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Men’s wear, fashion’s late bloomer, is in full flower, and it continues to sidestep global economic woes and political turmoil.

This story first appeared in the June 14, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Courting a new breed of male customer — one who likes to shop and is unabashedly into fashion — brands are looking to exploit better growth in the men’s market, from old tailoring players loosening their ties to cultivate a more modern, fashion-forward, lifestyle-oriented image to fashion players hungry to increase their market share.

The men’s market is outperforming women’s in all categories, according to a report by Bain & Co. analyzing the global luxury goods market in 2011. In turn, all luxury players are focusing more and more on men’s categories, with ad hoc formats and targeted Asian product offers, it said. China offers big opportunity for luxury-branded men’s denim.

“We’re focusing not just on formal tailoring and all the traditional elements of the business but all the needs of the client, and we’re particularly focusing on strong fashion,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear at Barneys New York. “Our strategy is geared for opportunity and the Web is an enormous opportunity for us. We had tremendous growth this year again — strong, strong double-digit increases in men’s and we’re growing the men’s penetration on,” he said.

“The consumer is very well read, very educated, they understand fashion like they’ve never really done before. Although it generally is a slower-moving business than women’s, there is more and more interest in fashion brands or fashion trends,” said Tom Ott, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Saks Fifth Avenue. “There is that thirst from the customer for what’s new, having something first, something exclusive. While we are proceeding cautiously, I think that there are a lot of things to do to drive the business and go forward.”

The launch of London’s new three-day international men’s wear showcase — London Collections: Men, which opens tonight — has added further clout to the sector. The event will be followed by the Pitti Immagine Uomo trade show in Florence next week, then men’s fashion weeks in Milan and Paris.

“Women’s usually gets the full attention of the market, obviously being more glamorous and fun, but there is such a renaissance right now for men’s wear. People have stuck to their guns, being very consistent with their products, and are benefiting greatly,” said designer Neil Barrett, who will show in Milan on June 23 at the Palazzo del Senato.

With men’s talent “the strongest it has ever been,” Stephen Ayres, head of fashion for men’s, ladies and children’s wear at Liberty of London, feels the sector has gone from being almost an afterthought to a stand-alone force. Men’s wear sales for this spring at Liberty were up 17 percent over last year, driven by casualwear brands such as A.P.C., Folk and Norse Projects. Accessories sales were up even more — increasing 48 percent versus 2011 — led by sunglasses, bags and ties.

Indeed, contemporary fashion is among the market’s hottest segments, with a new generation of price-friendly, cool, creative labels leading the way. These include AMI, Carven Homme, Melinda Gloss and Kenzo. At the other end of the scale, retailers cited strong demand for ultraluxury products, with premium labels such as Brioni (recently acquired by PPR), footwear brand Berluti (being expanded into apparel by parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and Tom Ford cited among the brands of choice for wealthy male shoppers around the world. Discreet luxury fabrications are the new bling.

Francesco Pesci, chief executive officer of Brioni, confirmed the house will continue to invest more in marketing and advertising nontailored products, the segment that has shown the strongest growth for the label over the past four years. “This is because we think that Brioni is an icon of men’s elegance and has to be this model not only in tailored clothing but also in, for example, outerwear,” he said. The Italian suit maker last year for the first time in the company’s history featured nontailored apparel in its advertising campaigns.

As men’s collections continue to expand, the whole cartography of men’s wear is shifting and creating intersections between segments, noted Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager for men’s and women’s apparel at Printemps. With contemporary players such as The Kooples, Sandro and Zadig & Voltaire “investing enormously in the suit category,” the influence of fashion players, from Hedi Slimane during his Dior Homme years, to current young acts like The Kooples, has meant “historic brands have understood that they have to react, modernize their cuts.”

Barneys’ Kalenderian said: “When you think about how a luxury company such as Zegna can find a way to speak to someone in a modern way, it does show the way men are changing their perception of brand. I think it’s more of a question that the mentality of the client is [shifting]; it’s interesting to know they are viewing brands differently. They don’t see it as my father’s clothes.”

While several men’s brands are fleshing out their collection, for Saks’ Ott it is also a time when specialist vendors are excelling, such as artisan shoe brands and dress shirt lines. “It’s like the old philosophy of going to the best butcher to get your meat and the best shoemaker for shoes. I think the best customers really understand that the designer brands really aren’t going to be able to specialize in everything.” Men’s accessories, such as belts, and footwear also continue to bubble, with men interested in having, like women, the right accessory for their lifestyle, he said.

Claus-Dietrich Lahrs, ceo of Hugo Boss, which is currently implementing a major renovation program at 10 key flagships worldwide, said: “Men are changing in terms of what they think about how they need to be dressed. You saw this in the fragrance [and] skin care area around 20 years ago when men became interested in making sure that they were taking care of themselves.”

While men’s is an expanding market, for Lahrs it is also one that is consolidating around fewer players. As one of the men’s wear giants, Hugo Boss projects sales of 3 billion euros, or $3.7 billion, by 2015 and an earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization margin of 25 percent. The company’s top markets worldwide are Germany, the U.S. and China, where Boss staged a high-profile runway show last month to kick off a major expansion of its retail presence there.

“Men tended to be already interested in the better product probably 10, 15 years ago, but very often it went into local brands,” he said. “I think today Hugo Boss is taking advantage of the fact that they are more and more interested in worldwide renowned brands with a reputation, with a service, with a retail presence in the most important cities of the world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this current consolidation into more worldwide brands is going to continue.”

Simultaneously, fashion brands are building muscle in the segment.

“The best news in the men’s business right now is designer fashion,” said Kalenderian. “Niche brands that have a unique iconic statement are driving the trends.” He cited Givenchy and Balmain as among the brands with the highest sell-throughs.

“The same thing is true for footwear, the hot news in footwear is designer — Louboutin is extremely strong for us, Lanvin continues to be important, Balenciaga….It’s all driven by casual, most of that, extremely advanced sneakers,” he said. “The styling is very strong and it’s fascinating how that business is really excelling, more so than classic right now.” Barneys New York has a “very, very important focus” coming through from July on men’s accessories, specifically leather goods and footwear, he said, adding, “It will take us through the third and fourth quarters with a lot of opportunity there.”

Giuseppe Zanotti at Pitti Uomo will launch a luxury men’s footwear collection, Giuseppe Homme, comprising sneaker, loafer and sandals lines. The designs will feature embellishments, such as crystals.

“If you look at brands that are fashion forward and successful in men’s wear, you can only really count them on one hand, there are very few,” said Sebastian Suhl, Givenchy’s ceo who, only a couple of months into his new position, said that he is “objectively” impressed at how rapidly the house has developed such a complete men’s collection. The executive said he got a major taste of the “contemporary relevance” of the brand when he attended the Paris leg of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” tour at Bercy Stadium in early June. The rappers both wore Givenchy for the gig, as did many of their entourage. “When you walked in there, Givenchy was just there, you felt like you owned the show. It was quite remarkable. For a couture house that only two or three years ago wasn’t particularly present in men’s wear in general, and what men’s wear there was tended to be super classic, within two years to already be there and to achieve that with fairly balanced growth, I think it’s tremendous.”

For Suhl, men’s ready-to-wear represents the segment with the biggest growth potential for the house. “If you consider a country like China, which is a very important market in general and one which is very important to Givenchy, it’s not impossible that within the next three years that men’s could be as large as women’s wear, counting leather goods,” he said.

“It would be kind of easy with an artistic director like Riccardo Tisci, who is able to create great silhouettes and prints and things like that, I think that is expected. But to be able to leverage something that is wearable and very well structured as a collection, whether it’s knitwear, T-shirts, suiting, shirts, etc., I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

In terms of retail footprint, Suhl is also thinking big. “We want to open larger and larger stores,” he said. “We have never really opened, to my mind, stores sufficiently large to properly house both men’s and women’s collections. Even the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré store, given the size of our collections in both ladies and men’s, is insufficient to properly showcase that.”

Alessandro Cremonesi, chief executive officer of Jil Sander, expects the return of founding designer Jil Sander to the creative helm of the brand will have “a strong impact throughout all product categories…and will grant a refocusing of the luxury aspects of the brand’s offer and the reintroduction of key elements of tailoring.” In particular, the men’s collection will profit from a new focus on strong tailoring and sartorial excellence, he said, adding that the new developments within the collections will reflect onto the brand’s mono-brand shops as well as its e-commerce platform, which will be raised into a true extension of its retail concept.

When asked about the change in the male consumer’s buying habits over the past few seasons, he replied: “I think the most relevant change was in their approach — which is rather conscious and quality driven. Especially in the luxury segment, men’s parameters are closely connected to durability, fit and comfort.”

He acknowledged that with the current state of the European economy there is “strong uncertainty. It is very difficult to predict the final outcome. Major events like the elections in Greece could give a clearer direction in the next few weeks. However, we feel the U.S., Asia and Japan are giving positive signals of growth for our brand.”

Patrizio di Marco, president and ceo of Gucci, is also upbeat on men’s wear. “Men’s wear has a weight which is not far from women’s,” he said. “Overall if you include both [women’s and men’s], we are talking, for fiscal year 2011, [a] 400 million euros business for ready-to-wear overall, so it’s very much serious for a brand that is still 56 percent leather goods.”

The men’s category, he said, has much potential and Gucci has plans to open men’s stores in the near future.

“The growth [of men’s] has been impressive especially in the past few years, and this applies to the men’s rtw and, equally, also to the shoes. There is so much we can do and so we’re definitely serious.”

Currently men’s accounts for approximately 35 to 40 percent of Gucci’s business, with rtw and shoes being the strongest categories. The house has also been investing in building the men’s leather goods business.

“Before, it was probably to skewed towards the casual messenger, but we introduced a whole world of briefcases….It’s a growing segment,” di Marco added.

Asked how important it was to have a strong fashion voice in men’s, di Marco didn’t have to hesitate. “I believe Gucci has to have a strong fashion voice in both worlds and I think we do,” he said.

Versace over the last couple of seasons has seen its men’s business overtake women’s in terms of growth, according to Gian Giacomo Ferraris, the house’s ceo, who expects the trend to continue. The brand plans to develop men’s in all markets and increase the product range to include beachwear and underwear, he said.

“Men’s wear has always been central to the Armani brand, especially as the label is so closely associated with tailoring and has a reputation for often-androgynous styling for women. Today men’s wear is a strong part of our business and a strategic aspect for our future,” said Fabio Mancone, global head of communication and licenses for Giorgio Armani Group, adding that the company is “unusual” in the fashion and luxury goods industry in that it has a men’s wear business that is equal to its women’s wear business. “The economy is challenged, as we all know, but I believe that established brands with great heritage will continue to do well.…I am confident that we can maintain our dominant position in this market. We have one of the world’s strongest brand names associated with men’s wear as a huge asset, both in emerging markets such as Russia, China and India, and also in our more mature markets, where we continue to perform very well.”

For Europe’s men’s wear players, growth in emerging markets continues to offset weak spots, such as Italy, and continues to be carried by Asian markets. Though its economy is slowing slightly, China’s luxury market is still growing four to five times faster than the U.S. and Western Europe, according to the latest study by Bain & Co. for spring 2012.

Italy’s sluggish local market has meant local players are getting more aggressive with exports, said Raffaello Napoleone, ceo of Pitti Immagine, adding that around 55 percent of exports are to European markets. In more than 20 years at the trade show, Napoleone has seen the number of independent stores in Italy fall to fewer than 45,000 from close to 90,000. “What used to be the uniqueness of the Italian market is changing because the market is less brilliant. The companies are reacting very, very quickly with the change in the internal market,” he said.

Pitti exhibitor Brunello Cucinelli, for one, marveled at having recently opened a store in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. “Our colleagues returned fascinated by what they saw there, so many people dressed in a European manner. When you see these things you get a sense of how much people are drawn to our lifestyle,” he said.

Among the hot young men’s talents preparing to present their collections in Europe, Paris-based Damir Doma, who this weekend is due to open his brand’s first flagship in Paris opposite the Comme des Garçons store in a courtyard off the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, said he’s lightened up for spring. “I wanted to do a collection that is against my usual way of working, something light and more free and random, which I find is very difficult. If you’re a person who likes to think in a controlled way and be very conceptual, it’s not easy to just let go and that’s what this season is about; to create a superlight, almost beach collection.”

Designer Christopher Raeburn has divided his spring collection into the following sections: “Remade,” featuring limited-edition numbered garments made from deconstructed authentic military pieces, with a mix of waterproof fabrics and meshes, and “Lightweight,” with garments made from recycled materials inspired by parachute fabrics, integrating original seaming details, as well as a bulked-up jersey and shirt section. Raeburn’s collaboration with Moncler will launch this fall.

Modern tailoring continues to be a major trend. Lane Crawford in its tailoring department is focusing the spotlight on the segment to attract, new contemporary customers, “reflecting the trend of our younger and more affluent customers wanting to wear a suit, but in a modern way, not like their father or grandfather,” said David Wakely, divisional merchandise manager of men’s wear, citing Lanvin, Aspesi, Rake, Mr. Start and Burberry Prorsum as among the key brands.

Even cashmere king Cucinelli, a major player in the luxe-casual trend, is upping his focus on the suit — in his style. “Thirty-year-olds wearing beautiful suits with sneakers and a polo — this is something fresh,” he said. “Men [now] have many possibilities: When you reach 45 to 50, you always want to look a few years younger….We’re moving to a new basic. For example, in China, rich men don’t wear suits, it makes them look like government bureaucrats, so they want elegant-sporty.”

Caruso for spring will present a range of light jackets, which ceo Umberto Angeloni described as a bridge between a shirt and a jacket. “Fabrics, colors…the construction is always sartorial, but interpreted in a more informal way,” he said. Key colors include sky blue, with micro-designs and fantasies on shirts.

Retailers said they hope to see a carryover of color and print for spring.

Lane Crawford’s Wakely said the store’s male customers have responded well to the trend and are “much more confident in buying all-over print and pattern.”

Liberty during the London men’s showcase will relaunch its private label collection awash with Liberty prints both old — from the brand’s extensive archive — as well as new. Liberty’s iconic Juno Art Nouveau peacock print, for instance, is revisited using just the eye and the tip of the feather to create an intricate pattern. With shirts as its base, with a special fit for the Asian market, the collection also includes ties, pocket squares and scarves.

Barrett said his spring lineup will feature more patterns than usual, on a range of engineered fabrics. “I’ve taken that across the board this time. Every product has these engineered fabrics. It’s sort of unique and very visual,” he said. “It’s an evident request from the client, the few fabrics we developed sold crazily.”

Those unable to attend Pitti Uomo will be treated to a 360-degree interactive virtual tour of the event courtesy of, the exclusive retail partner of Pitti Immagine. Visitors to the site will be able to check out exhibitor’s stands and view exclusive videos, special events and interviews with designers. The e-tailer said it will dedicate special attention to Pitti’s guest designers, Peter Pilotto and Carven.