Rodrigo Bazan on building Thom Browne into a global brand
If any designer this decade can claim to have enjoyed unquestioned success, it is Thom Browne, who stages his latest show in Paris on Sunday. Begun as a quirky tailor in a small studio in the Meatpacking District producing schoolboy suits for a tiny elite, the brand has grown into one of America’s most influential brands – and a booming business. Barely two years ago it hired Rodrigo Bazan, a driven Argentine executive, who speaks in almost geometrically precise sentences, to be its CEO. A period that corresponds with a moment of particular flourish for the house of Thom Browne.
In Europe, many young designers have effectively given up the idea of building their own house – and content themselves with being hired to revive an existing heritage label. Thom Browne is a great example of why, and how, it is still possible to create a new global fashion empire; and his moment of greatest growth has coincided with the arrival of Bazan. He started as CEO of Thom Browne on May 1, 2016, leaving the same position at Alexander Wang.
“I left one job on Friday evening, and started the next on Monday morning. But I had done my research,” recalls Bazan, who spent two weekends seeing every single show of Thom before joining Browne.
Bazan ended up making screen shots of everything he admired, and going through them with the designer.
“The clothes were brilliant and that proved to me that he was really intelligent as well as being a great designer. And consistent – as images from shows eight years before were still in the collections,” says Bazan.
Within three months he presented an expansion and communications plan basing their future on product expansion. The key to the future: building a direct to consumer formula. When he arrived Browne was 75% a wholesale business, even though Thom started out live as a tiny made-to-measure business on West 12th Street.
Worldwide, Browne is now available in 300 wholesale sales points for men, 200 for women. In terms of stores, between flagships or concessions in Japan or Korea, there are 29 today. Bazan promises to open a further six in 2018 – continuing Thom Browne’s high double-digit growth. Market sources indicate Browne touched the symbolic figure of $100 million in 2016, and grew by 25% in 2017.
“Build a retail network to compliment the wholesale business is a much more sustainable way of growing. And, we have a very international business; spread 30% in North America, 40% in Europe and 30% in Asia,” he reveals.
“We don’t need necessarily gigantic stores; like in Milan where we have a fantastic location, next door to the Four Seasons. We need the right size – and to combine that with technology. A relatively small location in London on Albemarle Street – and we opened in five stores in 15 months in China. We expanded the store in NYC to include women’s; and we put leadership in place in our Japan business, where we will open more women’s concessions,” says Bazan, recalling an incredibly busy 2017.
He sees a minimum boutique size of 1,000 square-feet; with major flagships up to 500 square meters. Where technology places a huge role by showing customers everything Browne has have worldwide available on the spot.
“We went from 16 stores to 29 stores in two years, and every element is profitable, every store!” he enthuses. His plan also called for a wider menswear audience through unconstructed garments; sportswear, outerwear and accessories, and not just tailoring. While in women’s wear it was building a business based on the same categories.
“People were thinking he needed to do dresses: but instead Thom based women’s on tailoring; knitwear and shirting,” he stresses.
Born in Argentina to a Spanish and an Italian mother, Bazan attended UCSD in San Diego California – “mostly having a lot of fun” before going to London to work in technology for Motorola at 24.
After reading a January 2001 Time magazine cover story on Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, “where an incredibly talented designer and a visionary CEO turned around a bankrupt company called Gucci,” he felt the pull of luxury.
Three months later he was doing financial consulting for the Gucci Group in Florence, at a moment of massive expansion, with a joint venture with Stella McCartney and the acquisition of Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga.
Bazan immediately began looking for ways to improve collaborations between brands; like joint media buying between the beauty and fashion group.
Within one year, he was named CFO of McQueen in London. At 27! Reporting to Sue Whitley as CEO.
“I learned and got to see everything. The house went from 20 million to 75 million sterling in five years. It was also about the working with a great young team that Domenico de Sole had put in place – people like Tomaso,” says Bazan, pointing to Tomaso Galli, Browne’s worldwide head of communications.
Within a year he was running stores, and then the wholesale team, then dealing with licenses, but by 2007, he decamped to run the European business of Marc Jacobs, leaving for the rival LVMH group, three years after De Sole and Ford had been forced out of Gucci by its French owners.
By December 2010 Bazan had joined Alexander Wang – as president, putting professional practices into a family run business; expanding from zero stores to 27 stores; creating an online business; and linking up with H&M.
These days, he lives in Tribeca, on Franklin Street – near Thom’s downtown store, and manages the business from its Seventh Avenue headquarters.
Bazan has also signed a strategic agreement with Farfetch – where they provide all the technology to operate the house’s website, and for their digital store of the future. Though he sees the keys to the future as communication; CRM, or client relationship management, and data.
“In the future, you cannot just rely on feelings, your nose or gut instinct. You need to know the consumer really well; he might just come to the store twice a year and buy a couple of shirts; but that he has a much bigger potential – that maybe you did not have quite the right shirt at that moment; so, data understanding performance and sharing that with design teams on a weekly basis is vital,” the executive argues.
Currently, Browne’s business is two thirds men and one-third women’s, though women’s is enjoying significant growth of 30% on a seasonal basis.
His typical male customers are creative types, architects, entertainers or entrepreneurs – like Jon Dempsey, Richard Perry or Mr Ong. In women’s it’s the lady who buys luxury, often from the Art world and often collectors.
“A key step for our brand was moving our show to Paris. It is better understood in Paris, and our business is 70% outside of North America, so we reach buyers and press who really don’t spend much time in New York. When Thom took menswear first to Paris it went up one notch up. Same with women’s,” argues Bazan.
Browne’s early French shows inside the Beaux Arts college also highlighted the spruce elegance of their women’s corporate team. Evident again in the same Paris showroom where we meet, crowded with stylish sales assistants.
There was also a cologne for Colette in 2017, where Thom created two exclusive fragances supported by a great Givaudan nose, which are still sold in his stores. Ever busy, Thom Browne invited over a dozen artists from Basel to dress in the brand in Design Miami last year, and to create art on outstanding desks – by people like Le Corbusier. Desks and 1950s furniture being key elements in every Thom Browne store. A consistent aesthetic that always includes using terrazzo and, “as much marble as he could afford.”
Browne launched his brand in 2001, going on to become the CFDA’s Men’s Designer of the Year in both 2006 and 2013.
In 2016, Sandbridge Capital bought a controlling share in Browne from Japan’s Stripe International, the designer’s early backer, while Browne “has a sizeable stake.” Sandbridge, whose managing partner Ken Suslow is also chairman of Thom Browne, has also invested in Derek Lam, Rossignol, Topshop and Karl Lagerfeld.
Bazan’s old boss, Domenico de Sole, is a stakeholder in Sandbridge and helped usher in the deal to buy Stripe’s stake.
The circle of Bazan’s career turning full circle.
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