Anyone who's been in the men's wear business for a certain number of years has waxed poetic about the good old days, "when the business was fun." Well, finally, real fun may actually be back.

Something - be it an increased interest in apparel, or strong, understandable fashion trends -- is making men across the U.S. revamp their wardrobes, increasing apparel sales by five percent to nearly $53 billion, according to NPD Fashionworld's AccuPanel research. Recent men's wear sales outpaced women's, which grew three percent to $101 billion.

Men have had a lot to digest over the last several years. They were told it was okay to dress down, only to be told the suit was back. Men seemed frozen with indecision over what to do. Then, a welcome combination of business casual came in, followed by the aspirational casual luxe movement. Finally, they're getting it -- and numbers are increasing.

In men's, certain segments performed very well in the first quarter of 2006: tops (both dress and sport shirts), denim jeans, shorts and slacks. Meanwhile in the women's market, denim sales slowed by 0.5%, dress sales dropped by 12.5%, and sales of skirts decreased by 13.4%.

At Claiborne, Karen Castellano, men's president, says the surge in men's wear may be partly due to a cultural shift.

"I think the same thing that women are talking about is affecting men: 50 is the new 30 and they want to look more together," Castellano says. "They're not fashionistas but they're more fashion aware, and they want to make sure they look appropriate. Men are looking for newness and they want to update their wardrobes."

Besides certain preferred items, men have indicated they have a favorite fabric, too. According to Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™, three-quarters of male consumers say their favorite fabric to wear is, or contains, cotton. In keeping with that, cotton comprises 78.9% of purchases (not including swimwear, tailored clothing and outerwear), according to NPD data.

The AccuPanel data also shows that consumers paid a higher average price (up 1.5%) for their cotton apparel so far this year compared to the first quarter of 2005.At Claiborne, there's been a real resurgence in cotton, says Castellano.

"I think it's because of what makers are doing - the jacquards, the striped wovens, subtle patterns," she says. "Men know cotton. It's the staple of dress shirts. And in sportswear they're comfortable with it, whether in a traditional style or something more updated."

That cotton is a preferred fabric among consumers helps explain why sales of men's dress shirts grew 10% and polo/ golf/rugby shirts 14%; shorts 15%; and denim jeans 7.3%, while denim shirts surged 42%.

Gap is prepared to meet the denim shirt demand. "We're returning to our roots for fall and the denim Western shirt is a big part of this," says Sean Krebs, style expert. "A great western shirt, that feels like you've had it forever, is an important part of Gap's heritage."

As for jeans, Gap's fall denim assortment "is all about the amazing range of washes, with a focus on dark, clean denim in a straight fit," Krebs says. "They look great paired with Westerninspired wovens or Oxford shirts under washed leather outerwear."

At Kenneth Cole, a stronger focus on design is helping its retail success. The company's denim is performing "very well," and woven shirts at higher price points and fabric upgrades are proving very successful. A company spokesperson attributes the increase to "more focused designs that identify with our core customer and stay true to our brand."

Chart: What is Your Favorite
Fiber or Fabric to Wear?
 Total Men
& Women
Cotton Blend6%5%
Don’t Know9%10%

Despite the stoked interest in apparel, men aren't very likely to plan a "guy's day out" shopping at the mall. The Monitor stats point out that only 24% of men say they love or enjoy shopping for apparel, while most (53%) say they get what they need and leave.Now that there's strong direction in men's wear, guys are making up for lost time.

"Men are most likely making up for the decline in purchases of shorts, slacks, and slow denim jeans sales in 2005," says Melissa Bastos, Cotton Incorporated's manager of market research.

Mark, a 43-year-old marketing executive in San Diego, falls into that category. He says switching jobs, selling his house and moving distracted him from buying anything new last year.

"Now, I don't know if it's because I'm more settled, or if the stuff in the stores just looks better, but I'm buying more lately," he says. "Especially shorts, which look totally different and a lot better than what I had. My old shorts kind of looked like they were for an old man on a corporate picnic."

Men in Mark's age range increased their spending 10.4%, according to NPD data. Younger men aged 19-24 boosted their fashion budgets by a remarkable 31%. And, after keeping their spending down in 2005, those aged 55-65 allotted 30% more to apparel.

Additionally, "Dress shirts have performed well for the past couple of years in this age group, and part of that is due to functional finishes. Wrinkleand stain-resistant dress shirt purchases had tremendous growth over last year for this group of men," adds Bastos.

Real opportunities exist for manufacturers and retailers, as data shows consumers are willing to pay a premium for stain- and wrinkle-resistant apparel. Already, the Monitor reports that 54% of men have purchased cotton apparel that is wrinkle resistant, and 35% have bought items that are stain-resistant.

It took a while, but it seems the industry has rediscovered how to bring fun back to men's wear.

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Appearing monthly in these pages, each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American men's wear consumer and his attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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