When you think of an investor, what picture comes to mind? It’s probably not Carmen Busquets; but as one of the fashion industry’s most prolific business backers, that’s something she’s hoping to change.
A maximalist Venezuelan who loves loud printed kimonos, vintage Chanel jackets and wafting Alaïa dresses, Busquets understands that hers is not a typical boardroom look. “I do believe that power comes from within, but a good outfit always helps,” she says of the balance she tries to strike between showing her eclectic taste and presenting the poker-faced, professional “Carmen that is tough”. “I don’t dress like a financier or investor normally does,” she adds, “I am my own self.”
Busquets, who turned 52 last week, is the venture capitalist who had the foresight to support a kitchen-based, e-tail start-up called Net-a-Porter back in 2000 - a time when most couldn’t comprehend buying designer clothes over the internet. After a founding investment of £250,000, Busquets continued to back Natalie Massenet’s pioneering vision, ultimately inputting £5.9 million for a 30% stake in the company. When Net-a-Porter sold to Richemont for £350 million in 2010, Busquets made more than 16 times her investment. Today, her portfolio includes some of the most progressive businesses in the industry; Farfetch, Moda Operandi, Lyst, Tagwalk and 24 other brands.
“I am big on gut feelings and intuition,” she says, though that’s not to see that she gambles with her money. “I know something is a good investment if I would use it myself, if it really serves a customer, if the founder has their heart in the right place and if it is a logical, sustainable business plan. It also needs to be the right timing and team for the particular idea.”
Her first instinct of ‘right timing’ came back in 1990 with her own business, a boutique in Caracas called Cabus. As a decade-long ban on foreign imports was removed, and in the midst of a rocky political situation, 25 year-old Busquets understood that there could be a new market of women who wanted to experience European designers for the first time. She began flying to the catwalk shows in Paris and sending images of next season’s styles back to customers in the post. That’s when she realised that people were willing to shop from pictures.
“I saw Natalie’s business plan, and knew immediately that her idea would work, because I had already been selling clothes through drawings and polaroid photos that I was mailing to Venezuela before the internet,” she remembers. “Natalie was the person I was looking for as a partner, as she understood and saw the same things I did. I admired her immediately. Investors had stopped believing in e-commerce because so many bigger and more important companies had failed.”
Start-ups, she says, are still the most attractive investments to her, despite the associated risk. The prospect of nurturing another Net-a-Porter-sized phenomenon is of course enticing, but Busquets realistically acknowledges that replicating that success is difficult. Knowing that her investments have contributed to the creation of more than 10,000 jobs in the UK and US is a ripple effect that she’s more proud of.
“I like start-up culture; it always attracts smart, ambitious, creative individuals, and the teams they put together are highly motivated as they often work mainly for shares,” she says. “The risk-reward dynamic is so heightened. Even if I lose money, I know I’ll gain invaluable lessons.”
By being an active, vocal stakeholder, Busquets has become a mentor-like figure to the entrepreneurs she backs, earning the nickname ‘fashion’s fairy godmother’. “It’s important to be there to be able to ask the right questions,” she says. “I have seen everything – from complacent, to neglectful, to downright deceitful senior management. You can’t see the whole story just by looking at a report that’s in your inbox.”
Contrary to the perception that fashion is a woman’s world, it is still mostly men that Busquets has had to challenge throughout her career. She describes “incessantly being asked about children and motherhood, and not being taken seriously despite my capital and track record,” as two recurring issues: issues she’s sure she wouldn’t have had to deal with if she was wearing a navy tie rather than a kaleidoscopic Balenciaga blouse. Along the way, she says, “I feel that I have freed myself from traditional gender roles, and contributed to changing the perception of an investor.”
“The hardest obstacles I’ve had to overcome aren’t really related to my career,” Busquets considers. She is both deaf and dyslexic; “hearing and communicating to others tires me enormously. It is a challenge that I need to overcome every day.”
There is one other big question that Busquets can’t avoid being asked: what is the future of fashion? When you’re renowned for spotting big things before they happen, it’s only natural that everyone wants to know where your next bet is placed.
“Renting is the way of the future,” she says confidently. “The new sharing economy will be one of the fastest growing trends for at least the next decade.” Earlier this year, Busquets invested in Flont, a fine jewellery rental service that allows you to borrow from Cartier, Chopard et al, for a twentieth of the retail price.
“How wonderful to be able to rent pieces for a special evening, but then let someone else enjoy it” Busquets enthuses - to her mind, the rental business model could eliminate our fast fashion appetites for good. “I have also invested in Armarium, which allows you to rent high fashion [clothing by Christopher Kane, Carolina Herrera and more] for various occasions, as well as VillageLuxe, which will let you rent out your closet and rent from other people’s.”
Busquets is keen to ensure that fashion’s future is a sustainable one, actively encouraging all of the brands that she works with to consider their footprint, and working working on a zero waste programme which she will collaborate on with WWF to raise industry and consumer awareness “to address the issues that make fashion the second-biggest polluting industry.”
“It’s a move towards mindful consumption,” Busquets reflects. “I believe you simply can’t buy every piece that catches your eye anymore – whether you have the means or don’t.”