Greg Harris for Net-a-Porter

CIO interview: Alex Alexander, Yoox Net-a-Porter Group

It is not always the catwalk where the biggest trends in fashion take place. Tech is driving fashion today, says CIO Alex Alexander

Internet fashion retailers Yoox Group and Net-a-Porter merged in October 2015, creating a €1.3bn business. Previously, Yoox ran an ecommerce site and provided a managed service for several leading fashion houses, while Net-a-Porter operated its own luxury fashion ecommerce stores for high-worth individuals.

CIO Alex Alexander believes the merger has created a great opportunity to use IT both to build a common platform across the Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP) group and also apply digital techniques to the world of fashion retail.

Along with its own sites, namely Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter, The OutNet and Yoox, the combined company manages websites including Jimmy Choo, Emporio Armani, Diesel and Valentino, among others.

Its services include customisation services, e-commerce, web design, user experience, digital production, customer care and web marketing.

Through a joint venture in 2013, Yoox Group also manages the e-commerce sites for Kering luxury brands, which includes fashion houses Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, among others.

The merger has involved combining the teams of Yoox and Net-a-Porter, and developing a common platform for the new business.

“The physical business of fashion with the major retailers is not growing as much as the e-commerce part, and all the fashion and luxury retailers realise the future is there,” says Alexander. “This is a growth business that has a lot of potential.”

Trend-setting cognitive commerce

Through a technology partnership signed in April 2016, YNAP is combining IBM’s commerce technology products with its in-house developed platform.

Artificial intelligence is one of the big trends Alexander believes will define retail in 2017, and it is an area IBM is keen to support. The ways retail could benefit have yet to be explored, but YNAP has just held a global hackathon challenge, supported by IBM, to investigate how the company could benefit from AI, through what is now being called cognitive commerce.

“I am enjoying every minute of it. Luxury and fashion is going through a transformation in how technology is used to reach out to the customer”

Alex Alexander, Yoox Net-a-Porter Group

From his own experience, there appears to be a lot of opportunity for IT people in fashion retail. Alexander claims it is the best job around.

“I am enjoying every minute of it. Luxury and fashion is going through a transformation in how technology is used to reach out to the customer. From my perspective, what’s special is that we are in a unique period in the history of the combined company,” says Alexander.

“Technology is going through a shift in innovation. The convergence of mobile, the emergence of artificial intelligence, the greater use of cloud and in-the-moment processing offers flexibility to get closer to the customer.”

Networking for IT inspiration

Alexander has been at YNAP for 18 months, and previously ran e-commerce for retail giant Walmart in San Francisco, where he connected technology to business priorities for the UK market.

He finds IT inspiration externally and internally to ensure he is up to date with information. “Whether it is the Gartner reports, other industry reports or spending time with industry leaders such as companies that are leading in a particular technology, I make the most of the network of connections I have.”

Over the past 20 years, Alexander has worked in many large organisations. “You make lots of contacts – people you respect and who move on to other industries. I spend a lot of time getting their point of view on where they see the industry going.”

He has also spent a lot of time in the US and in China. “Unlike 10 years ago, when China was copying everything from the US, I see China setting the pace in certain areas, and am fascinated by their use of technology and how they use it differently.”

An open and inclusive environment

Alexander regards YNAP as a very open organisation. “Unlike other organisations I have worked for, Yoox Group is very much an engaging one,” he says. “Part of this is cultural in terms of people wanting to have a discussion about trends. The DNA of the organisation is very inclusive.”

YNAP wants to attract the best technology talent, but it is in a jobs market competing with the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook. Alexander has had some experience of this, having worked at Walmart’s Sunnyvale office in Silicon Valley.

“Our neighbours were exactly those sorts of companies,” he says. “There is always competition for talent, and we must find the right environment to ensure the talent is motivated to stay with the company and push its agenda forward.

“The moment you step in, there is a feeling of a technology company,” says Alexander, recalling his time at Walmart. “It is the open spaces, the way the desks are organised and the placement of agile boards. I want to create an environment where the moment you walk through the door in the morning, it’s shouting technology and innovation.”

“There is always competition for talent, and we must find the right environment to ensure it is motivated to stay with the company and push its agenda forward”
Alex Alexander, Yoox Net-a-Porter Group

This layout is apparent in YNAP's Bologna campus, where over 200 technology people work. The people who handle e-commerce development for the fashion brands are organised as agile teams, each responsible for a group of clients. Each team has a whiteboard littered with coloured sticky notes, showing the progress of project requests from clients. Different coloured notes denote the criticality of these requests.

YNAP offers flexible hours for its developers so they can work when they want, encouraging innovation and creativity by offering flexibility.

This may cause some friction, particularly when dealing with clients. “We have to be part of the business and we happen to work in tech,” says Alexander. Given development is split across London and Bologna, YNAP’s video conferencing is part of day-to-day operations for the developer teams.

Keeping a close eye on Brexit implications

Employees can choose to live in England or Italy, and regularly fly to the sister site to stay over for a few weeks at a time.

This begs the question of Brexit and the contentious issue of freedom of movement. “Colocation and travel is what we do,” says Alexander.

He believes there is no shortcut for YNAP as it builds a European team that spans the UK and Italy. “It is a retracted process, and over the next two years we will closely monitor Brexit, its implications and freedom of movement.”

The idea of freedom of movement is a crucial part of the company’s plans, as YNAP is investing in a new tech hub for April 2017, which fits into Alexander’s grand vision. “We are going to create an environment that appeals to the technology folk.”

Read more about e-commerce

Looking around the tech centres in the UK and Italy, the teams are made up of bright twenty and thirty-something men and women. The average age is 31. “We are making great progress addressing gender imbalance,” he says. “My goal is to increase the number of women in tech.”

Having attended a Women in Technology event at the end of January, his aim is to go further and have winners at the event. “We have a huge opportunity with artificial intelligence and cognitive commerce for women to lead and push the agenda forward.”

It is said that fashion never stands still, and Alexander believes the same could be said of IT. “If I am not learning something new every day, I am not getting the most out of my interactions both inside and outside the company,” he says.

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