Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that GQ covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.
To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born “super stylist” will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.
London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As Dylan Jones, editor of GQ says: “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .
Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.
Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.
One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.
According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to “spearhead” the growth and outperform womenswear.
Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says: “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.
Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!
Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in “modern tribes” that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.
“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”
said Englinde. “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”
Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said: “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”
So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:
“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.
It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.
Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.
So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.
These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.
I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.
He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.
So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?
Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.
Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.
In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.
Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.
According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.
These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.
It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.