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The Drapers Interview - Fergus Patterson

Fergus Patterson has big plans for Gant, which has made a success of menswear but found womenswear trickier.

Just off Sloane Street in London’s Knightsbridge lies the UK headquarters of lifestyle brand Gant, winner of Menswear Brand of the Year at last year’s Drapers Independents Awards. When Drapers visits, the buying season is drawing to a close, although between the meeting rooms and head offices, the Gant showroom inside is still set up as an elaborately designed woodland forest, complete with a log cabin. We’re told that, last season, it was a fully furnished New York apartment. It’s a strong first impression and the kind of attention to presenting the Gant lifestyle that seems to set the brand apart in the UK market.

UK and Ireland managing director Fergus Patterson has been with Gant for 15 months, joining from Wolsey in December 2012, where he had been managing director.

Gant itself was founded in New Haven in the US in 1949 and after being sold by the founding family in 1967 it changed hands a number of times before being acquired in 2008 by Swiss holding company Maus Frères Group, which also holds majority ownership of Lacoste and Aigle.

“I’d say it [Gant UK and Ireland] is in good shape at the moment,” Patterson says, though he admits February’s wet weather made for a tough month.

He arrived at the business following a period of retail growth in the UK, during which it was opening about two stores a year for five or six consecutive years. In total, Gant now has 14 standalone UK stores, as well as one in London for its younger
sub-brand Gant Rugger, and three outlet stores. These sit alongside 450 UK wholesale stockists - 74% of which stock menswear, 16% womenswear and 10% kidswear - and 2013 UK sales hit £83m, up 6% on the year before.

Patterson acknowledges that before the accelerated period of retail growth, the brand “was already a well-established wholesale brand in most of the premium doors Gant would want to sell in”. He says that, unless something “very attractive” came up, more stores are unlikely in the next year, but that’s not to say he’s happy to rest on his laurels.

“People tend to know us as a menswear brand, but we have women’s, children’s and home,” he says. And Patterson believes these will be the growth categories in future: “We’ve got a relatively small market share in womenswear, so we see that as a big opportunity in wholesale.”

“The issue with a lifestyle brand,” he adds, “is sometimes you can end up trying to concentrate on everything and the key for us is to focus on four or five areas.”

With wholesale in other categories at the top of the agenda, Patterson is planning the next stage of development. This has included appointing former colleague Steven Kelly, former international sales director at Wolsey, as head of wholesale for the UK and Ireland this January.

“We had a structure where we didn’t have a head of wholesale, but we had a head of retail,” Patterson says, adding that, along with the commercial director, there were fears of the structure being too “top heavy”.

He adds: “Given that wholesale is still so much on the agenda, we needed someone. Some of the work Steven will do will become apparent for our stockists over the next couple of seasons.”

With Kelly so recently appointed, Patterson is reluctant to go into too much detail, but says: “It’s sitting down with each customer and looking at a longer term than just the next season.” He says this means working with customers on growth plans for the next three to four years.

“I think sometimes brands and stockists can have a very functional relationship. For a brand that wants to thrive in an independents market, just being transactional isn’t enough,” he says. He believes working closely with stockists to create a longer-term view is essential, instead of simply saying “right, it’s the end of the season, the book is closed and I’ll see you in six months”.

In terms of strategy, ideas are on the table. The brand doesn’t offer exclusive product to independents at the moment, but Patterson wouldn’t rule this out. However, when it comes to specifics about pushing womenswear to buyers, he won’t give much away, with strategy such as trade shows “still in the early stages”. Womenswear is shown at menswear show Pitti Uomo and, ultimately, this is more of decision for parent company Gant AB than Patterson.

But it’s the womenswear product and design that needs addressing, according to buyers. One independent menswear stockist said: “[For autumn 14] Gant menswear had some key looks in terms of outerwear pieces and they moved forward quite a lot with the collection. But the womenswear was shocking. I know tartan was in, but the mixture of green and orange they used really wasn’t wearable.”

Patterson admits that womenswear as a market is “completely different” to menswear, saying “womenswear changes much more every season, there’s not the same continuity, but that’s how we design it. If we did have it the same, it wouldn’t work”.

When discussing menswear, he shows more enthusiasm, emphasising the changes brought about since Christopher Bastin was made creative director of the whole brand in July 2012.

He says Bastin added youthful elements from Gant Rugger into the mainline to update the overall look: “Christopher’s brought in a freshness and vibrancy. If I compare the mainline to 12 months ago, there’s something about the use of fabrics, colours and textures that make it slightly more interesting, but still Gant.”

Indeed, menswear is praised by stockists for its appeal. Rob Jepson, dispatch manager at Terraces, which has two menswear stores, in Stoke-on-Trent and Nantwich, Cheshire, says: “It’s one of the top sellers. The thing about Gant is that it’s good for all age groups and great value for money [wholesale prices range from £20 for shirts to £170 for outerwear]. They use quality materials, so it’s hard wearing, but it really looks nice as well. I buy it for myself too.”

For retail, the next stage will be to look at Gant stores for opportunities to extend its other categories. “Around the time I joined, we moved our store in Bluewater to extend the unit size by another 40% and add in a much bigger collection of womenswear,” Patterson explains. “I think where we’ve got the space to give it justice that’s great.”

However, he is pragmatic about choosing the right locations. “Somewhere like Bristol, the reality is that we might take womenswear out of the store because it’s not meeting the needs of the local population as we can’t get enough product in there,” he says. “It would be better to have a really good men’s store than an OK store and a disappointing womenswear offer.”

There are no plans for standalone womenswear stores, with Patterson stating: “I think we’ve got to get a little bit further,” before that would be considered. “We launched womenswear globally 10 years ago, so it’s relatively young when you consider the total history of the brand.”

The key words Patterson comes back to throughout the interview are “carefully considered growth”, which seems to be the foundation of his ethos for the brand.

This might be a hangover from his time at Wolsey, where the brand embarked on a dramatic change that saw it reposition from a mainstream into an aspirational brand.

Patterson says: “I think the biggest thing for us is to do what the brand does really well, it’s not about chasing newness. With any brand, particularly in menswear, radical change will wipe out your business. I knew that Wolsey would go from x number of stockists to zero because we were making a radical change, we were moving from Alan Titchmarsh to Kasabian and that was really different.”

He uses the buzzword “heritage” without any qualms, despite some brands moving away from the often over-used phrase. “We are a fashion brand that has a heritage,” he says. “We’re not a heritage brand in that we don’t have to make stuff that looks vintage. Gant has genuine stories that go back to 1949. You can’t make those up and that’s one of the things that attracted me to Gant, it was a brand with an incredibly rich heritage from when it started in New Haven.”

As such, Patterson is keen to protect its legacy, in terms of both the product and its reputation as an award-winning, independent-supporting brand. “One of the comments from the judges [at the Drapers Independents Awards] was that Gant was a nice company to do business with,” he says.

“We try to be that, we try not to be an aggressive hard-sell business. I’ve seen brands that push extremely hard to get the order written on the day and the consequence is that you have one really good season, then you have poor sell-through because you’ve oversold, then that impacts on stockists’ ability to buy next season or their financial health. One of the things we try to do is to size what our potential is in a business and we’re cautious about it because it can have the wrong impact in the long term.”

With the changes Patterson is setting in motion, could we one day see Gant womenswear winning a Drapers Award? “Well,” he smiles. “That would be a very nice thing, wouldn’t it?”

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