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The Confidence Man

The global economy, e-commerce and evolving cultural norms have helped create a newly assured fashion customer.

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Mr. Porter is mining the growth in tailored clothing

Courtesy Photo

Billy Reid offers indie fashion.

Billy Reid offers indie fashion.

Courtesy Photo

Christian Louboutin is opening freestanding men’s stores.

Christian Louboutin is opening freestanding men’s stores.

Susie Rea

Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 06/18/2012

Red was the color of spring when it came to men’s pants. The shade was everywhere in stores: in lightweight denim, skinny rolled-up chino and slim cargo-pocket permutations. Macy’s sold crimson khakis, and scarlet shorts sold like hotcakes—and not just in New York, but in all the company’s stores. What was once the isolated province of aggressively preppie Nantucket vacationers was now a mainstream men’s wear trend.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

 

Hardly a subtle color, the flowering of the red pants trend is a revealing barometer of a broad evolution occurring in the men’s style landscape. A new sophistication, driven by the explosion of online information on trends and brands, as well as a new savvy, powered by the reach and diversity offered by e-commerce, has created a wide swath of men embracing fashion with a fresh confidence. At the same time, economic issues have placed a premium on looking sharp in the workplace, while social and cultural forces have given guys a new permission to take charge of their appearances.

 

That confluence of factors has turned men’s into a thriving retail category and driven any number of recent trends, including the resurgence of tailored clothing and neckwear sales, the exceptional growth in men’s accessories and burgeoning interest in heritage brands. None of this is lost on astute retailers like J. Crew, Bottega Veneta, Hermès, Ugg and Christian Louboutin, which have all recently opened men’s-only stores to cater to a new generation of unapologetically fashion-conscious, fashion-literate males.

“We haven’t seen this kind of sea-change since the Seventies,” says designer Joseph Abboud, president and creative director of HMX Group. “Back then, there was this energy and passion from the young generation to dress differently from the establishment. But that passion seemed to be lost for about 20 years, after the trend for corporate casual dressing took hold. Today, there’s a new Millennial generation that has this hunger and desire to get dressed up again.”

Abboud sees the current enthusiasm for slim suits and smart ties and natty accessories as a “typical boomerang effect” from the droopy chinos and ill-fitting polo shirts that peaked in the dot-com environs of the Nineties and 2000s. “That was a pretty nebulous time for fashion,” he notes. “The old cliché used to be that the guy in the leather jacket went into the bar full of suits and got the girl. Now, the guy in a suit goes into a bar full of leather jackets and gets the girl.”

Men are getting the message. Tailored clothing sales advanced 9 percent to $4.36 billion for the 12 months ended in March, and neckwear sales jumped a remarkable 23 percent to $701.2 million in the period, according to NPD Group figures.

Taking heed of that trend, Saks Fifth Avenue this month staged an extensive Father’s Day promotion around ties, including major window displays and 15 ads in The New York Times.

“Ties had been dead as a doornail, but the category has come alive again in exciting new ways, from knits to seasonal fabrications in varying widths,” explains Tom Ott, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s at Saks. “Guys are wearing them because they want to, not because they have to. It’s cool and hip to wear a tie again.”

A number of prominent men’s brands have been riding the wave of healthy demand for clothing and furnishings. In April, Ermenegildo Zegna reported record results for 2011, with sales up 17 percent to $1.47 billion. For the first quarter of this year, Hugo Boss reported double-digit gains in earnings and sales.

 

Ironically, while relaxed codes of dress in the workplace allowed for some office drones to get lazy and sloppy in their wardrobes, for many others it sparked newfound creativity and discernment in their personal style, as choices opened up as they stood in front of their closets each morning. Men today live in a society where there are fewer hard and fast sartorial rules—or cultural inhibitions limiting masculine displays of fashion interests—which means they have both more freedom and more responsibility for how they dress.

 

“We’re heading back into a moment where men are more interested again in style, accessories and grooming,” observes designer Tommy Hilfiger. “There is a sense that men are less afraid to wear fashion today. They are more intrigued with new styles, new colors, new fabrics, grooming products and accessories. They know exactly what styles they want and how to articulate it in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

That articulation comes in large part from the Internet, which provides near-endless sources of style advice and information, as well as a surfeit of sites to shop. Geography no longer limits anyone’s sartorial boundaries. Nebraskans can shop for slim-fit suits and camouflage-print swim trunks on Park & Bond or The Corner as easily as any New Yorker.

Apart from scoping out the best prices and selection online, the Web is an ideal place for guys to find practical advice and instruction on all manner of trends and wardrobe conundrums. Magazine sites, blogs, YouTube videos, editorial content on e-commerce sites and social networks are all part of the mix. Apps for mobile devices, like a just-launched outfit finder from Mr. Porter, called Suit Yourself, add a valuable dimension to the online hunt.

“You’re not just going into a store and having some clueless old dude in a suit store or a scary fashion guy in a boutique telling you what to buy,” says Band of Outsiders designer Scott Sternberg. “You can go online ahead of time and learn about brands and which ones align with your tastes, and get familiar with it before you pull the trigger. You’re able to garner all this information and see the entire landscape of options before you shop. I think guys now equate clothes with all the other lifestyle purchases they might buy and fetishize, like a car or electronics. It’s no longer a separate category that’s only for girls. There’s a comfort level with it.”

Guys are responding to that familiarity factor. A spring iProspect study found that 45 percent of affluent men online (with household incomes $100,000 or more) spend more than $4,000 a year on e-commerce purchases and 13 percent spend in excess of $30,000. What’s more, 84 percent of men in the study said they shop for themselves—a marked shift from the days when a majority of men’s clothes were bought by the women in their lives.

 

Even men who don’t necessarily like researching or shopping online can leverage the Internet, with services like two-year-old Trunk Club. The company sends individually tailored assortments of clothes from brands like John Varvatos, Jack Spade and Billy Reid to subscribers and is on track to do $15 million to $20 million in sales this year. “Guys are willing to spend more and care more about clothes, once they find an efficient way to,” says founder Brian Spaly.

The variety of information available online is vast and deep, with blogs that focus on heritage brands (A Continuous Lean), blogs that focus on progressive streetwear (Hypebeast), blogs that focus on street style (Sartorialist); blogs that focus on preppie lore (Ivy-Style) and on and on. That means guys, who tend to be partial to research and fact-finding missions, can find specialized information for their own particular tastes and preferences—just as they can find music tailored for them via Pandora and arcane entertainment tailored to them at YouTube. A handful of magazines no longer enjoy a monopoly on information about men’s style.

“The Internet is so democratic. Before, all you had was television, newspapers and some magazines. There is so much more information and sources of inspiration available at everyone’s fingertips, which gives people much more of an opportunity to be an individual,” says Marcus Wainwright, co-founder and co-creative director of Rag & Bone.

That’s helped lead to the growth of independent fashion brands, which fill directional trade shows like Project and Capsule. Brands like Billy Reid collection, Simon Miller denim, Riviera Club sportswear, Illesteva sunglasses, Grenson shoes, Olasul swim shorts, Miansai bracelets, Del Toro shoes and Ernest Alexander tote bags have the chance to be discovered online and market their unique selling points—giving them at least some leverage against the global designer brands and their potent advertising budgets. And those indie, hand-crafted fashion labels go hand in hand with the curated lifestyle sought by guys who gravitate toward personalized luxuries like small-batch Tequila and artisanal cheeses.

E-commerce has also helped independent men’s stores survive and thrive by bringing them customers from beyond their hometowns. “These stores have low overhead because they’re in low-cost cities that would usually be left off the fashion map,” notes Michael Williams, founder of A Continuous Lean.

The fashion-conscious male is not a new species. It was studied and dissected a decade ago as the celebrated, then pilloried, metrosexual. However, this latest incarnation of the fashion-confident, modern male is more fully integrated into the masculine landscape—almost obviating the need to saddle him with a sociological or cultural designation. Getting a facial or a manicure is hardly a noteworthy phenomenon in a world where every Walgreens is stockpiled with an array of L’Oréal Men Expert, Olay Men Solutions, Nivea for Men and Dove for Men products. The term metrosexual now sounds like a quaint relic of another, less tolerant time, akin to suffragette or abolitionist.

The receding taboos are likely related to the increasing visibility and acceptance of gay culture in all facets of American life. An interest in fashion isn’t as closely tied to sexuality any more. And if it is, fewer people care. “Straight guys are coming out as interested in style,” says Andrew Pollard, the former president of Project. “I think there’s been a democratization of sexuality. Whereas before, if you were interested in brands and fashion, you were considered gay, that isn’t the case now.”

The effect of the global economy has played another role, with American norms influenced by Europe and Asia—places where masculine interests in style are much more mainstream. And heightened competition for jobs, from both the shaky economy and overseas rivals, has given a new impetus for professionals to give their appearances a boost in the workplace.

“Guys have been forced to take charge of their style,” observes Durand Guion, men’s fashion director at Macy’s. “For so long there was a uniform that took all the thinking out of it—you either wore a suit or, if you worked at a dot-com, you wore khakis and a polo. But all of those old rules and uniforms have gone out the window.”

The luxury arena has been a particular beneficiary of the modern male’s spending behavior. Men now account for 40 percent of the total global luxury market, according to Bain & Co., and the sector is growing at 14 percent a year, compared to just 8 percent for women’s luxury sales.

“I think men’s wear has changed, allowing freedom,” says Kim Jones, men’s style director at Louis Vuitton of the trend. “Besides shapes and cuts, color and fabrications have pushed the boundaries of differentiation and increased visibility for trends. Men are enjoying trends—it’s almost an East to West movement, Japan leading the way.”

Especially ambitious in its efforts to court male shoppers has been Coach, which plans to double its men business in 2012 to over $400 million and to reach $1 billion within three to five years. This year in North America, fully half of Coach’s planned 40 new stores will be dedicated to men’s. And in China, where men are especially avid fashion consumers, almost all of the 30 new stores planned for this year will be dual gender, due to the size of the men’s opportunity.

“I think men are genuinely more confident and comfortable in their choice and approach, and certainly less embarrassed about how friends and colleagues will react [to an outfit],” says Savile Row tailor Richard James. “It is often said that women dress for themselves. I think nowadays this  is as true, if not more so, about men.”

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