Mmmm… mouth-watering! MlkMen Founder & Creative Director David Watson reveals all about the tasty new menswear brand and why it’s already shaking up the market.
Q: How did the idea for MlkMen come about?
A: “The idea started to form in 2018 - I seemed to be on a never-ending search for underwear and socks that were high-quality, comfortable and bold to reflect my taste and personality. My style isn’t cartoons or wild patterns - I was looking for something a bit different, to reflect my mood, clash with or complement a look and/or draw attention. The price point of premium underwear and socks was something I grappled with regularly - I just couldn’t find a product / brand that I thought was for me or that I was willing to pay such a high price for.”
Q: Is the luxury socks and undies market ready for a shake-up?
A: “I did my research and felt I really had found a gap in the market for fairly priced, high-quality and stylish socks and underwear for those of us who want to have a bit of fun with fashion - importantly, from a brand that is more representative of the diversity amongst us.
“I spent months researching the market, reaching out to potential customers, studying and talking with manufacturers, distribution and fulfilment services. I taught myself the ins and outs of sock and underwear patterning, manufacturing processes and a whole heap more. The more I got into this new world the more I was convinced I was on to something.
“I wanted to challenge the way we present and promote this sort of product ... and to break up the monotony of the everyday promotional campaign you see without being ‘wacky’ or way overtly sexual.
“Primarily, MlkMen is fun and provocative. It’s a playful, cheeky brand with imagery to match. It should make you smile and bring a little brightness to your day.
It’s a playful, cheeky brand with imagery to match…
"While I understood it wasn’t a life-changing issue that needed solving, it screamed out at me as a possible new business opportunity. I decided early on that whatever I was to create it must be a brand that wouldn’t conform to or reinforce stereotypes, and that it would always represent all shapes, sizes and skin tones.”
Q: Why is it so important for MlkMen to challenge tired old stereotypes?
A: “As a gay man I am often bombarded by brands that are overly sexualised, which use models who conform to a stereotype - and it’s off-putting.
“Like most, I’m not ripped like a Greek god, I don’t walk around with the perfect Instagram lighting, yet products marketed at us - particularly underwear - are highly sexualised. They overdo the stereotypical gay male physique and they don’t make me want to buy into the brand, let alone buy the product.
“This isn't a problem exclusive to the gay community, of course. If you pander to a stereotype, you perpetuate the issue.
“Many brands very quickly slip into and conform to the stereotypes. Whilst this approach works to engage some audiences, it leaves behind a whole group of people; those of us who want something different, from a brand that reflects us and our diversity.
If you pander to a stereotype, you perpetuate the issue.
"Having a background in business, particularly in brand, marketing, digital, design and communications, I thought I potentially had all the right ingredients to create something unique. Something that could enter the market, disrupt it a little and set a new standard.”
Q: How are you doing things differently and dropping the cliches?
“Developing a strong visual identity that represents the diversity among us was really essential. I’ve gone for a highly conceptual approach that challenges the idea of what product imagery should look like: a subtle and stylish logo; clean typography; an icon in the shape of a droplet of milk; with bold and unusual photography and videography.
“I wanted to make sure the visual campaign had all the drama, theatre and flair I believe is missing from other brands.
“Our colourful campaign imagery by photographer Nik Pate and videographers Northern Visuals stands out for all the right reasons. You can read our article on Creating The Look to find out how we achieved this for the launch of our socks range.”
Q: Let’s talk about socks - why launch with this product line?
A: “I sampled designs for socks and underwear in mid 2019 and began to work towards establishing my debut lines. I decided pretty quickly to lead with the production and launch of socks as it gave me an edge in a less crowded market than underwear. It also meant I could establish the MlkMen brand with less financial risk. My theory was also that if/when the socks started to do well I could reinvest to bring the underwear collection to market.
“This really enabled me to pace myself and ensure the collection was developed to the highest possible standard. Crucially, it gave me more time to fully flesh out the brand, build a stable ecommerce website and plan effective marketing campaigns for the months ahead.
"I've learnt so much and I ended up developing a collection I'm really proud of and that customers love."
Q: Who gets the socks appeal of MlkMen’s luxury products?
“MlkMen is for everyone who wants to show their individuality. Although my original aim was to respond creatively for, and to target, gay men, our socks are appealing to a much broader audience - lesbian, gay, bi, trans, straight, men, women - people of all shapes, sizes and skin tones. The MlkMen community is for everyone and that’s the way I want it to continue. Our customer base is diverse and global - we’re shipping all over the UK, to Europe and even to the United States and Australia. It’s quite surreal to be honest. This seed of an idea is now in full swing and it is really a proud moment for me personally.”
Q: Why do your products have ‘flavours’ instead of colours?
A: “The brand name and its use of flavours came about during the research phase. MlkMen socks include Vanilla and Liquorice [with sprinkles] as limited-edition flavours, and Candy Floss, Lemon Sorbet, Cherry, Passion Fruit, Bubblegum, Mint, Blueberry, Pistachio, Fudge and Banana. It’s about the way the flavours make you feel and what each one could suggest. There’s a whole spectrum there so you can wear a different pair every single day and feel different. It’s all about inspiring confidence and feeling good about yourself - that’s sexy.”
Q: Do the socks smell like their ‘flavours’?
A: “It's a question I get asked quite a lot! The answer is no, unfortunately. I experimented with introducing a scent to the socks and even the packaging, but it didn't quite work no matter which way I tried.
“However, I like to think big. I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about how I could introduce smell and flavour should I get the opportunity to have a pop-up or permanent shop. I’d offer mini flavoursome milkshakes, sweets (or candy if you're from across the pond) and use technology to introduce scent into a retail shopping experience."
Q: And finally… what’s next for MlkMen?
A: “We've just launched our new monthly and quarterly sock subscription service, and we'll hopefully be launching our underwear collection later in the year featuring a brief, a boxer brief and a jock in our 12 signature flavours. Of course, the launch of our underwear collection all depends how we perform as a new venture, but it's something I’m really excited about.
“I also have a very small team now (hey, TasteLab Technicians), which is fantastic. I'm really grateful for them being on this venture with me and helping to build MlkMen into what I believe it can be.”
Northern Visuals shooting the campaign trailer with model Alex Pinder.
Author: Jo Charlton, The Comms Collective.
David Watson is Founder & Creative Director of MlkMen. He is also currently Executive Director of Audiences & Media at National Museums Liverpool, and trustee of several arts and cultural organisations. He has previously been Director of Brand & Advocacy for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Head of Digital at Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Digital Manager for organisations including English National Ballet and London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Ceremonies.