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Helping Men Cast Off Chains

With service and advice, a new wave of specialty stores challenges the malls for the fashion-seeking male customer


In less than three minutes, designer John Varvatos has knocked on wood twice, tapping on a shiny wooden bench displaying rows of jeans. Not that the New Yorker is superstitious. He's just thankful that L.A. men are welcoming his eponymous Melrose Avenue shop--one of many new specialty stores catering to men--a funky West Coast complement to the designer's Manhattan SoHo location.

Motorists have braked along Melrose, west of Robertson Boulevard, to check out the chunky brown corduroy trench coats, cashmere gray sweaters and luxe chalk-striped tailored suits on storefront mannequins. Before the store's opening today, guys raced from their cars to the glass windows and mouthed, "When do you open?"

Nearby, on Martel Avenue, former 'N Sync stylists Annika Virdone and Erik Rudy anxiously count down the hours to Monday's opening of their MAN Los Angeles men's shoe and accessories shop, created for guys "because they want to wear unique shoes and have nice bags just like girls do," Virdone says.

Veteran designer Allen B. Schwartz, who designs women's wear for his chain of ABS stores--and is known for his speedy red-carpet-gown knockoffs--is considering shops of his own for guys here and in New York if his new Allen B. for Men line, which debuts in high end boutiques next month, sells well.

Sean in Santa Monica, Timoteo in West Hollywood, H Men at Sunset Plaza all have opened in the last year, joining several local men's specialty shops--Naked, Kbond, Lisa Kline Men, Scott Hill, Traffic Men and Andrew Dibben. Many of the stores, some in funky neighborhoods, have become hangouts, luring men with art exhibits, reading areas, comfy chairs, food, gourmet coffee and wine--and, oh yes, stylishly cool threads from international and local designers.

"It's like shopping in an old haberdashery," says Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market information company. He says men need knowledgeable service to build wardrobes that have become just as important to image-making as the latest Palm Pilot or cell phone.

Men who do their own shopping, especially in cosmopolitan centers, should not find it a chore but instead a leisure activity, says the former Bloomingdale's buyer, who recalls how wine and cheese parties at the store would attract men to hang out and watch the football game. "It was like a men's club. Men are looking for that again."

Many have found it away from the malls at quaint men's shops, according to Cohen. "There's no other way to put it: Department stores have zero taste level when it comes to men's clothing."

In defense of department stores, Hope Brick, vice president and fashion director for Robinsons-May stores, encourages men who have not been in department stores for a while to try again. Her chain's top priorities are customer service and helping men looking for trends as well as shopping for classic and key fashion items.

Retailers, big and small, have to work harder than ever to hook male shoppers. American men forked over $58 billion on apparel last year, slightly down from the previous year, according to NPDFashionworld. And that includes younger guys, particularly the coveted 18-to 34-year-old male shoppers spending more money on clothes than any other male age group.

"The menswear industry is getting a fashion wake-up call with these men's shops," agrees David Wolfe, creative director of the New York-based Doneger Group, a fashion trend consulting firm. "We have a new generation of menswear consumers who are very label-conscious and understand that fashion and style is a weapon that they can use sexually, socially and professionally."

Wolfe says, "Men of the past or at least since the 1960s tended to blend into the background, dressing for power and comfort, and now they have a whole new attitude toward style because of things such as men's lifestyle magazines and seeing runway shows on the Internet."

It's all about lifestyle, explains Tom Julian, an analyst with New York-based Fallon Worldwide, an advertising and trend-tracking agency, about the interest in men's shops. "The mass stores and department stores have a tendency of still merchandising menswear by classification--like a commodity--rather than a lifestyle. There is the mind-set of the CEO types who live for the custom Savile Row offering, and then there's the hip L.A. guy who wants the newest and coolest." Varvatos opened his own stores so that he could showcase his entire seasonal lines, in contrast to the edited lines selected by buyers at Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Being at the helm, he also can control the store's visuals, doesn't have to share space with other designers and, most important, can build his brand. His move has paid off at his 2-year-old SoHo store, where sales are up 41% over this time last year, he says, knocking on wood again.

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