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Leading the herd: meet the man behind Moose Knuckles

noah stern moose knuckles index

Rebel attitudes, brazen branding and high-luxury product combine to outerwear magic for Canadian brand Moose Knuckles.

Noah Stern, co-CEO of Moose Knuckles, describes the Canadian high-end outerwear label as “the anti-luxury luxury brand”: “We play it high-low: our coats are very, very high end, but we also like to get down and dirty. We don’t believe in being pretentious.”

“Down and dirty” Moose Knuckles – the clue is in the name – considers itself a rebellious, disruptive outsider that is shaking up the luxury outerwear world. The brand is worn by rappers, models, actors such as Matt Bomer and Michelle Monaghan, and influencers including Instagram star Olivia Culpo. Its retail price points range from £70 for a beanie hat to £2,565 for the premium Coderre parka, which is made with rabbit fur and fox fur. Other parkas cost around £1,000. 

Stern runs Moose Knuckles as co-CEO alongside his business partner, Ayal Twik. The pair invested in the business in early 2010, and have driven dramatic growth over the past decade, transforming the brand from being a collection of four coats sold exclusively in Canada, to a global luxury outerwear and lifestyle brand.

What began as a one-man operation is now run by almost 250 employees from offices in Montreal, New York, Milan and Shanghai. Although he will not share profit figures, Stern says that in the past three years, sales growth has been “phenomenal” at 75%, 76% and 87% respectively. He claims this makes Moose Knuckles the third-largest luxury outerwear brand in the world, after Canada Goose and Moncler. 

It is sold in 42 countries worldwide in more than 700 retailers, and has 60 stockists in the UK, including Harrods and Selfridges, as well as independents such as Accent in Leeds and OD’s in Merseyside.

And Stern’s hunger for growth shows no sign of abating: “We hope to catch them soon. If we keep growing as we are, we’ll get closer and closer.” Expanding the global store portfolios and digital optimisation are just some of his priorities.

They were down coats that had a very sexy fit, and it’s very hard to accomplish that.

Noah Stern

Before buying Moose Knuckles with Twik, Stern had a background in outerwear. Growing up, he worked in his grandfather’s Winnipeg-based coat business, leaving to study and work in New York as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer for three years. He briefly returned to the family business before setting up his own operation – Levy Canada Fashion Company – in 2004. It created outerwear under licence for brands including Nautica, Perry Ellis and Buffalo.

Moose knuckles fw20 shot 13

Moose Knuckles autumn 20

In 2009, Stern and Twik were introduced to Moose Knuckles by a fashion show producer. Launched in 2007 as a wholesale brand, it had developed a subversive identity, but Stern says the founders had reached the limits of their ability to grow the brand. Less than a year later, Stern and Twik had bought the business, with grand plans for scaling up production.

Moose Knuckles outerwear uses a cotton and nylon blend for “durability, strength and warmth”. It uses fur trims – although 40% of its outerwear is fur free – and duck and goose down insulation. Its down meets the Responsible Down Standard, and its fur is Saga certified for animal health and welfare.

“It was an opportunity to take something that was in its infancy and give it a shot,” recalls Stern, and explains that the draw was the product, which stood apart from other heavy-duty outerwear brands: “The coats had attitude. They were down coats that had a very sexy fit, and it’s very hard to accomplish that.

“They were Canadian in a new way. Normally when you think of Canada, you think of log cabins and igloos, and things like that. And this was the other side of it. The spirit of a hockey fight: rugged and tough and sexy.”

This “sexy” attitude has helped to fuel much of Moose Knuckles’ international growth outside of its native Canada. 

One independent stockist tells Drapers: “Canadian brands have a reputation for functional and durable outerwear, and Moose Knuckles’ technical yet feminine jackets will appeal to those looking for a statement piece for those colder winter months – a jacket that will keep them warm without compromising on style.”

Despite the initial draw of the coats, Stern and Twik have focused on transforming the brand from an outerwear-only business, to a lifestyle specialist: “This was a fashion brand and we had a vision that we could extend it into other products.”

We really focus on talking about the fashionability and not the function as much

Noah Stern

While outerwear remains the bestseller, the brand also creates ready-to-wear, sportswear, accessories and footwear. Stern says that around 65% of the brand’s SKUs are outerwear, but the non-outerwear business continues to grow. He does not have an ultimate goal for the split of categories.

Luca Solca, senior research analyst for global luxury goods at financial adviser Bernstein, observes that a similar strategy has helped to drive the growth of outerwear specialists Moncler and Canada Goose: “The popularity of luxury outerwear is one aspect of a wider casualisation trend. Brands are being careful to offer relatively light jackets, too – not just very warm ones. You see them moving to adjacent product categories, such as knitwear and footwear.”

In a competitive outerwear market, Stern says one aspect that helps set Moose Knuckles apart is its focus on playful fashionability, combined with quality: “We really focus on talking about the fashionability and not the function as much. Our coats are very functional, but we talk about our fashion because Moose Knuckles is a fun brand. Although it performs, and quality is super-important to us, I think what’s most important is fun.”

Moose knuckles fw20 shot 22

Moose Knuckles autumn 20

He says that across its manufacturing chain, which includes Canada, Vietnam, Italy, Portugal and Peru, the brand implements rigorous quality control checks across everything from fabrics and components to finished garments. Moose Knuckles says it has had a defect rate of just 0.3% in each of the past four years. The International Standards Organisation acceptable quality limit industry average is 2%-3%. 

Stern is adamant that retaining quality is crucial to maintaining momentum as the business scales up: “We’ve seen some of our competitors grow very quickly and lose control of their quality. We won’t allow that to happen, we don’t allow it to happen.”

He adds that Moose Knuckles’ expansion has not been by the book: “Everywhere we’ve gone, it’s not because we have some high-level strategist saying we need to go to the market.” Stern describes the approach as, “They wanted it, we went.”

Having our own stores is a big push for us internationally

Noah Stern

Norway was the brand’s first international venture in 2011, followed by South Korea, as they were the first markets to “beg” for the brand. In 2017, Moose Knuckles opened an office in Milan to drive European growth, and in 2019 launched a Shanghai office to further target China. Today, Stern says sales are split almost evenly across Europe, North America and Asia. Europe, in particular the UK, and China are two of the fastest-growing markets.

Part of Stern’s plans for expansion internationally involves ramping up the number of physical stores around the globe. Moose Knuckles has its own stores in Toronto, which opened in 2017 and a New York flagship, which opened in 2019.

Before coronavirus, there were plans to launch eight more in 2020, including in Tokyo, Seoul, Vancouver and several in China. A London store is on the horizon, but a location has not yet been found.

“Having our own stores is a big push for us internationally,” says Stern. “There are certain retailers, such as Selfridges and Harrods in the UK, that are able to give you a really good platform to present your brand. But there’s no place that you can really display your brand in full and properly, better than your own stores.

“You’re not looking for sales per square foot – you’re looking for experiences per square foot. We want people to have a moment after they leave where they say, ‘I can’t believe what just happened in that store. That was insane.’”

The New York branch’s VIP room – with on-tap champagne – is one example, and the space regularly hosts live DJ nights and events.

With this store focus, Moose Knuckles is aiming to increase the proportion of direct-to-consumer sales. Currently, 30% of sales are made via own stores or the brand’s own website, but Stern is aiming to redress the balance to 50% direct sales within the next three years.

Digital optimisation is another pillar in Stern’s strategy. He declines to disclose the split between online and store sales, but admits that international websites are lagging behind the digital performance in North America.

“We’ve got a huge [digital] opportunity outside of North America, but I don’t know that we are maximising that,” he says. “Our ecommerce business is very, very robust in North America, but it trails our wholesale business in other markets. So, we need to focus in on tailoring the site.” 

Localised content, plus adapting delivery, payment methods and pricing to the individual markets are just some of the ways Moose Knuckles may look to do this.

Beyond its growth measures, sustainability is becoming a central part of Moose Knuckles’ operations. In typically irreverent style, it recently hired its first “director of giving a fuck”, Scott McDougall, who is essentially its head of sustainability.

“We’ve always given a fuck, but we’re really starting to give more of a fuck,” jokes Stern. “Now it is extending into everything that we do: the way we source, the way we sew, the fabrics we use. We are becoming a much more sustainable company.”

For autumn 20, this will include the launch of a fully recycled range of jackets, as well as one made from 90% biodegradable fabrics. Moose Knuckles is also looking at vegan-friendly options.

Money is money. People are people, and we are most concerned about them

Noah Stern

Additionally, over the coming year, each of Moose Knuckles’ four offices are relocating, having outgrown their current locations, and Stern says sustainability is a vital attribute for the brand to consider in its future buildings.

“There’s things we’ve already been doing,” says Stern. “For example, in the last year we’ve eliminated 200,000 polybags from our production line, but we haven’t really talked about it. We’re not really talking about it because the important part is not talking about it: the important part is doing it. I want to make sure that we’re not making claims that are invalid. I don’t like greenwashing, and there are people using sustainability as a marketing tool. We want to do it in an authentic way.”

When Drapers met Stern in early spring 2020, the cataclysmic effects of the global coronavirus pandemic were yet to fully emerge. 

However, Stern stresses that the business’s main priority is the well-being of its employees: “Money is money. People are people, and we are most concerned about them.”

In recent weeks, Moose Knuckles has closed its US and Canadian stores. It held a 10-day Sale in April, and is creating a collaboration line with artists in cities across the world to create unique pieces. All net profits from these projects will go to the World Health Organization and to local hospitals in Montreal, New York, Milan and Shanghai.

As with any fashion retailer in the current climate, Moose Knuckles’ immediate future looks turbulent. However, as Stern says, the current disruption is temporary. When the time comes for fashion to resume its usual operations, Moose Knuckles is certain to be leading the charge with its ambitious plans for growth and daring attitude.

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