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Menswear industry in major funk

Monday, September 10, 2001

After being on a spending frenzy for the past several years, buying up casual clothes for the relaxed business dress code, male shoppers like Robert Volmer and Steve Rosa are pulling way back.

Volmer, a 30-year-old Washington, D.C., lobbyist, used to spend $6,000 a year on clothing, but this year it will be no more than $1,000. Rosa, a 37-year-old advertising executive from Rumford, R.I., estimates he'll spend only $15,000 this year on clothing, half what he had been spending.

Shoppers like Volmer and Rosa are wreaking havoc on the menswear industry, which enjoyed strong growth over the past few years, fueled by the trend to casual dress and the robust economy.

Now, men say they have enough sweaters and khakis. And even with this fall's return to a more formal dress policy at many corporations, some men don't feel compelled to buy new suits. They can resurrect their old ones.

"Dressed down has reached a saturation point, and now men don't know how to dress up in a modern way," said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group.

Indeed, Volmer built up his casual wardrobe for four years and "now I look around and there's nothing new to buy."

"I even got a call from Burberry's," he added, "saying they haven't seen me for a while."

Rosa, too, has a full closet and is reluctant to change it all. "I just don't want to get swept up in everything," he said.

Compounding the menswear woes, retailers noted, is that in an economic downturn, husbands are the family members who cut back the most on discretionary spending, particularly apparel.

"There's no reason to put the clamps on the rest of my family," said Rosa, who has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

Clearly, overall apparel sales have been in a funk, but the $52 billion menswear industry, which is about half the size of the women's market, has been the weakest. Since January, sales of women's apparel in department stores have been up, albeit no more than 1 percent, while menswear has declined 4 percent to 6 percent, according to Wall Street analysts.

Nothing novel for men

Even the young men's area is weak. Unlike their female counterparts, who are snapping up low-rise jeans and sparkly T-shirts, young men haven't found anything novel. There are some exceptions, like rap artists Sean "Puffy" Combs' white-hot Sean Jean, consisting of casual sportswear and now underwear. It's in 2,700 stores, and is rapidly taking over space once devoted to Tommy Hilfiger and CK Calvin Klein.

"Everybody's weakness has been in men's," said Joseph Teklits, an analyst at First Union Securities, which tracks companies like Gap Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Men are not exactly depriving themselves of all luxuries, according to Carl Steidtmann, director of Deloitte Research, a wholly owned division of Deloitte Consulting. They're still splurging on things other than clothes.

"Apparel is the easiest area to pull back. Men's styles just don't change that much," said Rosa, who recently purchased a new $3,800 Sony Laptop and a Range Rover. He also just returned with his wife from a three-week vacation to the South of France.

Focus on reviving business

Retailers are focusing a lot of their energies on reviving their menswear business, from calling clients and sending personal notes to throwing cocktail parties. Saks is taking special clients out to fancy dinners.

Stores like Bloomingdale's and Saks are also remerchandising their men's departments this fall, adding bolder color and expanding their resources.

"The women's business is tough, but men's is even tougher," said Dan McCampbell, vice president of men's fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, which is expanding tailored clothing after de-emphasizing it for the past few years.

Meanwhile, struggling Gap Inc. is now focused on fixing menswear, which accounts for about half its business. "Men's needs a lot more work than women's," president and CEO Millard Drexler told investors in a recent conference call.

Even tony retailer Paul Stuart, which stuck to selling tailored looks at the height of the casual trend and reports strong sales, isn't sitting back.

The retailer has stocked up on basic blue suits and white shirts for the young male executive. Paul Stuart is also bringing in snappier tailored looks with bolder stripes for the more established customers, said president and CEO Cliff Grodd.

It's too early to tell whether all these initiatives will be effective, but at least one -- swank Chicago clothier Mark Shale Inc. -- isn't overly bullish.

"We would just like to eke out an increase for men's," said president Scott Baskin.

The clothier is now offering customers "free tuneups" -- free alterations of old clothes purchased in their store, and is sending out catalogs to entice customers to shop.


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