How fashion retailers have become sartorial street stars

In an unusual reversal of roles, menswear retailers and apparel buyers are fast becoming fashion's biggest street stars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2015, 12:00pm

We're in the middle of another hectic season of fashion week. These days, what's happening outside the shows generates as much interest as what's on the runways. The merging of celebrity, music, film and fashion means the paparazzi are ever present, keen to snap the Kardashians, Rita Ora, Lewis Hamilton or the latest buzz actor or actress. Street-style photographers, on the other hand, are training their lenses on the people who dress to impress.

Not long ago bloggers, celebrities and fashion editors - invariably female - were the ones hogging the limelight, but these days retailers and fashion buyers are the stars of the show. In recent seasons, previously behind-the-scenes retail figures such as Sarah Rutson, formerly the fashion director of Lane Crawford and now at Net-a-Porter, have attracted almost as much attention as bloggers like Susie Bubble and fashion multitaskers such as Mira Duma. Rutson and former Opening Ceremony buyer Kate Foley have been snapped outside the shows and their outfits scrutinised.

This retailer-as-star trend has spread to menswear, where a commercial relationship has developed between some retailers and street style. These are the people who largely decide what goes into multibrand and department stores, and is eventually sold to customers. Their knowledge base and business clout far exceed that of your usual limelight-hogging twenty-something blogger, making them more appealing to fashion sophisticates.

One of those camera-magnet retailers is Nickelson "Nick" Wooster. Although small in stature, Wooster is hard to miss; the dapper American's famed sense of personal style, including his penchant for immaculately tailored full camo-print suits or formal wear mixed with shorts, immediately draws the eye.

Wooster, a former buyer for the likes of Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney, was for two decades one of the most powerful and influential names in fashion retail, but over the past 10 years his fame has gone mainstream as he parlayed his success into other projects. He plays curator for the Birchbox (a grooming company) x Wooster collaboration, designer for United Arrows x Wooster capsule fashion range and continues to consult on buying for various companies.

"I still think of myself as a retailer first, but I also know how to make clothes," Wooster says on a recent visit to Hong Kong to launch Wooster + Lardini at Lane Crawford, a collaboration with the family-run Italian fashion house Lardini.

Aware of the almost cult-like interest in what he wears as much as what he buys for the companies he works for and now the clothes he designs himself, Wooster is sanguine about the attention.

"I recognise that I'm here talking to you because of that, but I like to think that I was always the same person long before the internet came around," he says adding that a "big void" has been filled online with style blogs and Instagram and that there's a "symbiotic relationship" between content and retail.

Wooster's trademark look of a neat short-back-and-sides haircut, tattooed sleeves and tailored ensemble has regularly seen him make "best-dressed" lists and also attracted imitators, most of whom have little or no idea where the look originated.

Wooster is modest about his influence. "I'm always flattered if anybody pays attention," he says. "I've seen a few lookalikes and that kind of freaks me out but then I'm not the first person on the planet to have tattoos and I'm not the first person to have hair or a tattoo sleeve."

I still think of myself as a retailer first, but I also know how to make clothes
Nick Wooster

Directly or indirectly, Wooster also holds sway over mass fashion influencers such as David Beckham, but at the more extreme end of the street-style spectrum.

Luca Rubinacci, heir to the Rubinacci Napoli tailoring business, is another whose prominent street style profile has enabled him to parlay that attention into sales for his family business and personal fashion side projects.

The co-founders of Hong Kong's The Armoury, Mark Cho and Alan See, have also blurred the distinction between retailer and street style celebrity, leveraging their popularity on style blogs to grow a network of loyal customers around the world.

"The message we try to get across is that we really believe in our products and are happy to be seen in them," says Cho, adding that "the fact that people like our content and want to follow us is, of course, very flattering and good for our business".

Cho, See and key staff such as Jake Grantham are street style regulars, especially during the Pitti Uomo menswear buying event in Florence, which takes place twice a year.

Cho says he, himself, was heavily influenced by street style photographer Scott Schuman, better known as The Sartorialist.

"I think a lot of people who grew up using street-style photography to learn and develop their style feel very comfortable with that method. Some of these people, such as myself, have ended up in the clothing industry still practising that same method, roles reversed, to display and inform."

However, Cho is also wary of this focus on retailers. "I personally have a love/hate relationship with the trend. What I want to promote is dressing in the classic style but as a way to be yourself, not to follow someone else," he says.

Traditional fashion retail and content creation is increasingly being led by trends on social media and Cho says he's comfortable with that despite some reservations.

"It's not in my nature, or The Armoury's nature, to be flashy but social media is, to a certain extent, shameless self-promotion and I wrestle with that paradox constantly," Cho says.

"However, ultimately I also feel it is part of my job. If I'm not producing content on social media, I'm not doing my job."