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Freemans sporting club on the lower east side of manhattan is a carefully art-directed establishment that re-creates the look and feel of an old-time barbershop. Customers sit in vintage chairs from the Thirties, and antique chrome dispensers ooze heated shaving cream. It’s an overtly masculine haven inspired by an era when men were men and the barbershop was a pretty straightforward grooming experience.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Still, this isn’t your father’s barbershop. A cut and shave here is actually a meticulously stylized experience in the guise of a retro-manly ritual. There are fancy products applied to the hair and face from pricy purveyors such as Malin + Goetz and Baxter of California. The straight razors are made by hipster artisans at Black Sheep & Prodigal Sons, and the barbers themselves are gussied up in plaid shirts with ties, up-to-the-minute premium denim and newsboy caps tilted just so.
FSC is one of a wave of upscale barbershops catering to guys who are seduced by the trappings of masculine tradition, but demand it in a fashionable form. These are the same male consumers who have made carefully groomed beards ubiquitous in certain stylish quarters, decreed that plaid is de rigueur and somehow turned DIY butchering into a trend (“Dude, let’s go scope out the Henckel cleavers after we check out the Quoddy boots at J. Crew Liquor Store”).
It’s all part of a movement some call “retrosexual,” a play on the dated and derided term “metrosexual.” If the latter heralded the rise over the past decade of a newly manicured and somewhat emasculated modern male, the retrosexual is at once an evolution and a renunciation of that trend. While these men are looking back to the styles, values and pastimes of traditional masculinity, they are doing so through the lens of the post-metrosexual male—one with heightened discernment about brands, aesthetics and lifestyle.
In the extreme, the retrosexual is hard to miss. Look for the flannel-clad urban woodsman with an encyclopedic knowledge of single-malt Scotch or the nouveau gentleman riding around town on a fixed-gear bicycle or the latter-day faux-laborer with meticulously inked-up arms in a boutique chambray shirt. But more subtle examples are everywhere. See Justin Timberlake’s taste for fedoras, Johnny Depp’s Buddy Holly–era eyeglasses and Jamie Oliver’s vintage Ford Bronco, which showed up regularly in the chef’s TV show Food Revolution.
The trend can also be seen in the burgeoning popularity of brands that connote Americana and heritage, whether real or manufactured—such as Filson, Woolrich, Pendleton, Gilded Age, Rogues Gallery, Red Wing boots and vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. Men’s retailers have also gotten into the act, creating old-school environments based on men’s clubs or hunting lodges. Tom Ford flagships evince the masculine swagger of swank bachelor pads, while stores such as Odin and John Varvatos have more of a Depression-era general store vibe, with rough-hewn floors, exposed brick and worn-leather furnishings.
“People respond to things that feel authentic and have a history, even if that history is fabricated,” says Taavo Somer, co-founder of the two FSC barber shops, as well as the associated Freemans Sporting Club haberdashery and Freemans restaurant, which all evoke the simple masculinity of the past in their decor and offerings.
While Freeman’s and its ilk cater to a trendy crowd, experts recommend that men’s retail in general adopt the strategy. In his book, Branding the Man, Bertrand Pellegrin makes the case that men avoid shopping because retail space is not designed for them. “In order for the male customer to understand the merchandise, it needs to be framed in a way that makes sense and can be instantly read as ‘masculine,’” he notes. “A man seeks places that offer compelling and emotional experiences that enhance his sense of manhood.” Just as the retrosexual pulls from historical male archetypes, Pellegrin suggests, men’s retailers should borrow from traditionally male spaces such as gyms, sports bars, men’s clubs and electronics stores.
Cultural observers say the current backward glance to the masculine norms of yesteryear is largely a reaction to the increased blurring of gender roles as well as male economic insecurity. While seeking authentic experiences amid today’s mass production and marketing, men are looking to previous eras for a surer sense of self. “Guys have experienced a loss of power, and masculinity has been under pressure,” explains Ian Pierpoint, chief executive officer of The Sound Research, a market research firm. “They are looking to the past to borrow what they see as more stable and authentic forms of masculinity.”
Pierpoint identifies two primary sources of male insecurity. One is unemployment, which has impacted men—who account for nearly 60 percent of the jobless—more severely than women. The other is what he calls gender parity: Not only do men and women play equal roles at work and share more of the same household duties, but increasingly, they share similar outlooks. “If you talk to young men and women, their views on sex, relationships, marriage and children have converged,” Pierpoint says. “There is less difference between the sexes than ever, and one way guys deal with that is by adopting the styles and attitudes of previous generations.”
Gender parity has deepened steadily since World War II as women have increased their financial independence. Women now comprise 46.5 percent of the labor force, according to the Department of Labor. “Men are competing with women in the workplace, and looking their best is part of that competition,” notes Jack Essig, publisher of Men’s Health, which has conducted studies over the past few years documenting the changing roles of men in society and as consumers.
As women have adopted traditionally masculine roles, men have taken on responsibilities once handled by women, such as shopping. According to Nielsen data, from 2004 to 2009, men’s “average dollar basket size” in grocery stores grew from $27.49 to $41.67, while women’s increased more modestly, from $37.44 to $43.50—now just slightly ahead of men’s. A Men’s Health study conducted in December showed that 29 percent of men say they are more involved with grocery shopping today than two to three years ago, up 9 percentage points from a similar study in 2007. Such shifts in behavior “open up a lot of untapped opportunities for marketers,” says Craig Elston, vice president of insights and strategy at brand marketer The Integer Group.
Shopping patterns have converged in other ways, as well. Male shoppers are becoming as frugal as women, according to the research firm WSL Strategic Retail. In its 2010 “How America Shops Survey,” the percentage of men concerned with getting the lowest price was 62 percent, up from 59 percent in 2008. That’s not quite the same level as women, 70 percent of whom seek the lowest price, but it’s close. A growing number of guys—49 percent—even admitted to clipping coupons. “Traditionally, we see men as less concerned about [price], but this recession has really gotten their attention,” says WSL president Candace Corlett.
Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York, maintains that men are increasingly drawn to traditional expressions of masculinity for two reasons: the recent recession and the more long-term confluence of gender roles. He recalls a study that showed that men grew their sideburns and beards during periods when women made visible strides toward equality. “If the sexes are equal, men will gravitate to the things that differentiate them,” says Kimmel, the author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History and 14 other books on similar subjects.
Certainly barber shops have enjoyed a surge in popularity. There were 235,000 barbers in 100,000 shops in the U.S. last year, the highest in recent memory, according to the National Association of Barber Boards of America. Those numbers have increased steadily since a low in the mid-Eighties. “I think the unisex years are over,” says Charles Kirkpatrick, the association’s executive officer, referring to the dual-gender hair salons favored by metrosexuals.
If men feel anxious, marketers have begun to pick up on it. In February, Super Bowl ads seemed preoccupied with male powerlessness. Dodge launched a controversial commercial where beleaguered-looking men dully recite the little sacrifices they make for their wives: “I will hold your lip balm. I will say ‘yes’ when you want me to say ‘yes.’” Old Spice aired a funny spot that called attention to the difference between the brand’s handsome spokesman and the average joe watching at home. “Look at me. Now look at your man. Now look at me,” the spokesman urges, pointing out the inadequacy of the lump on the couch.
Dockers unveiled an ad declaring that men, represented by a group of homely guys marching around in their underwear, need to buck up and start wearing The Pants. Jenn Say, Dockers vice president of global marketing, says various trends—including studies that show a decline in sperm counts in American men—sparked the latest campaign. “Men are struggling in today’s world,” she observes.
Perhaps that struggle has inhibited a strong return to spending. According to The NPD Group, men’s apparel is rebounding more slowly than women’s. “Guys are thinking two or three times before buying something and asking themselves if they really need it,” says NPD Group chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. “Conspicuous consumption has changed to calculated consumption.”
For the 12 months ended in March, total men’s apparel sales fell 3.3 percent to $51.58 billion, while total women’s sales dipped 1.5 percent to $105.48 billion. Still, those decreases are smaller than the 4.8 percent decline in men’s, and the 3 percent drop in women’s, in the same period a year earlier.
One men’s apparel category making a strong rebound is designer labels. For the three months ended in March, total sales of designer brands in men’s rose 9.6 percent to $922.6 million, according to The NPD Group. In the same period, sales of designer brands in women’s wear declined 3.7 percent to $962.8 million. “Brands mean more to men than to women,” notes Cohen. “For guys, the label is sort of like the car he drives.”
The revived designer business for men points to the lingering effect of the metrosexual phenomenon as it evolves into today’s retrosexual. Even if the term metrosexual seems dated, the trends it represented have become mainstream. “The whole metrosexual thing is still very real,” contends Marian Salzman, a forecaster at Euro RSCG who helped identify the trend a decade ago. “The term was a fad that passed, but what we call ‘the trend’ is irrelevant. The neutralization of gender differences it described is still happening.”
Earlier this year, when GQ and Allure jointly conducted a study of grooming behaviors and attitudes, 83 percent of men said there is more pressure to care about one’s appearance today than 10 years ago. The majority—63 percent— said they have a more extensive grooming regimen than their fathers’ generation did, while 88 percent said they spend more money on grooming products.
“The by-product of the whole metrosexual trend is that most guys feel that having good clothes and brands is an important part of life,” says Nathan Richardson, vice president and general manager of men’s at Gilt Groupe, which has 625,000 male members who account for 25 percent of the e-tailer’s total membership base. Richardson notes the company ships its trendy merchandise to all 50 states. “Technology is really giving men all over the U.S., even in remote areas, access to these brands and styles, which would not have been available to them five years ago,” he says.
So the metrosexual isn’t completely dead: He simply moved from the city to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the leading edge is gravitating to fashionable products and services with more traditionally masculine packaging and presentation.
“I think there is a longing for something that was missing in the market,” says FSC’s Somer when asked about his barbershop and boutique’s appeal. “If you look at the market, there was not really a space that was by regular dudes for regular dudes. Guys are very suspicious of fashion. They want stuff that’s been around and been tested and will last. Guys respond to a feeling of history.”