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Despite Headwinds, Mood in Men’s Wear Remains Upbeat for Fall

Neither flight delays and cancellations nor the concerning macroeconomic environment could dampen the spirits of retailers who braved the unfriendly skies to shop the Chicago Collective and Project/Magic in Las Vegas last week.

Although they were cognizant of a potential recession, rising inflation, the ongoing war in Ukraine, health concerns—monkeypox and polio in addition to Covid-19—and other larger issues impacting consumer confidence, business continues to be strong for most stores.

As a result, they were in an upbeat mood and shopping aggressively for spring and immediates to meet the ongoing demand from their customers.

Dress apparel continued to lead the way for most men’s stores as events and weddings are leading to heightened demand. And while sales of strict athleisure apparel may have slowed as customers eye a return to work—even on a hybrid basis—after Labor Day, updated sportswear made strides along with suits and patterned sport coats for guys.

While retailers are not hiding their heads in the sand about the issues they’re facing, they believe that the lessons learned during the pandemic that helped them survive will serve them well in the future.

Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans in New York, said, “We’re not seeing any slowdown yet. Business is really good and there might be a recession, but if business does turn down, we’re prepared.”

He said the pandemic helped him create strong bonds with his vendors and to develop ways to navigate shipping delays and the threat of canceled orders.

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“We’re buying from people who have inventory,” he said, “not six months ahead. We learned there are no guarantees, so we better be prepared.”

For Rothmans, that meant buying fall as well as spring 2023 in Chicago. He singled out Emanuel Berg and Brats as tailored vendors that have created stock programs—thereby eliminating risk—and also pointed to Jack Victor, Seven Downie St. and Fair Harbor as brands he was buying at the show.

Rick Penn, president of Puritan Cape Cod, said 2021 “was a great year and 2022 is even better.” He pointed to the “dress part of the business” as a highlight, “driven by events and travel.” But it’s not just suits that are experiencing a boost in business, sportswear is also performing, he said.

At the show, he was buying both tailored clothing and sportswear, even though some vendors were still experiencing supply chain issues and may not be able to deliver for more than six months. “We’re going to have to figure that out together,” he said.

Penn said that while he may not be buying as aggressively for spring 2023 as he did for this past spring, he’s still optimistic.

“The world changes so quickly now and we have to adjust quickly, too.,” he said. “We learned some tough lessons in 2020,” but being a “high service, high touch” store has served him well. “This is a great time to be an independent because the customer is really enjoying the relationship we have with them.”

That sentiment was echoed by Keith Kinkade of Kinkade’s Fine Clothing in Ridgeland, Miss.

“Our business is still extremely strong—better than last year, which was our best ever,” he said. The surge is being driven by suits, sport coats, shirts and ties, wedding attire as well as sportswear.

He has been courting his customers by offering some little extras such as a free hoodie, umbrellas to guard against spring showers and seasonings. If these small investments can draw shoppers to the store more than their traditional twice a year visits, they’re well worth it, he said.

“We feel a little bit of caution, but we’re still buying with optimism. We don’t know what’s going to happen in November, but people are still going to need clothes.”

Among the brands he was banking on were Johnnie-O, 34 Heritage, Barbour, Faherty, Filson and local Mississippi brand GenTeal whose polos and sport shirts have sold well and with whom he has established a strong bond. “We’re sticking with the ones who brought us to the dance,” he said.

Ted Silver of Weiss & Goldring in Alexandria, La., also characterized his business as good, but he has expanded beyond suits and running shoes to other products including crystal, pots and pans, knives and even Swiss chocolate.

“I sell what my customer wants,” he said.

In apparel, top sellers include Tasc, Vuori and On Running in the active realm and he was planning to place an order for Johnnie-O sport coats in Chicago. “It’s a performance coat that sells for $795,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer and something cool for the store.” Denim was also on his shopping list.

Patty Leto, senior vice president of The Doneger Group, who attended both the Chicago Collective and Project, was buoyed by the heightened energy she saw in Vegas and the number of major retailers who attended the show, including Nordstrom, Macy’s and Walmart.

For retailers with a younger customer or those in the street side of the business, “Project remains the show to go to,” she said.

For Doneger’s retail clients, she said they experienced a strong 2021 in spite of supply chain issues and were shopping with an upbeat attitude. “The consumer was ravenous and spending money,” she said of last year.

Although spring 2022 was more challenging, retailers remain optimistic and are working to manage inventories. Back-to-school results will provide a good peek into the future, she said, and until they get more clarity, they’re being cautious about the future.

Even so, top opportunities for spring 2023 include cleaned-up streetwear, wovens with performance properties, hybrid pieces to wear to the new workplace, polos and golf wear, Leto said.

Vendors were also upbeat at the shows.

Dan Orwig, president of Peerless Clothing, acknowledged the “headwinds” around the world, from inflationary pressures to wars and bloated inventories in slowing categories such as activewear. “A lot of people thought that business would go on forever,” he said. “But now there’s a lot of inventory in the pipeline.”

But for Peerless, the country’s largest tailored clothing manufacturer, business continues to be good. “From better and mid-tier department stores to specialty stores, the velocity is still very strong.”

Although lower-income customers are feeling the pinch of rising prices, “there’s still demand for dress wear.”

Orwig sees a bit of a slowdown in the occasion business in the third quarter, but expects it to be offset by a pickup in return-to-work clothes — not necessarily suits, but dressier hybrid options. “For the fourth quarter, we feel good about the return on celebrations and for the first quarter, we expect a reassessment,” but the number of weddings in the hopper for 2023 should help the numbers stay healthy.

Peter Leff, executive vice president of wholesale for Tommy Bahama, said the brand’s upbeat, colorful spring offering — and the rising popularity of its womenswear — will lead to double-digit increases for spring. Among the most popular items are technical pants, shorts and shirts for men including the Chip Shot bottom and the Nova Wave seersucker shirt.

Once again, the Chicago Collective and Project/Magic overlapped, forcing many retailers to choose. The more upscale independent stores opted for the Windy City while those with more of a streetwear or young men’s bent were better served in Vegas.

Bruce Schedler, vice president of the Chicago show, once again pushed the venue to its limit and there was still a large waiting list of brands hoping to get a booth. The Italian Trade Agency, which brought some 60 vendors to the show, had a large presence, wining and dining retailers and also hosting a dinner and architectural cruise on the Chicago River.

Schedler deemed the show a success and revealed that starting in March, a women’s version with a similar aesthetic will be launched. It will replace the current Stylemax show, which will hold its last event in October.

The Chicago Collective women’s edition will serve as a “platform for higher-end brands” and present a more elevated experience for retailers, he said. There will be distinct areas for denim and contemporary, upscale missy labels, skin care and beauty, and even home and gifts.

The plan is to hold three shows a year, he said: March, June and October, to serve stores in the Midwest and elsewhere who would prefer to shop at a smaller, more-curated, higher-end show in the Midwest. “We want to seize the opportunity post-Covid-19,” he said.

Kelly Helfman, president of Informa Markets Fashion, owner of Project and Magic, was also pleased with how her Vegas shows have bounced back after Covid-19. Going forward, she doesn’t expect another overlap with Chicago.

”We’ve definitely grown since the last show,” she said, pointing to the return to Vegas of anchor brands such as Hudson, Joe’s Jeans and Levi’s that have historically been “crucial to our business.”

Although final numbers are not yet in, Helfman said the sourcing portion of the show more than doubled in size, international brands increased 15 percent and on the first day of the show, 33 percent of the buyers were new.

To help retailers discover new brands, she personally hosted what she described as a speed dating event at the show where brands were brought in front of potential customers.

“We understand the needs of buyers and brands,” she said, adding: “We’re a destination for present-day and future trends.”