By  on September 24, 2007

I’ve been talking to a number of wannabes—wannabes in the traditional men’s wear business who are itching to crash the contemporary market. And on the other side of the fence, wannabes in the premium business eager to expand their jeans, T-shirt and hoodies lines and break into full-blown collections. What’s behind this urge to surge into new areas? First, with the mainstream market flagging, department store vendors want to grab a piece of the explosive 18-to-35 market where there’s plenty of action. And they’re finally facing the fact that they have to think outside the box, reinvent themselves, and explore areas and products that were once taboo. At the same time, premium makers are taking their cue from the jeans customer who’s adding on to his wardrobe, and buying everything from suit separates to cashmere sweaters. As a result, both conventional manufacturers as well as cutting-edge denim companies are trying to connect with new partners for sourcing, manufacturing expertise and distribution.

The process used to be fairly simple for a veteran men’s wear company. If it had a strong label and wanted to invade a new category, it was as easy as contacting a licensing agent who knew the specialists and made the connection with a prospective licensee. Other options included doing the new category in-house or investing in or buying another company.

On the other hand, for top denim companies adding a new classification and eventually doing the selling, it’s all about finding the factory or manufacturer that can produce the right product for their coveted premium label, which the ultimate consumer swears by and buys, regardless of the category.

Typical of the new young blood in the jeans market are partners Andrew Cavitolo and Lucas Gittone of Bohden James, who launched a full collection of everything from tailored and soft suit separates to outerwear, sweaters, knits and wovens, and T-shirts at the last Project show.

“We were new at the game and had a sourcing agent in the U.S.,” says Cavitolo. “We also hired a designer/production man who knew sourcing and [we] took his leads. Today, we’re working with four offshore factories, but we had to learn about minimums and the basics of sourcing.”

The team also wanted to go into sweaters and found a maker by going to a department store and checking the labels in merchandise there for the RN numbers, then tracking down the maker’s name online. The rest was easy, Cavitolo explains.

“If you’re going into new classifications, do your research, go to the sourcing shows, take your time, and make sure the quality and make of the new product won’t lose the integrity of your brand. The process of breaking into a new category can take as long as a year.”

Another newcomer is Michael Paradise of The Stronghold, who has a retail shop in Venice, Calif., and went into the wholesale business as a contemporary resource. He modeled his business after the store, which sells men from 25 to 60-plus. To check out his concept, that contemporary is a state of mind and not an age, he used the jeans classification as his litmus test.

“Young guys wear my core-fit jeans loose versus the gentlemen who wear them as properly fitted jeans,” he says. “I call them Levi’s for grown-ups.”
Because his company’s American brand dates back to 1895, he sources everything in the U.S. How did he find American factories? “By word of mouth, and talking to our fabric and trimming suppliers. We also searched online for manufacturers and for old companies that are still around, and we contacted them directly.”

Looking forward, Paradise says, “There’s a point where premium turns into luxury and price is no object. The concept works in my store. A year ago, we put in $300 denims, and custom and bespoke jeans that retailed up to $1,100. The customer who embraced them was 35-plus and he never asks the price. I’m going after the guy who doesn’t go to a premium jeans store, but goes to a Forum store, like Mario’s.”

How are traditional makers going contemporary? Commenting on his recent acquisition of Kroon, the contemporary sport coat company, Jim Ammeen of Neema says, “There’s no question that we wanted to be in contemporary clothing. We already had BCBG Attitude, also Coconut Grove, which are promoted along the same lines. The Kroon people sought us out and there was a good fit with the direction we’re taking our company.”

His advice to a premium-jeans company wanting to break into contemporary clothing? “Hook up with someone in a strategic relationship who understands and has the salesmanship to market the product. It’s the same as our going into jeans. It’s a different business, and a clothing company, for example, isn’t going to be as good at jeans as the people doing it every day.”

After surveying the situation in both the mainstream and contemporary markets for likely prospects, licensing agent Mort Gordon of MG Enterprises calls them “unexplored and lucrative territories.” Still, he explains, “The process isn’t as easy for a mainstream manufacturer who decides to get into the premium business. Chances are the company lacks the right image, attitude and salespeople to sell a different kind of retailer. It adds up to a lot of cool.”

He says that most of the big premium companies he’s talked to are either doing it themselves or trying to. “They’re sourcing for themselves in China and elsewhere, for the time being. They’re not that interested in getting together with a conventional manufacturer. However, they go outside if it’s not their core product and farm out something like accessories, watches, bags, etc.”

His advice to jeans people: “Pick the right company that can interpret and market products that will work with premium bottoms.” And about men’s wear companies: “They have to convince the jeans company that they understand the jeans customer and can execute the product better, and for less.”

Traditional topcoat manufacturer Harvey Arfa of Gruner is trying “to find the consumer who’s not necessarily looking for a coat in the tailored clothing department. He may see it as sportswear or as part of his jeans outfit.”

How is he going about connecting with a premium company? “We’d like to partner with a jeans company on a joint-marketing effort or in a licensing arrangement. Financially, they don’t need me and I don’t need them. I’m scheduling meetings right now with several major non-tailored companies and I have a positive case for it.”

Like I said, dial “C” for connections.

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