The Moda Operandi founder talks women in Saudi Arabia, royal connections, and world domination.
“Excuse me, I’m a little jetlagged,” she apologises, alongside a warm handshake.
However, despite her gruelling 13-hour flight from the US to Dubai just days earlier, Lauren Santo Domingo looks anything but, clad in an embroidered kimono, sheath dress and barely-there makeup. The co-founder of luxury online retailer Moda Operandi jetted into the UAE last month to launch a collaboration with a group of groundbreaking women, the Arabian Gazelles.
“Someone in the office introduced me to the group and I was immediately inspired,” says Santo Domingo of the female-only supercar club based in Dubai and founded by Hanan Mazouzi.
“I was really drawn to the confidence of a woman driving a supercar. That’s obviously a really strong and dynamic woman, and that’s who I naturally gravitate towards as friends.”
Moda, the high-end, e-commerce hub launched by Santo Domingo in 2011, after she cut her teeth at Vogue US, will work with the group over the next year, blending flash rides with high fashion. It’s a move fittingly ahead of the curve for a forward-thinking business that allows customers to pre-order catwalk looks months before they hit stores. “Things come to us all the time, but I was really excited about this,” says Santo Domingo of the partnership, admitting with a smile that her ultimate goal is to host a similar event in Saudi Arabia.
“Right in the middle of the #MeToo movement was the announcement that women in Saudi will be able to drive,” she says of King Salman’s historic reform last year. “I think we see that a win for a woman in Saudi is a win for women anywhere. The law passes on June 24, so the plan is to go there and celebrate women drivers in Saudi Arabia. And normalise it as quickly as possible.” Luckily, the Connecticut-born style muse and fashion editor has plenty of local contacts, admitting she’s filed away the numbers of many influential women across the Middle East over the years.
It’s because of such friends that her business has seen growing success in the region, Santo Domingo believes. “We’ve been so lucky. I happen to have – just from my own life and my own travels – lots of friends in Saudi Arabia, and strong connections to a lot of women in the royal family. They have opened so many doors in terms of customers and advice,” she says. “They tell us ‘these are what our expectations are, this is what we don’t appreciate’. So we’ve not really been flying blind.” It’s not just the regional shopper that Santo Domingo has developed a deep understanding of – she’s been watching the Middle East’s emerging design talent for years, citing Zayan The Label as one of her favourites.
“I think here there is definitely a more glamorous and dressed-up approach, but at the same time it’s done with a bit more ease,” she says. “People, from what I can tell, still get dressed up here and make an effort.”
Dressing for after-dark is a particular passion for Santo Domingo, who enthuses “there’s no go-to any more”.
“It used to be for evening you would wear a beaded one-shoulder dress, a beaded strapless dress, or a taffeta ballgown.
“Now you see cut-outs, a peasant blouse with a ball skirt and a flat sandals, anything goes. Evening’s become more fashion.” In Santo Domingo’s own life, with a style she calls “evolving”, you’ll often find her in everything from Ellery to Johanna Ortiz, though one particular label is close to her heart: Proenza Schouler. “They’re two of my best friends,” she says of the US brand helmed by Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. “Selfishly, they design with me in mind, so it’s obvious that I’m going to like everything they make.”
The design duo have in fact been behind some of Santo Domingo’s most beloved looks, such as the marigold cheongsam-inspired dress she wore to the 2015 Met Gala.
For this year’s bash, the New York resident worked with Raf Simons on a creation, blending an angelic palette of creams in a contemporary two-piece.
“Of course, it’s great to buy a dress off the runway, but it’s really fun and special [to have one custom-made],” she says. “I get that I’m so lucky to be able to call these designers and do this.” It was at the Met, Santo Domingo reveals, that she hit a career high, sponsoring the sartorial extravaganza back in 2013, just a few years after Moda first launched. “That was probably a real flag in the ground,” she remembers.
“We were considered a really small start-up, and people though it was just a fun project. I don’t think anyone really realised how big and how quickly we were growing, and how ambitious we were.” It’s that ambition that has seen Moda grow into a formidable shopping behemoth, with the average customer spending US$1,400 (Dhs5,142) per order, seven times a year, according to Business of Fashion.
However, the business – and Santo Domingo – won’t rest on their laurels, constantly looking for ways to evolve, such as launching an incubator for emerging talent last year. It’s that desire for innovation that Moda prides itself on, fostering up-and-coming names and not stocking “basics”. “We’ve spent a lot of time educating our customer… and getting them confident in putting down the Chanel suit, putting down the Hermès Birkin, putting the Louboutins in the drawer and trying something new,” says Santo Domingo. “We want to stay agile,” the entrepreneur says, “with that start-up mentality to do new things, stay scrappy, and look ahead”.
Her hope for the next few years is to permeate the daydreams of those hoping for a career in the industry. “When there’s someone sitting in their childhood bedroom, dreaming of being a designer, I want them to think of Moda first,” Santo Domingo says. She pauses, mulling over what she considers her end goal, before summing it up in two words with a grin.