David Isle: Do you think you'll ever open a retail location?
Greg Lellouche: I'm not planning it, but it's always been a possibility. I'm definitely not wedded to the idea of being online-only. I think online was the way to go as the main channel for what we're trying to do, because it's just a very large country, without even thinking internationally, and there's a lot of areas of the country where people don't have access to what we have access to here in New York City. And participation on the forum is what made me realize that.
And then even for me as a New Yorker, having access to everything – I don't think there's a single brand I can't find here if I look for it really hard – I was still buying online. I was a banker working long hours, and the convenience of buying online, trying something on at home, and not spending my Saturday physically shopping was great. Not everybody loves to shop, so I always thought that online stores really offer something different.
To me, the idea of No Man Walks Alone came from the realization that people, especially men, don't mind or even prefer buying online. At the same time, having the experience on the forums of getting information that you don't get from stores, I had wanted to put together the information you need to dress better and also the opportunity to buy things. And it goes both ways – if I'm interested in a brand, I can read about how something is made, where it's made, the history, maybe see some videos of the process, then I have a lot more information to make my choice and decide if I want to support those people or not. It puts faces on brands. And then the other way around as well – I can read an article that tells me why I need a navy or dark grey suit for an interview and then in the same place I can buy that suit, the white or blue suit, and conservative tie that the article recommends, to me that's something that only happens on the internet or in a really old school haberdashery where you can talk to someone.
DI: How did brands react when you approached them about your store?
GL: The full range; some people who really wanted to know more about it, and once they understood the concept, were really excited about it. Some just brushed me off right away. But I came from a very codified and hierarchical industry where you don't always get to work with people you want to work with. But since I started with a blank page here, I started with a few principles, and one of them is that I want to work with people who want to work with me. I feel lucky and honored to have a group of brands who believe in our store and are excited to have us selling their products. When there's that mutual respect between the maker and the retailer, I think it makes a better experience for everyone involved, including the customer. It's a principle, and also a way for me to express my independence as an entrepreneur as well. Life's too short, and I don't want to work with someone that's going to give me heartburn.
DI: But you managed to get a lot of forum grail brands that are hard to get online like Vass shoes or tubo belts or the casentino coats.
GL: Some of those required a little bit more work than others. It comes down to a couple of things. First, without pushing people to work with me when they didn't want to, I did convince some people that it's a good idea to sell their stuff in the US or adopt a wholesale model and have a retailer whereas before they had only been a shop. Or for instance with the tubo belts, which the retailer doesn't sell anymore, it was a question of going one step further and going to the manufacturer that had been making the belts the whole time anyway. And I am taking a little bit of risk there because I'm selling a brand that no one knows. But it's not about the brand, it's about the product and the maker. And the maker is a serious group of craftsmen that have been making for other brands, and now they have the opportunity to sell under their own brand.
Then the other risk is in the choices for the assortment we have. For instance with the casentino coats, I don't think that any retailer in the US bought those coats. In Italy, they did really well. The guys at Luigi Bianchi did really well selling them in Italy, but in the US they're a little too specialty. And the idea is that I'm not just going to put it out there and show a picture of it and have people wonder why the wool is pilling everywhere, but also educate people through an article explaining what casentino wool is, in theory it all makes sense.
Overall I wouldn't say I took a ton of risks. By definition, if you're going to have a tasteful assortment, that doesn't imply taking a lot of risk. It implies honing in on things that are just right. And maybe sometimes tasteful is not the most photogenic product. You don't find people on blogs and facebook getting 100k likes on a classic, tasteful suit. There has to be something unique about it for people to react to it. So there's a little bit of a challenge if you don't want to create an “in your face” first impression.
DI: The attention of the store seems more towards detail and brand heritage.
GL: My focus isn't on the 100k people that "like" the item, it's on the one person that buys it, and getting them to appreciate the piece. One challenge of shopping online is that there's a tendency to just scroll, scroll, scroll, until something really catches your eye. You miss a lot by doing that, but it's just human nature. It's a challenge to create a site where the devil is in the details, and not just get scrolled past. We'll see how people shop and browse on the site and if we can convey what's special about each piece well enough. So our thumbnails will be a little bigger, for instance. But it would be a shame for people not to notice the details in each item.
DI: In terms of the size of the store itself, how did you decide on this number of products and brands?
GL: It was always part of the concept to make sure it's not a megastore that has 200 brands where you might get lost unless you know exactly what you're looking for. The idea is to step in and browse around as if you were in a small shop. There are the very large sites and then a few very niche stores that have maybe ten brands, and do that well. My idea was to be somewhere in between.
When you sit down and decide I want to have knits, shoes, shirts, ties, and have one or two brands of each, you add them up and you get to 30 or 40 brands. So it was a question of keeping it narrow enough so that people wouldn't get lost and still hit all the categories someone wants to shop for.
We don't go very wide – I think we have six kinds of Inglese shirts, three colors of Buttero sneakers – except for ties. I think a man needs a lot of ties. I just don't think it's normal for a man who wears ties often to have only six ties in his closet. It's one of those few areas where you get to express yourself a little bit, whether it's with a super classic madder print or a seasonal wool tie; you just need that range. I was talking to Stefano Bigi and asked him how many ties he thinks a man should have – and of course he's biased – but he told me at least fifty. And I agree. So we have a lot of different ties in the store. Everybody has slightly different tastes in ties, and you probably go through tables and tables of ties in a store before you pick one you really like. Whereas that's not the same with blue shirts.
DI: So will you continue to respond to every post in the SF affiliate thread?
GL: I will try to. Hopefully some other people will answer questions once they've been answered before. But I want to be very active – it's an online store, so I want to be online, and talking to people who want to buy online. If I had a walk in shop, it would be different because I'd have to apportion my time. But I'm going to be online a lot anyway dealing with customer service, so it's a natural extension.