there will be a brocade slingback. Again, Rochas shoes are so well made and you don’t see them everywhere. So I can just wear jeans and a t-shirt and a crazy Rochas jewelled slide and I’m good to go. As for something fun, I have an Alaïa leopard fitted dress that I have worn to every art-gallery opening in the past five years.
What about the bag you carry your life around in?
I’m quite all over the place and I’m not a delicate flower, so I need a rubberised or leather bag. I end up mostly with bags from Trademark and Carolina Santo Domingo, which I like because they are structured but not too big. Aside from Hermès, I’m not into carrying the latest ‘It’ bag. To be honest, often I leave my house with just my phone and nothing else. I have to time my arrival at home to make sure someone can let me in, but I like that feeling of not even carrying a bag.
I really believe in the transformative powers of fashion, and find it therapeutic to decide every season, through my wardrobe, who I want to be
Nurturing talent and being a trusted platform for young designers is an important part of the Moda Operandi business model. What drives that for you?
When I moved to New York, I didn’t really know anyone. I didn’t know who I was or how I was supposed to fit into the world. Working in fashion and at Vogue gave me a sense of purpose and a life, and at Moda, this is one of the ways I pay it forward. Whether it’s providing a platform for a new designer to launch, or a young girl in the early stages of her career, who is maybe shy and unsure of herself, who then can blossom and start to become the person she wants to be. For me, that’s fulfilling and gives me the most gratification. Moda Operandi has changed so many lives, and while fashion is a multi-billion-dollar industry and we have serious and important goals, it’s also a fun and creative industry that’s run for women and by women. And I want to be an important voice in the industry for that.
One of the hot topics with our digital lives is how to decide what to share with the world, and what to keep private. How do you navigate that?
Back in the day, I loved to send postcards to my friends from my travels. I would go to the newsstand and find the most picturesque image of wherever I was visiting at the time. Whether in Lugano, Tokyo, Rio or Cape Town, I would write a couple of lines to let you know I was having a great time. I wouldn’t write about the boredom, jet lag, sunburn, food poisoning – just the good stuff. Instagram is the same way.
What’s coming next for Moda Operandi?
Our new CEO, Ganesh Srivats, just joined us from Tesla and I couldn’t be more excited. There is a Tesla car orbiting the Sun right now, so I think it’s safe to say the sky is the limit.
Moda was such a game-changer for the industry. You really put the decision-making in the hands of women, instead of leaving the edit of the collections solely up to professional buyers.
Being an editor, I had a lot of access to fashion, like real fashion. But after the crash, the department stores were playing it so safe. What they had on the rail was so boring. Women were desperate for choice – and something new and exciting. I really believe in the transformative powers of fashion, and find it therapeutic to decide every season, through my wardrobe, who I want to be. I wanted to give that same sense of frivolity and access to women. My approach at Moda has always been: don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s just a dress. So have fun.
You know your audience so well. You really seem to understand what makes the Moda Operandi girl tick. But you’re also helping woman venture away from their comfort zone.
When I was young I would take the train in from Connecticut and I would walk the floors of Barneys or flip through magazines, and that’s how I would learn about new designers. And these days Moda is the place to discover new designers. We’re always trying to surprise and delight, but also educate and inspire our customer too. We do want to give them a lot of information so they can make an informed decision – and we also want discovery. That aspect of Moda Operandi is very important. You know this woman is very familiar with the heritage brands, in the same way that everyone has grown up with Coca Cola or Xerox, she just knows them all. But that’s where we then create a way for her to discover new designers.
What was your steepest learning curve in running a start-up?
I had no idea what a roller coaster it would be. Moda has been much bigger and much faster than I ever imagined. Hearing ‘no’ from designers, from investors; it’s discouraging. And I am only as happy as my most recent fundraise or our most recent revenues. Of course, I have a committee of experts and advisors. I have probably called on everyone I know for a favour, guidance, or advice at some point. But the hardest part about starting a business is making it look really easy.
Have you figured that out? One thing we’re really curious to hear about is how you strike the balance between all the demands on your time. You’ve described a start-up as being like having a newborn… and then on top of that you have family and friends too.
You know, you don’t get any gold stars for missing your child’s birthday party for a business trip or being so busy that you can’t get your highlights done on a regular basis. Being a martyr isn’t going to help anyone. So I go where I’m needed. I consider a parent-teacher meeting or doctors appointment just as important as any work meeting. There should be time in a day for everything.
When I moved to New York, I didn’t really know anyone. I didn’t know who I was or how I was supposed to fit into the world. Working in fashion gave me a sense of purpose and a life, and at Moda Operandi, I’m able to pay it forward
What trend are you drawn to right now?
I am rethinking all my silhouettes. Whereas I’m not ready to embrace streetwear, I am finding myself buying my knits and jackets in a size or two up. Nothing ‘shrunken’ or ‘skinny’ anymore. And I’m really into lots of bold, gold jewellery. You know, big, heavy, chunky pieces. I’ve been raiding my mum’s jewellery, and picking up all those pieces I used to think were so hideous. I’d wonder why she couldn’t wear something else, and now I’m so into them. I’m asking her if I can borrow a chunky chain or a big golf cuff with a dial on it. Now I think it’s so fun.
Are women, in general, having more fun with fashion now? At Moda, you really empower your customer to enjoy herself.
Part of that is we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We don’t think choosing a dress should be as complicated as choosing your child’s name. And we think it should feel good to take risks and to play. When I go to parties in New York now, I notice that half the room are still wearing strapless ballgowns and the other half will be in a slip dress with chunky heels and a bright red lip. Half of them are dancing to YMCA and the other half, well, something more modern. There’s a shift, culturally. The old super-Spanx dress we’re used to seeing on the LA red carpet is going. It started in Paris and then went to London and New York. There is this new cool-girl evening look. And the traditional ball gowns with the tulle and the mermaid cut and nipped-waist is sort of gone, and now it’s sequins and feathers and rhinestone belts. It’s not about the perfect little box clutch and the perfect gown. It’s just about being more wild and fun.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Hardcover books… and Marlboro Reds.
We love learning about new designers on Moda – who are the designers you’re most proud of launching on the platform?
I’m quite lucky that I have such creative friends. For example, I’ve known Laura Vassar of Brock Collection since she was an intern at Vogue and then an assistant in our studio and now she’s one of the most exciting designers coming out of New York. Rebecca de Ravenel, with the bon-bon jewellery, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. And of course Johanna Ortiz, who I’ve known forever. She’d been a designer in Colombia for 20 years before we launched her at Moda and were able to shine the international spotlight on her collection. That’s just off the top of my head. There are just so many designers that we have launched and put on the map. And we use a really nice combination of data and science and also a little magic and fun to help them grow, and understand which silhouettes are going to be most successful. We really try to be an integral part of their business.
Tell us about new designers that you’re excited to share on the platform?
Paco Rabanne is not new, but the brand is having a real moment. I also love Bode for men, which is soon to launch on our women’s site.
We love Moda’s amazing collaborations, such as the homeware collection with Emilia Wickstead, one of our favourite designers. What’s up next?
My birthday is in February and every year my father would give me an amethyst. So now we do birthstones, and I’m really excited about November because one of our big Moda girls, Lauren Levison, has curated a collection of topaz jewellery. It’s really cute. For the home, Alex Papachristidis has done a tabletop collection. It’s very old-world and elegant, but also modern and fun. Also, November sees our most exclusive Hermès launch. We hold onto the most hard-to-find-bags throughout the year and launch them this month. It’s big.
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