By  on August 3, 2011

The world’s largest dress shirt manufacturer is slimming down.

After a successful test earlier this year with double-digit sell-throughs, Phillips-Van Heusen is preparing for a full market launch of a slimmer, more youthful collection of dress shirts under the Van Heusen Studio name for spring.

“The dress shirt business in general across the country is good,” said Mitchell Lechner, president of the PVH dress shirt group. “AURs [average unit retails] are up in all channels of distribution. It’s a good time for dress shirts.”

What’s driving the business, Lechner said, is consumer interest in a more modern silhouette, which fits tighter to the body and avoids the excess fabric that had become a hallmark of the dress shirt market over the years.

Slim-fit dress shirts at PVH now account for 30 percent of the overall business, Lechner revealed, up from the single digits two years ago. Fitted shirts are 15 percent of sales and regular fit is 55 percent.

At the Van Heusen division, slim currently accounts for 20 percent, fitted is 15 percent and regular fit is 65 percent. Lechner projected that with the national launch of Van Heusen Studio, the percentage of slim fit at the Van Heusen division will double.

The dress shirt market has experienced strong growth as young men have embraced a more dressed-up sensibility. According to the most recent figures from The NPD Group, for the first five months of this year, sales of men’s dress shirts rose 8 percent to $755 million. This goes hand-in-hand with the increase of 8.4 percent in tailored clothing in the same period. The dress shirt market is being driven by a slimmer silhouette and hybrid patterns that can be worn with or without a tie.

But while the fashion trend among young men is undeniable, Lechner said slimmer fits appeal to customers of all ages. “The category has become more youthful,” he said. “It’s not an age, it’s a lifestyle. You can be 50 and still be youthful.”

He added: “Men are more comfortable than ever before with less fabric and a slimmer look, not just in dress shirts but in suitings as well. Dress shirts fit better than other woven shirts and as men become more body- and fashion-conscious they want their shirt to fit properly. Men see their appearance as a key to social and professional success. This is illustrated by the numerous fitness magazines and grooming products geared toward men that have launched in the past few years.”

And the dress shirt market is reaping the benefits. In addition to PVH, other manufacturers have experienced similar success. In a recent check of the market, vendors ranging from Individualized Shirts and Gitman to Perry Ellis and Gant all pointed to slim-fit models as the current cash cow. “It’s not about skinny. It’s about cleaning up the volume and looking neater,” said one major retailer.

To capitalize further on the trend, PVH will offer four collections a year of Van Heusen Studio shirts: spring, summer, fall and holiday. In addition to the slim fit, the shirts will also feature smaller collars, more contemporary details and the patterns will be edgier. “There will be more casual, exploded patterns,” Lechner said, “that can work with or without neckwear.”

He continued: “Dress shirts as a category has been so successful because it has become younger in both age and lifestyle. Today’s fashion offers smaller collars and plackets, as well as patterns, which enable a consumer to wear a dress shirt for many different occasions with or without a tie. This has resonated more than ever with younger customers in all channels of distribution. If you pick up any fashion magazine these days, you will see a younger consumer in a shirt and tie and he may be wearing them with jeans or a suit.”

The collection, which will retail at $45, the same price as the regular Van Heusen line, is expected to help department stores keep up with the influx of fashion dress shirts among its specialty store competitors. “The department stores still own the dress shirt business, but if you look at the middle of the mall now — J. Crew, Express — they’re really pushing dress shirts. That’s what’s moving the men’s category.”

Lechner said he’s not threatened by the new competition. In fact, he welcomes it. “The more people who wear dress shirts and neckwear in different ways, the more terrific it is for the category.”

Lechner urged department stores to capitalize on the new product offering by enhancing the in-store presentation. “There’s a challenge to the department store in how to display it,” he said. “If they keep it horizontal on tables, they’re not showing the excitement and there’s so much opportunity in this category. We’re doing a good job getting the younger guy, but they have to show it properly.”

The collection also includes a selection of matching shirts and ties, which will retail for $60. Many of the shirts offer stretch features and are wrinkle-free.

The marketing plan for the new collection is still being formulated, Lechner said, but it is expected that it will be a key component of the company’s advertising efforts with the NFL and ESPN.

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