Saks’ Eric Jennings Talks ‘The New Normal’ for Men’s Fashion

Because so many men lost their jobs as a result of the recession, they needed to dress up to make a statement that they were serious about their futures.

Eric Jennings
Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 03/28/2013

The 2008 financial crisis was the spark that set off a renaissance in men’s wear.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


Because so many men lost their jobs as a result of the recession, they needed to dress up in order to make a statement that they were serious about their futures.


“It was a wake-up call to a lot of guys. They had to start interviewing again,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and men’s fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue. “It was a slap in the face.” To get a good job, it wasn’t good enough to have a strong résumé they also “needed to look polished and sophisticated and smart. That was the changing point.”


At the same time, there was a proliferation of blogs devoted to men’s style. “They resonated with men,” Jennings said. “They demystified style. Before, [men’s] idea of fashion was a runway show or a George Michael video, something they couldn’t relate to.”


Since that time, hundreds more blogs have sprung up seeking to attract men who are interested in how they dress. “They want to part of the dialogue,” he said, adding that he expects only those blogs that offer unique and original content to survive in the long term.


This fascination with style has created a “new normal” that marks the men’s market today. Jennings told a story about his two nephews, ages 13 and 16, who recently started texting him with style questions, such as how to fold a pocket square, tie a bow tie or how to choose which trenchcoat they should buy. “When I was in high school, I was hiding my GQ magazines under the bed because I didn’t want anyone to know I was interested in fashion,” he said. “But there’s no stigma around it anymore.”


That goes for grooming as well. Jennings related how he recently got a pedicure and while he was getting the service, there were four other men and one lone woman in the salon for the treatment. To further support the point, Jennings’ neighbor, an executive with Google, told him that the top searches on YouTube now are for men’s how-to style videos.


“That is the new normal,” he said. “Young boys and men are comfortable talking about fashion.” But the new normal looks quite different.


Not long ago, the men’s uniform was a suit, tie and dress shirt — “no questions asked,” Jennings said. That morphed into the whole casual Friday movement when guys tried to do “business casual” but just looked “schlubby. That didn’t look good on anybody,” Jennings said. “But in 2013, the look is polished and put together. Men care about fashion and they have options. They may wear jeans one day and a sport coat another day.”


Perhaps the biggest shift has been in silhouette. “Slim is in,” Jennings said. “What we used to call skinny jeans are now just jeans. And what we used to call shrunken suits are just suits.”


The trend has also “bled into accessories,” where slimmer dress shirts and ties as well as less bulky leather goods have become the norm.


Men today are also comfortable blending price points. “High and low, mixing it up,” he said, pointing to two popular songs on the charts today: Justin Timberlake singing about wearing suits and ties, and Seattle rapper Macklemore’s song “Thrift Shop,” which talks about finding “awesome” bargains on second-hand clothes. At the same time, social media platforms, such as Pose and Instagram, allow users to tag the brands they’re wearing and share them with the world — and most of the guys featured are wearing a great designer piece paired with an affordable contemporary item.


“And color is the new norm,” Jennings continued. “There was a time when wearing certain colors like pink were not masculine. But those days are over. The more bright and colorful the socks, the better they sell.” He said last spring, the best seller in colored denim at Saks was bright red.


In order to capitalize on this new world order, stores need to adapt. Jennings said that in the past, men would go to the tailored clothing department for a suit, or the furnishings department for a shirt and tie. “But our store is set up by the big brands, and where we used to separate the suits from the sportswear, in the last two big shops we opened, Ralph Lauren Black label and Giorgio Armani,” all of the product categories were merchandised together.


And the “pillar brands” such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Giorgio Armani Collezioni, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss, who “have been the mainstays of the men’s business for a long time,” now have more fashion-forward offerings within their portfolios: the younger-skewed Z Zegna, Emporio Armani, Ralph Lauren Black and Hugo labels.


Exclusivity is also important and Saks recently created a lifestyle collection under its own name: Saks Fifth Avenue New York, that is now its largest selling men’s brand. In addition to separate subbrands — Black for the international classic and Platinum for its premium offering, the label will also introduce White, a line skewed to a more modern guy.


A proliferation of accessories also speaks to this man with pocket squares, tie bars, “wristwear,” colorful socks and other items garnering attention.


There’s also an “omnichannel expectation” today, requiring a “synergy among all touchpoints.” Men today are comfortable looking at an item on a Web site, going into the store to try it on, and then buying it from their mobile devices a few days later, so the product offered at the stores and online must be consistent, he stressed.


Jennings pointed to the company’s recently revamped Beverly Hills men’s store, which offers a “convivial shopping experience — an old-fashioned word that means sociable, friendly, lively.” The store features a newly installed 10,000-square-foot D-Bar in the lower level showcasing a large assortment of jeans, a bar and a John Allan’s salon.


Jennings also said that although he concentrates on fashion, he knows that ringing the cash register is still the most important thing for a retail store.


He attends all the runway shows in London, Paris and Milan, visits hundreds of showrooms, attends trade shows in Europe and the U.S., and frequently meets with new designers at his offices. But the “reality check” for him is when he visits stores and meets with customers. “That’s where you see what fashion trends are resonating with men today,” he said. That, and the Monday morning meetings with Tom Ott, Saks’ senior vice president and general merchandise manager, who runs through the sales results to see what’s performing. “They like to tell me, Eric, keep your head out of Paris and get it in Paramus,” he said.