Alibaba is not content with being the biggest e-commerce marketplace in China. The company, which was founded in 1999 by Jack Ma as a business-to-business e-market, is taking steps to become the world’s largest conglomerate. After expanding its operations to encompass multinational e-commerce by way of its Taobao, Tmall and Alibaba.com websites – which boast hundreds of millions of users, millions of merchants, and transactions that top those of both eBay and Amazon.com combined – the giant has looked to financial services by way of Alipay (a mobile and online payment platform), cloud computing, and global logistics.
Also in the mix for Hangzhou, Zhejiang-based Alibaba – which listed on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014, nabbing the title of “the world's highest IPO,” with a $231 billion market value at the time of market closing – are brick-and-mortar stores. In November Alibaba announced its plans to invest HK$22.4 billion ($2.9 billion) for a 36 percent stake in Sun Art Retail Group, the largest operator of supermarkets or hypermarkets in China). Bike sharing services are also in the works; Chinese bike-sharing firm Ofo announced this week that it has raised $866 million in new funding led by Alibaba).
And increasingly … Alibaba is looking to fashion.
The “still poorly understood digital conglomerate,” as Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky very accurately described the Chinese language-only online behemoth in March, has made no secret of its intent to make inroads to the fashion and luxury segments.
This past summer, the giant announced – via its own news site, Alizila – that it had launched a new “Luxury Pavilion” on its most upscale site, Tmall, “aiming to bring the same brand exclusivity and tailored shopping experience that consumers would get in a brick-and-mortar store to the world of e-commerce.”
A month later, New York Fashion Week: The Shows welcomed a new sponsor: Tmall. In association with Suntchi, a full-service management company focused on the fashion and entertainment industries, the collaboration will "help U.S. designers and brands leverage Alibaba’s scale and technology to reach the China market for the first time." That “scale” includes access to Alibaba’s Tmall’s annual "See Now-Buy Now" fashion show and its Single's Day Global Shopping Festival, which brought in $1.5 billion in sales in just 3 minutes this past November.
By joining with Alibaba, leading U.S. designers "will gain first-time exposure to the more than half a billion consumers visiting Alibaba’s platforms," the company said at the time. In exchange, Alibaba gains new names to add to its invitation-only Luxury Pavilion portal, a roster that currently boasts the likes of Kering-owned Stella McCartney, Tod’s, Burberry, Hugo Boss, Maserati, and the LVMH-owned brands Rimowa, Guerlain and Zenith.
Another name to add to Alibaba’s list (albeit tangentially): Rent the Runway. As first reported by Recode late last week, “Blue Pool Capital, a financial firm that principally invests the wealth of Alibaba co-founders Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, has invested $20 million into the women’s clothing rental business.”
New York-based Rent the Runway, which got its start in 2009 as a rental service for formal gowns, cocktail dresses and accessories, confirmed the deal, with co-founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman telling Recode, “I have huge respect for Joe and Jack and wanted to opportunistically involve them in the business as we embark on our biggest growth stage. Given the global aspirations that we have — especially in Asia — I thought they would be very good people to have around the table.”
While Alibaba and Rent the Runway are not technically partnering at this time, since the investment comes by way of Blue Pool Capital, not Alibaba, it is difficult not to see this deal as yet another example of the Chinese giant looking to expand into new markets and segments.
With fashion's growing acceptance of the platform (including an alliance with Kering and LVMH), following years of strife and seemingly endless legal battles over the presence of counterfeit goods on its platforms, and the draw of the arguably invaluable analytics that Alibaba can provide for brands seeking to expand into the Far East, the central question associated with the business of Alibaba is changing. It is increasingly shifting away from whether Alibaba (and its co-founders) will be able to make a strong play for the fashion industry and its luxury leaders, towards, how – exactly – Alibaba will do it.