At the helm of the men’s luxury etailer, managing director Toby Bateman is credited with revolutionising the menswear market
“It sounds boring to keep talking about data analysis, as it makes me sound like some sort of accountant – which I’m not,” jokes Toby Bateman, the buyer turned managing director of menswear etailer Mr Porter. “I consider myself a sort of old-fashioned merchant running a shop.”
Sitting in his office atop west London’s Westfield shopping centre, overlooking his team of buyers, editors, tech whizzes and data analysts, it is obvious this is not your typical “shop”. In fact, Bateman is a modern-day menswear merchant, who blends traditional retail and product expertise with a sophisticated application of data, technology and digital content. And this has been the key to Mr Porter’s success.
Launched in 2000 by Dame Natalie Massenet, Mr Porter sister womenswear site Net-a-Porter was one of the first digital pureplays to sell luxury designer brands. It changed the way women shop and shifted perceptions about what could be sold online, alongside editorial content that rivals the best glossy magazines. Ten years later, luxury group Richemont bought Net-a-Porter in a deal that valued the business at £350m. Massenet then applied the formula to menswear and launched Mr Porter in 2011.
In 2015, Net-a-Porter Group merged with Italian rival Yoox, creating Yoox Net-a-Porter Group (YNAP). Massenet left the business in 2015. Richemont paid €2.77bn (£2.44bn) for the remaining stake in the group in May this year.
Mr Porter now ships to 170 countries. The US is its largest single market, followed by the UK, Asia and Australia. YNAP does not disclose financials for Mr Porter, but in its full-year results for the year to 31 December 2017 its multi-brand in-season arm, which includes Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, recorded consolidated net revenues of €1.1bn (£1bn), up 18.3% year on year.
Bateman began his career at House of Fraser in 1996 as an own-brand buyer.
“That’s where I learnt my craft,” he says. “For anyone serious about being a good buyer, you should start [at that level] because you’ll understand how things are made, and how much they should cost.”
Bateman joined Mr Porter – then known as Project Y – as buying director in 2010. He was the second official employee, alongside buyer Katja Delaloye, who has since left, making him the longest-standing Mr Porter staff member. He was made managing director in 2015.
Mr Porter personified
Launching off the back of Net-a-Porter’s success obviously gave Mr Porter a head start, but it was Bateman’s influence that made it a success.
Tall and slim, Bateman is a classic menswear geek. Take Ivy, the famous fashion photography book featuring the preppy menswear outfits of Ivy League students from the early 1960s takes pride of place on his coffee table. Unlike his sneaker-wearing staff, his signature is tailoring – on the day of our interview he is wearing a navy Boglioli suit, smart Emma Willis shirt, Drake’s pocket square and vintage Rolex watch, hair neatly trimmed in a traditional side parting. It is obvious where Mr Porter’s early focus on smart-casual wardrobe classics for what Bateman calls the “modern gentleman” look came from.
“What didn’t exist here was the menswear knowledge, and of course that was my job: to come in and build out more specialist menswear brands,” he says. “So I went off to Milan and Paris, and met with people like Boglioli, Loro Piana, Incotex, Canali and Berluti.”
Bateman adds that for the first two or three years he did not buy a single garment with a logo on it – something it is hard to imagine him wearing.
What didn’t exist here was the menswear knowledge, and of course that was my job
“We didn’t even buy Ralph Lauren polo shirts with polo pony logos – certainly not the big ones – which in those days were the ones that were selling,” he points out.
“Toby knew there was a customer who wanted the best, who valued style over trends, because it resonated with his own core belief about what menswear should be,” says Terry Betts, head of business development at Thread, who worked with Bateman as a senior buyer at Mr Porter from its launch to 2013, and before that at Harvey Nichols. “Toby’s passion for product was the glue, and, combined with the world-class content plus Natalie’s infectious drive, meant we could build a business that offered men the ultimate edit.
“I think people take it for granted now that Mr Porter was going to be successful,” adds Betts. “But so many of the brands [it stocks] had never worked with a pure online partner before. It was a huge amount of work to deliver something that raised the bar so much and set the standard.”
Mr Porter now stocks 479 brands across clothing, footwear, grooming, luxury watches, sportswear and home. Best sellers are “diverse”, says Bateman: Brunello Cucinelli, Tom Ford, Berluti, Loro Piana, Balenciaga, Gucci and Givenchy, plus a “growing business” with Off-White, Amiri and Fear of God.
Most men like to understand the difference between brands and choose one or the other
“Mr Porter was a torchbearer for men’s retail,” says Adam Brown, founder of men’s swimwear brand Orlebar Brown. “Even after many years, we continue to have double-digit growth [on Mr Porter] and this is largely because of it being a partnership. By working with them we have introduced lots of new categories including sweats, outerwear, shoes and accessories. Although we have many stockists who are seeing the same growth, Mr Porter is really the only one that has truly global reach.”
“Right from the off it changed the way we thought about menswear. We quickly went from delivering two collections a year to delivering eight a year,” adds British designer Oliver Spencer, whose eponymous brand has been stocked by Mr Porter since autumn 11. “Toby has got a great eye for clothing, and an even better sense of the overall business picture. The business, and Toby, have truly been innovators, and many are now following.”
In the eight years since launch, Bateman points to Mr Porter’s brand mix as one of the biggest evolutions, selling more “fashion product” as male shoppers have “changed dramatically”. Arguably, Mr Porter and Bateman have fostered this change.
“We upload new product three times a week and that has prompted a different sort of experience for men, because actually when you go back to 2011 there weren’t really that many men’s stores online. So you have more on offer, and you then start subscribing to our emails and eventually follow us on Instagram and eventually this has got men more interested in style.”
But with nearly 500 brands, is there too much choice?
Bateman thinks not: “It’s increasingly important to remain edited, because the growth in online availability of men’s luxury brands is coming from platforms that specifically don’t edit. Let’s say Mr Porter goes to Gucci and picks 100 items, you can go to a competitor’s site and see 500. That’s hard to navigate for anyone, regardless of whether you’re well versed in fashion or are just a regular bloke looking for a piece of Gucci.
“One of the fundamental differences between how men and women shop is women have the bandwidth to digest multiple brands that might be quite similar, whereas most men like to understand the difference between brands and choose one or the other.”
While everyone talked about that whole ‘buy now, wear now’ concept, no one [else] actually did it
Part of this editing is only stocking brands with a unique selling point and that add something new to the offer. Bateman says he sticks to this rule, which was also a key factor behind the launch of the retailer’s own brand Mr P last November.
“It’s doing really well,” beams Bateman. “I shouldn’t say much better than we expected, but the reaction has been phenomenal and as a result we have quickly ramped up the resource behind it.”
He highlights seasonality as key to its success: “In June there are shorts and swimwear, in September it will be mid-weight autumn clothes, when people actually want them, and we don’t drop heavy coats and shearling jackets until November. While everyone talked about that whole ‘buy now, wear now’ concept, no one [else] actually did it.”
Mr P footwear launched this week, in 15 options including sneakers, dress shoes and boots. Prices range from £225 for sneakers to £475 for boots.
Another of Mr Porter’s founding principles was the importance of high-quality, expensively produced content, and Bateman still refers to the business as “a mix between a magazine and a shop”: “I think the success has stemmed from that marriage of the two”.
The website features content such as interviews, “How to” videos and “Best of” guides, as well as thorough brand and product information, produced by an in-house editorial team overseen by former Esquire editor Jeremy Langmead (his desk is immediately opposite Bateman’s office). In April 2016, the editorial team added a daily element to its output. Practical, advisory features, such as “Five ways to wear a navy blazer”, receive the most engagement.
Many other menswear retailers have tried the content route, although none with the investment and execution of Mr Porter. For Bateman, content is not just the icing on the cake, nor purely a sales driver, but central to Mr Porter’s overall proposition and to fostering a relationship with its customers. He declines to disclose figures, but reveals that Mr Porter has twice as many people subscribed to its content updates as active customers.
“That is a brilliant figure because it shows how popular the content is – we have so many people who actually come on to Mr Porter that are registered but are not shopping,” he says.
And while he admits content can be effective at boosting sales, he maintains that sales are not the mark of content success: “What works is that our content has integrity. People don’t feel like we are shoving things down their throat. I don’t go to [the content team] saying, ‘These are the slow sellers – can you do a story on them?’ I never have, and I never will.”
Looking to the future, Bateman is guarded. After the 2015 merger with Yoox, Mr Porter announced it was building a new technical platform for the site, which Bateman says will enable it to more quickly develop functionality such as foreign language translations, and global payment and delivery solutions. Although under wraps, this will launch next year.
Meanwhile, the ongoing development of the Mr Porter app continues to be a “big focus”, as “pretty much half of our revenue comes from mobile devices now”.
“You have to be [as much] a tech company to a successful online retailer nowadays,” says Bateman. “We couldn’t have grown to the size that we are without having a really solid platform – and without developing a website that is pleasing aesthetically, but also instinctive, and fast to navigate and operate.
You have to be [as much] a tech company to a successful online retailer nowadays
“So much work goes into just making a page load a fraction of a second faster. Our tech team will monitor that: our product page is loading in 0.3 of a second, and our competitors’ are loading in 0.2, so we need to improve. It’s all really in those details. They are vital to the online experience.”
In terms of growth, Bateman hints at a more regional approach to reach new customers, building brand awareness in a more targeted way, particularly across America.
He also believes the “revolution in menswear” will continue, as men’s fashion goes mainstream, particularly for men over 40: “There is still a load of guys out there who aren’t wearing Ami or Acne – they haven’t started branching out. But I think they will and that’s going to be an important change as that regular bloke switches on more every day.”
It is this understanding of his customer that has led Bateman – and Mr Porter – to thrive.
As Betts says: “Toby’s discipline and laser focus on what the business stands for and his uncompromising opinion on the right brands for the Mr Porter customer have been critical to its success. He’s a tough trader – years at Selfridges will teach you that – but because he respects brands, he’s also one of the most well-liked figures in menswear. It’s inspiring to see the good people succeed and over the past 20 years. Toby’s definitely one of those people.”