Interview: Stephanie Phair, managing director of online designer clothes discount site The Outnet

There was a time when, on receiving a compliment on an item of clothing bought on sale, one might have accepted it quietly and gratefully, withholding the full truth; that it was acquired at a vast discount. The concept of boasting about one’s bargains was entirely alien, the fact that some of those cherished designer pieces in your wardrobe were a couple of seasons old, their prices slashed obscenely, a dirty little secret strictly between a bargain hunter and her bank manager.

Then along came The Outnet. An offshoot of online designer emporium Net-a-Porter, The Outnet – a designer outlet selling past season pieces from labels including Alaia, Balmain and Valentino at prices slashed by up to 85 per cent – is one of the big online success stories of the past few years, and has quickly become the acceptable face of online bargain hunting.

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Since its inception in 2009, fashion fans have been donning their discounted wares like badges of honour, and letting everyone within earshot know just how much money they saved by buying at discount. Indeed today the phrase “that’s sooo last season” might well be taken as a compliment.

The London-based company employs around 80 dedicated staff, ships across the globe and has been known to take nine orders per second during its most popular sales, where everything from Lanvin shoes to Alexander Wang handbags can be picked up for less than £100.

Looking around The Outnet’s vast, gleaming offices it’s easy to forget that this is a discount business. The open-plan monochrome space is furnished with 21st century design classics and populated by stylish staff dressed in a nonchalant mix of high street, vintage and impeccably-chosen designer pieces (from The Outnet, naturally, though all staff must wait an agonising week after an item becomes available before they can buy it to give customers the chance to get in there first.)

At the helm is the company’s managing director, Stephanie Phair, 33, a woman who has achieved what many might have thought impossible; she has made bargain shopping chic. Oxford-educated, Phair started out in beauty PR before going on to work for Issey Miyake then US Vogue. Today she’s dressed in chic, tailored neutrals, pale blonde hair resting on her shoulders in soft waves, a sleek black top hugging a neat baby bump.

A bargain hunter herself (she says that the only thing she pays full price for is food), she was interviewed for the position at The Outnet by Net-a-Porter’s founder, Natalie Massenet, who complimented her on her outfit during the interview. She was dressed head-to-toe in discount designer finds. “I think,” says Phair with a laugh, “that it probably made her think, ‘OK well she walks the walk...’” Fashion editors, stylists, businesswomen and celebrities (Victoria Beckham is a huge fan) all shop on the site, and – and this is the big development – they’re not afraid to shout about it. It has become a phenomenon, saved in the ‘favourites’ folder of every stylish online shopper in the land.

Their biggest sales (85 per cent off clearances, say, or Christian Louboutin sales) are massive events, trending on social media sites. For their first birthday they sold off thousands of items at £1 each. The sale prompted an online frenzy, crashing the site. In short, The Outnet has become one of the most talked-about fashion phenomenons of recent years.

“The recession was an opportunity for people to say OK, this is a savvy way to shop and for brands to realise that they had to take care of this part of their business which for so long they’ve just ignored, because if brands could get away with not having any of this, they would,” says Phair. “Anyone who was discount shopping before anyway came out of the woodwork and for anyone who wasn’t, it removed the stigma of it.”

The Outnet was conceived well before the recession kicked in, but its launch in April 2009 was certainly timely. Its success, arguably, lies in the fact that the only way in which it resembles the discount shopping experience of old is in the pricing.

Pieces are merchandised online in exactly the same way as on sister site Net-a-Porter. Photography is high-quality and each item is styled with other pieces to give shoppers plenty of ideas. A detailed blurb describes the fit, cut and material as well as giving a profile of the designer.

Size charts and measurements equip shoppers with the information needed to pick their size, and there’s even a team of staff on hand to try on clothes to determine the accuracy of the sizing. A typical description, for example, might include the line “runs large to size, take the next size down,” and shoppers will be informed if a piece of clothing cannot be worn with a bra.

Furthermore, items arrive beautifully wrapped (whether you’ve bought a £3,000 Marchesa dress or a £20 T-shirt) and a customer care team is on hand to give fashion tips if the item you are looking for is out of stock. Customers can shop by category (1960s siren, workaholic) or by occasion (first date, wedding); services which are perfect for shoppers who don’t have the confidence to pick and choose pieces from past-season stock.

It’s common sense, really – particularly considering that The Outnet’s shoppers are regularly parting with hundreds or even thousands of pounds, even if they are enjoying huge discounts – that bargain shoppers should receive good service too, but it took someone to actually offer it for us to realise just how unpleasant and unnecessary it is to be elbow-deep in a bargain bin of evening dresses.

“The way discount shopping was floated before was that you just put it out there and it will sell, that the price will say it all and you’re getting a discount so why do you need any kind of story about the product,” says Phair. “But we sell expensive stuff! So it needs the design, it needs the fashion editor to tell you how to wear it, it needs lots of great images.”

With the post-Christmas sales in full swing, many of us will be flexing our credit cards in the next few days, expecting serious bargains. We have, by necessity, become particularly canny sale shoppers in recent years, but beyond that, the internet has democratised things somewhat.

Where once, anyone looking for a serious discount on an Alexander McQueen evening dress would have to be on some exclusive invitation list to a sample sale, The Outnet has given shoppers that kind of access from their living rooms, whether they’re logging on in Knightsbridge or the Outer Hebrides.

“The recession has had an impact on our thinking but I think in general people like to feel savvy,” says Phair. “The internet has developed that because it’s so much easier to comparison shop, and not just for fashion, but for a washing machine, anything. Everyone likes to feel smart about their buying and there’s not so much of a stigma around it, but also there’s the element of competition against other people because it’s limited stock. It’s desirable stock and if you get it for a bargain then of course there’s that thrill.”

Phair herself isn’t averse to that thrill and like many discount shoppers, applies a complicated set of psychological formulae to her purchasing, an approach which mystifies her husband Fred, who works in finance. “It’s that completely unmathematical approach,” she says with a laugh, “wherein if you’ve saved 50 per cent, perhaps £400, you suddenly think ‘wow I now have £400 to spend on something else’. It sooo doesn’t work that way of course, but somehow you think that because you’ve saved the cash, that money is a bonus, it’s in the kitty.”

What’s interesting about The Outnet’s customer base is that the average shopper is relatively moneyed. When the site first launched there was an assumption that it would be visited mainly by younger, aspirational women on entry-level salaries, women looking to grab a designer bargain without blowing their rent.

While that customer certainly exists, focus groups have found that a woman logging on to The Outnet is likely to have a hefty disposable income, but simply isn’t bothered about wearing items from past seasons. And after all, doesn’t everyone enjoy a bargain?

Phair is one such woman, as is her sister-in-law, a managing director at JP Morgan who’s addicted to the site. “I think I learned it from my mother,” says Phair. “She was always very clever about that sort of thing and she still is. She’s got great style but she doesn’t feel she needs to buy right off the runway or anything sort of brand new. I’ve got that side of it from her and also just the idea that it’s not going to be what everyone else is wearing which I think is pretty key to buying at discount.”

The company knows its customer inside out of course. They know, for example, that Glaswegians are their biggest market in Scotland, followed by Edinburgh then Aberdeen, while they’re seeing the biggest growth in their customer base in Inverness. Unsurprisingly, Edinburghers love their conservative Marni, while Glaswegians like Hervé Leger’s ultra-glam bandage dresses best. Aberdonians go wild for Christian Louboutin.

Of course, persuading shoppers to buy designer goodies at a fraction of their original price can’t be that difficult. Isn’t bringing high-end brands on board the tricky part? After all, high-end labels are obsessed with maintaining their brand integrity and not “diluting” their name by letting prices be slashed too severely and too publicly.

“I think that for many brands, for a very long time the discount side of the business has been hidden,” says Phair. “Sales have been done behind closed doors or are very short. Online just puts it in a whole new public domain and suddenly designers are having to think about how to manage their brands when they have both full price and discount stock and the different customers which come with those. It’s a real education and it’s not easy so a big part of my job is talking to brands, educating them about the importance of managing their brand in the online space, which means paying attention to the discount side.”

Of course for customers, dressing out of season doesn’t mean dressing off-trend. Many trends span more than one season, and some even take a couple of seasons to warm up. Jumpsuits are a great example. They looked wacky at first, but became a high street stalwart within a couple of seasons, by which time, The Outnet was slashing prices on the ones no-one was brave enough to wear when they first appeared.

When it comes to clever discount shopping, Phair advises playing to a designer’s strengths; buying something from Valentino in their signature red perhaps or opting for sharp tailoring from McQueen, a trench from Burberry or knitwear from Pringle of Scotland.

Whatever your Outnet shopping technique (most fashion fans have one in place) it’s an undisputed fact that this is a site which should be on every bargainista’s radar. It has become a true phenomenon, growing at a rate of 90 per cent each year and putting up new products three times a week from more than 200 designers. With over a million unique users every month (less than ten per cent of whom also visit sister site Net-a-Porter) they ship to 170 countries. In the two short years since they came on the scene, bargains have undoubtedly become the new black.