By  on August 14, 2014

What’s next?

That’s the burning question for retailers who are headed to the Las Vegas trade shows this weekend in search of the latest big idea to spark consumer interest.

Although the revolution in fit is still driving sales for many stores, the momentum has slowed from its peak a few years ago. And while there are still some men who need to modernize their wardrobes to slimmer silhouettes in suits and dress shirts, men’s retailers and manufacturers are looking for the next opportunity.

For some, it’s fabric and technology that will fit the bill. European designers — often the originators of trends in the men’s wear industry — have begun to integrate innovative fabrics into their collections to strong response.

For others, it’s bringing the fit revolution into other categories, or it’s accessories such as jewelry, leather goods and footwear that will lead to enhanced business.

Perhaps the most promising sales generator is the whole activewear trend, a category that has been on fire for most of the year.

According to The NPD Group Inc., the men’s activewear market grew 7 percent in the 12 months ended June 30, while men’s suit sales dipped 6 percent in the same period.

“Everything related to activewear is what’s driving customer interest right now,” said Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director for Macy’s Inc. The trend is taking hold for fall and is expected to continue into spring and beyond, he said. This includes everything from traditional activewear to “fashion active,” which Guion defined as the “hybrid of active and street coming together.”

Performance fabrics are showing up in everything from dress shirts to polo shirts, he said, as innovations in golf and other sports categories expand into all classifications of men’s wear. This includes everything from the track jacket and the jogger pant to furnishings that don’t wrinkle or retain odors.

Guion said men are “responding to performance fabrics in polos and T-shirts and now expect the same technology in dress shirts.” Wicking, moisture management and antimicrobial features all “make more sense than ever,” he believes.

The same holds true for fit. Guion said that today’s guy finally “understands it,” and has moved beyond merely looking for replacement clothing to embracing the slim silhouette in all areas of his wardrobe. “He’s comfortable with the slimmer fit now and that continues to be an important message in all categories,” Guion said.

In terms of color, Guion is expecting “capsules of neutrals” to take hold for early spring. “Bright colors are a hard sell when it’s 30 to 40 degrees outside,” he said. So grays and browns that coordinate back to that men’s wear’s staple — black — will be popular early on with “paler and dustier” colors making an appearance as the season goes on, he said.

Patty Leto, senior vice president of merchandising for the Doneger Group, is also seeing the influence of activewear throughout the market.

“Activewear has been so strong for the past two years, and I don’t see that slowing down,” she said. “But what is driving the business is newness in fabrics and the benefits they provide, and that’s spilling over into the sportswear world. The lines are blurring and the rules are no longer defined. It used to be that he wore a suit and a tie, but now he can wear a blazer with a jogger and still look respectable. It’s driven by the younger guy, but the older guy is getting it, too.”

She said comfort, performance, stretch and technical features are the four big talking points for retailers these days. “He likes activewear, it performs for him, and even though I don’t like the word, I see the whole ath-leisure thing going forward into spring.”

Related to this trend is the “reemergence of the street influence in the contemporary market,” Leto continued. “It’s knit and comfort and newness-driven.” She said the jogger pant is “on fire across the country,” and a real opportunity for stores. “It’s something new that he doesn’t own.”

David Mihalko, vice president of men’s for Belk Inc., is also experiencing the activewear boom. “Sportswear is being driven by the athletic part of the business,” he said. “Either true active or active influences.” He said within true activewear brands, Under Armour is selling briskly, but the impact of synthetic performance fabrics has spread to polos, better collections and main-floor sportswear. “It’s definitely working and is the biggest shining star,” he said.

The “updated preppy” aesthetic is also popular among customers, he said, with slimmer fits and shorter lengths having an impact. “We anticipate that continuing through next spring.”

Mihalko said because the Southeast, where Belk’s stores are located, is “a little slower” than the East or West Coasts, the popularity of slim fit continues to drive sales, particularly in denim and non-denim bottoms. “While it was a soft spring for denim, we’re finally seeing some life for back-to-school.”

At the Vegas shows, he said he’ll be searching out “new ideas” in denim, which remains “a big-volume business. We hear about destruction and white washes and bleaches and dark washes — it’s all over the board. So we’re trying to home in,” he said.

And while the Southeast may be slower to embrace new trends, that’s not the case with the jogger. “We have a jogger coming in now and the shorts version is on the floor,” he said, “and it’s doing extremely well. So we’re looking for the evolution of that for the second quarter.”

A related item, the raglan baseball jersey, is also performing, he continued. “It’s the tops version of the jogger bottom,” he said.

The “movement toward performance and synthetic fabrics” is also affecting the shirt market, with pieces such as wrinkle-free shirts with cooling properties making their mark. “Designers are now talking about the technology in their garments, which is unique,” he said. “Typically they talk more about silhouette or fit, but now it’s a fabric story. It’s harder to get that message across to customers, but it’s interesting for the second quarter.”

On the color spectrum, Mihalko said he expects conservative patterns such as paisleys and foulards to be most popular next year, “rather than the exaggerated prints we saw on the runway. We want to represent it, but not overposition it.”

The influence of activewear is also an opportunity for the tailored clothing end of the market.

According to Doug Williams, chief executive officer of W Diamond Group, which owns the Hickey Freeman store in New York City and manufactures Hickey, Hart Schaffner Marx and other men’s wear brands: “I would like to see more fabric innovation in the tailored market like you’re seeing in the outdoor market. Our tailored clothing business is excellent, but as everything goes to the skinnier, tighter suits, the look is right, we just need fabric innovation.” This could be accomplished by adding “a little stretch in fabric,” or other attributes such as antiwrinkle or cooling properties. He pointed to a merino wool blended with Kevlar as an example. “It gives the customer something new,” he said.

Such innovative fabrics would be especially popular with the young customer, Williams believes. “Technology is such a big part of their lives that they’ll definitely get it,” he said. “There’s a lot happening on the tech side, it’s just a matter of how to get it into the tailored side.”

Mitchell Lechner, president of the PVH Dress Furnishings Group, has seen a heightened demand for technological advances in dress shirts. “Consumers are looking for garments that will fit them better, last longer, and are uncomplicated and accessible while still being married to performance,” he said. The same holds true for underwear, where the activewear trend “continues to gain traction with new performance treatments, advanced fabrications and ergonomic constructions. We are finding that more and more consumers, at every level and price point, are looking for furnishings that will give them a performance advantage.”

Retailers are looking for “ease and comfort,” he said, and “to meet this need, we have applied technology such as non-iron performance fabrics with moisture-wicking properties and advances in stretch to our dress shirts. In the underwear category, the performance trend has quickly moved beyond simply quick-dry treatments and now encompasses advanced technology like compression, body mapping, moisture wicking, advanced stretch and stay cool. We are seeing varying levels of these technologies depending on price point and distribution.”

At the Vegas shows, the company will be highlighting textile innovations in its dress shirts and underwear offerings. In addition to performance features such as cotton stretch in the Tommy Hilfiger brand and a new cotton Modal knit boxer from Michael Kors, the underwear category will also be marked by “eye-popping” fashion colors such as cobalt blue, bright apple green and citrus tangerine, Lechner said. Tropical florals and conversational prints will be offered in underwear.

Dan Farrington, general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Mitchells Family of Stores, believes “innovation will happen in a number of ways.” Some of it will be technology in fabrics. “Stretch is widespread in men’s wear and the high-twist, high-performance fabrics are catching fire in pants, blazers and suits.” Zegna’s Traveler and Samuelsohn’s Performance range are among the standouts, he said. “Guys who travel a lot or just want to look crisp will appreciate that,” he said.

Farrington said a lot of guys get “their first taste of it through golf and other athletic apparel,” so it’s not that much of a jump for them.

At the same time, Farrington said there’s still life in the slim-fit category. “We’re not fully evolved in the fit cycle,” he said. “We’re still introducing some guys to the slimmer fit.” While it started in tailored clothing, it’s having an impact in other classifications such as casual pants and knitwear, which can also be updated through pattern and color.

“Fit isn’t the only answer,” he said. “We can still do a better job in knits, casual bottoms and soft jackets. And accessories is still a growth area as well.”

Nelson Mui, men’s fashion director of Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor, said the revolution in fit is still spurring sales at the company’s stores. “For us, there’s still a customer converting to the slim fit,” he said. “The more fashionable guys have already adopted it and it’s here to stay. Younger men don’t want extra fabrics in their shirts and clothing.”

This is one of the primary reasons for the stores’ strong sales of suit separates. “They’re really trending up,” he said. Young men, as well as athletic older guys, don’t fit the traditional six-inch drop model, so this is a way for them to ensure a better-fitting suit.

In terms of color, “high and medium blues continue to be strong,” and updated pinstripes are also garnering attention.

Lord & Taylor/Hudson’s Bay is seeing a surge in activewear. “We’re growing the true active brands like Under Armour,” Mui said, “and we’re dedicating a lot more real estate to that. And it’s rolling more into sportswear.” From Polo’s active-inspired collection to bright colors and mixed-media fabrics, the influence is being seen in many classifications, he said.

This is also true of the jogger pant, which has been a strong seller for both store groups. “We’ve really gotten behind it and identified it as a must-have item,” Mui said. The stores are carrying joggers in brands as diverse as Gant Rugger, Kenneth Cole and Rogue, as well as Zanerobe, which he said has been a leader. “There’s even a more-elevated streetwear version in leather,” he said.

Mui expects the trend to continue into spring and so will be looking for more options at the Vegas shows. “We’re also hunting for newness and looking for opportunistic new brands to layer on.” Top categories will include swimwear and footwear, the latter of which is a growing business for the company. “We’re launching a new footwear floor in our Toronto flagship in January,” he said.

Eric Jennings, vice president and men’s fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, had an interesting take on the season.

“We are living in a moment of perpetual opposites,” he said. “On one hand, it’s slim and sartorial. On the other hand, it’s supercasual and unconstructed. There are fall colors in the spring season, and spring colors in fall. We’re seeing lighter weights in fall and heavier weights in spring — and they’re all relevant and legitimate. With the global nature of our business, there’s a need for these things all year long.”

Jennings said he’s planning to spend an extra day at the Vegas shows just to ensure he sees the entire market. And he’ll also check out the whole divergent trend of technological fabrics juxtaposed with organic and sustainable ones. “It’s on my radar, and I’m looking at it. But I haven’t seen it executed in a way that is commercially feasible.”

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