Joe Wilkinson & Mario Maher, Co-Founders, HEAT, London

Joe Wilkinson & Mario Maher, Co-Founders, HEAT, London

FASHION

INTERVIEW

8 MINUTE READ

WORDS BY

Israel Musa

Please tell us what your job title is and what this actually means?

 

Mario: Co-founder and Chief Merchandising Officer. Overseeing the brand partnerships, products buys, box curation and drops. 

 

Joe: Co-founder and CEO. That means I’m involved in growth, technology and partnerships. I deal with fundraising as well as investor and brand communications. I’m setting the overall vision for the future of the business.

 

What does the day-to-day of this look like? 


Mario: Brand meetings, stock reviews and curation mixed together. 

Joe: My day-to-day depends on what I need to be focused on that week, what we’re working towards at that point in time. Mine is very unstructured. I could be travelling, meeting brands or investors, or I could be in the office planning with the tech and product teams.

"In life, energy is the most important thing. Something that gets you up in the morning."

Do you think university or college helped you to get where you are, and if so, how? Did you do internships etc too, did this help? 

 

Mario: I did a BSc and MSc and although they were great for character building, I wouldn’t say they have been crucial to my role. Some of our strongest staff members may not even have a university degree and started working younger through apprenticeships or internships. Real life experiences are always more valuable.

Joe: I didn’t go to either. My first week of college was the first ever Adidas Yeezy release. I went and camped out for those shoes instead of going to college and then I never went back. Do I think that helped me? Probably not. But I think having something you believe in and that you’re confident to put your energy towards is much more important than anything else. In life, energy is the most important thing. Something that gets you up in the morning.

 

What do you most enjoy about what you do? 

 

Mario: I enjoy being surrounded by genuinely talented and creative individuals that want to make a change in the industry and work towards a shared vision.

 

Joe: What I enjoy the most is trying to push the boundaries and do something different. It’s satisfying to get a brand over the line that we didn’t think we’d be able to do at the beginning of the conversation. That’s the most fulfilling thing about having a startup, having something that’s different to other models that exist out there. I love to see people come in and grow as people, grow into new roles and new responsibilities. One of them is my sister who also works for the business. I enjoy seeing her grow, take on more responsibilities. 

 

HEAT has disrupted the luxury retail space with its innovative approach to unsold inventory. You guys sit in a really cool space, which sort of puts together fashion, business and tech in an interesting and weird way, right?

 

Mario: We’ve had the conversation internally a lot recently. We’re digital first but we’re enjoyed in real life. And the boxes… It’s a physical, physical thing, but our entire presence is and was born online, it’s still online. Physically, that’s not only in the box itself, it’s the activations we do in person, like the Vetements [collaboration] event we did. We ask ourselves, what can we do to bring that community and culture to real life? Because, yes, we’re a tech [focused], digital platform but there’s a physical product behind it.

Could you tell us more about how the idea of curating mystery boxes came about and what inspired you to launch this unique business model? 

 

Joe: We were both in the fashion space before we left school. Mario was always doing fashion stuff on the side and coming out from school, my main job was personal shopping and styling. We became aware of the opportunities we could use when it comes to overstock or unsold inventory. People like different things at different times in different locations, so even just moving the supply chain round one tick, it almost ticks the box for the customer, ticks the box for us, ticks the box for the brand. We just saw it as a big opportunity because we knew how much good product was available. It’s all about curation. We just feel it should be approached in a different way to keep the archive and the out-of-season stuff relevant. It has to be supported with some newness and some exclusive products as well. 

 

It’s a win for everyone, right? Gamification and AI play a significant role in personalising the retail experience and box curation on HEAT. Could you elaborate on how these technologies are integrated into your platform, and what benefits they offer to both the customers and luxury brand partners? 

 

Mario: We started to realise with young customers, they’re fed up of just scrolling through pages, of being pushed new stuff. I think it got to a point where customers wanted a source of a tastemaker. We want to give customers a level of what they know but also introduce to them brands that they might not know. It’s a discovery route, and if they can say that’s how they found out about a brand, it becomes a storytelling piece. With AI, that’s a big part of what we do when it comes to curating the boxes, curating customer personas and profiles where we’re matching the right products to the right people. That’s more about how we can push this person’s style to the next level versus can we personal shop for them.

"We look at what the kids are talking about and try to bring them on early."

With over 60 luxury brand partners, including Off-White, Casablanca, and the most recent collaboration with Vetements, how do you select and curate the inventory for your mystery boxes to ensure the highest level of desirability and exclusivity? 

 

Mario: We’re constantly looking at onboarding new brands but always, always very particular about what we do. We’re very picky, we don’t want to be tacky. We’ve got three box types at the moment: The streetwear box, which is very logo heavy; our contemporary offering, which is more of your Jil Sander, Marni kind of vibes; and our super branded offering, which are your top tier luxury brands. What we realise is our curation, that’s our USP. We’re always protecting the brands that we onboard, and it’s that thing of bringing on board those tier one luxury brands but also finding and discovering these emerging brands. We look at what the kids are talking about on Instagram and what we believe they will be talking about in two months time and try to bring them on early. 

 

You recently did a collaboration with Vetements. Although they’re a cult brand, they’re not what you’d describe as the hottest brand right now. What made you guys want to pick a brand like Vetements? And what goes into that selection process? 

 

Joe: A big part of the decision is what myself and Mario like. It’s a hard slog to sell something that you don’t believe in, and we only do things with brands we believe in. We also want to do things where we can really take it and put our stamp on it. So for us, it’s about how can we take this to the audience? And if it’s not relevant currently, how do we make it relevant again? 

 

You mentioned social media and watching what brands the kids are talking about on platforms like Instagram. How do you leverage social media to create buzz and drive sales? Are there any specific strategies or collaborations that have proven particularly effective?

 

Joe: Huge driver for us. We invest quite heavily in creating our own content and really putting the HEAT stamp on the shoots, which is proving to be quite powerful. We work closely with our creator network and genuine customers to create unboxing content, which is how we got steep traction quickly. With us being a new model, it naturally raises a lot of questions between potential customers, therefore word of mouth is by far the most powerful tool for us. Ensuring the products, curation, unboxing experience and service is on point is single handedly the largest growth driver.

 

What other marketing and branding strategies have been key in establishing HEAT as a trusted and desirable platform for a new type of luxury shopping?

 

Mario: We have established partnerships with over 100 luxury brands and have investment backing from the likes of LVMH, the Hermes Family and more… that gives us that industry stamp of approval. Our goal is to create our own international brand, HEAT, a platform that facilitates seasonless curated shopping and defines the centre of fashion through content, commerce and community for young consumers.   

 

I realise that it’s rare that we’re talking about the investment side of fashion. You have garnered attention from notable strategic investors including, like you have mentioned, industry heavyweights including LVMH and the Hermes family. How has their involvement contributed to the growth and success of HEAT? And how much has that investment helped you scale while validating what you were already doing?

 

Joe: It helped massively. To get the blessing of the biggest fashion group in the world is, of course, a huge stamp of approval on what we’re doing. We’re building and it’s in the interest of these young consumers that carry a lot of value when it comes to spending power at these big luxury houses. The main thing is just having people with experience around helps avoid some pitfalls or disasters. Understanding a bit more what’s under the surface, what are the real issues that need solving? And that insight, that connection to get our business moving and working with the brands we’ve always wanted to work with.

 

What was the one thing that came with the investment that you didn’t know you needed? 

 

Mario: It was having them around the table. By having a brand group sitting around your table, it’s that kind of industry knowledge and expertise really. They have arguably the most historic expertise in that space. 

 

The luxury retail industry has traditionally relied on offline channels and physical stores. How do you see HEAT’s role in shaping the future of luxury e-commerce, particularly for the Gen Z demographic? 

 

Joe: At the moment, there’s so many options. and sometimes people need to be like, okay, what’s cool and what’s not cool? I just want what’s cool. In a sense, you could say that’s what the box does. It curates cool products for people to wear and be like, okay, this is validated. We don’t personal shop for people but when we have the style profile, it allows us to eliminate certain things. With Gen Z, they’re all in or they’re all out, and we just need to know what they’re all out of. That’s what they come to us for that validation, that curation. 

 

You have gained considerable traction since its launch in 2019, appealing to a young and trend-conscious consumer base. And while you have enjoyed success, what key challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them? 

 

Joe: When it comes to operations and logistics, that’s not mine or Mario’s background. We’ve got it nailed now but it took a long time and was a massive pain point. It’s just starting a business. You have an idea, you want to bring it to life. And it’s understanding all the shit that comes with that. But that’s all a part of learning, we look at things now as it’s more of a challenge we want to overcome than a problem. It’s something new to take on to whatever we do in the future. It’s all just learning things. That’s just life and it’s understanding that, even though it’s your baby, sometimes it’s okay to let some things go and start to delegate. That’s the most frustrating and difficult part for me, to be honest, but we’re getting there.

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