Sustainable, luxury streetwear now comes in a neatly packaged parcel, delivered to your door – the catch is, you have no idea what’s in it. We speak to the team behind cult fashion start-up HEAT about the mystery box that keeps on giving
180 The Strand, the brutalist building bordering the bank of the Thames, is a hotbed of London’s creative milieu. Behind a sea of metallic shutters, notable faces comprise its community, with an exasperating waiting list of talent eager to get their names on the coveted studio doors.
You’re as likely to catch Tremaine Emory in these corridors as you are a group of suits from the Kering HQ on tour. Rumour has it that, after posing by tables constructed from rescued and repurposed old Celine store tiling, Sinitta was caught fencing at the Alex Eagle health club in a pair of six-inch heels, no less. The likes of Samuel Ross, TikTok, Julian Knxx, New School Represents and Alaska Alaska have all found bases here, dictating styles in their respective fields from within the seemingly ever-expanding walls. For its residents, strangers become familiar faces as walk-bys in the corridors turn to smiles and head-nods, until an inevitable conversation ensues. This was how we first encountered Joe Wilkinson, CEO and founder of HEAT, alerting us to our new neighbours warming things up in a discreet corner office.
This should come as no surprise considering their recent £3.6m investment from Antler and LVMH Luxury Ventures. HEAT, the Sheffield start-up with its sights set on international expansion, seeks to disrupt the luxury fashion market. Boxes of curated luxury fashion, typically old-season goodies destined for discount retailers, are bought for a fixed price, with no indication of what is inside. Though sneak peeks aren’t permitted, we certainly can catch a glimpse of the future of our shopping experience – curated, conscious and a complete mystery. At the time of print, they’re already on track to sell- ing upwards of 30,000 boxes since operations started in 2019.
Seated amid an intimate cluster of desks with co-founder and chief merchandising officer Mario Maher, head of growth Kevin Adom, head of special projects Karmen Tsang and product manager Tom Wilcock, Wilkinson, the man behind it all, rises to greet me. He swings past a pair of Olaolu Slawn’s childlike characters graffitied on a canvas and welcomes me with a warmness only those from the north can muster, before the team brings us up to speed on swap shops, new launches and the HEAT box of the future.
What is your ten-second elevator pitch?
Joe Wilkinson: HEAT is a gen-Z fashion platform revolutionising the off-price space by injecting a seasonless mindset. This is over ten seconds already, but... we want customers not to think that old stock is not good stock; we take pride in our old stock because we believe that the best pieces come from older collections.
Karmen Tsang: It’s a luxury mystery box brand. Currently, it’s [aimed at] that gen-Z consumer, but we’re growing with the customer. I guess we want to be part of the community in all the top cities in the world and be that go-to brand with that luxury offering to help people style themselves.
How would you explain it to a toddler?
Mario Maher: I’d say it’s like Christmas come early!
What excites you most about HEAT?
Joe Wilkinson: For me, the exciting part is the discovery phase of receiving the box. When we get someone to put trust in us and give us money to curate a mystery box for them, we want to make sure that everyone is pleasantly surprised when they open it.
Kevin Adom: We introduce people to brands they don’t know about or brands they’re familiar with but haven’t gotten their hands on before. I think the [mystery] unboxing experience is an awesome feeling. You almost want to capture that moment; that’s one thing we are thinking about. It could even be a campaign, especially in this culture.
How are these boxes curated? Who is behind the selections?
Mario Maher: We still do all the packing. We were [packing] yesterday for next week’s drop and [seeing] how we were going to curate certain brands. It’s very much hand-selected. We’ve got the invoice and we can see, for example, this guy’s from Germany in this size. We look at what we’ve got available, and we put together products that we can merchandise together in terms of brand alignment. We don’t want to put random pieces in a box. If we can, it’s always good to try and get a full fit. It’s sometimes hard in terms of retail prices, but we try and put products in the box that feel like you can throw them on straight away. It’s actually very exciting because I’m like, “I want that box, I want that box!”
Joe Wilkinson: It’s grown to be a favourite time of the month for those who are involved. The curation of the packaging is a key aspect of what we do, and we still want to be there to make sure everyone gets a good curation of products. It’s difficult to let go of that part of the job.
What does HEAT offer today?
Mario Maher: HEAT is very streetwear today, but from September onwards, we have new and exciting things coming, including co-branded boxes. Brands will have their own box and take part in the activation, the packaging and design process. There will be some exclusive items in there, some newness in there as well. We also have the super brands offering, where a lot of the top-tier brands are going to be at a much higher price point, with a lot of leather goods and outerwear pieces.
Joe Wilkinson: Our streetwear offering is focused on big logos and heavily branded jerseys, which is almost where we see the beginning of the fashion life cycle. Now that we have so many doors open in terms of new brand partnerships, we want to break out into more categories. It’s like a bird’s eye view in a department store, seeing how those brands are separated and mixed with one another. In September, we launch the contemporary box which is, like, Jil Sander, OAMC, Our Legacy, so more of the advanced brands. We wanted to really make the space fun. You could order one with a friend and see what each of you got. And that’s something we’re looking at in the future as we develop our community: how can we build in this swap-shop angle?
How are you thinking of going about that?
Joe Wilkinson: So we have an app launch later this year, and it’s something we want to use to push circularity a lot. When people get a mystery box, for example, there might be two pieces, they love one piece, but the other is “not quite my thing”. We don’t want to leave them stuck with that product or have them sell it on a secondary marketplace. We want to build a community that’s linked to, and at the core of HEAT as a platform. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. HEAT has taken that mentality and thinking, like in Facebook groups back in the day.
That’s how you first met Mario, right?
Joe Wilkinson: We knew of each other through these Facebook groups where I was finding out about the Yeezys. It was back in the 2013-2015 era where people were using Facebook to buy and sell stuff. We knew of each other but never really connected. When we did, we had very similar interests, so we came up with the concept of HEAT and launched soon after.
What new technologies are you looking to explore?
Tom Wilcock: In terms of what you can do with a website or a mobile app, it’s getting very 3D and immersive. We’ve done a lot of 3D in the past, but [we want to] integrate that into the website so it’s interactive, and the user can really control what they want to do: I’m getting nerdy, but it’s called WebGL. We’ve also got the NFT space growing a lot at the minute. We’re just making sure that everyone loves what they get and is happy with the product.
Do you think about HEAT in terms of physical space as well?
Karmen Tsang: I would love HEAT to do a whole 360- degree kind of immersive customer experience. I think it would be cool if we had a physical space. An immersive concept space where we could collaborate with artists or designers in some way.
Mario Maher: I’m almost thinking about it in terms of temporary spaces where it’s very activation-driven and immersive, experience-driven, whether that’s even from the smell or the visual side of things. It is always good to touch base in real life with the community. Online is obviously amazing for our communities where we grew up, but we would love to interact with them face to face as well; that’s where we want the community to feel more involved with each other, where they can meet up and see it as a hangout spot.
Joe Wilkinson: We want to be focused on relationship-building, having a laugh and having fun. Because we are all northern guys at the end of the day.
Kevin Adom: I feel like when you grow the community, the business should be secondary, almost. Building a somewhat cult-like following where you have the people who love it and will tell everyone about it simultaneously.
What does the future of HEAT look like?
Karmen Tsang: I guess in [terms of] talent, influence and everything, we just want it to grow. And I want it to be the best it can be because it’s got so much potential. We want to be working with all the top brands in the world. Not only the super-brands, but also the up-and-coming designers. I think it’s important that we help educate our audiences and customers on style, fashion and trends. I would love to be that voice in the industry but approachable to everyone.
Joe Wilkinson: I want to build out the experience to a level that includes scent and touch, so it’s all about finding new ways of going crazy on the packaging. Heightening the smell of things and potentially even introducing some lifestyle pieces. We don’t see the limit on the box as being just ready-to-wear fashion. I feel like there is, of course, a Web3 angle there that could come into play.
Mario Maher: I think [the future is] a massive play on tapping into other senses. What’s projected on the ceiling? What’s there when you open the box? What’s the smell? Is it a different texture in the box? Is it a different humidity in the box? There are so many things we can explore in that sense. Is it literally hot when you open it up?
What does your own personal HEAT box of the future look like?
Kevin Adom: I imagine that it’s definitely floating. It’s would have a holographic vibe to it. Inside are all the lifestyle essentials you can fit in. Almost like a Mary Poppins bag where you can pull out anything; you can literally pull a whole sofa out of it. It’s this endless box.
Mario Maher: I would probably ask for a Mario Bellini sofa. My mystery box is huge, and I’d want it delivered in a crate as well. I think one of my grails is the Raf Simons Sterling Ruby trenchcoat. I think I’d maybe put 180 Strand in the box because it has everything you need.
Who would your dream collab be?
Mario Maher: I would love to do something with Kanye.
Joe Wilkinson: We’d do something pretty epic. I feel like he’s one of those people where if he said, “I’m gonna sell you a box of whatever”, it’s not guaranteed to be clothes, it’s not guaranteed to be anything. But this box is made by Kanye. He has made this specifically curated box for you. Even without saying what’s in it, people would buy it. If Everything But the Dog, the Instagram page, did a mystery box I’d buy the mystery box with them, 100%!
We simply couldn’t resist teaming up with HEAT on a custom mystery box of our own. Naturally, we can’t reveal what’s inside, but for a chance to get your hands on one of the 31 up for grabs, sign up over at dazed.heat.io