Branding the man: why men are the next frontier in fashion retail

Suited for Battle: A Boy, a Man, and the Search for the Perfect Suit

December 7, 2011

Courtesy AMC/Lionsgate Television

 

When a man goes into battle, he dons his battle dress. Well, not exactly a dress—a suit.

The classic suit — a pair of tailored trousers with a matching jacket – has been augmented and arranged in a variety of ways but regardless, it always acts as the ultimate modifier of manhood, making a man more than a man.

In AMC’s “Mad Men,” Don Draper is most himself when he is in an impeccably pressed steel grey suit, his Teflon coating against the perils of a boozed-up advertising client.

I grew up watching my own Don Draper, my father, a Frenchman who didn’t work in advertising but dressed just as impeccably. In the early 1970’s, he dressed for work in button-fly, thin flannel trousers, crisp cotton shirts with very small pearl buttons and French cuffs (no pocket on the front – only Americans do that), a bold tie, and narrow zippered boots in glove leather. With his wraparound sunglasses and leather wristlet clutch (which my brothers and I were terribly embarrassed about), he was chic and suave. Now, several decades later, I wanted some of his mojo.

 

My father was a secret sartorialist. He didn’t talk about clothes but he was very particular in what he wore and how it fit. From left to right, my father, mother, and eldest brother, circa 1963.

When my book, Branding the Man was published in 2009 I similarly found myself in need of a suit that could ready me for the arrows of critics and personal appearances at big city cocktail parties or even strip mall bookstores. In this country of men dressed as 35-year-old boys in baseball caps, fleece jackets and sack-like jeans, it is time I implore for them to learn what every Don Draper used to know: the clothes do indeed make the man.

Finding the perfect suit is no easy task. There are acres of homeless suits dying to join a power lunch, wanting nothing more than to emerge from a four-star restaurant with a beautiful woman clutching its pure virgin wool. There are suits languishing on hangers that would be grateful just to attend a funeral, or clothe the man who will be buried a short time later. Suits are plentiful, good ones are not.

Recently, I toured dozens of outlets and stores, and saw hundreds of suits, from Men’s Wearhouse to the Nordstrom; Macy’s to the wholesaler on the corner. What I found was that most men’s department stores have become kind of like bugs trapped in amber; nothing more than a time capsule of the way men have shopped and dressed for the better part of the last 100 years.

One afternoon at a crumbling suburban Macy’s found a men’s department that was virtually unchanged from my high school years. A salesman, looking like a sportscaster in a plaid jacket, Countess Mara tie and gray slacks, was in the midst of assisting a 13 year-old boy with what was likely his first suit. For the boy’s father, this was probably an auspicious moment: his son, on the threshold of manhood and poised to be molded into a “little gentleman.”

For the boy—skinny, slouched, pimply and as awkward as any boy can be at 13—this was a less than thrilling moment. The jacket hung on his little shoulders like a waterlogged Sunday paper. “You look great, sport!” beamed the father. An indifferent sigh from his son followed. “You want the gold buttons?” asked the salesman. “They’ll make you look sharp!”

When I buy a suit from a conventional men’s retailer, I feel like that 13-year old boy. Can the American man be liberated from the poorly fitted suit and not spend a fortune? It depends. The anatomy of a finely made suit is actually fascinating, and like wine, once you learn the about the details it makes the final product that much sweeter. In Europe, tailoring is an art, and what every American man must learn is that a great suit is an investment. Nevertheless, consider that if it is the right suit, you’ll discover—as so many men have—that a beautifully tailored suit opens doors.

A big part of what makes a suit a success is the tailoring. Fine fabrics certainly help, and in the case of this suit I found at Yves Saint Laurent, wool flannel gives it structure without stiffness.

My fantasy store would be one that doesn’t bother stocking every suit imaginable, in every shade of gray and black. A great store needs to help a man discover his inner peacock with an edited collection of suits with a point of view. Forget the pleated trousers – who really looks good in them? Let David Lettermen wear the double-breasted windowpane plaid. Give me Bond, James Bond—shaken or stirred! I want a suit that makes ladies swoon and men bow.

Short of taking a sewing class, I recommend that every man have at least one suit custom-made. A great tailor is like a great barber: he can work miracles on that poor carcass of yours. Learn from your tailor what looks best on you. Let him teach you about the marvels of high-twist yarn, the subtleties of a hand-canvassed shoulder, or that the shoulders and lapels are the make-or-break details of a great suit. Contrary to what the department store salesman tells you, that suit you are trying on does not look like it was made for you — in fact it’s meant to fit about fifteen other guys of varying proportions, like a police lineup.

Alas, with the clock ticking before my New York press tour, I didn’t have any time for a custom tailored suit and instead found myself at Yves Saint Laurent. There I discovered an exquisite suit of smoky blue wool with softly drawn charcoal stripes. The generous lapels recalled Johnny Depp in Blow. I slipped into the lean, button-fly trousers and looked at myself in the mirror. It was expensive but, after all the miserable suits I had seen, this one was the one. I felt tall, fearless, and suited for battle.



Consumers Jumpstart Black Friday — While Occupy Protesters Target Retailers

November 21, 2011

 

Black Friday may be blacker than most this year — and that’s not a good thing.

That’s because so many retailers are getting a jumpstart and offering discounts and well before the landmark shopping day with special offers that could threaten to kill the rest of the Holiday shopping season.

The soft push for retail sales was visible as early as late October. H&M’s decision to launch its Versace collection last Saturday was more than likely to build momentum for Black Friday and the rest of the holiday shopping season.

However, it’s social media sites that are driving the bulk of discount sales before shoppers even have a chance to step through the door of a store.

In a recent Nielsen survey, consumers are actually “liking” a brand simply for giving them a discount, with North American leading the way in the trend, with 45% of those surveyed saying they’ll shop and like ‘em — if they get a discount.

Courtesy Nielsen

Across a sample of ten major markets*, nearly 40 percent of active Internet users visited Coupons/Rewards sites such as Groupon, Coupons.com and Living Social from home and work computers during September 2011.

In the U.S., NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey company, reports that almost 60 percent of social media users visit social networks to receive coupons or promotions, with 23 percent saying they do this on a weekly basis.

During September 2011, 43 percent of visitors to Social Networks and Blogs also visited a Coupons/Rewards site, while 44 percent of Facebook’s audience and nearly two-thirds (63%) of Twitter’s audience visited these sites.

Facebook was a key source of traffic for Groupon and Living Social during that month – meaning Groupon’s and Living Social’s visitors came directly from Facebook.

Meanwhile, Black Friday is going head-to-head with Cyber Monday (one of the lamest names I’ve ever heard) with deals starting as early as 9 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day. So much for foreplay.

And just in case you were feeling less than cheered about shopping this year, Occupy activists are planning to demonstrate in order to protest the ultimate symbol of greed and consumerism with an “Occupy Black Friday.”

Bah, Humbug? No it’s just Christmas in America — 2011.

 

 


Of Boys And Their Birkins — At Hermès Event, Competition is Fierce

October 17, 2011

A fashion director with a major U.S. department store once advised me to mark the passing of a decade and one’s advanced years (how “advanced” am I?) with an “important” and luxurious gift.

He had already “gifted” himself a massive black Kelly bag that seemed to enter the room before he did.

At a recent Hermès men’s event at the retailer’s San Francisco store, there were more than a few young men who clearly weren’t waiting for their later years to carry a coveted Kelly or Birkin. The event was clearly targeted to San Francisco’s affluent gay demographic — or at least those who aren’t shy about carrying a handbag.

The bronzed, buffed, and polished boyish-types entered as casually as they could, but were oh-so-keenly aware that all eyes were on the luxury bag slung in the crook of their arm.

With a starting price of roughly $7,000 (and upwards to $100K or more), you would think one bag would probably be enough. However, tonight raised doubts in the minds of many.

There were two new arrivals at the store on this balmy evening— a 40cm “Kelly” in olive-brown and a 50cm Birkin in deep Indigo. Within forty minutes, three contenders came forward to claim the bags, each gravitating from one to the other.

With white cotton gloves, the sales associate carefully removed the giant Birkin from the vitrine, and one rather sweaty man pawed it and then put it on his arm. It appeared the sale was done. Nevertheless, after wearing it in the store for almost 25 minutes, the bag returned to the counter. Other less likely candidates took the bags out for a spin on the floor, enjoying the attention from admirers.

Hermes  craftsman Dominique Michaux, demonstrates the process of assembling a bag.

Largely ignored in the center of the store was the in-house leather craftsman, Dominique Michaux, who was in the process of assembling a fuchsia-pink Kelly. He carefully sewed each piece, fusing the leather seams with a heat-rod, and then painting them with matching dye. It was a strangely mesmerizing process.

“This is only for demonstration, “ explained Michaux. “Because Hermès bags are only made in France.” This “Theatre of Manufacturing” was for me, the real highlight of the evening, watching the zen-like simplicity of how two hands and a handful of tools can slowly materialize an object that is so sublimely beautiful — and deceptively simple.

Alas, most at the event were transfixed by a different kind of theatre, the “Theatre of the Purchase.”

The two bags continued to make their way around the room from one sales associate to another, each hoping that their customer would follow through on closing the sale.

Slow on the draw: A man examines a bag that has already been promised to another customer.

Enter contender No. 2, a tall, slender Asian man wearing head-to-toe Hermes (and already carrying an Hermès Evelyne shoulder bag) came forward and murmured to the associate that he wished to purchase the 40” Kelly.

This large Kelly-style bag does not show up often at store. A man considers adding it to his collection.

Contender No. 3 quickly replaced him; a young man in a checkered shirt (and Hermes loafers) with dyed red hair and a face powdered an opaque white. He made it very clear he was definitely going to buy the giant Birkin — once his mother wired the money to his account.

“His mother is also my client,” confided the associate. The man spent the better part of the night on the phone. Like a stock trader, he paced about the store and spoke quietly behind a cupped hand; on his wrist, a diamond bracelet studded with perhaps twenty large baguettes that sparkled as he gestured, in time with the giant diamond studs in his ears.

Mother may I?’: a young man spends the better part of the evening negotiating with his parents to allow him to buy a bag.

Meanwhile others hovered over the Kelly, caressing it gently as if it were a newborn baby.

Across the room, two nearly identical men in beards tried on matching Alligator coats, at approximately $100,000 each. They paused to sip their champagne and admire one another.

A man enjoys the feeling of wearing a limited-production alligator jacket, which retails for about $100,000.

At last, the young man in the checkered shirt was able to call the Birkin his own. One could only imagine his father in a boardroom somewhere, succumbing to a feverish campaign from his wife and son to allow the wiring of $11,500.

The smile of victory: after over an hour of cajoling, a young man goes home with his prize.

By evening’s end, there was little left but empty champagne glasses and two very empty spaces in the main vitrine where the two bags once sat. Through it, we could see Monsieur Michaux working away on a bag that would very likely never be finished.

Hermès San Francisco is located at 125 Grant Avenue. For inquiries please call (415)391 – 7200. www.hermès.com.