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Why the smart money is on a recovery for menswear

Menswear is often said to be the first area of fashion to feel the force of a recession and the last to return after it. If the aphorism is true, we can consider the recession good and buried. According to retail research firm Kantar Worldpanel, the total UK menswear market grew 2% in the 52 weeks to October 31, 2010.

Retailers are expecting even bigger gains this year. “People have got the confidence to start spending and investing again,” says Stephen Ayres, buying manager of menswear at premium London department store Liberty. “That became apparent in the last quarter of 2010 - our coat sales for autumn 10 were up more than 60% on the previous year and bag sales more than doubled. It feels like that will continue this year. For the last 18 months, interest rates have been low so if you had a mortgage, you had more disposable income.”

Green shoots of recovery

Mark Bage, owner of York premium indie Sarah Coggles, agrees the green shoots of economic growth are driving men’s spending on clothes: “If you’ve got little money and you’re trying to make a difference in your life, you’re more likely to spend it on work clothes than a flat or a car [which are much bigger outlays]. As the economy improves, people are investing in themselves more.”

Neil Symington, owner of premium indie Eleven in Sunderland, used to sell both womenswear and menswear but was so disappointed in the contribution womenswear made in the run-up to Christmas (it accounted for just 20% of turnover) he has decided to dispense with it altogether and refocus as a menswear specialist. “I’ve got complete faith in the menswear market in a way I didn’t have in womenswear,” he says.

Along with the anticipated return of menswear sales, retailers in the sector expect a move towards more tailored and investment pieces.

“Guys are getting better and better at dressing, which is an indicator the menswear market is getting back on track,” says James Spreckley, menswear director at premium chain Reiss. “The gap between the [fashion-forward] trends I want [to back] and the trends the consumer wants [to buy] is closing. Autumn 11 is about fearless dressing, that celebrates masculinity.”

Spreckley predicts a surge in demand for investment pieces, such as premium versions of classic items such as trench coats, and high-quality product made to stand out with detailing. This was certainly the story at Pitti Uomo in Florence last week, where brands used extra details such as trims in luxe fabrics and fur to help justify higher price points.

It is good news for both brands and retailers: sales by volume fell back a percentage point because of rising prices but sales by value increased for both branded and own-label product, notching up a healthy 2% rise, from £9.4bn to £9.6bn over the 52 weeks to October 31, 2010.

The move to sharper dressing manifests itself in two ways: either the ‘Japanese designer’ look, which according to Bage mixes ‘box-fresh’ trainers with minimalist utility wear, or traditional suiting - worn either as a full suit; or mixing tailored separates worn in a casual way.

All the buyers Drapers spoke to agreed the latter is set for a major revival in autumn 11. Spreckley says: “Post-recession there was an obsession with not looking too consumerist, which prompted the heritage trend, but now we have found an equilibrium and we no longer have to shy away from looking good. Suits are for all occasions rather than just occasionwear. We’re doing very well with mixers.”

For Ayres at Liberty, it will manifest itself as “relaxed tailoring, in an Ivy League way - so perhaps a jacket worn with different trousers. Oliver Spencer epitomises the look for us. Margaret Howell is another,” he says.

Certainly tailoring featured heavily at the autumn 11 menswear catwalk in Milan this week. Dolce & Gabbana served up slim-fitting, body-conscious suits with vintage-inspired contrast-colour lapels, conjuring up a dandy feel, while Prada teamed boxy suits, jackets and coats with plus fours and knee-high socks in earthy autumnal hues.

Industry figures attribute the trend to a range of sources. Most agree it is partly the work of Mad Men’s dashingly suited Don Draper, and part the influence of an imminent royal wedding, where Savile Row tailoring and traditional values will play a big part. Suiting supplier Skopes also points to the likes of suit-lovers DJ Mark Ronson, The X Factor presenter Dermot O’Leary and Brandon Flowers, frontman of band The Killers.

A branded menswear buyer at one major high street chain thinks the popularity of dresses in womenswear is also having an effect: “The growth of more feminine dressing has left men looking pretty scruffy next to their female counterparts. A smarter look will prevail for autumn 11 and the high street will probably have the run on the fashion suit for younger guys. Not many brands will be pitched to take this market at a youth level due to the price.”

Bage attributes the shift towards changes in office dress codes. “Everyone from architects to graphic designers adopts that look [tailored jackets with more casual trousers] and as more offices become relaxed about dress codes, [men who would have worn a suit to work] can adopt the smart end of casual tailoring.

However, Bage points out that while tailoring is likely to achieve good sell-through, it is much harder to sell online than other trends. “We will invest more in tailoring for autumn 11 but I am cautious about the web. Unlined and deconstructed [product] is a much easier sell online,” he says.

His point is likely to ring alarm bells among pure-play etailers and retailers heavily reliant on their online propositions. Many have grown rapidly, helped by the relatively easy online sell of heritage-inspired product and deconstructed silhouettes, but for Bage, heritage wear is on its way out.

“There is a backlash against that look. There are only so many jack boots and chunky fisherman sweaters you can buy. At some point the key trend-setters are going to go for the sharper look,” he says.

Spreckley describes it as a move away from the “rock climbing, earthy feel. Guys don’t want to dress like they’re about to climb Mount Everest all the time.”

But Ayres thinks the heritage trend “still has legs”. “It’s getting more and more popular. We hear of new heritage brands cropping up every day, but there is a demand.”

The value of provenance

Whether or not the heritage look can keep going, the buyers Drapers spoke to agreed provenance is set to become an increasingly important factor in menswear sales. Says Symington: “More people are becoming concerned with where their clothing is being made. I will be buying much more heavily into European goods and checking the provenance of all my brands. It’s not the most important thing but it really adds value. People feel they are not just buying a label applied to a product - they feel they are really getting the quality [they are paying for].”

For Gresham Blake, founder of the eponymous Brighton tailoring business, the obsession with provenance is likely to focus even closer to home. “Customers will be buying British brands more than ever so the European brands might suffer. Coming through the recession, people are looking for new British brands and looks,” he says.

The zeitgeist is in the UK’s favour - homegrown brands may just be set for an unexpected boom.

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