From George Washington to George Clooney, Americans have had their own influence on men’s style. There was Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, his biker jacket and stone-washed jeans ready for that ride in the desert; Bob Evans and Halston, whose wardrobes and lifestyles were the ultimate expression of Seventies sleek, and John F. Kennedy Jr, dashing in both suits and slacks. More recently, fictional Don Draper taught a new generation of Americans about sartorial style.
Each of these style icons added something unique to American menswear, which, today, is a serious business with significant growth opportunity, and the focus of inaugural New York Fashion Week: Men’s kicking off today.
According to The NPD Group, Inc. / Consumer Tracking Service, sales of U.S. men’s apparel increased by 2 percent to $62.7 billion in the 12 months ending May 2015. While it’s still significantly smaller than the women’s category, which had sales of $119 billion in the same period, the menswear growth rate had, for several years, outpaced that of women’s. That’s because American men — after the schlocky dot-com boom and bust era – have rediscovered fashion with an unprecedented thirst.
“The men’s market has done a much better job of innovating, of creating excitement and change,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. “The men’s market has really stayed in touch with the consumer and got the young male excited about fashion.” Part of this success, he added, is driven by younger male consumers “who have discovered fashion as part of their image and who have moved away from electronics because they already have so much. Also, Boomers have to build a whole new wardrobe. The generation gap no longer exists which is a driving factor in menswear.”
And with direct access to fashion information via magazines, blogs and online boutiques, the male consumer approaches fashion with a stronger understanding and more appreciation than ever.
“Amazon has become one of the biggest menswear retailers in the world,” Cohen noted. “It’s the convenience, the comfort factor, the ease of shopping, the ability to look and see and share it with friends before making the purchase.”
Robert Burke, founder of Robert Burke Associates, echoed the sentiment. “We have seen men much more attuned to shopping at retail, which I attribute to ability to research online,” he said. “Men have become more comfortable shopping for themselves. It has made them better consumers and has increased their spending.”
Design trends have also played a part in contributing to growth of the menswear industry. Today, streetwear and activewear are as essential to a modern man’s lifestyle as a traditional suit is.
“The lines have blurred when it comes to tailored suiting and sportswear, becoming increasingly interchangeable over the last few years,” said Kevin Harter, Bloomingdale’s vice president of men’s fashion direction. “Traditional officewear for men is certainly less formulaic. There is more freedom to mix fabrics and patterns, while standard shirt and tie pairings are no longer a requirement. Additionally, street wear’s influence on men’s fashion has particularly manifested itself. Men are being influenced by what they see outside of the runway as much as on it.”
Jim Moore, creative director at GQ magazine, called the current moment in menswear “a incredibly exciting place where not only ‘real’ guys look at what’s on the runway, but they want to know about new labels and cool designers, and they want to stock their wardrobes with interesting pieces. It’s a time in menswear where men really try to define their look.”
More than ever, fashion plays an instrumental role in the way men position themselves in their environment and society at large.
“The fashion business plays an important role in guiding the way men use fashion in society,” said Tom Kalenderian, Barneys New York’s executive vice president, general merchandise manager of mens & Chelsea Passage. “The biggest change in recent years has certainly been the freedom men have today with experimenting with their personal style. Mixing casual elements with the formal allows men to not only be more comfortable in their clothes but also free to express their individual style.”
The changing trend is noticeable to everyone. When Nick Sullivan, fashion director of Esquire magazine and editor of its Big Black Book, moved from London to New York more than a decade ago, he noticed an abundance of men going to work “in suits that looked like they were designed a size bigger or in 1988. Now, you see clothes that fit better. Men are much more attuned to the finer points of style. There has been a massive increase in the willingness to try and make something of their wardrobes, because men realize that clothes can work for you. It’s a big psychological change mainly through knowledge. Men are reading magazines, blogs, looking at Instagram. They are watching television series predicated on the idea of style going right back to ‘Mad Men,’ which galvanized menswear a little bit.”
As a result, Sullivan added, “Brands that could never have survived 10 years ago are now doing very well, and traditional brands have to rethink their approach because the market is changing underneath them.”
As Bloomingdale’s Harter put it, “Our male consumer is taking control. Ten years ago, you saw wives and girlfriends making many of their buying decisions when it came to apparel. Now, men are truly interested in discovering their own sense of style.”
Words by Marc Karimzadeh. This article first appeared on the CFDA Blog.