By and  on March 29, 2012

Men’s wear is reaping the rewards of a revitalization.

Spurred on by key trends such as slimmer fits and vivid color, as well as a resurgent economy and improved consumer confidence, men’s apparel sales have been one of the brightest categories for many retailers. Updated silhouettes in everything from suits and dress shirts to jeans and khakis have driven guys to the cash registers to modernize their wardrobes. Important trends like colored bottoms, military themes and prints and patterns have given a boost to sportswear segments.

Last year, total men’s apparel sales increased 4 percent to $55.71 billion, up from $53.48 billion in 2010, according to figures from The NPD Group. The jumps were driven by big increases in workplace clothes, with tailored clothing up 22 percent, dress shirts up 14 percent and neckwear up 34 percent.

Men’s jeans were soft, with sales down 1 percent, along with certain sportswear categories like woven shirts, which were down 8 percent, and knit shirts, which were flat.

Overall, however, most merchants are upbeat, believing the uptick they enjoyed last year — and have continued to see through the first quarter of this year — has the momentum to sustain itself through 2012.

“Business is certainly hot here,” said David Fisher, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Bloomingdale’s. “We came out of an incredibly strong 2011, and it hasn’t let up.” Although the store is up against strong comps from last year, business so far this spring is up in the high single digits, and is running “ahead of plan,” according to Fisher.

Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director for Macy’s, said: “Business continues to trend very nicely and there are a couple of [categories] that are driving it. Tailored clothing is on fire. It’s a real win-win for us, especially when you look at what was going on a couple of years ago. And the retails are higher than you get with sportswear.”

Tom Ott, senior vice president and gmm of men’s for Saks Fifth Avenue, pointed out that men’s was the category most negatively impacted in the recession and it is now bouncing back impressively. Among the areas seeing the greatest growth are accessories and shoes. “Men are now asking what the right bags and shoes are,” said Ott, with the upticks driven by guys in their 20s and 30s who are “very interested in fashion and tailored clothing.”

He said the luxury arena did extremely well in the fourth quarter of last year and the trend has continued into spring. “Between the wealthy feeling OK and the international tourists responding to luxury apparel, we expect the trend to continue,” said Ott.

At online retailer Bonobos, sales more than doubled last year and the 2012 business plan projects sales to double again. The improved retail climate means customers are less focused on discounts, said founder and chief executive officer Andy Dunn, with the company reducing promotional spends and improving margins. “Historically we’ve leaned on discounts to drive rapid new customer acquisition, but as we’ve built out more organic ways to acquire customers, promotions have become less necessary,” he explained. “Specifically we’re relying more on our social and loyalty tools, including our relaunched referral program and our loyalty program, the Great Apes.”

At flash-sale site Gilt Man, holiday sales were strong, but the first months of 2012 were negatively impacted by increased competition from the steep discounts at department stores. “The walk-in from January has been lighter than we hoped. Our value proposition erodes in January and February because department stores are having major sales,” said Chris Ventry, acting general manager of Gilt Groupe’s Gilt Man and Park & Bond sites. “However, we are starting to see pickup in March.”

David Zant, executive vice president and gmm of men’s for Belk, said the overall business continues to be good. “Certain businesses are better than others, but men’s has been trending well since the beginning of February,” he noted. “As long as we continue to execute well, identify opportunities and put initiatives and strategies in place to drive business,” the momentum should continue.

Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, was tempered in his optimism, with spring sales up in the single digits over last year. “It’s OK, but not ecstatic. I don’t see that people are in a buying frenzy. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that we scaled back on customer appreciation events,” he explained.

Amendola said anything “fashionable and novelty is selling — basics are slower. The more traditional businesses, such as basic shirts and ties, are more sluggish than they were for fall. But the one business that continues to beat plan is clothing. It’s good to see a big-ticket item selling, but sportswear is more sluggish.”

Sales are up double digits year-to-date over 2011 at Mario’s, operator of specialty stores in Seattle and Portland, Ore. “Ultimately, fit and modeling drives the majority of sales,” said Simon Chan, senior men’s buyer. “Clothing with updated silhouettes, sportswear and furnishings with a trimmer and a sportier fit, and, of course, novelty in fabrics, patterns and colors create a reason to buy.”

With the Internet and mobile apps making comparison shopping as easy as the click of a button, pricing has become a more important factor in many purchase decisions. “Today’s clients are very savvy, so price does play a role. It is all about price-value and we try to be strategic in creating great price-value in the different tiers of our businesses,” added Chan.

Steven Giles, owner of Miami’s Base, agreed. “If anything good came out of the recent recession it was consumer education. At least in the demographic we serve, the consumer is not only savvy but deeply conscious — tentative perhaps — of where and when they are going to spend their money,” he noted.

Laure Heriard Dubreuil, ceo of The Webster in Miami, pointed out that both tailored clothing and sportswear sales have been boosted by the blurring of lines between work and weekendwear. “Men used to spend money exclusively on business clothing, but as the traditional lines become blurred between work and leisurewear, they are spending more on quality, high-end sportswear and even on tailored clothing that is worn casually,” she observed.

Tailored Clothing

Tailored clothing sales increased 22 percent to $4.54 billion in 2011, up from $3.73 billion in 2010, according to NPD data.

“Tailored clothing without a doubt is leading the charge for us. Seasonal sport coats are trending strong and basic suits are moving, as well,” said Simon Chan of Mario’s. Top sellers at the influential specialty store include Ermenegildo Zegna, Isaia, Prada and Lanvin suits, while key labels in sport coats are Isaia, Canali, Boglioli and Etro.

Suits and sport coats are the hottest category at Bloomingdale’s as well, with sport coats in novelty fabrics particularly popular. For spring, seersuckers and printed linen are standouts, said Fisher, while hunting jackets, herringbones and tweeds are important for fall.

During its fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this month, The Men’s Wearhouse Inc. reported that the “Golden Age of the suit” is in full swing. In 2011, the company sold a record-breaking 3 million suits. In the call, Douglas Ewert, ceo, said: “Roughly once every 10 years, a replenishment cycle is driven by a silhouette change in men’s suits. Twenty years ago, the cycle was driven by wide-shouldered and double-breasted suits, 10 years later the three-button suit drove the replenishment cycle. Today, we’re seeing a much trimmer shape drive replenishment. It can be described as modern fit and is influencing trimmer shirtings and neckwear as well. Though these trimmers looks are particularly attractive to a younger customer, influences are being seen across all demographics and sizes in the form of narrower lapels and pleatless pants.”

Ewert said that, last year, modern-fit products represented 19 percent of apparel sales, growing 64 percent and generating $309 million in revenue. “In 2012, we will shift more of our inventory into modern fit products and feature these looks in all of our marketing channels, including a new television campaign,” he noted. “We’re focusing considerable resources towards maximizing this fashion cycle. We’re positioned to benefit from this cycle more than most, and we have high expectations.”

Guion attributed the uptick in tailored clothing sales at Macy’s to a “seismic shift in sizing. If you haven’t bought a suit in two to three years, it shows.” He said Macy’s is having success in both suit separates and nested offerings and he expects the strong sales trend to continue. “With men, it’s all about building a wardrobe, and they still have more to add.”

Saks’ Ott said that the “clothing business had some tough bouts” in the past, but that’s no longer the case today. And brands at every level of the market are embracing the silhouette change. “The Italian and luxury brands are all about slimmer suits,” he said, noting that sales of Tom Ford have been “terrific. “

Joseph Abboud, president and chief creative officer for HMX Group, said the hot button in tailored clothing today is the “modern American” model: a vested, double-breasted, peak lapel suit. “Everything has been pushed and is more aggressive,” he said, “but still within the customers’ comfort zone.”

At Hart Shaffner Marx, 65 to 70 percent of models are slimmer. Abboud believes the popularity of the slim silhouette is just beginning. Tailored clothing trends often have a five- to seven-year run, he noted. “Guys are investment conscious,” he explained. “They still look at tailored clothing as an investment, even if it’s modern and sexy.”

Suiting is the strongest category at Gilt Man, along with footwear. “What we are really excited about for both categories, it’s a full spectrum of pricing. It’s not all down in a lower price point,” said Ventry, who noted some suits on Gilt Man sell for over $1,200.

At Park & Bond, styles highlighted in editorial sections of the site enjoy tremendous lift, with sales often doubling when highlighted in features like “How to Dress Down a Suit.” A pale blue Versace suit in linen and wool, priced at $995, highlighted as an editor’s pick in January sold out within a month.

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