Retail thinkers

How Paul&Shark use technology to improve retail relations

Photography: Nicola Caragnani
Interview: Oliver Dahle
26 january, 2023

How do you keep physical retail prevalent and successful in a post-pandemic society? Andrea Dini, CEO of Paul&Shark, reveals how they are tackling the industry’s transformation with new technologies and a strong focus on sustainability.

In this three-part interview series, we deep dive into the current state of fashion retail. We invite international specialists to reflect on the need for change, new technologies, and an increased focus on sustainability. 

The Italian fashion brand, Paul&Shark was founded in 1975 by Paolo Dini, son of mill owner Gian Ludovico Dini. During a trip to Maine, Paolo Dini went to a small sail workshop in which he found the inscription “Paul&Shark”. Ever since, the company’s ethos has been connected to sailing, the sea and to make their customers aligned with their values.

Today, almost 50 years later, Paul&Shark works on a global scale with a retail network that consists of over  2000 retailers. Due to its close relationship to the sea and nature, Paul&Shark is no stranger to adopting sustainable practices. 

We sat down with Andrea Dini, CEO and President and third generation from the Dini-family running the brand. Mr. Dini shares his thoughts on the changing challenges of running a global fashion brand in the 21st century, how to keep good relationships globally and what is actual sustainability.

What are the most important abilities to have in running a major fashion company today?

“Very simple. Listen to your colleagues inside the company and listen to the market. And travel — don’t stay behind your desk in the office. Take your luggage, move, and listen to the market.”

You are working with over 2 000 retailers globally. What is the most important aspect of the relationship between a brand and a retailer today?

“There are two kinds of retailers; the ones who simply sell brands and the ones who have a perfect sense of what kind of consumer they have. The last ones are the kind of retailers I like to talk to. Because a retailer sells different brands, but it’s also a brand itself, with a specific DNA. There are millions of brands around the world, and inside the retailer, maybe you’ll find only 20 of them. The way the retailer selects their 20 brands makes the store.”

What are your best tips to keep up this good relationship?  

“I have an excellent relationship with most of our retailers. Obviously, I don’t visit all of them, but there are some areas — specifically in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East — where I have my soft spots. I don’t miss anything, and they don’t hide any information. This is the best way to work together.”

I assume it must be very different to work with a retailer in Scandinavia and one in Asia. How do you keep in touch with so many global players?

“Trade shows like Pitti Uomo are an important opportunity for people to meet. My tip is to not rely too much on the internet. For example, I always recommend not buying our collection online. We have a fantastic showroom. We have an excellent network of agents. Go to them. It’s important for us to listen to what the agent or our sales team has to tell you about the collection— the characteristic, the technicals, the fabrics. Online, it’s hard to do that.”

You have developed your own digital platform, a B2B app. Why did you do this? 

“In our industry, menswear, retailers buy four times per year, pre-collection and main collection. But on a continuous basis, they need to reorder what they are selling best. They need to fill up their inventory to be able to keep selling. You cannot fly from Oslo to Milan or from Stockholm to Milan just to reorder a small number of pieces. Also, you are reordering pieces you know very well, so you don’t need to see them again. Our B2B app is specifically designed to help the constant fulfilment of our partners with our goods but it’s not designed to make the main seasonal orders. It services our partners during the season.”

What has the reaction been from the retailers regarding the app? 

“Excellent. Not everybody’s using it, some partners still prefer to call. I think my duty is to offer the best service I can offer to my partners, and then they will decide whether to use the new system or the old system.”

And how is it working for you as a company?

“The best result of this is that it’s fast. Before it was a phone call and then another phone call and then an email and then another email. Now our partners can go after store hours to reorder an item. They order in the B2B app, we ship it in the morning, and we save three or four days. Three days does not seem like a lot, but in our industry, it is.”

How do you get retailers to understand your brand story? 

“First of all, when they come to our showrooms to buy the collection, we have a proper explanation of the DNA of the brand. And through our sales network, we visit our customers on a regular basis and do training for the sales staff to explain all the characteristics of the product. Physical training, not remote training.”

Does this differ globally?

“Yes, because it’s very easy to do in Europe and North America. It’s much more difficult to do in countries like Russia, China, and Australia, because we are very far away. In this case, we have developed a good training system to do it all online.”

You have made significant investments in making Paul&Shark becoming more sustainable. For example, we’re in Milan in your showroom, sitting among jackets made of repurposed sails. How do you train the retailers on all your sustainable engagements? 

“To be honest, we do not super-stress our sustainable activities with our training teams. Because foremost, a customer will buy one of our garments if they like it, regardless of whether it’s sustainable or not. Sustainability is something that I don’t think should be a major point of selling. I love to have it, but I don’t like to shout it.”

Do retailers see sustainability engagement as more important?

“Only in specific markets. Scandinavia is definitely one of them. But in Asia very little, yet. But I don’t give up, because I think that is only a matter of time. Sooner or later they will be more sensible about this aspect.”

What are your focus points in terms of sustainability right now?

“We have spent the last seven years getting 99% of our collection made out of recycled items. Done! That will stay like that. But the next frontier is limiting the water footprint, which is, in my opinion, more dangerous than the carbon footprint.” 

Another huge problem within fashion is overproduction. How do you see overproduction? 

“This is not our case. We are not a fast retailing company. We are truly convinced that customers will buy less and want to buy better, and we are definitely in that direction.”

Are you dealing with it in any sense and keeping track of what you produce? Where does it go?

“Before selling, we have total control. We are a vertically integrated company. We totally control our production cycle so we know perfectly well where it goes. And there are no left over. No second-choice garments. The after-sale process, so far, we don’t control. Again, we are not superior in terms of numbers. Our average price is quite high. So that is not to the millions and millions of garments from Paul&Shark somewhere in the world. Not at all.”

How do you prolong the product lifecycle? 

”Allow me to be proud of my company. Our quality is excellent. Everybody tells us that our garments last too long. I always tell them to buy a new one, but they say to me, ”no, we don’t buy a new one”. If there is a quality issue, they can return it to us. We’ll repair it and then ship them back. We have a perfect team to prolong the life of our garments. Every year, thousands of pieces are sent to our company in Varese that we send back to the customers.”

But going forward, what are the biggest challenges for Paul&Shark? 

“To be aligned with the market and to perfectly understand how our existing customer is changing. I mean, ten years from now, our customers will dress in a completely different way. So my first and foremost challenge is not to perfectly understand how a single market will evolve, but how the general way that people dress is going to evolve. The second part is about sustainability and responsibility. What is the role of my company in the world? Are we polluting or are we not polluting? Are the people that are working for us living a good life? These are big challenges. Welfare is a very important frontier. We have just started to do a lot of new things in welfare.”

Do you see the role of the fashion company changing in the coming years? 

“I think it already has changed a lot. Before it was about having a nice product and putting it on the market. Today, consumers are more interested in understanding what is behind the product. They want to find something they like — the company, sustainability, or welfare. This will change more and more in the years to come.”

Erik Sedin and Megha Prakash are part of the Impulso editorial team.

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