In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
"I've done this arguably forever from my perspective," says Sam Lobban on how long he's been working in menswear. Though his resume spans well over a decade of work experience, including seven years spent at luxury online retailer Mr. Porter, Lobban's healthy obsession with men's fashion has run much longer. At 10 years old, his father bought him a Ben Sherman shirt to add to his mostly-sportswear wardrobe.
"It was the first piece of actual clothes I'd been bought, rather than just for purely function, like new track pants," recalls Lobban. "I was very young, obviously, but that was my first real fashion moment. After that, I was into clothes."
While the rest of his friends were taking on kitchen porter jobs or vocational apprenticeships at 16 years old, Lobban's first-ever paid gig was on the sales floor of his hometown's longtime men's shop D. Copperfield, which came with an employee discount that was mostly spent on clothes from Stone Island. By 18, he started working on the shop floor of Selfridges in London, eventually landing an internship at the department store's buying office. "I met [the merchandiser] and basically petitioned him for work experience," says Lobban. "For three weeks I called him every day from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m." After two weeks of interning, he was offered an entry-level job as an allocator, climbing the ranks until he was the men's contemporary and designer buyer. In 2011, he went on to help launch Mr. Porter, where he dedicated seven years as the luxury menswear online retailer's buyer.
"There's a danger of running off in lots of different directions and losing really what you stood for in the first place. I don't think Mr. Porter's ever done that," says Lobban. "I think it did it in a very considered way. That's something I was always quite proud of."
Now, Lobban is working with Nordstrom, where he joined in June 2018 as the Vice President of Men's Designer and New Concepts — a brand new position for the department store. (In January, he was promoted to VP of Men's Fashion.) His main role is to help ramp up the retailer's menswear business, from marketing and merchandising to content and the online and in-store shopping experience. Lobban's work on the latter debuted in January with Concept 001: Out Cold, a specially curated selection of high-performance, weatherproof apparel, footwear and accessories. (Think Arc'teryx puffers, Salomon sneakers and Blundstone boots.) The next Concept release will highlight Kim Jones’s debut collection for Dior Homme.
"From outdoor performance through to a luxury French house, it's about showing the most interesting or most fun ideas within the men's space," explains Lobban. "It's not specific to one segment of menswear. It's not all super fashion, or all super luxury, or what have you. It really is across the breadth of the men's offer."
Just before Men's Fashion Week in Paris, we sat down with Lobban to learn more about what he finds exciting in menswear and retail, streetwear's crossover into luxury men's, as well as his best career advice. Read on for the highlights.
What did you learn most from working on the sales floor at D. Copperfield and Selfridges?
Working the shop floor really teaches you all the different reasons that a customer comes through the doors. Whether or not they just want come in and pick up a single thing that they wanted, and they want a very specific level of service for that, which is all about ease and getting things as they want it. Or they want to come in because they don't necessarily know what they want to buy, and they want to be inspired and shown some stuff.
I also think it ties in, at least from a merchant perspective, to the idea of a sense of ownership over the business. Again, it kind of gives you that sense of doing anything to make sure the customer is happy and has a good experience. And that can be from, showing the the thing they didn't know they wanted to see at the right time, through to making the space feel a certain kind of way through standards or re-merchandising a floor, all those kinds of things. For me, personally, the sales floor stopped being any kind of linear 'this is what retail is,' and made it a more broad, organic understanding of it.
What drew you to join Nordstrom?
One of Nordstrom's huge strengths is the omnichannel play; having lots of different ways to talk to the customer. And my point about learning on the shop floor, retail is really all about communicating with the customer on their terms. Ultimately, that's what that it adds up to. Nordstrom has really put a lot into that idea over the last few years, plus, the scale and the reach of both physical and online, but also the customer base that goes with that. I really like the idea of taking some of the most compelling men's ideas that are out there globally around the world and having the ability for us as a group to showcase that to a wider group of people. You couple that with the omni-play and you can do it through the digital space and in-store experience across a network of stores. It all becomes quite interesting.
Are there any cities that you travel to with an exciting menswear scene?
Tokyo is always the one that everyone talks about for men's. Tokyo is very good, at least from a buying perspective. When you go on a buying trip to Tokyo, it's the only place you can go to, and you could have a full schedule, back to back, every day for five days and you only meet product people. It's just people that are in it for that passion of being in it. There's something very inspiring about that. And it's across all of these different aesthetics and elements. There's a real feeling of a can-do attitude. You feel like you can do anything whilst you're there; super open to collaboration, super open to projects because it all stems from products. They're not really thinking about being this global superstar brand. They're thinking about making amazing product.
There's a bit of a feeling of that with what's going on in Los Angeles at the moment. There's a very entrepreneurial feeling to a lot of the designs that are coming out of there. I guess it stems from the brand headquarters being so intertwined with the production, so you've got this natural link back and forth. Most of the Japanese brands are made domestically in Japan, and most of what's happening in LA right now is being made locally in LA. I think it gives it a very dynamic sense of you can kind of do anything, which is super engaging for a buyer, or a commercial person, to be involved in.
What's really exciting about working in menswear right now?
The most exciting thing is there's far more eyes on it than ever before. That's a big topic right now, the rise of menswear. Not to say it's a unique moment that's never happened with anything else before, but definitely for men, specifically, it's way bigger now, and way more people are interested in it than ever before.
How have you seen menswear evolve since you started working in the industry?
Menswear just feels broader and more appealing to different, wider groups of people than ever before. And that in itself allows for more interesting ideas, or maybe people take more risks on newer ideas because there are more people to talk to, too. Whenever there are wider groups you can have bigger niches within that. I think that's super interesting.
Streetwear has been playing a major role in menswear. How have you noticed this change?
There's lots of conversation around streetwear cross-contaminating with luxury, and for me, that's a big part of it because streetwear is, just as an idea is, pretty understandable and readily accessible. Whether or not you can get access to the thing that you want, that is a different conversation, but just being able to see a cool T-shirt, understand the cool T-shirt, if you can buy the cool T-shirt, then buy the cool T-shirt and wear it. And that high-end designer, or high luxury fashion, whilst it's been around for a little while now, it still feels like a quite a new idea, at least in the broader scheme of men have been wearing clothes for an awful long time.
Where do you see streetwear taking menswear next?
One of the things that we're seeing with the whole streetwear-luxury crossover now becoming more settled is that streetwear isn't this upstart challenge to the status quo anymore. It's pretty established now. As such, it allows some other men's ideas to come back to the fore a bit more, by which I mean tailoring — some more structured garments. When anything's new in fashion it becomes the thing and there's such a spotlight on it, so there's not always room for lots of different ideas at the same time. But I think that's becoming a bit more balanced now.
Are there any big changes in retail that excites you most?
Omniplay is the most compelling thing for me. Everyone talks about experience as being super important. For me, it's really about how to tell really interesting product stories. I think experience plays a part in that, but I think the thing that we as a team are always trying to work out is that core tenant of how do you tell really interesting brand and product stories to a wider group of people in new, exciting and interesting ways? Part of the beauty of retail is that collections change every six months. It is an ever-evolving idea and conversation just by its very nature because there's always new product out there to talk about.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in menswear?
Work on a shop floor. Not a hard prerequisite, but I would say a pretty good upstart is really building that relationship between customers and products, and service and retail. I do think a lot of that helps. In a lot of cases — I think this is true in any industry — having a huge amount of passion for what you do goes a long way, especially because the fashion calendars can be pretty heavy going. A lot of the time it is a really healthy sense of enthusiasm that carries you through that, and a genuine interest in what it is. If you're naturally very inquisitive — because it's ultimately a personal passion — then that helps a lot.
Is there a work mantra that you've held onto throughout your career?
I remember Anita Barr, who was the buying manager when I had my first job at Selfridges, always talking about staying humble. That was one of her big things that she used to talk about a lot. Everyone's kind of in this for the same reasons because they're really passionate about whatever element of the business that they're in. A level of humility, being nice and working on a personal level with people is super important.
Then subsequently that was something that Toby [Bateman] and I always spoke about when we were building Mr. Porter. So it's sort of like this shared thread between the people I've looked up to over the course of my career, and now joining Nordstrom, that was also why I was drawn to it. If people don't know anything about Nordstrom, it’s customer service and a humble business. On meeting the Nordstrom brothers, it's definitely true and that comes across. It's something I would hope that I've lived my career by.
I would definitely say that it's an important element to be very hungry, but at the same time be very humble. I think that takes you a long way. Or at least, that would be the hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.