Gant CEO Patrik Nilsson is leveraging his athleisure background to get the menswear brand fit for the modern era.
Patrik Nilsson smiles warmly from the wood-panelled restaurant counter at the lifestyle brand’s global headquarters in Stockholm. Sipping a black coffee, and dressed in a smart navy suit, the Gant CEO embodies the relaxed sophistication for which the brand is famous.
The office, with its minimal decor and cosy, heritage details, including a framed Gant shirt in the reception and a personalised set of golf clubs behind Nilsson’s desk, combines the brand’s US heritage with a Scandi polish, signalling the modern outlook he is bringing to the 68-year-old business. He has introduced an athleisure dimension and culture of learning, and even spawned a thought-provoking YouTube series, Couple Thinkers, this month.
Swedish-born Nilsson joined Gant as CEO in August 2014 after 23 years at Adidas, where he most recently held the role of president of North America, based in the US.
Nilsson confesses that leaving Adidas was not an easy decision, but Gant was a natural choice: “I was a fan of the brand for years. I wore it myself and bought it when I was back in Stockholm. That was the most important part: if I’m going to be effective, then I want to be with a brand I believe in.”
Born in the USA
Gant was founded by Bernard Gantmacher in 1949 in New Haven, Connecticut. Now owned by three Swedish entrepreneurs, most of its business is in Europe. It has more than 270 UK stockists – among them John Lewis, Fenwick and House of Fraser – and more than 600 stores in 70 countries, 22 in the UK. For the year to 31 December 2015 (the most recently reported), sales were £48.5m. The sales split is roughly 60% men’s and 40% women’s wear.
In addition to being a ticket back to his home country, Nilsson saw the role as an opportunity to reinvent the brand for the modern consumer: “I felt Gant was a little stale and a little boring. It needed a new direction. That’s what I enjoyed doing at Adidas: trying to fix something that wasn’t working.”
Under Nilsson, Gant has become a hybrid of performance and lifestyle, fusing aspects of both sectors to target the millennial consumer.
“We want to be the leading lifestyle brand by 2020,” he says. “We want to be the best shirt brand and the leading shirt brand in our price category” Retail prices are £85 for poplin men’s shirts and £80 for women’s Oxford shirts, and range from £35 for a basic T-shirt to £395 for a tailored wool coat.
When he joined three years ago, Nilsson introduced the Gant 3.0 strategy to grow and modernise the brand: “The main thing I’ve done is give a clear vision and direction of what we could do with the brand. It’s a visionary approach based on consumer focus and inspiration rather than action or strategy.”
So far, the approach seems to be paying off. The brand regularly features in Drapers’ round-up of best-selling brands for the UK’s independent retailers, and Nilsson reports that like-for-like sales are up 8% this year, and total sales up 18%.
Leo Fenwick, head of menswear buying at Fenwick, says: “Gant does a great job of creating versatile and effortless clothing. With easy-to-wear fabrics and updated shapes, it has become a favourite of the thinking man who wants to be comfortable but understands that looking good is important.”
One aspect Nilsson believes is core to the brand is its “Never stop learning” slogan, which he describes as its equivalent of Nike’s “Just do it”, and a maxim it aims to apply to every aspect of the brand, from consumer and product to business.
“The company was founded on the doorstep of Yale University. When I came in I felt like we were not talking enough about this. We were not using this as our DNA and our motor to propel forward. You always need to anchor yourself in your history, and then you can find your future. We have a culture where everybody needs to be curious, work together, get better every day and strive to innovate. But we also need to communicate this to the consumer.”
The brand enacts this by applying modern-day technologies and learning to its traditional preppy, lifestyle product – inspired by the boom of athleisure.
“One of the first things I did was conduct a study on sports brands and lifestyle brands,” says Nilsson. “Adidas and Nike have been growing over the past 10 years, while brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren have been going the other way, both in share price and in sales.
“The athleisure trend has been going on for a long time, and everyone is trying to jump into that, but we’re doing it from a different perspective. We’re giving people the opportunity to still look preppy, but have that athletic aspect to the product. It’s not innovating in the styling so much, it’s more being up to date in how you perfect those products with today’s fabrics and techniques.”
Nilsson describes “Tech Prep” – a smart fabric designed to be breathable and lightweight – as Gant’s strongest innovation: “If we go back into our history, we invented the locker loop on the shirts, box pleats, working on the perfection of the button-down shirt. That was 50 or 60 years ago, so when I came into the brand I thought: what is our latest innovation? What have we done lately that is interesting to the consumer? That became Tech Prep.” Tech Prep shirts for men and women retail at £90.
Aside from product, Nilsson says the brand is “innovating in 360 degrees around the consumers”, and its new campaign, Couple Thinkers, is a prime example of its experimental approach. The documentary web TV series is fronted by comedian and talk show host Craig Ferguson and his wife, Megan Ferguson, who interview experts such as astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and media mogul Arianna Huffington on matters such as health, psychology, sustainability and space. The series is lightly branded and is genuinely fascinating.
“It was based on research on the millennial consumer,” explains Nilsson. “They don’t want to be marketed to. They hate it when one of their programmes is interrupted by a marketing message. If they like the content, hopefully they will recognise the brand that did it. Next time they need something in our space, hopefully they will consider us.” The European premiere of the series in a theatre in Stockholm earlier this month created a buzz among the youthful audience, their interest piqued by the discussion on screen. Gant refers to these target millennials as “curious professionals”.
Gant’s direct-to-consumer retail offer is also shifting towards millennials. Own retail accounted for 58% of revenue for the year to 31 December 2015, and Nilsson estimates about 20% of sales are online, so mobile and multichannel are increasingly important. A new Ecommerce 3.0 project is shifting the focus to mobile first and drawing in consumers.
“If you have a great conversion rate on the website, it would be 3%,” says Nilsson. “So 97% of people coming to the website are not buying anything. You need to also cater to them, which is why content is so important to us.”
The multichannel experience is also key. A high-tech new store concept is being rolled out and features in the Regent Street flagship in London, which opened last November.
“We have been investing in delivering a consistent and joined-up service between our bricks-and-mortar and online stores,” explains Fergus Patterson, managing director for the UK and Ireland. “Although online is the fastest-growing part of the business, store sales nonetheless continue to grow.”
As the chic Regent Street store demonstrates, retail is a big focus. Stores have opened in Leeds, Lakeside, York and Oxford in the last year.
“We want to give a wider experience about the brand, to tell a stronger story,” says Nilsson. “We can tell our own story in own retail in a way that we think is relevant. It’s hard to do that in a wholesale format, so direct to consumer becomes very important.”
However, Patterson stresses the continuing importance of wholesale in the UK: “Gant was already a well-established wholesale brand in most of the premium doors before moving into own retail. So this channel is core to delivering our commercial targets.”
“The product appeals to a wide age group from under 30 to 65-plus,” says Charles Hobson, owner of the eponymous independent store in York. However, for Hobson the growing number of Gant stores is an issue. “Gant has a lot more outlets around, which has lessened its exclusivity. So to us it’s still a worthwhile brand to stock, but, for many shops like ourselves, not quite so dominant a product line.”
Nilsson argues, however, that increasing own-retail stores is equally beneficial for wholesale: “Normally, when we’re opening up a store, it enhances the look and feel of the brand, and it also helps the wholesale partners. In the end we need to find ways of co-existing. We have different jobs to do.”
Nilsson also has high hopes for the company and its employees: “We have said for our employees that we want to be the Google of our industry. This should be the place you want to work if you want to be in this industry: here you can learn more, you can have better colleagues and a nice environment. Nobody is more or less important than any other person. I am no more important than the person in reception. We have different roles.”
Since his appointment the company has changed its entire management team, and 60% of the business as a whole, to focus on international employees.
“You can’t say you’re a global brand if you only think Sweden all the time,” chuckles Nilsson.
With these rapid structural and strategic changes, Nilsson is transforming Gant and pushing boundaries with the heritage brand. Its new blend of lifestyle and athleisure, and modern approach to the consumer is putting it on the radar of its target millennial audience.