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How Ssense Became a Quiet Contender in Fashion’s E-Commerce Race

This week, the Canadian e-tailer announced investment from Sequoia Capital China at a valuation of more than $4 billion, signalling big ambitions to build on its success.
Ssense has built a valuable young consumer base thanks to its curated offering and strong editorial point of view. Ssense.
Ssense has built a valuable young consumer base thanks to its curated offering and strong editorial point of view. Ssense.

In the battle to build a dominant position in fashion’s booming online luxury market, Ssense has flown somewhat under the radar. That changed this week, when the Montreal-based multi-brand e-tailer that pioneered the sale of luxury streetwear to millennials announced Sequoia Capital China had taken a minority stake in the company. The deal valued Ssense at more than $4 billion.

That’s a bigger valuation than MyTheresa, the Munich-based luxury e-commerce site that went public earlier this year. And though Ssense is still small compared to multi-brand e-tail leaders like Yoox Net-a-Porter and Farfetch, the company’s move to take on outside investment for the first time in the 18 years since it was founded signals big ambitions.

Ssense declined to disclose revenue (chief executive officer Rami Atallah told BoF in 2018 it was on track to hit 1 billion Canadian dollars or about $823 million in sales by 2020). Still, simply reaching the scale implied by such a sizeable valuation in e-commerce’s hotly competitive and crowded space is an achievement.

Fashion e-commerce comes with several inherent challenges. First, there’s the cost of shipping and returns. On top of that, it’s harder to differentiate shopping experiences when you don’t have a physical store and competitors with the same products at the same price points are just a click away. Then, there’s the relatively poor return on high customer acquisition costs.


As a result, most players have struggled to turn a profit. And yet Ssense says it has enjoyed profitable high double-digit growth since it was founded in 2003. How did the company do it?

One key is focus. While rivals like Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion diluted their point of view as they sought aggressive growth with the help of outside funding and big spending on customer acquisition, Ssense has stayed true to its target niche while nonetheless managing to grow sales.

“Ssense has operated as a kind of secret weapon in the fashion world,” said retail consultant Robert Burke. “The real secret is that they have been laser focused on their customer and they’ve not tried to be everything to everyone.”

It’s certainly helped that the streetwear segment that Ssense grew up with has exploded to become one of the biggest driving forces in fashion of the last decade. The space has become an increasingly mainstream investment play: in the last year alone, Supreme, Stone Island and End. have all changed hands at billion-dollar-plus valuations.

This means that, rather than having to broaden its offer in search of growth, Ssense has been able to maintain the focus of its curated edit as its customer base grew. It’s also given the company a powerful following among fashion-savvy Generation-Z and Millennials that account for a greater and greater portion of luxury sales.

The company has invested in an ambitious editorial approach spearheaded by 032c’s Joerg Koch that has deepened its credibility in the youth culture space. It places emerging designers on an equal footing with established luxury players and, in a bold bet on the power of this strategy, the entire home page is dedicated to content.

Ssense’s success is a “sign of a larger sea change towards a new generation of shoppers,” said Highsnobiety editor-in-chief Thom Bettridge, who was previously part of the team at 032c consulting on Ssense’s content strategy. “A lot of other retailers in the category try to split the difference … but Ssense from day one was very focused on that new generation.”

Ssense’s focus and cultural cachet is underpinned by its savvy in tech and data. The company originated as part of Atallah’s graduate thesis for his degree in computer engineering, and still describes itself as primarily a tech platform.


But until now, it has focused on quietly growing without taking on outside funds in contrast to peers who have raised eye-popping sums to fuel expansion. Now, Ssense’s tie-up with Sequoia suggests it is looking to take things to the next level. It has already moved into home goods, childrenswear and beauty, opening up new growth avenues, and it has opened an office and distribution centre in Brussels to better serve the European market.

But the new investment is largely geared towards accelerating growth in China, the world’s largest luxury market, where the affluent consumers skew much younger than their western counterparts and with whom Ssense may have an edge. Former Vogue China editor Angelica Cheung, who became a venture partner at Sequoia in February, will join the company’s board.

And yet, Chinese e-commerce is dominated by tech giants Tencent and Alibaba. Will Ssense be able to carve out a meaningful position in China without a tie-up with one of the major tech platforms and maintain its focus along the way? Stay tuned.



Yellow Selfridges flags hanging outside the department store.
Selfridges | Source: Shutterstock Selfridges. Shutterstock. (Shutterstock)

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Zara Owner Inditex posts better-than-expected Q1 earnings. Sales during both the first quarter and the first half of the second quarter were up, the Arteixo, Spain-based company said in a statement. Sales in the first part of the second quarter were also up 5 percent compared to 2019, before the pandemic started.


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Fosun Fashion Group acquires Sergio Rossi. The deal, worth an undisclosed sum, is the latest signal of Fosun’s international fashion ambitions. The company’s portfolio already includes Lanvin, St Johns, Tom Tailor and Wolford.

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Mytheresa partners with Vestiaire Collective. The Munich-based e-tailer is the latest luxury player to tap into the fast-growing resale market, with a new service to help its top clients sell pre-loved items on Vestiaire in exchange for store credit launching Wednesday.

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German e-commerce retailer About You, holders seek $1.1 billion in IPO. Shares are being marketed at between €21 and €26 ($25 and $31) each. The stock is due to begin trading June 16.

China’s streetwear brands continue to attract investors. SoulSense secured more than $10 million in Series A Plus funding from Skywalker Capital, while retailer, 919 Simple Life, raised ten million yuan ($1.56 million) from individual investors and Qingsong Fund, according to tech and investment media platform, 36Kr.


Estée Lauder storefront.
Estée Lauder storefront. Shutterstock. An Estée Lauder storefront. Shutterstock. (Shutterstock)

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Designer Matty Bovan winner of the International Woolmark Prize and Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation 2021. Courtesy.
Designer Matty Bovan winner of the International Woolmark Prize and Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation 2021. Courtesy. Designer Matty Bovan. Matty Bovan.

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Stella Bugbee. New York Times
Stella Bugbee. New York Times Stella Bugbee. The New York Times.

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Netflix launches online store to offer limited-edition merchandise. will be available in the United States starting on Thursday and expand to other countries in the coming months, Netflix said in a blog post. The video streaming pioneer is facing a growing list of competitors offering their own streaming services with new movies and TV shows.

Compiled by Darcey Sergison.

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 14 June 2021. An earlier version of this article stated Thom Bettridge previously consulted for Ssense. The story has been updated to clarify that Bettridge was previously part of the team at 032c consulting on Ssense’s content strategy.

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