By and and  on February 25, 2010

Vintage and rustic Americana looks predominated at Project for fall, as buyers waded through a plethora of plaid wovens, vintage khakis, puffer vests and straight-leg denim. The trends were familiar and should appeal to a wide range of male consumers, who are starting to shop again after an extended period of retail abstinence due to the economy, show attendees said.

“This past September the consumer came back out, the light switch turned on and there’s been a normalized cadence in buying,” said Topher Gaylord, president of VF Corp.’s Seven For All Mankind. “Guys have been reloading their basics after being very tight with purchases. It was a little choppy in October and November, but December was strong and we had a good start to the new year in January. I think we’ve passed through the eye of the storm.”

James Hammonds, men’s buyer at American Rag, was similarly upbeat about the coming season. The trendy retailer operates three California stores in Los Angeles, Newport Beach and San Francisco, and this month sales are running nearly double from a year ago, following a long string of same-store sales declines. “This could be a turning point,” said Hammonds of the uptick.

However, wholesale customers are still planning inventory carefully and buying close to market, cautioned Gaylord.

Seven For All Mankind’s product focus for fall includes an expansion of outerwear offerings, including peacoats and leather jackets, as well as more nonindigo denim options. “We’re building more value into our existing price points,” noted Gaylord. “Our $169 jean in terms of wash sophistication, distressing and dimension might have sold for $198 a year ago.”

The company also is upping its reliance on its own stores, with plans to increase direct-to-consumer sales to 27 percent of the total this year, up from 19 percent last year. Seven For All Mankind will open 12 more stores in the U.S. this year, bringing its store count to 40.

Rival denim maker True Religion Brand Jeans plans to open 25 stores this year. “We have zero debt, and we can get better leases as other companies falter,” said Jeff Lubell, chairman and chief executive officer, who added operating its own stores gave True Religion a leg up during the recession as the company was not solely reliant on wholesale partners.

Lubell highlighted stretch corduroy, twisted seams on denim, resin rinses, Western shirts and tailored pieces as key themes in True Religion men’s collections for fall.

American Rag’s Hammonds said his favorite brands at Project were Evisu, which has undergone a total revamping under new ceo Scott Morrison, and the Puma line designed by Hussein Chalayan. “Everyone I know who saw Evisu loved it,” said Hammonds of the Japanese label, which has re-embraced an authentic, vintage Americana aesthetic in both denim and a complementary sportswear range. “And with the Puma collection, you could really see the Chalayan influences, which isn’t always true with these designer activewear collaborations.”

Craig DeLongy of John Craig in Winter Park, Fla., was shopping Project for his contemporary store. Among the pieces he liked were lightweight outerwear from Paul LaFontaine and embellished leather jackets from Raw, the latter for use as “window pieces.” M. Cohen jewelry, denim under $175, and hip chinos for $125 were also on his shopping list.

Gant Rugger landed on many buyers’ lists. Inspired by the early Seventies, the fall offering featured all-over print sweaters, slim Nantucket red trousers, trim sport coats, vintage puffer vests, preppy outwear like the toggle coat and checked shirts. This season Gant Rugger debuted a line of accessories including hats, gloves and bags as part of a continued bid to dress their customer head to toe. “Rugger will overtake main label Gant as our biggest business in the U.S. this year,” said Ari Hoffman, ceo of Gant USA.

The market’s yen for Americana continued to drive business at brands like outerwear maker Schott, which offered Western-style plaid, fleece-lined jackets and mixed media puffer vests as well as slim-fitting versions of the iconic Perfecto motorcycle jacket. A snowy winter has been kind to the outerwear business and Jason Schott, chief operating officer at his family-owned company, said the cold weather has prompted strong bookings for fall — even as his company continues to replenish coats up and down the East Coast. “Everyone planned conservatively last fall,” he explained.

Americana took a different course at NML International, which has revived the Members Only jacket line, whose circa 1982 originals are beloved by the hipster set. “It was only a matter of time before this came back,” said Jaggi Singh, president of NML, of the lightweight poly-cotton waist-length jackets.

Workwear stripes, lumberjack themes and classic denim shirting were trending well at Ben Sherman. Gingham wovens were offered in nine different colors and chunky knits were seeing strong sales. “Authentic detailing in the form of leather football buttons and horn toggles is giving the product a very handmade feel,” said Mark Maidment, global creative director of the London-based brand. “The key thing to focus on, always, is to make sure our collections are forward thinking, original, inspiring, yet commercially balanced. It’s easy in tough times to not think progressively.”

Christian Audigier made a big departure from his established aesthetic with a new label, The Same Guy, which features a pared-down aesthetic — a far cry from his signature vibrant motifs at Ed Hardy. “I know how to sell a T-shirt,” said Audigier of the line of pigment washed T-shirts and knits, which retail for $32 to $92. “The whole market is going this way. Customers want something plainer these days,” he said.

Premium pricing, however, was still prevalent at AG Adriano Goldschmied, where men’s designer Sam Ku showcased a new line of $245 to $295 jeans made from Cone Denim fabric, a first for the L.A.-based brand. “Most of our denim is from Japan and Italy, but we wanted to use something from the U.S. this season,” explained Ku. The jeans were modeled after Levi’s from the Sixties and Cone Denim reproduced the imperfections and slub character from the yarns of that era.

“There has been some downward price pressure, but if you can create something special that customers can’t find anywhere else, then people are willing to pay for that,” said Ku, noting that about half of AG’s sales were over the $200 price point last year. A more affordable option was available in a line of vintage-wash khakis, under the new AG Supply label, which retail for $185.

AG Adriano Goldschmied, which is owned by Koos Mfg. Inc., saw sales increase by 62 percent in 2009. “Things just seem to be clicking for us,” noted Ku. “I think even in tough times, a medium-sized brand like ours can take market share with the right product.”

Underwear label 2xist expanded its shapewear collection. “There really isn’t designer shapewear out there and 2xist is the first to claim the market and offer a high-end brand in this category,” said Jason Scarlatti, creative director at the brand. Also on display was a new range under the Sliq label, which Scarlatti explained is “the latest evolution in what is sexy.”

On the darker, fashion-forward spectrum, a number of brands, from Mik Cire to Atypical, showed moody, romantic, often black clothing that was a severe break from the preppy and Americana themes at Project. Some might call the look Rick Owens lite — but at least it wasn’t plaid.

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