Menswear brands and retailers are relying on two key growth areas in a challenging market
More from: The Menswear Issue: Introducing autumn 19
The fashion industry had a difficult end to 2018. The woes of high street retailers – including falling consumer confidence, business rates and decreasing footfall – have been well documented. Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley referred to November as the “worst for retailers in living memory”.
And even online giants such as Asos buckled under the pressure as the year came to a close – it lowered its growth forecast warning in December. As the new season begins, the UK menswear sector is braced for the challenges ahead. Among worries ranging from Brexit uncertainties to online competition, the impact of today’s discounting culture in particular remains a huge concern.
Marc Querol, senior brand manager at Double H agency, which represents menswear brands including Eden Park and Amov, notes that Black Friday has changed the way consumers shop, which made for a tough season: “The eruption of Black Friday in the department stores is damaging the education of the consumer. They are just waiting for Black Friday and the discounts before they buy. Indies are therefore struggling to get footfall in the shops and encourage people to buy things.”
Martin Schneider, owner of independent store Accent in Leeds, has seen this first hand: “The Sales are actually stopping people from buying. It has the opposite effect to the intent. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and it’s not a fair playing field any more. It’s not about who has the best stock and the best staff, and gives the best experience – it’s all about price.”
Schneider says the current discounting landscape is “incredibly frustrating”, as customers avoid buying at full price: “People are frightened that if they buy a luxury product, they will look a fool because it will go down cheaper any day. We don’t sell anything over £100 now without people asking for a discount. They will get their phone out in front of you and ask if you can match the prices.
Now is the time for independent businesses to jump right in and take on the high street retailers
Simon Whitaker, Master Debonair
To combat this and to try to improve margins in his store, next season Schneider plans to buy more of his stock in season from brands when they are offering discounts.
Although times are tough, Simon Whitaker, CEO of menswear retailer Master Debonair, which has two stores in London’s Redchurch Street and in East Boldon in Tyne and Wear, believes menswear independents are in a prime position to capitalise on any weakening in the high street proposition: “I’m a keen shopper but get so disappointed when I shop in a lot of multiple retail stores due to poor service and uninspiring store experience.”
“Now is the time for independent businesses to jump right in and take on the high street retailers,” he says. “I think there’s a positive impact for forward-thinking independents. Confidence with shoppers on the high street is low but when they come in our shops we go out of our way to make sure customers walk out happy.”
Whitaker’s approach is paying off. Sales at Master Debonair are up 20% year on year and two more stores are planned for 2019.
Despite the challenges it faces, research by market research agency Mintel shows the menswear market is currently worth £15bn a year in the UK and is set to grow by 11% by 2022.
Querol notes the menswear market is much more resilient than womenswear, and as a result, Double H Agency is increasing its menswear focus to maintain stability in the coming seasons, a trend he has seen also seen with retailers.
“We are seeing more womenswear shops closing than menswear, and we’re seeing womenswear shops selling more and more menswear,” he says. “The stores are more loyal customers. They treat you well and when you start working with them it’s difficult to lose some accounts. It’s more stable when you are working with menswear.”
Change of trends
Social media, meanwhile, is fuelling a more daring and educated menswear shopper, and trends move fast as a result.
Two key aesthetics have continued to dominate in menswear: 1990s-inspired urban styles and a rise in smart casual, or everyday tailoring looks.
We have seen a big push for smarter dressing within menswear
Matthew Braun, River Island
“In menswear, we are seeing an increasing appetite for smart casual options and we are bridging the gap between casual and formal by offering more smart options for the everyday,” explains James Doidge, head of menswear design at Marks & Spencer. “The customer mission around suits is changing. Men aren’t wearing suits to work as often, but we see them buying suits in all different styles for occasions – weddings, events, proms. For many, work is much more about a smart trouser or chino worn with a shirt or merino knitwear, pulled together with a smart jacket or piece of outerwear.”
Matthew Braun, menswear design controller at River Island, agrees: “We have seen a big push for smarter dressing within menswear. Styles are cleaning up on previous seasons – smart separates and premium layering are a staple for our guy.”
Fiona Firth, buying director at etailer Mr Porter, agrees that a more tailored shape will be popular in spring, but notes that sportswear is still a hit with her target customer: “Streetwear styles such as sneakers and hoodies have continued to perform well this winter, as this remains a key trend our customers buy into.”
James Pryer, head of buying at BoohooMan, says menswear shoppers are becoming more daring in their choices: “Men are not afraid of exploring and pushing fashion boundaries. This is down to the rise of social media, influencers and celebrities rocking high-end brands.
“Men are looking for faster and more reactive fashion. They are becoming more confident with experimenting with fashion and pairing high-end brands with more affordable ones.”
The impact of a bolder men’s aesthetic is now being seen across the market – not just in young fashion.
Tim Ellis, senior menswear designer at lifestyle retailer Joules, also attributes this change to social media: “The biggest reason the menswear market is starting to change is because men are becoming more social media savvy.
“You can now easily find styling influencers out there that are inspiring men to feel more comfortable in their own skin and experiment more with their style. This has brought with it a rise in men showcasing their individuality through the clothes they are wearing, rather than all wearing the same ‘uniform’ we have seen in the past.”
Retailers report that this increased awareness of fashion has fuelled a demand for high-quality, functional items.
“The true ethos of menswear is it needs to be functional and offer something different but with a twist, be it a classic style or new shape,” explains Dan Hanvey, head of menswear design at Superdry. “Men shop by destination and product. They pick certain brands that suit their needs, which we cater to well by ensuring value for money, quality and intricate design details”
As the importance and scale of the menswear sector continues to grow, retailers must keep a close eye on the evolving habits and needs of their shoppers to ensure they can draw their spend and satisfy increasingly complex needs in a challenging climate.
As discounting bites into the market, those retailers able to offer high-quality trend-led styles at sensible prices stand in a strong position to capture the attention of increasingly engaged and daring consumers.
The Menswear Issue: The two trends driving the market