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Mail Order and the Male Order

International Male Readies a Retail Line, Targeting the Same Fit, Fashion-Forward Market That Its Catalog Does

April 30, 1998|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Victoria's Secret has a menswear equivalent, it is International Male, a retail store and mail order catalog that has made its mark selling everything from side-split hot shorts and stringy lace bikinis to waist-firming pants liners and billowy ruffled shirts.

For those of you not in the know--or at least not on the West Hollywood retailer's red hot mailing list--we are talking about menswear here. That is menswear as in, "Ooh-la-la. Well, hello there!"

For more than two decades, the International Male catalog (and, as of last year, its Internet site) has been featuring hard-bodied male models showing as much skin as men's streetwear. So sexy and fun are the clothes that the company recently announced plans to launch its own signature wholesale collection, which is expected to land in retail stores nationwide this summer.

"Over the years, we've gotten so many calls from retailers who get our catalog as customers and wonder why they can't get [the merchandise] for their own stores," says Lynda Wennerstrom, a former store buyer who has been tapped to head IM's new wholesale division. The premiere collection will still be provocative, says Wennerstrom, but it will also allow the company to introduce "something a little more sophisticated, a little higher quality."

The look may change slightly. However, featuring the products on handsome, hairless hunks probably won't. After all, those images are every gay man's fantasy, every straight woman's daydream and clearly a big part of International Male's appeal.

But daydreams and demographics are entirely different matters. For all the company's body-enhancing shirts, snug-fitting shorts and underwear that brings new meaning to the phrase "Is it real or is it Memorex?" gay men actually represent less than 20% of International Male's total annual business, according to company executives.

"We have a very high-profile customer, meaning the guy who likes to stand out in the crowd. And there are very few stores [across the nation] that really take care of that type of customer," says Chuck Hudson, president of IM's parent company, San Diego-based Brawn of California. Brawn is a division of Hanover Direct, the nation's largest catalog retailer, which also distributes books under the Domestications, Company Store and Gump's banners. "But the truth is, we offer product to a fashionable man and not to a specific lifestyle."

In fact, Hudson says the company does a good business with U.S. military bases, both here and abroad.

"We even got orders from soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm," he says, amused that U.S. soldiers found use for the company's products in the middle of a war.

*

On the surface, the products offered by International Male, especially its specialized brand of aerodynamic underpants and sexy sportswear, are light-years away from those sold through more conservative books such as J. Crew and Lands' End. But IM operates in much the same way as these other mail order catalogs. The difference is that most catalogs carry only their own label, while IM is often peppered with merchandise from young clothing makers whose collections are sometimes too fashion-forward for more conventional retail outlets.

International Male's core merchandise--underwear and sportswear--is created by in-house California designer Tim McConnell and manufactured both domestically and overseas. All this seems to work for Brawn, a company with annual sales of $37.3 million, according to recent Dun & Bradstreet estimates.

Now, armed with a mailing list of 18 million customers and a computer printout of the company's most salable silhouettes, International Male has what company executives believe is a built-in market for its new wholesale line, which is divided into three categories--IM Sport, IM blue label and IM black label. IM Sport's focus is on what International Male has always done best: underwear, activewear, swimwear and lounge wear. IM blue consists of funky, fashion-forward club clothes, whereas IM black is a dress-up collection of tailored sport coats, slacks, woven shirts and knit tops.

Although pricier and perhaps a little more experimental than other IM merchandise, the signature collection is not meant to stray too far from its roots.

"Our catalog has always been a front runner when it comes to fashion. So we took that as a foundation and built on it," Wennerstrom says.

To that end, the riskier elements in the collection are featured under the black label and include printed cotton velour shirts and vests, perforated jackets and shirts made from faux suede, "funk" pleather (man-made leather) jackets that change colors like 1970s mood rings, and beefy hand-stitched sweaters with thick wooden buttons. Prices range from $30 for active knit tops to $190 for perforated pleather pants.

By having the collection prominently displayed in other stores, Hudson expects the collection to dramatically increase International Male's nationwide brand recognition.

But it also offers its own set of unique challenges. When you're selling from a catalog, any handsome, well-toned model can make even the most far-fetched designs look sexy. But, notes Wennerstrom, "when you're selling to other retailers, it all comes down to how well it looks on a hanger."

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