We always keep an eye on the fast-moving world of men’s retail, which shows no signs of slowing down. While the trend for authenticity and heritage certainly got us through the worst part of the recession, it also became cliché and boring. Sean Couey, b. on brand’s project coordinator and a student at UC San Diego asks, what’s next in the evolution of contemporary menswear?
Ever since I started my blog on student campus looks (showmeucsd.com), I have become increasingly fascinated with how young men are diving deep into trying to find their own sense of cool – even if they end up looking like everyone else.
In just the first part of 2012, the men’s category as a whole is proving to continue its momentum. Cites the New York Times: “Some forecasters predict sales growth for men’s clothing and accessories during the first three months of this year will set a 20-year high.” Cautious optimism indeed, but why not?
It’s hard to remember that back in 2009, retail saw a glimmer of hope with a peculiar renaissance in menswear, thanks largely to a handful of boutiques in cities like Austin, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, all boasting a handful of shops brimming with preppy outdoor gear. Back then, the “hipster” was barely a target market but already some major retailers like J. Crew and Coach were taking notice and calibrating their men’s offer. J. Crew for one went whole hog with a major push and filling their shops with so-called heritage brands.
Coach, Inc. has recently relaunched its men’s offer in an attempt to broaden its audience. Short of embarking on standalone men’s stores, the brand has instead revamped existing shops to include a men’s corner.
In a recent Reuters report, Hugo Boss is said to be targeting sales gains of 50-percent to 3 billion Euros by 2015, which they credit to a “cultural shift around the world that has led more men to be interested in fashion and invest in their appearance.”
“Men are just waking up to the beauty of being dressed well,” says Hugo Boss Chief Executive Claus-Dietrich Lahrs. Beauty is not the only reason. In a recession economy, competition is measured as much by one’s polish as by one’s professionalism, which is why more and more men are seeing the trend in tailored menswear as more than just a passing fad.
All Aboard the Heritage Bandwagon
Much of what helped ignite the fire in men’s wear was the stealth and sleuthing of hipsters and men craving a brand with a good story. Of course, that cable television juggernaut known as “Mad Men” more than helped fuel the fire.
Stores like Black Fleece (and its parent, Brooks Brothers), Freeman’s Sporting Club (FSC), and Union Made Goods in San Francisco (as well as many, many others) have all helped lead the way towards a new men’s aesthetic geared towards American classics and heritage brands. These stores made their mark early on by offering a manly fashion-forward perspective to their customer while deviating from the mass-produced feeling that is traditionally present in the traditional men’s departments.
Todd Barket, founder and owner of Union Made in San Francisco. “Mass retailers are finally realizing that guys are smarter than ever before and care about what they look like.”
“I think men have been spoken down to in the past,” said Todd Barket, owner of Union Made, in a recent interview with b. on brand. Union Made is a store that has become something of a benchmark and WWD darling for new men’s retail. “Mass retailers are finally realizing that guys are smarter than ever before and care about what they look like. Social networking has much to do with it as well as a revolt to all the poor mass quality that exists in the world. I credit big players like J. Crew and Ralph Lauren for bringing it to the masses.”
In some cases, brands are doing more than just dipping their toe in the water, taking complete and utter wholesale inspiration from boutique retailers. A recent Bloomberg article, “Where J. Crew Shops for Ideas,” even goes so far as to suggest that J. Crew’s recently evolved merchandise offering and retail design has come to resemble New York’s Freeman’s Sporting Club a bit too much, causing suspicion from some quarters – including FSC. “Unmistakable elements of Freemans’s aesthetic, as well as that of other boutique brands, have cropped up in J. Crew outlets across the country.” Alex Young, director of sales at FSC, laments “they copied us down to the shade of the paint colors”.
Freeman’s Sporting Club has been quoted as being dissapointed at J. Crew’s generous borrowing of their aesthetic.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but a little credit never hurt. Not one to quibble is Banana Republic, which has been quite transparent in their desire to bring a fresh point of view into their stable of merchandisers. The brand has recently launched a collaboration project with San Francisco’s Taylor Stitch, a local brand that was early to the scene of design based on classics and heritage wares. “Our goal with the Banana Republic/Taylor Stitch partnership was really to celebrate our San Francisco roots with another San Franciscan brand that works at a completely different scale and niche in the market,” says says Tom Girard, senior men’s merchandiser with Banana Republic.
Unlike J. Crew, Banana Republic has played nice and made the adoption of Taylor Stitch’s “cool” a team effort. Taylor Stitch designed and built a custom-tailoring alcove that went into Banana Republic’s flagship store along with a custom line of heritage-inspired ready to wear shirts. When asked if he was aware of bigger brands gleaning inspiration from his store, Michael Maher, cofounder of Taylor Stitch, doesn’t hesitate. “They absolutely look to us for inspiration,” says Maher. “They want the cachet of a small company. You have these big companies caring about appearing small and adding that into their repertoire. It might not be the most profitable part of their business but it’s great for them, and frankly it’s great for us.”
Taylor Stitch, a San Francisco brand, has recently tested a collaboration concept with Banana Republic’s flagship there. The project has “driven positive buzz and results for us,” says Tom Girard, senior men’s merchandiser for Banana Republic.
NPD Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen agrees that innovation and product evolution has helped grow the men’s category. “The growth of dollar sales in the men’s apparel market led the way in the adult apparel market with an increase of 4 percent. This is a marked improvement over the prior years,” says Cohen, in a report published in March. “Stores and brands that have shifted with the consumer and provide an assortment of recognizable brands and better quality merchandise… are the ones that have posted growth.”
Which is a big reason why Banana Republic took the time and effort to explore a way to reinvigorate their men’s experience at retail. “What we’ve always known is that our customer is looking to wear clothing that suits him perfectly,” says Girard. “Custom shirting has definitely piqued his interest in that regard.” Taylor Stitch’s in-store pop up is not only a visual juxtaposition to Banana’s usual visual merchandising, it also pushes forward a new “story” about craftsmanship and quality. “This evolving mindset has huge implications on what range and what types of fits we offer throughout all of our categories at Banana Republic — not just shirts,” says Girard.
That Heritage Look: Stores Dress the Part
J. Crew’s August “Style Guide” seems to underscore that point, with a smartly edited collection of clothes and accessories worn by models in an old warehouse, conveniently equipped with exposed wood-and-iron beams, the paint artistically peeling off its stucco walls. Unable – or perhaps unwilling — to shake off the success generated from their “heritage” mantle, the brand showcases page after page of garments allegedly made “in collaboration “ with “authentic” craftsmen, and “especially designed for J. Crew.”
J. Crew has made heritage brands a big part of their retail strategy. Their recent “style guide” makes ample use of the warehouse look.
Department stores haven’t shied away from the heritage bandwagon either. A quick stroll through Macy’s, Barneys and even Saks Fifth Avenue reveals a similar adoption of the current reclaimed/vintage/industrial visual theme. Merchandise is folded and propped atop fixtures made of reclaimed barn wood, galvanized pipes, and weathered and rusting iron. At Saks, we saw a 750-pound vintage piece of factory machinery (probably used on the Ford Model-T production line) repurposed as a tie rack. However, the juxtapositions do not always work: at Barneys, a set of vintage cabinet-maker’s clamps was displayed alongside pajamas.
A large piece of metal machinery at Barneys acts as a tie rack, while at Saks, some old file cabinets do double duty.
What Next: Evolving Classics and Contemporary
The important question is: what is the next logical evolution of this trend? The fashion industry is in constant flux and the time machine that seems to have taken us back to the days of the industrial revolution will inevitably slingshot us back to the something more compelling and durable.
A recent display of contemporary merchandise at a Macy’s men’s store.
Industry insiders agree that while the trend of “heritage and authenticity” has been successful, it is beginning to feel more than a little stale. “After awhile so-called work wear, and all that raw denim can become kind of ‘one note,’” says Ken Jennings, VP Fashion Director Men’s at Saks. “Woolrich Woolen Mills, Rag and Bone, they’ve done a great job of it of being inspired by the heritage trend without going overboard. The fact is, there needs to be innovation with this trend, and personally, I am getting a bit wary of it because it doesn’t say anything new. You have to ask yourself, ‘How does it relate to now?’”
Fashion, by nature, tells a story, and there is no better defining characteristic to what makes a great brand. Case in point, whenever I find a new clothing company online I go straight to the “about” page because I want to know the story behind the brand. It is the story that makes or breaks my decision to go deeper into connecting with a particular brand.
The story of heritage and authenticity, like so much popular music on the radio, has indeed, been overplayed, but it awakened retailers and consumers to the art and innovation of traditional menswear and allowed new visions in contemporary men’s fashion design to find an audience.
Sean Couey is a graduating senior at UC San Diego and a project coordinator at b. on brand. Visit his blog, www.showmeucsd.com. Twitter: @seancouey.