Retailers Symposium: The discussion

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During my lifetime, there has been a steep fall in the quality and range of menswear retail around the world.

Designer brands have expanded aggressively; independent multi-brand shops have closed; and department stores have often lost direction, filling up with shop-in-shops and becoming little more than potted versions of the high streets outside.

But quietly, over the past decade, things have started to improve in the high-end, crafted, sartorial end of the market. Our market.

edward sexton

The Armoury in Hong Kong was one of the first (and certainly got the most attention online). There was Trunk Clothiers in London (a city particularly lacking in multi-brand stores). And dozens more. Today there are similar stores everywhere from Toronto to Taipei.

I gathered the most innovative of these retailers last week for our latest Symposium event in Florence, in order to examine how this trend has grown, and where its future lies.

The speakers were: Mats Klingberg, Trunk; Mark Cho, The Armoury; Ethan Newton, Brycelands; Anda Rowland, Anderson & Sheppard; Patrick Lof, Skoaktiebolaget; and George Wang, Brio.

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The first thing we touched on was the state of the fashion industry as a whole.

Rather than designers and department stores being in decline, Anda described the situation as one of simply huge uncertainty, of everything being "in flux".

Many of the stores and designer brands don't know how to react to the loss of control that social media represents, of consumers and so-called influencers having so much more power.

"Consumers don't identify with brands as much any more. The original designer might not be around, or not in control, and the only interaction people have with a brand is an advertising campaign or a young salesperson in a store," Anda said.

(After the discussion, the local director of one designer brand in the audience admitted to me he didn't think any of his sales staff could even pick out a customer's size.)

Independent stores naturally fill this void. They are often founded with a clear vision; the founder is in day-to-day control, even talking to customers in the shop every day; and the difference in experience, from interacting with a graduate salesperson to Ethan Newton or Anda Rowland, is huge.

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Interestingly, Ethan also argued that his interaction with customers is primarily about discussion, not about getting across his point of view. (Particularly noteworthy given the consistency of Ethan's views on cloth and silhouette, and how tightly curated Brycelands is.)

"I may have an opinion, but it's about the customer understanding where that's coming from; why we like a wider shoulder or larger sleeve, rather than presenting it as the only option," he said.

This is again something a designer brand can't do. Their approach is built off having a single, strong view, revealed like a holy revelation every six months.

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The next topic was growth. Having a clear direction when you manage a single, small store is pretty easy. Expanding that is much harder.

Trunk now has two stores - with Trunk Labs a few doors down from the original store, both on Chiltern Street.

"To all intents and purposes they are one store though," said Mats. "When we expanded it was because we wanted more space, to offer more things to the customer, and another store was the only way to do that."

Independent stores often find expansion into new categories easier than designer brands.

Independents are already curating a range of makers, so new categories just means adding more voices to that group. Easier to find an umbrella maker to your taste, than work out what a Gucci umbrella looks like.

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Mark Cho was the one speaker who has actively expanded, with two stores in Hong Kong now and one in New York.

"Managing that wasn't easy," he said. "But we have such an international group of customers that in many cases in felt just like better customer service - having stores in more than one place they travel through."

Ethan's initial reaction to this topic was quite strong, stating "if I'm not working in my store, then it's not my store anymore".

But he later rowed back on that, saying he could envisage having a "superstar" that could found their own branch of Brycelands. It would just be a slightly different store.

If anything, Anda's attitude to growth is the most definite. She and Audie (Charles) have always been clear that the Haberdashery is a one-off that won't have "another little one in New York".

The certainty of that approach is closely tied to how successful they've been at creating the 'club' atmosphere so many independent stores aspire to.

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E-commerce next. This can be a tricky area for independent stores, as they often end up competing with similarly young online stores, selling similar product but with much lower fixed costs.

Yet most of the speakers were pretty positive about it. First, as Patrick Lof spelled out, because it can give extra reach to a store that is pretty small and necessarily limited in its geographic reach.

And second because today it is simply an extension of customer service. "We didn't start The Armoury with a focus on digital," said Mark, "but we find today that half the people online will browse the site first, before coming into a store to buy; and half will actually come into the store first, then buy later online.

"For both groups it improves their experience and makes things more flexible."

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Unfortunately our new location, in the Grifoni Palace, had a few sound issues and small talk at the other end of the hall meant everyone had to speak up.

But there was still, as ever at the Symposia, a highly engaged audience listening to every word - and ready with some searching questions.

One, from Edward Neale at Reunidas (above), asked how much the retailers worked with local brands. There was (deliberately) a global spread of shops on the panel, after all, and some such as Brio in emerging economies.

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"We do work with several local Chinese companies," said George Wang. "But in every case we're looking for them to provide something unique and authentic.

"We don't want a Chinese tailor that is just going to copy a Neapolitan style; we will have Neapolitans visit for that. People have to have their own style and approach, and that's often something Chinese makers can struggle with."

The Japanese have long had a talent, in contrast, for taking the best things from the west and making them even better - whether in denim or whisky. And Ethan highlighted the local makers he uses for pieces like his 1947 501 Levi's.

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The other interesting question was how stores find working with small, often old-fashioned manufacturers.

The question came from a consultant to many such makers, and it was a particularly pertinent one.

For today independent stores often discover, promote and launch brands into new markets (eg Incotex and Boglioli with Trunk in the UK), only to find that the brands use the exposure to launch into more stores, eroding the original store's USP.

Mark highlighted a particular issue with a shoe brand (which shall remain nameless) that became so popular they had difficulty getting enough supply.

"Promoting a brand can come back to bite you, it can actually make your business more difficult as they do well.

"But then promoting people we believe in is what we're all about as stores," he said. "We're not about to stop doing that."


Thanks to one and all for speaking, attending, and making the Symposium series what it is today. See you again in six months.

Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man

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