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Women’s Fashion Brands Are Rushing to Design for Men

Moschino, Coach and Michael Kors know that even athletes care about how they dress these days

Women’s fashions have long taken a cue from menswear. But a dude in La Perla? Not as outlandish as you might think, as a growing number of women’s apparel brands put the focus on men.

Recent years have brought an unprecedented boom in men’s fashion. In fact, the growth of the menswear market in the U.S. is outpacing that of womenswear. In 2013, menswear retail sales hit $60.8 billion, up 5 percent year over year, according to market research firm NPD. Meanwhile, the women’s category grew 4 percent during the same period, ringing up sales of $116.4 billion. “Men are finding the need to build their wardrobe again as they find that buying electronics doesn’t get their social life moving forward,” as Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst, puts it.

Coach | Photo: Nigel Parry

Men, it is clear, have outgrown the stereotype of the reluctant shopper. “There was always a fashion market—what they used to call a ‘metrosexual’ market—that could sustain designer brands in a healthy way in bigger cities in America, but in the last few years there’s been a much wider acceptance of fashion among regular guys that previously were shy about it,” says Esquire’s fashion director Nick Sullivan. “There isn’t the stigma attached to making an effort that there used to be.”

The shift in men’s perceptions about fashion can be attributed to a number of factors. Men’s style blogs like The Sartorialist and A Continuous Lean have become must-reads. Online shopping has made designer apparel more accessible, while helping guys avoid dreaded trips to the store. And as they’ve become more fitness conscious, men are now more invested in what they put on their backs.

Celebrities are helping, too. Actors, not just actresses, are now name-dropping designers on the red carpet. At this year’s Golden Globe Awards, all nine celebrities donning Prada were men, reported The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman. Even more importantly, many athletes—the ultimate guys’ guys—are becoming nearly as well known for their style savvy as their sports skills. “Every time we shoot an athlete, they want to talk fashion with me,” says GQ’s creative director Jim Moore.

Michael Kors | Photo: Nigel Parry

It’s hardly any wonder, then, why brands that have exclusively or mainly catered to the fairer sex are ramping up their efforts to reach gents. Consider Tory Burch, the popular women’s designer, which recently hired Coach’s former svp of men’s design, Jeffrey Uhl, to oversee a new men’s accessories line, set to debut as early as spring 2015. Michael Stars, known for its women’s knitwear, is launching its first men’s collection this month, something co-founder Suzanne Lerner calls a “natural next step for our brand.” Clover Canyon, purveyor of women’s apparel and swimwear featuring bright, graphic prints, previewed menswear during New York’s Fashion Week.

Not just American designers are jumping on the trend. Moschino showed its first men’s collection in June, as did luxury lingerie line La Perla, which is readying a line of silk kimonos and other garments that the wives of its male customers may well find themselves coveting. Whistles, a high street chain in the U.K. that recently dipped its toe in the U.S. market, is launching a line of men’s apparel this fall. Even Spice Girl-turned-footballer’s wife-turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham was quoted in the British press last February as saying, “I’d love to do menswear at some point, absolutely.”

Some of the biggest investment in menswear is happening at companies that see potential in growing existing albeit limited men’s lines. Take Michael Kors, which has already found massive success in the accessible luxury space with its affordable yet aspirational women’s apparel and accessories. While the brand has included a smattering of men’s pieces among its expansive women’s offerings for more than a decade (menswear represents about 5 percent of its sales), the designer is now making a play for a bigger share of the men’s market.

Last month, Michael Kors CEO John Idol announced the company’s intention to grow its menswear into a $1 billion business by 2017 with the help of Mark Brashear, its new head of menswear and the former CEO of Hugo Boss. Idol detailed plans for Michael Kors’ first freestanding men’s store next year, noting that as many as 500 male-focused retail shops could be in its future. Meanwhile, the company’s forthcoming flagship store in New York’s SoHo will include a full floor dedicated to men. 

La Perla | Photo: Nigel Parry

While Michael Kors looks to menswear to bolster its already booming business, rival Coach hopes an expanded menswear offering will help turn around its sluggish sales. Last year, it hired former Mulberry and Loewe designer Stuart Vevers to lead its transition from a mall brand into one with more fashion credibility. After adding some much-needed refinement to its women’s accessories and showing its first women’s apparel collection during New York’s Fashion Week, Vevers is now turning his eye to the men’s category. This fall, male shoppers will find a much more stylish and luxurious selection of shoes and leather goods. By next year, one can expect to see a full line of men’s apparel.

The retailer’s focus on men is already helping the bottom line. In an August earnings call, the company reported that while overall sales slumped 7 percent to $1.14 billion in the fourth quarter, men’s sales showed significant growth, reaching $700 million for the year ending in June versus $100 million in 2010. By 2017, CEO Victor Luis projects that number will rise to $1 billion.

A similar tactic is being employed by brands like Prada, which plans to nearly double menswear sales to €1.5 billion (about $2 billion) in the next three to five years and open 50 men’s stores to make up for declining women’s sales. Luxury conglomerate LVMH has spent $135 million to expand its luxury footwear label Berluti into a broader apparel and accessories brand. Richemont, the owner of luxe brands like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Montblanc, decided last year against selling off smaller labels such as Dunhill and instead increased its investment.

The obvious question in all this: Will men be willing to wear a Tory Burch shirt or La Perla loafers or a Victoria Beckham suit? “I think it depends on the brand and how feminine it is in terms of people’s awareness,” says Sullivan. “I don’t know that men will buy Tory Burch because it’s a famous women’s brand, but I don’t know if they will automatically be put off of it, either.”

Marketing will be key, adds Moore. “I think you really have to be in it to win it if you start designing menswear,” he says. “In the past, when some of the womenswear designers did men’s, they would just sprinkle it into their women’s boutiques, hoping to entice women to buy a little something for their man. If someone like Tory is looking to build her own men’s business, she’ll have to figure out how to set it apart from the women’s business on a retail basis. I’m not so sure that guys are going to go deep into a women’s store to find something for themselves.”

Designers and retailers are taking note. Some, including Kors, are opening more men’s stores or creating men’s-only spaces in flagship stores. To lure even the most reluctant shopper, many are creating a club-like atmosphere and adding features like the cocktail bar inside the Tod’s Milan flagship or the barbershop at Dolce & Gabbana’s men’s store in London.

Even men who prefer to shop online (according to NPD, online purchases of men’s apparel last year grew 19 percent year over year and now represent 14 percent of all men’s apparel sales) are getting the guys-only treatment. Women’s e-tailers like Net-a-Porter and Shopbop have spun off Mr Porter and East Dane, respectively, men’s sites that combine a vast selection of designer goods with editorial content to help guide men in their shopping journey. “Some men are definitely still more comfortable with hiding behind their keyboards to make their choices, but it also requires them to know more,” as Sullivan puts it.

Those retailers who do it right may see a rich payoff. As Moore explains, “Men are completely different customers than women. If they find something that they love, they will keep going back to that designer. With men, it’s all about loyalty.”

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