Natalia Vodianova: supermodel, mother... tech mogul?
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It’s just another Thursday in the Vodianova-Arnault household in Paris, a palatial duplex a short stroll from the lush parklands of the Bois de Boulogne. Natalia Vodianova, the 39-year-old Russian supermodel, entrepreneur, investor and mother of five, is posing for our shoot in the sun-dappled back garden. Her husband, the LVMH scion, chairman of Loro Piana and chief executive of Berluti, Antoine Arnault, breezes in and out, while Vodianova’s 19-year-old son, Lucas Portman, from her first marriage to Justin Portman, shows me sneakers from his new fashion line, Fashion Baby.
Portman brandishes his iPhone to demonstrate how you can also try on a pair of his sneakers virtually using the augmented-reality-powered app Wanna Kicks. The app will superimpose onto your feet virtual 3D renders of the latest sneaker releases from various brands such as Nike, Gucci and Reebok (and now Fashion Baby); it’s the digital answer to try-before-you-buy. His joy is infectious. “The images are so good!” he says, aiming his phone towards the feet of anyone within reach.
Post-shoot Vodianova sits down with her business partner, Timon Afinsky, to discuss her own interest in trainers. She is not, as she describes her son, a “sneaker-head” but an angel investor in Wanna, the Moscow-, Minsk- and Vilnius-based augmented-reality startup behind the digital technology. She met founder Sergey Arkhangelskiy, a former engineer at Google, before she knew her son was using the app, but admits that Lucas’s approval sealed the deal. “I was like, OK great, we’re investing!” she says.
Brought up in poverty in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in the Soviet Union, Vodianova enrolled in a model agency aged 15. By the time she was 17, she had joined Viva Models in Paris and went on to be one of the most successful models of her generation – with a score of contracts and campaigns for brands including Prada, Louis Vuitton, Guerlain, Chanel and YSL among others, and a runway career that has seen her on a thousand catwalks, sometimes only weeks after giving birth. Aged 19, she married the property heir Justin Portman and had three children by the age of 25. Following her separation from Portman in 2011, she settled in Paris where, last year, she married Arnault in a tiny civil ceremony. A keen long-distance runner (she has been known to run a half marathon in the morning and hit the catwalk in the afternoon), she is also a passionate philanthropist: her Naked Heart Foundation – which she set up in the aftermath of the Beslan school siege in 2004 – has since raised more than €30m to create playgrounds and help children in her native home. Earnest, direct and utterly independent, Vodianova has always lived as though every day might be her last on earth.
And right now, she’s all about technology.
Vodianova might have access to a whole clan of Gen-Zers through her children, but she has also spent several years sharpening her own business instincts for the potential of the startup space. Since 2015, she and Afinsky have built an investment portfolio of more than 20 tech businesses, including several success stories such as the go-to photo-editing app PicsArt, the period-tracking app Flo and the sleep-scape app Loóna (named 2020’s best app by Google Play Store). She has also invested in her son’s Fashion Baby, though she admits she did her due diligence before giving it the green light. “In my opinion, there are two things that are very important in fashion: one is to show something fresh and original that we haven’t seen before, and the second is to make it very personal.”
This maxim likely served her well in the curation of her portfolio, which began in 2015 with Elbi, a philanthropic social platform that allowed users to support various causes and make a donation with just the click of a button. “It was born from frustration with the current tech companies and looking at the next stage of the ‘Like’ button,” she says. Elbi has since merged into Locals.org, a neighbourhood network that encourages donating to charity, but its initial messaging at the time caught the attention of other young entrepreneurs. “We had a lot of founders come to us and say, ‘I have this startup and it’s doing well, but I still haven’t figured out what my mission is,’” she says. Afinsky adds, “Sometimes the tech is immaculate but they don’t know how to talk about it.”
Despite her career as a model, Wanna is Vodianova’s first fashion investment. “Fashion is such a big contributor to environmental damage, so it wasn’t an area I was looking into,” she says of her investments, which lean towards sustainability. “But with this kind of technology, people will make better choices. Almost all the tech companies that we invest in are, in one way or another, bettering the world.”
Vodianova and Arkhangelskiy met at the Viva Technology fair in Paris in 2019, where Wanna was a finalist for the LVMH Innovation Award. Arkhangelskiy started Wanna in 2017 with Wanna Nails, an augmented-reality app that enabled you to try out different polishes; in 2019, he moved into sneakers with Wanna Kicks. The AR technology was well adapted to the footwear category (it works only on solid objects for now). At the same time, the market was flush with leagues of devoted “sneaker freaker” types, many of whom are digital natives eager to share their latest obsessions on platforms like Snapchat.
Gucci was the first brand to license the Wanna software-development kit as part of its greater investment in try-on tech; footwear brand Lamoda, FarFetch and e-commerce sneaker giant Goat followed suit in 2019-20. (Products can then also be pushed through Wanna Kicks’ app, which works as a showcase for the tech software.) FarFetch has so far found that the product-share rate quadrupled for its 100-plus featured styles. “The experience of trying on sneakers in AR is engaging – you get it in one second, it works like magic,” says Arkhangelskiy over Zoom from Moscow.
So far, brands have reported a game-changing uptick in engagement, which is also trickling down to the “conversion rate” (actually buying the stuff). It’s clear, from early data, that the 3D realism offered by AR visuals increases purchasing confidence. In its “The State of Fashion 2021” report, the consulting firm McKinsey said that conversion rates on Shopify increased 250 per cent for products supported by try-on technology. It also likely reduces the rate of returns – the Achilles heel of the e-commerce industry – as well. “Around 30 per cent of returns is often related to visuals, so it’s a sizeable problem,” says Arkhangelskiy.
Before you even click to buy, AR brims with economic possibilities. Even if you can’t afford them, you can still try on the latest Rolex or the sell-out Dior Air Jordan 1 sneakers (currently retailing from £14,163 on FarFetch) purely for fun. “Brands are happy for younger customers to just browse because they might convert in a few years,” Arkhangelskiy says. In the future, he thinks the technology will have broader applications. Not dressed for your next Zoom call? You could one day super-impose the latest look from Gucci onto your body. “I think that in five to 10 years, a reasonable chunk of a fashion brand’s revenue will come from digital items,” he predicts. An early test case: in March, Gucci launched a neon-coloured, digital-only sneaker named the Gucci Virtual 25 with Wanna that costs around $9. Users can wear the trainers like a filter on social media, but they can also download the style for their digital avatars on the virtual-reality social platform VRChat and the online game Roblox. The gaming world opens up other possible revenue streams for AR — see former magazine editor Lucy Yeomans’ luxury fashion game, Drest, where you can shop from a digital wardrobe (FarFetch is a retail partner) and style a supermodel avatar of your choice.
Vodianova, who happens to be an avatar on Drest, first recognised AR’s potential when she invested in Voir, a make-up app that allows you to test a palette of products in real time. From that experience, she recognised that the technology holds great promise for the luxury fashion sector where, historically, the online experience pales in comparison to the service and atmosphere of a flagship boutique: “We understood from that machine that AR would be a direction that fashion will go – it gives online shopping much more premium and a much more personal experience.” For now, this is where Arkhangelskiy is focused: “At the moment, only around 12 per cent of luxury purchases happen online,” he says, adding that he feels the technology hasn’t evolved all that much in the past 25 years. “We want to disrupt that market, to create engaging 3D experiences, and fill that gap between online and offline.”
AR, for now, does not offer a perfect fit (this is separate AI technology, plugged in by the likes of Fit Analytics and True Fit) and it only works on certain items. “When we start looking at clothing or soft items and layering in true size and fit technology, it will start to become huge,” says Carol Hilsum, the senior director of product innovation at FarFetch. Anita Balchandani, a partner at McKinsey, agrees: “We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the tech is being deployed, but the true power of AR will be ready-to-wear, which can incorporate movement.”
Arkhangelskiy is confident the technology they dream of is already not so far off. His research team and engineers are looking at developing software that will superimpose a product on a photo of the client (after you upload it to a site), but he also says real-time try-on tech for ready-to-wear might be ready as early as 2022. “The technology and the power of phones is vast and advancing quite quickly,” he says. “The market is ready.”
Certainly, the timing has never seemed so urgent. The advent of the pandemic last year fuelled what McKinsey called a “digital sprint” for brands. “We learned that our store network could be shut down overnight, so how do we continue to deliver best-in-class luxury experiences online?” says Grégory Boutté, chief client and digital officer at luxury group Kering. “We have doubled down on those efforts.” Kering houses many of the luxury leaders in the digital space, including early adopters like Gucci and Balenciaga, who have long embraced an impressive digital arsenal that includes both AR and the more immersive virtual-reality experience. “3D, 360-degree views of products have the huge potential for luxury online experiences to recreate the kind of magic you get inside the store,” says Boutté.
For Arkhangelskiy, Vodianova has been a conduit into the world of high luxury. “I am not a fashionista and I don’t have any of those connections,” he says, adding that it was Vodianova who made the introductions to FarFetch. For each of her investments, she commits to a similar, hands-on approach, taking on a role that ranges from ambassadorial to advisory. She admits to reading most of the user reviews and Instagram comments on many of her apps – many of which she and her family use daily. Arnault is a fan of Loóna to get back to sleep. Vodianova is a disciple of another of her investments, Zenia, the world’s first AI-based virtual yoga assistant, which uses AI motion-tracking to provide posture feedback in real time.
And she and Afinsky have just launched another new business that has been oddly serendipitous. “In 2016, we were in a science museum in Tokyo in front of a display that showed the negative events in human history and a pattern of how an unknown virus comes into the world every six to seven years,” she explains. “We thought,” adds Afinsky, “‘Why wait for the next virus?’”
The result of their intuition, and four years of development, is the Masuku face mask, a hardcover reusable mask fitted with a patented nano-fibre filter (compostable) that not only protects against airborne pathogens, allergens and pollution but allows for easy breathability too. Further, it offers a stylish solution to what Vodianova calls the current “plastic horror”, and fits on the face without crowding the mouth or nose. Arnault walks past. “Baby, do you want to testify how you keep forgetting about Masuku and try to drink coffee while it is on?” she asks him. “It’s true,” he says, a little sheepishly.
The plan is to add microchip technology that reads air quality to the masks. “I showed the prototype to Jony Ive, and he called it ‘the next wearable device’,” she says. As advances in tech continue to cut both ways, it seems that Vodianova has had a little fate on her side. “I wouldn’t call it lucky,” she says. “I believe that companies with a mission have more of a chance of being successful.”