As Yoox and Net-a-Porter create tech tools to help shoppers with their online experience, the companies are also developing chic work spaces to foster employee creativity. Ellen Himelfarb tours the London office for a glimpse at the future of how fashion will function
I'm breaking out at Yoox. Just writing that reminds me of that sloppy Carrie Bradshaw pronouncement, "I'm drunk at Vogue." But this is 2017. My acne is not flaring up, nor am I plotting an escape. I'm lounging in one of umpteen "breakout spaces" at the new London tech hub of YNAP (or Yoox/Net-a-Porter), learning what makes an office stylish enough for a fashion partnership yet practical enough to suit its new incarnation as a digital powerhouse.
It's been two years since the Italian lifestyle portal Yoox gobbled up British e-tailer Net-a-Porter, forming the world's largest luxury e-commerce platform. The new company, worth €3.7-billion, or $5.59-billion, is investing heavily in artificial intelligence and image recognition and needs more IT brainpower – and that brainpower needs a home. This 70,000-square-foot London space, with views toward Net-a-Porter's head office one Tube stop away, was designed to accommodate planned staff increases (nearly 150 hires are expected to be made by year end) and inspire them in the face of competition from rivals like Farfetch and Vente Privée.
Rows of spacious communal desks radiate out from floor-to-ceiling windows, each task chair facing a double-monitor computer. But this traditional seating appears to be the exception, not the rule. It makes me wonder what the so-called breakout spaces are breaking out from. Regardless, when we sit down to chat, Angela Bardino, head of interior design at Grimshaw, the London firm on the project, has options.
For now she's chosen two Conic tub chairs, by London designers PearsonLloyd, on the perimeter of the second floor. We've arrived from reception via a futuristic colonnade that could double as a catwalk for Alexander McQueen; it's built in undulating Italian veneer with bronze kick plates Bardino calls "shoes."
"Well," she says, "it looks like a catwalk, but that was never the premise. It was for the first impression, a sense of arrival."
Yet Bardino couldn't fend off the fashion influence. Her recon at nearby Net-a-Porter – a glamorous, if slightly dated, monochrome loft beneath giant Murano chandeliers – turned up a covetable stockroom with inventory grids pinned to the walls for the stylists. Studying those grids inspired a "warp and weft" concept, where each space would weave together pairings of complementary colours and materials – "just like the company has woven together fashion and technology to support each other," she says. The black, white and timber framework is disrupted with felt seating in rust and teal. Bardino calls them "innovative colours." Steel room dividers integrate sleek planters fringed with green – there are 2,400 within 70,000 square feet of office space.
Around us, employees infiltrate glass-walled meeting pods and a boardroom where a handmade olive-ash table faces giant monitors and a map of the world rendered in moss. Next door in the "innovation lab," run entirely on mobile technology, a woman – one of a small but growing number recruited to the tech side – conducts a Skype meeting on a six-foot split screen. With half of YNAP's sales launched from mobile devices, CEO Federico Marchetti expects employees to use their company iPhone for everything – share insights, manipulate data, write code, even activate the personal lockers. "It's Federico's vision for the future," says Bardino. "He sees it as, 'That's how staff should operate since the customers do.'" The days of sitting all day at a computer, she says, are over. As we talk, people sink into armchairs to take calls, notes, breathers.
Things get more interesting as we walk around the central void, overlooking the lower level. One space that could fit 10 long desks is empty save for a scattering of rolling "bleachers" that a group is swivelling and shifting into place for an intimate conference. Next time, says Bardino, it could be reconfigured for a company-wide symposium or cleared away for lunchtime yoga. "We're not precious about rooms being strictly for one thing," she says, as she rotates a modular room divider with niches to store plastic Tam Tam stools and grooves for hanging agile work boards.
Around the corner, at a "tea house" encased in slatted poplar, she brews me a flat white from the mobile-enabled Scanomat tap, then leads me down a wide wood staircase to the "garden atrium."
In a casual central salon where full-height fruit trees bask in light from triple-height skylights, Bardino installed Scandinavian armchairs and knit-topped stools from Spain around wired-up tables etched with grooves to support your phone. To the sunnier, windowed side of this level is a long lunch bar and full-service kitchen with eight microwaves. To the darker side, a glass screening room with electronic curtains and swivel chairs with wired, integrated desks.
"We know it's expensive to live in central London, and many employees have to travel a long way to get here," she says. "We hope they're thinking of this office as another home," albeit one with a fully staffed Genius Bar.
Judging by the dude dozing in one of the isolation pods – designed like a first-class airline seat, with an ottoman, power points and a nook for his bag – I'd say they do.
Funding for the new building came out of a €500-million ($735-million) injection expected to double the size of YNAP by 2020. At face value, it looks to be a win for everyone involved: For Marchetti and his shareholders, one would hope; for the transformation of the neighbourhood; for the staff here at the tech hub; and even for the fashion team back in the old space.
"The thing the fashion team benefits from is reduced density now that all the coders have moved out," Bardino says. "They can breathe again."
Yet I spare a moment for all those fashion types at head office, who must be killing themselves knowing this is the smarter space by a mile.
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