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Buyers Den – The Menswear Edition


What a great idea. Professionally organised and almost painfully slick in its execution. A buyer’s den with buyers. And an agent.

Plus six short-listed brands picked from fifty, giving a timed pitch to a panel for a prize. Real and gritty, the business end not gimmicky. And it didn’t take a TV production company, months of self-important pre-event publicity, loud socks or loud mouths. Just a savvy organiser, Richard Hurtley, MD of Rich Insight Portfolio Ltd, representing Rise ‘a supportive community for fashion professionals and entrepreneurs who have been in the fashion space for under 10 years’. A great supporting cast drawn from Westminster College and hosted by the Camden Collective. And Drapers came too.

The event focus was menswear, stated by Richard as the fastest growing category in the fashion industry and justification in itself. Followed deliberately by the briefest of explanations as to why we were there. Think Dragon’ s Den. And the business context that each brand or designer faces, deciding when and how to incorporate e-tail, wholesale, online, partnerships, concessions and whatever else it takes, the blood, sweat and tears to get their brand to market. With school bell in hand to announce end of pitching sessions, he exited stage left.

First up, Underrated London. Launched two years ago, with a flagship store in Boxpark, Shoreditch. We quickly discover, owing to their social media credentials, they are generating £100k of turnover every 3 months; a £75 average order; 500 orders per month all from a Tech-savvy 18-27 year old age group. Sold in 30 small indie stores around the world including US and Singapore, Underrated are a heavy user of Instagram as a marketing tool (plus Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook to varying degrees). And it all seems to be working very well for Underrated, living up to their name nicely in just two years.

But, what is it exactly they sell? Ironically we almost didn’t get oversold on the product range. This was picked up by the panel, “as essentially, a T-shirt style brand, how do you keep ahead of the pace?” asked Juls from Just Consultancy. A lot of their inspiration, “comes from the customers, from being in Boxpark, seeing what people are wearing – a recent collection launch had the customers queuing all the way to Shoreditch train station. We look at catwalks and Japanese culture and symbolism has played a big part influencing our existing collection.” We were shown a monochrome T-shirt with a Samurai Warrior shield incorporated within the design. Beth from John Lewis asked, “regarding the streetware styles you offer, what can I get that’s different or unique to include within my existing brands?” “I think London makes us unique – you are going to get what’s happening in London.”

Kevin from House of Fraser complemented a good pitch and good social media referencing and wanted to know more about the pricing points, the ambition of the brand and also echoed as a question by a representative from Amazon. “We want and plan to move much more into footwear and womens wear and have a lifestyle brand, rather than just menswear.” Questions were all dealt with in a positive and confident manner to his and the brand’s credit. Was he a designer? No, he had come from a creative background working on fashion magazines. Refreshingly revealing there is no single route to market or career aspirations founded in fashion colleges only. This was not an exception it turned out from the brands pitching.

Next up was Tom Glover of Peregrine. And what a contrast. A 200-year UK family industry pedigree, interrupted in the 80’s owing to financial difficulties, a plight befalling many factories at that time. Against all good (family) advice, Tom has re-established a brand dating back to 1796, and since 2008 has steadily managed the brand as a business first and foremost, so that it is now in 10 countries, 50 per cent sold in USA and Japan. Ironically it is only in the last 3 years that the brand has become more relevant and popular in the UK. Every garment manufactured in the UK, with fabric sourced from the UK (Hainsworth were name checked as a fabric supplier  – a great British heritage wool manufacturing brand going back to the seventeenth century). Maintaining the UK heritage is very much a priority for the brand ethos of this company.

Targeting an age range of 30-65 year old men, mainly outerwear with ingenious design detailing (secret i-pad pockets, snap-down buttons), using 80 per cent merino wool and with a £200 competitive price point. The outdoor wear is intentionally created as adaptive for lifestyle use, stylish and functional – we were shown their version of the ’wax blazer’ giving Barbour a good run for their money and a reminder that new life can be breathed into functional clothing with fashionable styling and invention. They also have a range of sweaters, cable knits, but have taken the cabling off the sleeves to make them easier to fit inside the jacket or coat sleeves. Doh. Why didn’t we think of that before?

Juls asked Tom about the wholesale mark-up on the garments – something that brands have to get right for the business relationships to work in the first instance with a prospect buyer. (Less about what it’s going to be, more about what’s in it for me!) “They are between 2.6 and 2.8 and up to 3.0 for department stores.” The unspoken question hovering above Tom and on many people’s tongues “Why are they not in more UK department stores?” came from Beth. “Agents don’t sell to department stores.” Tom replied a little hesitantly, but candidly. The subject wasn’t going away. “Who are your brand adjacent (rival established brands with similar target market), someone like Barbour?” “We used to manufacture for Barbour, but see them as too mainstream and too expensive. We want to do everything in the UK.”

This prompted a question on the factory production set up from Amazon. “We manufacture 50,000 garments a year, with 20 people employed in Manchester, including 3 in the office. Eighty to ninety per cent is for Peregrine, ten for other brands. Online distribution is responsible for five per cent of turnover. We mainly supply to independents that have their own websites.” And so the question came back, a clarion call for how do we get (more) British made garments sold by UK dept stores, “yeah but why?”  “It’s just very hard to get into department stores.” What does he do meanwhile to promote his brand? He does he says, “the usual, the obvious – Jacket Required, Moda, Capsule Berlin…but buyers stick to their brands.”  “So how do you market your brand?” Professional curiosity and clearly why they were there, but also it felt with a genuine desire to try and help him over the finishing line, not necessarily looking for a weakness in the armour. “We have a PR company and had a presence recently in FHM and travel magazines and of course social media. But it is important to keep things tight.” This lasting impression of a brand owner, very conscious of the commercial reality of staying in business was impressive.

In-between the brand pitches, the panellists stood up to give a brief insight to what they are looking for when they assess the potential value of a brand to their store, customers or clients. Kevin Rogers of House of Fraser focusing on formalwear, a little specialist by his own admission. His is the concession model – brands rent space and are responsible for stocking. He had in fact just came back from a meeting with Turnbull & Asser, a pedigree 130-year-old UK brand that offers tailored, contemporary styled formalwear as well as bespoke shirts and ties. “Look books, have to look different for us to notice them. Keep hitting the phones, eventually someone will answer. We are very busy, it’s just how it is. You have to think how to get noticed. Because we immediately think how will your brand stand out and be noticed in the store. We go to the same events to check out new brands, Jacket Required, LC:M.” So no smoke and mirrors just dogged perseverance. But this event was probably the closest many people will have come to these buyers, ever. Even so, a big slice of luck can be crucial too.

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