We are at an exciting and tumultuous time when it comes to retail, publishing, and menswear. What do you think the biggest change has been in the past years?
— I think it’s confidence and knowledge that has changed the most. Men now — and all types of men, not just the fashion guys — seem very confident and a lot braver in the way they approach to dress. I think that’s because they know a lot more about it. When you’ve got to know the rules and the basics, that’s when you feel brave enough to experiment and push things in a direction. The biggest reason for men having that confidence and knowledge now comes from the web. So much information is so readily available. A lot of men don’t ask each other for advice. They would never ask someone, ”How do you get your blazer to look great? Where is that sweater from?” Now, we can ask all those questions on the web, when nobody sees us, so we’re not embarrassed to be asking. You can Google, ”How do I wear a Navy tuck? How do I wear a double‑breasted jacket?”
When you started here at Mr Porter in 2011, it was at a point where blogs were starting to move. Instagram wasn’t here yet. I remember you did these how‑to videos. Was it very conscious to give this service to men?
— Yes, we wanted to create a world where men felt comfortable. Because if they feel comfortable then they’ll shop. We felt that men didn’t necessarily wake up in the morning — and I’m generalising hugely — and think, ”Today, I’m going to go shopping.” We have to give them a reason to want to come to Mr Porter more regularly, rather than just when they felt a need to buy a new pair of shoes. We wanted to create a world where they came for information and inspiration, where it was fun and entertaining. Hopefully, they’d come and then want to buy something.
What did you learn in those early days?
— We discovered that men ask a lot of questions. And if you can answer them properly then they will spend a lot of money. Why does it cost that much? Why should I buy it? Where would I wear it? That how‑to element became the core of our content.
You came from publishing, having worked at Esquire, the classic men’s title. How much did you bring from your work with magazines?
— Having spent nearly 20 years working in journalism teaches you how to engage with people and how to tell a story, and hopefully how not to bore people. Storytelling is at the crux at everything, whatever the platform is. That stays the same.
How was that transition for you, moving from magazine journalism into e‑commerce? Do you have any memories in the beginning of that shift in mindset?
— I was having tons of meetings about wire frames, customer journey, user experience. That was all alien to me. Of course, the retail language was alien to me. For those first few weeks and months, I would stare at people and smile and nod, and not know what the hell they were talking about. I would have to look up so much in the evening or call people or Google. Thank God for Google. I learned on the job.
Swedish creatives Erik Torstensson and Jens Grede of Wednesday Agency famously pitched the idea of Mr Porter to Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net‑a‑Porter. How established was their concept when you took it over?
— They’d already started on the process of creating the site. The idea very much came from them. But there wasn’t any content or the tone‑of‑voice. There were some very brilliant sketches and processes and thoughts. They needed colouring in.
Did you work with the commerce part of it as well, the buying of the clothes and collections?
— Everything. Natalie’s ethos was that the commerce and content teams should work closely together. The buying team would confer with us about the buys. We’d know what would pop off the screen, what would look great in an editorial. The fact that the content had this very obvious KPI I found quite exciting. The fact that you could follow the customer journey from idea, to story, to shoot, to essay, to basket made it really fulfilling for me. It felt like I hadn’t left the journey halfway through. I’d managed to find out whether or not that piece resonated with the customer or not.
What was different from doing magazines?
— We couldn’t really do naughty stories or stories that were too teasing because we never wanted to upset our customer. Also, being global, you’ve got to be very considerate of every reader and customer wherever they are. Luckily, having worked on Wallpaper* had helped me get that global mindset.
You also did print, with The Mr Porter Post. How did that come about?
— If you’re a brand today, you can’t dictate to your reader or customer what format you’re going to be in. They want you whenever they want you, wherever they want you, in whatever format they want you to be. As brands, we have to be service‑orientated. We thought, ”Sometimes our customer wants to hold something in his hand. Maybe he’s on the plane, or maybe there’s no wifi. We should be there for him.”
— It was quite nice repurposing content in one platform and seeing how it looks in another. We did a paperback, published by Thames & Hudson. We’ve got another book coming out next year. What’s so nice is content still works in many different guises. But mostly, we are an e‑commerce platform.
I think many would agree that you really pioneered this, working with other together with e‑commerce. I think we’ve seen many both brands try to do the same thing, to create an editorial world. It’s not easy. It’s not always a success. Why do you keep doing it at such a high‑level? It’s got to be a lot of investment.
— When Natalie Massenet started Net‑a‑Porter, it was to be the magazine you can shop. That was her genius idea. When we launched Mr Porter content, it was a core part of the business, and still is. It’s a big operation because you’ve got to do it well. When others fail, it’s because they don’t invest in it properly. We have very sophisticated customers. They can tell when something smells wrong. It has to be very good stories that work on their own, whether they’re selling a product or not.
— A high percentage of our stories have no product sell at all. They’re purely to create that world and interest the customer about food, drink, travel, interiors. Being an online business, we don’t have to pay for fixtures and fixings. We don’t have to renew the carpets. Content is our fixtures and fixings. That’s our investment. That brings people in.
I feel that the model for magazines will not hold. This notion of asking brands to pay for a piece of paper every month. Where do you think this is going?
— It’s sad to see so many magazines struggling because, like you, I was born and raised in that world. I still love it very, very much. I think magazines will continue. I think as we’re seeing that it’s the specialist magazines, the niche magazines, the ones that really focus on a particular topic, they will push through.
Do you think you will take on the role that for example Esquire has today?
— Mr Porter is about men’s style. We will never go really behind our remit. Of course, we bring food, drink, and travel into that because it fits into why you’re buying clothes. We would never talk politics.
So do you think magazines will take on the role that you have, to sell things instead of having advertising?
— Obviously, Condé Nast tried launching an e‑commerce platform [Style.com, shut down in 2017]. It did not work well. I don’t know the details of what went wrong, but it did go wrong. Some magazines have tried to do e‑commerce, but they haven’t really put their heart into it. It’s a huge, massive, expensive commitment, and it’s huge vast knowledge.
Going on eight years, what has changed since the start?
— I think menswear has changed dramatically in those eight years. I can’t believe how much men will spend on clothes. I’m amazed at the fashion element of menswear now. Balenciaga sneakers fly out, Nike Cavaliers fly out. This quick turnover in high street fashion is unbelievable. And what’s great is you’ve got both. You’ve got men buying beautiful Brioni sweaters, and you’ve got guys buying sneakers that he loves now and maybe won’t wear in six months’ time.
The guy buying Brioni suits, is it the same guy buying the Balenciaga sneakers, or is this still different style tribes?
— There are different style tribes. You still have the guy who dresses for work, or the guy in the city who wants a smart wardrobe for the weekend. You’ve got your high fashion guys buying their Gucci and Vetements. You’ve got streetwear, sportswear, your Acnes and your A.P.Cs. The thing that has amazed me the most is how many shoes, particularly sneakers, men buy. Gobsmacking numbers. Absolutely extraordinary numbers of sneakers we sell.
Can you give us some sense of what’s going to happen in the future?
— We’re constantly changing our social media strategy. We have another book coming out next year. We’ve just finished a full‑length documentary.
A documentary about Mr Porter?
— No, it’s actually about someone that we’ve worked with. Arianne Phillips, who’s a brilliant Hollywood costume designer. I worked with her on the Kingsman movies, and fell in love with her. I thought it’d be great to make a little 15‑minute film, that we put on the site, but it grew into an hour‑long documentary. A lot of the people that she had worked with, including Madonna, let us taunt them for this film. It has become a big, big project.
It’s going to go out on other platforms than yours?
— That’s the plan. It’s now with a company who then takes it to market. We’re really pleased with it, so fingers crossed. It should be out, somewhere big soon.
Lots going on!
— Yes. Never ending. When we launched we had 70 brands, now we have nearly 500. I used to know every item of clothing we stocked, but today it’s impossible.