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Matt McCormack

John Lewis’s head of buying for menswear, leisure and sports is sweet-talking brands into joining his quest to create a ‘unique’ offer that consigns the retailer’s conservative image to history.

Matt McCormack speaks about department stores as if he were describing a love affair.

He says his job as head of buying menswear, leisure and sports at John Lewis is “the art of dancing with brands” and that he loves that “slow dance that happens sometimes when you bring brands into your business and you are making money together.”

McCormack caught the brand bug back home in Australia. It became an obsession that outgrew his home country after stints at prestigious department store chains Myer and David Jones.

“London is the epicentre of commercial men’s fashion,” explains McCormack of his move to the UK three years ago. “I love the idea of a multi-branded environment and the department store is a retail format that is unique - most department stores come from a rich heritage and the idea of that being blended with today in a multi-brand environment is what pushes my buttons.”

McCormack joined John Lewis in October after two years at House of Fraser and an eight-month tenure at menswear retailer Moss Bros.

He describes his time in a private equity environment at House of Fraser, after years in publicly listed companies in Australia, as “exciting” and says he was attracted by the pace of change: “It’s what turns me on. I like the idea that you can be a bit off-piste.

“What does come sometimes in a traditional retail format is that people can be rear-view mirror-focused. You have to take some learnings from the past but those that are really successful are looking out to the future and questioning.”

It’s this forward-looking attitude which McCormack says John Lewis is becoming better known for. The 146-year-old, employee-owned business has in the past been berated for not favouring the so-called “off-piste” attitude that McCormack enjoys.

He says: “There are a lot of people who have a view of what [John Lewis] is without knowing what it is.” He adds that the perception of Middle England’s favourite department store is changing rapidly, spearheaded initially by buying and brand director Peter Ruis, who joined the business in 2005, and borne out now by the fact that fashion represents one third of John Lewis’s £3bn turnover.

It was the power of the John Lewis name that resonated with McCormack when he considered joining the company. “What John Lewis has done over decades is remarkable because [the public] might get the [John Lewis] Partnership model piece wrong but they understand what the business stands for.”

Brand junkies

When McCormack joined he quickly identified the gaps in John Lewis’s menswear offer, such as denim, which will now feature Diesel and G-Star for autumn. He will also continue to add brands to the offer.

“Men are brand junkies,” says McCormack. “If a man trusts the brand, the fit, he becomes loyal.”

He says he doesn’t think the male shopper’s psyche has changed during the recession: “In unit terms, there has been growth in the entry price point of the business over the last three years, but men ultimately come back to where they start.”

For the John Lewis customer, that standpoint is a “pragmatic” one. “That is, it’s what they trust, what they feel good in. They want to be on trend but they don’t want to be beacons in the crowd. He’s a bit understated and a bit coy but he’s still interested in fashion.”

A case in point is John Lewis’s collaboration with British designer Joe Casely-Hayford. The first collaboration has proved successful enough to be rolled out to double the space for autumn 10, while other collaborations will follow, with exclusive tailoring range Mayfair by Richard James set to debut for autumn 10.

McCormack also sees opportunities to grow in outerwear, denim and lifestyle. The existing lifestyle offer is anchored by Polo by Ralph Lauren, which is being rolled out for autumn 10. At the other extreme is formalwear and outerwear, which includes successful brands such as Barbour. The “in-between offer” is what McCormack says is “the urban piece, which is that smart, desk-to-dinner offer, anchored by Ted Baker, Joe Casely-Hayford, Fred Perry and Nicole Farhi.”

He also sees the value in driving the Britishness in John Lewis’s offer. For the Joe Casely-Hayford collection, John Lewis has worked with Barbour and John Smedley to create the outerwear and knitwear.

McCormack says: “We want to develop an assortment that is unique and talks to the values of John Lewis. We don’t want to be another ‘me too’ department store of branded men’s clothing. The whole bit that makes us different is the story behind the product.”

The strategy is working. Trading in menswear is up 28% for the half to June 21 and all categories are up double digits including formalwear, casualwear, accessories and footwear, branded and own brand. He says menswear sales online have doubled for the first half of the year and will double again by mid-2012 to become its number one menswear store.

The design of the menswear departments in the top 14 of John Lewis’s 28 stores will also be overhauled, following the success of the new womenswear concept in Cardiff, Cheadle in Greater Manchester and Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. “Our environment needs to dial up in its theatre,” explains McCormack. “Power categories” will be ramped up in volume, the height of fixtures will be raised and colour will dominate. Denim will become a key feature.

So why have brands decided to take part in John Lewis’s journey? “We look serious about our offer. We are fair dinkum,” says McCormack.

He adds: “I love the idea of joining up brands [retail and wholesale].

To come together in a positive way is unique. It’s about connecting and a bit of blue sky in co-operation and competition. I love the little dance we do. Together we walk away shoulder-to-shoulder, and I’m thinking, ‘This could be a much bigger business.”


Will prices rise for next season?

Price rises are inevitable but we’ll not pass on prices without putting stronger elements into the clothing. Where we have put prices up, we’ve seen no backlash because we’ve added extra elements. Some brands will be caught out by the price changes.

How commercial was this season’s edition of menswear show Pitti Uomo?

The trends were very commercial. I’m backing more saturated colours for spring. Men are also becoming more aware of changes in quality and want products which last longer, so that’s going to be key.

Where do you encourage your buyers to visit for inspiration?

A lot of the buyers I work with say to me, ‘When are we going to New York or the West Coast or Paris?’ And I say, ‘That’s great, but when is the last time you went to Shoreditch and had a mooch around?’

There’s so much talent in London.

What job would you have done had you not been in retail?

I’d have probably ended up in HR, which I know sounds strange.

Who has taught you the most about retailing during your career?

Mark McInnes, [former chief executive of Australian department store David Jones]. He was always pushing us, getting us to look outside the business as well as within. He taught us to focus on product, service and people, and said developing talent is key.

It is his augmented approach [to retailing] which I apply.


2009 Head of buying menswear, leisure and sports, John Lewis

2007 Head of men’s buying, House of Fraser

2006 Buying and merchandising manager, Hugo Boss and Cecil Gee, Moss Bros

2002 Various roles including general manager, menswear, David Jones, Australia

1991 Various roles including senior buyer, menswear, Myer, Australia

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