Smart Kiwi blokes buck tough retail environment to develop multi-million dollar specialist men's shirt brand.

Friday 5 April 2013, 3:08PM
By Lily&Louis


Richard Miles was once a Parks and Recreation Management student in a Swanndri. Now, he’s co-founder and Managing Director of 3 Wise Men, the premium shirt makers and Kiwi retailing success story. In less than a decade, the company has grown from a single Newmarket store to eight stores across Australasia with a combined multi million dollar turnover.

Back in 2004, Miles and two longtime friends, Hugh Cotterill and Simon Peacocke, were enjoying more than a few red wines together. The conversation turned to the yawning gap in the New Zealand market for impeccably made, well-priced business shirts. “I’d run the menswear division for PacBrand, then became General Manager Sales for Bendon,” says Miles. “Throughout that time, we were all buying our shirts overseas. Which we thought was nuts.”

So they put together a business plan. A major hurdle was finding the right manufacturer. “Our initial quantities were laughably tiny,” Miles grins. Fortuitously, a major international manufacturer, originally formed to supply Hugo Boss Europe, was impressed with their vision. “Like us, their company was created by three university mates. Their head of merchandise and one of the owners flew to New Zealand, and we took them down to the waterfront for a bowl of mussels.”

Deal done, the first 3 Wise Men store opened in Newmarket in 2005. They simultaneously launched the 3 Wise Men website, a key part of their business strategy.

Creating a brand persona was equally vital. “A lot of small start ups don’t budget for much advertising, but we understood it was crucial to help us stand out from the competitors and rapidly build a brand.” The founders’ irreverent sense of Kiwi humour has been faithfully captured in a long running, award-winning series of campaigns by two more of their old mates, creatives Josh and Jamie. “The ads have always used long copy – they’re like a bunch of blokes yakking.”

Within the first nine months of trading, the founders knew they’d hit the sweet spot.

“The gap in the market that we thought existed, did exist,” says Miles. Rapid expansion followed, with stores opening in major metropolitan centres across New Zealand, including Wellington Airport, and in Sydney. The growth is entirely self-funded, and profitable enough for the trio to indulge their love of cricket as sponsors of the Northern Knights.

Despite the globally tough retail conditions, each 3 Wise Men store is experiencing like for like growth of around 17% per year.

Miles believes part of 3 Wise Men’s success is due to the changing shopping habits of New Zealand men. “When we began, our customers were pretty evenly split between men buying for themselves and women buying for their partners. Now, around 70% of our customers are guys. They’re becoming more adventurous and experimenting with their wardrobes.”

Miles credits what he calls “the men’s health movement”, with males being much more self-aware and interested in their appearance than 15 years ago. “We watch what we eat, slap some moisturiser on our faces, join the gym, and want to look well dressed.”

This has translated into a noticeable trend: “Our most popular shirt used to be a boxy shape. Now, nearly 70% of our sales are shirts with a slimmer fit.”

With the global market for menswear expected to exceed US$402 billion in 2014,
3 Wise Men are obviously onto a winner. Future plans include opening another couple of shops in New Zealand and turning their website into a world class online retail store. They are also exploring new product categories to further expand the 3 Wise Men offering.

Then there’s the international potential. Miles reveals that he’s recently been approached by a UK retailer interested in selling 3 Wise Men shirts in London – the home of tailored men’s shirts.