Sam Lobban is making his first major mark on the Nordstrom Men store.
On Friday, the vice president of men’s fashion, who joined the retailer in June, will unveil New Concepts, the first in a series of rotating pop-up shops intended to highlight innovative men’s wear.
The first is being called Concept 001: Out Cold and is centered around what Lobban and the Nordstrom merchandising team believe to be the best products for inclement weather. The shop will have a physical presence on the main floor of the Nordstrom Men store on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan — replacing the Olivia Kim Merry + Bright holiday shop — as well as in the Seattle flagship.
Among the 20 brands that will be offered are Kjus, Houdini and Aztech Mountain for ski and outdoor apparel; high-tech brands Arc’teryx Veilance and Mackintosh; technical footwear from Hoka One One and Salomon, and outdoor gear from Leatherman and Snow Peak.
The new concept comes as Nordstrom continues to tweak the New York store, the first men’s-only unit in its fleet. While there has been criticism of the store’s configuration and product selection, Nordstrom executives have said they continue to adapt to what they are learning — and see these as useful lessons in advance of the opening of its women’s store across the street this fall.
Lobban, a native of the U.K., started his retail career at Selfridges and was buying manager with Mr Porter, where he was responsible for that company’s Exclusive Capsule Collection model. Although he has worked with the Nordstrom merchant team on smaller projects and is bringing in 11 new brands for spring, this marks the first “big customer-facing moment” for the company, he said.
The idea for Out Cold developed as a way of “solving a problem for guys — how to deal with inclement weather in January in New York in a stylish way,” Lobban said. So the team sought brands that offered not only the “most progressive fabric technology and function,” but in styles that would connect with the urban man. “These brands are as good in New York City as in Aspen,” he said.
Lobban said Nordstrom has carried about five of the labels in the past, and the rest are new to the store. Prices will run the gamut and will range from $10 for a Snow Peak stainless steel bowl to $1,895 for an Aztech Mountain wool Nuke jacket. The average will range from $350 to $575, he said.
Out Cold will remain in place at the stores for just under four weeks but the merchandise will continue to be carried online through March.
The second iteration will launch in early February and will be called Concept 002: Dior. It will feature Kim Jones’ first collection for the brand for spring 2019 as well as commissioned work by artist KAWS, who reimagined the Dior logo and iconic bee on an assortment of T-shirts, jackets, backpacks and other products. The KAWS bee in pink and black with a white Dior logo will be available on three items that will be exclusive to Nordstrom and Isetan in Japan.
That shop, which will also be installed in New York and Seattle, will mirror Dior’s set from its spring 2019 show.
While the first shop will be in store for a shorter time, most of the New Concepts shops will remain for around two months, Lobban said, and will include a digital interpretation of the pop-up online as well.
It hasn’t been determined yet whether the New Concepts idea will be rolled out to stores other than the New York and Seattle units, he said. “We have a fairly big footprint of stores, so I’m not sure it would be the full fleet, but I do see it rolling out beyond the initial two,” Lobban added.
With his background at Mr Porter, he has spent a long time pondering “what content means in retail” and how to tell a story to customers in “interesting and immersive ways.” He believes retailers today need to offer new ways of storytelling in order to succeed and the New Concepts idea is intended to fit that bill.
Lobban’s appointment last summer was another indication of the company’s enhanced focus on men’s wear. It started last April when Nordstrom opened the 47,000-square-foot, three-level, stand-alone men’s store in the heart of Columbus Circle.
Since that time, the retailer has provided few details on how the store is performing, which is in keeping with its corporate policy.
In its third-quarter earnings call last November, management said, “We’re building on our initial learnings as we focus on expanding our presence in this premier retail market with our flagship women’s store opening planned in fall 2019.” The company said it has been learning about seasonality and the rhythm of the business and has been “pleased with customer feedback.”
When pressed, the company said it was “not in the practice of discussing individual store performance” and pointed to the “strong culture” and service level that it has built.
Although management also declined to discuss which categories were performing best, a spokesperson said “the store’s performance is on par with the top men’s departments across the country. We’re learning a lot about the local New York City customer [and] feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from the men’s store as we open our women’s store next fall, our most ambitious project to date.”
Lobban also was reticent to talk about the store’s performance, saying only: “Overall we’re pleased. New York is a very important market for us and the men’s store is in league with the best men’s stores around the country.”
Observers have been more critical.
Former retailer Mark Cohen, now director of retail studies and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, has been among the most vocal. He wrote a scathing blog for the Robin Report in August that criticized everything from the West Side location and “incongruous” main floor — it is broken into two parts by an office tower — to its merchandise assortment. Earlier this week, he reiterated those points.
“I would have to say it has probably done very poorly,” he said. The men’s store was “so uncharacteristic of a buttoned-up, professional organization” like Nordstrom. He was especially critical of the broken main floor, saying: “I can’t imagine how the company rationalized this physical impediment. An impediment, I predict, will haunt the men’s store for as long as it does business in this location.”
He said instead of trying to replicate the success of the separate Bergdorf Goodman men’s store that is located across the street from its women’s store, Nordstrom should have found a way to incorporate men’s into the women’s unit. The women’s store, which will be 340,000 square feet, should be big enough to house all of the company’s key apparel and accessories businesses as well as the restaurants the company intends to open in the building, Cohen contended.
He also criticized the West 57th Street location as “a bad idea.” As he wrote in his blog: “Rather than locate head-on opposite Bloomingdale’s on the Upper East Side or close to Macy’s near Herald Square, or even in the new retail complexes in the Financial District or Hudson Yards on the far West Side, Nordstrom decided to go it alone. They opted to locate themselves in a Manhattan store that is a vertical, seven-level, ‘layer cake’ store on West 57th Street in a newly constructed mixed-use skyscraper.”
In order to make the location viable, Cohen said, Nordstrom should start thinking about a way to move men’s into the main store when it opens. The company should consider using the men’s store to house children’s wear instead, he added. “That’s a secondary business and it breaks up more logically by age.”
But Oliver Chen, an analyst at Cowen and Co. who follows Nordstrom, took a less critical view, saying it’s likely the Nordstrom management “probably planned conservatively.”
“The men’s store allows them to test the waters ahead of the women’s opening,” and by opening clusters of stores, it speaks to the new realities of retail, he added, which helps “amplify awareness” for companies. “It may not be material to the company, but it’s indicative of the future.”
In a spot check of vendors carried in the store, the reaction was mixed. Some said sales started off strong last spring but have been weaker since then. Others have been pleased, with shoes and denim reportedly among the bestsellers.
Roy Bagattini, head of Levi’s Americas, said the brand has been “pleased with the results” at the store. Levi’s operates a customization station on the main floor and is an anchor of the denim department. He said the personalization shop has “brought a lot of energy” to the store and speaks to the customer desire for customization. “It’s a trend we picked up on a couple of years ago,” he said, adding that the shop at Nordstrom was the first outside of a Levi’s store.
Bagattini admitted that the configuration of the main floor was “a little awkward,” but consumers have still embraced the shop. “Nordstrom has partnered with us to create an experience,” he said.
Arnold Silverstone, president and chief creative officer of Samuelsohn and Hickey Freeman, cited the “amazing staff” at the store for helping the company’s fit “visualizer” for Samuelsohn suits become a success. The store also carries the company’s Hickey Freeman tailored clothing assortment.
“They focused on making the store innovative and using the space the best they can,” he said.
Sales were especially brisk after the store opened last spring, he said, and he’s expecting another boost after the women’s store opens later this year.
Chris Donohue, North American sales director for Eton of Sweden shirts, said the Nordstrom Men store in New York is now the company’s fourth-largest door in the country — Eton is carried in 64 Nordstrom units. “If the pace continues, it will be a $1 million door by the one-year anniversary,” he said.
He said the store is attracting the businessman who will often come in and buy 10 of the brand’s $200 shirts at a pop.
“We thought it would be good. They brought in their top associates from across the country to staff it, and with the density in Manhattan and the fact that there is no other real men’s wear presence on the West Side, it has met and exceeded our expectations,” Donohue said. “And we’re looking forward to an even better year this year.”