The sound busy bees make, bombinate, is poetry to the ears of any entrepreneur. That summertime buzz or hum from our favourite hyperactive insects is the therapeutic inspiration for a new menswear marketplace focussed on quality and craftsmanship.
I sat down with Massimilliano Gritti, co-founder, along with Elliott Aeschlimann Perales, of Bombinate to talk about menswear, quality and made in China.
“We launched the first version of the website in May 2017,” says Gritti. “The idea was to create a destination for men who care about quality and we would curate the finest craftsmanship brands in Europe and beyond.” he says.
The website has since relaunched. It had a refresh just before Christmas, but it all began after their travels together in 2016. “This all started a year before that on the Silk Road. We were on a charity rally with my co-founder Elliott, driving from Mongolia into Russia, and Elliott, was late, he had to catch a flight back to Europe to see his girlfriend, it was then, sleep deprived, we started to talk about craftsmanship and quality, what we had seen on the Silk Road, and how is it in today’s world, getting access to beautiful, high-quality products is so hard.” he says.
Both originally from Switzerland, Aeschlimann Perales’ mother is Spanish – he’s currently on holiday in Australia and also looking for new brands for Bombinate – while Gritti’s father is Italian and his mother is Austrian. They decided to begin and base Bombinate in East London.
“We’re a tech business as well,” says Gritti. “Bombinate is a marketplace, it’s a tech business first. The technology is new, it’s allowing this connection between small brands and consumers, we wanted to be in the capital of Europe, close to tech companies, close to my investors,” he says. “London still has the caché, the equity of, ‘hey, we’re a company from London’, they trust you.”
Gritti saw the rise of the direct to consumer brands, but could also see the market and social media becoming crowded and there was a need for some form of curation and policing of the brands on offer.
“The advent of digital brands has made it so easy to shop directly from them, but everybody is now a DTC – direct to consumer – brand. Everyone has a cool feed. How do you curate that? How do you trust? Can you trust an Instagram feed?” he says. “There was an article, a year and a half ago, in TheTelegraph, about these fake Instagram brands who have a beautiful feed, do Instagram ads, but it’s all made in China, and they ship it directly to you.”
So, is “Made in China” the anthesis of what Bombinate is trying to do? “We’ve just launched a brand that is made in China.” he says, surprisingly. “There was a big conversation in the office, should we take them? Is it fair for other brands that are made in Europe? We spoke to them, we looked at their factory, did our research, we’ve seen the product and we can vouch for the product,” he says.
The brand in question is the Scandinavian designed, Native North, so how do other brands make the Bombinate cut?
“The first one is obviously looking at the products, meeting them in person,” he says. “If we can’t do that, we have a five factor scorecard, where we look at the brand story, we look at the products, we looks at the supply chain, we look at the founders, and the skill sets used, and above a certain average, we take the brand or we don’t,” says Gritti.
“We are at 100 brands now, and we decide what they sell. We also curate the product to fit our aesthetic and what will sell,” he says. “You can apply, we review everything and 99% of brands get rejected, 1% get accepted. We get a lot of requests. It’s been my job as a company to hit the road and make sure we’re getting those jewels.”
Gritti has just got back from the men’s fashion shows and trade shows in January and February. The business model works by taking a commission on sales. It doesn’t hold any inventory unless it’s an exclusive limited-edition product which it then buys and holds as stock. The website recently passed 1,000 customers with the main market being the UK, but it is seeing orders from the US, Australia and France, Germany and Switzerland.
What’s selling? “Private White V.C., which is a big craftsmanship brand for us, and handmade Italian sneakers have been selling really well,” says Gritti. “Portugese brand, La Paz, they’re really not focussed on online and have one e-commerce image per product, which is a big no no usually in the industry, but has been selling incredibly well, and that just proves what we’re selling is a good story, and they’re attracted to the story of La Paz, these two surfers, and people are still buying massive amounts of that brand on Bombinate,” he says.
“Many brands put so much effort into e-commerce images, but don’t have the brand authenticity and they don’t sell as much.” he says. “The whole idea is give men access to true quality at the right price. At the end of the day, what you pay on the high-street is a brand premium, what’s the real equation between quality and price? It’s a very complicated questions, but we believe that quality should equal an affordable and true price that isn’t inflated by massive, massive brand premiums that some of the high street brands impose.”
Bombinate is just about to celebrate its second birthday, and, while online continues to take share of retail spend, the market is becoming more crowded. If Bombinate can show its worth to the brands it is championing, they can all grow together, supporting the craftspeople and designers who are committed to offering something slower in our fast-fashion world.
What’s the future? “In the medium term, we’d be looking at opening in Asia,” he says. “It’ll be interesting, not only as a client base, but also as a supplier base, bringing over Chinese brands. If we can be champions of quality and have this brand quality stamp, then why not represent these amazing brands from Asia and try to make it pass that Made in China step. It would also make sense with our silk road story.”
“Affordable luxury is a multi-billion industry, I really can see Bombinate becoming one of the big commerce players in five to 10 years. Our customer, a lot of them have come from Mr Porter, because they have been a bit disillusioned by their move to streetwear. Mr Porter replicates the high-street offering brand for brand, and what they offer is convenience rather than access. What we offer is access; brands that weren’t online before, brands that just had their own e-shops now have global reach and can be accessed from anywhere in the world,” he says.
In the short term, “we’re launching coffee table books on Bombinate, I met these guys in Copenhagen, I spoke to founder on the phone, and he was so excited to make this work, and create this entire coffee table section, this is what drives me, when I see these founders that are on it.
“That’s the first category outside of fashion and we’re going to launch homeware and furniture. Bombinate is a holistic brand proposition for men who care about quality, good design and beautiful brands.”
Bombinate is a marketplace based around quality, but not in that stratospheric, eye-wateringly expensive Hermès kind of way, but a more realistic offer of tasteful menswear for men who can look beyond the label and just want things that are beautiful to wear and last more than a few washes. Bombinate needs to get that buzz up to a crescendo if its commission model is going to work, but it’s good to see somebody sticking a flag in the ground for quality menswear.