MR LADUMA NGXOKOLO recently showcased his Maxhosa Autumn/Winter range at Pitti Uomo, the world’s foremost menswear gathering in Florence, Italy. This was his second visit as an exhibitor and his third overall. We had lunch with him recently as he broke down, with generous detail, what it takes to be an internationally stocked menswear label, through the Pitti lens.
Pitti is the Mecca of Menswear, for heritage brands as well as the new ones, they are all there. This is where they shortlist some of the best menswear in the market on a seasonal basis and for me, it is about business. For one to be considered as a tenant, you have to apply online, give them your business profile, your brand profile, tell them which stores you stock with internationally, where you produce your product and how much your turnover is. They then check whether your brand is in line with their standards and once you have been accepted, you are divided into groups.
The have different groups within different houses at the fair. For instance, Outer Uomo is where you would find brands like Art Comes First (UK) and United Arrows (Japan), brands that have cult status and have been trading for approximately eight years. Then they have what they call Open, where they have new designers who have been trading for three to five years, who have cool ideas and premium quality. They then have the main hall where they have veterans like Tiger of Sweden and other (mainly Italian) brands.
If you have exhibited with them before it makes it easier because you are already in the system. This was my second year exhibiting with them and the experience when you are there as a visitor (Mr Ngxokolo previously attended Pitti as a Masters student at London’s Central St Martins), you are there purely from a marketing perspective, but when you are an exhibitor, you have to consider marketing and sales and many other things. When I came over to exhibit for the first time, I did a show with Pitti with three other African fashion designers. We had a lot of press and our brands got to be known and because of that, they called me back and I got to interact with media, buyers and other exhibitors. So that’s the benefit.
The Buying process
Buyers don’t usually place a big order immediately when they see cool brands. Some of them are quite sensitive when it comes to buying. They wait for three seasons to see if your brand will be able to sustain interest. Some take a risk with the change they have left over from a particular season’s budget and maybe buy a few pieces, 20 or so, and then test it in their market. If it goes well, they will come back and invest more in that designer.
Usually the process starts on the fair floor, an appointment is booked between the buyer and the business manager to meet at a showroom of their choice. There are a lot of these in Paris and London, where they have the comfort of sitting done and having coffee while they choose. When they do their buying, they sign off in Paris or London. Paris is usually their last stop (in the men’s shows and buying loop) and whichever showroom is used, will be where your Sales Agent will roll out a sheet where they will choose, after getting a full explanation about the brand. They arrive at your showroom, they have already been to all the shows and have seen all the brands, so have a pretty good idea what they are buying. They usually buy with a certain trend or thought in mind. Lets say print is a big trend (like last year), it becomes easily buyable. Orders usually get delivered after about four months.
Menswear business trends seen at Pitti
- More brands than ever before: There are many more brands being introduced and buyers are getting confused. To stand out, many brands are informing the media and buyers about their collections beforehand: what the inspiration is, what the product is about. They use digital tools to inform their clients even before they arrive, so that by the time they are there, they already know what to expect. Some use an app to get the buyers contacts so they can distribute information.
- The evolution of buying: Buyers – from what I hear from ACF, BK Circus who were not at the trade fair because they mainly do summer stuff – are now buying less because they are less sure of what is going to work season to season. That’s why they buy at the last stop in Paris (as outlined earlier), when they have seen everything.
- Collaboration is King: There are a lot more collaborations happening, like Louis Vuitton and Supreme. The brands need not be aligned, they need not have the same clientele. One can be great at streetwear and another can be high-end menswear. These brands are mixing, coming together. You are also seeing a lot of brands not in fashion, collaborating with fashion. Alcohol brands for example, whisky activations at the fair. I know it has been there for a while, but now its more visible than it was in the past. Accessories brands have a big presence, even if they don’t have a stand, they are present, making sure that they right people are photographed wearing their sunglasses. They (brands not directly in fashion) realise that they can leverage their brands more than they used to.
The five most important things he has learned about the business
- Never doubt your ideas: you will realise quickly that all the ideas you thought were stupid, were commercially sellable and lucrative.
- Relationships are very important: make sure you keep in constant communication, so when you have a problem, you can tell them. I had a Japanese buyer for whom I couldn’t deliver on time. When they receive orders, they scan them through an X-Ray and they can easily reject an order at that stage if it doesn’t meet their standards. I had to be honest with myself and say that rather than shipping an order all the way to Japan for it to get rejected, I would rather be honest and let him know that I couldn’t deliver in time. Different nations have their own characteristics and you have to consistently learn how to deal with them. Americans: straight up, honest, outspoken. Japanese: modest, reserved. Italians: a bit rude (laughs). English: reserved.
- Understand your business from multiple perspectives: You cannot only talk about design, people who want to invest in our business want your overall vision, where it stands, where you want to take it.
- Know your product in and out: When I am in Italy , people on the streets know more about knitwear than other (lay) people around the world. They will ask many technical questions that you have to answer.
- The value of education is everything: with that commodity missing, one lacks a lot. Education has helped a lot in many real life situations. It has allowed me to travel and be pretty independent. I can get on a train in Paris and get out in London, climb on a tube and be home without ever having to ask anyone. I sometimes wonder – when I interact with the people I do – how I could be in this business without education.
Images: All credit to Pitti Uomo and Mr Laduma Ngxokolo.