By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Tara West
Whenever I’m in New York, or at any major fashion-related digital event in North America, I always either see Alexandra Wilkis Wilson on a speaker panel or hear people mention her name.
She has a warm smile and happens to be the founder of one of the leading online retailers – Gilt. This brand has become a guilty pleasure of many women and men around the world. After all, who doesn’t love high-end clothing by major designers at affordable pricing?
Wilson has over 15 years of international experience in luxury goods, retail and finance. She has assumed multiple roles at Gilt, and is currently the company’s Head of Strategic Alliances.
We caught up with her during a recent summer trip to Toronto, to launch her new book: By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop.
HANNAH YAKOBI: How does it feel to be back in Toronto?
ALEXANDRA WILKIS WILSON: It’s so beautiful. I landed, jumped on the ferry – excited to be in the centre of town in a matter of minutes. I like seeing the street style whenever I travel, love seeing the local fashion. It’s a very welcoming city, people are very friendly.
What did you think were some of the big trends this spring/summer?
I loved seeing a lot of the graphic prints. Black-and-white has been a fun trend too. At the end of the day, I think you have to dress for yourself, your lifestyle and your body type. If you can incorporate some of the trends into your wardrobe that’s great, but sometimes it’s dangerous for people to be a slave to all trends because they are never going to work for everyone.
So what are you wearing today?
This is an Alessandro Dell’Acqua dress, which I bought on Gilt. This little [throw] is by a Dallas-based designer, I love her stuff because she has a lot of jersey which is good when you travel because it doesn’t wrinkle. Her name is Abi Ferin. And then I have [Christian] Louboutin shoes.
You had a fashion-related background before you joined Gilt. How was that transition for you?
I think it was very, very helpful that I had worked for Louis Vuitton and Bulgari before co-founding Gilt, because I could understand the mindset and the perspective of global luxury brands.
In our early days, I spent all of my time trying to convince brands from around the world to sell their most prized possessions and merchandise to us. For many brands, it was pretty radical at the time to sell online at a discounted price. Back in 2007, when we launched, it was somewhat unheard of. It was exciting to really feel like we, as a company, were being pioneers in a new way of shopping for customers and a new way of selling for our brand partners.
What about your own personal Gilt favourites?
(laughs) I shop a lot on Gilt.com. I use our apps all the time – it’s frighteningly easy to shop through mobile. I have two little kids and shop a lot for them on the site too.
How old are they?
I have a five-month-old little girl and a three-year-old little boy, so they are pretty young. We have great kid stuff on the site. I shop for myself too, it wasn’t that fun shopping while being pregnant so I spent more time shopping for them.
I love Gilt City too: we are not in Toronto yet, but maybe one day we will be. It’s local experiences, so it could be restaurants, spas, entertainment, different kinds of events.
What does your husband do? Is he in a related field of work?
No, he works in finance. We’re lucky because he has a pretty consistent schedule, so he is in the office early but he is also home early. He doesn’t usually work weekends, so it’s nice that it’s a consistent schedule.
How do you juggle work and family? Do you ever work from home?
I’m more productive if I’m not working from home, but you know it is a juggle and I think I feel very fortunate that I love what I do professionally. For people who don’t love what they do, the juggle is probably a lot harder.
When I’m home and when I’m with the children and the family, I’m really with them. When I’m in the office, I’m focused on my job. So I really try to live in the present and in the moment.
And yet you found time to write a book in the midst of it all.
(laughs) It took a while. It took us two years actually for the proposal, the time frame, the setting – we had to put our stories and experiences on paper.
For us, two years is really slow because we’re used to launching businesses much faster, but we’re happy that we wrote the book. The idea was to promote entrepreneurship and to hopefully inspire more women to think about starting companies. And to really just be honest about how we co-founded Gilt, how we launched the business: sharing our stories of success but also sharing the many challenges we faced in the long run.
What do you think will be the next step for Gilt?
You know, we’re at the point in the business where we’re trying to make everything we do better. We’re constantly improving what we have, so we’re not focused right now on launching new businesses or new categories. It’s really about how do we make the customer experience even more exciting for our members, even more relevant.
Mobile is really important to our business, but so is thinking about how can we be the best partner possible to the brands that we partner with. How can we be as strategic as possible in supporting these brands in their growth.
Do you think that the mobile apps are really aiding the business side of fashion? I personally think they are the future.
I totally agree with you. I think it’s really important to be mobile for us; it already represents 40 per cent of our business, which is really high. I think that number is only going to grow.
We are creating the internal culture of mobile-first. So whenever we think about changing any kind of experience on the site, we’re first thinking about how this will affect the mobile site, and only then thinking about the desktop experience.
Photographed at Miracle10 location in Yorkville, Toronto.