By  on February 4, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — As if on cue, Shoefty Garb’s front door swings open and four six-foot-tall, 20-something guys dressed in skinny designer jeans, luxury brand high-tops and long, gauzy scarves envelop the upscale shop with a kind of divide-and-conquer attitude. Twenty minutes later, loaded with $400 in purchases, they retreat to their black Hummer with Texas plates parked at the curb. Those apparel studs are the kind of destination shoppers that owner Sarah Winston and buyer/director Michael Mott had in mind when they recalibrated their men’s and women’s shoe store to include men’s wear.

The 1,500-square-foot store is one of a handful of men’s wear shops on Magazine Street, formerly the trendy address of dozens of women’s boutiques, art galleries, antiques shops and cafés—and now, a decidedly go-to bastion for guys.

Like Shoefty Garb, Jean Therapy featured only women’s jeans and T-shirts when it opened six years ago. Since launching into men’s denim, that side of the jean equation has increased to around 25 percent of sales. “Men have quit wearing khakis, and now appreciate the fashion denim,” says Vicki Ajani, who co-owns the store with her brother Steven. “It used to be that only the Marlboro Man wore jeans, but now it’s become a part of popular culture. The appeal has evolved to the point that last year guys started coming in on their own without girlfriends or wives,” Steven quips.

Shoefty Garb expanded into men’s apparel in 2006, and today the male customer represents 40 percent of the store’s apparel sales. Selections for men include Seize sur Vingt with shirts at $180 to $250, Comme des Garçons shirts and outerwear ranging in price from $220 to $1,000, and Troglodyte Homunculus shirts and suits ranging from $150 to $1,000. Fifteen men’s shoe brands—representing 50 percent of sales in that category—run the gamut from everyday boots and oxfords to sneakers and range in price from a $190 Blackstone oxford to a Harry’s of London dress shoe at $500.

“We like to carry hard-to-find clothes and shoes,” explains Mott. “For us, it’s not just about making money: We like to open up ways for men to express themselves and to represent neo-emerging designers.”

Not that Magazine Street has only recently attracted the male shopper. Since 1939 the venerable men’s store Perlis has dressed generations in iconic seersucker and white linen suits, as well as knit shirts and ties, with its trademark crawfish logo. Over the years, the 16,000-square-foot store has expanded into women’s and children’s apparel, but men’s, shoes and formalwear rentals still account for 75 percent of sales.

Men’s apparel options have also increased with the small men’s boutiques staking a claim on the male customer who might at one time have had to shop in New York or Los Angeles to find a hip look.

In fact, it was New Orleans friends who were making shopping expeditions to the coasts that prompted Style Lab for Men co-owners Jennifer Webber and Cristy McNabb to tailor a shop just to keep the friends’ money at home. Their 1,200-square-foot, renovated, turn-of-the-century cottage is a sleek contemporary emporium of high-end men’s designers.

Parked at the entrance, a reproduction of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and sidecar on loan from McNabb’s musician husband is a clue that the interior revolves around the guys. Inside, a pool table and stocked bar appeal to the 25- to 50-year-old customers who depend on Style Lab for its broad selection of denim and wovens, representing 30 percent and 50 percent of sales, respectively.

Style Lab nabbed Diesel’s denim and fashion lines exclusively for New Orleans, a deal for which McNabb and Webber admit they “begged” the reluctant vendor. “They are very picky about their retailers—they want to be in a hip atmosphere, and we finally convinced them we filled the bill,” says Webber.

Shirt vendors, including Modern Amusement, Trovata and John Varvatos, from $130 to $150, as well as suits from Theory, Ted Baker and Paul Smith, from $700 to $900, are mainstays.

The economic future for just about everyone in this sultry Southern city is often referred to in the same sentence as Katrina, the hurricane that devastated the city more than two years ago. Ironically, it has fueled retailers’ expansion as a way to insulate themselves from any future business interruption.

Prior to the hurricane, McNabb and Webber, for example, had considered expanding, but post-Katrina they accelerated their plan and opened a store in Baton Rouge, La., in 2006. “We were uncertain of what to expect in New Orleans recovery,” McNabb says.

In its Magazine Street original location for six years, Jean Therapy added another store in a downtown shopping center after the storm, bringing its store count to three in New Orleans and one in Baton Rouge. Two other stores are being considered for budding suburban areas about 50 minutes north of New Orleans.

“We defied the gravity of post-Katrina skepticism. Instead of running for the hills we hunkered down, seized the opportunity and continued to grow our business. The contrarian approach paid off,” says Steven. “We now have twice as many stores, expanded to new geographical areas and increased our same-store sales by 20 percent year over year.”

Those post-Katrina months required a “serious leap of faith in the city and in each other,” recalls Shoefty’s Mott. “But we believed in our business model and we loved what we do.”

For Shoefty Garb, expansion is not the next step—but Winston and Mott may be looking for another location—off Magazine Street. When it opened in 2002 it was the lone fashion retailer within blocks and its immediate neighbors were a hardware store and a barbershop. Over the years, Magazine Street has gotten a bit too trendy for Winston. “We like to be off the beaten track—a destination all on our own.”

But apparel is not the only draw for guys on Magazine Street. Dublin expatriate Aidan Gill operates a swank combination barbershop/haberdashery. Before they leave with a clean shave, most customers peruse the walls lined with high-end gifts of jewelry, watches, cologne and razor sets up to $450. The perennially buttoned-up Gill is understandably partial to his shop’s variety of bow ties, cravats and pocket scarves from seven vendors, from $40 to $100.

Men’s skincare products, body scrubs and deep-tissue massages are on tap up the street at Belladonna Day Spa, where its contemporary Eastern accents and gender-neutral interior were specifically designed to put men at ease, says owner Kim Dudek. The 50-minute, $75 “Be Handsome” facial is a primer to the shelves loaded with grooming lines.

With the myriad of options to draw a male crowd—now a welcome addition to its commercial profile—Magazine Street’s future seems even more solidly ensconced, come hell or any future high water.

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