In his two decades at Saks Fifth Avenue, Thomas Ott, senior vice president, general merchandise manager of men’s, gifts and home, has seen some dramatic changes in the men’s wear category.
The shifts range from tailored clothing’s rapid growth in the late Nineties when Saks was opening stores at a brisk pace in San Francisco, Florida and Houston to the popularity of casual Friday, to the aftereffects of 9/11 when men started getting dressed up again for job interviews to the influence of European fashion and designer sportswear and then the recession, where business was off 35 percent for two years. Now under new ownership and leadership, Saks is expanding again in both the U.S. and Canada.
“As a company, we were kind of stalled. It was great working with some super people at Saks, [but] we didn’t have money to keep up with the Joneses. We couldn’t do any expansion. When you’re a men’s department in a women’s store you don’t get a lot of capex [capital expenditures], so you’re fighting for all the dollars. What’s really refreshing now is it’s more entrepreneurial and we’re going to grow stores again,” said Ott.
In a conversation with Jean Palmieri, senior editor of WWD, Ott said that men are more interested in fashion today than they were in the past.
“We started the ‘Men are the new women.’ It’s a superexciting time. Men are well read, well versed and have an interest in fashion. There are a lot of great influences right now. The world of sports, the great basketball players are dressing so well. A lot of young musicians are dressing up.” Guys in their 20s and early 30s are great for the industry, added Ott. “They’re very interested in fashion and they understand it. Thinking back on my career, it’s probably one of the best generations of male dressers that I’ve seen,” said Ott.
One of fastest growing men’s categories at Saks is advanced contemporary, especially the young contemporary French brands. “Nobody wants to be the old fogey anymore,” he added. Ott said the classic businesses have updated their models, the way they shoot their models, and the fit is closer to the body. He said he is also looking to double his private label in the next two to three years.
Something that Saks has worked on the last few years is showing lifestyle dressing. “We’re integrating all the different parts of a how a guy dresses into each and every floor we cover in men’s.” Consequently, men’s accessories has been on fire the last two to three years. “In particular, leather goods are really driving it. Sunglasses is a super business. It’s very trend oriented. You’ve got to have the right belt to go with the right sneakers and the right shoes. Backpacks is like, people never saw a backpack before. Also, fashion watches, with a little bit of color and a bigger dial.”
The Chicago store had been a men’s-only unit, but now has been absorbed into the main store. “You get a lot of guilt gifts. The woman spends $25,000 on the shoes and the bags, and they realize they need to buy at least a shirt and tie for Joe.” He recalled two husbands who came into the store with their wives, and they went to the bar in the men’s department to hang out. “They turned into big Kiton customers. One spent 40 grand and the other spent $50,000,” he said.
Turning to the new Saks store that will be opening in Brookfield Place in downtown Manhattan, he said, “New York will be a cluttered ball field. Everybody and their aunt and uncle will be here. Nordstrom, Neiman’s, Barneys and us.” The Saks store will be 85,000 square feet and will feature women’s and men’s. There will be a 12,000-square-foot men’s floor. He said that where the uptown renovation is more Art Deco styling, the downtown store will be more modern and updated. “I think it’s two different trading zones. I think it will offer us a different opportunity and different customer. As that area is revitalized it’s a whole new shopping customer.”
Asked how he views the competition downtown, Ott gave his perspective: “In men’s, we’re all a little different. We have a lot of vendors we share. We’re all headed in slightly different ways, and we’re not butting heads. Of our major competitors, one is all about luxury. They do luxury probably better than anybody. Where I start at $2,000, they may start at $3,000 or $4,000, and that’s great and God bless them. There’s another guy who’s very much about contemporary. They do a lot of really young fashion and are really into denim. Another guy is super classic and hits it in the middle and they do nothing but business, and we’re very envious of that store and the volume that they do. They’re classic, and they’re great. Then there’s a real fashion store and they do designer probably better than anybody. That’s kind of the landscape of our competitors and how we see it. We try to be a little more approachable. We’re playing in the contemporary zone and updated and modern. And that’s the landscape according to Tom.”