By  on November 18, 2010

Slimming down is all the rage today in the dress shirt and neckwear markets.

Driven by demand from a younger consumer, shoppers are responding to narrower silhouettes in both categories, and manufacturers are responding by slicing material from billowy shirts and narrowing the width of their ties. Updated patterns in dress shirts and new fabrications in neckwear are also garnering interest as customers seek a quick and simple solution to update their wardrobes.

“Both businesses have been good,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer of Brooks Brothers. “We’re selling ties that are more youthful in width and pattern, and on the shirt side, slimmer silhouettes are driving the business.”

Amendola said the shirt and tie businesses are “on par with total business, which seems to be healthier today than it has been.” He attributed it to a new generation of shopper who is drawn to narrow ties, “not the traditional three-and-a-half-inch business,” as well as bow ties, where Brooks is having success with reversible models as well as more traditional options.

In shirts, even the superslim fit is finding fans, as are crossover models that can be worn to work or after hours. Fashion colors, such as purple, are also more popular than the standard blue or white, he said. And while shirts and ties are not expected to outpace sportswear in terms of growth at Brooks Brothers, Amendola said he’s “not feeling uneasy about shirts and ties for Christmas.”

Even so, figures from the NPD Group show the categories are still challenged — sales of men’s dress shirts dropped 2.6 percent from October 2009 through October 2010, and neckwear sales fell 13.4 percent in the same period. But men’s vendors are focusing on the bright spots.

Mitchell Lechner, president of the dress-shirt division for Phillips-Van Heusen, said that although traditional dress shirts don’t show “big gyrations” in sales, fashion options are where the action is. And for PVH, “fit is fashion,” he said. Two years ago, slim-fit shirts represented around 6 percent of sales, but that number has shot up to 27 percent today, he revealed. “Slim fit is really moving the business.”

By fall 2011, Lechner said, fashion patterns will play a role. “There will be more fashion-forward statements such as bolder colors in stripes, checks that open up, saturated blues and even greens.” Wider repeats in classic stripes and day-to-night shirts are also expected to do well, along with “hybrids,” which are a cross between a dress and sport shirt, he added. “Why would a customer pay more unless he’s excited, and that’s what fashion will do,” he said.

On the neckwear side, PVH reported that sales are up in the high single digits this year, a trend the company hopes will continue, according to Larry Kniola, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Neckwear Group.

“There are a couple of trends that are moving the needle,” added David Sirkin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the PVH Neckwear Group. “The most important is the slimming down of neckwear.” Sirkin said that goes hand in hand with the overall trend in the men’s market toward more narrow silhouettes — not only shirts, but also jeans, lapels and jackets.

Sales of ties less than three inches are strong, he said, and even a two-inch Calvin X model in the Calvin Klein collection is doing well. “The slimmer we get, the better,” he said, noting that the trend is happening in brands as varied as Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Cole. “The customer sees a big difference and wants to update.”

In terms of fabric, Kniola said nontraditional offerings, such as wool, are serving to update the category. These options “can be worn with a more casual jacket or jeans,” he said. For spring, checks and plaids in cotton will be a trend.

Overall, they’re optimistic about the future. “Going into holiday, we’re extremely optimistic that we will hold our positive trend,” Sirkin said.

John Kammeier, senior vice president of merchandising for Randa, was among those reporting good business trends, led by “a big surge” from young customers. These trendsetters are responding to narrower silhouettes as well as bow ties. The bow-tie trend “came out of nowhere,” he said. The company started by offering a small program at Belk, and success there prompted an expansion to other stores.

Adding tie bars, chains or tie tacks to neckwear as a package is boosting sales at retail, Kammeier said. “Consumers see this as added value,” he said.

True seasonal fabrics — such as wool, cashmere, linen and seersucker — are gaining in importance. Patterned dress shirts are giving a boost to solid ties, while men who opt for solid shirts are embracing neckwear in patterns such as plaids. Randa is also seeing more interest in performance fabrics and is now offering oil-resistant finishes in addition to wash-and-wear ties.

“With the new innovations and the success we’re having with the youth market,” he said, “it’s cool to wear a tie again, and that drives a lot of business.”

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