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The New Dress Code

In a bid to attract modern-day customers, notorious for ever-changing attitudes and lifestyles, specialty store retailers were focused on dual-purpose apparel.

NEW YORK — In a bid to attract modern-day customers, notorious for ever-changing attitudes and lifestyles, specialty store retailers shopping last week’s The Collective at Pier 94 here focused on dual-purpose apparel that blurred the line between dressy and casual.

The growing genre of dual-purpose apparel included soft sport coats that can double as business- or casualwear, woven sport shirts that work equally well as dress shirts, and safari jackets masquerading as casual blazers.

With premium denim cooling at the stores, retailers were also looking for alternatives, and the answer was a growing roster of cotton (washed and otherwise) slacks in snappy bright and pastel colors. Trouser cuts became the new “gentlemen’s jean” in lightweight denim, chambray and plain-weave cotton. Linen and seersucker, along with madras, were other top choices by retailers looking beyond denim.

Shorts emerged as the hot button at The Collective after a strong summer in stores, and they also became another denim jeans alternative in preppie seersucker, plain and fancy cottons, and linen. The winning style of the season was the cargo-pocket short, plus the new entry-—a longer, dressy boardshort hitting a few inches above the knee.

“Previously, there used to be a real separation between luxury sportswear and denim,” said Bob Mitchell, president of Mitchells/Richards/Marshs. “It was Zegna versus the casual brands. Now, we’re looking for more casual items to complement the luxury sportswear.”

Many retailers visiting New York reported the apparel market has been in a tepid business cycle during the first half of the year and believe that a focus on more versatile styles in all classifications could help. “My customers want wovens to wear with sport coats, a more casual look in dress shirts to wear with a suit and without a tie,” said Mark Rosenfeld, president of Torre in Philadelphia. “They want cargo jeans and longer shorts. This world of hybrids is wide open.”

By blending classifications, retailers report, they also hope to attract a younger customer.

New York retailer Elliot Rabin, owner of the Peter Elliot chain, said he injects a sense of whimsy in the men’s wear he carries in his stores “to give it a timeless elegance.”

Equally important, he said, this helps break down the barrier between dressy and casual. He called his taste level, “sexy Ivy League,” such as a bold, classic dress shirt that can be worn with or without a tie, or his British-cut, trim blazer that can be teamed with a knit polo shirt or a business buttondown.

At the show, he was less impressed with The Collective than with its sister show, Blue. “I like the Blue show, but Collective was fossilized,” said the outspoken retailer. He added he was surprised the “un-suit suit” that he saw at the recent Pitti show wasn’t really available at this market.

Nevertheless, he did see some brands at The Collective that caught his attention, including Barry Bricken who he believes “is eminently the best pant person in America.”

Additionally, “I like Ike,” he said of Ike Behar. Rabin also said, “Barbour looks fantastic. It’s becoming directional but within the theme of what they stand for.” He also liked Duchamp, Island Co, which he said had “very refreshing beachwear,” and Pangborn Design’s interesting neckwear.

Rabin reported business right now is “very good,” and he’s had strong sell-throughs on linen shirts and cotton blazers in a sweatshirt fabric—items that support the dual-purpose premise. And, looking ahead to fall, he said that unless something unforeseen happens, he expects business to be great.

Don McElveen, president of John B. Rourke in Savannah, Ga., said sportswear has been his key growth vehicle and was at The Collective “for just about anything casual,” including swimwear, casual cotton pants, knit shirts and “lots of washed-down items.”

Ken Shaia, fourth-generation co-owner of Shaia’s in Birmingham, Ala., admitted he was on the prowl “for the next evolution of jeans,” as well as polos and crewnecks to washed traditional trousers and walk shorts, slimmer and trimmer suits, and washed, comfortable fabrics.”

SPORTSWEAR
Designer and better sportswear brands stretched their limbs at The Collective, reaching into new categories and pulling out some surprising yet imminently salable styles in an effort to dress their customer for every occasion of the week, especially for his outdoor activities in the warmer months.

“We want to outfit his whole life,” said Vineyard Vines designer Paul Massey. The label already stands for the privileged class of people who frequent New England resort towns. For spring it introduced a lot of clothes that do not shout “blue blood” and are actually casual enough to wear while washing down the sailboat or reeling in a marlin. These included prewashed, screenprinted sweatshirts and T-shirts, and Hawaiian-style shirts with woodblock prints.

Vineyard Vines introduced loads of new shorts styles, the most casual of which was a canvas utility style. On the lifestyle side, a new seersucker short comes printed with anchors, marlins or crabs, depending on the base color, or as a patchwork of all three. (The same fabrics were used for new ties.) Surprisingly, Massey said the label had never made shorts in madras patchwork, a preppie favorite, before this season; but it’s there now, with navy blue as the dominant hue.

A boardshort, with printed side panels, was added to the swimwear lineup, as were some new prints, including tuna, blowfish and crossed-fishbone motifs.

Responding to requests from companies and golf clubs, Vineyard Vines launched polos with the whale logo moved to the hip, leaving room to embroider the shirts with other logos.

Theory launched a “silver label” collection that was more casual, technical and colorful than the main collection. The line included nylon windbreakers, thin cardigans with the faintest metallic thread, and cargo bottoms modernized with zip pockets on the side seams instead of bulky exterior pockets.

In the mainline collection, metallic windbreakers offset the prevalence of earthy pieces like linen bermuda shorts and hemp pullovers. Even a motorcycle jacket was done in waxed linen.

A new polo, made of stretch cotton piqué, was designed with a high armhole and shorter sleeve, to flatter the biceps. In woven shirts, the news was pieced cottons, distressed linens and the label’s first buttondown collar.

Theory also launched swimwear in three styles: two lengths of boardshorts and a short “volleyball” style with an elastic waist.

Lincs, a David Chu brand that got its start with golfwear, continued its rapid development into a full-blown lifestyle brand with the addition of dress shirts and ties. One of the collar styles, called Riviera, was a white, modified spread collar with a contrast-stitch buttonhole.

In sport shirts, pastel linens were best sellers. Double-faced shirts, when rolled at the cuffs, reversed from plaids to stripes in the same colorway, or from stripes to stripes of a different colorway. All Lincs sport shirts feature a vertical locker loop between the shoulder blades.

Cutter & Buck, another golf-centric label, has enjoyed growth from technical fabrics in golfwear and from higher-count luxury cottons in lifestyle apparel, according to national sales manager Pat Hale.

The true golfwear is 80 percent comprised of technical fabrics like Nano-Tex and DryTec Luxe, he said. Cocona, a carbon-based filament that was introduced last season, is moisture wicking, odor resistant and UV rated. And these traits will last because it’s a yarn, rather than a chemical coating.

Speaking of yarn, remember when TSE was just a cashmere house? Designer Tess Giberson has blown the lid off the possibilities for this brand, and her first full-scale men’s spring collection is a triple threat with cashmeres, wovens and cotton jerseys. The overall silhouette TSE proposed for the season was a skinny pant with an oversize shirt, or a skinny shirt with a baggy short.

One group had a naval flavor, with henleys, crisp whites, and nautical colors and stripes. Another group featured army dress shirts that come with skinny knit ties. Deliberately crooked construction toned down the militaristic rigor of a double-breasted, khaki, safari/blazer hybrid jacket.

While TSE knitwear is still superb, it has become much more fashionable. There were several styles of thin and elongated cardigans and some were trimmed with color.

Autumn Cashmere stayed in the terra cognita of knitwear, but made clear that it’s not just a resource for fall. It offered lightweight cashmeres for cool evenings near the sea, and linen/cotton blends for relief on the days when cashmere is too warm.

It made the sunny message loud and clear with printed and intarsia graphics, including a windsurfer, a surfer under the banner of “Malibu,” a magnified tiger lily, and a seascape with palm trees.

The palette consisted of pastels and warm, muted brights, with more numerous options than in the past.

Robert Graham’s exuberant printed shirts deliver color and whimsy with European flair, but at a significantly lower price than Paul Smith or Etro.

Not satisfied with colorful prints, Robert Graham heaped on the novelty with jacquard monkeys, embroideries and pin tucking. It blocked plackets and cuffs with ornate Asian weavings.

Zany prints also found their way inside jackets. Robert Graham made an accelerated push into the jacket category and had them made in Italy, by Zegna. It also launched its first outerwear piece, a waterproof mac with a brightly colored grosgrain ribbon on the placket, which came in three colorways.

Designer Linda Loudermilk, who has been at the front of the eco-luxury trend for years (and has actually trademarked the term Luxury Eco), made her men’s wear debut at The Collective.

Loudermilk looks way beyond organic cotton and uses self-sustaining plants like bamboo, Seacell, soy and sasawashi, a Japanese leaf that wicks moisture. And her designs are known for a degree of refinement and elegance not usually associated with the eco-friendly movement. Her aesthetic is glamorous, British and rock-influenced.

With intensive handwork like pick-stitched pleating on the front of a shirt, complicated pin tucking on a tissue-thin pullover, and mille-feuille layering of a shirt’s raw-edged collars and cuffs, these special pieces proved eco doesn’t have to be plain.

In September the designer will open a 5,500-square-foot store called Luxury Eco by Linda Loudermilk, which will sell eco-luxe products from all over the world, including Loudermilk’s new bedding, kids’ and dog lines. It will also house a café and a spa.

TAILORED CLOTHING, OUTERWEAR, SLACKS
Let there be light.

The Collective revealed that tailored clothing is taking a turn toward featherweight fabrics, softer constructions and milky colors next spring.

If spring ’08 had a mascot, the white linen, two-button, patch-pocket suit by Calvin Klien white label would be in the running. As would Tricots St. Raphael’s taupe seersucker blazer with elbow patches and zip-in vest—a perfect example of a tailored/outerwear hybrid. The onetime knit house also placed its first ever suit—a khaki, three-button in linen/wool—front and center at The Collective as the label continues to build its collection business.

In line with the light trend is Jack Victor, which after last season’s bold greens, oranges and high-contrast plaids is playing with a more demure palette of corals, tans and whites in tonal patterns.

The Montreal-based clothing maker is continuing to invest in seasonal fabrications to give the consumers more reasons to buy. Sport coats, an ever stronger classification, are being cut from washed linen, 100 percent cotton, and cashmere/silk blends. “The guy wants something other than a navy [wool] suit,” said Patrick Chan, head of national accounts.

The model is lighter too: softer, rounded shoulder, thinner lining. Patch pockets and peak lapels lend a less formal feel. It’s not a shirt-make, Chan insisted, but Victor, like many other vendors, is taking a more relaxed approach to suiting.

Ditto for Marty Staff and the rest of Abboud and company, who looked to Tahiti for next season’s inspiration. Cue seasonal fabrics in sun-bleached colors fashioned into unlined, lightly padded sport coats. Staff said they were looking to make sport coats that weighed one pound or less.

At the same time, Abboud has finished upgrading its line with Italian fabrications, half-canvas construction and better finishes. The trade-up has pushed the suits to the $795–$995 range. “Retailers aren’t selling more suits, just more expensive ones,” said Jim Bresnahan, the brand’s vice-president of clothing sales.

The light trend is shining on outerwear too. Country coat maker Barbour is slashing fabric weights. Next spring will see four-ounce linings in the label’s waxed-cotton line, as opposed to six-ounce. The same goes for Barbour’s waterproof cotton jackets.

Across all categories, vendors at The Collective continue to chase the younger guy. Barbour is no different, trimming the waist and length of a number of its models, including a motorcycle jacket with epaulets and knit bottom, and adding contemporary fabrics, like microfiber.

Los Angeles–based Zanetti is hoping to appeal to a younger customer with a thinner waist, higher lapel and lower-rise pants in its Zanetti Life line. The Italian-made clothing, cut from primarily conservative worsteds, is awash in fashion details like contrast stitching, pleated pockets and colored piping. The company is betting that the little things will hook the younger guy.

Pants maker Berle is capitalizing on the shorts trend with a new line of casual shorts aimed at 20-somethings. The label, called Berle Vintage, retails from $65 and consists of distressed preppie fabrics—think garment-washed madras, seersucker, linen and novelty embroidered khaki—in a younger fit. As the traditional Berle customer ages, the company is hoping to tap the J. Crew guy with garments that match a more relaxed lifestyle.

In outerwear, technical properties marry Loro Piana fabrics at Hawke & Co. The young line is taking part in the trend toward golf-inspired jackets too with its Fairway Collection. The waist-length, zip jacket was everywhere at The Collective, from retro plaids (Gant) to metallic linen/cotton (Andrew Marc). The other big silhouette: the belted, four-pocket bush jacket, a tailored version of the utility coat.

FURNISHINGS & ACCESSORIES
Furnishings are dressing up for spring 2008. Overall, silhouettes slimmed down, while textures beefed up in business and casual shirts.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Ike Behar showed its new line of Rusty shirts, inspired by the sleekly outfitted cast of Ocean’s 13, who all donned the sophisticated shirt in the film. Featuring a spread collar and detailed buttons and cuffs, the silk/cotton shirt is five inches slimmer than Behar’s traditional cut and comes in a palette of solid butter yellows, creams and whites, as well as a Brad Pitt–inspired, gray-and-black striped version.

“Our retailers want a trimmer fit and this enabled us to come out with a fresh new collection that reaches a younger audience,” said Alan Behar, president and CEO of Ike Behar. The shirtmaker also debuted a bold, white-collar, white-cuff dress shirt with surface stripes in pale blues, pinks and yellows—the perfect power shirt for the Wall Street broker. “It’s a dressier shirt that is perfect for a guy who doesn’t want to look like his father, but doesn’t want to wear Gucci or Prada,” said Behar.

Fancy textured shirts were also front and center at Forsyth of Canada Inc. where white collars and french cuffs continue to be strong performers, according to executive vice-president of the U.S. division Joseph Visconti. Surface interest ruled, and thin satin stripes, jacquards and dobbies came in a palette of light yellows and browns, as well as blues and berries.

XMI proved to be no exception to spring’s rules, where solid satins, frame stripes, textured chambrays, twills and oxfords reigned. “It’s about finish, texture and the color,” said Jack Khzouz, president and CEO. The shirtmaker trimmed down its fit and debuted a more tonal palette of butter yellows, whites, creams and browns, and also showed soft greens, purples and pinks for the season.

Fashion elements also drove a vital part of PVH’s business. “Texture is very big now,” said Al Moretti, president of the dress-shirt group. “And patterns and color are selling very well in general.” At Geoffrey Beene, Moretti said they’ve added roughly 28 colors to the shirt collection, while the CK XLA program received roughly 14 new hues.

Colorful organics and paisleys were the central story at neckwear giant Superba. Ted Baker boasted big stylized flowers and magnified paisleys in aquamarine, brown and pink. Leaves, vines and shells in unusual color combinations, like burgundies and pinks, were plentiful at Ike Behar as were bold paisleys in bright tonal hues. “Ivory, bone and champagne are also big colors for next year,” said Danielle Mandelbaum, executive vice-president of merchandising and design.

Randa is expanding its one-year-old neckwear line under the Trafalgar Co. label, where solid linen ties offered depth in pretty pastels, and mogadors with heavy rib textures in solids, stripes and neats combined the season’s freshest colors: browns, pinks, oranges and cornflower blues. “We took a high-low approach to color using texture,” said John Kammeier, senior vice-president of merchandising for Randa.

Accessories continued to gain in prominence and variety at the show with many brands expanding their offerings of belts and bags for men.

“Men are buying bags at a rate now faster than ever,” said Morgan Molthrop, cofounder of Morgan Grays, a line of high-end leather bags sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. Its collection of soft, vegetable-dyed backpacks, totes, messengers and weekenders in fraternal-athletic-league stripes of black, white, red and navy are flying off shelves, with weekender bags being the number-one seller.

Accessories are expanding beyond apparel too. This year’s show saw a bump in vendors offering lifestyle products, from fragrance, lux candles by newcomer Homer, and grooming goods from The Art of Shaving. “We’re slowly trying to push the offerings at The Collective,” said show coordinator Charles Garone, adding that he expects to see more grooming and electronics in the future.

Elsewhere, accessory designer Michael Toschi showcased one-of-a-kind belts with intricate details, performance fabrics and splashes of color. “The more sophisticated market is accenting its wardrobe with a touch of something special that creates some distinction,” said Toschi. A leather, carbon-fiber belt with flexible integrated technology expands and contracts to a man’s waist as he sits down, and a blue lacquered cincher with cracked finish popped with just a subtle touch of color.

Jewelry continues to be a growing business in men’s and its presence was clearly felt at last week’s Collective show. “Retailers across the board are putting in jewelry cases,” said Robert Tateossian, who said his most precious and unique cufflinks, featuring 18-karat gold and unusual stones, are in highest demand. Jan Leslie agreed. The designer is expanding her animal-themed cufflink collection in 18-karat, hand-painted enamels and is in the process of launching an 18-karat gold line for Neiman Marcus.

Straw hats, a dominant theme on spring runways, also emerged at the show. Custom-made Makins Hats Ltd. featured two-tone and multicolored straw panamas as well as fun variations in neon orange and bright turquoise.