The typical super-busy, fashion-savvy woman from New York, what does she do when it comes to buying clothes?” asks Lauren Santo Domingo. “Is she going to walk around Bergdorf Goodman and throw things over her arm, then drag them to a fitting room? This woman doesn’t go to the supermarket, so why would she be expected to do the same thing at a department store?” Why indeed? If anyone knows about shopping, it’s Santo Domingo. The perfectly polished brains behind the luxury shopping e-tailer Moda Operandi is very good at it, too. So good, in fact, she has perfected the experience to a fine art. Her latest boutique opened on Madison Avenue and 64th Street in 2016, an appointment-only, luxury-shopping experience that is entirely tailored around each individual woman who shops there. And trust her, there will be no carrying clothes over your arm as you peruse the rails. Your every wish will be taken care of, before you’ve even made the wish.
Santo Domingo calls it “hi-tech, high touch”. Before a client even walks through the door, her personal shopping advisor will know her shopping habits: what she likes, what she’s returned, her size, her wish list, what she’s put in her shopping cart and taken out. “We cater the experience around her,” says Santo Domingo. “So when she comes in and says, ‘I’m looking for an evening gown for my son’s bar mitzvah,’ we say OK. Then we put in a pair of earrings or a jacket in the changing room when she arrives, so although she’s there for the dress, the coat she’s been looking at for two weeks is there too.”
Although around 80 per cent of Moda Operandi’s business is done online (the average transaction is $1,200, with customers ordering an average of seven to eight times a year), the experience of actually touching the clothes, trying them on, and interacting with a salesperson is still important. Santo Domingo set up her new model of shopping in 2010 to allow members of the public to shop the runways as soon as the fashion show was over (a privilege open only to the elite fashion insiders who were allowed to pre-order items at showroom appointments the day after the show). “When we shop online, clothes are laid out as still life images; you are seeing it from the front, and when you’re in a shop, all you are seeing is the arm. Shops haven’t evolved or changed the way women buy.” The experience at Moda Operandi is much more intimate. The clothes all hang face-out like they do when you view them online. “If we can figure out a way to get all the most perfect things you can get online – and you can touch and feel it – that’s the perfect shopping experience. That’s our goal.”
The first MO boutique opened in London, tucked away in a mews at the back of Hyde Park Corner. But in New York, Santo Domingo says, there is a lot more snobbery about location. “We opened in London first because it just felt right, but in New York it can’t just feel right, it has to be right. You can’t expect a woman who lives in the perfect building on 5th avenue to come to 73rd between 2nd and 3rd. It’s just not going to work. So we are East 64th right off Madison, between Madison and 5th. It took us a little longer to find the perfect spot.”
And while the London mews attracts a lot of foreigners, VIPs and Middle Eastern royalty, New York is much more local. As well as the women who live and shop the city, Santo Domingo is keen to attract women traveling through – other Americans, as well as foreign visitors. “When a woman comes to New York, what’s she doing? She’s shopping, looking in museums, and going out to dinners.” What the private Madison Avenue salon can offer is hand-picked eveningwear, a real insider’s edit of high-end fashion (and not just the usual suspects; Santo Domingo has a keen eye for the up-and-coming designers), exquisite jewelry, together with an entrée into the often impenetrable world of fashion that she so loves.
Clients are invited to meet the designers at trunk shows (Santo Domingo’s star trunk-show host is Giambattista Valli, who she says can read a woman immediately and knows exactly what she wants out of life and her clothes – and, she adds, he’s always right). “There are a lot of women who are creative and want a creative outlet and are drawn to fashion.” With Moda Operandi it’s possible for them to gain access to that world, to sit front row at a show, to be immersed as well as to shop.
Santo Domingo, 40, grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the 1980s. Her father, Ronald V Davis, was CEO of Perrier in America, so he traveled to France a lot. “As I got older, my father started to take me and I’d see glimpses of what life could be. Then we’d go back to Greenwich. It was such a small, conservative, don’t-raise-any-eyebrows place. Everything had to be perfect. I’d do all my back-to-school shopping in Paris with my father. You’d get the little French notebooks and pens and that would be as crazy as you could be.” Her mother, Judy Davis, is a mosaic artist and visually very creative. Her father was, she says, the complete opposite: “Very business oriented. I got a bit of both of them, which is quite lucky.”
While she says she wasn’t interested in clothes as a child, Santo Domingo started her career as a fashion assistant at Vogue in New York. “I learned to have this confidence. You have all these importantly connected women in the office and we were expected to come up with ideas and pitch things and I was shy and embarrassed to speak up. Someone told me once, ‘Don’t overthink things so much. You’re out and about; if you’re interested in it and think it’s cool, then maybe everyone else will too.’ ” Now she doesn’t question her instincts. New finds like the Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz (a family friend of her Colombian husband, Andrés Santo Domingo) have been a runaway success. “It’s about confidence to go, ‘This is how women want to shop. If they don’t today, they will tomorrow.’ ”
Moda Operandi has ambitious plans. While building the exclusivity and choice of the online experience, the salons will continue to open around the world. As well as San Francisco, LA and Miami, there will be openings in the Middle East and Asia. “If you stay in one place, your mindset and business will stay local. The more you move, the more you spread it,” she says. Her belief that fashion and the right accessory can change your outlook is infectious. “Sometimes I’ll go to a party and see someone buttoned up in the perfect dress and barely holding it together. You just want to go up to them and mess up their hair and trade bags and say, ‘I know if you were carrying this crazy Inés Figaredo clutch, you’d have so much more fun tonight.’ We’d have a dance. Come on! It can be life-changing if you just let it.’ ”
Fashion should be fun, she says. “We want to encourage a woman to dream. We try to take a conservative approach to the most far-fetched fashion and that strikes the right balance. Our point of view is playful and fun and unexpected. But it’s considered.”
Santo Domingo understands well the life of her wealthy clients. She lives with her husband and their children, Nicholas, 5, and Beatrice, 4, in Gramercy Park, her favorite New York neighborhood. She has great teams supporting her both at work and at home, where she loves to entertain – usually with an informal buffet. But she also loves being out and about in her city. She and her husband are regulars on Citi Bikes. If it’s a day out with the kids, she’ll go to the High Line, the Whitney, the park in Tribeca, and for lunch at Balthazar or Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. “The Children’s Museum of New York on the Upper West Side is probably the greatest place for children in the world – more of a playhouse.”
If she had a day without kids, she says, it would begin with coffee at Via Quadronno on the Upper East Side. Then the bookshop at the Met. She would then go to Moda to look at the jewelry. Lunch would be at Sant Ambroeus in SoHo, followed by a visit to the new Whitney. Then a beauty treatment (“I have a whole list of facials; it depends on my mood, but maybe a Georgia Louise facial”). Then a snack of grilled corn at Café Habana and a browse around De Vera gallery and Opening Ceremony. Cocktails would be on the back terrace of the Bowery Hotel, with dinner at Momofuku Ko. A late night with friends would involve the new Socialista at Cipriani. “I’d go home at 4am and sleep until 3!” she says, with a mischievous laugh.
It really does sound perfect (and perhaps not so far from her own life). “I always wanted my own business, to travel, to make my place in the world,” she says. “I wanted a family, so this is the life I always dreamed of. It would be ridiculous to complain for a second, for even a moment.”
Your wish list is her command
Lauren Santo Domingo: “I learned to have this confidence. Someone once told me, ‘If you’re interested in something, and think it’s cool, then maybe everyone else will too."
A display at Lauren’s new Madison Avenue boutique –
where an appointment-only luxury-shopping experience awaits
(photo: Matthew Williams)