The Interview: Tommy Mallet, Founder and Creative Director, Mallet
Tommy Mallet first found fame appearing on reality TV show ‘The Only Way is Essex’, better known as Towie, in 2014, but it was his passion for footwear, particularly trainers, that spurred him to build his own business from scratch in 2015 under the Mallet name.
Mallet is now sold in some the best stores in the UK, and indeed the world, with apparel being added to the product mix in 2019.
While he may still be putting in TV appearances with his fiancé Georgia Kousoulou, who he met on Towie and with whom he stars on ‘Georgia and Tommy: Baby Steps’ which starts its third series on 30 November 2022 on ITVBe - following their life and relationship after having their son, Brody (now 17 months old) - his desire to scale the Mallet business is undeterred, as he tells TheIndustry.fashion's Contributing Editor, Tom Bottomley.
Where did the Mallet name come from?
It actually stems from a nickname I was given as a kid, not because I had a big punch as some people assumed, but because I had a little body but a big head! It just stuck. My birth surname is actually Fordham.
When and how did you come to be on Towie and how did making your own trainers come about?
I started on Towie in 2014. It came about just because of having a lot of mutual friends from the area who were on the show. I had moved to Essex from Islington, and I just fell into it really. I didn’t get much out of the show financially, but then Mallet was born.
I’ve always had an obsession with shoes. We were doing a photoshoot for the show and I came across a pair that I loved, but they were about £400, or even £500 to buy. Back then, we weren’t really getting much money off Towie, just minimal daily rates for the filming. I didn’t have the money to buy them, so I wanted to create something for myself as like a one off. It all started with a pencil and a piece of paper.
How did it go from that to actually making your first pair?
You’ve got to be busy with it and find the right people who can assist you along the journey. I was doing a lot of digging for quite a long time to find someone to make the samples for me. Then I found out that an old friend of mine was living in Turkey and doing some clothing manufacturing. I hit him up to see if he knew anywhere in Turkey that could make samples for me. He got it sorted for me, and it went from there. That was in 2015, just with one shoe in one colour – a black trainer with a white sole.
What followed on from that?
I had quite a lot of followers on Instagram, maybe between 200,000 – 250,000 at the time (now over 1.1m), which I knew could potentially have an impact on Mallet sales. But, in the first six months to a year, I didn’t really get anything out of it. I just kept pushing and trying to seed it. I was still on Towie and I couldn’t really speak about it much on the show as they didn’t really want you going on there and promoting your own business.
Sales of the trainers were originally horrendous. We made 50 pairs and I reckon we sold about five pairs. It was the first ever go at a business for me and a friend/business partner, and at the time we thought we were going to sell out in seconds. It was the biggest investment we’d ever made in our lives, as we’d borrowed £25,000.
So, what made you continue with it?
I’m just persistent! We borrowed another £15,000, which brought us into a second collection. We then started to get a bit more of a bite. But when I say a bite, I’m talking about 10 pairs here and there, to the point where we would show up once a week to the warehouse to send the orders out. I kept on developing trainers, bringing them out and talking about them on social media. It was years of just continually talking about the same thing. We didn’t have any fashion background, so we were just stabbing in the dark. It was about carrying on and getting to a point where we could make something that would get into the stores.
That was the main objective for us, to get into clothing stores. We created something in 2016, which was an all-black trainer called the ‘Diver’, which is still one of the best sellers now. We were just banging on doors, and ended up launching with that one shoe in Choice in Essex, after a year of trying to get in there. I think it’s been the best seller in there for about six years now. It was the same with the likes of Saks in the US and David Jones in Australia, just banging on the doors until they opened.
What’s unique about Mallet?
I think everything about the brand is unique; the pricing, the time we release new products, how fast we react to the market, the PR that we put behind the brand and the way that we tell stories. For instance, each shoe is named after somewhere in North London where I grew up.
We’ve got quite a lot of different styles now, and we’ve really evolved as a company. We’ve also really mixed it up in terms of the leathers, meshes and metals which we use on the shoes. We now make a lot in Portugal. My whole thing when I started out was to make something that had a luxury feel but at a premium price point.
When someone goes into a shop and picks up a pair of my shoes, the quality speaks for itself next to the competitors. The ‘Diver’ style now sells for about £175, but you can see it’s well worth the money.
How important a role has social media played in continuing the brand’s development?
It’s huge. From starting out in 2015 to getting to where we are now - and dominating a certain section of the market - has been largely built around social media. It means you can put out a product and get an instant reaction to see if people like it. You can see in minutes if you are on to a winner or not, instead of having to design, develop and go to the market to see how it sells on the shop floor.
You can get a read of what’s working and what’s not at the click of a button. For us, that’s massive. We’re continually shouting about new developments and what we’re doing, and we’re in everyone’s faces. It’s a vital part to a lot of businesses out there now.
What’s your outlook for the business and has that changed from when you started out?
At the beginning I guess it was more money orientated, because I’d never had it. But now that doesn’t really cross my mind. It’s more about growth and what I can do with my community in terms of how far I take the brand and scale it. I’m just knocking down doors worldwide at the minute. We’re in a lot of countries already, and it’s performing very well in a lot of stores. We’ve built something which is fantastic, and it really is a crazy story once you tell it. It’s just mad to think where we are now compared to where we started.
What happened to your appearances on Towie?
In 2017, I wasn’t really appearing like I was previously because it wasn’t my main focus, but my partner Georgia was still on there so I was always dragged back to do bits and pieces. I’d say I left for good around 2019/2020. We now have our own TV show called ‘Georgia and Tommy: Baby Steps’ on ITVBe. Series three starts on 30 November 2022.
When did you first launch Mallet apparel?
We launched apparel in 2019 and, despite me being such a shoe guy and being so focused on getting the shoes in the right places and getting the right collaborations, the apparel is now receiving more of my attention. It was getting a bit overlooked, but it’s now growing and becoming more important to the business, and I’m hoping it will become 30% of our turnover in the next two years, especially as we continue to develop the menswear, womenswear and kidswear. There’s now more of a dedicated design process behind it and I’m getting a bit more of obsessed with the feeling behind the clothing. There’s going to be some really big things coming up.
What footwear collaborations have you got coming up?
They can’t be talked about just yet, but I’ve got two coming up in 2023 which are absolutely breath taking! One of them is with a brand I’ve been wearing since I was a kid and I’ve absolutely loved a particular shoe of theirs for years. That will be in Q2, so we won’t be announcing it until around February/March 2023.
There’s another sign off which is we’re waiting on which is ‘very London’ - that’s all I can say for now. That will hopefully be ready to be announced at the end of December this year, or the start of January 2023. It’s not with another footwear or clothing brand, it’s just something completely different. It’s a way of telling my London story through a shoe and a lot of Londoners will relate to it.
While wholesale has been instrumental in building the brand, is direct-to-consumer now growing in importance?
Yes, it is. We have the Carnaby Street store in London, which started out as a pop-up in 2021 to test the water but has since been made permanent, and we’re looking at other locations now. Rolling out over the next two years, we should have around 10 standalone Mallet stores in major cities in the UK. For me, my product does so well on the shop floor next to other designer brands, and that’s vital to build any brand because it gets the product out there where people can see it.
We work with some of the best stores in the world, including Harrods, Selfridges and Saks in the US, which generates big numbers in terms of units sold, but it’s easy to become a bit over reliant on working with retailers. It’s certainly very important, and we have a big deal with the likes of Flannels – which is a big driving force for the brand as they carry some of the best brands in the world, but our direct-to-consumer business is also growing rapidly, and we’re spending a lot of time and money on that now.