Gant CEO Patrik Nilsson isn’t deterred by the fact that the brand is now rebuilding its reputation in the U.S., for what he considers to be the third time.
“We call it Gant 3.0,” said Nilsson, the former president of Adidas North America, who joined the company in 2014. “Here, we need to get our groove again, but I like that we don’t have to get rid of our reputation or figure out what to do with 300 stores.”
With a refreshed take on its classic men’s button-down shirt, Gant is gearing up to become a major player in the business-casual category of American menswear. But the U.S. is not foreign territory.
Gant has gone through several iterations. Founded in Connecticut in 1949, the company was known for pioneering the modern Oxford shirt, basically laying the groundwork for the style of dress that came to be best known on Ivy League campuses. It also invented several men’s dress shirt features: the button tab, the box pleat and the “locker loop” on the back of the neck for hanging up in locker rooms. After the company traded through the hands of bankrupt parent companies, it was finally sold to Swedish retailer Pyramid Sportswear in 1997 for $71 million.
It is now a full-fledged lifestyle brand in Europe, with 600 store locations, a 200-person staff in its Stockholm headquarters, and a product range that includes men’s, women’s, children’s and home goods. Most recently, in the U.S., Gant was known for its five-year partnership with designer Michael Bastian, which included in several seasons’ worth of collections for the young businessman.
Gant’s story is a history lesson, which could work to its advantage: Brands with a history have a better chance of resonating with choosy customers.
“Other brands are grabbing at straws and making things up to have some sort of identity,” said Tony King, founder of the luxury agency King & Partners. “Gant has something real, a story they can continue. That puts them in a better position.”
Gant’s newest collection, a collaboration with cycling company BikeID called “Get Into Gear,” introduces the brand’s new line of technical fabric to the American market, specifically targeting young professionals who commute to work and need a shirt and blazer that are breathable, sweat-wicking, easy to wash and wrinkle resistant. Nilsson calls the new Gant’s speciality “tech prep,” and said that it will look and feel differently for every product that Gant rolls out (jackets would be waterproof, for instance) — but for now, the company is focusing on shirts. Next year, it will also launch a line of sustainable items.
Right now, Nilsson said the goal is to reintroduce product to American customers. At the same time, the brand is rethinking its distribution strategy, looking to minimize its wholesale partnerships and focus on a direct-to-consumer model.
“The American retail industry is very difficult,” said Nilsson. “In the marketplace, wholesale is the quickest way to scale — at places like Nordstrom and Macy’s — but it’s dangerous. They’re not focused on their consumer. They’re stale.”
Gant is aware the American market has changed. There’s also more competition than in Gant’s glory days.
“There’s more noise in the market now than ever before; look at Ministry of Supply, Bonobos,” said King. “That competition makes it more important for the customer to realize that, hey, these guys were innovating on the work shirt first.”
A collection from Gant x Michael Bastian
To compete, over the past two-and-a-half years at Gant, Nilsson has been focused on turning the 68-year-old company into a modern brand. The marketing, product development and merchandising teams work together on each phase of a product launch. When he joined the company, Nilsson cut Gant’s global product assortment of 6,000 items by 60 percent, after realizing that 20 percent of the products accounted for 85 percent of sales.
“Traditionally, retail is very siloed and filled with people just [looking out for themselves],” said Nilsson. “You need to get people to open up and realize that we win together and lose together. It takes time and we have a lot of work to do, but we’re growing in the right direction.”
Gant doesn’t have immediate plans for new storefronts in the U.S. yet, but will launch a new U.S. marketing campaign in the fall and continue seeking out collaborations that offer something new to customers. At its New York office, Gant offers by-appointment showings of product that give customers face time with the brand. As Nilsson expects retail to continue to change over the next five years, Gant is reevaluating its wholesale partnerships, cutting ones that don’t make sense, and improving its e-commerce experience.
The 2020 goal is to become the go-to brand for menswear shirts in the market. Then, it will consider expanding its product assortment to include its full global line.
“Because we’re not well-known, we need to focus on one product category that we do best, which is men’s shirts. Then, the customer will give us permission to grow,” said Nilsson. “We wouldn’t come here trying to sell cups and towels. It wouldn’t make any sense.”