CHICAGO — Who cares about frigid temperatures and blustery winds? Apparently not menswear retailers who descended here earlier this week for the Chicago Collective.
The show, which has been hosting biannual markets at the Merchandise Mart for decades, has quietly emerged as the preeminent exhibition for the upscale menswear community over the past several years.
This season’s edition featured 401 brands, including more than 50 Italian vendors sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission.
Retailers praised the assortment of brands offered in categories that ranged from luxe tailored sportswear and outerwear to denim and footwear. And they showed their enthusiasm by booking orders during their visits.
Bruce Schedler, vice president of the Chicago Collective and organizer of the show, said there is a long waiting list of brands hoping to exhibit, but all the available space on the seventh floor of the mart is being used.
Schedler said the decision was made about three years ago to elevate the brand offering at the show, and it has paid off. “We’re not looking to be a big show, we want to be a good show,” he said. And because retailers have been asking for more time to shop, he said he may add another day to the three-day event in August.
All told, the show attracted around 1,300 retailers from all 50 states, he said, heavily weighted to independent specialty stores, but with several majors as well.
“This has evolved into the top specialty store show nationwide,” said Peter Leff, executive vice president of wholesale for Tommy Bahama. “Bruce curates the brands and is careful about who he lets in and who is adjacent to whom.
“Everybody here is a potential customer,” he continued. At the show, the retailers were responding best to the company’s half zips, corduroy shirts and long-sleeved knits — all of which will be sold at full price. “We’re controlling promotions on our brand and the little guys like that,” he said. Although there are still supply chain issues to deal with, they’re mainly related to transportation as factory shutdowns due to the virus have largely eased, he said.
Also doing strong business at the show was Peerless Clothing. With sales in the back half of 2021 up dramatically as a result of rescheduled weddings and events, Dan Orwig, president of the tailored clothing manufacturing giant, said retailers are now “rebuilding inventories.” While it isn’t easy to get goods because of the supply chain problems, he’s upbeat about the momentum continuing this year.
“Things slowed in December and January, but as soon as Omicron passes and the weather breaks, we’ll be off to the races,” Orwig said.
He expects suits to continue to do well for event dressing, along with hybrid pieces such as shirt-jackets, performance pants and patterned sport coats.
Rothmans also experienced a downturn in January and so far in February thanks to the Omicron surge, particularly in its two New York City stores, but the situation was pretty dismal last year at this time making the comps look good. “It depends how you spin it,” owner Ken Giddon said with a chuckle. “We’re dramatically up over last January and February.”
Even without a pandemic, he continued, “January is generally not a wonderful month, but our suburban stores are still doing better than our city stores. Omicron put a crimp in the comeback, but we’re thinking March 1 will be a good start date for a resurgence in big cities nationwide. And starting in March, we think we’ll have a real good season.”
This was only Giddon’s second time attending the Chicago Collective, but he was pleased. “It’s efficient and well-organized,” he said. “The show is hopping and the booths are busy.”
Among the brands he was impressed with were Brax, Rodd & Gunn, Closed, Rails and Benson, along with Boss, which he said is “on point this year with good prices and a good selection.”
Although Rothmans has been narrowing its list of vendors in tailored clothing, Giddon was looking for “good midpriced sport coats. Some of our slim-cut suppliers in tailored clothing have disappeared so we want to replace those with Boss.”
Rick Penn of Puritan Cape Cod said 2021 was a strong year for the company’s four stores. The uptick started in May and quickly surpassed plans. “It has been a great turnaround,” he said, “and we’re excited for 2022 for the high-service specialty stores.”
He said the pandemic has increased focus on shopping local and seeking the kind of personal attention in which specialty stores excel. “It’s a great time to be an independent retailer,” he said.
Because Cape Cod is a popular vacation location, he said with people working from home or in a hybrid manner, resort communities like his have benefited. To capitalize on it, the company has doubled down on becoming a “community center,” putting in a spa, a restaurant and other amenities to lure people to the stores, he said.
He said although Puritan’s tailored offering has benefited from the wedding and event surge, the stores do most of their business in sportswear — but dressy, elegant sportswear. “It’s time to get out of your elastic waistband pants and dress up again,” he said.
Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C., also reported that business is “fabulous. It started turning around in April,” which he attributed to a slowdown in COVID-19 cases as well as a relocation of the store. The location is adjacent to Wake Forest University, which gives it increased visibility and it is benefitting from walk-in traffic.
Stockton said he didn’t really change the mix after the relocation except to add some embroidered collegiate gear for Wake Forest. He also added a Johnny-O shop and business increased tenfold.
At the Collective, he especially liked Calder Carmel and Hagen’s shirts and Italian brand Teleria Zed’s selvedge denim pants. But still, he said, “Peter Millar is the beast,” and one of the store’s long-standing best-performing brands.
Although business is good, Stockton said he’s still cautious and doesn’t want to overextend himself in case another downturn hits. “It’ll be interesting to see how this coming fall stacks up to last fall, which was so good,” he said. “I think it’ll be good, but I’m looking for stuff we can get back into if we do well.”
There was plenty to choose from. “This is a fabulous show with all the right vendors and a lot of energy. Everybody I need to see is here,” he said.
Here, some of the highlights from the show.
Brand: ALEXANDER JULIAN AMERICAN MADE
Designer: Alexander Julian
Backstory: The award-winning designer has fashion in his blood. Growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., he started working at his father’s clothing store as a young man and opened his own boutique, Alexander’s Ambitions, when he was just 19. But it was only after moving to New York City in 1975 when he really came into his own, winning five Coty Awards as well as a CFDA Award and two Cutty Sark awards for his eponymous menswear collection. Although he started out designing his own fabrics and creating high-end, handmade clothing, it was his commercial collection, Colours, that really put him on the map. The sportswear collection launched in 1981 and was soon being sold worldwide.
Julian admits he’s never been as skilled on the business end, and as a result of poor management, his company was liquidated in 1995. It was then that the designer turned his attention to furniture. Although successful creating pieces for the home, he never lost his passion for menswear and reemerged in 2015 when he and his son, Huston, relaunched his clothing brand. “He relit the flame for me,” Julian said.
What that flame has ignited today is a collection called Alexander Julian American Made. The designer describes it as “indoor outerwear” — colorful sport coats and outerwear manufactured in the original Hickey Freeman tailored clothing factory in Rochester, N.Y. “It’s my version of classic outerwear shapes like field jackets, motorcycle jackets, aviator jackets, etc., that are meticulously tailored in Rochester using the finest Scottish, English and Italian sport coat fabrics — many exclusively designed by me,” he explained. And they’re all produced in America, which is integral to the brand’s aesthetic.
Key styles: Field coats in digitally printed woven stretch cotton twill, dégradé flannel or herringbone patterns; cashmere bombers with a skull patterned lining; peacoats; a lapeled overshirt in stretch cashmere and an Italian lambswool tartan bomber were among the top pieces for fall. Julian also produced complementary shirts to go along with the jackets, which are made in the former Brooks Bros. shirt factory in North Carolina. Julian designed the fabrics for the shirts which include an indigo herringbone patBacktern, a heavy flannel with stripes on the bias, and horizontally and digitally printed organic cottons.
Retail prices: The jackets start at $750 and go up to $2,000 while the shirts retail for $195 to $295.
Backstory: Since the brand’s inception, Closed has remained a company with strong ties to its heritage, striving for innovation and setting new standards within the sustainability realm. Founded by Marithé and François Girbaud, then sold to Hamburg-based business partners Hans Leplow and Günther Giers at the start of the ’90s, the denim brand was taken over in 2009 by Giers’ son, Gordon, and his friends Til Nadler and Hans Redlefsen. Denim remains a key component of Closed’s DNA, no surprise since the denim giant has been producing jeans since 1978 and highlights every single detail by drawing heavily on its European heritage, French imagination, Italian craftsmanship and German tradition.
Key styles: At the heart of this season’s assortment is a focus on comfort with wider and free-flowing silhouettes but still maintaining a casual and youthful feel. With subtle hints of collegiate flair — such as a letterman bomber jacket and oversized cable-knit vests — youthful tailoring and Americana-inspired ’90s workwear denim sets continue to be key drivers for fall. Denim continues to get reinvented with the integration of postconsumer recycled cotton with cleaner and vintage washes.
Pricing: Denim prices range from $275 to $330, outerwear averages $480 to $700 and goes up to $2,000 for the shearlings, and knitwear is $300 to $500.
Brand: C.O.F. STUDIO
Designer: Per Fredriksson
Backstory: C.O.F. Studio balances modern Swedish design and traditional high-quality Italian-made jeans. With fabrics sourced primarily from Candiani Denim, the jeans are sewn in small numbers by a handful of expert operators in a studio in the Salento district in Italy. From helping introduce the Japanese manufacturing industry to selvedge denim to living in Italy and learning all he could about stitching, hand washing and construction, Fredriksson has been at the forefront of the denim world throughout his lifetime. C.O.F. Studio represents a gathering not just of his knowledge of the different parts of the industry, but also of a “Circle of Friends,” which started in 2013 during a dinner where Fredriksson and a group of friends were discussing what defines good quality in today’s clothing industry.
Key styles: The assortment is simple but focused, with heavy denim shirt-jackets, boxy outerwear with oversize patch pockets, oversized denim in ’90s blue washes, and elevated workwear jacket and trouser sets in corduroy.
Pricing: Denim ranges from $195 to $320, outerwear from $450 to $575, shirting at $190 to $215 and overshirts at $240 to $410.
Backstory: The Italian luxury brand, which traces its history back more than a half-century, touts that it is the world’s largest producer of cashmere and noble fiber fabrics. The family-owned company, which operates its own factory in Biella, works with cashmere, kid cashmere, yangir, kid wool, guanaco, vicuna and camelhair and sells to some of the best-known names in the industry. More recently the company, officially named Lanificio Colombo, has expanded into knitwear and luxury outerwear under its own name and retained the M5 showroom to bring its collection to the U.S.
Key styles: The most eye-catching pieces include a double-face cashmere shirt-jacket, a blouson jacket offered in wrinkle-free worsted cashmere, beaver-treated cashmere or 12-micron wool with horn hardware. That same high-quality wool is used in sweaters, which are offered in a variety of silhouettes. Colombo also produces cashmere blazers and coats as well as accessories, such as gloves and scarves.
Retail prices: A kid cashmere sweater retails for $1,250, the worsted cashmere blouson jacket is $2,700 and a shirt-jacket is $3,700.
Brand: FAR AFIELD
Designer: Mark Scholes
Backstory: Founded in 2016 by brothers Mark and Chris Scholes, who together have more than 12 years of experience in men’s design, production, sourcing and retail, Far Afield is a contemporary British menswear brand that draws its influence from the notions of global travel. With its easy-to-wear ethos and penchant for sustainable sourcing, Far Afield is known for its printed shirts, comfortable pleated trousers, eye-catching knitwear and lightweight jackets in top-quality materials from leading fabric mills across the globe and suppliers that share the same concerns for ethical production, adult-only labor, fair working conditions and practices, adequate social care and fair compensation for workers.
Key styles: For the fall season, the U.K. brand turned to Japan and its inspiration is loosely based on the country’s climbing clubs as seen in the outdoor elements and details such as floral prints on woven cardigans, boucle workwear-style jackets with matching trousers (in a burnt orange), heavy-gauge corduroy shirts, heavy knit fishermen’s crewneck style knits and degrade striped knit polos.
Pricing: Outerwear ranges from $210 to $440, knits from $170 to $225, shirts from $130 to $155 and trousers from $145 to $200.
Designer: Rikki Kher
Backstory: Kardo was launched in 2013 with the desire to slow things down and attend to the small details of menswear. Inspired by traditional workwear and tailoring, Kardo infuses subtle twists on classic silhouettes — all made by hand. Based in New Delhi and founded by Rikki Kher, Kardo utilizes traditional weaving, dyeing and printing techniques and produces all its textiles by embracing old methodologies and slow, low impact processes such as hand spinning yarn, handloom weaving, hand block printing, natural dyeing, and hand knitting and upcycling textile scraps and recycling old textiles.
Key styles: Workwear-inspired jackets with jacquard weave in heavyweight cottons, boxy long sleeve shirts with ikat weave, block printed quilted jackets and shirts with motif inserts.
Pricing: Shirting pricing ranges from $185 to 250, trousers at $195 to $210 and quilted outerwear at $250.
Brand: JACK VICTOR
Designer: James Watson, creative director
Backstory: Since 1913, when Jack Wigdorovici left Romania and settled in Montreal, the Jack Victor company has been producing high-quality menswear. The company is now being run by Jack’s grandson, Alan Victor, and it manufactures suits and sport coats in worsted wool fabrics that range from super 100s to super 160s. But, like others, the company has expanded beyond traditional suits in subdued colors and predictable silhouettes into a wide assortment of softly constructed jackets and luxury sportswear under the direction of Watson, who cut his teeth at Slowear, Liberty of London, Michael Kors and Eleventy before joining Jack Victor last spring.
Key styles: A jersey jacket in Loro Piana cashmere that Watson described as a “tailored sweater” is one of the pieces the company’s Montreal factory had never manufactured before. It joined windowpane plaid jackets, fine-gauge sweaters, and moisture-wicking Tencel shirts available in a variety of colors. Other shirts are available in a Prince of Wales check as well as a 20 percent silk/70 percent merino wool/10 percent cashmere blend designed to be worn under a blazer. There are also merino hoodies, polos and tailored sweatshirts.
Retail prices: The jersey jacket retails for $1,398, the Tencel shirts are $198, the Prince of Wales patterned shirt is $248, polos are $278 and there are also knit ties for $128 or bow ties for $98.
Backstory: The family-owned Italian company has quietly been making inroads into the American market and took a major step last month by opening an atelier/showroom on 57th Street in Manhattan. The brand, whose history dates to the early 1900s when Enrico Mandelli started a business as a leather trader, today offers elevated sportswear pieces in leather as well as cashmere, vicuna and other luxury fibers. Although outerwear represents the majority of its business in natural and technical fibers and exotic leathers, the brand also offers knitwear, trousers, footwear, bags and accessories.
Key styles: Its fall 2022 line, called the Luxury Lifestyle collection, includes a cashmere jersey bomber with a suede body and sleeves made from Loro Piana cashmere; a field jacket in the same fabrics, and a hooded jersey blouson jacket in double-faced cashmere with a removable hood. There’s a hooded cashmere parka as well, also available with a removable hood.
Retail prices: The bomber retails for $1,800, the blouson jacket is $2,700 and the field jacket is $3,100.
Brand: PETER MILLAR
Backstory: Peter Millar is much more than just a golf brand. Although the label, which was acquired by Compagnie Financière Richemont in 2012, is well-known for its luxury golfwear, it has developed into a full lifestyle label. In fact, according to its president Scott Ruerup, the company actually got its start producing cashmere sweaters and wovens before moving into golfwear. Today its business ranges from high-end outerwear and performance pants to sweaters, sport shirts and accessories. “Our goal is to capture the whole closet,” Ruerup said, “from work to golf and everything in between.”
Key styles: At the show, the company was highlighting its Crown Crafted collection, a contemporary sportswear offering that blends technical materials with luxury fabrics. That included wool flannel pants with 2 percent stretch, sweaters including half-zips with suede details and a wide range of outerwear. There are also polos and woven shirts to round out the assortment. Beyond Crown Crafted, the brand offers a Crown Sport collection, which is targeted more toward the golfer, as well as Crown, a collection of menswear styles in luxury fabrics, bold patterns and vibrant colors.
Retail prices: Prices in the Crown Crafted collection include polos for $115 and wovens for $238, jackets for $1,198 and outerwear that ranges from $798 to $1,498.
Brand: UMBER & OCHRE
Designer: Kunal Desai
Backstory: Umber & Ochre is known for its extensive hand processes and natural materials, from fiber to finished fabric. Founded by Kunal Desai in 2011 and based in San Francisco, the collection takes cues from Desai’s travels throughout India, while celebrating the many craftsmen and artisans he has encountered and nurtured who have practiced time-worn techniques for more than 10 generations. Each piece is sustainably produced in family-run workshops in India that help support the preservation of traditional crafts, including hand weaving, dyeing, printing and embroidery.
Key styles: The designs are inspired by clothing of the past — garments that have practical and functional elements that still fit into a modern lifestyle such as turmeric and indigo hand block printed shirts, a striped hooded popover with hand-braided cords, soft hand-knit sweaters from a blend of yak and lambswool, indigo-pleated denim with a wider leg opening (a first for the brand) and quilted chore coats made from antique Kantha quilts that have been sourced in India, resulting in a one-of-a-kind statement piece.
Pricing: Shirts retail for $200, knitwear for $360, denim for $225 and the vintage Kantha quilted jackets for $390. The brand also offers accessories such as wool knit socks, bandanas and shawls in silk and yak wool combinations.