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The Drapers Interview: Mark Batista

Mark Batista has turned his hand to almost all functions during his menswear career, gaining a keen eye for what sells and detailed knowledge of the market along the way.

Notching up almost 20 years as a wholesale agent, retailer and trade show organiser, Mark Batista is well versed in the trials and tribulations of the independent menswear sector. Despite a spate of tough years, capped off by an unusually warm autumn 2014, he’s feeling optimistic about 2015 thanks to a busy start to the season.

The day after the upbeat autumn 15 edition of Jacket Required, the trade show he co-founded in August 2011, Drapers meets him at a coffee shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, London. We are just up the road from The Content Store, one of his two contemporary menswear shops, and close to his Brand Progression agency showroom.

Batista co-founded the east London menswear fair with Craig Ford, owner of agency A Number of Names, which represents brands including A Bathing Ape and Billionaire Boys Club, and agent Andrew Parfitt, who is no longer involved. Batista and Ford sold the show after three seasons to ITE Moda in July 2012 for an undisclosed amount and have continued to work as consultants, staying heavily involved in its organisation and concept.

The show has grown considerably since its launch for spring 12 at the Rochelle School in Shoreditch, expanding from about 25 brands to more than 230 at the Old Truman Brewery this season, but has retained its laid-back, product-focused style. It seemed a little more lively this season, following the demise of Bread & Butter in Berlin, with lots of talk on the show floor from both brands and buyers about the need for a “relevant” local UK exhibition like this one.

“This has got to be the first time I’ve done a show where there have been no negatives,” Batista says. “Everyone has just been happy.”

When asked why that might be, he says: “Despite the weather and what’s being said about Black Friday, people seem to have had an alright season. I think people bought accordingly, nobody went crazy and nobody’s buying gung-ho.

“When I first started doing wholesale, people sat in the showroom and did their numbers, then they’d sign the order and go, but nobody does that now. They take it away, check it against what’s sold and come back to you. It’s all very considered now. The people who are doing well are very savvy business people and they had to be to get through the last few years.”

Batista, a self-confessed trainer addict who favours Edwin jeans, Nike footwear, APC clothing and Uniqlo basics, is part of a tribe of menswear retail aficionados who have been through the heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s when “every other store owner was a DJ or a club promoter”. He has subsequently seen around 30 “amazing” independents disappear from the scene since 2007.

“A Too in Birmingham, Dr Jives in Glasgow, Anthem in Shoreditch… they were like institutions in their cities and such an inspiration to me,” he says. “There have been some tough years.

“While I don’t think it has got back to the stage when things were really buoyant, the industry is definitely looking brighter and there are opportunities around.”

Planning for the spring 16 edition of Jacket Required is now underway and the team is in discussions to introduce more segmented booths to offer more privacy and a slight increase in exhibitor numbers.

“Nothing crazy, but I think we’re going to have, say, 5 ft-high booths so people can still chat to each other,” he says. “We may have around 20 more exhibitors next time too. It doesn’t want to get too big, but it’d be good to have a few more international brands that people aren’t familiar with. For me, it’s all about finding something fresh and new.”

Batista can see the market from both sides of the fence as an agent and also the co-owner of The Content Store, which he opened with business partner and former Ben Sherman chief executive Pan Philippou in March 2013, and Content & Co, a multi-brand collaboration store, which he opened with denim brand Edwin on Exmouth Market, London, last September. Content & Co came about as he was searching for a store for Swedish accessories brand Sandqvist, which his agency represents.

“When we found out Mark was considering opening another store on Exmouth Market we were keen to be involved,” says Edwin UK sales director Charlie Warren. “The area was crying out for a good menswear independent and we knew from working with Mark before that this would be a good relationship. The store has been performing from day one.”

The 700 sq ft Content & Co stocks the broadest range of Edwin outside the brand’s standalone store in Shoreditch, making up about 45% of the offer, alongside other brands such as Danish knitwear label SNS Herning (retailing at £165 for a fisherman’s jumper) and US boot brand Red Wing Shoes (from £199).

The 650 sq ft The Content Store, which is less directional, offers brands such as Our Legacy and Lee 101 and will have Hawksmill Denim Co from autumn 15, as well as Baracuta, Penfield and Stone Island. Retail prices range from £15 for a pair of Anonymous Ism socks to £1,000 for a waterproof cashmere down-filled parka by Italian brand Museum.

Sales at The Content Store were up 40% on the first year of trading in 2013 and so far Content & Co is exceeding the performance of the Lamb’s Conduit Street store in its first year.

“Exmouth Market is all about cafe culture, drinking and eating,” explains Batista. “We might dosomething else nearby at a later date, perhaps - more of a lifestyle store because there are some great units and the landlord is keen to have more retail.”

Lamb’s Conduit Street, meanwhile, is an area he says is growing in profile as people look further afield than Shoreditch and the West End.

Born in London, Batista grew up in Luton but has spent most of his working life in the capital and watched its retail landscape change over the years. He started in the industry “almost by accident” in 1992, packing boxes in a Paul Smith warehouse, after completing an apprenticeship in bricklaying “because that was what everyone did”.

By 1995 he was part of a small team that set up Diesel in the UK, starting in the warehouse - where he met finance director Philippou, who is now his partner in The Content Store - and moving onto a wholesale role.

Three years later, he saw a gap in the market for a contemporary menswear agency and set up Brand Progression with Mark McCann, now commercial director of Farah. In 2001 they launched streetwear and casualwear trade show TBC.

The pair ran TBC successfully in London for several years, with editions in New York and Tokyo, but it had deteriorated by the time it was sold to Idex Media in 2007. “We didn’t have much idea what we were doing - we were pretty young and naïve,” he says.

TBC had acted as a platform to present the labels they were working for through Brand Progression, so when he and McCann parted ways in 2007, Batista began searching for another vehicle to
showcase his brands.

“Things were pretty tough so I was looking for a cost-effective way to do it and decided to combine a showroom and retail space, which became [menswear indie] Number Six at the Old Truman Brewery and gave me the retail experience I didn’t really have,” he says.

In 2012, he sold it to the store’s web designer Jake Hardy, who wanted to expand the online proposition, leaving Batista to focus on Brand Progression and Jacket Required, which he had launched the year before. Now aged 41, Batista splits his time between the agency, the two stores and acting as a consultant for the show. However, he says it is Brand Progression that is his first love.
“First and foremost, I’m a wholesaler - everything else comes from that,” he admits. “If it can wholesale, then it can retail and it can fit into the show.”

He expects agency sales to increase by 25% on last year thanks to it taking on new premises in Holborn in July 2012, increasing showroom space by 1,000 sq ft, although he declines to give specific turnover or profit figures.

Brand Progression represents 18 brands, including Scandinavian labels Sandqvist, Hestra gloves and Kaibosh eyewear, UK streetwear label Uniformes Generale, Lee jeans’ premium 101 range, Australian contemporary label Handsom, Italian boot brand Fracap and Portuguese menswear brand La Paz, with wholesale prices from £3.50 for a pair of socks by Danish brand MP up to £450 for a jacket by Nemen x Acronym [a collaboration between the Italian technical outerwear brand and the German outerwear design agency].

“We’ve got some great brands on board and the agency is pretty close to perfect at the moment,” he says. “It has changed because we now have a lot of accessories. My friend is the buyer at Mr Porter for accessories and he said they have seen a 60% increase in sales of accessories year on year, so that seems like a natural thing to be doing. Oi Polloi in Manchester is a good customer of ours, as is End in Newcastle, Peggs & Son in Brighton, Manifesto in Dundee and The Hip Store in Leeds.”

He credits a strong product mix and a greater focus on accessories, which are performing well, while others point to his in-depth understanding of the industry.

“Mark has a fantastic grip on the independent retail market in this sector and his knowledge is second to none,” says Damien Ladwa, UK and Ireland country manager for Lee.

Batista’s wife Vicky, who is UK PR manager for classic menswear brand Hackett, calls him a workaholic because if he’s not working in one of his many roles, he’s searching for new brands and products on the internet.

But he’s not planning to keep up this pace forever. Instead, he says he’d like to move from London to Kent with Vicky and their two children, three-year-old Ernie and six-year-old Mabel: “It’s probably a pipe dream, but I’d like to say in nine years I’ll be in a little cottage near the beach in Deal.”

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