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Beyond the Navy Blazer

Vendors are branching out and taking a collection approach to the tailored clothing segment in hopes of cashing in on fashion-focused moms and dads.

NEW YORK — Nothing is more conservative than an eight-year old at Easter. 

The pleated khaki pant, the navy blazer, the white shirt—product in the boys’ tailored clothing segment is notoriously slow to evolve thanks to its volume-price business model and reliance on replenishment-friendly basics. 

But a growing number of vendors across all channels are branching out and taking a collection approach to the small but growing market in hopes of cashing in on fashion-focused moms and dads. Both Peerless Clothing, which produces for the Joseph Abboud brand under license, and Hickey Freeman have launched item-oriented boys’ clothing lines aimed at affluent consumers in the last few years. 

Instead of basics, these companies offer tailored clothing that in many cases is as sophisticated (and pricey) as their adult counterparts. To wit: $495 boys’ suits from Hickey Freeman made with Italian piece goods, and a hybrid jacket/sport coat with zip-front closure, iPod pocket and suede trim for $200 from Joseph Abboud. 

“Our boys’ business is the Mini Me version of our men’s offering,” said Paulette Garafalo, group president of Hartmarx’s luxury division, which includes the Hickey Freeman brand. “Boys that [buy from us] do not want to be juvenile. They’d much rather look like their father.” 

The boys’ clothing vendors, particularly in the mid-tier, have long taken a monolithic approach to product, offering few SKUs and one model. But Leon Goodman, president of Peerless’s fledgling boys’ division, said there’s upside to giving boys more options. That company’s Joseph Abboud boys’ label, which is sold in better department stores, has more than 100 SKUs, including silk neckwear, dress and sport shirts, five suit and sport coat models, three trouser models, a tuxedo, reversible vests and even a few outerwear pieces. 

“We wanted to do men’s fashion in kids’ sizes,” said Goodman, adding that Peerless is actively seeking additional boys’ licenses.  The division’s newest line, DKNY (Peerless also makes men’s tailored clothing for the brand), imports that label’s sleek modernism with narrower suits, a dark palette, iridescent cloths and even the skinny ties—the polished DKNY man for your five-year old. 

But some say that grafting ideas and styles from men’s to boys’ isn’t always successful. “It can be too sophisticated,” said Joel Besner, president for J.A. Besner, which makes boys’ clothing for Hart Schaffner Marx and Ike Behar. “Some items are great if you’re 35 but not if you’re 12.” Besner said he rushed moving from two-button to three-button a decade ago. “You can move too soon.” 

But Goodman explains that while most consumers don’t drop hundreds of dollars for clothing a boy will outgrow in a year, Peerless sells to a customer that is not only willing to spend but wants clothing that is trend-conscious and reflective of a brand’s DNA. 

Marshal Cohen, analyst for The NPD Group, agreed: “The designer phenomenon has caught on to the boys’ market, and the difference between men’s and boys’ is diminishing.”  That perspective may only speak to a fraction of the market, but the numbers suggest there’s room to grow. According to NPD, dollar volume for the segment jumped 106 percent in 2007 from $141 million to $290 million, outpacing every other category of the $9 billion boys’ wear market. 

Cohen said brisk sales at national chains and discounters, coupled with a genuine interest among young consumers in tailored clothing, fueled the category’s growth. “This business is no longer relegated to occasion business or the department store,” he said. 

But those figures have raised eyebrows among vendors who say that boys’ clothing, while healthy, isn’t posting those kinds of gains. 

“That seems terribly skewed to me,” said Jimmy Rosenfeld, president of sales and merchandising at Fishman & Tobin, the largest player in boys’ dress-up. 

He should know. He said his company owns 95 percent of the boys’ tailored clothing business, which is primarily a mid-tier affair. Fishman & Tobin makes clothing and sportswear for Nautica, Calvin Klein, Izod, Arrow and Sean John under license.  Rosenfeld admitted that product in boys’ is slow to move. Where men’s wear has gravitated to two-button suits and flat-front pants in recent years, boys’ wear has yet to evolve, offering predominantly three-button jackets and pleated bottoms. 

But there are reasons for that, Rosenfeld said. The boys’ consumer is price-sensitive and wants to buy basics that can be replaced cheaply when the boy outgrows it. Retail space is also limited and doesn’t lend to offering multiple SKUs. Given the uniformity of the product, changes in model don’t occur until a trend in men’s wear has become ubiquitous, hence the continued prevalence of three-button suits. 

But even in the volume segment, boy’s tailored clothing is diversifying. Rosenfeld said Fishman & Tobin has been adding “casual dress” items to its assortment every year. The category, which includes dress knits, sport shirts and dressed-down sport coats, now accounts for 30 percent of the offering. 

For example, Sean John sold a soft khaki cotton blazer, with a lime and peach check shirt and matching pocket square for spring. “Consumers want more options,” he said, adding that retailers should ask for better assortments and offer more space to boys’ clothing during key selling periods, like Easter and graduation.  But the king of the mid-tier is also looking to trade up. Rosenfeld said Fishman & Tobin has been speaking with upper-tier retailers about developing their boys’ clothing programs. Product for such programs could sell up to 100 percent more than Fishman’s current offering. The lines wouldn’t come to market until spring 2009. 

Similarly, Peerless is hoping to export its collection mentality to the mid-tier. Goodman says the company could have boys’ licenses for that market in the next 12 months.