The Interview: Atterley Co-CEO Kelly Byrne and founder and chairman Mike Welch
“I think it’s genuinely what’s needed in the fashion space right now,” says Kelly Byrne the co-CEO of the online marketplace for fashion independents Atterley. Byrne joined the business as chief growth officer in January but last month was promoted to the role of Co-CEO alongside the business’s long-standing CEO Kenny Baillie.
Byrne, a former executive at Boohoo with an expertise in marketing and international growth, was appointed to drive growth internationally. The business, which provides a platform for independent retailers across the globe (the network amounts to around 400 boutiques), sees a particularly strong opportunity in the US.
This is a market Byrne knows well. She has spent much of her career Stateside and from July 2018 to when she left Boohoo at the end of last year, she was commercial director at LA-based Nasty Gal, which was one of Boohoo’s earliest acquisitions.
“It’s such an exciting brand,” she says of Nasty Gal. “It was a brand that we had always looked to. It had the best product, the best collaborations and the best marketing campaigns. It had gold dust around it.”
When Boohoo bought the brand one of the challenges was to keep it authentic to its LA roots she says. “[We asked ourselves] How do we make it feel like a US brand brand? We were all sat in the UK with jumpers on when people in California were walking around in cut-off jeans.”
The answer to that was to spend as much time as possible in the US to ensure the brand met the needs of the market. Now she has the same challenge, with a very different brand proposition.
Atterley is certainly not fast fashion. It’s not pure luxury either, but sits neatly beneath Farfetch in terms of price point, offering customers around the globe access to premium and, often independent, brands that have been handpicked by discerning boutique owners.
It’s a concept that Atterley believes will resonate with US customers. The platform’s founder Mike Welch knows the US market well, as does Byrne, and indeed he joins our interview via Zoom on his mobile while sitting outside a sunny Starbucks in Miami, to where he has recently relocated.
“We have some of the best fashion buyers in the business through our boutique network. We don’t have to have folks in our head office [buying fashion]. Our customers will be looking for that limited edition in a particular style and they are finding it from us. It’s that Aladdin’s Cave opportunity,” he says.
“For the US customer, it’s all about provenance and the boutique offer. They love the idea of buying from a boutique in Florence, or from a cobbled street in Milan or a mews in London. There’s a romance to that. The emotional ties to Europe, and to the UK in particular, are massive,” he explains.
To this point Atterley’s penetration of the US market has been largely organic, Welch explains: “It’s our largest market outside the UK, but it’s tiny. It happened by accident, I’m not going to pretend there was a masterplan; they found us.”
With Byrne’s marketing and commercial skills the approach to the US (and indeed all global markets) will now be more strategic, but, importantly remain localised, and in the US that means on a state by state basis, rather than just nationally. “We’ve been doing phenomenally well without big marketing camps and a big team of people,” Byrne explains.
"We really want to play up the boutique nature of the business. Customers want to feel as if they are buying something special and European."
Kelly Byrne, Co-CEO, Atterley
“The US is a massive part of the strategy. It represents a big chunk of the sales. But we’re not really doing an awful lot of marketing there. We’ve been doing well without any sprinkles on the top. We really want to play up the boutique nature of the business. Customers want to feel as if they are buying something special and European. The US is priority one, but every state is like a different country with a different climate.”
As well as bringing the Atterley platform to the notice of a wider range of customers around the globe, Byrne is just as passionate about how it can support its boutique network. During the pandemic, many independent stores had no meaningful e-commerce business of their own and were dependent on Atterley as a route to market and for those that did have e-commerce, it provided another, much-needed route to market.
Now that the world has opened up once more, she believes the platform will be just as crucial for the boutique partners as it was during the lockdowns. While fresh, post-pandemic challenges arise, the boutiques can focus on running their stores knowing that Atterley is taking care of a vital channel on their behalf.
In addition,Byrne is keen to explore more ways in which it can support its boutique partners. One of the ideas she is investigating is helping to introduce brands to the boutiques in the network and vice versa. “We can act like more of a distributor for the brands and introduce them to the boutiques. And we can get a better deal for the boutiques [due to the scale],” she explains, adding that boutiques are already asking for support in this regard such as a menswear boutique which approached Atterley to help support its move into womenswear.
Having established the business in 2016 (when Welch, a complete unknown quantity in fashion, expanded beyond the tyre industry and acquired a former multibrand retailer called Atterley Road with a view to turning it into a marketplace), the founder believes the time is now right to push it to the next level. It should be said that while Welch was not from fashion, the marketplace concept was one with which he was very familiar and was able to take the principles he learned through his tyre marketplace (he is the founder of Blackcircles and Tirescanner) and apply them to Atterley. In doing so he proved those in fashion, who were quick to dismiss him as "the tyre guy", very wrong.
The business has raised significant funds in recent years and received a £3m investment last spring, led by Maven Capital Partners, on the back of a strong performance during the pandemic. In addition, its rival boutique platform Trouva was recently acquired by online furniture retailer Made.com, which would seem to signal a shift in emphasis for Trouva away from fashion and into lifestyle, opening up more opportunity.
In the years since the business was established much has been learned about how the boutiques operate, which ones do well on the platform and how the customer behaves. Now it’s time to truly capitalise on that knowledge, says Welch.
“Kelly will be in the thick of it,” he says. “It all about how can we evolve the value prop based on those early learnings? The unlock is right there now. We’ve got to be careful about what we introduce. You only get a few shots at adding value.”
“Atterley has got to pay for the boutique first and foremost. If our partners are not making money, it’s a flawed model.”
Mike Welch, Atterley
What the business won’t be doing, he says, is capitalising on its success by putting its fees up for boutiques. “We’re not going to put pressure on the network,” he says. “The boutique is at the centre at what we do and we want to stay true to them. We haven’t set ourselves up to be somebody who just takes money out of their market.”
“Atterley has got to pay for the boutique first and foremost. If our partners are not making money, it’s a flawed model,” he says.
For Byrne moving to Atterley at this time reminds her of being at Boohoo before the brand became a fashion household name. “I joined Boohoo 11 years ago when the business was at this very pivotal point, but, like Atterley, the growth was coming,” she says.
“For me with Atterley, it’s like an open book. The opportunities are endless. My mind’s ticking over. It’s like ‘where do we go first here?’. There’s so much to go at.”
If it achieves even a fraction of the growth her former employer did, then it can call that a huge success. And if the boutiques can truly share in that success then she is right, this could just be what the market needs right now.