Buyer’s Guide: A Conversation with SSENSE Menswear Buyer Alix Rutsey
At Grailed and Heroine, it should come as no surprise that we love to shop. But this had us wondering: who fills the stores with our favorite products, and how do they curate what’s available to cop? In this joint series, Grailed and Heroine are seeking out the buyers at their favorite shops, storefronts and retail spaces to get a feel for the work they do behind the scenes season after season. This is the Buyer’s Guide.
From Paris to New York City, designers are debuting their Spring/Summer 2019 collections at fashion week runways around the world. For SSENSE’s menswear buyer, Alix Rutsey, fashion week is the busiest time of year: she’s attending various shows, market appointments and keeping a running list of must-have collections ranging from Raf Simons and Balenciaga to Alyx Studios to supplement SSENSE’s menswear roster. We spoke to Alix about how her team buys, her views on the resale market and what she considers a Grail.
Photography by Georgia Bayliss.
How did you get into fashion?
Growing up I always had an interest in fashion but never imagined that it would be a viable career option. Going to university my plan was to either go to Law School or get my MBA and follow a much more traditional career path. In the summer following my third year of university, I had the opportunity to intern with a designer in New York. I immediately fell in love with the industry and decided that this is what I wanted to do. The summer after I graduated I interned, and was ultimately hired, in the buying office at a Canadian luxury retailer.
As a buyer, what does your day to day look like especially during buying season? How does this influence the clothing you choose to wear?
A typical day is fairly long during our buying season. I go to as many runway shows as I can but most of my day is spent in showroom appointments. We work with designers and brands from all over the world, so fashion weeks are also one of the few opportunities I get to connect with everyone, face to face. After the showroom I’m usually at a business dinner or event. When I get back to my hotel I’m working on orders and catching up on emails. The timing of the fashion calendar is such that while I am in market buying for the upcoming season, a significant portion of the current season’s goods are being delivered. For example, right now I’m buying for SS19 while FW18 is being delivered. Whether in or out of the office, I work closely with our logistics, planning, marketing, creative, and studio teams to manage and support the product that is going live. We also recently opened our new SSENSE space in Montreal so I am working with our retail team to activate installations and events.
With such busy and long days, being comfortable is extremely important. I can’t stand being in a showroom and feeling like my clothing is restricting or distracting. A t-shirt and a pair of trousers, jeans, or structured skirt is pretty much my uniform. You’ll rarely see me in heels because I’m on my feet all day running around. I’m almost always in sneakers or a pair of loafers.
You’ve traveled back and forth from Paris to NYC for Fashion Week, what have been some of the most memorable experiences or relationships you’ve made from these trips?
I think the fashion community has gotten a bit of bad reputation for being catty or mean. Maybe it was at one point, but I don’t believe that that is the state of the industry anymore. Going to fashion weeks is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job and a huge part of that is because of the people. I’ve had so many incredible experiences and opportunities but one that sticks out in my mind was attending the Vetements Spring-Summer 2017 show at Galeries Lafayette. I remember visiting Galeries Lafayette with my parents when I was a little girl. Being at such an exciting show, in that same space was surreal. I definitely texted my mom after that one.
SSENSE carries a lot of incredible brands across the fashion spectrum. In your opinion, who is the SSENSE shopper? Who is the SSENSE menswear, shopper?
Our customer is forward thinking and directional. They are very knowledgeable and look to us to continuously show them something new. I love buying for our customer because I am able to take risks. It is exhilarating when we introduce a new designer or take a new direction with our assortment and see our customer’s support immediately. I think it is important to mention that our customer base is similar to our employee profile. The majority of our employees are millennials so we are speaking to our own demographic.
When you buy, do you ever think about the ‘hype’ surrounding some items? Do you consider or imagine how certain items might perform in terms of ‘resale potential’?
Personally, I find the sneaker resale industry fascinating. It’s become its own stock market populated by a lot of young entrepreneurs. That being said, our goal is always to get our product in the hands of customers who really want it. As a buyer, I will look at the resale value in the weeks or months following a drop to see if the demand has remained constant or dropped off quickly.
We can assume that the higher the ‘hype’ is around an item, the more likely it is to sell-out from direct, more traditional retailers—do you think that hype is good or a bad basis to buy something for SSENSE's shelves, especially if it may indicate how well it will sell-through?
“Hype” is a word that is used a lot these days and in many ways I think it has gotten an unnecessarily negative connotation. A lot of “hype” products are hype because they are good. Virgil’s “The Ten” were amongst the most hyped sneakers of the past year but they were also brilliant. Notwithstanding this, I think SSENSE has built a solid sense of trust with our customer. We work with designers and brands with which we see the potential for longevity, not just a one off. In terms of sell-through, I think the biggest impact it has had is making it harder and harder for buyers to predict future demand. We used to be able to look to what sold last season, and use this information to anticipate what would sell in the future. With “hype” products the lifecycle is much shorter, making it harder for us to anticipate how long something will live.
You’ve done interviews in the past that hit on the fact that you’re a woman in the menswear space. Even though menswear is worn by women regularly in 2018 (and you’ve sported high-quality menswear yourself, as seen on IG) Do you feel like being ‘outside’ the ‘target market’ allows you to be more objective about the menswear you purchase?
I’ve always thought that being a good buyer involves a mix of being emotional and objective. Understanding that you are buying for the business and not for yourself is key. However, I don’t think this has anything to do with my gender. Yes, I am a woman and not the target market, but that doesn’t mean I get any less excited about an incredible menswear collection. Honestly, the majority of the pieces I buy for myself are men’s. It’s a balance between having that emotional reaction and taking risks based on a gut feeling, while also operating within the framework of the overarching needs of the business.
As a buyer how do you contextualize fashion shows? How do you contextualize or discover trends? Is it on the runway, on the street, with an agency/research firm—or a bit of all three?
Our buying team is constantly searching for new designers or ideas. We have a lot of discussions amongst ourselves about what we are seeing and what we are most excited about. When the entire team is buzzing on a show or collection we know it is strong. Beyond the runways, I do my best to keep my eyes open across multiple fields. Fashion doesn’t exist in a silo and is influenced by art, music, architecture… Something or someone who seems a million miles away from the fashion world could in an instant be what sets the tone for the season to come.
In your opinion what is the difference between a fashion show and a showroom? While we imagine that both play a part in getting you excited about a collection, what sells you on a brand’s collection more: an incredible, artistic and/or…‘showy’ fashion show, or quality time up close with the clothing and the reps in the showroom?
Shows can be magical and allow you to step into the world the designer worked to create, but for me the real fun is in the showroom. This is where I get to interact with the garments, touch them and understand their construction. It is also where my creativity comes into play as I curate our assortment.
What do you think makes for a good showroom experience? Similarly, what do you think goes into an interesting retail store?
A good showroom experience represents the mood of the collection but is also functional and organized. As buyers we have multiple appointments in one day and need to be able to work efficiently. Good food always helps too!
SSENSE has a unique history in that we’ve primarily established ourselves online and are further developing our brick-and-mortar presence with the launch of SSENSE MONTRÉAL. Interestingly, I think many of the principles that contribute to a strong retail space today grew out of the online landscape; two of the most important being access to new information and customization. We exist in a world where we are constantly inundated with new information. Non-stop updates and refreshes are expected. While this is driven by the digital world, the physical world is increasingly similar. A retail space needs to be dynamic and ever-changing. Walking into a space week after week and seeing the same product or displays is quite simply, boring. Moreover, we are now able to streamline and filter information to match our likes and interests. Through various algorithms our digital landscape is tailored to show us the information we want to see. A retail experience should be no different.
What are your current favorite pieces in your closet? Who are some of your favorite designers?
Getting to go to Japan is one of the major perks of my job. I went for the first time last year and was completely amazed by the vintage stores. On my last trip, I found an amazing Dior blazer and Nike windbreaker that I am in love with. Day to day, lately I’ve been wearing a lot of Prada. I have some great staple pieces that I live in, mixed in with a few fun pieces like the short sleeve tiger shirt. For travel my all-time favorite is Issey Miyake. It is incredibly comfortable and you can walk off a plane looking great. I have tremendous respect for Rei Kawakubo, Phoebe Philo, and Raf Simons. I’m also a huge personal supporter of a number of our emerging designers like Kiko Kostadinov, Matthew Williams, and Martine Rose.
How would you describe the fashion scene within Montreal? Besides SSENSE's new retail space, what are some of your go-to’s in the city?
Montreal is a very creative city. People have fun and really develop their own sense of personal style. It’s also extremely supportive of local talent so you’ll see a lot of people wearing Montreal based brands and designers. I think when buying is your job, shopping becomes a little less fun. When I do shop in Montreal it is mostly at vintage spots in the Mile End. We also have a lot of amazing mid-century modern furniture stores in Saint-Henri.
What's your ultimate grail?
I honestly don’t think I could pick just one, but if you were to check my latest history I think the most searched and shipped would be Prada Sport.