LOS ANGELES — It’s about the new. Retailers heading to the trade shows in Las Vegas next week don’t foresee men’s wear sales backtracking this year and are casting their nets ever wider to ferret out new resources to take advantage of the male consumer’s interest in polished looks, as well as increased demand for activewear and accessories.
Last year, U.S. women’s apparel sales stalled, eking out a barely detectable 0.4 percent gain to almost $111.6 billion, according to The NPD Group Inc., while U.S. men’s apparel, still a much smaller slice of the overall market, picked up steam with a 5.3 percent jump to reach nearly $59.5 billion in sales.
“Men are investing in themselves and their personal style more than ever, and are focused on how they are expressing themselves. We see men continuing to dress up,” said Wayne Drummond, group senior vice president for men’s, ladies, kids and luggage at Hudson’s Bay/Lord & Taylor. “That doesn’t mean a tie every day, but they are cleaner, and they are accessorizing themselves. I like to think that what the guys are focusing on is thoughtfully coordinating what they are putting on every day, and that is getting more and more meaningful and is certainly going to be there in fall.”
The markers of an increased appetite for men’s fashion — slimmer silhouettes, bow ties and an upsurge in tailoring, to name just three examples — that started as coastal experimentation a few years ago have spread throughout the rest of the country, making the progress in men’s wear a broad phenomenon. At Belk, the Charlotte, N.C.-based department store chain with 300-plus stores, David Zant, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s wear, said, “There’s been a trend toward dressing up, and we are reflecting it in our sales results. Our suit separates business is probably the hottest single department that we have. Our sport coat business has grown in the double digits.”
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Davenport, Iowa-based Von Maur’s shoppers are trying the slender styles. “We still have this classic-fit guy, and we need to make sure that designers aren’t moving away completely from that, but we certainly see the trimmer fit is having an uptick,” said Joy Place, vice president of merchandising for the 29-unit retailer. She explained she has noticed a tightening up of “regular fits so there is less excess material. That is what is working for us. It is not like supertight contemporary, it is more of a trimmed fit of the typical bodies.”
The movement toward leaner silhouettes at Von Maur is also visible in jeans and other pants, Place added: “Boot cuts were certainly prevalent, especially in men’s, but the customer is getting more comfortable with a straight leg. That straight leg is a little bit of a more cleaned-up boot cut.”
The question is how long the silhouettes will stay taut. Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director for Macy’s, said, “We have certainly seen at the high end and on the runways a rounding out of the silhouette. I will be curious to see who is willing to play with that. My feeling is that the looser fit will start in denim first, and there is something about the distressing [that is proliferating in denim] that lends itself to that. On the top piece, I think it is still about a trimmer fit, but those guys that are early adopters may be looking for that next evolution.”
No matter the geographic location or type of retailer, Tom Julian, director of strategic development and men’s fashion director at The Doneger Group, emphasized that “the customer has mandated a newer silhouette.”
“For some that is slim and trim, and for others, that is a step ahead, going back to looser, drapier and elongated,” he elaborated, noting that “trim and modern seem to be the two words that most retailers are embracing. That can go from the slim shirt to the slim suit to the slim tie.”
Shifting from silhouettes to opportunities for sales, Julian outlined three categories Doneger believes will be big for fall: outerwear, casual bottoms and knitwear. “When we think of outerwear, it isn’t just the shell of the jacket. It is the various pieces that make it up — from parka dressing to vest dressing to athletic dressing in a version of the track jacket to some type of leather and mixed-media story. What we found is that crossover of outerwear and sportswear and tailored clothing, and it all mixed up. The parka got mixed with the suit and the tech jacket got mixed with premium jeans,” he said.
When retailers discussed coats for fall, it was sport coats that received loads of attention. “We think that’s a big deal going into fall and certainly where we have put a lot of emphasis,” said Drummond, suggesting that the sport coat is often replacing lighter outerwear pieces. Guion is keen on unstructured varieties. “There are many fabrications, from knit to synthetic fabrics to wools. We are really seeing it with zip and nylon details — the whole active influence. It’s the jacket that the guy is going to wear as long as he can outside before he has to wear a true outerwear piece,” he said.
Place said Von Maur shoppers are drawn to sport coats because they “can transition from work to dinner. It is something our vendors are offering as an additional layering piece,” she continued. In particular, Place has observed the unlined sport coat is on the rise from brands, but her enthusiasm for that version of the style wasn’t overwhelming. Von Maur customers, she contended, are just beginning to get accustomed to unlined sport coats. “When they think of a sport coat, they want it to be true,” said Place.
The sport coat, however, won’t spell the end of the sweater. After cardigans had their day last fall, Julian predicted a style similar to a “wrap versus a fully constructed coat” would emerge this fall. The cardigan isn’t totally dead, though. Place singled out shawl-collar cardigans as crucial fall pieces at Von Maur. “That did well for us this past fall, and I think it is going to be a key body for us for 2014,” she said.
Underneath their coats and sweaters, the T-shirt has always been an important option for men, one that may be becoming even more so. Macy’s has a strong focus on Ts for the third quarter, according to Guion. “It’s no secret, weather patterns are changing and, therefore, fashion needs are changing. The old formula of bringing in heavy jackets and corduroy on Sept. 1 is starting to break away. Wear-now categories will be an emphasis for us, and T-shirts lead that,” he said, expounding that everything from floral to camouflage to photo-realism would be represented in the T-shirt trends.
Across men’s apparel categories, activewear is having a moment. Certainly, retailers reported that traditional activewear brands such as Under Armour, which has been a hit at Belk, are performing well, but the impact of activewear is not limited to those labels. Jogger pants and elevated sweatshirts, in particular, are key items that have turned activewear into everyday, all-the-time wear. “Our core customer has always had an active mind-set. He likes activewear and the trends are allowing activewear to move beyond the gym,” said Guion.
The range of casual bottoms is expanding as activewear influences dominate. Julian detailed that casual bottoms could be printed, embroidered or pieced “like a chino that gets corduroy enhancements.”
“Then, there’s the active bottom, which is the sport pant that’s a little more tailored and stylish, and a lot more comfortable. It can be anything from a pull-on pant with a functional waistband to a knit pant that is tailored like a suit pant,” he said.
Accessories are also key sales drivers for men’s departments, which are figuring out how best to merchandise them. Julian described Doneger as “bullish” on accessories, suggesting hats, scarves, headwear and gloves would be standouts for fall. In addition, he said small leather goods, hosiery and “underwear offerings change the whole complexion of the basics department.”
Zant pointed to suspenders, cuff links, tie bars and lapel pins as accessories that are on the upswing at Belk. “We see that as a growing business for the male customer, particularly the Millennial guy that is dressing up more and more. He is embracing that and wanting to put himself together,” he said. In terms of merchandising accessories, Zant said Belk is working it out, but that “a lot of that could be an impulse pickup, so we want it to be presented close to the cash wraps.”
Largely satisfied with the newness pervading the market, retailers are betting on their core brands to deliver results in men’s wear. Peter Millar, Brooks Brothers and Vineyard Vines are among the brands that Von Maur has recently introduced or expanded, and that it will rely on in the fall. Polo Ralph Lauren and Levi’s are among the brands that have been robust at Belk, but the retailer isn’t bereft of brand launches. Bonobos is arriving at select Belk stores this month with its full collection. “They appeal to a younger customer base, and they infuse a lot of color into their brand, and we think that is reflective of what our customer wants,” said Zant.
Retailers acknowledge they can’t fully depend on legacy brands if they hope to win Millennial customers in the fall and future seasons. “Brand loyalty will always be important in the men’s zone, but the younger customer is shopping on the look and, hopefully, you have the right brand to support that,” said Zant. Julian said, “The Millennial just loves something a little different that he can call his own versus his grandfather or father.”