Men’s tailored clothing sales came down to earth last year from a lofty high in 2011, but clothing executives can take comfort in what appears to be a fairly soft landing.
This story first appeared in the May 2, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After a 23.7 percent gain in 2011 to $4.61 billion, the category abruptly changed direction last year, with overall sales declining 6.6 percent to $4.3 billion. Even the previously red-hot suit classification decelerated to a 1.2 percent increase, to $2.48 billion, after narrowly missing a 30 percent jump in the previous year, according to figures from The NPD Group Inc.
More recent figures have been slightly better, suggesting the market is essentially coming back to reality. The growth spurt came after decades of difficulty and resulted from young men buying into the slimmer-fit suit as their elders refreshed their wardrobes accordingly in a tight job market.
In the 12 months ended in February, tailored clothing sales declined 3.2 percent to $4.51 billion, despite 5 percent growth in suits to $2.6 billion, and 8.9 percent growth in suit separates to $671.6 million. Possibly the victim of the growth in separates, sport coats were down 20.8 percent to $1.24 billion.
The overall numbers are in comparison to figures from 2011, which not only helped produce 4.2 percent growth in men’s apparel sales overall — a figure that shrank to 1.4 percent last year — but were also an historic near-hiatus in what has been a downward trend in suits for the better part of a half-century. Even with last year’s comparatively weak performance, tailored clothing and suit sales for the past 12 months are higher by margins of 20.5 and 34.7 percent, respectively, than they were for the 12 months ended in February 2011.
“This is a classic example of ‘be careful what you wish for because you just might get it,’” observed Marshal Cohen, a former buyer who serves as chief industry analyst at NPD. “Last year’s feast became this year’s famine and the numbers from 2011 looked great until they had to be ‘anniversaried’ last year.”
Even during its heyday, the men’s clothing business was characterized by slow turn, large investments in inventory and infrequent fashion changes.
“There’s no question that younger people really picked up on the new, slimmer look in clothing, and there was some carryover with older men as well,” Cohen said. “But once you buy some suits to dress up your act, you’re not going to need a lot more and you’re not going to be buying it on a replacement basis.”
“Tailored clothing is a shell of what it was a long time ago,” observed Madison Riley, managing director of Kurt Salmon, himself a former department store tailored clothing buyer. “What happens today is that fashion cycles come around and young men will buy into the shorter jackets and slimmer silhouette. But once you’ve got it in your closet, it’s not something you’re going to replenish the way you would a sport shirt.”
Riley, who grew up in retail wearing suits to work, notes that the tailored business today essentially revolves around special occasions — weddings, funerals, graduations and job interviews — and suits, worn with or without a tie — are hardly the workplace necessities they once were.
Retailers and manufacturers in the trenches have a different experience.
Tailored clothing sales have continued their upward trend this spring at Brooks Brothers, according to Lou Amendola, executive vice president of merchandising. “We had an increase in tailored clothing sales in fall ’12 but we were up against a decrease the year before. So we’re opposite the trend.”
Brooks had shifted some of its inventory dollars out of clothing and into sportswear, he explained, “and we’re seeing sportswear has been flat and clothing up with better sell-throughs.” Amendola added that younger guys continue to want to look more formal at work and are seeking the slimmer, more modern silhouettes. “There’s a whole generation who didn’t buy tailored clothing before buying tailored clothing,” he said.
This trend is not translating to neckwear. “There’s a trend of not wearing ties,” he said.
What has been good is the made-to-order as well as blazers’ businesses; sport coats have been a bit slower. “The younger generation is buying tailored clothing and the traditional sport coat is more for an older guy,” he said. “So the fancy sport coat business is not as good.”
There’s also a difference between the moderate customer and the better customer. “If you bought three or four suits from Jos. A. Bank, you’re not buying more any time soon,” said Amendola. “That’s not the cycle of the clothing business; suits stay in your closet for a couple of seasons.”
Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc., which became notorious within the men’s wear industry over the holiday season for its eye-popping promotions — as extreme as buy-one-get-seven-free — reported last month that its net income for the fourth quarter dropped 35.7 percent as a result of poor reaction to its holiday promotions of cold-weather sportswear and accessories. However, the company said that suits experienced modest overall gains last year, driven by “a meaningful shift in our business to tailored-fit and slim-fit products compared to traditional-fit products.”
Neal Black, chief executive officer, said at the time: “Right now, we’re in a suit cycle….Our opportunity is to turn over their wardrobes and replace what’s hanging in their closets with updated fits.”
The Men’s Wearhouse Inc. in March reported a larger-than-expected loss of $3.4 million in the fourth quarter as traffic during the holiday season was soft. However, ceo Doug Ewert said that investments in merchandise and marketing to target a younger customer met with a strong response. “[We] saw both new and existing customers respond enthusiastically to our offerings in modern and slim-fit clothing,” he said. Modern clothing now accounts for half of the business, he said, while slim-fit is 30 percent and is projected to increase to 40 percent this year.
Wayne Drummond, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for Hudson’s Bay Co. and Lord & Taylor, said his stores have in suits “seen a nice, steady, but modest growth for the last couple of years.” The trend is continuing this year. “We’re seeing healthy single-digit increases at Lord & Taylor and the same thing at Hudson’s Bay.” In fact, the response to tailored clothing has been so strong that the company is in the midst of rolling out the classification to all doors within Hudson’s Bay within the next year or so. Drummond said that prior to spring, only a third of Hudson’s Bay’s stores had carried tailored clothing, but that number was doubled for this season. “We’re confident that clothing is gaining momentum,” he said. Clothing is already carried in all Lord & Taylor doors and is seen as a core business.
At both retail chains, Drummond said it’s the “newness in fit and silhouette” that is driving sales. “We’re seeing a whole lifestyle change in terms of fit,” he said. “And casual Fridays have a whole new meaning today. Men are looking for tailored and clean looks.”
Wally Naymon, owner of Kilgore Trout, a men’s specialty store in Cleveland, said his tailored clothing business has experienced huge increases since 2010 — 2012 was “off the charts, and that’s still the case today.” He said the most action is coming from trunk shows where made-to-measure suits are driving the business. “Everybody wants all the options available and they’re willing to pay for the benefits of picking the linings, vents, shoulders, fabric.”
Naymon said there is a “finite number of people wearing clothing today.” The ones that are, he added, “want to look current. And the young guys want to dress up. Thank God for Justin Timberlake.”
He also pointed to the recent National Football League draft and all the young players wearing fitted clothing. “They’re dressing way cooler and they’re modern and contemporary,” Naymon said.
Customers want to emulate what they see sports and entertainment celebrities wearing, and if they have the money “they’re stepping up to made-to-measure,” he said. But they’re also embracing more moderately priced off-the-rack suits for $1,000 to $1,400.
Even so, Naymon can’t guess when the trend will run its course. “Everything ends, there are cycles to everything and I can’t imagine it’ll last much longer, but who knows,” he said.
Most vendors too are seeing a continuation of the strong suit business of the past couple of years.
Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing, said the reason the sales numbers for suits have dipped is because suit separates have grown to represent a larger percentage of sales. “Separates have increased to 60 to 70 percent of the clothing business and stores like Kohl’s only sell separates. So when you put both numbers together, we’re way ahead.”
Anthony Sapienza, ceo of JA Apparel Corp., which markets the Joseph Abboud brand, said, “The replacement suit/midprice buyer needed new clothes in 2011. He hadn’t bought any during the recession, so I think the spike was because of that. But as the economy improved, the better business got stronger.” He said sales with the company’s high-end accounts such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue are “up significantly,” indicating that the customer is “feeling more confident.”
He believes that, by contrast, the moderate customer is still jittery, and “has what he needs. If he went out and bought two-for-one or four-for-one, he has more suits than he needs.”
He continued, “Our business is tracking nicely and we continue to promote Made in America, which has a good ring to it and resonates with customers.” Color and new models are also driving sales. “Men are more liberal in their aesthetic today and young guys are not afraid to move beyond gray and blue,” said Sapienza, adding the company’s made-to-measure business has also been good.
As a result, Sapienza is expecting the suit business to continue to be strong for a little while longer. “It won’t be forever, but there should be another two years of growth,” he said. “We think the momentum will continue and it will be combined with the growth in our economy. This has a lot of staying power, particularly with the younger guys. And that’s good news for us.”
For Wesley Howard, president of the Lanier Clothes division of Oxford Industries Inc., driving strong business boils down to one thing — if the product is desirable, it will sell. “Mediocre product is not selling,” he said. “And you’re either doing well or you’re gone.”
Howard has seen a shift from nested suits to suit separates at some mainline stores and that is driving sales for retailers. “The customer doesn’t default to a traditional suit,” he said, noting they opt instead for wearing a jacket with jeans or other unrelated pants.
On the other hand, he’s also noticed that some better stores that traditionally carry large suit inventories have begun shifting some of their dollars into sportswear. “It’s more anecdotal at this point, but there seem to be fewer suit units per store at the upper-moderate level,” said Howard.
Sport coats continue to hold their own as well, he said, driven primarily by more softly constructed models. “They’re performing better than in years past.”
Overall, Howard believes there’s “still life in the [tailored clothing] product category, but you have to adapt. The days of hanging mediocre product on a four-way for any length of time are over,” he said.
Arnold Brant Silverstone, president of Samuelsohn, said the company experienced “huge growth” last year, but sales slowed a bit at the beginning of 2013 as cool weather impacted retail business. “But two weeks ago was good and last week was amazing,” he added. Sport coats have been strong as well as suits, which are selling best in the slimmer silhouettes. “Our traditional fit has slowed,” Silverstone said, “and we also have an extreme fit, but that’s a small part of the business. Most of the business is mainstream and slim fit.” Suits in performance fabrics have also been a highlight, he said.
Doug Williams, ceo of the W Diamond Group, which operates the former HMX brands, has not seen a slowdown in business. “We’re seeing very good business,” he said. “Hickey Freeman is up in the high double-digits and Hart Shaffner Marx in the middouble-digits at retail.”
Williams also believes that the category has more life in it. “The key to it is newness and execution,” he said. “It’s still an excellent business.”