Sitting opposite Roberta Benteler, the 30 year-old founder and managing director of London-based online retailer Avenue 32, one can’t help but notice her natural beauty. All high cheekbones, clear-skinned, tall and slim, she is, as they say, a fox. In the world of top CEO’s, she’s the one we’d most like to be. She loves fashion and takes it seriously, but she’s not unapproachable like many others. Roberta is the cool one, the one people would be wise to keep an eye on.
She launched Avenue 32 at the tender age of 26 and now, is best known for the ubiquitous street style images showcasing her penchant for mixing young designers you’ve probably never heard of with the big guns like Celine and Saint Laurent. But, as beautiful as these images are, they neither capture the role Roberta has played in the changing landscape of online retail, not her business mind.
She was a latecomer to fashion and spent her early twenties studying business and, after completing a masters in finance, had her eyes set on a role in the business development team at luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. She didn’t have enough experience to do that so went into finance instead. Once she’d built up the right foundation, she applied again only to be told she didn’t have the right experience in fashion.
‘LVMH stands for ultimate luxury, but is also a company that is second to none in terms of its strategic development,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the way Bernard Arnault has managed to create a conglomerate that nurtures, preserves and successful reinvents the identity of every single one of its brands while benefiting from having them all under one umbrella. In a way,’ she continues, ‘it’s that contradiction of luxury and logic that makes it so genius.’
She made the move from finance to fashion by working with a young designer. It’s through seeing the everyday challenges designers face that she came up with the idea of Avenue 32; a platform that works closely with emerging designers like Eudon Choi and Shrimps through to established brands like Alexander Wang and Roksanda Ilincic to allow them to shape the way their labels are seen online, offering brand videos, imagery and coverage in its in-house magazine.
‘When I came up with the idea, there wasn’t many functional online shops out there apart from ASOS and Net-a-Porter,’ she says. ‘I always felt passionate about young designers and remember clearly my frustration at not being able to buy them anywhere, or if at all, in very small selections.’ She does this by buying all of Avenue 32’s merchandise on a commission basis rather than the usual wholesale method allowing her to take risks on unknowns.
Today, Avenue 32’s designers list reads like a who’s who of the fashion scene: there’s amazing contemporary labels we all know and love like Carven and Equipment along with a long list of brands you probably haven’t heard of. Even on the day we meet, Roberta has just got back from a trip to Australia looking for new designers to add to the roster. That’s what makes Avenue 32 so special – you’re bound to find hidden treasures you can’t buy anywhere else.
Studying business for my BA and finance for my masters is something I’ve never regretted. There were definitely times when I felt frustrated about not being able to express myself creatively, but strategy and logical thinking is something that really appeals to me.
The growth of the site has meant that it’s gone from a team of three to a team of 35 with high profile staffers like fashion and brand director Erin Mullaney, who joined Avenue 32 from Browns. ‘Avenue 32 is like a big family,’ she says. ‘We have so many highly experienced and specialised members of the team who know a lot more about their specific areas than I do. My role is to bring all of their ideas and visions together.’
Though her time is now spent in almost permanent transit, in a uniform of hot off-the-runway designer pieces, Roberta’s early years in finance are apparent in everything she does. ‘Studying business for my BA and finance for my masters is something I’ve never regretted. There were definitely times when I felt frustrated about not being able to express myself creatively, but strategy and logical thinking is something that really appeals to me. Maybe that’s part of being German, but I delight in problem serving, the more challenging the better.’
“Being an entrepreneur himself, my father has always been a great role model for me and he would teach us that where there is a will, there is a way. If we wanted a raise in pocket money, we would have to prepare and argue our case. I loved this approach as it gave us confidence and I realised that if you really want something and you work hard for it, you can have it.’
I do get excited by trends and I love the way fashion reinvents itself but I would never buy something purely because it’s on trend. Instead, I recreate trends with things I have in my wardrobe.
It’s a burning hot day when we meet at her home in Kensington. She’s preparing to move not that you could tell – not a thing is out of place. Her home is beautiful, the type that would jump out at you from the pages of Elle Décor but she’s disarmingly unpretentious and reserved. The same is true of her style. Even during the circus of show season, everything she wears looks relaxed, her style innate but still stylish enough to grab the attention of street style photographers.
‘I love experimenting with fashion. The most important thing is to know what shapes and colours work for you. When you have a wardrobe of things that you love and suit you, combining them is the easy bit,’ she says. ‘My style constantly evolves but I really found myself after quitting finance. I think working in the industry gave me the confidence to experiment with different looks and find my own.’
As only someone who has perfected the art of dressing can, Roberta professes to not really think about what she wears and doesn’t make a special effort during fashion week despite knowing she will be snapped every day.
‘I’m definitely a big planner when it comes to buying but I’m very impulsive when it comes to combining pieces in my wardrobe,’ she says. ‘Funnily, I have planned outfits in the past but it’s always the last minute combinations that are a hit with the street style photographers.’
Her look is a template for many women but it’s never try hard. In fact, Roberta makes fashion look easy, a matter of getting dressed rather than dress up. ‘Almost everything I wear to fashion week is my own, as it just fits me and I feel comfortable in my clothes,’ she says, nonchalant. ‘I do get excited by trends and I love the way fashion reinvents itself but I would never buy something purely because it’s on trend. Instead, I recreate trends with things I have in my wardrobe and have fun with the process of combining pieces in new ways.’
Wardrobe staples are her modus operandi. ‘I love hunting for designers, shapes and silhouettes that have emotional value and that I will still cherish in years and eventually pass on to my children. I don’t consume fashion,’ she says. ‘I collect it.’ Walking into her wardrobe is like entering a treasure-trove of love-forever pieces mixed with more zeitgeist pieces. Her most treasured possession is a stunning vintage double-breasted tweed jacket from Chanel she picked up in a vintage sale in New York; her wardrobe features pieces she’s inherited from her mother like a classic Yves Saint Laurent blazer and Dior blouses. Celine and Saint Laurent are her weaknesses – ‘for some reason they fit me like a love, as if they were tailored for me.’
It’s a far cry from the fashion touted in the small village she grew up in in the Germany countryside, she tells me. ‘It highlighted the fact that my taste was far from the usual countryside uniform of Barbour jackets and check shirts,’ she laughs. ‘I definitely stuck out when it came to fashion.’ She still does, and we’re thankful for it.
Images by Dvora for The Lifestyle Edit.