63 Thomas Street
Nigel Lawson unashamedly and openly eyes up every person - from head to toe - that passes through the doors of Oi Polloi, the super-cool Manchester indie he co-owns with Steve Sanderson. You feel yourself silently name checking each brand you are wearing, hoping you’ve passed some sort of test.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Drapers asks where Lawson gets his inspiration from, or where he finds the brands that make his store so revered, he starts pointing at the shoes, tops, trousers of his customers, or people walking along the streets outside. Lawson may be a man of few words, but it’s his keen eye for product that means he is always looking, always asking, making sure he gets the brand before anyone else does.
And despite a portfolio that includes some 110 menswear brands like Acne, Belstaff and Folk, Oi Polloi succeeds in maintaining an envied level of exclusivity, both as a result of clever editing and its reputation for great product, which means brands are often more than happy to supply the store exclusively or work on special collaborations.
“We pick specific product,” says Sanderson. “For example, with Baracuta, we sell just the Harrington jacket. And we’ve got to like it. We don’t do it just because it’s in fashion.”
Evidently. Scrutinise both Sanderson and Lawson - in the same way they do their customers - and they themselves are clearly the Oi Polloi customer: cool, laid-back and into brands. Lawson is proud that the store only has one floral shirt “and no Ed Hardy”. Still, even by allowing one item he dislikes to slip through the net shows that the duo put the customer first.
“We look after our customers. We give them an honest opinion because they could be spending £200,” says Lawson.
The retailer also teams up with relevant bloggers, which allows Sanderson to trace and measure who is visiting Oi Polloi’s website, a channel that represents two thirds of the business. Those visitors include rival retailers.
“Gap, Selfridges - they all buy our stock and look to copy it. I know because we check the online orders and I know the names of the buyers,” says Sanderson. Online may be booming, but so is the bricks-and-mortar business, with the store relocating earlier this year to a 1,600 sq ft unit in Manchester’s Northern Quarter - twice the size of the original store on Tib Street.
But even Oi Polloi had to rethink its strategy during the recession, cutting its brands from 150 to 110 and reducing SKUs. “We’re going heavier on what works,” says Lawson, with Sanderson adding that exclusive collaborations with the likes of Henri-Lloyd, Danish brand Norse Projects and Paul Smith have given it an extra point of difference.
Also in the pipeline is Oi Polloi’s first own brand, Cottonopolis. “It’s an old slang term given to Manchester by cotton traders,” explains Lawson, who has designed the collection, which will launch in September. It will retail for between £200 and £400 but Oi Polloi has no plans to wholesale it in the UK.