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A combination of fashion, color and a variety of styles aimed at different lifestyles and activities have been beefing up the sock business over the past year.

This story first appeared in the June 13, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The proof is in the numbers: Dollar sales of men’s socks grew 12.3 percent to $2.29 billion in the 12 months ended in March, reported The NPD Group Inc./Consumer Tracking Service.

Behind the robust rise in business is a boom in bright colors and bold patterns in socks, driven by designers such as Paul Smith, Richard James and Etro. There also is an emerging consumer trend of men wearing the same style of classic, yet trendy-looking socks with suits, casualwear and even active apparel. This new breed of medium-, or bridge-weight, sock is rendered in combed and heathered yarns for comfort and easy wear, and features a touch of fashion in a palette of solid colors, strategically placed fashion shades at the heel or toe, or in a burst of colorful patterns and prints.

The popular classification is described as “athletic-leisure” by industry executives, who say more men are buying socks for themselves because they now consider socks a key fashion accessory. According to NPD, 55 percent of men bought socks for themselves in the past 12 months, compared to around 50 percent the prior year.

Given the booming market, a number of sock and legwear specialists are setting their sights on new assortments of crossover styles that combine the dress, casual and active classifications into a multipurpose lifestyle sock.

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Jordan Lipson, president and chief executive officer of American Essentials Inc., whose sock licenses include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Chaps, Reebok, and Izod, said the crossover trend began surfacing after the recession.

“In the last three to five years, we’ve seen a change in consumer purchasing trends, and we’re seeing more men buying socks, a category that women have traditionally purchased. American men are expressing themselves through socks, and they are saying ‘I wear suits, khakis and jeans, so let me decide how to accessorize my wardrobe.’ It’s not just about the main fashion centers like New York, Los Angeles and Miami — it’s happening in mainstream America,” said Lipson.

Lipson singled out a best-selling terry sock style with a cushioned heel in heather, khaki and indigo as well as a host of solid colors with indigo effects as representing an “ath-leisure” look.

“These socks could be worn with a dress loafer or casual loafer, or a pair of trainers and running shoes….What a man wears with a dress suit he now tends to wear with chinos, and he’s having fun with the category,” said Lipson.

The crossover effect is also shaping up in the sports arena.

Candace Kaufman, brand manager for the athletic division of Renfro Corp., which manufactures the licensed Spalding and Fruit of the Loom sock brands, sized up the athletic-leisure trend this way: “For the last several years, there has been an absence of advanced features in dress and casual socks, and the end-use for them is quite limited. Combined with a sluggish economy, consumers naturally seek more value and versatility from their socks. Dress and casual socks are the most sluggish segments of the men’s sock market, while athletic and casual are very strong compared to last year. With the rise of color and design choices in athletic and casual socks, the consumer is gravitating to more performance-oriented socks that deliver the comfort they desire without compromising their sense of style.”

Kaufman noted that the consumer shift to multiuse socks now requires sock designers to put as much emphasis on fashion as it does performance features.

“With Spalding, we designed a sport-specific sock with all these advanced features, but added in that fashion flair with some design and color because we knew people would wear them beyond the court,” explained Kaufman. “We also kept in mind that while consumers want that sport performance sock for casual use, they may not always want a neon green to wear with khakis, so we also offered a black and white and black and gray option for that little bit of fashion flair in the sock they wear every day for comfort. The Spalding sock may say ‘basketball sock’ on the package, but consumers are wearing them just as much off the court as a replacement for that basic, casual sock they once used to purchase.”

Crossover styles also are trending in e-commerce sales at online Web sites such as

Brian Berger, chief executive officer and founder of the Mack Weldon label of men’s socks and underwear, described the crossover category as a “hot” trend.

“More men are buying socks for themselves. But I also think more women are buying more men’s socks too. Since the [crossover] category is so hot right now the tide is rising all boats. Men, however, are more conscious of fashion and having their own point of view. Socks are a great low-risk way of doing that. There are no fit issues, you can dial it up or down, and it’s acceptable in most work environments,” he said.

Berger further noted, “We design all of our socks to align with how guys are dressing today…generally, more casual and with shoes that are not super delicate. There is nothing worse than wearing a thin dress sock with the wrong shoe and slipping around all day. Our socks are a bit thicker in weight, have a cushioned foot bed, and are a bit longer so they have a shot at staying up. It’s perfectly fine with a suit and great with jeans and khakis. And while we don’t make them for sport, it’s nice to know they will perform very well if you find yourself in an impromptu basketball game or spin class,” said Berger.

Russell J. Klein, president of Easton International, the U.S. distributor for German luxury legwear and sock brand Falke, said the “categorization of categories” in the sock business reflects a blurring of the lines in other industries such as activewear and sportswear.

“The world has become very focused on specialization, and there’s a lot of talk about specialty apparel for special activities. Now men’s socks have become more specialized and [the same styles] are being sold for business, casual, performance and fashion,” noted Klein.

From a merchandising perspective, Sheldon Wolff, vice president of sales for Gold Toe socks at Gildan Activewear Inc., described a changing scene on selling floors at department stores.

“We no longer tell our buyers what this is — an athletic sock, a casual sock or an everyday sock — each [retail] customer now merchandises socks in different areas for different lifestyles,” said Wolff.

Meanwhile, socks that combine function and fashion have become a significant category at K. Bell, a California-based sock specialist.

K. Bell founder Karen Bell, said, “We do hear that from our fans through our social channels that men are looking for ‘easy’ dressing as well as multipurpose socks. K. Bell has several styles that can take men from a day at the office, to a quick nine holes of golf, and grabbing a quick bite afterwards. We have fashion sports socks and sporty casual socks. We are addressing this need through our unique signature look and feel it will continue to grow our men’s business. Sports and athletic-type socks are contributing to a larger percentage of sock sales, and we have added a selection in cotton blends with semi and full cushioning and arch support that are not sport-specific, but excellent for the active lifestyle.”

Regarding fashion looks, Bell noted, “Fortunately, we are seeing a lot of interest in men’s socks with bold, bright colors and graphics, so performance socks with a fashion twist is a popular category.”

Isaac E. Ash, president and ceo of United Legwear Co., singled out the licensed line of Puma socks for men as poised for growth in the crossover realm.

“There are many more choices now for men, especially in sport socks with great technical features and properties. Our Puma Allsport line includes the 360-degree running sock with all-around compression mesh ventilation and strike-zone cushioning at the heel and toe. The Puma Allsport line also offers Super Lite, a thin base layer for the foot that’s great for people who like the ‘barefoot’ running experience. Puma Allsport styles are designed with pops of neon color that coordinate with training shoes as well as clothes. With so many options, men like to choose the socks that best fit their exercise routine and their lifestyle,” said Ash.

Viktor Tell, cofounder and creative director of Stockholm-based Happy Socks, a label licensed exclusively to United Legwear Co. in North America, agreed. “It has now become an element of dressing that men really pay attention to. It is a way to distinguish yourself from the others, without being too ‘risky.’ Today, men pay attention to their socks because they are a great way to make a statement and be a bit more bold than with the rest of their clothing. It is possible to be classic, trendy, sporty or casual while wearing an expressive pair of socks.”

Emily Ross, national brand manager for Hot Sox, said fashion and design play a big part in the crossover trend.

“We have one length of men’s socks, a trouser length that’s fashion-based with colors and graphics. There are no technical or performance callouts. It’s all about fashion and design,” explained Ross. “We’ve found it’s becoming the number-one accessory for men and it’s very much lifestyle driven. We see it with jeans, and more casual shoes like Converse, and also with suits. It’s kind of like the new tie. Men are not buying socks for just suits, they’re buying socks for casual wear and weekend wear with loafers.”

The demand for fashionable socks is so strong that luxury legwear specialist Emilio Cavallini brought back its men’s sock collection after a 20-year hiatus, said Lisa Cavallini, president of Mostly Tights LLC, the U.S. unit of the Florence-based Cavallini company.