By  on September 6, 2015

Gant wants to be loved again in its home country.The company, which was founded in 1949 in New Haven, Conn., by Bernard Gantmacher and his wife, has over the last decade or so been more popular overseas than it has been in the U.S. It’s even no longer truly American, being controlled by the family-owned Swiss company Maus Frères — which also owns Lacoste and Aigle — since 2008.The brand today has nearly no presence in the U.S. But if new president and chief executive officer Patrik Nilsson has his way, that’s about to change.RELATED STORY: Gant Hires Agencies to Increase Wholesale Sales >>In an exclusive interview with WWD at Gant’s recently opened U.S. headquarters at 100 Wall Street, Nilsson, who spent 23 years at Adidas before joining Gant AB in April 2014, laid out his plans to take back the American market.“We say that Gant was born in the U.S. and raised in Europe,” Nilsson said. “It’s American sportswear but with European sophistication.”The brand has a presence in 70 countries with 552 stores and 4,000 points of sales. Its net sales in 2014 were $1 billion, Nilsson said.While its market share in Europe is solid, it’s the U.S. where Nilsson and his team see the real opportunity. “The U.S. hasn’t heard from us in 10 years,” he said. “We have a six-year plan with two-year increments. We’re relaunching the brand and believe we can be a leading lifestyle label by 2020.”The first step in that process will come Thursday when Gant launches a nationwide advertising campaign. The campaign is centered around the slogan “They Changed the World, Not the Shirt” and features five individuals from a range of backgrounds that the company deemed world-chang- ers in their fields. These include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith, abstract artist Natvar Bhavsar and ethno-botanist Mark Plotkin. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all Ivy League college graduates.This marks Gant’s first marketing push in nearly a decade, when the brand’s ads featured Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his family in 2006.The company is planning a significant outdoor campaign for the print images in New York, London, Paris and Stockholm, as well as a short film that highlights a dry cleaner on the Yale campus in New Haven who has seen everyone from future presidents to Nobel Prize winners pass through his doors.While Gant offers a full line of apparel, the initial push will be for its signature shirts, Nilsson said. “We believe we need to own one category in the marketplace and we picked shirts, which was a $2.9 billion business in the U.S. last year.”The company has been credited with creating the “locker loop” on the back of the shirt so students could hang their shirts in their lockers at school, as well as the back-collar button that keeps both the collar and necktie in place. Thanks to innovations such as these, Nilsson said, in its heyday “Gant was the biggest and best shirtmaker in America. But when it was sold to Sara Lee, they took it down-market.”Many ownership changes — including Phillips-Van Heusen and a stint on the Stockholm Stock Exchange — and constant discounting at retail took its toll on the American market. “The U.S. is a very small portion of our business today,” Nilsson said. “But we believe it can be 10 times the size it is now without bastardizing the brand.”Nilsson’s strategy is to retrench before growing. The company closed its Fifth Avenue flagship and reduced the size of its collections by 60 percent. In addition, the company brought a new management team on board. This includes the appointment of a new creative director, Chris- topher Bastin, as well as a new North American president, Justin Cupp, who joined in December. Additionally, Caroline Roth was installed as global marketing director.“We look at this as our opportunity to make the company stronger,” Nilsson said. He cited his for- mer employer, Adidas, which he said “took $100 million out of the business before it could grow.”Nilsson said while Gant produces men’s, wom- en’s and children’s apparel, accessories and footwear, “in the last six years, we haven’t owned any categories. We only own five out of the 70 markets where we operate.” Men’s wear represents 70 percent of the volume globally and 85 percent of the business in the U.S.So in addition to the initial push to grab a larger share of the shirt market, Nilsson’s game plan includes dividing the company into three subbrands under the moniker House of Gant. This encompasses Gant Originals, Gant Rugger and a new addition, Gant Diamond G., a label that hearkens back to the diamond-shaped logo that appeared on every shirt that was made in the original factory in New Haven.Gant will introduce Diamond G. and the spring collections of the other two subbrands at an event at Spring Studios in New York on Sept. 10 during New York Fashion Week. In addition to outdoor ads around town, the brand will be featured on Taxi TV during the week.Diamond G. marks the first significant product introduction since the Gant Rugger launch in 2010. Gant Rugger draws on the brand’s Ivy League heritage with a more edgy take on preppy classics. Michael Bastian had designed the collection for nine seasons, but the association ended with the fall 2014 collection.Diamond G. is targeted to the professional traveler and urbanite, the company said, while Gant Originals is focused more on the sports-minded consumer. “The purpose of Gant Diamond G. is to bridge the gap between Gant Originals and Gant Rugger,” said Bastin. The rebranding also includes a new logo that is based on the original from 1949. The company is readying a new store concept that will highlight the initiatives.While Gant has struggled to regain its footing in the U.S., Nilsson said the brand’s global business has picked up lately. “Business had been flat since the company went private in 2008,” he said, “but in the last year, we’ve experienced pretty strong growth. This year we’re up 10 percent.” The brand is equally split between wholesale and retail globally and 14 percent of its business comes from e-commerce, a category he also hopes to grow. Nilsson said Gant’s stores have enjoyed an 8 percent same-store sales gain this year and a 15 percent increase in overall sales. Wholesale sales are up 3 percent.In the U.S., Gant operates seven Rugger stores, four Gant units and one outlet. And while the company will one day reopen a flagship in New York, that’s not going to happen immediately.“We look at the U.S. market as an upstart,” Nilsson said. “We may need to retract to grow, but it’s still the land of opportunity.”

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