Sam Lobban, though a big deal in American men’s fashion, doesn’t come with the pretension one with his status might usually carry—though he does come with the wardrobe one might expect. Instead, he feels like an old college friend, down to hit a dive bar and chat about anything but work. But when work is shaping and reinvigorating a storied retailer with a combination of powerful, exhilarating, and unique brands, who wouldn’t want to discuss it further?
Below, Sam and I cover myriad bases including his career trajectory and how he jumped from the retail floor of a small menswear boutique in St. Albans to SVP of designer and New Concepts at Nordstrom, how to know when to make a big purchase, what he’s listening to at the moment, and plenty more.
Let’s start with your career. How did you find yourself working in fashion, and what has your trajectory been up to working at Nordstrom as the SVP of Designer and New Concepts? What is New Concepts?
Growing up as a kid in the UK, I was really into music and the subcultures that surround the different genres and, in turn, the clothes. So from my perspective I’ve been into fashion forever. Initially, it was brands that were popular around my way when I was young—Stone Island, Fred Perry, Paul Smith—but it was Raf Simons who was the first major designer I encountered who spoke to the connection between music, clothes, and youth culture that resonated with me. It totally blew me away as a late teen. I credit the brand as being the one that caused me to really shift my focus from casual premium fashion to designer and luxury (not that I could afford much of it at the time).
I started working on the shop floor of a menswear boutique called David Copperfield in St. Albans, Hertfordshire (which is still there) when I was almost 16, selling Stone Island, C.P. Company, Paul Smith, Armani Jeans, and more. I took the job because it seemed like a fun thing to do and I could get a discount on clothes. I don’t remember getting paid very much. I think all my wages paid for the clothes I had in the “book,” which was where the owner tracked who purchased what.
When I was 18, I switched to working on the shop floor of Selfridges in London and in time moved into the buying office as an allocator. When I left Selfridges in 2011, I was the men’s designer and contemporary buyer. From there I joined Mr Porter, which had recently launched. At the beginning, we had less than 50 brands on the site; by time I left, it had grown to around 500. It was so fun pushing our offering in numerous different directions while always focusing on finding the very best product for our customers.
In late 2017, I met Pete Nordstrom and we spoke for a few months about potential opportunities and how I might be able to add value at Nordstrom. These conversations culminated in joining the business as VP of men’s designer and New Concepts in 2018. In my new role, I worked to push forward our men’s designer assortment and launched New Concepts, a series of short-term pop-up shops that provide a platform to tell engaging stories through product. Each concept has three key elements: an exclusive collaboration or assortment of product, a custom-built physical and digital experience, and a bespoke communications strategy. Each shop and the direction we take it in is unique and rooted in the brand’s DNA and the products we’re working with. Since joining, my role has evolved and I now support all of our designer and luxury business across men’s, women’s, kid’s apparel, shoes, and accessories.
Tell me about the newest iteration of New Concepts, 015: Make It Bazaar. What’s the process like for formulating each new iteration?
New Concepts runs on a quarterly model, so each is three months long and coincides with Nordstrom’s quarters, which start in February. We try and plan each Concept about six months out, but at times it’s closer to four months or even twelve-plus months, depending on our partners. We usually have three or four ideas bouncing around for any given slot and we try to anticipate what our customer is going to be looking for at that time of year.
The ideas themselves usually come from a group of us on the New Concepts team and are based on the relationships we’ve built throughout our careers or what’s happening either in the fashion industry or something that speaks to the current cultural climate. Our main goal is to try and offer customers something cool, interesting, relevant, and, if we can, a little unexpected.
Our latest iteration, Concept 015: Make It Bazaar, is here just in time for the holidays and features an eclectic selection of independent makers, quirky artisans, novelty products, and handcrafted goods meant to make your life just a little more bizarre. Some of my favorite products in the shop include our Eckhaus Latta exclusives, the [email protected] diffusers, and the incredible Ashish capsule.
Is there anything you’ve learned from buying that might make a customer a smarter shopper? What should one look for when investing in a new piece?
In the most simplistic terms, know why you’re buying something. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a long-term investment piece or the hottest trend of the season straight off the runway, if you love it and know why you need it in your wardrobe, it’s worth it.
For the most part I’m a uniform dresser and predominantly wear some version of the same thing every day, at least depending on what situation I’m in. I have my work wardrobe and then the more casual “park with the kids” wardrobe. I like to buy iconic, classic items that are well-made, and that I know I’ll be able to buy again. There are definitely some key pieces in my wardrobe that mean a lot to me that I couldn’t replace if something happened to them—at least not easily. Some of the most obvious are the Raf Simons items I wore for this shoot.
You told me a pretty funny story about losing a Raf piece in your youth when we met up to shoot this. Can you remember the first big fashion item you purchased? What’s the last big item you purchased most recently?
I think it was a Stone Island double-layer coat—black David TC outer fabric with a gray wool felt removable liner—although I also remember buying what felt like a very expensive pair of Paul Smith Red Ear jeans from David Copperfield, the shop I mentioned I got my start at. I actually think I’d seen it as a kid in the store and that prompted me to want to work there for the discount! My last big purchase was the Jil Sander double-face cashmere coat I’m wearing in one of the looks here—incredible fabric. The shape is interesting and super comfortable, but also timeless.
Do you have any style do’s and don’ts? Do you think there are rules to building a wardrobe, and if so, can you share those?
Personally, I do. I almost entirely wear black, with some dark gray and white. Broadly speaking, I keep to a minimal aesthetic rooted in tried-and-true menswear ideas. As I mentioned, I’m really into music and the connection between music and clothes, so more often than not my own style ideas stem from that—Paul Weller, Joy Division, David Bowie, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Small Faces, Manic Street Preachers. In terms of building a wardrobe, I’m a functional dresser for the most part. I have my stuff I wear for work, for the weekend, for wet weather, for hanging out with my kids, and within each of those, given that most of it is black, it all goes together to one degree or another.
What you’re not reshaping the structure of men’s buying in the fashion sphere, what do you do for fun? What music are you jamming out to at the moment?
I hang out with my wife, kids, and friends for the most part. We live in New York City, but spent eighteen months over the pandemic in Newport, Rhode Island. We have a big extended family up there and it was an incredible place to be in terms of nature and landscape. We’re fortunate to have been able to spend that time all together, albeit apart from our UK family, which was tough, and we’ve still not been able to go back as of yet. Being back in New York has been great and we’re really enjoying doing New York stuff: going to see the Kusama exhibit at the NY Botanical Garden, taking our kids to the Natural History Museum, eating out at great restaurants. Music wise, I scanned through my most recently played tracks on Spotify: Paul Simon, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Stone Roses, Squeeze, ESG, Sister Nancy, The Specials, Elvis Costello. Sounds about right!
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