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Steady as he goes

A cautious buying mood was reflected by a carousel of play-safe commercial collections at the AIS menswear show, which took place in Solihull last week

The mainstream AIS menswear exhibition in Solihull may be small, but it is focused - even more so now the dateline has been reduced from four days to three. This made it easier for visitors at last week's event to decipher the mood of the UK sector. Seconds after arriving at the show, Drapers overheard a snippet of conversation that inspired low groans and nods of agreement. The phrase? "Menswear is tough at the moment."

As a result, many retailers' forward-order buying budgets have come under scrutiny and most have been slashed. Lindsay Anderson, menswear buyer for Morleys Stores, which includes department store Elys of Wimbledon, says: "I still buy brands on forward order, but I'm holding back up to 70% of my budget for the lower-priced stock."

The tactic seems to be working - Anderson says trading is good and that her stores are performing well. However, the consequence is that she now has to buy in stock on a week- to-week basis.

Stock houses are therefore becoming ever-more important to the menswear trade. Stuart Fraser, owner of Fraser's, which has branches in Petersfield in Hampshire and Midhurst in West Sussex, says: "Stock houses are sufficient to cope with the demand, but only just - it is a thin line." His buying tactic is largely a response to this season's sluggish sales, with one of his stores suffering as a result of bad weather denting the passing tourist trade. Fraser says he has been left with extra stock and used AIS to top up with more interesting pieces, rather than just buying into core ranges.

Most retailers in the sector are in a similar position. After a good start to the season thanks to a hotter-than-usual spring, bad weather has hit summer sales hard. Chris Brown, owner of Trenouth of Grange in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, says: "In terms of buying for next season, we have dropped our budgets by about 20% and will pick up more stock service instead."

Paul Roy, director of Roys of Wroxham in Norfolk, says: "It is hard to calibrate the past two summers because they have been so different. If this summer had been better the bright shades we're offering may have worked, but the dull, rainy weather has not helped sales."

Although he has been relatively bullish in terms of forward ordering, Roy says he would like to use more stock service. However, he adds: "If you wait until the height of the season there is nothing available even from the stock houses, so it falls on us to focus early on the winners."

In the midst of this cautious atmosphere, brands at AIS backed safe shades and tried-and-tested styles. And the final day of the show - when non-members can also attend - was upbeat. Retailers were not necessarily buying in the volume that some exhibitors had hoped, but they were placing orders. Now it's up to the weather - a few weeks of settled, warm weather will go a long way to pepping up sales in the menswear sector.

KEY LOOKS

BLUE SHADES

A mid-to-light business blue was the key colour for formal shirts. Stripes livened up plain styles, while the other key development was the use of non- or easy-iron fabrics, with brands slugging it out in a race to develop the best easy-care shirts to justify higher price points. White contrast collars and cuffs featured on many of these standard-looking shirts, helping to inject a more directional edge.

WASHED OUT

A laundered, washed-out look was key on shirts, polos and tops, featuring on graduated striped and checked half-sleeve shirts in an autumnal palette. The look also appeared on polos, in both plain colours and stripes. Relaxed cotton-mix jackets continued to make headway in the more mature menswear market, with these too presented in lightly laundered looks, with puckered edging on lapels.

EARTH TONES

A key feature on tops, from polos and rugby shirts to fine-gauge knits and tailored jackets, earthy tones added depth to spring 08 styling. Based on the safari look, the shades referenced dark sand and military garb. Teamed with natural linen shades and white these otherwise unseasonal colours formed a sophisticated palette that rejected the southern European brights that have floundered this summer.

SAFARI

Military detailing took a fresh turn this season to focus on safari-style looks in a neutral, earthy colour palette, featuring lightweight outerwear with patch pockets. This was one of the most democratic trends on show at AIS, rearing its head at predictably fashion-forward brands such as Daks London and Marc O'Polo, through to more traditional menswear brands including Brook Taverner.

SHIRTS

After taking several summers to warm up to Mediterranean brights, mainstream menswear reacted to this summer's deluge by returning to safer shades on formal shirts and washed-out styles for casuals, usually in graduated stripes. Blue was the dominant shade, with pale pink key for business shirts. Contrast collars and cuffs offered the most directional look and there were some references to the monochrome styles seen at Pitti Uomo.

KNITS & TOPS

Contrast collars were used on rugby shirts and polos, with fine-gauge knits and slimmer blocks giving the show a more directional edge. Though not an obvious trend to emerge, the return of the cable knit looked directional for a sector that was generally playing safe. Polos came in a multitude of striped and plain versions, with lemon and earth tones vying for dominance.

TAILORING

Laundered cottons and fabrics more commonly associated with casualwear offer tailored jackets a summery feel. On colour, sand and earth tones dominated the rustic palette. Safari detailing added a rugged twist on jackets, while smarter suits and jackets used silk-cotton and tonic effects. Semi-structured and unstructured styles continue to gain momentum, and in terms of silhouette the 2sb dominates.

OUTERWEAR

Partly as a result of this season's wet weather and partly due to overwhelming fashion direction, lightweight transitional outerwear has been an important development in mainstream menswear for the coming season. Lightweight blousons in linen, cotton and nylon fabrics featured alongside flat-fronted raincoats and a wealth of safari-styled jackets and coats.

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