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Men big on slim-fitting design trend

The style has helped fuel a buying spree over the last year as sales of women's clothing have fallen.

August 14, 2008|Anne D'Innocenzio | The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Steve Hale has discovered a reason to splurge on clothing again: the slim silhouette in suits to shirts that's replacing the baggier fits of past years. But his wife, Cathy, has slashed her monthly apparel spending, saying she's "bored" by what's out there.

In tough economic times, men are traditionally the first to cut back -- but the Hales represent a new phenomenon in retailing: Over the last year, men have been on a clothes-buying spree, while women have pulled back even more.

"I did feel for a long period that there wasn't anything new to buy," said Steve Hale, a 37-year-old financial consultant who had stuck with the business casual uniform of khakis and dress shirts since the late 1990s. "But I really like the slim fit. It's not so roomy, not so bulky, and it's a lot cleaner."

The lopsided fortunes -- solid sales gains in menswear and a deepening funk in the far larger women's clothing business -- is creating a rare sales disparity that hasn't been seen in years, said David Wolfe, creative director of Doneger Group, a fashion industry trend and business consulting firm.

Fashion observers say the main catalyst fueling menswear buying is the slimmed-down styles shown on the runways a few years ago by designer Thom Browne that have recently garnered mass appeal. The look is being popularized by AMC's award-winning series "Mad Men" about ad executives in the 1960s.

Over the last year, the fashions, including body-conscious suits and leaner khakis, have been heavily promoted by stores such as conservative haberdashery Brooks Bros. as well as department stores including Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

Executives from those stores said menswear sales began outpacing women's clothing last year. They wouldn't give exact figures for competitive reasons. But the disparity has been widening, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for research company NPD Group Inc. According to NPD's most recent data, menswear sales rose 0.8% in the fiscal year ended in May, while women's clothing sales fell 3.5%. In the three months ended in May, women's clothing sales dropped 3%, while menswear sales rose 2.3%.

With women's fashions accounting for 65% of the $155-billion adult apparel market, the rising fortunes of menswear -- accounting for just half the size of women's clothing -- hasn't significantly helped lift overall sales. For the fiscal year ended in May, adult clothing sales fell 2%.

Still, fashion pundits such as Wolfe hail the trend as the biggest change in men's fashion in more than a decade, since the relaxation in business dress codes enticed men to fill up their wardrobes with everything khaki. Major menswear brands including VF Corp.'s Nautica and Levi Strauss & Co.'s Dockers have reworked their fits. Pants, for example, have less material in the seat and thigh and have no pleats; suit jackets have narrower and shorter sleeves.

"You can throw out all the rules," Cohen said. Even in tough economic times, "this is a trend that you have to buy, otherwise you look outdated."

"Suddenly, a pair of cargo pants and a polo shirt doesn't look good anymore," said Wolfe, who sees the change being embraced by men in their 20s to men over 50 who don't want to look past their prime.

"Women's wear has painted themselves in a corner," he said. "By offering too many options and with everything a trend, it is very easy not to buy anything."

Designers of women's clothing may have seen the trend in the men's market and taken inspiration for a slim, sophisticated '60s shape for fall -- Michael Kors and Peter Som have cited "Mad Men" as inspiration for their women's offerings.

The sluggish economy is playing a role too. Higher gasoline and food costs and fiscal uncertainties have clearly made men and women cut back on in-today, out-tomorrow trends such as wild printed tops.

But the threat of layoffs has also forced many employees to dress more formally as a way to hold on to their jobs and look more serious, Cohen said. Women can go back to their closets to find dressier and classic alternatives, but men now have a reason to buy.

"I am dressing up a bit more," said Hale, the financial consultant. "If you are keeping up with fashion, people notice and it gives them more confidence" that the financial industry is going to turn around. He said he now spends about $500 a month on clothes, more than double what he spent previously.

Jonathan Singer, 26, who works in high-tech marketing, credits his new wardrobe with helping him land a better-paying job. The Boston resident spent about $2,000 over the last six months on a slimmer-fit suit from Benetton as well as slender shirts from Diesel and French Connection.

"It always pays to look good," he said. "I had looked in the mirror and never was impressed. I looked like a little kid who was waiting to grow into his clothes."

Now, he says, "I feel extremely confident in the way I look. Everyone has noticed."

Men's interest in updating their wardrobes is forcing merchants to rethink how to market to them. They're seeing a growing number of men shopping for themselves, instead of relying on their wives and girlfriends to buy for them.

Bloomingdale's is rolling out separate areas in the men's department that incorporate tailored clothing with other items such as ice buckets and high-end shaving tools. Macy's has adding more exclusive lines such as tight-fitting Emporio Armani underwear.

And what about those men who aren't, well, slim? Retail executives say the new cuts aren't just for the skinny.

"It still fits guys who eat meatballs," said Stuart Goldblatt, Macy's senior vice president of merchandising for men's and children's clothes.

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