Best e-commerce (and video) 2021: The Armoury

Wednesday, February 24th 2021
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Best e-commerce: The Armoury

Runners-up: Mr Porter, Luca Faloni

 

Mark Cho and I have been playing e-mail tag for a while. First he had to move the call, then I did, and when we finally connect, he’s in the back of a cab on his way home.

“Sorry about this, I thought I’d be home by now. Shall we wait, or see if the line’s OK here?”

We decide to go ahead. Waiting til Mark gets home will only introduce more distractions, as we discover later. 

“OK, so tell me the story,” I say. “How did you start doing these videos that everyone likes so much?” I am referring to the regular - and at the beginning very frequent - videos Mark has been posting on Instagram and YouTube. 

Usually showing Mark in the shop, talking direct to camera about a product that’s just come in, or what he’s wearing, these videos have had a very positive reaction. So much so that they were the main reason PS readers voted Mark’s store - The Armoury - the best e-commerce in our recent awards

Of course, I know the story already. Mark and I talk often, and back during lockdown last year, we chatted about what had spurred him to appear on camera so much. 

“Well, basically I’d been in quarantine at home for two weeks, doing very little,” he says, re-telling the story for my tape. “I think I’d spent pretty much all of it in pyjamas, which was great, but not exactly stimulating.

“I’d travelled to Hong Kong from the UK, and when you arrive you have to quarantine at home. They make you download this app, and then you get two minutes to ‘demarcate’ your quarantine area. You basically run madly around your house, putting your phone round all the edges.”

This is the image that stayed with me. Particularly as I knew what Mark was wearing as he sprinted round the house.

“So then, when the quarantine was over, I was itching to do something different. Our shop wasn’t closed, as Hong Kong actually only closed them very briefly - they were good about that. But there was no one around, no customers. So I started playing around with video and lights.”

Mark is a tech nerd, perhaps even more than a menswear nerd, and I had no problem imagining him researching all the appropriate gear, plus the best lights, angles and times of day. 

However, it’s also telling that he started doing this because there were no customers. If there’s one thing Mark enjoys the most - and this goes for a lot of current and ex-Armoury employees - it’s being in the shop, talking about clothing to people that are interested. 

And this was the approach he took with the videos themselves, consciously or not. “I always imagined I was talking to a customer - whether explaining a product to them, or suggesting how it could be worn. That kept the videos focused too, it meant I wouldn’t just ramble on,” he says.

At this point, Mark arrives home. There is a brief conversation in Cantonese with the taxi driver, in which I only recognise the words ‘stop here’. I recognise those because they were the only words I learnt when I used to travel to Hong Kong. Everyone but the taxi drivers spoke English. But you needed to know how to say you wanted to get out. 

I tell Mark this, and he laughs. Then says something disparaging about the driver’s parking skills, before swearing, and expressing hope the driver didn’t hear. 

“I think my approach to the videos was different in that respect to yours,” he says. Mark’s walking into his building, and has taken over the narrative. 

“Permanent Style videos really aim at being comprehensive, right? At including everything on a particular topic. So you never have to cover that again.” I agree, and concur. It’s why PS videos - just like the articles - can be long. 

“You can’t do that with a customer in the shop. You can’t go into that much detail. Also, most videos are more like you’re on TV - speaking to the world in general - rather than just to one (imaginary) customer.”

 

 

That means much less preparation is required too. “It’s always been unrehearsed, colloquial, with no list of things I want to say,” Mark says. “That’s probably out of laziness more than anything, but it does make it more like being in the shop.

“I’ve done videos before where I had a list of things to say, but then if I missed anything I would freak out. I’m too much of a completionist. This format was very freeing.”

Personally, I also find Mark’s tone works well on Instagram. After all, most people who see the videos are just scrolling casually through their feed. A casual chat sits well. 

This means some of the videos overlap from time to time, but that can be an advantage in a social stream, where no one sees every update. Unlike something intended as a reference source. 

Mark is now home, and connection issues take over. The call tries to switch to his home WiFi, and starts cutting out, before becoming very quiet, and then very loud. We go back to mobile data, but the reception is poor. Finally, a room is found with good reception. 

Time feels pressing all of a sudden, and the conversation speeds up. It’s the quick-fire round all of a sudden.

Which videos do you find the easiest? “Definitely the ones about products. After all we’ll have spent months deciding everything about it, so there’s lots of information. And it will be the kind of sales pitch I’ve done a million times before.”

Which videos are the most fun? “The styling ones probably. You get to play around with different pieces, and colours. Although after a while I was afraid those started to get repetitive, because there’s only so many clothes in the shop for everything to go with.”

Which do customers respond to the most? “Probably ‘What am I wearing and why’. I guess that’s always going to have broad appeal, but I liked talking about why I was wearing clothes too, the reasons and motivations. Rather than just the whole forum thing of showing off your outfit.”

How have they changed over time? “I found them easier to do at the start - it usually only took two or three takes. Now it can take five or six. I think I’m just more sensitive to how I want them to come across now. So if I find myself waffling, for example, I’ll restart. I think I also covered all the easy topics at the start. I’m onto the more complex ones now.”

Apparently commercial issues kicked in as well. The team in both New York stores, or running online, wanted product to be available when it was covered in a video. That requirement for more organisation is also why there are fewer videos - usually two or three a week, rather than almost daily. 

When Mark spoke at our online Symposium in July last year, more than one reader commented how good Mark looked - his set-up, the lighting. Clearly working this out for his videos has had other benefits. So what are his top tips for doing video well?

“Lighting is huge - getting enough and the right quality. A good diffuser is really important. And you have to accept that it’s going to take up a lot of space. Like, unless you have a lot of space, it’s just going to be hard to get the best possible results. 

“You end up with basically a massive shower curtain that sits between your light sources and you. Beyond just a softbox for the light - you need one more layer. 

“It’s particularly important for people like you and me that wear glasses. Because if you have a point light source, the shadow of the frame on your face can be really pronounced. It looks weird - raccoonish.

Will he still be able to do all that when there are people in the shop? “Hopefully. I do think filming in the shop is an important part of our identity. So I’m going to try and find a way to build all the lights into our shop fit-out, so it’s more discreet. Then I’ll just come into the shop an hour or two before we open, and do them then.”

I think this professionalism might be the key reason Mark’s videos have been so popular. Yes, in the age of social media everyone is a brand and a publisher. And yes, most people have figured out a way to take decent selfies. 

But because they’re not professionals, anything requiring a bit more production is usually poor. And they don’t do other things, like publish consistently, tailor content to viewers, make sure there’s variety week to week. Basically, they don’t do the things a professional editor of a magazine, radio show or TV channel would do. 

Mark, as a retailer, always has these things in mind. “Interestingly, that doesn’t feel like a conscious choice,” he says. “It just happens because of what you do every day - talking to your team, talking about new product. It makes you more professional about everything.”

 

 

It’s 7pm now in Hong Kong, and I feel bad keeping Mark on the line any longer. Soon, hopefully, we’ll be able to do this in person instead, over dinner, with more time to (literally and figuratively) chew the fat. 

Today we finish with Mark’s aims for his new media outlet. “Not size, certainly,” he says. “The views aren’t that big on the videos, but that’s fine. The more I run a business like this, the less I care about the volume of customers and the more I care about the quality.”

That might seem obvious given The Armoury is a specialist, and expensive. But I don’t think it’s typical for online media - once you have the whole internet to aim at, the aim is usually to get as big as possible.

“One thing I like about being small, is also that you get better comments. There are only a few, but they’re nice and from genuinely interested people,” he says. “I don’t know how you cope with the kind of commenters you often get on Permanent Style, who just seem to want to see their name up there, or vent some personal frustrations.”

Let’s prove him wrong. Polite and interesting comments only please. 

Thank you to Mark, for our rambling chat. And Mark wishes to say thank you to all of you, for voting for The Armoury as the best e-commerce brand of 2021. He's even made a little video, appropriately. 

Here it is.

 

 

The videos embedded above are a couple of Mark’s favourites. You can see the whole YouTube channel here

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Anonymous

Thanks. Shame armoury is so overpriced, they do have nice bits.
Did you read the Die Workwear article on MTM? Would be good to have your thoughts on it

Anonymous

R3

Kenny

You can same the same about Drake’s. The price hikes in the last couple of years have been OTT. It seems that customers are paying through nose for the move from Clifford Street to Savile Row. You can buy fully canvassed MTM tailoring and bespoke shirts in London (made in England) for the same money or even a bit cheaper. I would only buy from Drake’s Archive website when it’s open.

Anonymous

Simon
What does your wife wear? I am guessing Toast, Connelly etc. My wife isn’t really into clothes but want to get her some timeless investment pieces. Have no idea where to start though

Anonymous

Us preening men with down to earth wives. I wonder if that is a common thread ha, two peacocks perhaps too much!

H

I don’t know if there is interest out there, and I’m aware that PS is targeted at men, but I’d love to have a single page (like the regional tailors or “clothing resources”) to recommend brands for women too!

For example, my better half and I have discovered &Daughter – which makes women’s knitwear with the same Scottish & Irish manufacturers that PS readers know and love. I’d love to hear others’ finds too!

Anonymous

Can you keep your ears / eyes peeled for a collaborator on this? Maybe someone like dobrik & lawton

zo

me too… my wife keeps telling me how its almost impossible to find something as basic as rtw 100% cotton shirts for women.

Dante

Not sure if it logistically would work in the long term but I’d love to hear more from Alden Wicker on the blog — I’ve been an Ecocult subscriber ever since her first interview on PS and it seems your worlds have a lot more room to intersect in a positive way.

Anonymous

Try Emma Jade Morrison. She is a bit of a celeb stylist and does a lot of runway fashion…. But she was trained at Vogue and ran their second hand area for a while.

Andrew Olley

Hi Simon:
Love what The Armoury do.
I ordered a jacket recently but got hit with some pretty frightening import charges.
Have you been able to bypass the dreaded over £135 tax rule?

Anonymous

Wonderful interview — thanks very much indeed Simon. Perhaps the reason why the videos are so popular is because Mark is — and I think most would agree — utterly brilliant. Knowledgeable without being condescending, clear and precise and most importantly, he seems like a really nice chap.

A real shame there is no Armoury presence in the UK. I’ve ordered from them before but the customs/import fees are extortionate. Do we know if Mark et al have any plans to expand here in the UK? Or perhaps they could use Drake’s as a purveyor of some of the Armoury’s tailoring, which is inherently more formal than the stuff Drake’s do.

Rob

Simon, i think i’m right in saying that Mark owns Drake’s? In which case, he really is a huge player on the menswear scene.

I guess the danger here is Drake’s and Armoury becoming indistinguishable from one another. I would say that they are currently quite different and praise Mark for keeping the two clearly separate. I hope that continues.

Anonymous

I too have had the import duty sting and it makes these brands just a bit to expensive when all costs are considered. I have had this issue from both the Armoury and Brycelands. I’m not sure why they don’t offer tax free purchase for those buying from outside of the US/ Japan? I wont buy from either again for the reason stated above but if there was a tax free option i certainly would do.

Anonymous

Understood but neither brand offers a tax free option or if they do the prices stated on the website are very inflated.

Riccardo Franchi

Is it possible some of the confusion might come from the way American companies/stores state prices? American based stores always list prices before tax, with tax calculated at the end. This has caused confusion in the past when a European customer assumes they are getting charged tax when the price does not drop at checkout.

ian

I’ve got to say the that for me, someone with more interest than natural skill in dressing well, the videos are great. I’ve never ordered from them though, how does it work with them being based abroad?

Anonymous

you do pay tax’s on purchasing and then import! They doesn’t appear to be a tax free option.

ian

nah thats prett y much it really! they seem to tick alot of boxes

Liam

Mark’s videos are interesting and accessible – bite sized chunks of information and advice. They are effective because he comes across as a guy who just enjoys dressing well but I’m sure there is a real strategy and thoughtfulness behind his approach. I’ll be really interested to see how both Drake’s and The Armoury develop over the next few years. They felt quite similar but now they appear to be aiming at different markets – one aimed at growth and the other evolving but aimed at a core audience.

Alex

I think Instagram might be one of the least user friendly platforms from the perspective both a passive user and an active contributor, so kudos to Mark and The Armoury for succeeding in making engaging, interesting and diverting content – it’s a far cry from most of the stuff put up by the majority of influencers on the platform. As somebody else noted, Mark does seem like a thoroughly nice person who has genuine affection and enthusiasm for the products he’s discussing.

Jeff

Perfect winner for this acknowledgment as far as video e-commerce. Wonderful interview especially with the conversation’s logistics. Just received something from the Armoury and got done helpful advice as to sizing from Mark in a chat. That is customer service.

Andrew Poupart

A well-deserved award and I enjoyed another of Mark’s seemingly effortless videos. He has a quiet, calm presence that makes his videos easy to watch and is also true to who he is in real life. So, a good choice. And that’s my comment, I guess. Mostly I just wanted to see my name up here.

FMA

As someone already mentioned in the comments, Mark Cho is an impressive guy. In all of his videos he’s really well spoken without being snobish. And considering the subject of his videos (really fancy and expensive menswear) that is probably hard to achieve. He does sound like someone you would invite to have a beer (or maybe wine) with. And that’s probably why his instagrams videos are so popular. The one about trousers silhouette should be seen by every menswear brand out there, and every men who think they like menswear and classical clothes and not just fashion. I definitely shared that video with some friends who insist wearing their skinny trousers.
Unfortunately I do not have any of The Armoury clothes, but I have my eyes on the sports chinos and I think I’m gonna buy one this year. Hope the e-commerce is as good as PS’s readers’ says it is. And next time I travel to NY (or if I ever have the opportunity to go to HK) I’m definitely going to visit the shop and buy some tailoring.

Will

The Armoury do some outstanding pieces but being in London, and with import taxes to consider, their stock is sadly off-limits for me and probably quite a few others, and I’m sure that I speak for many here when I ask kindly that next time you speak to your friends at the Amoury can you try and quietly encourage them to set up a shop here in the UK?

Stephen

Hi Simon,
Interesting article. E-commerce being in the ascendancy it’s timely to have this award.
I was a bit surprised and don’t recognise the behaviours mentioned in in the comment Mark made regarding commentators to your site. This is not my experience at all. I have mentioned in the past that despite sometimes having diametrically opposed views the comments have always been polite and appear constructive.
In my opinion this is an extremely well run , relevant and moderated site, for which you deserve much credit. Long may it last.
Apologies if I have misunderstood the comment.
Ps I always add name because I believe it’s polite to do so.

Sam

It was a bit of an odd statement from Mark – this site is a haven of civilised discourse compared to… Well, almost any other that I’m aware of on the Internet.

Chuk

utterly unrelated to this past: the use of breeches appears to be tolerated only for such sporting activities as shooting and riding. would it strike you as exceedingly silly the spectacle of somebody walking in a city park in breeches, but not of the riding sort!? a dying memory of summer hiking circa 1980s in Switzerland in breeches and long socks, which seemed rather commonplace then, was at least partly responsible for this comment

George

I’ve only really ever seen them when people are shooting / stalking. Outside of this context they look a little like costume.

That being said – I love mine! Simon quite a few manufacturers now make RTW with coated wools or waterproofing features. I presume no bespoke tailors can do anything to match this?

chuk

you are right on the mark about breeches. there is a great temptation to be anachronistic, though, when it is widely assumed that one might start out fresh with intelligence alone, stripped of its matrix of time tested values. and there is no public figure in the English-speaking world today who is as caring and self-possessed as Jacob Rees-Mogg, often derided for being anachronistic.

Peter

Mark’s great but Alan See made some good videos as well! Particularly on cloth.

Leo

I must say that I enjoyed the storytelling approach of this interview, compared to a drier question-answer approach. The description of the environment around the interview made for a more involved reading experience and the interview answers interwoven with you own observations made it more interesting as well.

Much appreciated article, thank you!