New York Men’s Day kicked off New York Fashion Week on Friday with its usual amazing combination of high-style preview and fashion family reunion. This year the event had two fashion sponsors, heritage footwear brand Sperry, as well as outerwear brand Nobis. We had a few minutes to catch up with Nobis vice-president and co-founder Robin Yates and senior design director Michael Kerr (a North Face and Canada Goose alumnus) just as they were setting up for the big event.
MR: What’s going on at Nobis? Why sponsor New York Men’s Day?
Robin Yates: “It’s really a celebration of a new direction for the brand. This is the first time that Michael has had a 360-degree involvement in the new collection, in both the current fall collection that is being delivered and in Spring 2023. I wasn’t happy with that typical “black/blue” outerwear story but did want to stay true to the technical performance elements that the brand is built on. We wanted to evolve the brand. Under Michael’s guidance, we’ve generated more appeal with prints, colors, and fabrics, without forsaking performance. As an example, we’ve got a really cool mid-layered modular system that Michael has engineered. All the pieces are integrated so they zip out or snap in, offering a lot of flexibility for our dynamic weather patterns. We want to be fashion forward, with a lifestyle perspective, but to also stick to the core values that we have in exceeding consumer expectations in the premium outerwear space.
Michael Kerr: From a design point of view, we engineered a product and incorporated the user better. It’s almost like social engineering: making it so the consumer will really identify with the product. We’re not making “stuff,” we’re creating a lifestyle. The way the consumer moves through the city, the way he moves through life: We’re trying to build that into the product now so that we have systems that work with the way you live your life. We consider the seasons, seasonal changes, and how all the materials work together. When I talk to Robin and when we talk to the design team at Nobis, we’re having a different conversation than we would have a few years ago. We’re not repositioning the company — Nobis has always been a very authentic brand, with a heritage of an alpine, outdoor product with a high level of functionality (and he holds me to that on every piece) — but now it’s gotten to another level. How can we engineer these pieces to mean more to the consumer? The best product is the one you love, and that’s what we’re trying to design.
RY: What we were seeing is that the product had to have a story for people to really understand the value proposition. The internal aspects and technical elements came to be a larger part of the storytelling. Now we have brighter colors, and increased adaptability and the collection feels more upbeat and positive, but the consumer is still getting value and performance.
There was a time when fashion was “painful,” and high style devotees were okay with that. Performance junkies, on the other hand, didn’t care what something looked like, so long as it worked. I decided 20 years ago that the fulcrum had shifted, and now performance geeks want things to look good, and the fashion customer wants comfort and an experiential element, while they both expect performance. Also, our product costs two or three times more to make than any of our competitors’ products, yet we haven’t increased our prices significantly compared to our costs. We’re one of the least expensive brands in our category, so the ROI for today’s consumer, from both a fashion and a functional standpoint, as well as for adaptability, is uncharted.
MR: It sounds like you’re designing a collection that may get you out of the outerwear markdown cycle.
RY: We’ve always held to pricing — maybe a legacy sale here and there, or a markdown to move out a discontinued color or pieces — but getting caught up in markdowns and margin discounts to get net margins for a major retailer is really unfair to the consumer who deserves to pay fair value for the product. We’re not going to change the world and the retail space is going to keep doing what it’s been doing for 100 years, but for us, we make our product as inexpensive as possible, again, bringing the value proposition of incredibly desirable style, colors, and prints, as well as superior fit and performance.
MK: We are also working on the concept of evolving a wardrobe. We can no longer say “Oh, last season the color was pink, and this season the color will be turquoise,” so the retailer has to clear everything out. We’re designing all the pieces to work together so that retailers no longer think that they have to get rid of spring merchandise to sell fall. We create pieces that are transitional, thinking about the consumer and how he is going to use it going from season to season. I think that’s something we’ve really added to the DNA of this brand: the consumer can feel like each product has value and they never have to walk away from these investment pieces.