Marion Hume is part of a team that supports Project Perpetual, featured in The Wall Street Journal
Marion Hume is part of a team that supports Project Perpetual, featured in The Wall Street Journal
Marion Hume is part of a team that supports Project Perpetual, featured in US Harper’s Bazaar
Project Perpetual has teamed up with leading contemporary artist, Jeff Koons, to create artworks to raise funds and facilitate advocacy for global childhood vaccination. The artworks will be presented and sold at an auction in New York in November 2014.
From the vast, goat-populated plains of Inner Mongolia, ‘cashmere princess’ Jane Wang is spinning a winning formula of handcrafted luxury knitwear and strategic business savvy. By Marion Hume, Business of Fashion September 2014.
ORDOS, China — The sweeping plains of Inner Mongolia are not the first place you’d look for signs of the next international luxury brand. But before you dismiss any notion that a significant label could emerge so far from the fashion world as we know it, a flashback through history: it was from here that Genghis Khan used the element of surprise to forge an empire that would dominate huge swathes of the then-known world.
That a true luxury brand will come out of Greater China (as opposed to all those who have gone in) has been anticipated for some time, although our sights have been set on Beijing and Shanghai. If, instead, we look North, to where the land seems endless and empty except for the goats, it is those many (many) goats that are the clue to probable success in the West.
Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the most populous human settlement in these parts, the towering (although still somewhat sparse) city of Erdos, also written Ordos. (As to why there are two spellings, maybe it has something to do with translating ᠣᠷᠳᠣᠰᠬᠣᠲᠠ from Mongol, 鄂尔多斯市 from Chinese). Erdos means “Palace of Tents” and it is a company town.
That company, founded 35 years ago, is also called Erdos and it accounts for over one-third of the world’s cashmere production. Erdos used to supply Hermès, Burberry and Loro Piana; that it no longer does is due to its own requirements for 3,000+ eponymous stores across China. As for rolling a brand into the West, Erdos can certainly afford it. The Erdos Group (which also includes energy and metallurgy) is valued at approximately 60.8 billion RMB ($9.5 billion).
Shall we meet the cashmere princess?
Jane Wang doesn’t love her nickname but because her father, the Erdos founder, is often referred to as “The Cashmere King,” his only child is stuck with it. Just like a princess in a story book, Wang’s favourite colour is pink and she spends her life spinning. But this is a modern fashion fairytale. Our princess is not in an ivory tower but down on the factory floor, using the Masters in Engineering she earned from Cambridge to achieve her heart’s desire: the most luxurious cashmere fibre on earth.
As to the time frame, we start in 2004, with Wang (who is 34 today) departing from Cambridge. A prized possession was a sweatshirt featuring the University motto translated from the Latin to read, “Open your Mind”. By 2006, she was working with the technicians at Erdos, who tried to remind her that one gram of cashmere could be spun to a maximum length of 48 metres. “What I learned from the UK is how you should always be curious and willing to change,” she recalls when we meet for tea, not in Inner Mongolia but in a hotel in Central London.
Wang recounts how she persuaded Erdos technicians to push further, to see how fine the best fibre (combed — very precisely — from the shoulder and flanks of one-year-old baby Arbus goats) could go, achieving 60 metres, 80 metres, 100 metres in length per gram. (It can now be spun to 120 metres.) However, the equation is not as simple as ‘the longer the better’. The best cashmere yarn needs to be resilient yet soft, and the diamond measure is fibre that is less than 14.5 microns in diameter yet still robust. (The math isn’t simple to grasp. It goes something like this: 14.5 microns x 36mm length fibre taken to as long as you can spin it without losing quality.)
With these high counts, Wang and the technicians, achieved a cashmere that is peerless in delicacy. Once achieved, she called her formula 14-36.
With that technical challenge cracked, Wang’s next ambition was to create, quite literally, a spinoff brand, one that would use only the finest “baby cashmere” spun to that magical 14-36. “Because the Erdos brand is so strong in China, I thought we ought to start a new brand,” she recalls, referring to one in which the ambition would be to be as upscale as the top Western luxury brands. “We have 20,000 people working at Erdos. We choose the best 200 to handle the yarn that is 14-36. They are very happy and proud to do it.”
The name of this brand? Wang went with the numbers — 1436 — a logical choice.
Of course, if you want to woo the fashion crowd, you need more than a winning spinning formula. Wang, who admits, “I am not a very creative kind of person; I’m more like a management, strategy kind of person,” went looking for a fashion designer. In 2011, she appointed Graeme Black, the former creative director of Ferragamo, ex-Giorgio Armani, ex-Hugo Boss, to give 1436 its aesthetic vision. That Black is Scottish is a considerable added bonus, given the Scottish cashmere story, with which he is very familiar, always begins in Inner Mongolia.
Last July, 1436 made its international debut with a fashion show in Edinburgh, thus emphasising the two nations’ over 200 years of shared cashmere history. The audience comprised roughly a third from across Scotland; a third from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and other Europe cities; a third from China. A broad collection of men’s and womenswear was presented. Traditional Asian embroidery patterns were rendered in knitted intarsia and complex jacquards. While much of 1436 is made — beautifully — in China, skilled hand-knitters from the Scottish Highlands and Islands created couture-crafted pieces. Also unveiled in Edinburgh was 1436 packaging in the rich turquoise of imperial porcelain, with the numbers rendered in calligraphy.
Could 1436 be the Chinese breakthrough we’ve been waiting for? Wang is confident. “We have the resources and good opportunities to be a world brand, the same as the Italians, the British,” she says. Certainly, when you run a checklist — raw luxury source, production, technical, retail and business expertise, design smarts and of course cash — it is promising. That 1436’s founder is the scion of a Chinese textile behemoth who speaks excellent English adds benefit.
1436 products are established as the national gifts China presents to Heads of Foreign States. With the Edinburgh show, it went far further in polishing an international identity. “I think we could be in that great category,” says Wang. “Of course we’re not there yet; we’re still a young brand but I think we can.” As for whether the tastemakers will take to it, fashion’s famous early adopter, Joan ‘Mrs B’ Burstein of Browns has already been spotted sporting a 1436 scarf.
Jane Wang’s next strategy is to plot the steps to a roll-out of 1436 stores into Western cities. No word yet on where or when they will open (there are already 40 stores for 1436 within China). In the meantime, watch this space. And keep an eye on Inner Mongolia.
Lou Stoppard, Amarpaul Kalirai, Cyprian De Coteau, Marion Hume and Camilla Morton discuss the Mary Katrantzou show.
An Homme For All Seasons
The way we travel obsesses Kim Jones. The menswear designer with Louis Vuitton, which started out making trunks, finds inspiration when journeying to the middle of nowhere. He tells Marion Hume what he learns from his 100 or so flights a year.
The Australian Financial Review | September 2013
Riding The Coat Tales
Luigi Maramotti has strong views on many things, from a distaste for star designer egos, to resisting the ghettoism of fashion, to cheese. The chairman of the Italian cost company Max Mara shows Marion Hume around the company’s small-town headquarters.
The Austalian Financial Review | September 2013
Reggio Emilia, some two hours east of Milan, is renowned for cheese and for coats. The first has the longer history; rich pastures and traditions being behind wheels of salty treasure that have little in common with ready-grated so-called parmesan found at the supermarket. The family behind the coats remains involved in the making of Parmigiano Reggiano too; both requiring skill and time to achieve the sublime. The label on the coats is Max Mara.
“The fabric we use has been left to lie – the whole idea of seasoning the fabric like you do for a cheese – it’s very slow,” says Luigi Maramotti, a man of quiet yet intense passion who is the company chairman (and who also owns a farm). “A lot of people don’t even know that, at the price per ounce, they might even be paying more for a daily cheese than for the best cheese in the world!”
Is it odd that the head of a fashion powerhouse worth some US$1.7bn should be talking – and with some ferocity – about cheese? Maramotti, a long cool drink of water, also holds strong opinions about high speed rail, education, the “greenwashing” that allows big companies to play at being ethical, as well as the challenges of finding artisans at a time of rising unemployment and austerity yet youthful obsession with being a star. He is also absolutely passionate about art (is that a Gerhard Richter to his left?) and is impeccably attired in a beautiful suit.
Handmade where? Max Mara doesn’t do menswear; the brand celebrates the marriage of technology and the human hand in 23 different womenswear labels. So he brushes the question of the provenance of his suit away, instead indicating what he considers perfection. “These chairs,” he gestures, “designed in 1956, finding the perfect balance, it works, still, but it is not obvious, you need the time, the know-how. ‘Classic’ can have newness and excitement, but perhaps not at a glance….”
At a glance, a Max Mara coat is always beautifully fit-for-purpose. That coats are at the core might go some way to explain why the Max Mara Group has been slow to expand in Australia (while Australia is a luxury source of the merino in so many of those coats…). “I’m not trying to compare to Michelangelo and the quality of the marble, but when you see some great merino, great cashmere or a modern fabric with steel inside which keeps the memory of the shape, it is important,” says Maramotti. “Design being born from respect of the fabric, you do the minimum, you don’t over-design. Shouting about design is not how we convey value.”
No hoopla, no designer taking a bow. Each of the Max Mara lines is created by a team, usually comprising long-term company loyalists, a peppering of emerging talent from London design schools with which Max Mara Group has strong links ( and who, mostly, stay a while, then flee small town life) plus big names such as Karl Lagerfeld; Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana; the Roman, Giambattista Valli and from America, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Yet the latter are only acknowledged when they are no longer working for the company. What is the logic of that? Maramotti says that naming them would only build a platform for their egos, “because it is very unlikely they will negate their ego(s)”. Anonymity instead allows fashion stars to, “forge their expertise with ours and that of our technical teams. I accept that, today, there is a common advantage to use the designer as a marketing tool by which you go for a creative vision of an individual who wants to impose that vision on women….” his mouth forms into a moue of distaste. “What underpins us is a respect for women”.
Reggio Emilia is a company town – Max Mara owns the local hotel, a restaurant and many locals drive or bus to work at the nearby Max Mara campus of steel, glass and several thousand trees. But this is not – Maramotti is emphatic – an outpost. “I measure using not geography, but time. There is a beautiful station near here, designed by (Valencian star-chitect) Santiago Calatrava. I can be in Milan in 38 minutes. How far can you travel in London in 38 minutes? My point is centrality or decentrality is a state of mind…”
Certainly, this has to be the world capital of coats. A morning tour of production has been thorough and impressive. The classic 101801 (known since 1981 by a code number, no catchy names here) is a double-breasted camel overcoat of balanced proportions. A navy cashmere parka with voluminous hood, new this season, will look great for years. In other factories, presumably just as hi-tech, millions of items of clothing for women who want to look up with the times, but not up to the minute, are also made and labeled Max Mara, Sportmax, Pianoforte, Pennyblack, Marella, these joined by Max&Co.,for teenage girls.
The current chairman’s great, great grandmother was a 19th century dress maker called Marina Rinaldi, who has had a label named in her honour since the early 70s. “In everything we do, we resist the ghettoism of fashion. Marina Rinaldi has kept a different thinking in our company,” explains Maramotti, this referring to the welcome fact that Marina Rinaldi is a fashionable alternative for curvier, bustier or taller women who do not otherwise appreciate being siloed into a swamp called“plus sized”. Instead, Marina Rinaldi has seasonal collections, stores on London’s Bond Street, Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a Sydney store in Chifley Plaza. “It is politically correct to say size is not an issue yet size in fashion, it’s a kind of a taboo,” says Maramotti. “I’ve met many women in my life who are interesting and at peace with themselves and not a tiny size.”
Time to get personal. Much of my own wardrobe is Marina Rinaldi – expensive yes, long-lasting too. While of course I don’t believe you have to fit the clothes to write about them (then where would I be?) in a rare subjective assessment, I can confirm that white linen pants last for summers, navy wool tunics can go anywhere and T-shirts keep their shape. My challenge is sometimes I haven’t been able to keep my clothes. I haven’t misplaced any of them, I know exactly why they do not return from hotel laundries. I recall a hotel manager, a big boned woman, offering free nights to compensate my “loss” (her gain). As you don’t need many clothes on an island and I had time to spare, both parties were delighted. I have other examples – enough to argue that larger women love great clothes if they can get their hands on them, but enough for now.
When the founder of the Max Mara Group, Achille Maramotti, died in 2005, he left a business in the care of his three children, Luigi, Maria Ludovica (in charge of product development) and Ignazio (managing director) and this has always been a generational, family story (the company remains private and family controlled). Achille started in 1951, in that post-war surge that saw Northern Italy transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy. He was much inspired by the female force in his life, his mother, Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, who, widowed since 1939, had raised four children, funded by her dressmaking school where other young women could gain skills to ensure their independent survival. Achille took a law degree, funded by several jobs including working in a raincoat factory in Switzerland, where he realised that his mother’s craft could be industrialized through a logical system of work. Degree done, he got started, offering useful, attractive clothes to women who had neither the need nor the capital for copies of coquettish Parisian haute couture. The rise of Max Mara is one of classic capitalism, of a man driven by need plus a vision; that creativity could be harnessed profitably to technology. Achille travelled to America where clothes meant the garment industry not a local dressmaker. By the dawn of the 60s, Max Mara production was streamlined to the point that a coat that had taking 18 hours required only two. The company remains is a triumph of technology plus the skills of the human brain and hand (no machine can secure buttons as well as a person can). “Technology helps people repeat best performance for the entire day,” explains Luigi Maramotti. “ Handmade is another legend. It is not true handmade is better than machine. Machines help human beings be the best – you need both. The future, yet the know-how not forgotten.”
Yet the know-how seemingly inherent in the “Made in Italy” label has become complex. “It is a slogan… this idea of democratization of fashion comes from Italy, absolutely. Yet ‘Made in Italy’ can be very frustrating,” Maramotti says, refering to the fact that all one needs to do is put the pieces together in Italy for a garment to earn the prized ‘Made In Italy’ label. “Yet if I design it here, I do prototypes here; that doesn’t count. The central point is, are we, in Italy, capable of keeping alive a heritage that goes back centuries, to the Renaissance, the workshops for ideas?” Another challenge is manning those workshops (with women, the majority of employees). About 20 people in Reggio Emilia retire or relocate each year yet as Italy stumbles through recession, there is no line at the factory gates, despite The Max Mara Group working with the Italian public sector to fund skills training. “This becomes anthropological,” Maramotti muses of the paradox of high unemployment and the lack of apprentices or skilled workers. “You see a lot of young people dreaming of doing things that are much less relevant which they think are better. The values are not perceived correctly. We fight against the perception of ‘blue collar’. I don’t think the major issue is the salary.”
Hardly a casual chat this, for the next subject is sustainability, Maramotti being no fan of external pressures applied by advocacy groups. “There is an entire marketing on these ethical balance sheets,” he sniffs. “I have always opposed this because I prefer to do what works for us. Our power comes from hydro energy, but you don’t make a manifesto, you do the right thing, full stop. The moment it becomes a marketing tool, you are doing something that, ethically, is debatable. I prefer coherence. I know that coherence is boring. Consistency is boring too. But that is the case here.” He warms to the theme, “Some people see a society in which consumption is reduced to a minimum. But because I was trained to look at creativity as part of the growth of an individual, this vision of reducing consumption, making nothing, it is, in a way, offensive to the human intellect. So we have to find a way where we don’t kill ourselves with a model which is sterile.”
Of his own role, of the boss who inherited the top job, he is thoughtful too. “Never separate privileges from burdens, you are just born there, and you have to take what that means,” he muses. “The point is, what are you going to do with that? Absolutely I am privileged. I can think, I can do things. Does that bring responsibility and burdens? That is the question.”
J Brand founder Jeff Rudes wanted to create the perfect pair of jeans. Now, as Marion Hume writes, he is turning the denim brand into a fully fledged fashion label.
The Australian Financial Review | March 2013
Subsequently published in Business of Fashion
Question: What do the queen bee of fashion, the future queen of the realm and the longest-reigning king of rock ‘n roll have in common? Hint: it is not a label you can see on the back of their jeans. This is because J Brand, jeans megalith, a phenomenon so extraordinary it has actually changed what “jeans” means, does not slap a big label on your behind. Call these discrete jeans. If you are old school and right now, in your mind’s eye, you are seeing blue, scratch that. That is not what the editor of American Vogue or Kate Middleton or Mick Jagger are looking for.
Anna Wintour is, one might surmise, exacting aboutwhat she puts on to her slender form. The Duchess of Cambridge faces a long lens even when she pops out to walk Lupo the dog. As for Sir Mick, he embraces the limelight in pants too tight to be decent on any other man about to turn 70 – and he likes it.
Every fashion editor I know wears J Brand. Every movie star – no, really, find one who doesn’t – wears J Brand: Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. So does Rihanna.
How can you tell? That’s when it gets harder. J Brand sells more than two million pairs of jeans a year, yet somehow manages to seem niche in a manner that has most of the other jeans giants scratching their heads.
It is easier to start with what these jeans are not, than with what they are:There are no rhinestones across the buttocks, no signature stitching on the rear, no big envelope pockets, no weird holes, no other identifiable features. The genius of Jeff Rudes, when he set up J Brand back in 2005, was to see the jean not as a vintage item or a homily to Home on the Range or as a grab-attention item, but as a style staple, the central skinny anchor to a fashionable silhouette.
That these are “fashion” jeans not “designer” jeans – despite the input of cutting edge fashion designers Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan, Proenza Schouler as collaborators – needs to be explained. For that, let’s whizz backwards. Jeans were born in the USA. Yes, denim comes de Nimes, from the town in France where indigo dye was pioneered. But it was out west, in the days of the great American pioneers, that an Ashkenazi Jewish merchant named Levi Strauss met a tailor from Riga, Latvia, and fronted up the cash for the latter’s smart idea to make work wear more sturdy by adding metal at the pressure points. The tailor’s name was Jacob Davis, which just goes to show that history favours the investor.
Along with Levis have come as many cowboy brands as you’d find on a cattle ranch. Then came “poor little rich girl” Gloria Vanderbilt, the face – or more specifically, the arse – of the first true designer jeans. As a teenage Brooke Shields was claiming that nothing came between her and her Calvins, over in France, Marithé and Francois Girbaud were throwing pumice stones into the wash and the Japanese were tooling up, as were the Dutch with GStar.
Let’s surge forward now, past sass & bide and Ksubi, and behold something dark and not remotely casual Friday: a “premium” jean. Jeff Rudes, a handsome silver fox in his mid 50s, is a jeans guy. He launched his first jeans line in New York when he was 18, sold it, moved to jeans manufacturing hub Los Angeles, launched another line, sold it, became the king of private label making jeans for other people, stopped, and with a former girlfriend came up with what seemed a very novel concept: jeans that weren’t washed or paint-splattered or destructed or possessed of screamy branding or so baggy you could camp in them. The vision was for clean jeans with the least likely name (the J stands for Jeff). Angelina Jolie liked them.
Then, in 2010, J Brand gave us a non-denim, skinny cargo pant. They sold 300,000 plus pairs of the Houlihan, then discontinued the style while addicts around the world were howling for them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fashion business.
There’s a slight delay in my meeting Jeff Rudes. As my plane lands in LA, his takes off, unavoidable as he is needed in New York for the press conference to announce that the company, whose 2011 net sales were approximately US $124million, has been acquired by the Japanese fashion giant, Fast Retailing. The world’s fourth largest apparel retail company owns labels such as Helmut Lang and Uniqlo and generated global sales for the last fiscal year of ¥928 billion ($9.8 billion). Fast Retailing acquired an 80.1 per cent stake, meaning that Rudes, when I do meet him, is a very happy, very wealthy man.
As Rudes is heading back on the red eye, international sales manager Robert Brown invites me to dinner at Soho House, West Hollywood. We are waiting for the barman to fix our eastern standard cocktails before taking our seats when a man walks in, eyes Brown’s J Brand-clad legs and utters the line: “Are those Tylers? Aren’t they great? I’m wearing the ass out of mine.” I wonder if I have stumbled into a cult.
The postponed interview means time to do significant market intelligence checking out the brand’s positioning (which, yes, translates as hanging around in several smart malls and in Barneys New York on Rodeo Drive). I observe how much the selling of jeans has changed. For women, jeans are now, solidly, a fashion item. Men have taken longer to change gear, simply because men are so brand loyal. When I ask Rudes later who he wishes would switch to J Brand, he bats back: “Brad Pitt”. The PR cuts in: “Brad wears them, Jeff. Remember, riding the motor cycle?”
We meet in his office in downtown LA (worn wood floors, huge American flag), where I am transfixed by a pin-board full of thank you notes from famous people, but there’s no time to linger because he’s heading down to the factory below. J Brand is headquartered just off a freeway ramp in an area best described as gritty. Besides this factory, there are five more, at capacity, producing premium jeans for J Brand, within a
Rudes rubs his hands over bolts of denim. He gives an impassioned speech on the importance of ironing, transfixed as a big guy tackles a seam: “You couldn’t do it with a machine, you wouldn’t be able to press these seams and keep them apart and the distance from both equal. You could easily buy a machine but you lose the integrity.”
The factory is unusual in that the majority of workers are men; the tailors, the pressers. That they just do their thing while the boss is nearby indicates he is nearby all the time. Back upstairs in his office, Rudes is charming, engaged, yet you do get the sense that he wishes there was a trap door under his chair that could just flip him back down to where the action is.
As to the big new business action, he is excited. “We’ve moved very slow and cautious,” he says. “That’s why it took eight years when most brands would have [expanded] sooner. We are very focused on what we are doing.”
The expansion includes pumping up a full ready-to-wear line – tops, coats, jackets – launched quietly last year, with creative director Donald Oliver. From now on, that will be going at full bore. “Now everything will move faster, because the market perception is ‘you guys grew up’.We will be seen as a fashion brand. There will be flagships, there will be growth.”
While other businesses rely on data, fashion fairy tales start with a hunch. The denim market is crowded, was crowded eight years ago when Rudes’ faith was with the opposite of what was “in” at the time. “For us, it was always about dressing a woman in a chic way,” he says. “I had experiences in the jean space and knew it was the moment to change.”
J Brand has pushed skinny as far as anatomically possible (ankle zips help). “We knew who was buying the jeans at the start. Itwas the fashion savvy girl. But aspirationally, we knew it would go more mass because what we saw was, when anyone tried on our jeans, she looked amazing. And who doesn’t want to look amazing?”
The big thing, he says, is jeans are emotional in a manner perhaps only paralleled, for women, by shoes. “I always tell my team we are really selling an emotion. That’s why women want to find a new great pair of jeans all the time, because if something can make you feel and look beautiful and feel sexy – not overtly sexy, but you feel confident and there are compliments – you can remember that.”
It seems Australian women agree with that. “We want instant fashion that looks amazing, fits perfectly, is of superior quality and affordable; J Brand is at the fashion forefront,” says Janine Edwards, head of Edwards Imports, which sells “literally, thousands” of J Brand jeans in Australia each year.
If you fly with fashion, you could die with fashion. Rudes showed considerable brinksmanship by halting the Houlihan juggernaut (search Houlihan on www.jbrandjeans.com and you simply get directed to the current hot style, no mention of discontinued or out of stock). He and his design team also took a punt on a daring combination: bright + skinny – not seen since the disco 80s. And when the catwalks got brighter, they were ready.
“I think it was fall 2010,” Rudes says. “We had bright on our line but they weren’t quite as bright. A light bulb went off and we did BRIGHT. You’ve gotta time it, you might have to store it, then you see how the designers are doing it and say ‘we are going to be part of it’.” But always, there’s the emotion: “When a woman picks up something new, there has to be that trust, ‘I know when I wear it, I look beautiful’.”
Way back in the hippie era, denim was alternative, suits were evil. In terms of sustainability, the story hasn’t quite panned out that way, given cotton is among the most rapacious crops in the world. Rudes faces the corporate social responsibility question with an honesty in admirable contrast to other jeans tsars, who waffle about interesting experiments making cloth out of nettles. “Organic cotton isn’t the difference,” he argues. “What is making a difference is we are transforming our laundries. Everybody is paying attention to the use of water and the chemicals that were being used around the world and should not be part of the manufacturing of jeans.”
Also grabbing attention: advertising campaigns. No boys in their underpants in laundries anymore. J Brand’s ad spend for 2012 topped US $1 million, including media buys in magazines such as Vanity Fair, French Vogue and style.com for slick pictures taken by Craig McDean. Yet for all Rudes’ talk of elevating the jean, it is a mumsy style that has really rocked.
“It’s mid-rise and it is in this soft twill gabardine,” he defends the style that proved the royal Kate has even more kerching! than Kate Moss. “She wore a more conservative, let’s say, skinny. It didn’t really touch you at the ankle, it pulled away a little bit but it’s sold A LOT,” says Rudes,who, no, has not met her and, yes, she paid retail.
As for Sir Mick Jagger, when J Brand launched a men’s line in 2008, it was with two styles, the skinny, called Mick, and the bootleg, called Clint. Eastwood wears them, too. “I always loved The Stones; it’s kind of come full circle now that he is wearing them,” says Rudes. “The call came for the lightest weight denim we make because of the way he moves on stage and has to be comfortable. So it’s got a great stretch, it’s paper-thin, seven ounces, our lightest weight women’s fabric. We never thought of making a men’s garment in that fabric, but when he suggested it, it completely made sense.” J Brand got a credit in the souvenir tour programme.
That thing about fit? When I arrived in the offices, I passed a tall, handsome man. Nothing extraordinary there, plenty of good looking people here. Much later, Rudes is walking me out and we pass an open door and there he is again. “We use the human body,” Rudes explains as the “fit model” nods hello. “It’s about having great pattern-makers and the knowledge of what you want to do with the fit, technically, to make the bum look better and lift and shape it. ”How long will he be here? “Maybe four more hours” says the guy. How often
is he here? “There’s a bunch of us that do this. I’m here maybe three days a week.”
One last thing. Rudes’ “we will be seen as a fashion brand” billboard statement? It’s already happened. As temperatures plummet during New York Fashion Week, clothing to suit an urban life proves a hit. “Women won’t just be buying these clothes; they’ll be wearing the hell out of them, too,” trumpets style.com. Or perhaps “wearing the ass out of them”. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that.
This man wants to inspire Aussie blokes to embrace fashion. And his targets are not just the urban (and urbane) variety. As Marion Hume discovers, who knew there was a peacock just off the Birdsville Track?
The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013
After the hard yakka of running 12,000 head of beef cattle over 1.6 million acres, Clayton Oldfield pulls on new jeans and heads to the Birdsville Hotel. “For the pub, you want something nice,” he says. The label on those jeans? “Aww, now you’re testing me.” He doesn’t know the label on the new shirt either. Oldfield, 29, was born and raised where the north-east corner of South Australia meets the south-west corner of Queensland. How far is the nearest shop? “Define what you mean as shop.” Twice a year, he drives 1300 kilometres to Adelaide to get what he needs. Then it’s straight back to Sturt Stony Desert: few people, deadly snakes.
Yet he’s been using his broadband connection for more than keeping up with the price of stud bulls. “Mr Porter’s easy,” he says of the global online menswear retailer. “Once, the jeans were the wrong size. You just let them know you’re sending a parcel back and take it to the post office.” (That’s only a 52-kilometre round trip.)
How did a fourth-generation cattleman get with the fashion scene? “I just look at the design and I go from there,” says Oldfield. “I know what looks good, nothing really outrageous. I like that there’s a lot of stuff there, there’s clothing I might not have tried.” He hits the site “about once a month, once every couple of months”.
It is no empty boast that www.mrporter.com has changed the look of the Aussie bloke, whether it is the urban fanatics trawling late night for Lanvin or Saint Laurent, or the men of the Never Never – off the Birdsville Track or at Yulara, out by Uluru – or even those on Lord Howe Island who like a bit of James Perse for the cool of an evening.
The company does not release figures, but it is understood that sales to Australia rank second behind the UK, where Mr Porter is based, and ahead of the US. It may only be the urban shoppers who lap up the extras: the online magazine, the snazzy apps, the video content, some of it voiced by a fruity-vowelled Englishman (“Cary Grant’s father taught him the art of understatement. Remember it’s you walking down the street, not the socks. Mr Grant never forgot it.”) However, for the far-flung, it’s a style lifeline. “You just wait a couple of weeks and it’s there at the post,” says Oldfield.
Delivery is swifter if you live in a city. At present, it takes three to four days for the Aussie man to get a Mr Porter fix, delivered in distinctive black-lettered white packaging. The first Australian order was received within 30 minutes of the site’s launch on February 19, 2011, and an E. Tautz wool tie embarked on its way to Warracknabeal, in Victoria’s wheat belt. In the first 24 hours of trading, nearly 20 per cent of the international orders were from Australia, three times more than any country outside the UK. In two years, Mr Porter has “grown to an astonishing size compared to where Net-A-Porter was in the same period of time,” says Natalie Massenet, the founder and executive chairman of Net-A-Porter Group. (The Outnet, which sells designer wares from previous seasons, is the third of a trio of distinct offerings.)
To be fair, the foundations were more solid than 13 years ago,when, from her kitchen, Massenet worked out howto use the new fangled internet to flog designer clothes. In 2010,Net-A-Porter Group was acquired by multi-brand giant Richemont in a deal which valued it at £350million ($519million).
While the vastness of Oldfield’s outback backyard deserves the adjective “awesome”, a world away, so too does Net-A-Porter’s global HQ,which sits atop Westfield London. When I last interviewed Massenet (AFR Magazine, December 2010), inside the penthouse office floor, the company she founded occupied a third of the available space. Now, barring a gym in one corner, she has it all.
The group employs more than 2500 people across three continents. In London, plasma screens log global sales live: a man in Cleveland buys a Canali suit, a woman in Stockholm snaps up a shirt by Jil Sander. It’s the middle of the night in Australia, yet suddenly the globe swivels and an icon of a white bag lands on Australia. Last time I was here, the daily sales ticker stood at £455,443. On a January day in 2013, while Washington is headed for a fiscal cliff and London is braced against news of an economic double dip, the figure tops £2.5 million. “Please don’t write that down, a lot of stuff is reduced on sale,” begs the press officer.
It would help to have binoculars to spot Jeremy Langmead across this massive building.Once I reach the man at the helm of Mr Porter,we shake hands in a suitably “man’s world” way, then walk – or rather, hike, given the distance – to Massenet’s corner office,where she flops on the sofa and he perches beside her. Massenet, a former magazine fashion editor, hired Langmead from Esquire magazine. I ask how he is faring, across the barricades in the world of commerce. “Shall I leave the room?” he gestures to the other side of the plate glass. She says he was always the front runner, especially after that other candidate turned up for his interview in shorts. “Shorts!” Massenet hoots. Does Mr Porter not sell shorts? “We do.” Perhaps the candidate hailed from Australia? “He did not.”
Langmead, who was editor-in-chief of Wallpaper for four years before editing UK Esquire, admits he was desperate for the job. “One of the frustrations of being in print magazines was that I wanted to do so much more than I was able to. We had a very small blog budget, £15 a month or something. And I have quite a short attention span.” He was also bored with the pretence of a church-and-state division between editorial and advertising, which – while vital in a publication such as AFR Magazine – makes little sense in fashion glossies, which are pretty much “pay for play”, meaning those who advertise get coverage, those who do not rarely do. “You were featuring things but you were never really sure if readers liked them,” Langmead says. “Here, you know instantly. You can see what they’ve read and what they’ve bought. I like that.”
While he and the woman who hired him clearly share a can-do determination, his is schoolboy eager (although he sports a beard and has two grownup sons); hers still has the nervy feistiness she needed at the beginning to prove the doubters wrong. Theworld’s most glamorous geek exudes not an iota of the puffed-up smugness of a business titan, even though she pocketed £50 million from the Richemont sale; has been awarded an MBE; and is at the start of a five-year pro bono tenure as chairman of the British Fashion Council, the first woman thus anointed,which may very well lead to a trip to the palace and “arise Dame Natalie”.
No resting on laurels now. The fashion world might exalt Massenet, watching her in the front row, copying what she wears, buying whatever device she might pull from her handbag. But this mother of “kids who are BBMing and instant messaging and Instagramming” (she has daughters aged 13 and seven) knows the challenge ahead. In the early days, it was to drag the fashion pack up to speed.Now, it is to outpace a consumer for whom luxury e-tailing has morphed from novelty to normalised.
To this young customer, engagement works two ways. As Massenet recalls: “At the Paris shows, I posted my little black flat Valentino studded shoes on Instagram and within three seconds, someone said, ‘Oh that’s so last season’. By the way, we ordered them like crazy; they’re one of our best sellers, they’re like a cult shoe. I then took my little shredded Converses, that I had brought for the Eurostar ride and put them up and responded back to this person saying, ‘What about this?’ I have no idea who it was, it was an anonymous
post, but it was kind of funny. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s somebody out therewith an opinion’. But I’m happy then to counter them and say, ‘I love those shoes, they’re amazing, they’re flat, women should be wearing them’.”
Similarly,Mr Porter customers keep Langmead on his toes. “If you post, they’ll leave comments,” he says. “I’m always Instagramming and tweeting and Facebooking. You come back from the men’s shows and you have to know what people are ‘liking’,what’s going to sell. Equally, you have to know that lots of people are using you to keep up to date with what’s been happening throughout the day. You get feedback so quickly. You take a picture and within a minute, you have 68 likes.”
“People are making decisions visually,” says Massenet, “which is really good for us because we’re selling visually. People are making their decisions on what to buy based on a picture and ordering it and shipping it and then trying it on. It’s a very different process now. People are processing information in a completely different way.”
The expectations of today’s shoppers are literally sky high; they can load up a custom-made app, get a sneak peek of a new collection, participate in live events (such as the one Net-A-Porter staged with Karl Lagerfeld last year) and buy by scanning images on display in global popup shops. What you saw on Bondi Beach last year was teenagers holding up iPhones and shopping. What you didn’t hear was a voice belonging to anyone under 35 saying, “How the hell do they do that?” (Augmented reality technology, cutting-edge image recognition technology, powered by Aurasma, overlays the virtual world on the real world environment through a device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet. Got that?)
Net-A-Porter is about fashion, full speed ahead. Mr Porter’s tone is different: it meanders, taking time to teach chaps what’s what, yet it is underpinned by the same whizzbang, ever-updated technology. And while it may appear obvious that a business so successful at selling to women would expand into menswear, success with both in the bricks-and-mortar world has been rare and usually started with the boys. Ralph Lauren sold ties; Thomas Burberry sold trench coats for soldiers.
“It’s distinct. On Net-A-Porter, it is about ‘You have to have this. Don’t even think about leaving the house without it.’ Whereas for Mr Porter . . .” Massenet looks to Langmead. “The words ‘must have’ are totally banned. We work hard at creating an online world where men feel comfortable, whether they are there to shop, browse, or just be inspired.”
It’s somewhat like being looked after by the Downton Abbey butler: studiously polite yet sometimes raising an eyebrow. An entry under style icons reads, “Although the list of his other virtues is short, the Duke of Windsor is widely considered to be the best-dressed man of the 20th century and his clothes were exemplary in many ways.” When it comes to casual attire: “Seen here performing with Nirvana in 1991, Mr Kurt Cobain underscores the sweatshirt’s rock star appeal.” One starts to imagine that the man who frequents Mr Porter must be equally sophisticated – the type of guy to drive a girl around the Riviera in a sport car – while, in truth, he’s more likely to pull out his phone and add a Rag & Bone T-shirt to his wish list during dinner.
“I think men were not so much waiting for internet shopping to happen but waiting for a dedicated style site that spoke to them, their lifestyle, their interests and their needs,” Langmead says. “They were certainly adept at shopping online for other areas in their lives. We can be quite geeky as a gender.” The expectations too, differ from the sister site.
There’s the understanding that a sale might not be final. On the one hand, when a man finds something he likes, he’ll want more of the same and inventory is held to facilitate restocking. The female customer, in contrast, will have moved on, not to the next thing but the one after that. If our gent tries something and it doesn’t suit, returns – as on the sister site – are free with tags intact. To mitigate against wear and return “the tags are located in quite an uncomfortable place”, notes Langmead.
This duo is not remotely surprised that Australia is playing a leading role in Mr Porter’s success, especially as Australian women were fast off the mark. (The first order on Net-A-Porter from Australia was within 12 months of the June, 2000 launch, back in the day when few had faith in fashion online.) “Thanks to the internet, the Australian consumer has, I believe, become far more knowledgeable, confident, experimental and savvy about style. It’s an exhilarating period for menswear at the moment,” says Langmead. “The online retail landscape has allowed him to be a lot more selective and it is a natural process for him. We certainly see a very fashion-forward guy buying the likes of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Lanvin from Australia.”
Langmead’s own style is not especially adventurous, despite the red socks he’s teamed with brogues. “We actually just did a video on the trends in Paris and we were looking at socks. They’re quite cheery.” He brand checks: “Loro Piana washed cotton, chambray shirt, Alexander Olch check, wool twill tie, Canali Kei slim-fit, unstructured, cotton- blend blazer.” He also wears trousers but does not name check them because he’s moved on to the bracelets. “Luis Morais. Small diamonds and white gold in the middle.”
“That was the first item to sell out on Mr Porter,” says Massenet. Langmead adds: “It’s extraordinary how many businessmen wear these. Loads of finance guys wear beads on their wrists.” Even in Australia? “They fly out.” So what of the three neon tangerine bands that hang loose from Massenet’s dainty wrist? “Hairbands; put hair in a ponytail instantly,” she demonstrates. Ah, but trust her to have a dime-store product in a hard-to-get colour. Her outsized top is Les Chiffoniers. “We’re really in love with the sweatshirt right now,” she says. “This is a couture sweatshirt look plus inky black jeans by Frame Denim and Alexander Wang wedge boots,which are very cool and I can run in them.”
The skill, they say, is in the curation. In the vast gentleman’s closet that is Mr Porter, a sweatshirt featuring a shark might coexist (but never be worn with) a Charvet tie (the French firm was founded in 1838). “It’s that balance of taste and desire and just getting it right overall,” says Langmead. Massenet’s view is: “We’re not trying to be the world’s biggest super store. Our value add is that we edit what we believe in. We make sure we are the partners to our consumers in terms of taste.”
Massenet used to be the fashion chick at the geek show. Although she remains the designers’ champion, today it is technology that ignites her. “Within two years, everyone will be looking up again,” she predicts. “You’ll have the messages going in your field of vision so you don’t have to move your head down. There will be a single device for everything. You will have your desktop within a mobile and you’ll connect to TV screens, movie screens, as well as the ability to make a purchase or identify yourself across all platforms with a single
click,which will be mind-blowing.”
The only bit I really grasp is that it is all coming within two years and I have learnt not to doubt Natalie Massenet.
Langmead proffers me a parting gift I am better placed to understand. “The inky incarnation of Mr Porter,” he says, sliding across a book, The Manual for a Stylish Life, printed on sensuous vellum stock. Massenet grabs it. “Look, all the images downloaded instantly,” she says with a straight face. “And you can flick seamlessly from one page to the next!”
Then she giggles and hands it over.