Mr Porter and the great menswear movement
Congratulations on an impressive five years! Can you recall for us how this adventure first began?
Toby: Well, Jeremy and I both began within weeks of each other. I think
I was the second person to be hired and he was technically number three. And then it took off straight away.
Jeremy: Yes, I think we knew Mr Porter was going to be alright during the recruitment process of our founding members. A week before the business launch I was at the Florence trade show and received an email saying we were recruiting 200 applicants a minute. In a matter of days, we had about 20,000 people signed up.
How important was it to get the brand identity of Mr Porter right from the outset?
Jeremy: I think the brand’s DNA has remained the same today as it was then because we spent roughly six months before launch getting it right. We knew we had to establish a brand identity, this Mr Porter man, and he would be the secret to our success in five or 10 years’ time. Knowing that these years would be vital, we chose to avoid obvious commercial decisions and do things that were editorially led, a policy that other people weren’t replicating. As a result, we were able to create Mr Porter as a brand with great integrity and a contemporary aesthetic that wasn’t too trendy but not old-fashioned either.
Toby: For me the biggest change was seeing how ‘wild’ the customer became. Like Jeremy said, there is a classic vibe, but I think Givenchy was the biggest surprise as we couldn’t stock enough of their sweatshirts and T-shirts.
How did you avoid being obviously trendy while attracting the fashionable crowd?
Jeremy: I suppose the nice thing is that our aesthetic remains the same. Toby, who is in charge of buying, goes to brands like Givenchy but he makes sure he chooses pieces that represent Mr Porter’s point of view.
Toby: I think our editorial is the most important thing as it’s our shop window. The tone of voice has to be very consistent so that we have something that is classic but slightly fashiony as well. The result is that we’ve never had any complaints about clothes not being right for our clients.
Jeremy, as a former editor of Esquire in the UK, how have your print media sensibilities translated to your current position?
Jeremy: There are two strands that have been most useful: communication and branding. Often you’ll find retailers try talking to normal people using the same language they would use with each other in a store. I think it was reminding people that their customers live different lives and have different languages. This really helps us because clients relate to us and feel more comfortable. It’s all about putting it in a context we are all comfortable with — the way you’d talk to your mates in the pub. Similarly, your brand has to be on-point, and having social media and a website is vital. At the beginning I approved every tweet or post to ensure it was on-brand. Luckily, we have great people now who make sure it matches Toby’s strong buying mission.
What did you learn during that role transition?
Jeremy: It’s the retail and tech language. There were times in the very beginning where I didn’t know certain words and I’d be googling things when I got home at night to learn what they meant! Thankfully, everyone was lovely, though you are expected to be on-the-ball 24/7 and when you have to learn, you learn, and you do it really quickly.
Toby: Yes, it’s the same for both of us. Thankfully, Natalie [Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter] was hugely supportive enough to tell us everything there was in website design. We just needed to bring in our experience to create a successful men’s business.
As technology and user habits develop, how much time do you have to spend on social media and keeping up with trends?
Toby: Quite a lot really. You have to make sure everything is 100 percent exquisite, which sometimes means, for example, holding yourself back from launching your collections on Snapchat and making sensible decisions. Facebook generates the most revenue for us, while Instagram is our fastest-growing channel. We have social media and marketing teams who do thorough research to figure out where we should be and when, and the resources we need to do so. The hardest thing is keeping up with our customers and hoping that they are able to find and use us. This is obviously always evolving, so a huge part of our jobs is tracking the customer’s journey.
In terms of sales, where are your biggest markets and have there been any surprises?
Jeremy: Well, the US and UK are primarily important, though Australia and Hong Kong are strong contenders. The Far East is slowly becoming very important as well. The Middle East is growing. We are a truly global business. People assume our business comes out of the UK and when I tell them it’s probably 25 percent of our business they are astounded.
Toby: Having one global voice is important, whether it’s editorial content or the product mix. It forces us to have one product selection and product story but to think globally and reflect on who our customers are when we do that. We might talk about our customers in America, Hong Kong and Germany, but in reality most of our customers consider themselves to be ‘global citizens’ and they travel constantly.
Do you see yourself tailoring your identity to specific regions?
Toby: We already tailor our communication in different regions to reflect our clients, so if we’re dealing with someone in Australia in December we’ll send them swimwear updates, whereas we’ll send information about coats to clients in the UK and New York. But overall, with 400 brands to our name, some brands will naturally over-index in some regions more than others and you don’t have to change the overall selection, which is the beauty of online retail. It’s like the analogy of icebergs: they look the same from the top but you cannot see what’s underneath. Also, emerging markets tend to evolve at a faster rate than established markets. For example, the growth of Russia and China in just five years has changed everything. They now want luxury and want to be chic and sophisticated. These customers are the same ones travelling to New York and London and they see what is going on in stores and how people dress. The world is almost evolving into a single consistent entity, in terms of tastes.
Jeremy: I think it will make sense when we do more translations of our website, and I am sure there are people on our team who will want to please certain markets in different ways. But at the moment it’s more of a nice thing to do than an immediate commercial necessity.
Have the Russian and Chinese market struggles affected business?
Toby: Not as much as you’d think. While we have a good small business in Russia, ever since the changes, growth in that market has ceased. We still have products over there but it doesn’t grow incredibly fast like it once did. More generally, because we are new and still quite small, it protects us from the financial burden, which in turn represents an opportunity, seeing as those luxury brands might feel squeezed at the moment. They then turn to new wholesale channels and think of online players. We started doing business with Tom Ford last year, and three other major brands. I cannot say what drove them to work with Mr Porter but the toughness of the markets and online presence of their customers, the fact they are spending 60 percent of their fashion spend online, has presumably had an effect. Clients are online creatures who occasionally go to a store, rather than the opposite. Thirty percent of transactions are made on mobiles, meaning these men are always on the go.
Does that mean it’s going to be more difficult to have a large presence in the Middle East, where malls are still so popular?
Toby: I think it’s a massive factor because of the mall lifestyle. We are not inclined to open a store anywhere around the world at the moment, so it will be interesting to see how the Middle Eastern markets open up online. Along with starting a magazine, this question comes up a lot, especially in meetings, and we haven’t done either of them… but never say never!
How significant was 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and your partnership with the brand? It really gave you a lot of exposure.
Toby: It was incredibly so. It was essentially like releasing a tailoring collection and was a wonderful experience. We recently started working with Matthew [Vaughn, director] again, as the sequel is planned for 2017. Working with Kingsman served as the perfect marketing tool because we were very British and true to the Savile Row heritage.
There has been a quantum leap in men’s style over the last five years. How do you make sense of this development?
Jeremy: It’s been a joy to watch. Personally I think it’s the power of the internet and Mr Porter has had a contributing role to play. I think it helped open up menswear across the world, letting everyone see what so-and-so is wearing and how they are wearing it. The best thing about this fount of information is that you can ask any question and someone will know the answer to it, and I think this has pandered to the male ego. You haven’t got to ask someone you know and risk sounding stupid.
High-street brands are way more aligned with what fashion brands are doing in terms of seasonal fashion pieces. How come?
Toby: It probably started 10 years ago, but has skyrocketed in the last five years. I think it’s their ability to imitate designer collections and have their own versions out so quickly, sometimes even before the fashion brands have hit the stores.
Jeremy: The issue is that customers are questioning their manufacturing practises and it is shocking to see how some high-street brands treat the workers in their factories. That’s quite appalling and people are now more conscious of it. Hopefully they’ll sort it out so great clothes can be made without anyone suffering to make them — and at a good price.
What new trends are you seeing in menswear?
Jeremy: The whole sportswear trend is still enormous. Brands like Thom Browne have done it so well, mixing smart with casual. We just can’t stock enough of his hoodies and trackpants. Brunello Cucinelli is another one. But what’s great is that, in menswear, anything goes.
Toby: It’s got to be great, smart and comfortable. At work, I tend to wear jeans, jacket and Oxford shirt because it’s so versatile, but I like a lot of Japanese brands: Tomorrowland, Blue Blue Japan... those kind of brands. However, I think it’s becoming more acceptable to dress down and go to a meeting in jeans and sneakers. The dress code is less fixed and has become about comfort and appropriateness.
Jeremy: Massimo Piombo is a great Italian brand. I’ve really fallen for Saint Laurent. The fit’s so good, it looks sharp and is easy to wear. What’s so clever is that older people can wear it and still look appropriate, but it also ticks all the boxes for the cool kids. It sells very well for us.
Plans for the future?
Toby: To be honest, we would like to do more of the same. We have done well commercially and our content has been fantastic. Like I said earlier, menswear is so hot at the moment and slowly many more men are getting into fashion and looking better. We have no plans to change the DNA and will remain the same for the next five years. These past five years have flown by very fast!