It didn’t take long for Venezuelan entrepreneur Carmen Busquets to discover her calling. She knew from her college years that she could unload just about anything on the shop floor. “I’d sell head-to-toe leather outfits—with a fox stole on top—to tourists, Europeans, Miami ladies,” says the green-eyed Busquets in her husky, Spanish-accented voice. “But then I thought, I’d better get out of here soon, before I lose my taste.”
With a degree in marketing and advertising from the University of Miami—and her taste unsullied—Busquets, now 42, went on to pursue a career in retail and then some. After making her name with a multibrand designer boutique in Caracas in the mid-Nineties, she started building a portfolio of Internet investments and became a major backer of Net-a-Porter. Although she remains a 31 percent shareholder and a member of the board of directors at the online fashion boutique, she has now moved on to a new project. Her CoutureLab is a Web-based luxury retailer that offers one-off or limited-edition items including Revillon furs by Rick Owens; small, Ethiopian rosewood chairs; and hand-embroidered blanket shawls from India.
It is a chilly midsummer day, and at CoutureLab’s showroom in London’s Chelsea, Busquets is strapped into four-and-a-half-inch Azzedine Alaïa gladiator sandals and glistening with gold jewelry: dangling earrings from Pasquale Bruni, a chunky beaded ring by sculptor Pol Bury and a gold Schiaparelli cuff the size of a lobster tail. Her draped black tunic is from the Paris label E2, which recycles vintage dresses from such houses as Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. Around her, mannequins wearing Maurizio Galante’s delicate origami-like shawls and jackets mingle with artsy items such as French artist Christian Astuguevieille’s wacky mirror frames—fashioned from hemp rope, synthetic lavender sprigs and red pinecones—and Marcelo Lucini’s champagne bucket made from deer horn and an alloy of sterling silver and nickel.
The showroom, which opened this past spring, is used for special appointments and preview exhibitions. The site, couturelab.com, went live in mid-June and delivers globally. Its wares range in price from about $150 for a set of embroidered cotton place mats from Mali to $3,500 for a reworked Seventies Hermès silk jersey dress from E2 and $6,000 for a brown ostrich travel case by Jean-François Ducas. After Net-a-Porter, Busquets wanted to stick with online retail, but she was eager to make a shift from an all-fashion focus to luxury products. And while clothing is still a big part of the site, it’s less seasonal, more classic and often handmade or hand-finished. “We want to sell products with a story and tradition behind them; there is a world out there far bigger than fashion,” Busquets says. She adds that each piece of CoutureLab merchandise has some sort of traditional technique or artisan’s skill behind it, noting the weighted hemlines of L’Wren Scott’s handmade black dresses and the fact that an Ethiopian chair is carved from a single piece of rosewood. She’s currently working with Munnu Kasliwal from Jaipur’s Gem Palace and the London-based Cora Sheibani to develop special pieces of jewelry for the site.