Hamid Onifade has an amenable face. In one shot, he can look brooding and mysterious, but with just the slightest tilt of his head or upturn of his mouth he’s innocent and childlike. He has a serene, warm visage that’s accessible, but still genetically superior.
Onifade, a 23-year-old male model from Benin, in West Africa, has been working a lot lately. He’s become the representative of choice for men’s brands and retailers that are hoping to break through the noise and incite the everyday guy, who’s not wholly engaged with streetwear, to shop. Onifade has worked for J. Crew, but he’s also modeled for Target’s men’s line, Goodfellow & Co., which launched last fall, and Goodthreads, a private label from Amazon that was made available in 2017 and is exclusive to Prime members.
Onifade hasn’t modeled for Walmart, but the big-box retailer is also reassessing how it reaches men. Aside from acquiring Bonobos last June, a company for which Onifade has modeled, Walmart recently reintroduced George, a men’s private label from its British affiliate Asda.
The activity within the men’s wear space is quantifiable. According to Euromonitor, the men’s apparel and footwear categories have grown by 19 percent globally over the past five years to $419.3 billion from $351.8 billion. The customer is savvier and competition for attention is steadily swelling. Newer players like Trunk Club and Menlo House, formerly known as Five Four Club, are layering service and convenience into the experience. Everlane has won over Millennial customers with strong storytelling. And then there are brands like Faherty and Vineyard Vines that have a distinct identity that resonates with Millennials and older generations alike.
J. Crew used to be a leading player for this Millennial male customer, but as the retailer reported total revenues in the third quarter decreased 4.5 percent to $566.7 million from $593.2 million while comparable sales decreased by 9 percent, the store isn’t what it used to be. The retailer is in the midst of course correcting. Mickey Drexler, J. Crew’s longtime chairman and chief executive officer, stepped down as ceo and was succeeded by James Brett, who comes from West Elm. But now, 10 months later, have any changes trickled down to its men’s assortment?
J. Crew’s New York store in Flatiron on Fifth Avenue has changed. The company has renovated the women’s store and added an At Your Service window, where customers, men and women, can make returns, pick up product, schedule an appointment with a stylist or receive concierge-like advice.
But some things haven’t changed. Upstairs, inside its men’s store, the messaging is still very promo-heavy. A new arrivals sign ironically reads, “And we’re introducing a totally new way to shop,” that then offered 40 percent off any four or more styles, 30 percent off any three styles, and so on.
Collaborations, a key method for selling to men today, have always been a part of J. Crew’s arsenal and they still are. Much like brands including Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, it’s leaning into its heritage and partnered with Rowing Blazers, an apparel brand devoted to rowing culture, to design a capsule of rugby shirts. The retailer is also dabbling in streetwear. Toward the back of the store is its collection with Neighborhood, which J. Crew describes as “one of the coolest streetwear brands in Japan.” Supreme collaborated with Neighborhood in 2006.
According to Eliza Cohen, a Millennial from New England who published “How to Fix J. Crew” in 2015, the biggest shift she’s noticed is on the marketing side, specifically J. Crew’s newest campaign with WeWork that showcases WeWork members wearing the brand.
“My perception is they are just listening more,” said Cohen. “Two or three years ago, I couldn’t see J. Crew partnering with WeWork, but by partnering with the gig economy, J. Crew is able to suggest that they are experiencing a metamorphosis just as workplace culture and fashion is. They are presenting themselves as accessible and versatile, but they are doing it in a way that’s subtle.”
Banana Republic has faced similar challenges for even longer. For the fourth quarter, Old Navy’s comps were up 5 percent, Gap was flat and Banana Republic was down 3 percent, but the company is attempting to adapt and its seeing some traction. Its fourth quarter comps went up by 1 percent versus negative 3 percent last quarter. Within the men’s section of its Flatiron store, the surroundings feel refined. Nicky Wiesmann, vice president of men’s design, said the brand has focused on elevating the in-store experience with an enhanced service model and spaces that feel more lounge-like.
On the product side, Banana Republic is infusing technology and fibers from the active industry into its sportswear. Wiesmann said this strategy is working and the company is seeing strong growth in the pant and suit category. This shift has led to increased prices, but Wiesmann said there hasn’t been resistance because the consumer is willing to pay more if it has added value. The company recruited NBA center Kevin Love, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as a brand ambassador and he’s created a collection with the retailer that will be available for fall.
Working with athletes is a formula brands frequently visit, but Andres Izquieta, the cofounder of online men’s wear retailer Five Four, which partnered with Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul on a collection and a campaign, said tie-ins with athletes have to be authentic in order to be impactful. Paul first met Izquieta and Dee Murthy when he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers and was intrigued by the Lob City sweatshirts fans were wearing in the stands, which Five Four used to make.
“We have a relationship with Chris. Without that it just becomes a contract and the customer picks up on that,” said Izquieta. “It’s about working with brands and influencers who can tell stories versus people who are just famous but not relevant to the product. I believe 80 percent of selling to men is about storytelling and 20 percent of it is offering unique product.”
Five Four is known for collaborating with leaders in the fashion space such as Robert Geller, Nick Wooster and Motofumi “Poggy” Kogi, but it recently tweaked its approach by creating capsules with lesser-known streetwear brands with an ardent fan base. Five Four’s collaboration with Diet Starts Monday, a Washington, D.C.-based streetwear brand, has been one of its most successful partnerships to date, and Izquieta attributes this to cofounders John Geiger, Davin Gentry and Kevin Hallums’ ability to create a strong narrative around its product, offering a glimpse inside the design process or detailing how they would wear a certain piece. They would spread this type of content out across 30 to 50 Instagram stories that they posted continuously over the two or three weeks leading up to the launch. With the Diet Starts Monday partnership, 80 percent of the transactions were from new customers and 20 percent were from existing Five Four members.
“It brings a whole new wave of people onto the site and you are able to market to them later when it’s relevant,” said Izquieta.
Bonobos has yet to venture into collaborations, but similar to Banana Republic, the brand founded by Andy Dunn, is bringing performance into its sportswear — its store window reads “Perform Better.” Instead of using a star athlete to convey this message, it introduced a campaign titled “Role Models Not Male Models,” its first marketing effort that is less solution-based and more mission driven. The campaign, which was released last year, features six men including Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut; Jason Flom, a music executive, and Ryan Duffy, a journalist. Bonobos rebuilt its in-house creative team last year and brought in new hires to build editorial content, who Micky Onvural, Bonobos’ chief marketing officer, said understood how men communicated with men, not just how brands communicated to men.
“We have always had this confidence and empowerment message, but we haven’t always articulated it well in our marketing,” said Onvural. “We wanted to show that we really do have a fit for every man and we are here to help people express their individuality and fulfill their potential.”
Faherty also produces a magazine/catalogue four times a year, which Alex Faherty, who cofounded the brand with his twin brother Mike in 2013, said is its biggest customer acquisition driver. The spring issue was shot in Joshua Tree, Calif., and features Alex and Mike, along with family and friends gathering for dinner or hanging out at a bonfire. Faherty, which has six stores in the U.S. and plans to open two more this year, is targeting the older Millennial who grew up wearing J. Crew or a surf brand. Alex said they don’t identify with sophisticated contemporary brands, but with the laid-back, outdoorsy lifestyle they’ve posited — Mike, who used to design for Ralph Lauren, has taken cues from Lauren on how to create a world people want to be a part of, but they’ve made that world accessible. It’s also a tactic used by Vineyard Vines, which has homed in on a very specific, preppy world, but in a jovial, welcoming way.
“It used to be, ‘I need to go shopping, let’s go to Bloomingdale’s,’ but now the customer wants to find something close to where they live that’s special. It’s the same reason why someone goes to La Colombe over Starbucks,”said Alex Faherty. “People like our brand because it feels special. They also relate to us.”
Big-box retailers are also trying to connect with the men’s consumer. Amazon’s men’s wear labels, Buttoned Down and Good Threads, offer basics. With George, Walmart is trying to play with fashion, but in a very Walmart way. Meanwhile, Target spokesperson Jessica Carlson said with Goodfellow & Co. — the company’s men’s private label that has replaced Merona and Mossimo — the retailers wants to create a brand, not just a label.
“When men think of style they don’t think about just apparel and accessories,” said Carlson. “Style for men is about lifestyle decisions. It’s everything from the beer they drink to the clothes they wear to the notebook they carry.”
With Goodfellow & Co., Target has produced apparel and branding that’s Club Monaco-lite. In-store, it cross merchandises the collection with Moleskine notebooks, Harry’s shaving products and Beats headphones. The retailer has also introduced a wider range of big and tall offerings. Carlson said Target is refreshing the assortment every four to six weeks as opposed to every six to eight weeks, which was standard in the past. Bringing more newness onto the floor has helped bolster sales in its women’s and kids’ and the retailer is hoping that transfers over to men.
Retailers are taking different stances on whether men want more product to choose from on a more regular basis. Five Four releases on average 20 to 30 new items a week and Faherty also has new product on its site every week. Wiesmann of Banana Republic said it’s less about new stockkeeping units for men and more about releasing innovative product that will keep them happy for a year or two while the design team is working on the next thing to replace it. Bonobos said it introduces product at an organic pace and Everlane takes the hero item approach, trickling out a couple new styles each month and creating a lot of content around why this product is necessary and how it’s made.
Wardrobe NYC, which was founded by designer Josh Goot and Vogue Australia’s fashion director Christine Centenera, isn’t targeting the everyday guy, but is offering a very pared-down shopping experience for men and women based on its observations of the market. Men are able to buy a four-piece wardrobe for $1,500, or an eight-piece capsule for $3,000. The first collection, which is named Tailored, consists of foundational items such as a coat, a blazer, a hoodie, shirt and trousers. The company will release other themed collections over the course of the season that will be available to buy immediately. Goot and Centenera believe it’s an answer to the overstimulated consumer who is encouraged to purchase things when they are limited and want to purchase things as soon as they see them.
“I’ve been a customer of streetwear since I was a kid, so that distribution model has definitely influenced this,” said Goot. “The notion of limited quantities and getting people excited about releases is obviously working.”
Wardrobe NYC is a new, nimble brand that can easily shift under the demands of the market. But for larger companies, Alex Faherty believes there are still ways they can connect with men.
“Every big brand can reinvent themselves by focusing on what that customer is interested in,” said Faherty. “If you look at what Levi’s has done, it has transformed the image of the brand for the Millennial. It just requires a lot of rethinking about how you go after your consumer and present your brand to the world.”