By  on December 8, 2011

“We are once again entering a golden age for purveyors of tailored clothing.”

That was the bold statement made by Men’s Wearhouse founder and executive chairman George Zimmer as he weighed in on the state of the men’s suit business during the company’s third-quarter earnings call Tuesday evening.

He attributed the strength of the business to interest from “millennials,” noting, “I’m grateful that the youngest generation to come of age understands that dressing up feels good and looks good.”

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Men’s Wearhouse, the country’s largest suit seller, isn’t alone. The entire men’s tailored clothing industry is reaping the benefits of the fashion trend toward slimmer silhouettes in suits, sport coats and furnishings — a fashion trend driven in large part by young men. But even older guys are getting into the act. While they may not embrace superskinny styles, they’re updating their wardrobes with slimmed-down models that look more contemporary and modern.

The trend is paying off at the cash register as well. According to The NPD Group, sales of tailored clothing rose more than 11 percent, and sales of men’s dress shirts rose more than 3 percent in the first half of this year.

“Men are in the need-replenishment cycle, as well as a ‘dress-for-success’ mind-set,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD. “Younger and more ‘experienced’ men are buying apparel to replenish their worn-out items and, perhaps more importantly, buying wardrobe items that will separate them from the competition in the workplace.”

At Men’s Wearhouse, Doug Ewert, chief executive officer, noted strength in modern-fitting sport coats, dress shirts and accessories in the third quarter. “These looks mostly target a younger customer; however, we’re starting to see growing acceptance among middle-aged customers. A modern fit is cut closer to the body. Other characteristics include narrower lapels on suits and sport coats and narrower ties.” Ewert said modern clothing represents about 15 percent of the company’s mix, but will be expanded.

“Men typically make tailored clothing purchases when their garments show excessive wear or their size needs to change,” he said. “When we see an emerging fashion trend, as we do now, that becomes a third driver to the replenishment cycle. We think that that’s going to bring a tremendous amount of opportunity for more growth.”

Brooks Brothers is also seeing an uptick in tailored clothing sales. “We had planned the clothing business flat because of the sportswear craze,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer. “But it has actually exceeded plan for the last year.” Amendola attributed this to the “resurgence of people wearing suits to work. It may not be in a formal way, with a white shirt and tie, but with a sport shirt or sweater.”

In addition, he said, customers are “definitely looking for suits in a slimmer silhouette” in classic colors such as navy, gray and simple pinstripes.

“On the flip side, our custom and made-to-measure business is also up double-digits,” Amendola continued. “The high-end guy is looking to replace or add to his wardrobe.”

For spring, Amendola said Brooks will introduce a “youthful sack suit” called the Cambridge to capitalize on the trend, and for fall 2012, it will add a younger-skewed model with flat-front trousers, The Flatiron (in honor of the company’s newest store geared to young customers).

Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans, a men’s specialty store in New York City, said he’s been selling slimmer suits to his customers for the past two to three years and believes the trend is now taking hold nationally. “We haven’t seen a tremendous change. It’s just trickled down to the rest of the country.” As a result, the store’s inventory in modern fits has been increased, he said.

“The question is, What happens to the big guy?” Giddon asked. “The average suit guy is 25 pounds overweight. He comes in and says, ‘Everything is slimmer, but I’m not.’ ”

Manufacturers are making moves to address that conundrum.

Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing, which produces clothing for Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, DKNY and its own Tallia Orange label, among others, said there are also options for “the older guy who has a little stomach and side pouch but still wants the slim look.

“Each brand must have their own interpretation, and they have to do it in proportion,” he said. “That’s the magic of the clothing business today. If they look at expensive designer suits and try to copy them, there will be trouble.”

Wurtzburger said going forward, “vested clothing is on the way back,” and is expected to be popular with young guys. “When they take their jacket off, they look neater in a vest.” Double-breasteds are also undergoing a resurgence. And shorter jacket lengths — under 30 inches — are driving sales, he added. “A shorter jacket and tapered pants gives the slim customer a look that is different than his father’s. It’s a very hip look.”

In terms of color, gray is almost as strong as black and actually better than navy, Wurtzburger said. And for fall 2012, “I would bet the house on plaid suits,” he said. Special details such as faux fur collars, suede elbow patches and unusual linings are also expected to be strong.

Joseph Abboud, president and chief creative officer of HMX Group, which markets brands ranging from Hart Schaffner Marx and Hickey Freeman to Palm Beach, said the trick is to appeal to both the younger guy and the “younger-thinking guy.

“Age and the body are not necessarily related. There are mature guys who can wear skinny suits and young guys who can’t. So for us, we offer versions of trim and slim. Seventy to 75 percent of the business has moved to trim, and the old corporate 6-inch-drop garment is not growing. Even the older guys want leaner and trimmer.”

So in the HSM line, for example, the company offers a classic and a modern fit, as well as a postmodern silhouette, which is even slimmer. Still, these models don’t come close to skinny designer suits. “American men are just beefier, so even if they go trimmer, they still have shoulders and chests,” he said.

Abboud did caution that skinny can get too skinny. “There’s a move back to elegance and style that has been missing for so long in men’s wear,” he said. “The young guy has never gotten dressed before, and our job is to get them in clothes that look great. But when we go to extremes, it takes away the beauty and fluidity of clothes and we have to be careful.”

Doug Jakubowski, chief merchandising officer for Perry Ellis, said although men’s wear is notorious for its lack of speed in embracing fashion trends, the slimmer suit has definitely “registered” with the consumer. “It’s not just about fit. The length is shorter, the lapels more trim. It’s every element.”

Modern silhouettes are “still considered trendy” to young men and have had a halo effect on other categories, including ties, shirts, even belts. “It’s part of the wardrobe now,” he said. “And it’s giving a guy a reason to buy a suit. Nobody needs anything, so we have to create want. Guys don’t jump on and off trends that fast, so there’s a lot of volume to be had in this area.”

Jakubowski said Perry Ellis is “balancing several fits, not just one,” with the classic Perry fit as well as a slim one. “But just because the shape is different doesn’t mean the guy doesn’t want the same relevant details,” he said.

For fall 2012, that means building on classic patterns with fun, unexpected details. “We’ll be playing with proportion of patterns and fresher colors. And stretch is also becoming more important. Just because it’s slim doesn’t mean it has to be uncomfortable.”

Anthony Sapienza, ceo of JA Apparel, remarked: “Our tailored clothing business has come back nicely since the recession. The aspirational customer is back in the market, and while he’s still cautious, he’s tired of the wardrobe he had and is ready for something new.” The company’s Joseph Abboud brand is answering the call with more color and interesting details.

The company offers both “closer-fitting clothing” for the modern customer and a “gentleman’s fit” for a more classic guy. But in either case, the point-to-point measurement has shrunk. Instead of the traditional 23 inches, the gentleman’s fit is now 19 inches, while the closer-fit is around 18 inches, often with a 7-inch drop. “It’s slimmer and more athletic,” he said.

Sapienza said the brand is also seeing an uptick in the made-to-measure business. “It’s a function of inventory,” he said. Because the brand manufactures in the U.S., it can deliver a garment within two weeks. “So we’re very aggressive with it.” Sport coats are also doing well.

Sapienza expects the slimmer silhouettes to continue to drive sales for the foreseeable future. “Men’s wear is evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he said. “It took five years to go to flat-front from double pleats. So we think our ability to make closer-fitting clothing that is comfortable will stand the test of time.”

Robert Squillaro, national sales manager and merchandise manager for Southwick, said: “The best thing we’ve experienced is the popularity of natural-shoulder American clothing. American designers have a renewed interest in this, and a lot of people are coming to us to make their clothing.”

Much of that clothing is slim-fit. The company’s Sutton model, a natural-shoulder garment with a 29-inch length, narrow lapel and higher button stance, is popular with younger men, he said. Southwick also produces a fuller cut for the classic customer who has yet to embrace the slim trend. “The average American guy wears a size one to two sizes too big for him. But the new generation of tailored clothing buyers want to feel the suit on them.”

In addition to suits, the brand is seeing a continued demand for sport coats, particularly those with soft construction that “look like a sport coat but feel like a shirt.”

“We’re in a sport coat market now with the reemergence of Harris tweed and other seasonal fabrics,” Squillaro added. “We’re moving away from year-round fabrics.”

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