By and  on July 26, 2012

NEW YORK — Men’s retailers are hoping they can continue to shake off the still-fragile economy and that the strong sales they have been enjoying for more than a year will continue into this fall and holiday.

Despite daily reports of continued economic weakness in the U.S. and overseas, merchants shopping the New York market this week remained upbeat. Strength in the consumer response to tailored clothing, modern furnishings and updated sportswear buoyed their spirits as they prowled the aisles of Project, ENKNYC, Capsule and MRket for the items to sustain the momentum into next year.

Vibrant color in everything from jeans and polo shirts to lightweight jackets, along with tapered silhouettes and retro patterns in suits, sport coats and furnishings, topped the lists of specialty retailers at the shows, which wrapped up their three-day runs on Tuesday.

“Business is solid,” said Bob Mitchell, copresident of Mitchells Family of Stores. “It’s not gangbusters, but we’re still seeing moderate growth. We expect more of the same going into fall.”

He said the “same general trends” that have been driving sales continue to garner interest. “In sportswear, it’s either luxury or contemporary,” he said. “The middle ground is not seeing a lot of life.”

In the contemporary arena, fashion knitwear is where the action is, while “interesting shirts that aren’t too tricky” are also performing well. Colored bottoms with updated fits, from brands such as AG Adriano Goldschmied, Brunello Cucinelli and Ermenegildo Zegna, are already making inroads for fall, a trend that is expected to continue to spring. “We see that as an opportunity to refresh the casual bottoms business,” Mitchell said.

In tailored clothing, the “early adopters” of the slim suit are clamoring for even slimmer silhouettes, while the last holdouts are finally “making the move.” Jackets are stronger than nested suits, another trend he expects to continue into fall.

“And with the continued evolution of the contemporary market, men are expanding their shoe wardrobe,” Mitchell added. “The days of having a basic loafer and a tie shoe are over. That just doesn’t cut it anymore. With contemporary bottoms, you need a cool sneaker or desert boot to finish the outfit.” Cool accessories are also benefiting from this trend, he added.

For spring, the Mitchells stores were shopping primarily for “interesting knitwear” and “found some updated classics that can sit with contemporary bottoms.”

Kevin Harter, vice president of men’s fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, said men’s sales momentum at the department store is healthy. “Our priorities are to continue to build on trends, newness and finding new resources,” he said, singling out the Capsule show as the most productive on those fronts. “You could really find newness there and our customers want the unexpected from us.”

Bloomingdale’s is in the midst of revamping its men’s zone and adding several new shops and resources for fall. Harter added his team is looking to trends that bubble up most prominently at popular music festivals like Coachella. “It’s those guys that are at music festivals or hanging out in Brooklyn or in Silver Lake [in Los Angeles] that are having a big impact on style. The street is having a major influence on fashion right now,” he explained.

One complaint Harter had of the week was the glut of shows vying for time and attention, including the new Designers & Agents Man show, which launched this season. “There are too many shows and they are spread out all over town. You want to go to all of them but it’s difficult to see everything in two days. I’d prefer to see them spaced out a bit more,” he said.

While the soft economy is on many retailers’ minds, Ken Giddon, president of Rothman’s, said consumers are still willing to shell out for the right product. “If you build a better mousetrap, customers will beat a path to your door,” he noted, probably referring to the new 11,000-square-foot space his store moved into earlier this year on Park Avenue South. “People still want fun new stuff.”

Swimming against the tide of the slim-fit explosion driving men’s wear trends these days, Giddon was a rare booster of the huskier customer out there. “Everything is getting tighter and tighter and not everyone is a slim fit,” he pointed out. “I’m trying to fit a bigger guy also. And bigger guys often have bigger wallets — and they’re easier to please.”

Steve Potter of Hinsdale Clothiers outside Chicago said his store was posting “historic, record-breaking sales” until Father’s Day and “then the heat barbecued us and the floor fell out of it. But nine days ago it started to recover.”

Since adding Southern Tide to his mix around 16 months ago, and then Vineyard Vines, he said the store has begun attracting a younger customer. “We’re going to be bringing in Hugo Boss on Aug. 1 to give us a third leg up,” he said. “We’re really seeing ourselves change.”

At the shows, he was attracted to the “explosion of color” he saw in every category. He was also pleased with the improved quality and detailing he found in the market. “Soft clothing continues to be important,” Potter said, “and it’s my solemn oath to eliminate every tie over three inches in this country.”

Bob Benkert, owner of the two-unit Claymore Shop based in Birmingham, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, said business remains good. “The car companies are doing well again and sales at the Birmingham store are up 20 percent,” he said.

Benkert said clothing, a mainstay of the store, has transitioned into a custom business and that category is now the single largest seller. Even though it’s become “tougher to sell rack suits,” he said young guys are visiting the store looking for three-piece models, the tie business is up and dressy sportswear is performing.

At the New York market, Benkert said he liked the colorful sportswear from French brands including Vicomte A. and Façonnable, which “now has an American fit.” Both brands offered “great color, and color will be the hit for spring,” he said. He also liked Hook + Albert’s flower lapel boutonnieres as a “fun” add-on. “That’s the reason to come to the shows.”

Ken Gushner of Boyds in Philadelphia said, although the heat and the summer doldrums have taken a bite out of business in the past couple of weeks, business overall has been solid. “The last few weeks have been soft, but that’s to be expected,” he said. “I’m not nervous about fall, per se. Nobody has control over the world, but that aside, if the environment continues to be what it has been, I’m looking forward to it.”

Buoying his spirits is the fact that he’s “seeing more positivity toward clothing, which is the best thing that can happen. And we’re seeing traction in better goods. Sportswear is OK, but we’re up against big numbers from last year, and dress furnishings have been pretty decent.”

Shoes are also performing well and to further spur sales this fall, Boyds is moving women’s shoes and accessories front-and-center in the store and relocating men’s shoes upstairs to a space formerly filled by a restaurant. “We’re definitely focused on growing the men’s shoe business,” Gushner said.

At the shows, he was shopping primarily for bottoms and was planning to increase the amount of denim for spring. “We’ve probably underplayed it for too long,” he said. “Now we’re trying to embrace it. And we’re also looking for any new direction in fashion and fresh items we can add.”

H. Craig DeLongy of John Craig in Winter Park, Fla., said he had “a very good spring. We were up double-digits across the board. The Naples market has really turned around and this is the best and longest season we’ve ever had.” He said his contemporary store, Current, “has hit its stride and is up 40 percent for the year.” He said all classifications were performing well, especially footwear and casual trousers.

At the shows, DeLongy said he came to look for pieces to “revamp the wovens business. We’re changing vendors and price points,” he said. “We’re finding that the best-selling shirts are $150 to $200, so we’re looking to get away from the $100 shirt. We’re trading up.”

He especially liked the new England Shirt Co. and Orlan’s vintage wovens, as well as knitwear from Michael Black Minerals. In tailored clothing, Samuelsohn shined, he said, pointing to the fabrics and price points as the best in the market.

Looking ahead to fall, DeLongy said despite all the media attention on the sluggish economy, “we’re still optimistic going into spring.”

Lee Laughlin, a principal with DLS Outfitters, a buying office, said top spring trends included color in bottoms, pigment-dyed Ts and polos from brands such as Paperbacks. He also singled out the Riviera travel pant as a key item, as well as colorful plaids and washed whites in shirts. “And shoes have become a strong classification.”

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