NEW YORK — The rules of the game have changed and independent men’s specialty stores that have adapted to the new normal are on a winning streak.
Whether it’s a de-emphasis of traditional tailored clothing — long the bread and butter of independent retailers — or a dramatic shift in their vendor mix, the survivors have learned to navigate the current climate.
Many larger brands are opening their own stores — either brick-and-mortar or virtual — leaving independents hard-pressed to compete. And customers searching the Internet to compare prices on commonly found labels has also prompted stores to look elsewhere.
“We’re finally at a tipping point,” said Ken Giddon, president of Rothman’s. “The relationship between retailers and vendors has to be reworked. Retailers are waking up to the fact that things have to change. They can’t keep their heads in the sand anymore on pricing.”
He wasn’t alone. Mike Zack, owner of Circa 2000 in Plano, Tex., has been banging the same drum for a while now. “It’s a whole new world today,” he said. “We’re completely changing our vendor structure and have gotten rid of most of the big brands like Peter Millar and Tommy Bahama. I’m taking my ball to a new playground.”
Bruce Levitt of Mur-Lees in Lynbrook, N.Y., said customers think nothing of whipping out their cellphones to Google prices of his inventory right in front of him. But he’s taking a novel approach: He actually helps them search to make sure it’s the same item, color, size and season and then tries to get them to buy from him.
Like Giddon and Zack, however, Levitt is trying to shift his assortment to focus on lesser-known brands seeking long-term relationships. “If we’re just the vehicle for manufacturers to launch their brands, then we’re not really important.”
Giddon added: “We are the most efficient advertising and lowest customer acquisition tool for brands.” And he’s had enough. As reported, Giddon is launching a concept called TestShop which is a hybrid between a pop-up and concession model where vendors will pay him and other specialty retailers to effectively rent space within their stores.
“Our job is to come here not only to find great product, but wholesalers who are awake to what’s going on,” Giddon said.
So at the Project, Liberty and Man spring trade shows here this week, merchants sought lesser-known brands that were not widely distributed to differentiate and spice up their assortments. Updated knitwear, sport shirts with subtle yet interesting patterns, five-pocket pants and brands with an interesting story were tops on stores’ shopping lists.
Craig DeLongy, owner of the Winter Park, Fla.-based John Craig and Current, said his six stores “had a tremendous spring,” driven by fancy sport coats and five-pocket pants. “And we’re continuing to do well with sneakers from Good Man, Santoni and others.
As a Florida-based retailer, he’s also had good success with swimwear from Michael’s and other brands in “crazy prints. For us, it’s all about color, color and more color,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anything navy in our stores.”
For fall, Delongy is banking on cashmere sweaters and lightweight flannel pants in muted orange, mustard and other rich colors. At the shows, he was looking for knitwear from brands such as Gran Sasso as well as polos with johnny collars. “I think those will do well,” he said.
What he is moving away from, however, is traditional clothing. “We’re backing down significantly on that for fall,” he said.
Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C., said “spring business was great” at his store. “All categories of sportswear were good.” Although he may have gone a little too heavily into soft jackets, five-pocket pants were outselling regular casual trousers by a margin of three to one, he said. “The big question now, is will that slow down,” he said.
Knitwear has also been a standout with performance fabrics outpacing cotton, especially among the younger customers.
At the shows, he was looking for items to prompt interest and impulse purchases — “and that’s not necessarily an article of clothing,” he said. “We need a reason for men to come to our store.” He said the addition of On shoes — an item he would not have necessarily bought five years ago — has been a home run. “We’ve reordered three times,” he said.
As a result, Stockton was upbeat about the upcoming fall season. “If we can continue this way, we’ll have a fabulous year,” he said.
Dan Farrington, general merchandise manager of men’s for Mitchells Stores, said spring sales were up overall with particular strength in sport coats. Even so, “shoes were the hottest thing,” led by sneakers. At the shows, he was “looking at what we can carry when that slows.”
He was also shopping for knitwear — “that seems to be trending” — and luxury sportswear. “Actively developing a lifestyle assortment is a goal for us.” Accessories were also on his list — something to replace neckwear, which is struggling. “The glory days of the tie are gone,” he said.
Looking ahead, Farrington said he’s hoping “fall could be even better” than spring. “We believe our fall assortment is better tuned in than ever on what’s working. And it’s super commercial,” especially the high-end sportswear and footwear assortments.
Giddon of Rothman’s also reported strong spring business and at the shows liked Serge Blanco’s shirts, Beltology’s woven belts, Troubadour and State’s bags, Ted Baker and Benibeca swimwear.
Levitt said Emanuel Berg’s shirts have been the “rock star” for his store because of their innovative prints. “Men are tired of stripes and plaids and are looking for something unique,” he said.
Looking ahead to fall, both Levitt and Giddon said they’re expecting a good season. “We’re a clothing-driven store and we’re trying to reposition ourselves in a sportswear world,” Levitt said. “It’s like being a car dealer and everyone is switching to motorcycles,” Giddon added. “But we’ve been adjusting what we carry for a year or two now so fall should be good.”
Zack of Circa 2000 was also looking for special things, such as Flannel Bay Napoli, an Italian clothing brand with soft tailored pieces that are not widely distributed. “People in Texas want light weights,” he said, and the “handcrafted sexiness” of Italian brands fit that bill.
Zack said that spring was “challenging” because of the constant battle with his vendors on pricing. “But we’re changing what we’re doing and we think fall will be better,” he said.
Here are some of the highlights from this week’s shows:
Brand: Ports V
Designer: Milan Vukmirovic
Backstory: Vukmirovic, the cofounder of Colette and designer of such brands as Gucci, Jil Sander and Trussardi 1911, was creative director of the Ports 1961 men’s collection. That line was discontinued last year to focus instead on the Ports V collection, which offers bimonthly, unisex capsules. “The creation of Ports V is not about a product or a collection per se; it is about the meaning behind the innovative creations — love unites through inclusivity and diversity, seeing past the differences of skin color, ethnicity and gender,” said Vukmirovic. “Ports V celebrates culture in all its forms.” What that translated into at Project was a see-now-buy-now assortment of contemporary streetwear centered around an updated camouflage pattern that Vukmirovic splashed on a variety of apparel and accessories.
Key styles: The camo print was emblazoned on everything from an updated safari jacket with a multitude of pockets that had almost an English silhouette, as well as vests and bucket hats. Vukmirovic also used a signature V letter as a graphic element on everything from sweaters and bags to coats. Ports V offered an embellished sweatshirt that has found fans among celebrities as well as PolarFleece short and hoodie sets, Lost in Love graphic Ts, hoodies and track pants.
Prices: T-shirts retail for $110, knitwear for $100 to $200, the sweatshirt for $425 and outerwear for $695 to $795. Right now, the collection is available exclusively at Farfetch.
Designer: Vincenzo de Lauziers
Backstory: The Naples, Italy-based company has been creating shirts for other brands for two decades, but launched the Settecorni brand five years ago. De Lauziers, who is also chief executive officer, uses traditional single-needle Neapolitan craftsmanship to produce the collection. The brand believes that “the shirt is the emblem of style” and its collection, details and packaging are “the new reference for the man who wants to be different.”
Key styles: The bulk of the collection is in luxury linen fabrics sourced from Italy that it offers in a variety of stripes and prints. Details such as pearl buttons with cross-stitching are a hallmark of the brand. The best-selling item is a solid linen shirt with a polka-dot pattern under the collar and on the inside of the cuffs. There are also laser-printed floral shirts, and the brand offers a selection of swimwear in the same or complementary patterns to the shirts.
Prices: The shirts retail for $230 to $499.
Backstory: Neapolitan master tailor Vincenzo Sicignano created what is believed to be the first unconstructed tailored sport coat in the Fifties. The Giacchett e Capri was lightweight, never wrinkled and could be tied around the waist, shaken out and slipped on for evenings on the isle of Capri. Sicignano’s grandson, Pasquale, discovered the pattern in an attic and decided to reintroduce it, targeting a well-off, vacationing cosmopolitan man. In fact, the booth at Project used a jar to display one of the jackets rolled up and shoved inside. When it’s taken out and shaken, it’s ready to wear out to dinner.
Key styles: The jackets have no shoulder pads or chest pieces and use no filler or fusing. The company also uses only natural materials such as cashmere, flax, cotton and wool. They’re available in a variety of prints and patterns. The spring collection has three color palettes: tan, pink and blue in checks, stripes, windowpanes and other patterns. GiCapri also offers a selection of pants, many with pleats, where the waistbands are created from the same pattern as the pant. Hats, which can double as a pocket square, are part of the mix.
Prices: Most of the jackets wholesale for around $700 while full suits are $900 and pants are $300. GiCapri also offers a stock program for U.S. stores using Reda fabrics that can be shipped in two days.
Brand: West Overalls
Designer: Tassei Onuki
Backstory: Japan-based West Overalls is Tassei Onuki’s take on workwear and vintage Americana. The unisex brand draws inspiration from Onuki’s fascination with American heritage, workwear and vintage Americana (he visits Route 66 every year to shop for vintage pieces and silver accessories). Onuki launched West Overalls as the balance between heritage and modern fashion, with jeans that resemble the lower half of overalls that were cut at the waist. After four years in business, the label is available at around 150 stores in Japan and is now entering the U.S. market.
Key styles: West Overalls denim is popular for both men and women, and is available in straight- and wide-leg fits, as well as light washes and colored denim. The label also offers suspenders and regular fit T-shirts featuring vintage design details. The minimal branding on the jeans is a signature of the brand and was first introduced to show the label’s skill at making the smallest stitch mark.
Prices: Denim jeans are priced at $200.
Designer: Andrea Westerlind
Backstory: Westerlind is a small outdoor-inspired collection and retailer launched by Andrea Westerlind. The concept, which was born from the Swedish designer’s love for the great outdoors, began as a showroom in 2011 before pivoting to a retail concept in 2014 in New York City. The collection is carried at outdoor retailers such as Glasswing in Seattle but is mainly sold at the brand’s four stand-alone stores in New York City; Eden, Utah; Larkspur, Calif., and Jackson Hole, Wy., where it joins such brands such as Snow Peak, Houdini, and Goldwin.
Key styles: The jumpsuit, available in white, black, green, gray and olive, is made in Portugal and is described as an everyday piece that can be worn to the beach with a swimsuit underneath. Felt hats are also a staple for the brand and are produced in Pennsylvania at one of the oldest felt hat producers in the U.S.
Prices: The Climbing Collection that was shown at Liberty retails between $125 and $275, but its in-store assortment ranges from $30 to $1,000 for technical outerwear. The jumpsuit retails for $275.
Backstory: The brand was started in 1946 by three New Englanders who created a hand-sewn penny loafer that was inspired by an Indian moccasin and featured a patented welt construction. In the Seventies, it introduced its signature Docksides leather boat shoe. Although the brand is still headquartered in Maine, it was purchased in 2017 by BasicNet, an Italian corporation that also owns Kappa, K-way, Superga and others. The new owners have set out to expand the product offering and are introducing apparel for spring 2020.
Key styles: The apparel collection is intended to be complementary to the footwear so it’s no surprise that technical nautical jackets, some with bold graphics, are part of the launch collection. There is also knitwear and denim made in Italy, and several collaborations including Universal Works, Baracuta, Maison Kitsuné and Roy Rogers. The Baracuta offering includes a G9 Combo Jacket in navy, green and red as well as a Skipper Jacket in signature Baracuta plaid with contrasting sleeves. Complementary moccasins with the tartan insert and a red leather insole are also offered.
Retail prices: Boat shoes range from for $85 for a canvas model to $120 for leather, while loafers sell for $175 to $200. The apparel ranges from $180 for T-shirts to $500 for a fully functional sailing jacket.
Designer: Takeshi Osumi and Yuichi Yoshii
Backstory: Japan-based Mistergentleman launched in 2012 with the mission to develop elevated basics that the brand describes as “post-modern.” Takeshi Osumi and Yuichi Yoshii partnered to launch the brand after their solo careers: Osumi created Phenomenon in 2004, and Yoshii was a buyer at Celux and Loveless and opened the concept shop The Contemporary Fix. Mistergentleman is a regular at Tokyo Fashion Week, operates four stores in Japan, China and Hong Kong, and is available at 50 stores in its home country. The label’s showing at Man, which is pre-spring, marks its first time entering the U.S. market.
Key styles: There are layered denim jackets that have sporty tracksuit sleeves, and dress shirts and outerwear pieces with neon piping. Select solid and striped dress shirts sport a back flap inspired by trench coats or multiple pockets that resemble a utility vest. The brand’s mixed-media knitwear and outerwear, specifically parkas, merge different textures through cut-and-sew construction.
Prices: T-shirts retail for as low as $40 and outerwear is priced above $500.
Designer: Dan Snyder
Backstory: Corridor is designer Dan Snyder’s take on Northeastern American fashion. Baltimore, Snyder’s home city, inspires much of the brand, along with other cities in the Northeast corridor, specifically New York City and Boston, which he frequented over the years. The designer describes his brand as “New Americana,” with European-facing, preppy and metropolitan styles that encapsulate the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. Corridor is available at 120 stores in 16 countries and operates two stand-alone stores, in NoLita and Williamsburg in New York.
Key styles: Shirts, which this season are comprised of overdyed and washed-out styles, natural cotton and naturally dyed pieces, also include linen overshirts and conversational prints on short-sleeve shirts. Drawstring pants are offered in this collection, which is titled “Natural Electricity” and explores one’s natural attraction to things — in this case, apparel and textures.
Prices: Shirts generally retail between $135 and $215 and pants for $165. Outerwear for this season ranges between $215 and $245.
Brand: Reinhard Plank
Designer: Reinhard Plank
Backstory: Florence-based designer Reinhard Plank launched his namesake headwear brand in 2008 after having studied hats and head shapes for two years. Plank set out to create new versions of headwear and find new ways to create flexible hats that are a part of one’s life. He recycled old hats to produce new ones and now owns a factory where he produces his often-unlined collection that spans from short- and wide-brimmed fedoras to bucket caps, and brimmed caps in cotton and straw. Reinhard Plank is currently available in about 80 stores globally in Japan and China, parts of Europe and in the U.S. in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
Key styles: Plank’s classic cap, or a brimmed cap that resembles a railroad conductor cap, has been popular for the label, as have beach hats produced in cotton fixit fabrics.
Prices: The hats retail between $250 and $300.