Earlier this year, Hugo Boss launched a college marketing program designed to build its tailored clothing business among a key demographic: young men entering the workforce. The company placed advertisements in campus newspapers in the spring and conducted seminars for students on the dos and don’ts of job interviews and office etiquette, with special emphasis on how to dress the part. Attendees at participating schools such as New York University, Northwestern, Emory, Santa Clara University and the University of Miami were gifted a Hugo Boss business-card holder — which contained a discount card for use on a suit, shirt and tie combo at the local Hugo Boss retail store.
“For Hugo Boss, guys in their 20s are really important to us. These consumers are buying their first work suits, and it’s an opportunity to build brand loyalty,” said Mark Brashear, chairman and chief executive officer of Hugo Boss, Americas, which plans to roll out the program to a wider network of campuses next year. “We want to become his go-to resource for tailored clothing.” RELATED STORY: Slimmer Styles Providing Boost for Suit Business >>
Hugo Boss is one of many suit-makers that view young men as an increasingly important target demographic. Men in their late teens and 20s have embraced tailored clothing in recent seasons, said observers, due to a confluence of factors ranging from the surge in preppie influences in fashion and a backlash to the dress-down Nineties, to the anemic economy, which makes professionalism on the job a touch more urgent.
What’s more, the opportunities to wear tailored clothing have expanded as young men become more creative and less rule-bound in wearing blazers and sport coats off the clock.
“It’s a huge trend for us, and we’re emphasizing lots of options and fabrics and textures, like linen and cotton and herringbones and tweeds,” said Kevin Harter, vice president of fashion direction for men’s at Bloomingdale’s. “Young, cool kids are wearing jackets with jeans, cargo pants and even shorts.”
At Bloomingdale’s, Harter pointed to brands like Burberry London, Z Zegna, Ralph Lauren Black Label, John Varvatos, Theory and Billy Reid as brands with the slim fit and contemporary styling that appeal to young men. The retailer is reinforcing the trend for spring, emphasizing blazers in its catalogues and direct mail, particularly in its young men’s and contemporary pages.
“Even Canali, which we have a great business with — and you think of as for the classic guy — now has slimmer fits for the younger, hipper guy,” noted Harter.
Unlike some brands, Canali does not offer a tiered price structure for various lines. At an average price of $1,895 a suit, the brand can be a reach for someone early in his career. “We don’t want to trade down for a younger customer, so he might not buy us right after college,” explained Giorgio Canali, director of the Americas at the Italy-based company. “But he can start with a shirt or a tie and then later trade up to a suit.”
Canali has introduced two fits that appeal largely to its younger customers. Each features the slimmer silhouette, compressed waist, narrower lapel, narrower pant and higher button-stance favored by many men in their 20s and 30s.
Other aspects of suiting important to the demographic include less structured shoulders and more creative linings, said Bob Andrews, creative director at Gant. “Younger customers really appreciate contrast linings in multiple fabrics on a single jacket,” said Andrews. “I’ve told our designers, ‘Let’s not be afraid. Use hot pinks and green ginghams and stripes for the linings.’ Even a classic jacket can have a nice surprise on the inside.”
At Gant, men’s blazer sales were up 37 percent this past fall, and spring 2012 orders are up 38 percent. Blazers now account for 12 percent of the total U.S. business. The Swedish brand is overdyeing and washing blazers to add a sportswear feel to tailored jackets. “It opens up a whole new look and avenue for our younger customer,” said Andrews.
Tailored clothing as a category was once known for its conservatism and glacial pace of change. That’s no longer the case as young consumers bring more fashion concerns to the sector, a phenomenon that’s impacting the entire suit market. The large-scale disappearance of pleated pants in the category, for example — as well as shorter rises and shorter jackets across the board — has been driven by young consumers.
“It’s important to watch this market. Trends are changing a lot faster now because of the young consumer and the way technology allows them to observe and participate in trends to a greater degree than ever before,” said Hugo Boss’ Brashear. “And I’ve seen a lot of suits in my day.”
At Hugo Boss, seasonal looks are becoming increasingly important to this customer. “For holiday, it’s cashmere and velvet; for summer, it’s cotton and corduroy,” he added. “For this guy, the suit and jacket is about fashion and dressing for the moment rather than investment dressing. It’s not just a commodity anymore.”
For spring, double-breasted suits will be a key trend among young consumers, who are taking the once-musty style and making it hip, responding to the shorter lengths and trimmer, less-boxy silhouettes offered by fashion-forward brands like Topman. “It’s a look that’s leading the sartorial stakes,” said Gordon Richardson, design director at London-based Topman. “Suits are an ever-increasing part of the mix at Topman as more and more customers discover the merits of wearing a suit as a fashion statement and not solely for the office.”
Topman’s fast-fashion clientele has responded enthusiastically to prices in the $200-to-$500 range, according to the company. “Value is important here. Now that the suit has entered the casual arena in terms of accessible style, the cost of a suit needs to be easily accessible,” added Richardson.
Similarly, Calvin Klein expanded its X-Fit suit assortments this season, which emphasize a sleek, modern look at an affordable price. The suits are produced and distributed by licensee Peerless Clothing. “It’s an extremely sexy, slim-fit, two-button notch-lapel suit with a heavily constructed shoulder, offered in a variety of wool and hi-tech fabric blends with stretch, luster and sheen,” said Kevin Carrigan, global creative director for ck Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein white label. “Pricing is very important for reaching a younger consumer. The Calvin Klein X-Fit suit is priced at the entry level of our Calvin Klein suits, enabling us to reach this new, young, cool, digital demographic.”
Even Brooks Brothers, a bastion of the tailored clothing establishment, is increasingly taking into account the tastes of younger shoppers. Up until 2006, the company only offered a single fit in its suits, the traditional Madison model. Today, the retailer offers four fits, including the Fitzgerald, Regent and, launched in 2009, the Milano, which is its trimmest and most contemporary style. The three newer fits only offer flat-front pants as bottoms options.
“We really noticed that the younger customer was dressing up again, and we wanted a fit with the slimmer fit, narrower sleeves and higher armhole for him. The Milano is for that more fashionable customer,” said Guy Voglino, divisional merchandise manager for tailored clothing at Brooks Brothers.
Last month, Brooks Brothers opened its first concept store aimed at college students and young professionals in New York’s Flatiron District. Among other recent initiatives aimed at the campus set are its tailgate blazer, created this fall in collaboration with the blog Social Primer, which is a follow-up to an existing bow-tie line with the site. Also this season, the company reintroduced a special edition Prep School boating blazer in navy with yellow tipping, which was inspired by an archival design.
“There was a time when the younger customer was not looking to a suit as his dress-up item,” said Voglino. “I think we went through a long period of time when we got very casual. But guys realized it was time to get out of that.”
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