Lifestyle, New York

Acting on Instinct with Elizabeth von der Goltz

Published on 10 minutes read
Lifestyle, New York
Words by Carmen Hall
"I didn’t even know fashion was a job when I was in school or growing up. ’Cause, you know... Chinese family... It’s not like a profession that you do, right? My parents used to call it my Mickey Mouse job... When I first started off, I was at Barneys in New York, and that was sort of my goal. 'Okay, this is the only store I want to work in.'"

Seated in Carolina Bucci’s moodroom, a cloud-painted office of inspiration tucked beneath the London flagship, Elizabeth von der Goltz wears the same Lucky bracelet she’s had since the early years of her career as a buyer. Now the CEO of Browns and the Chief Fashion Merchandising Officer of FARFETCH, Elizabeth has the same curiosity she’s always had. Professing to “opening every one of her DMs to this day,” her open-minded approach to fashion has led her to discover some of today’s most recognisable brands. In a conversation with Elizabeth, Carolina, and La Catena’s editor, Carmen Hall, the three investigate how intuition has been integral to their success. And how business transitioned to friendship for Carolina and Elizabeth.

Carmen Hall: There is a story we all love, about Carolina's first retailer, and how it was a kind of a feat of intuition from both parties.

Carolina Bucci: Yes.

Carmen: So. What's the story? Tell us.

Carolina: I think you’re talking about Browns, which was my first UK retailer. My first ever retailer was Bendel’s... I was living in New York, that’s where I launched Carolina Bucci and I started doing it. Back then Bendel’s were doing open days. You have to go in line at 6:00 in the morning. When I arrived at, maybe 7:00, there were already hundreds of people who had slept there that night. Anyway, I went there, grabbed my sister, and grabbed my cousin. “Come on, keep me company.” So I went with a few pieces of my jewelry. My mom had the distribution for Acqua dell’Elba, a brand of perfume and soaps in the U.S., so I also went with those products. I was painting ceramics, which was my hobby. And I brought some of that, too. I brought everything. I remember when we got to the front of the line they were like, “Which department?” I was like, “Well...”

Elizabeth von der Goltz: (laughs)

Carolina: “Jewelry, perfume and... (laughs) and ceramics.” They’re like, “Okay.” And you literally have one minute or two minutes to do your pitch. So anyway, I did that. At the end I sold my jewelry... my perfume and my ceramics. They had to see everything, you had to put in the time and you never know, right?

Carmen: Right.

Carolina: So then I met [my husband] James and I started coming to London for weddings, things, whatever. We came for a wedding, and in New York they had just shot a necklace and a bracelet on Salma Hayek for the cover of British Vogue. And then they called me up and they said, "We shot the necklace and the bracelet and she loves it. Can you give me a UK retailer?" I'm like, "I'm coming to London this weekend, I'll get back to you." So we came to London and I said, "Let's go and look at stores. I have no idea. "Browns at the time was super cool and kind of the Mecca of anything fashionable and new. So I dragged James and said, "Let's go." We walked in and Mrs. Burstein was there with her husband. Anyway, we walked in and I said, "Listen, my name is Carolina, I have the cover of Vogue. I need a retailer. Can I just put your details down? Here's the necklace and here's the bracelet." And Mrs. Burstein said, "Oh, I love them. Yeah, sure. Leave them here, we'll put them in a case and..." They didn't sell jewelry at the time. They were just fashion. So they put them in the case. I called Vogue and said, "Great, done." And then I got a call [from Browns] shortly after saying, "We sold both pieces. What else have you done?" So I came back and I showed them everything and that's how we started. I didn't know how to do things in any other way. I just picked up the phone or showed up. There wasn't hiding behind some corporate door or something.

Elizabeth: It takes courage.

Carolina: It's also what I try to tell everybody today; If you don't ask, you don't get. You know, you never know. And what's the worst that can happen? They say no?

Carmen: From the retailer’s perspective there's also an element of risk and intuition, too, right? Speaking to your earlier years, Elizabeth, how did you first start in fashion? What led you to be in the position you're in today?

Elizabeth: Oh, God. Long story. (laughs) I didn't even know fashion was a job when I was in school or growing up. 'Cause, you know... Chinese family… it's not like a profession that you do, right? My parents used to call it my Mickey Mouse job, actually, when I first started. When I first started off, I was at Barneys in New York, and that was sort of my goal. "Okay, this is the only store I want to work in."

So I did everything I could; I did different things and I ended up temping in the operations office. Then, I said, "I want to work in your buying office," and I worked really hard, and when there was an opening I finally got my foot in the door. So that's where it all started. But I think, for me it’s really just been about never saying no. Whatever anyone gives you, you just do it as fast as you can, and you say yes, and you do it really well. And always ask for more.

Carmen: What appealed to you about being a buyer?

Elizabeth: I loved it because I think it's the perfect balance between the creative but it's also a lot of business. And you’re able to look at your numbers every day, so it’s almost like this instant gratification on the choices and the risks you’re taking to be able to see the sales all the time. And meeting amazing, creative people. It's never boring and it's constantly changing. The industry evolves so quickly because the consumer is constantly changing. I mean, look at everything that's happened! Every two years now, it's something completely different. I've always loved the pace of it and the constant change. I just sort of wanted to push myself and ask, "What's next?" First it was brick and mortar. Then it's e-commerce, then it's “how do you solve omnichannel?” I think it's about constantly pushing yourself into unknown waters and asking, "How do I keep solving the future of the fashion industry...?"

Carmen: Is there an early mentor who led you to have that faith in your intuition? Personally or in business?

Elizabeth: I think there were probably a few. It's interesting, one of the most influential people in my career was someone who actually was — she was amazing, the most phenomenal taste, she had amazing business acumen — but was worse than Devil Wears Prada.

Carmen and Carolina: (laughs)

Elizabeth: I mean, this is Barneys in the 90s. And so much of what I learned is what I didn't want to be. And these are lessons I'll never forget in my life. The kind of team I want to build, the culture I want, and how I want to treat my brands and designers A lot came off of that. But she did teach me a lot in terms of the business side and the taste side. And she really believed in me. And then along the way, different people. Jim Gold (former President and Chief Merchandising Officer of Neiman Marcus) was one of them. When I was a buyer, he took me to lunch and told me: "You have something," you know? There was always someone who really believed and supported me. I've been lucky enough to have quite a few of those people throughout my career.

Carmen: Did those people tell you what they thought ‘that something’ was?

Elizabeth: Yeah, and it's funny because it’s a mix between just this natural ability to — first of all, taste is one; innate taste. But then another was an ability to find business. To take something tiny and ask myself, "how do I make it something?" And then be able to build a relationship with the designer or the brand to make that happen.

Carmen: Nowadays, when someone who might know nothing about fashion asks you at a dinner party "what you do?" What do you say? What is your title now and what are you working on?

Elizabeth: Well, it's a new role. I'm CEO of Browns and then I'm the Chief Fashion Merchandising Officer for FARFETCH. The heritage of Browns and what they stood for was so important when it came to fashion. Mrs. Burstein was an icon, right? She brought Ralph Lauren and DKNY to the UK. She discovered Galliano and McQueen. And she always mixed interesting, young, emerging designers with these big names. And I think for me it's so important to take that and ask, how do I make that... How do I make Browns the kind of global curated destination that has amazing discovery when it comes to fashion? It's established designers and how we mix them with emerging designers and new generation designers, and really bring it to life. And having the store be a place where people want to go and it's a cultural experience, and it becomes an amazing place where people just want to hang out... how do I bring that to life online? That's the challenge. And that's what we're working on. So I think there's a lot to do but I'm really excited for that.

Then the FARFETCH side, it's a new position. I really believe in FARFETCH's ability to be kind of dominant in the luxury e-commerce space. And it's about asking, "How do we now bring a fashion authority and fashion inspiration voice to FARFETCH?"

Carmen: When you're looking at new designers or when your teams are looking at new designers, is there something specific you look for?

Elizabeth: You just want to find something unique, you know? I think there's so much out there, it's like you want to find something that has its own DNA. Think about Carolina's jewelry. It can be 10 years from now, it can be 20 years from now and you're going to know exactly that bracelet, or you're going to see that necklace, you'll know exactly who made it. Right? You're going to see this watch and you're going to know.

You also need someone who is not going to cannibalize another one of your other businesses. Someone you know can evolve and grow over time and that's going to be recognizable over time. Then you need to trust that they can run the business, produce, ship on time. All those things are just as important.

Carmen: Carolina, what was your experience in the early, early days with buyers coming to see you?

Carolina: Well, we worked with Neiman's and I remember I got an appointment. And so I got a meeting and I would go and they’d say, "Oh, I love it." "Oh, I love it, I love it, I love it." I’d get my notepad and they’d just say, “Ok, see you in 6 months. Or 3 months." Or whatever it was.

Elizabeth: (laughs)

Carolina: Then I would leave and I would come back in six months and they would say, "Oh, you’re designing a lot more than when you started out." And I remember the third time, they didn't even say anything, they just said, "Okay, let's write an order." And I said, "Well, can I ask a question? What happened the other two times that you said, 'I love it, I love it, it's great?'" They said they wanted to see that I wasn’t a one hit wonder and that there was a continuity. “That you could turn it into something."

Elizabeth: (laughs)

Carmen: That continuity is best represented in the Lucky bracelet, right?

Carolina: Yeah.

Carmen: After 20 years…

Elizabeth: I know, which is... It's pretty amazing.

Carmen: 20 years is a long time!

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. In this day and age. (laughs)

Carmen: (laughs) Yeah, I mean... for the bracelet to still feel like something anyone would want to wear is a very unique accomplishment. Specific to Lucky, but also with the collections in general. I'm curious as to how intuition informed something like the Lucky bracelet or the FORTE Beads?

Carolina: I don't know how to do it any other way. To be honest, I grew up in jewelry, so it's not a new, foreign topic. But I knew I wanted to do it differently from what I saw in jewelry out there, so I was respecting the tradition because it was drilled into me. Obviously, you've met my father. Uh ... (laughs)

Carmen: (laughs) I want to meet him!

Carolina: Then you will see where I come from. But, you know, for me, it was about learning and respecting the traditions but finding a way to make them fresher and more relevant and more contemporary. Letting them have a life and not just dying out because we're just stuck in this one way street. So that was my personal drive from the beginning, but driven very selfishly. And by that I mean I wanted to make cool jewelry that I wanted to wear. Because what I had, I felt, was beautiful but traditional, a bit boring. I was not allowed to wear the fun stuff because it wasn't real. So I needed to find my own way. It's still true today. I still design pieces because I want them. I dreamed them up for myself and I created them, and I made them. And then luckily people like them. (laughs) I think that's a gut feeling. I've been working with my jewelers for many years. I’m very lucky, because having our own production, I developed that relationship and so they understand already in advance. “You're not gonna like that so I'll just melt it and start it again”. But it needs to come from within. Otherwise you're just creating products to fill a gap in a spreadsheet or in the market and maybe that works commercially, but it's not fun. Over time, the biggest compliment that I get is when people recognize my piece without seeing the box, the signature, or the stamp or anything. That is, to me, a job done. Seeing it on other people makes me happy. It is all about gut feeling. Whether it's opening a store or creating packaging, there is no rule. So it's about why: Why Motcomb Street, why that color, why...

Carmen: I like to think that people respond to authenticity and honesty. I'm wondering, Elizabeth, if you think so?

Elizabeth: I do. I think, as you're saying, there are obviously some big companies that have big brand names and people love them. But when you think about collections that really come from the designer — like, comes out of them — they have a different following and a different community. Their customer wants everything new that they make because they kind of want to be them, you know? It's like a lifestyle thing. And especially when it comes to jewelry. I always say this thing with collections, like, there's amazing designers that are men everywhere. But there's something about a woman designing for women and actually knowing what they want to wear at all times. What occasions they want to wear. There's just something really personal about that. And you develop a different type of... I don't know, I call them a fan. You know, like, you have a groupie-like fan, people who are like, "I only wear Carolina Bucci jewelry." You're going to have people like that, which you don't necessarily have with someone who's not as close to their brand.

Carolina: Yes. You talk about the Lucky bracelet and twenty years. I have clients who've been buying since my Bendel’s days. And now they're buying for their daughters or their granddaughters. Girlfriends of their sons, or whatever. It's a cycle. And again, it often starts with a Lucky bracelet.

Lucky Bracelet with Friendship Charm

Elizabeth wears a Lucky bracelet with Friendship charm in 18k yellow gold.

Shop now

Carmen: I've never managed to understand, how did you two meet? Because I know you both have the London, New York connection...

Elizabeth and Carolina: Bergdorf's!

Carolina: I bothered her. I harassed her. (laughs) Until she agreed to meet me in Paris.

Elizabeth: (laughs) Yeah, I think that’s right, the first time we met actually was in Paris.

Carolina: Jim Gold always was a firm figure who every once in a while, I would contact. When another buyer was gone and another thing changed, I would call him and ask, "Sorry to bother you but who do I contact? Or who is..." And so, eventually said to me, "Elizabeth." So I… started harassing Elizabeth!

Elizabeth: (laughs)

Carolina: And she came to see me in Paris and we sat on the floor for quite a long time, playing with jewelry. (laughs)

Carmen: Did you connect on a London-New York level too?

Elizabeth: Yeah. We're New Yorkers. (laughs)

Carolina: At heart.

Carmen: (laughs)

Elizabeth: At heart, at heart.

Carolina: I'm half New Yorker because my mother's from New York. I moved there when I was 18. I was saying the other day, actually I've lived most of my life now in London, scarily enough. I've lived 19 years in London but 18 years in Italy. But I think my most important years in terms of who I am were in New York. From 18 to 26 I lived in New York. That's where I learned, "Oh my God, I don't have to follow the rules, I can do whatever I want."

Elizabeth: (laughs)

Carmen: (laughs)

Carolina: I would not be who I am today if I hadn't been in New York at that time in my life, which makes it a little bit harder to be in Italy and to deal with all the bureaucracy. Because the answer I never accept is “no”.

Carmen: You wouldn’t have approached Browns in the same way (laughs) if you didn't have the New Yorker energy. What about you, Elizabeth, how has living in multiple cities influenced you?

Elizabeth: I was born in New York City but we moved when I was 1 month old. Every single summer I went to New York but didn't officially move until I was 23, then I lived there for 20 years. My first job was there and that's the whole beginning of my career. In New York, you learn to just say what you mean...

Carolina: Don't waste time.

Elizabeth: You get answers, and you just ask for what you want.

Carolina: I remember when I first came to London, everybody was so nice.

Elizabeth: Everyone's polite.

Carolina: But in New York everybody tells you, "I love it, I hate it." And nobody gets offended. It's just the way it is.

Carmen: Have the different cities influenced your taste?

Elizabeth: For me, what I love about London fashion is it's really interesting. It's more eclectic, it's more individualistic, it's more creative. People kind of mix stuff. It's really fun. And I think New York, especially in fashion, I mean, I wore black most of the time. Maybe a little navy and a little camel (laughs). I moved to London and some people mentioned, "You're wearing color." It’s just a different vibe, it's more fun.

Carmen: Do you think that now, compared to in your earlier career, it’s easier for smaller brands to be discovered?

Elizabeth: It definitely is. I use social media. Before, to be discovered, you had to know an editor who recommended you. You needed to be part of a showroom that already vetted you, you had to be somewhere that we could find you. I think now we discover people on social media all the time, or you see things on people. So many brands are discovered that way now.

Carmen: There's also a huge amount of volume, right? Picking the favorites out of the noise must be...

Elizabeth: It's hard; we have different programs where I support new talent. One time I remember the Eurostar broke down and my handbag buyer was like, "I just spent 6 hours just looking for handbags on Instagram."

Carmen: Are there brands that you feel you discovered that you're like, "That was me"?

Elizabeth: There are quite a few. Rodarte is one… Peter Do was one. There are probably quite a few I'm not even remembering now!

Carmen: Does the thrill of discovery keep you excited?

Elizabeth: The fun part is always the product, discovering amazing new talent. An amazing, beautiful product.

Carmen: Carolina, what keeps you excited?

Carolina: It's experiences of life, it's taste, it's all of it. I think it's about needing to push yourself constantly. To make yourself happy. We're making people happy, but we need to have fun doing it. Because otherwise we might as well do something else that is more impactful to the world. Passion is important, I think, and that goes back to the beginning. Making people happy.

Carmen: Elizabeth, can you end by telling us what Carolina Bucci pieces are making you happy today?

Elizabeth: I am wearing the watch (the Carolina Bucci x Audemars Piguet Limited Edition Royal Oak). I'm obsessed with this watch. I have my FORTE Beads and I have my original, the Lucky.

Carmen: Which charm do you have?

Elizabeth: Friendship.

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