Mr Porter has a lot to live up to – the hype, the success of sister Net-a-Porter – but its buying director is up for the challenge.
2010 Buying director, Mr Porter
2008 Buying manager,men’s designer, contemporary and formalwear, Selfridges
2006 Buying manager, men’s formalwear, Selfridges
2004 Buyer,men’s formalwear, Harvey Nichols
1996 Various roles at House of Fraser, including buyer for men’s formalwear
Some eight months before it went live in February this year, a frenzied fashion industry could not stop talking about the launch of Net-a-Porter’s luxury menswear site, Mr Porter. A stream of appointments (of buyers poached from various department store rivals) quickly followed, while on Twitter, it was a race to see who could break the news on which brands would be sold on the site. The pressure on Mr Porter to deliver was huge; after all, everything that Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet touches pretty much turns to gold.
It’s no wonder, then, that buying director Toby Bateman seems nervous when we meet at Net-a-Porter’s immaculate offices in Westfield London. With each answer to my initial questions comes a shooting glance at PR manager Paul Watson (himself very relaxed) and sometimes a tug at the collar of his Brooks Brothers shirt, worn with a knitted Drakes tie.
But as soon as we get into the aesthetics and detail of menswear, Bateman’s face lights up, as he relaxes back into his chair and describes the beauty of US footwear brand Quoddy. Respected by his peers and with some 15 years’ buying experience at the likes of Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, Bateman has kept a relatively low profile, focusing on what he does best: buying menswear brands.
“Most of the buying for the launch season had already been done when I was appointed, so I set about tweaking and adding to the [first season] collection. We’ve added about 40 brands for autumn 11. The contemporary and casual end of the market was a bit thin, so that needed to be expanded on. That’s key for Mr Porter and all premium men’s retailers – it’s a category that gives us an entry price point,” Bateman explains, citing J Crew as an example (the brand made its UK debut on sister site Net-a-Porter for spring 10).
Other brands that Bateman will unveil for autumn 11 include Oliver Spencer, Gant, Ami, Gilded Age and Woolrich Woollen Mills. The last was, he says, “a real coup because we were their first pure-play etailer”. In fact – and rather surprisingly in today’s technology-obsessed world, and for a name such as Mr Porter – Bateman still struggles to sign up certain brands. “It’s the Italians,” he whispers, now fully relaxed and making jokes. “Some brands still hold on to the belief that you need a bricks-and-mortar presence.”
However, one success story in the contemporary section is Italian label Incotex. “It’s been amazing,” says Bateman. “It surprised us slightly because it’s not a very well-known brand, but it’s one of our most successful in contemporary.”
At the other end of the scale – the luxury end – the coup comes in the shape of Loro Piana. New for autumn 11, it is another brand which, until Mr Porter came along, had turned down offers to work with pure-play etailers. “There was no one [etailer] they had faith in [before Mr Porter],” Bateman explains.
These ‘firsts’ will be welcomed by one brand director, who believes Mr Porter needs to differentiate itself from other luxury menswear retailers by having exclusive brands or breaking new labels in the UK. “There aren’t many brands on Mr Porter that you can’t buy elsewhere,” he says. “But it’s such an aspirational site – you want to be part of its world.”
Interestingly, a straw poll carried out by Drapers among menswear retailers and brand directors found that, though Mr Porter is hugely respected by its peers, none of those polled had yet bought anything from the website. “For me to buy clothes online, I want to do it from my desk, have it delivered to my desk, and have the delivery person wait for me to try it on and decide if I like it,” said one brand director. Another said: “The pricing architecture is too wide for the breadth of product available. You can get a similar shirt from one brand for £200 and £60 from another.”
It’s still early days for Mr Porter to unveil its first set of trading figures and Bateman is keeping tight-lipped on the matter, so only time will tell if the buzz around Mr Porter translates into sales.
For now though, Bateman says he is pleased with Mr Porter’s performance and with what he has seen so far from brands for spring 12. “There’s been a lot of blue – really controversial,” he jokes, alluding to the safer approach to trends in menswear compared with womenswear. “I’ve seen a lot of navy, bright cobalt blues, dark greys and silvers. And quite a bit of denim, too. But generally, the look has been quite classic and clean, with pleated trousers and chinos. And tailoring is still important, with a soft, dishevelled silhouette and double-breasted jackets. I haven’t seen anything too scary.”
Bateman also believes there has been a resurgence in menswear in recent seasons. “Menswear trends over the last three or four seasons have been quite masculine and wearable, and drawn on traditional silhouettes. Guys enjoy that,” he explains. “But there’s also been more frequent drops of product from designers, some up to five or six per year. We’re actively working with people who do that. Guys are also more educated on fashion and style through magazines, blogs and Mr Porter.”
Part of the praise lavished on Mr Porter is for its editorial content, spearhead by former Esquire editor Jeremy Langmead, now editor-in-chief of Mr Porter. As Drapers went to press, Mr Porter had just published a feature on writer Ernest Hemingway and an interview with actor Sam Trammel.
“Jeremy and I do a lot of buying appointments together,” says Bateman. “In fact, Ami [new for autumn 11] came from our style director, who got a call from a friend of his when we were in Paris saying we should go and see it. Half an hour later, we’d bought the collection.” Yet another first for the UK market, incidentally.
Bateman adds that the current economic climate is still making shoppers cautious to spend and, as a result, “investment fashion” and the luxury sector are holding up well. “Shoppers have been buying into things like jackets and well-made shoes,” says Bateman. “In fact, we’ve done really well with shoes – it’s one of our fastest areas of growth. We have a great selection and it’s easier to make your first online purchase a pair of shoes – if you’re a size 10, you’re a size 10. Footwear is on trend, as well.”
And what about Bateman himself? Is he a Mr Porter shopper? “I guess I am very Mr Porter,” he laughs. “On a day-to-day basis, I tend to wear jeans and a jacket, which is right for this market. And I can put on a tie for a meeting.”
But he still gets a kick out of wearing a classic, beautifully cut suit, too, something that men need to do less and less today, certainly in the creative industries. “When you wear a suit, people often say: ‘Oooh, you look nice today,’” he smiles. And who doesn’t like a compliment?