Sarah Rutson has been at the forefront of fashion retail for three decades. But it was her move from Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford as fashion director to become Net-A-Porter’s vice president of global buying that cemented her status in luxury’s big league. Rutson, who is renowned for her own incredible style and razor-sharp eye for spotting the next big trend, is already taking the luxury e-comm behemoth to the next level.
How did you get your first break in fashion?
I got my first job a couple of days after my 16th birthday. I was working in a shop—I think it was called Jean Machine. It doesn’t exist anymore, but the owner of the store was Sir Philip Green, who’s now a friend. I worked all day Saturday, and a couple of late nights after school during the week selling jeans. A week later, I found out that Marks & Spencer paid double the amount, so I went and got myself a job there.
Did that inspire you to study fashion at university?
Ah, you see, therein lies the interesting part—I didn’t go to university. I was at Marks & Spencer doing my Saturday job, working late nights after school and full-time through the summer holidays, and I got the bug. I knew I was a retailer, and this was what I wanted to do. I managed to go into the graduate training program for Marks & Spencer.
Why did you abandon London for Hong Kong?
I was at Marks & Spencer for nine years and worked my way up through every possible level. Then I woke up one morning when I was 24, and I thought, Is this it? I had done so much. I’d risen through the ranks and had a fantastic time, but I wanted an adventure. As fate would have it I walked past a travel agent’s storefront—they actually existed in those days—and saw some old-fashioned piece of junk with Hong Kong written above it. I went, “That’s where I want to go.” So I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.
What was the plan when you got there?
I had no job and didn’t know a single person, but I had a fantastic résumé. I toured Hong Kong and looked at many department stores before coming across Lane Crawford. I called up the switchboard and said, “I want to speak to the president.” I got him on the phone and said, “You need to employ me.” He asked me to fax my résumé through, so I did, and he said, “I’m leaving tonight on a three-month buying trip—can you meet me now?” I said, “Yes, I can.” That was it, I got the job on the spot. In fact, they created a job for me.
Would this ever happen today?
In fashion, you have to make things happen. I enjoy working for companies that have an entrepreneurial spirit. That’s why I love being at Net-a-Porter—anything’s possible, and everyone and everything strives to move forward. You have to stay alive and fresh. If you are passionate and have that personality and the ability to work really hard, you can do it.
Working for a global company must have its challenges.
Net-A-Porter is the only true global player. We’re buying for Asia Pacific, Europe, and America. Asia Pacific is fascinating, because in it, of course, you’ve got Australia, which is working toward a different season. The market’s very different to Hong Kong; Hong Kong is very different to Singapore; Singapore and Hong Kong are totally different to Japan. What’s critical is that we have amazing personal shoppers. They’re based out of each district, and give us so much information. I travel a great deal and meet them personally. We do customer events and pop-up shops, so we’re able to meet the customers. I did one during last New York Fashion Week, and I’ve just come back from Dubai, so we get a lot of intel. For example, suede never sells in Asia Pacific. Long maxi lengths don’t work in Hong Kong, but they sell super well in Europe, Australia and west coast America.
How do you manage your schedule?
Fashion never sleeps, and neither do I—it’s the nature of the job. The secret to survival is stamina and dedication, and I never get sick. Obviously, it’s a lot of travel, and in the past 10 years it’s really ramped up. Buying trips, fashion, that’s all part and parcel—we also have to run a business, plan our strategy, work on budgets, and always be forward thinking. We plan out our year very well. Plus, I have an amazing team and an amazing boss, so that all helps.
Divulge your travel tips, please!
I hate packing in winter because we’re getting into snowstorms, and by the time you get to Paris it can either be cold or it can feel like spring, and you only have two suitcases for five weeks. In general, I am a very clever packer because I do have to travel for around seven weeks at a time. I tend to wear a uniform. Wear a smile, and you’ll be fine wherever you go.
Tell us about the Yoox acquisition.
There’s a lot we can do for each other, bringing new and exciting brands to the customers on both sides. It’s been very positive and honestly, none of us have skipped a beat here. It hasn’t changed fundamentally how we do business going forward.
What is your vision for the future of Net-A-Porter?
Net-A-Porter is now 15 years old. We have a strong designer presence—we already sell a lot of ready-to-wear. I felt that for the next wave, for customer acquisition and also from a business standpoint, taking on contemporary is an opportunity to grow and expand. And I felt that we needed to grow shoes, bags, and accessories.
Which brands are on the radar?
We’ve exploded Aquazzurra—the Wild Thing shoe was one of our best-selling shoes ever. We looked at opportunities to put it in a lower block heel. Building a great edit and working with designers in fantastic collaborations is a focus. I felt that for the next wave, taking on contemporary was an opportunity to grow and expand. Overall, we’ve brought a lot of new brands in this season, whether it was Monse out of New York, Juan Carlos Obando, or March 11, which makes these fabulous Ukrainian dresses. We used to carry Vita Kin and were having so much success with them, but they couldn’t keep up with production, so we brought in March 11. However, we will have Vita Kin again once she produces more stock. We put Johanna Ortiz on the site this month and we were 85 percent sold out in less than two weeks. There was a snowstorm going on and we were selling all these beautiful off-the-shoulder colorful cotton pieces. Sacai has taken prominence—it’s a brand I discovered in Japan 10 years ago, so I’ve been working with them for a long time. One of my babies, Jacquemus from Paris, was the first brand that I picked up for Net-A-Porter in my first week—it’s cooler. I want to make sure that we fill in that edgier dialogue.
Do you have influence over what designers put into their collections?
I do it with smaller and bigger brands. I’m a merchandiser and I’ve been around a long time, so I know what it takes to build a collection. At Net-A-Porter, we’re looking at brands on a global level. That’s very powerful. I’m very close with Joseph Altuzarra and have always mentored Joseph in growing the Altuzarra business. He really listens, but it’s always a collaboration. That’s the good bit about the job. When you get to a certain point in your career, it’s not about going into a showroom and saying, “Yeah, I like that, I don’t like that.” It goes much further. I was delighted when Monse came to me at the end of March last year in New York with some sketches and fabrics and a lot of excitement in their eyes. I looked through their sketches and after seeing one of their shirt dresses, I told them to build the story around the shirt. That, to me, says something really important. They executed it brilliantly. The reworked shirt has been a massive story for the Spring/Summer season. It’s my job to be the zeitgeist.
We hear Monse contacted you through LinkedIn.
Everybody contacts me—everyone. It’s important to be constantly open—whether it’s a phone call, an e-mail, LinkedIn, Instagram, or just overhearing someone talking about something new. The reality is there are thousands of brands out there. I’ve got a very good antenna for people and talent. There was something about both of them—the way they worded their LinkedIn message. I’m hardly on LinkedIn, so it must have been the one day I was on and I clicked it. I called them immediately and said, “Come and see me tomorrow.”
What’s the best way to grab your attention?
I get a lot of people who do the, “I know we’ll do very well on your site, it’s a partnership, I’d like to set up a meeting with you on Thursday at four o’clock.” There was a sensitivity to Monse’s letter. It was elegantly done. I adore them. In fact, I get back to New York and see them a couple of hours after landing. I give them my time; it’s important.
What’s on your hit list this season?
I want more “buy now, wear now” pieces. In a time of immediacy, the fashion model needs to change. It’s been one of the warmest winters on record, and the snowstorm hit when fall sales had been going on for quite some time. None of us know what’s going to happen with the weather. There’s an interesting dialogue now to be had of looking at this calendar and seeing how it works. Fundamentally, product is still going to take the same length of time to be designed, made, and produced to get to the end user online. But how are we going to handle the lead times from when the consumer first sees it? Maybe shows have to change to four weeks before the product hits the floor.
Who should spearhead the revolution?
It takes an industry, just like it takes a village. Fashion is all about change, and the customer has changed so much. Now, everybody looks at everything on their iPhones, and everybody shops online. Why are we still doing the same system in the same way we have been for 30 years? It doesn’t add up.
Do you ever set foot inside brick-and-mortar stores?
Ha! [Laughs] I was just buying some groceries the other night. Other than that I really can’t remember—online saves my life. I’m going to Paris next week, and everything’s going to be delivered from Net-A-Porter to my hotel.
What can we find in your own wardrobe?
I lived in Hong Kong for 23 years, so I tend to be edgier in terms of my personal choices. I love Junya Watanabe, and I own a lot of Sacai. I’ve really started wearing a lot of Jacquemus. Haider Ackermann works brilliantly for me. I also wear Proenza Schouler and Altuzarra. I love Christopher Kane as well. In general, I love button-down shirts. I love a silky shirt undone to the waist with some beautiful lingerie. I always wear beautiful lingerie. Those sort of things are important. I started my career in buying for lingerie. If I get knocked down by a bus, I will never have to worry what I’m going to look like in the hospital. [Laughs] But I dress from the feet up. I’ve always been a high-heel girl, but after moving to New York a year ago, I started wearing flats. I could run in high heels, but it’s not so practical to walk 25 blocks in them.
Which flats are in your arsenal?
I’m so in love with my Gucci loafers. They’re just divine. You know, we do not sell fur on Net-A-Porter. I have the loafer that you can wear with the back up or you can flatten it. It’s so butter-soft; it’s like a slipper. That’s my little obsession at the moment.
When you’re not running a global fashion empire, where will we find you?
I do love Ibiza in August. It’s fun and I really let my hair down—I dance every night of the week for three weeks. I turn dark chocolate brown in Ibiza—I know you’re not supposed to, but I do. Because I lived in Asia, I make sure I do Europe and America now with my family and my 14-year-old daughter. We’re wanderlusters.
What’s on that dancing playlist?
I’m reliving my ’80s club days when I used to go to the Mud Club in London. It’s a lot of Depeche Mode, the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, and New Order. When I’m out for a run, it’s Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”—that’s probably my favorite track of all time. Music keeps me feeling alive, switched on, and happy. More than anything, I need to be happy, I need to be laughing, I need to be smiling.
Photography: BFA.com, Getty Images, FirstView