By  on July 22, 2010

The men’s business is getting a bit better — and shirts are leading the way.

That was the main message from retailers at the MRket/Vanguard show in New York, where stores were looking mainly for washed cotton sport shirts in a variety of interesting patterns, unconstructed sport coats and lightweight knits.

Buyers said men are buying mainly shirts since that’s an easy way to update their outfits without spending too much. The top performer for most retailers is the “restaurant shirt,” a colorful, patterned model that can be worn out to dinner without a tie or sport coat. As a result, merchants from around the country were scouring the aisles at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center earlier this week for the most intriguing options, many of which boasted double-faced prints with different patterns under the collar or on the cuffs.

Vendors also showed an array of pastel hues for spring, everything from varying shades of pink to seawater blue.

“Contrary to the natural neutrals that we’ve been hearing about, we’re seeing a lot of color,” said Chuck Haidet, owner of Keepers in Austin, Tex. “That’s good because neutrals won’t get us where we need to go.”

At the show, Haidet picked up “crossover jackets that bridge the gap between sportswear and tailored clothing, and all the collateral that goes along with it, like denim, washed shirts and linen.”

Haidet said he’s “continually impressed with the number of shirts that go out the door that don’t require neckwear. They’re the new alternative to ties and suits.”

The tailored clothing business continues to be sluggish, but hybrid options have provided a bright spot. “That seems to be the solution,” he said.

Overall, Haidet characterized business as “challenging, but the upside is that it’s possible to get traction now.”

Mike Zack, owner of Circa 2000 in Plano, Tex., was impressed by the scope of merchandise at Bugatchi Uomo as well as the short-sleeve shirts at Jhane Barnes and the colorful, patterned sport shirts at Age of Wisdom and Stone Rose. At Bugatchi, he pointed to the sock assortment designed to match the shirts, a product that makes for easy add-on sales for retailers.

“There’s lots of good product out there,” he said. “Even though the business is tough, people still have to get dressed every day.” He said men are buying shirts, not suits or ties, meaning retailers need to bring product in more frequently to meet the demand. In fact, he recently opened a second store, Hangers, that sells only shirts, and it’s performing well.

Nevertheless, Zack anticipates business to remain tough for a little while longer and expects recovery to be “a slow process. But it means we all have to be better at what we do.”

Will Levy of Oak Hall in Memphis was buying sportswear at the show and was impressed with the assortment of washed shirts on display. He said fun details — such as double-faced fabrics — “make things more special” and are a lure to customers. In addition, because they’re understandable and “not too different,” they appeal to male shoppers who are afraid to step out too far. “The small tweaks appear to be working,” he said.

Dan Farrington, general merchandise manager of the Mitchells Family of Stores, saw “a lot of great knitwear, both dress and casual” at the show. Washed tops and bottoms, denim-inspired sportswear and casual sport coats also caught his eye as “pieces to round out a wardrobe.” And details, such as cuffs and/or collars in different patterns, “are really important” to create interest, he added.

Bob Mitchell, the company’s co-president, said the trends being shown in New York and Europe indicate “the world is becoming more casual and we have to continually reinvent ourselves” to adapt to those changes.

Tim Ryan, owner of Harleys in Shorewood, Mich., a suburb of Milwaukee, also liked the variety of color on the show floor. “The seasonality and brighter palette really look good,” he said, pointing to the washed shirts and soft coats on display.

Ryan said business at his store has been “very good” this year — “better than expected. We were up double digits.” He attributed it to an economic rebound in Milwaukee as well as the store’s recent relocation. “We moved the store and reinvented the business,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces and younger people and we’re carrying the merchandise to bring them in.”

He said his inventory levels are “below plan” and he is expecting a good fall.

Britt Fulmer, owner of Gentry Ltd. in Wichita, Kan., also reported that business is picking up. “We’re having a pretty good season. It’s not fabulous, but it’s improving.” The store specializes in business casualwear and he has seen strong results from dressier trousers and “cool shirts. We have to teach men they can’t wear golf shirts to the office.”

At MRket, Fulmer liked XMI’s washed sport shirts with interesting pocket treatments, as well as Scott James’ line of sportswear. “It has a younger attitude but all ages can wear it,” he said. “That’s a tricky balance. We’re all trying to attract younger customers, but if your client base is older, you don’t want to run them off.”

John Fowler, vice president and creative director of Ike Behar, showed an expansive assortment of textured twill dress shirts that tie back into the company’s sportswear offerings. Purple, in a variety of iterations, was the highlighted color of the season along with a variety of blue hues. Two-sided fabrics were also in abundance. Alan Behar, chief executive officer, said the shirts were a “bridge to bring the customer to the modern sector.”

At the Vanguard show, And Company, a Norwalk, Conn.-based retailer, introduced a wholesale collection of featherweight linen and cotton Ts, polos, shorts and pants at moderate prices. Vicomte A., the Toronto-based sportswear brand, offered a colorful variety of polos and outerwear with interesting details at MRket’s more-contemporary area.

For stores seeking accessories, Moore & Giles showed a variety of belts, small leather goods and travel bags, while Tateossian offered contemporary jewelry and watches including bracelets in leather, metal or semiprecious stones, as well as cuff links.

St. James, the French nautical sweater brand, which got its start 125 years ago as a manufacturer of fishermen sweaters, brought its men’s lifestyle line to the show. In addition to the heritage striped sweater, the brand showed lightweight knitwear with interesting details as well as woven shirts and lightweight outerwear.

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