In three years, Brooks Brothers will turn 200. Paul Stuart opened its doors for the first time in 1938. The first incarnation of what is now the Mitchells Family of Stores made its debut in Westport, Conn., in 1958.
This story first appeared in the August 12, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But the longevity of these retailers is more the exception than the rule.
For decades, stores like these were the backbone of the men’s industry. But as time passed and the country changed radically, a large number of specialty retailers were unable to survive and are now just a footnote in the industry’s history. The stores that have survived and prospered attribute their endurance to their ability to evolve — without losing sight of their history.
“Everything has to move forward — rust will kill you,” said Tom Mastronardi, chief marketing officer for Paul Stuart.
Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies for Kurt Salmon Associates, agrees: “On a macro level, it has certainly helped that the men’s business has been on one of the more healthy and growing retail categories as men have become more fashion-conscious and eclectic in both their business and casual attire,” he said. “But the major reason that has allowed some, not all, of the venerable men’s retailers to survive is their strength of conviction to stay with the roots of their business in terms of quality for the dollar, great customer experience and overall fashion sensibility.”
Aronson said in addition to “adding new twists, fashion flourishes, style and fabrication variations,” these retailers have not abandoned “the foundational pillars that have been the sustaining reasons for their success. “They have also stayed abreast of technology
and innovation to provide necessary infrastructure improvements and have invested carefully and selectively [in] supply-chain efficiencies, merchandise information systems and marketing in order to stay competitive.”
That’s certainly the case with Brooks Brothers.
“We never downplay our heritage, we’re proud of it,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer. “The reason we’ve been around so long is that rather than trying to completely change, we’ve stayed true to our brand and looked to evolve and stay relevant in the market. A lot of brands throw out everything and just go with the trend of the moment, but for us, it’s all about balance and updating in a gradual way.”
In 2007, the store brought Thom Browne on board to design a new collection called Black Fleece, which offered an updated take on some of the store’s most traditional models. And three years ago, it launched Red Fleece, a line targeted to a younger shopper.
Although Brooks will discontinue Black Fleece after this fall, its impact is longer lasting.
Amendola said the association with Browne showed the store that there was a market for slimmer fits. In 2007, he said, 80 percent of the shirts sold were full. Today, 75 percent are slim or extra-slim. And the company’s updated Regent and Milano tailored clothing silhouettes are strong sellers.
It has also influenced Red Fleece, which is around 15 percent of the business and will be a key focus for the retailer going forward. “When we created Red Fleece, we didn’t say we’d stop making suits for [chief executive officers] and lawyers,” Amendola said.
Additionally, the store has dabbled in collaborations with everyone from the popular streetwear brand Supreme for a special seersucker suit and bucket hat and Kiel James Patrick for an accesso- ries collection, to “The Great Gatsby” for a special collection tied in with the most recent film adaptation of the novel.
Amendola said such collaborations offer “excitement and buzz,” but the company is careful to keep them to no more than 15 percent of the business so they don’t overshadow the core of the brand.
Paul Stuart, whose claim to fame is its distinct take on Anglo-American clothing, has also updated its assortment to appeal to a more modern customer. Eight years ago, it launched Phineas Cole, a more “advanced” model with a higher armhole, shorter jacket and narrower point-to-point jacket.
Although the price point is similar — $1,800 and up — the silhouette is updated and targeted to a younger guy. “The looks are very wearable and stick to the heritage of what we do,” said Ralph Auriema, design director for Paul Stuart, who said the collection represents “significant” sales for the privately held business.
Even so, Mastronardi said the bulk of Paul Stuart’s sales still come from a customer over the age of 40 who “understands and embraces tailored clothing.” So in addition to Phineas Cole, the store has updated the fit of its other models as well, offering five fits to appeal to all types of men. “The challenge is, how do you stay classic and modern at the same time,” Mastronardi said.
Bob Mitchell, copresident of Mitchells Family of Stores, has also learned this lesson. “We’re in the fashion business — the change business. Our mantra is to stay close to the customer and that has allowed us to make changes with confidence.”
When Mitchell entered the family business in 1991, “We hung 3,000 garments just in Westport,” he said. “Those were the days when people bought a lot of inexpensive suits. The biggest change I’ve seen is the move to luxury.”
With the rise of discounting and buy-one-get-seven-free promotions, Mitchells made the decision to upgrade its assortment to distance itself from discounts. “In the early Nineties, people used to line up for the first day of our sale,” he said. “So we lost a lot of customers, but it’s about being analytical and not emotional.”
He said making that jump “sometimes can be treacherous, but it was a calculated gamble” that ultimately paid off.
The same held true for the store’s decision to dive into the women’s business, which has grown from 20 percent of the mix in 1991 to more than 60 percent today in the Westport location and is “our number-one growth engine,” Mitchell said.
Hill Stockton, owner of Norman Stockton retail store in Winston-Salem, N.C., has experienced firsthand the pitfalls that can befall independent retailers. Five years ago, he closed the last remaining unit of his family’s 101-year-old store. But in mid-September, he’s taking the plunge and will reopen.
“What we’re doing now is what we needed to do to be relevant five years ago,” he said. “I just wasn’t ready.”
So the store will be a third of the size — 2,000 square feet instead of 6,000 square feet — and will be 70 percent sportswear instead of 60 percent clothing. “My grandfather had a wall of hats and my father had a wall of suits,” he said. “We won’t have either.”
But evolution isn’t taking place just at the designer level.
The Men’s Wearhouse, which was founded in 1973, has diversified its business over the past few years to attract different types of men.
In 2013, the retailer bought the Joseph Abboud brand, and the next year, acquired its archrival, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers.
“Men’s Wearhouse is more contemporary and Jos. A. Bank is more traditional. And the Joseph Abboud brand has attracted a more affluent customer,” explained ceo Doug Ewert.
Since its introduction last year, the Abboud brand has grown to become 20 percent of the company’s overall revenues. There is a higher-end collection that is being sold online and at a dedi- cated Joseph Abboud store in Manhattan.
But even within the flagship chain, the mix has changed. Slim-fit suits now represent 45 percent of the business.
Designer Joseph Abboud said young guys are becoming more sartorial as they realize that “dressing up is fun and cool. And the leaner, slimmer fit appeals to them.” This has led to what he characterized as “one of the most exciting men’s wear cycles in the last 40 years. We are definitely in a bull market.”
Men’s Wearhouse’s big push into tuxedo rentals is also attracting a younger man. “Three million 17-to-27-year-olds rent with us every year and they all join our loyalty program, where we go to work converting them to retail customers,” Ewert said.
With more than 1,500 Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank stores around the country, Ewert admitted that it’s challenging to keep up with customer demand, but “we have a store within a 10-mile radius of 70 percent of the population of North America, so we can look our customer in the eye.” The store teams then provide feedback to the merchants and marketing teams who act on that feedback.
Even so, Ewert said success and evolution go hand in hand. “You have to keep reinventing the business every year. People who hold onto how they did things before won’t survive.”