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On a Roll: Men’s Wear Maintains Momentum

Spurred on by key trends such as slimmer fits and vivid color, men's apparel sales have been one of the brightest categories for many retailers.

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Brunello Cucinelli’s cotton jacket, Rag & Bone’s linen suit and Ermenegildo Zegna’s cotton shirt. Rag & Bone tie; To Boot New York shoes.

Rodolfo Martinez

Yves Saint Laurent’s wool suit and Burberry London’s cotton shirt. Burberry London tie.

Yves Saint Laurent’s wool suit and Burberry London’s cotton shirt. Burberry London tie.

Rodolfo Martinez

Dries Van Noten’s nylon jacket and cotton pants, A.P.C.’s cashmere sweater and Lanvin’s cotton shirt.

Dries Van Noten’s nylon jacket and cotton pants, A.P.C.’s cashmere sweater and Lanvin’s cotton shirt.

Rodolfo Martinez

Ermenegildo Zegna’s leather jacket, Burberry London’s cotton T-shirt and J. Brand’s cotton denim jeans.

Ermenegildo Zegna’s leather jacket, Burberry London’s cotton T-shirt and J. Brand’s cotton denim jeans.

Rodolfo Martinez

Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 03/29/2012

Men’s wear is reaping the rewards of a revitalization.

This story first appeared in the March 29, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Spurred on by key trends such as slimmer fits and vivid color, as well as a resurgent economy and improved consumer confidence, men’s apparel sales have been one of the brightest categories for many retailers. Updated silhouettes in everything from suits and dress shirts to jeans and khakis have driven guys to the cash registers to modernize their wardrobes. Important trends like colored bottoms, military themes and prints and patterns have given a boost to sportswear segments.

Last year, total men’s apparel sales increased 4 percent to $55.71 billion, up from $53.48 billion in 2010, according to figures from The NPD Group. The jumps were driven by big increases in workplace clothes, with tailored clothing up 22 percent, dress shirts up 14 percent and neckwear up 34 percent.

Men’s jeans were soft, with sales down 1 percent, along with certain sportswear categories like woven shirts, which were down 8 percent, and knit shirts, which were flat.

Overall, however, most merchants are upbeat, believing the uptick they enjoyed last year — and have continued to see through the first quarter of this year — has the momentum to sustain itself through 2012.

“Business is certainly hot here,” said David Fisher, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Bloomingdale’s. “We came out of an incredibly strong 2011, and it hasn’t let up.” Although the store is up against strong comps from last year, business so far this spring is up in the high single digits, and is running “ahead of plan,” according to Fisher.

Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director for Macy’s, said: “Business continues to trend very nicely and there are a couple of [categories] that are driving it. Tailored clothing is on fire. It’s a real win-win for us, especially when you look at what was going on a couple of years ago. And the retails are higher than you get with sportswear.”

Tom Ott, senior vice president and gmm of men’s for Saks Fifth Avenue, pointed out that men’s was the category most negatively impacted in the recession and it is now bouncing back impressively. Among the areas seeing the greatest growth are accessories and shoes. “Men are now asking what the right bags and shoes are,” said Ott, with the upticks driven by guys in their 20s and 30s who are “very interested in fashion and tailored clothing.”

He said the luxury arena did extremely well in the fourth quarter of last year and the trend has continued into spring. “Between the wealthy feeling OK and the international tourists responding to luxury apparel, we expect the trend to continue,” said Ott.

At online retailer Bonobos, sales more than doubled last year and the 2012 business plan projects sales to double again. The improved retail climate means customers are less focused on discounts, said founder and chief executive officer Andy Dunn, with the company reducing promotional spends and improving margins. “Historically we’ve leaned on discounts to drive rapid new customer acquisition, but as we’ve built out more organic ways to acquire customers, promotions have become less necessary,” he explained. “Specifically we’re relying more on our social and loyalty tools, including our relaunched referral program and our loyalty program, the Great Apes.”

At flash-sale site Gilt Man, holiday sales were strong, but the first months of 2012 were negatively impacted by increased competition from the steep discounts at department stores. “The walk-in from January has been lighter than we hoped. Our value proposition erodes in January and February because department stores are having major sales,” said Chris Ventry, acting general manager of Gilt Groupe’s Gilt Man and Park & Bond sites. “However, we are starting to see pickup in March.”

David Zant, executive vice president and gmm of men’s for Belk, said the overall business continues to be good. “Certain businesses are better than others, but men’s has been trending well since the beginning of February,” he noted. “As long as we continue to execute well, identify opportunities and put initiatives and strategies in place to drive business,” the momentum should continue.

Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, was tempered in his optimism, with spring sales up in the single digits over last year. “It’s OK, but not ecstatic. I don’t see that people are in a buying frenzy. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that we scaled back on customer appreciation events,” he explained.

Amendola said anything “fashionable and novelty is selling — basics are slower. The more traditional businesses, such as basic shirts and ties, are more sluggish than they were for fall. But the one business that continues to beat plan is clothing. It’s good to see a big-ticket item selling, but sportswear is more sluggish.”

Sales are up double digits year-to-date over 2011 at Mario’s, operator of specialty stores in Seattle and Portland, Ore. “Ultimately, fit and modeling drives the majority of sales,” said Simon Chan, senior men’s buyer. “Clothing with updated silhouettes, sportswear and furnishings with a trimmer and a sportier fit, and, of course, novelty in fabrics, patterns and colors create a reason to buy.”

With the Internet and mobile apps making comparison shopping as easy as the click of a button, pricing has become a more important factor in many purchase decisions. “Today’s clients are very savvy, so price does play a role. It is all about price-value and we try to be strategic in creating great price-value in the different tiers of our businesses,” added Chan.

Steven Giles, owner of Miami’s Base, agreed. “If anything good came out of the recent recession it was consumer education. At least in the demographic we serve, the consumer is not only savvy but deeply conscious — tentative perhaps — of where and when they are going to spend their money,” he noted.

Laure Heriard Dubreuil, ceo of The Webster in Miami, pointed out that both tailored clothing and sportswear sales have been boosted by the blurring of lines between work and weekendwear. “Men used to spend money exclusively on business clothing, but as the traditional lines become blurred between work and leisurewear, they are spending more on quality, high-end sportswear and even on tailored clothing that is worn casually,” she observed.

Tailored Clothing

Tailored clothing sales increased 22 percent to $4.54 billion in 2011, up from $3.73 billion in 2010, according to NPD data.

“Tailored clothing without a doubt is leading the charge for us. Seasonal sport coats are trending strong and basic suits are moving, as well,” said Simon Chan of Mario’s. Top sellers at the influential specialty store include Ermenegildo Zegna, Isaia, Prada and Lanvin suits, while key labels in sport coats are Isaia, Canali, Boglioli and Etro.

Suits and sport coats are the hottest category at Bloomingdale’s as well, with sport coats in novelty fabrics particularly popular. For spring, seersuckers and printed linen are standouts, said Fisher, while hunting jackets, herringbones and tweeds are important for fall.

During its fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this month, The Men’s Wearhouse Inc. reported that the “Golden Age of the suit” is in full swing. In 2011, the company sold a record-breaking 3 million suits. In the call, Douglas Ewert, ceo, said: “Roughly once every 10 years, a replenishment cycle is driven by a silhouette change in men’s suits. Twenty years ago, the cycle was driven by wide-shouldered and double-breasted suits, 10 years later the three-button suit drove the replenishment cycle. Today, we’re seeing a much trimmer shape drive replenishment. It can be described as modern fit and is influencing trimmer shirtings and neckwear as well. Though these trimmers looks are particularly attractive to a younger customer, influences are being seen across all demographics and sizes in the form of narrower lapels and pleatless pants.”

Ewert said that, last year, modern-fit products represented 19 percent of apparel sales, growing 64 percent and generating $309 million in revenue. “In 2012, we will shift more of our inventory into modern fit products and feature these looks in all of our marketing channels, including a new television campaign,” he noted. “We’re focusing considerable resources towards maximizing this fashion cycle. We’re positioned to benefit from this cycle more than most, and we have high expectations.”

Guion attributed the uptick in tailored clothing sales at Macy’s to a “seismic shift in sizing. If you haven’t bought a suit in two to three years, it shows.” He said Macy’s is having success in both suit separates and nested offerings and he expects the strong sales trend to continue. “With men, it’s all about building a wardrobe, and they still have more to add.”

Saks’ Ott said that the “clothing business had some tough bouts” in the past, but that’s no longer the case today. And brands at every level of the market are embracing the silhouette change. “The Italian and luxury brands are all about slimmer suits,” he said, noting that sales of Tom Ford have been “terrific. “

Joseph Abboud, president and chief creative officer for HMX Group, said the hot button in tailored clothing today is the “modern American” model: a vested, double-breasted, peak lapel suit. “Everything has been pushed and is more aggressive,” he said, “but still within the customers’ comfort zone.”

At Hart Shaffner Marx, 65 to 70 percent of models are slimmer. Abboud believes the popularity of the slim silhouette is just beginning. Tailored clothing trends often have a five- to seven-year run, he noted. “Guys are investment conscious,” he explained. “They still look at tailored clothing as an investment, even if it’s modern and sexy.”

Suiting is the strongest category at Gilt Man, along with footwear. “What we are really excited about for both categories, it’s a full spectrum of pricing. It’s not all down in a lower price point,” said Ventry, who noted some suits on Gilt Man sell for over $1,200.

At Park & Bond, styles highlighted in editorial sections of the site enjoy tremendous lift, with sales often doubling when highlighted in features like “How to Dress Down a Suit.” A pale blue Versace suit in linen and wool, priced at $995, highlighted as an editor’s pick in January sold out within a month.

“It puts clothing in perspective and replicates that in-store experience where you have the perfect salesperson,” said Tyler Thoreson, head of men’s editorial at Gilt Groupe, of the editorial impact on e-commerce sites.

Sportswear

Men’s sportswear sales were up a slight 1 percent to $12.11 billion in 2011, compared with $12.1 billion in 2010. Within the larger category, sweaters were up 6 percent, pants up 5 percent and shorts up 3 percent. Woven shirts were down 8 percent, jeans were down 1 percent and knit shirts were flat, according to NPD.

At Bonobos, colored chinos are among the hottest categories, with shades of bright green, lavender and cobalt blue popping up as bestsellers as spring approaches. Color is also key in woven shirts, as are chambray styles and bold patterns like gingham, said Dunn.

Apart from its own brand, which is the biggest seller on the site, a number of third-party brands have been strong. “For us, Splendid Mills has performed really well — their Ts, novelty stripes and sweatshirts are getting a great response,” said Dunn. “Additionally, Gant Rugger woven shirts are a steady performer. In footwear, Sebago, Tretorn, and Grenson have been standouts. For accessories, we got a great response with Billy Kirk bags.”

Among the slowest categories at Bonobos have been polo shirts.

In sportswear, Bloomingdale’s Fisher said he has seen “incredible growth” in Burberry and John Varvatos. Theory has rebounded and Hugo Boss continues to be among the store’s top performers.

At The Webster in Miami, hot sellers in sportswear include Givenchy, Balmain, Alexander Wang, Rag & Bone, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Lanvin and Visvim.

Color is driving sportswear sales at Belk, according to Zant. “Color is exploding in pants,” he said, pointing to red and blue as the hot choices. In shorts, “we’re getting action in medium blue, greens and yellows. It’s interesting, two years ago, it was all plaid, but that’s gone now, and color is really what’s taken off,” said Zant. To complement the fashion color bottoms, he said, solid knit pique shirts are also selling.

For Brooks Brothers, novelty sweaters are leading the way, according to Amendola, while at Park & Bond, shorts are already selling well for spring.

The Base store in Miami recently switched business models to focus on just one or two brands each season, most recently with Ben Sherman sportswear and Onia swimwear. “The crossover appeal and distinct wearability of Ben Sherman has enjoyed an exceptional opening month and we see that trend continuing,” said Steven Giles, owner of Base.

Graphic T-shirts and snapback hats are among the strongest sellers at Karmaloop.com, after a previous decline in the streetwear staples due to the strength of the heritage Americana trend. “That trend didn’t lend itself to a graphic T-shirt look, but now we seem to be in a second wave of streetwear being on the rise,” said Karmaloop’s director of merchandising Holland Smith.

Furnishings and Accessories

Along with tailored clothing, furnishings sales were especially robust in 2011. Dress shirt sales were up 14 percent to $2.83 billion in 2011, from $2.48 billion in 2010, while neckwear sales jumped 34 percent to $735.3 million, from $550.1 million, according to NPD Group data.

Underwear was up 7 percent to $3.28 billion, from $3.08 billion in 2010.

At Bloomingdale’s, shirts and ties from Duchamp, Turnbull & Asser and Armani gray label have been key sellers. Men’s fragrances and grooming products are also benefitting from the boosts in dressy categories. “Men want to look better, spend more and even smell good,” said Fisher.

Macy’s Guion said dress furnishings are “on fire,” led by a “bold, strong color trend” with hues such as purple and lavender leading the way. Narrow ties, tie bars and pocket squares are also doing well at Macy’s. “The basic furnishings business has been incredible because it’s what he’s putting on under his new suit,” he noted.

Saks’ Ott said small leather goods, watches and “certain elements of jewelry” have been strong. At Park & Bond, standout sellers in accessories have been Miansai bracelets, Tie Bar ties and bags from Jack Spade and Want Les Essentials de la Vie.

“Men tend to gravitate towards specific brands for different categories, so its Balenciaga for sneakers, Lanvin for cuff links, Rag & Bone for hats, Adam Kimmel for belts,” said The Webster’s Dubreuil.

At Belk, Zant said the strength of suits has also led to strong tie sales. “Neckwear continues to perform well,” he said. “Everything is slimming down. Ties used to be 3 1/2 inches, now they’re 3 1/4 to 3 3/8 and some are even under 3 inches. That’s becoming a bigger piece of the business.” The slimmer neckwear complements the narrow lapels of the suits and sport coats, a trend that has taken hold in the dress shirt arena as well. “Regular spread collars are down-trending, but modified spreads are doing well,” said Zant.

Herschel bags are especially strong at Karmaloop.com. “That brand is a monster and has been doing nothing but amazing on a sales level as well as design and quality,” said Smith, noting that accessories have become a more relevant aspect of men’s wardrobes. “I’m seeing people put a real focus into men’s jewelry, belts, wallets and socks in their collections. Men are becoming much more comfortable with accessorizing themselves in various ways than they were in the past,” he explained.

However, James Hammonds, men’s buyer for American Rag, said he still found it difficult to find appropriate jewelry lines. “Men’s jewelry is always a little tough because, in my opinion, there’s just not a ton of tasteful lines to choose from in the marketplace,” he noted.

Denim

Men’s jeans sales dipped 1 percent in 2011 to $5.71 billion, from $5.74 billion in 2010, as clean, dark washes and slim fits continued to dominate trends.

At American Rag in Los Angeles, top-performing brands include Levi’s, Prps, Double RL, J Brand and Joe’s Jeans. “Our U.S. launch of the Dutch brand Denham has been a smashing success,” added Hammonds, noting that clean washes are the key sellers. “Everything from jeans to Ts to suiting has been getting cleaner — less wash, less embellishment, less flare and bedazzle,” he observed.

The same was true at Bonobos, where a denim line launched last year has done best with cleaner styles and dark rinses.

At Bloomingdale’s, Fisher said “new players” such as Grayers have found fans, and more established brands such as True Religion, J Brand, Joe’s Jeans and Prps are also doing well.

Ott said “denim has been fabulous” at Saks, especially clean washes from lines that are “better and differentiated.” He said that because most denim brands are so broadly distributed, finding exclusives or new brands helps “elevate the business.”

Belk is also doing well with denim, according to Zant. “Denim is still good for us and we continue to see that business remaining strong.”

Naked and Famous is the top brand at Karmaloop.com. “They use Japanese selvage raw denim in a variety of colors,” pointed out Smith.

Outerwear

Despite the warm winter, outerwear sales increased 2 percent last year to $4.07 billion, up from $4 billion in 2010, according to NPD — meaning there are sales opportunities in any climate.

Park & Bond, for example, has seen growing demand for spring outerwear in transitional, lightweight pieces. Karmaloop is investing in lightweight outerwear for this fall, as well. “This may be a solution to the risk of bringing in too much heavy outerwear,” said Smith.

With consumers holding off on heavy outerwear purchases this past winter, some retailers are looking forward to a strong outerwear season this fall and winter. “We see outerwear playing a very strong role this fall along with strong sales in knitwear and novelty sweaters,” said Mario’s Chan. “We love outerwear here in the Northwest and there are so many great performance-based pieces that are fantastic for our weather as well as anywhere our clients travel to.”

Still, many retailers said outerwear was their most difficult category this past winter, due to the warm weather. “We just haven’t seen much demand for outerwear,” said Bonobos’ Dunn.

“It’s tough to sell coats when it hits 60 degrees in December in Boston,” added Karmaloop’s Smith.

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