How I #MadeIt: Roberta Benteler

Where's your first port of call for a luxury fashion purchase or a spot of online window shopping? If it's the obvious options – UK-based e-comm giants Net-A-Porter or Matches Fashion – it's time to broaden your horizons and familiarise yourself with Avenue32. Founded five years ago by German-born Roberta Benteler and her sister Maya, the site offers a unique mix of emerging designers from around the world and more established brands. Fashion enthusiast Roberta, then aged 26 and working in finance, was frustrated by how difficult it was to buy young designers like Christopher Kane and Erdem both online and off, so set up her own retail platform to champion young labels and make their designs more readily available.
Since 2011, the brand has gone from strength to strength, thanks not only to a masterfully put-together team (including fashion director Stephen Ayres, who joined from Liberty in 2015) but also to engaging social media strategy and collaboration with influencers. Speaking of social media and influencers, immaculately dressed Roberta has quickly become an Instagram style star herself, regularly captured during fashion weeks mixing Vetements, Balenciaga and Gucci with Y/Project, Céline and Louis Vuitton. You'll want just about everything in her colourful wardrobe.
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We sat down with Benteler at Avenue32 HQ to discuss building the brand from scratch, discovering new designers and what it's actually like to be a street style star.
What inspired you to leave private equity to launch your own e-commerce site?
My dream was always to start my own business eventually and fashion was my first love, so when the financial crisis hit and no one was investing anymore, it seemed like the perfect time to make that change into fashion. I started off getting experience and industry insight while working for a young designer. Understanding the challenges that younger designers face and at the same time being frustrated, from a consumer point of view, with the limited availability of up-and-coming labels, the idea for Avenue32 was born.

You launched Avenue32 over five years ago with little direct experience in the fashion industry. What do you think has been the key to your success and its growth?
The key to any company’s success for me lies in really knowing your USP and assembling a strong team of people who have longstanding experience in the particular industry.
Photographed by Holly Whittaker.
How did you go about building a team?
I started off with recruiting a fashion director on a freelance basis, in order to help get the brands on board. Once a good number of brands had confirmed and the concept for Avenue32 was really well received, I hired the fashion director full-time and together we recruited the rest of the team. Candidates came partly from a pool of people she had previously worked with in the industry, and on the operational side we had an e-comm advisory firm that helped find suitable candidates for the more technical positions.

How do you feel about being a street style/social media star and creating your own personal brand separate from Avenue32?
It’s not something that happened intentionally, but of course I am really flattered that people like my style. I love dressing up and mixing and matching brands and just having fun with fashion, so of course street style is a really fun aspect of Fashion Week. At the same time, it is also a great way to showcase some of the exciting young designers we feature on Avenue32.
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Photographed by Holly Whittaker.
What do you think about the current state of the fashion industry and the vast numbers of collections produced each year? Are you interested in the 'see now, buy now' movement?
It is a trend that stands in direct contrast to the very definition of luxury in my opinion. Luxury for me is something that has emotional value and longevity.

What have been the biggest challenges you've faced and biggest lessons you've learned since the launch in 2011?
The biggest challenge in this industry is undoubtedly to get the right designers on board, especially in the beginning when you don’t have customers or track records. The biggest lesson I have learned consequently is that there is always a solution and that every challenge is an important lesson in itself that inspires improvement and innovation.
Photographed by Holly Whittaker.
Has Brexit affected your business?
It is difficult to say whether it is a consequence of Brexit or the aforementioned changes in the fashion industry, making it feel increasingly like 'fast fashion', that has put a damper on the industry as a whole last year. Personally I feel like it is the latter.

How do you decide which brands to buy and how do you discover new designers?
Gut feeling plays a big part in it for me. You see something and you have to have it, that’s when I know we have found a new brand; my fashion director will balance that with a slightly more rational approach and look at saleability, quality and long-term strategy of the brand, which has proven to be a successful approach for us.

We discover designers in many different ways – some find us, some we stumble across, some get recommended and increasingly we also find them on Instagram, believe it or not. If it is eye-catching on Instagram it will stand out on the website, too.
Photographed by Holly Whittaker.
What does your typical day look like?
Typical days don’t really exist due to the frequent travelling I do for the job, but when I am at home in London I will start my day with a strong coffee and a Barrecore class or a run in Hyde Park, followed by breakfast at home. My day at the office starts at 9.30 and the mornings are usually spent answering emails and interview requests. If I don’t have a lunch meeting, I like cooking lunch at home, which is walking distance from the office, and it’s a nice way to clear my head and reflect on the morning. In the afternoons I might meet an editor or designer for tea in Mayfair or sit down and discuss strategy with the team at the office. Evenings are reserved for dinner with friends, as I try and see them as much as I can when in town.

What would your advice be to young entrepreneurs with ideas to start their own brand, or open an online shop?
1) Aim high
2) Believe in yourself and your idea
3) Really know your USP
4) Outsource as much as you can in the beginning. This will give you flexibility (to grow or not to grow) and keep fixed costs to a minimum.