The Future of Fashion Retail: Chris Morton

Portrait of Chris Morton, founder of Lyst

Photo: Thomas Giddings — Courtesy of Chris Morton

The Power Lyst

First in the series is an interview with Chris Morton, CEO of Lyst. Lyst is a social curation start-up that combines features of Twitter with those of music discovery websites such as, providing members a customised stream of fashion items relevant to their personal tastes. With a growing number of fashion companies setting up shop and taking their goods online, it becomes harder for people to find their perfect jacket or bag amidst all a sea of options. Lyst is stepping up the social sharing game, focusing solely on one industry — fashion — and utilising the fact that personal recommendations can have a bigger impact on consumers than direct advertising or fashion editorials.

What does Lyst bring to the fashion consumer's table and what kind of needs does it address?

Lyst is a social curation platform that lets users follow the fashion designers, retailers and style icons they love so they can discover what’s inspiring them. Users can also create their own ‘lysts’ of curated products to start sharing their own style. It's a bit like Twitter for fashion, except on Lyst the users simply follow and share products they love, rather than exchange short form text messages. We founded Lyst in early 2010 to change the way people could discover fashion online. Through sites like and Pandora we were discovering great new songs and bands, so we wanted to build a tool that let people discover amazing fashion products and designers — we felt no one was addressing that problem. However, we didn't believe that the discovery process could be done purely algorithmically because fashion is a personal expression — it can't be distilled into a sequence of numbers and letters.

 To use another analogy, on Twitter we follow friends and people whose opinions we respect to get a bespoke stream of relevant information straight to our feeds. We wanted to recreate that sort of personalised experience just for fashion, but centred around visually rich products. As a result, by following ‘lysts’ curated by their favourite designers, bloggers, magazines and boutiques, users get the most relevant items sent straight to them. In effect, their style feed becomes the place they are most likely to discover items they love. Why did we do this? Because right now it's too hard to discover fashion online — and the space is becoming increasingly fragmented; every day new online retailers, designers and blogs are emerging, making it even harder to sift through all the noise. We've built a tool that helps users cut through the content they don't care about and focus on what they love. At the same time, we've created a communication channel for designers, boutiques and publishers to share products they designed, bought or discovered directly with their fans—this channel exists primarily to drive sales, but in addition, it also helps our partners build brand and consumer engagement.

In your view, how do social media influence the way people interact when it comes to shopping? What kind of selling models do you see emerging due to this trend? Do they pose a threat to traditional retailers and if yes, in what way?

Lyst is part of a wider trend that's driving the shift from lowest common denominator broadcast messages to bespoke, personalised information streams. In other words, customers are starting to expect personalised emails from retail and design brands they are passionate about, rather than a generic one-size-fits-all email sent out to the entire customer database. We believe the future of advertising is personal recommendation. People are much more likely to act on a recommendation that a broadcast message, and Lyst is rapidly becoming the channel for people and brands to send and receive fashion recommendations. We also kept coming across the act of 'faux shopping' when we were speaking to our users. For example, this is when a user goes onto a site like Net-a-Porter, puts together an amazing shopping cart, but instead of checking out, just sighs wistfully and closes the browser. We were conscious that users were effectively creating rich content and expressing their style, but then destroying it afterwards. With Lyst, we aimed to build a service where users could keep those items for as long as they liked and share their style.

We are currently seeing an expansion of social shopping websites. What is your view on this and how does Lyst differentiate itself from the competition?

Lyst is centred around fashion — it's what our users care deeply about. Our platform and community are not diluted with technology, food or healthcare products. We don't rely on bookmarklets; rather, we partner with handpicked retailers and designers from around the world, bringing their inventory to Lyst in real time. As a result, our users can add products to their lysts from our data-rich inventory of millions of fashion items, while brands are reassured that the quality of content on the site is being respected. In other words, users will never find teapots, telescopes or mechanical diggers in their style feeds (all of which I've found on other curation sites). We are social to the core, not algorithmic. Every item in our users' lysts is handpicked, rather than being auto-generated through algorithms operating on a Q&A system. We are data fanatics. We are already generating significant data on trends, popular products and fashion influencers. We are starting to share these trends with our partners. We are also exploring ways of contextualising curations that we believe will further differentiate us. We provide users with a variety of tools that improve their shopping experience. For example, we notify our users whenever an item in their lyst goes on sale anywhere in the world that will ship to them. We’re also launching a new tool this season called Runway Tracking that lets users track items as soon as they’re shown on the runway; we notify them once those items are available to buy anywhere in the world that will ship to them.

Online content is everywhere when it comes to fashion retailers and everybody seems to be a creator/writer/curator these days: journalists, bloggers, and even brands. How is this polyphony affecting what is being written and recommended when it comes to the fashion world?

As it becomes easier for people to create content and share their voice on the web, the need for an effective filter becomes increasingly important. The signal to noise ratio is diminishing, and for subjective media like fashion, which are driven by individual taste and trends, we believe a social filter is needed for everyone to receive content and recommendations tailored to them.

What are the risks of allowing anyone to become a shopping/style curator? Do you need to ensure that you get a rich and diversified member base? Or will 'natural selection' (with the survival of the most popular curators) shape the community of your website, €”even if that means very specific/limited recommendations?

On Lyst we already have a rich and diversified member base, spanning 173 countries around the world and all strands of fashion. There is certainly a degree of natural selection with popular curators emerging, but diversity is key given the wide range of tastes and trends our community follows. While authoritative voices have always been central to fashion media, we believe those authoritative voices exist within groups of friends as well as on TV or the newsstand. Indeed, some of the most acted-upon recommendations come from friends rather than brands. Lyst is furthering the democratisation of the space, as our users follow a combination of established voices and friends — again, we think about Twitter as a good analogy. Granted that noise levels increase with the new voices democratisation empowers, Lyst’s social filter enables users to focus on content from sources they care about.

Chuck Townsend of Condé Nast said in WSJ: "My eyes are wide open. I don't consider [the traditional ad-revenue model] to be a perennially sustainable stream of revenue".€ We see brands becoming publishers and publishers stepping into retail sales (for example, Telegraph's FashionShop). Is this the beginning of a new era for these industries? How do you see the relationship between media and retailers developing in the future?

Great question — we see the world in exactly the same way. We are definitely entering a new era. Certainly retailers have been successful in including more editorial on their sites, so the implication is that publishers would do well to consider drawing revenues derived from product sales their content inspires. Of course, this is easier said than done — practically/organisationally, this shift is non-trivial for most publishers, and there is also the risk of a perceived compromise of editorial integrity if publishers are seen by readers as only pushing certain products. Lyst fits neatly into this space. We have millions of products from thousands of retailers and designers on our site, with thousands being added every day. We also make it very easy for publishers to make lysts or ‘collections’ on our site and export them to their websites, magazines or blogs. By doing this, we make it very simple for publishers of all sizes, from a single blogger to an international magazine, to bring commerce onto their site in an effective, unbiased way. Of course, Lyst is itself a personalised fashion magazine with commerce at its core. Users follow designers, boutiques, magazines and bloggers they’re interested in to receive instant updates straight to their own style feeds. In effect, they become editors of their own magazine. So the boundaries between designers, retailers and publishers are blurring, with Lyst acting as one of several online catalysts.

What is your vision for Lyst? How would you like to see it evolve and what are your plans to keep it as relevant as possible?

Our mission is to connect our users with items they love which they can share with their followers and buy from our partners. We think the combination of context and curation is key for generating the desire to love, share and buy. Context can be social, i.e. if an item is lysted by someone whose style I revere, which could make me desire the item. Context can also be visual; i.e. if an item is part of a wider theme, outfit, editorial, etc. that I like, it makes me see the item in a new, favourable light. Today, we are exploring and experimenting with variations on contextualisation. Looking at the bigger picture, if we are successful in connecting users with items they love, Lyst can become the dominant platform for consumers to discover items online, much like Twitter is becoming for information.

You said that "the future of advertising is personal recommendation".€ Is there a specific strategy to this that you intend to apply? Don't you still need to locate, contact and persuade the influencers? And how do you plan to help them spread the message across?

Every day every one of us recommends fashion to their friends through what we wear and what we say. In many ways, Lyst is an extension of that, except you’re not limited by what you can find in your local stores or afford. The challenge is not to convince people to share (the desire to share already exists in most of us); rather, it’s to provide the best tools to share fashion online, and to spread the word about the service we provide. We’re thrilled our user growth suggests that our community values the sharing tools we provide, and their feedback has been instrumental in developing new features. Furthermore, once people are curating items they love, their next desire is to share their picks with friends and followers, both on Lyst and further afield. We let users post their lysts on their blogs and share them on their social networks, which in turns helps spread the word about Lyst. As I alluded to in my answer above, we are always adding new magazines, bloggers and style icons to our community. Many of the retailers and designers we partner with also talk about their lysts on Facebook and Twitter, which helps grow their followings which in turn drives sales.

What are the biggest challenges that Lyst is facing at the moment?

From day one we have aimed to be an international site. Our users from the USA see items in US dollars from stores that will ship to them, while our users from France see items in Euros and only from stores that will ship to France. It’s been tough to be global from day one, but we believe it’s important to have global trends showcased on Lyst.

As a consumer, how have your shopping habits changed this past year? As a reader, how often do you pay attention to branded content nowadays?

I buy more online, as you might expect, however when people ask me where I got something, I tend to answer with the lyst I found it on rather than the store I bought it from.

Which trends do you identify with most strongly in the world of fashion ecommerce?

The fusion of content and commerce.

What is online fashion shopping going to be like in the near future?

Personalised, relevant, engaging, and contextualised.

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