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The Interview: Rich Philip, marketing director, Stance Europe

Tom Bottomley
31 May 2019

Premium US sock brand Stance has just made its pop-up shop on Covent Garden’s Neal Street permanent, and its men’s and women’s technical sports and casual socks – and now underwear and T-shirts – are getting the kind of positive response and sales that mean there’s now plans for further UK stores this year. Stance Europe’s marketing director, Rich Philip, gives an insight in to what they are doing so right.

When and where in the US does Stance originate and how many stores do you have there?

Stance was founded in 2009 in San Clemente, California, where the headquarters remain. There are five founders behind it, Ryan Kingman, Jeff Kearl, Aaron Hennings, John Wilson and Taylor Shupe – all bringing their own different skill sets. We currently have 14 stores in the US, including in San Clemente, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando, San Diego, and Washington State, with plans to open more domestically and internationally this year. The brand was initially brought in to Europe in 2012, wholesaling out of the UK, and it really started to kick-in by early 2014. The brand has some 3,000 accounts across Europe, and approximately 800 in the UK – across a mix of specialist sports, lifestyle and fashion retailers, from Selfridges and Size? to local running stores.

The Covent Garden pop-up must have worked well for you to now make that a permanent store?

Yes, it’s been a phenomenal success. We originally signed for a six-month pop-up with landlords The Mercers’ Company from November last year to April this year. Then we signed a permanent five-year lease with them from the beginning of May. It’s the first store outside of the US for Stance.

Why did you pick that particular location?

We’re at 3 Neal Street, right near the top so there’s a lot of footfall, something we considered to be very important in getting the brand noticed. There’s a lot of tourist penetration in that area, and a lot of American and international tourists. We’re very big in America. Whilst we have a lot of customers from a wholesale perspective in the UK, we weren’t sure really what our brand awareness was. The shop had to be all about location.

Who’s the real target customer for Stance?

We could sell socks to an 8 year-old or an 80 year-old. I challenge almost anyone to go in to a Stance store and not resonate with a pair of socks in there. If you’re in to motorbikes, you’ll like our Harley Davidson collaboration collection, or if you like teddy bears – we’ve got them on some of our socks! Disney is also a big focus for us, as is Marvel – featuring characters from the comics such as Captain America, which is quite a big range. We’ve also got a Star Wars collaboration coming up in time for the new film that’s launching in December. In fact, Star Wars was one of our original collaborations and one of our biggest and most successful. It’s a license agreement. What it does is really bring new customers to the brand, which is what we’re all about.

What’s the exhibition you currently have going on at the shop?

The shop is set over two floors, with 1,000 sq ft of retail space on the ground floor and a 1,000 sq ft basement that we are using as an exhibition space. The current exhibition is called "Lend Me Your Ear", and it’s on until 7 June. It’s a collaboration between renowned music photographer, Andrew Cotterill, and illustrator Ben Tallon. Ben overlays his illustration style over Andrew’s photography. The exhibition marks a celebration of individuality and self-expression, in association with Young Urban Arts Foundation. It features portraits of globally renowned music artists, such as The Prodigy, Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, Skepta, Stormzy and Kanye West, and they are available to buy at varying prices. They’ve partnered up with about 44 artists. The teams from Selfridges and Snow + Rock came down to the launch last week, and it was a good way for them to be immersed in the brand’s values, as well as view our latest products.

Are there plans to open more stores in the UK?

Yes, we will be, again location is key. Going forward we’ll be looking at new sites across the UK and Europe, though this year the UK will be the focus and we’re targeting a handful of new stores. London is still a key city, and there’s still a lot of locations in London to consider. Before we converted to a full-time store on Neal Street, we did a bit of research on the customers that were coming through the door, and we found that about 77% of those customers knew the brand before they came through the door, which was a lot higher than we expected. It was great news, and it ran true when we looked at the performance of the store. It also gave us the confidence to look at expanding our retail presence in London. We’d like to get at least another couple of stores open in London this year.

What makes Stance different from, say Happy Socks, which has also seen amazing success?

Happy Socks started out of Europe, so they are ahead of us in the European market. The difference between the two brands is that we focused entirely on the fit, knit, quality and technology before the graphics came along. We wanted to make the best fitting socks out there, and we were really obsessed with the innovation around the knitting process. With a lot of socks you buy on the high street, if you put them through the wash 50 times they will start to become baggy, lose shape and the elastic will rip. On our base level socks in our lifestyle collection, we really focused on superior quality. You can wash them 300 times and the fit will remain identical. Then on our sports socks we utilise a lot of technology. For instance, there’s ankle padding in our basketball socks, and we have reflective spots on the back of our running socks. Our focus on innovation is what differentiates us.

How did the recent collaboration with Carhartt WIP come about?

A lot of the focus we have within our lifestyle, fashion and streetwear categories is about partnering up with brands. We look at collaborations to expand the reach of the brand within their market. Carhartt was a really obvious one for us because a lot of our retailers cross over. If you go in to END in London for instance you’ll find both Carhartt and Stance, similarly in smaller fashion independents you will find both brands sitting next to each other. It was also an opportunity to expand our network and go in to wholesale doors that we weren’t necessarily in across Europe. The product went live on our website in April, and Carhartt are wholesaling it within their retail network. Collaborations are a big focus of our business. We’ve also had partnerships with athletes, and brands such as New Balance last year. When you opened up the box of the running shoes there was a pair of socks that matched. We’ve also collaborated with brands such as Maharishi and Japanese streetwear brand Neighborhood in the past.

Do you also have brand ambassadors?

Yes, we do. For instance, in our running category, one of what we call our main "Punk and Poets" – our brand ambassadors – is a chap called Charlie Dark. He heads up a community of runners in London called the Run Dem Crew, which is over 500 strong. We make socks with him and his community, and we also offer that out to our wholesale accounts as well as selling through our own channels. On another note, Jay-Z and Rihanna have both been brand ambassadors, as has now former National Basketball Association (NBA) player, Dwayne Wade, who used to play for Miami Heat. Jay-Z actually wrote Stance socks in to some of his lyrics for the F.U.T.W. track. It goes: “This ain't grey sweat suits and white tube socks. This is black leather pants and a pair of Stance socks.”

Is the sports market a big area for you in the US?

You could say so. On the performance and sports side, Stance was the first brand to have its logo appear on any piece of the NBA’s official uniform. It was named the league’s on-court sock for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and was worn in every game by every player in the league for those two seasons, and is still designated as the official casual sock of the NBA. A year after Stance made its mark in the NBA, the brand was chosen as the official sock of Major League Baseball, and is currently worn on-field by every team in MLB.

What other product categories have you now added?

We launched men’s underwear about three years ago and women’s underwear last year when we also launched T-shirts. They all fall under what we classify as premium basics. They’ve been a massive success for us. That’s also a big benefit of having a standalone store as it really allows us to showcase the range. It’s given us a great canvas for our key accounts to see all what we do – so it’s a useful b2b trade space as well. We have retailers in to look at ranges and to show how well the products can be merchandised.

What are the T-shirts like?

We have three ranges. Our premium range is what we call our loop-wheel collection, which is Japanese made, retailing at £90. They’re completely unbranded, very subtle, and I think of them as for our selvedge denim type of customer. Our mid-range sells for £40-45, and our base level entry cotton T-shirt in classic colours is £28. We’re introducing some graphics and partnering up with artists for those at the moment.

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