MONTREAL — In June, when Rami Atallah, the chief executive of SSENSE, learned that the online retailer he founded had received an investment that valued the company at $4.1 billion, he kept his cool. There were no uncorked bottles or public victory laps. His daily grind of consecutive Zoom meetings continued, unperturbed.
Never mind that this meant the company he started out of his parents’ Montreal basement in 2003, with the help of his two brothers, would now be one of the most valuable luxury e-commerce operations in the world.
“It didn’t exactly surprise us,” Mr. Atallah said recently at SSENSE’s mammoth five-story retail store in the touristy Old Port neighborhood of Montreal. “The number was within the range of what we had in mind, but we don’t see it as the destination for us.”
The valuation was made by Sequoia Capital, a tech-focused venture capital firm, which had made a minority investment in the platform (and whose amount neither company will disclose).
The valuation figure is the closest thing resembling a boast about SSENSE’s success to date, and it places it among the ranks of e-commerce conglomerates like YOOX Net-a-Porter Group and Farfetch, though both of those companies are publicly traded.
SSENSE says it will bring in more than $750 million in revenue this year, though that number could not be independently verified, and, until now, has never taken on significant outside investment.
“Modesty,” of course, is not typically a word that comes to mind when discussing the hype-heavy spheres of designer fashion and street wear, SSENSE’s foremost offerings.
And although Mr. Atallah, 39, a Palestinian-born immigrant who grew up in Damascus, prefers not to be the face of his company, he has quietly become one of the most influential figures in the fashion industry. He oversees 1,300 employees spread across North America and Europe, alongside his brothers, Firas, 41, the company’s chief governance office, and Bassel, 37, its chief operations officer.
His appetite for making big bets on emerging designers has turned SSENSE into a tastemaker. Long before designers like Virgil Abloh, Demna Gvasalia and Matthew Williams became superstar stewards of some of the oldest luxury houses in fashion, SSENSE was selling their debut collections. Today, the three occupy top creative spots at Louis Vuitton men’s wear, Balenciaga and Givenchy.
SSENSE also supported the French designer Marine Serre from the earliest days, when she was still showing her collections in her Paris bedroom. “It was really quite special when they came to me,” Ms. Serre said. “They had ideas. They were ready to take risks.”
Now, nearly two decades after the company was founded, SSENSE has become a destination for Gen Z and millennial consumers of designer clothing and footwear. The platform offers over 70,000 items from more than 700 brands, the company said. It likes to juxtapose high fashion labels like Gucci and Prada, which joined in 2017, against street wear brands such as Noah and Jun Takahashi’s Undercover.
Even more, SSENSE is the rare retailer perceived as a brand all on its own, a result of Mr. Atallah’s desire to make his company a “cultural protagonist.” It has invested heavily in an editorial platform, overseen by Joerg Koch, the founder of the German fashion magazine 032c, which expanded into a twice-a-year print magazine in 2019.
Collaborations with brands large and small are frequent occurrences, as are lavishly produced cultural events, like the time a replica of Virgil Abloh’s Chicago studio was built inside of SSENSE’s retail space, designed by the architect David Chipperfield, or when the experimental producer ARCA staged an elaborate performance, involving vats of fluid, on all five floors.
This summer, Burberry collaborated with the retailer on a capsule collection, codesigned by Peter Saville and Jo Ratcliffe. And as part of the collaboration, Burberry invited SSENSE to add its neoteric polish to its SoHo retail space.
SSENSE is also experimenting with new categories. After experiencing what Mr. Atallah called a “10 to 20 percent increase in demand” during the pandemic in 2020, the retailer introduced a new home and lifestyle vertical, Everything Else. The new category is a mix of high-end furniture — including Tom Sachs’s X-chairs, which cost $12,500 each — and designer children’s wear, personal electronics and a pet clothing category featuring designs by Ms. Serre and Heron Preston.
The Early Years
Mr. Atallah described his growing up in Syria as a culture “very, very far” from the world of fashion. Music lessons, French school and competitive tennis occupied the brothers’ days. Firas, the oldest brother, recalled that as teenagers they were already bristling against the conforming pressures of that society.
“It was a bit narrow-minded,” he said. “Being successful meant being a doctor or an engineer, otherwise you’d be a nobody.”
Their first brush with Western-designed fashion, Rami Atallah said, came in the form of Nike tennis apparel, specifically the Andre Agassi acid-washed and color-spattered designs their father would bring back from business trips to France. Though Mr. Atallah was an under-14 tennis champion in Syria, whose first ambition was to play at Roland-Garros, his future may have been set when his tennis coach first explained the internet to him.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that,’” he said. “It just sparked my curiosity.”
After his father, a steel importer, relocated the family to Montreal, Mr. Atallah went on to study computer science at Polytechnique Montreal university, where he first realized the potential of selling clothes online. He began reselling designer jeans, purchased at cost from local retailers, first on eBay and later on an embryonic version of SSENSE that he coded himself for his graduate thesis project.
“That was in addition to handling customer service, warehouse picking and packing,” he said of his workload during the company’s early first years. “At one point, I was the photographer. I know how to retouch product too.”
Having discovered that high margins could be made selling designer brands like Diesel, Mr. Atallah asked his father for a small loan and enlisted his two brothers to join the operation.
“We never doubted him,” Bassel said in a phone interview, referring to Rami. SSENSE’s chief operating officer since its founding, Bassel described the first years as being defined by a sense of “tinkering.”
“It was about being curious and solving problems,” he said. “Like: How do you Photoshop? How do you print labels? How do you describe products? How do you buy it? How do you ship it? And we haven’t slowed down since.”
Firas, also on that call, recalled that despite being the chief financial office at the time, he was also responsible for packing and shipping products. “I would create these huge lines at the post office,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the customers there hated me.”
SSENSE appears to operate in a world of its own design. Geographically speaking, it does in a sense. Its corporate headquarters are in Montreal’s sleepy garment district, far from the major fashion capitals of the world. This is exactly as Mr. Atallah likes it. Even today, he’s loath to admit any degree of insider influence, preferring instead to refer to himself and his team as “expert outsiders.” It’s a mind-set he maintains, in part, by rarely hiring talent away from competitors.
“This is a story about immigrants with zero experience or knowledge about fashion, having to learn everything from scratch,” Mr. Atallah said one recent morning as he sat in a quiet nook of his retail store. Wearing purple Salomon sneakers and a gray mohair sweater, he spoke softly and evenly as sales associates trickled into the building, a cold space punctuated by a minimalist steel lighting system and black sandblasted concrete walls (a hue customized to Mr. Atallah’s exacting standards).
“Coming from a completely closed-off world to a place like Canada, experiencing the openness of its culture, has freed us up to see things differently,” he said. “Seeing the two extremities has allowed us to open up our horizons on what’s possible.”
There have been a few public missteps by the company. Mr. Atallah’s willingness to experiment with hiring people who lack fashion experience has reportedly led to high turnover among its management team. Some former employees have also said wages at the company are low, compared with peers in the industry.
In 2018, it bought Polyvore, a fashion mood board app, once worth a reported $200 million, and promptly shut it down. SSENSE never explained its logic behind the acquisition, though it did discover a highly vocal community of Polyvore users who were enraged by the sudden disappearance of their platform.
SSENSE quickly published an apology for the “distress” it had caused, and Mr. Atallah issued a measured mea culpa in an interview with Business of Fashion at that time: “I didn’t realize the intensity of the relationships being formed on the platform,” he said. The company could have handled it in a different way, but “business is about taking risks.”
Some of SSENSE’s innovations can be seen inside its 115,000-square-foot offices that are tucked into two floors inside a drab office building on the rue Chabanel. While the majority of the employees were shifted to remote work during the pandemic, about 150 photo and production employees have maintained a frenzied daily churn, uploading roughly 3,000 to 4,000 products onto the platform every week, the company said. SSENSE has 26 photo studios, sequestered behind a door with biometric security, to maintain this volume.
During a recent tour of the headquarters, there was a hushed choreography of discerningly dressed 20-somethings — models, stylists, assistants, retouchers and photographers, preparing shots amid racks of newly arrived products. The process is one of SSENSE’s most closely guarded secrets. (Its photography lighting, for example, is especially guarded, and I was asked not to take photos in the studios, not even for personal notes.)
SSENSE’s product photos may be the brand’s most distinctive calling cards. Each item is styled with editorial precision, usually on flinty-faced models, like the kind you may find meandering through Dimes Square in New York City, against open white backgrounds.
“You can see an SSENSE photo anywhere on the web, and you know it’s SSENSE without having seen the logo,” Mr. Atallah said.
Alexa Lanza, the market director of Interview magazine, often uses SSENSE as a research tool because of its vast selection of products and visual presentation.
“They have a very particular eye when it comes to their casting and lighting and styling,” she said. “There’s a personality to it, but it’s not overwhelming to the customer.”
“You can tell what the clothes are going to look like on a person,” she said.
Another example of Mr. Atallah’s outsider approach is his fixation on data and systematized thinking in an industry — the fashion world — renowned for its volatility. His favorite creative voices tend to be those with meticulously defined approaches: He cited Rei Kawakubo, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Steve Jobs.
Current and former employees said the company resembles a tech firm more than a purveyor of cool clothing, where each decision must be bolstered by numbers. Yet they also said that it’s an environment where left-brained and right-brained thinking operate in relative harmony.
“Our growth is a result of our having two strong approaches — the art of it and the science of it,” said Krishna Nikhil, the chief marketing officer. “We don’t blend art and science. If you blend, you get mush. We toggle.”
Mr. Atallah put it more directly: “I look at data day in and day out. That’s what feeds the intuition. Intuition is not just ‘I feel like doing it.’”
The only time Mr. Atallah seems to have acted solely on gut feelings is when he named the company. “It just looked good written out, so we went for it,” he said, explaining that it is a play on the word “essence.” (While it may be obvious to some, SSENSE’s correct pronunciation seems to be a source of bewilderment for many.)
This mode of computer-science thinking, as Eric Hu, SSENSE’s design director from 2016 to 2018, said, guides every aspect of the company’s decision making. “Rami has a very clear-cut vision for how things should be,” he said. “And he’s able to make very bold decisions because he requires data and actual intel to prove his hunches.”
Mr. Hu was brought on to oversee the company’s rebranding, including a redesign of the website, which today attracts 100 million page views per month, according to the company. The effort came on the heels of SSENSE’s expansion of its editorial platform, and Mr. Atallah was insistent that visitors to the landing page be greeted not by products, but by cultural content, a blend of essays, fashion editorials and interviews. Mr. Hu was taken aback.
“I didn’t think it was logical at the time,” said Mr. Hu, who is now the global design director at Nike. “It felt antithetical to the job of making sure product is sold. But now when I look at other websites, it’s obvious SSENSE has a much more intimate feel. Rami was adamant that even if you didn’t have money, people should be able to walk away with something from SSENSE. It was a long-term investment that has clearly paid off.”
SSENSE said its customer base is overwhelmingly between the ages 18 and 40. It’s a coveted demographic expected to represent more than 70 percent of all consumers of personal luxury goods by 2025, according to recent figures released by Bain & Company.
Charles de Brabant, the executive director of the School of Retail Management at McGill University in Montreal, said that SSENSE’s relentless attention on its audience sets it apart from competitors like Farfetch and Net-a-Porter.
“Most brands want to be everything to everybody and dominate every category, but SSENSE is very focused,” he said. “They have found a sweet spot that positions them as a very strong niche player. They connect with a special type of consumer.”
Retail analysts, like Mr. de Brabant, were surprised when news of Sequoia’s multibillion dollar valuation was announced. SSENSE is still privately held by Mr. Atallah and his brothers, so little financial information about the company has been shared publicly. And the brothers are extremely quiet about their wealth or plans for the company.
What’s certain is that Mr. Atallah is in the act of placing his largest bet yet: on the Chinese luxury market. Sales of luxury goods in the country doubled in the last year, to $68 billion, according to the same Bain & Company report. And since 2018, SSENSE has been publishing its website in simplified Chinese to help “localize” its offerings.
The recent investment from Sequoia Capital was led by the firm’s China arm. SSENSE said that its most immediate use for that investment was filling more than 400 new jobs within the next year.
Angelica Cheung, the founder of Vogue China and a partner at Sequoia, helped lead the investment and has recently joined the SSENSE board of directors.
“Young Chinese consumers are looking not just for cool products but also guidance on how to style them, to show them some attitude,” Ms. Cheung said. “SSENSE is a brand with its own attitude. They know they have style.”
Style, yes. But will Mr. Atallah admit his newfound influence? Maybe some other time.
“It does come up from time to time, but I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “It is, of course, nice to hear compliments.”