Saks Fifth Avenue: Bouncing back

After a few tough suit-selling seasons, Saks’ VP and DMM of tailored clothing Shawn Howell reports that business is the best it’s been in years.

Have suit styles changed at all over the past few years? No, it’s still two-button side vent for me. We are starting to see a little movement with three-roll-to-two, still side vented. Flat-front pants are important and we’re moving forward with that, even though you’re starting to see some pleats on the runways. It doesn’t translate yet. Right now, it’s about 90% flat front.

Are fits still getting slimmer? In a lot of ways it’s evened out, but it’s much slimmer than it was in ’07-’08. I shouldn’t say much—it’s slimmer. Vendors that have typically offered fuller classic models are actually turning more towards the trimmer silhouette, and I haven’t seen any alienation of those brands since that’s happened. Take Hickey Freeman, which is a classic brand: they’ve updated their models to be a little bit trimmer, but nothing that’s so trim that the average Hickey Freeman customer wouldn’t like it. Trimmer models are still a huge opportunity and the guys are coming around to it.

How about older customers? Are they still looking for looser pleated pants, or does the Saks customer know what’s in style? You get a little bit of that, but the Saks customer pretty much knows what’s going on. And our associates are great at educating them on what’s new and what’s happening now in tailored clothing.

Would you say that contemporary and classic trends are somewhat aligned nowadays? In a lot of cases yes, the lines are blurred, because the business casual look – “bleisure” as my fashion director [Eric Jennings] calls it – is hot with the younger guys. They want to get dressed up, but they don’t want to be too dressy. It’s like I’m dressed today: khakis with a sport shirt, but with a tie and a blazer as well. It gives guys a different way to dress and reinvent themselves, so it’s positive for business.

Trends in the advanced designer zone have more to do with who’s wearing it. If you look at Kanye West and his crew in black and white Dior suits, that’s what’s happening right now for our contemporary customer. I’ve definitely seen a positive growth in suit sales in my modern and super-modern brands, like Z Zegna and Hugo Red. That attracts our advanced client who would like to wear a trim Prada or Dior suit but doesn’t want to pay $2,500.

Are guys buying separates for the “bleisure” look, or purchasing full suits and breaking up the pieces? We didn’t used to have much of a separates business, but now the separates business is really good! In our own men’s collection they’re performing very well. It’s been positive over the past 12 to 18 months, though it’s still a very small percentage of our business. Sportcoats open at $495 and average around $1,200. We’re carrying open bottom trousers and our inventory is about 45 percent tops, 55 percent bottoms.

Is Saks offering more selection at lower pricepoints? Hugo Boss is our opening price at $695. But we do a lot of good business at about $1,500, that’s the average. So is that more or less than it was before [the recession]? No. It’s pretty much where it was. It’s great to see that our core customers are coming back, as well as our core brands. The tailored business in general is coming back. It had swung towards sportswear [in the down economy] because tailored clothing is so expensive; it’s a definite investment for a client. But now the pendulum is swinging back our way.

Have you added new vendors? We’re trying the opening price classic strategy. So we’re going to see what happens with Façonnable, we’re doing a little bit with Robert Talbott, Hickey Freeman has come on with a really strong start… Typically our customer profile has been pretty modern. So this opening price classic business is something that we want to go after and explore.

What is your merchandising strategy? Lifestyle merchandising has been key. We find that guys typically know a certain brand, and the lifestyle that brand represents, and they shop the whole thing. (I actually buy the whole collection for brands like Hickey Freeman, Versace, Z Zegna.) In some doors it’s a little difficult and we have to separate it.

What else has to be done differently in the branch doors vs. flagships? Typically the flagships are in metropolitan markets. You get a lot more foot traffic as well as more European clients. So we do buy the flagships a little bit more forward. When you get to the branches, you have to know who’s coming through the door. In Miami, it’s slanted towards modern because we have a lot of South American clients. Whereas in Columbus it’s more Midwestern, not as modern. You have to be really specific and selective in both the brands and pieces.

Is the percentage of tailored clothing vs. sportswear different in branch doors? Sometimes. In order to cater the assortments to a “sportswear door,” we would have to show more sportcoats and other items that pair back to sportswear to help round it out. And OTD pricepoints can differ. Some markets can sell the $1,500 pricepoint where some really can only do $1,100.

In late 2008, Saks was criticized for being heavily promotional. Now there’s not a single sale sign on the floor. When did you change course? We’ve been steering clear of promotions and haven’t heard any complaints. It’s a work in progress. Not being so promotional is definitely for the positive. Of course we’ve had better margins. And it’s good for our customers because they get to come in and shop our product without a ton of consumers on the floor. We invite clients to come in for special events, but anything else promotional, no. That’s where we want to be. We’re looking to do a lot of business and do it the right way.

How have you been managing inventory? It’s pretty easy because sales have been good. We’re definitely carrying less than we did in 2008—a lot less, let’s put it that way. One of my main strategies was to right-size the tailored clothing business, and that’s what we did. Our pricepoints are at a place that even a few SKUs of something can mean a lot. We had to take a step back and re-tool, buy stuff the right way, the way the business called for. Everybody felt the hit, but right now it’s positive.

Is your made to measure business strong? It’s a key part of our business. It’s growing, especially among clients that aren’t hard to fit; they just want something special. We do very well with Zegna and Isaia. Armani is starting to come back, and we’re doing business with Kiton and Brioni as well. The average pricepoint is around $2,700. It currently makes up about 10 to 15 percent, but it’s a part of the business that will continue to grow. The luxury business in general has legs right now and is becoming more profitable.

How about private label? Men’s Collection has been doing very, very well; it’s something that we’re super proud of. My boss Tom Ott, along with Sunny Diego, Melissa Drexler and Peter Rizzo, who’s a consultant on the project, have done a great job with the collection and we’re looking to invest even more in it. When I first came on we had each buying office doing some form of private label. Now it’s under one umbrella getting the focus and attention that it needs.

What’s new for the upcoming fall and spring seasons? We just started looking at the ’12 market, so nothing’s been decided yet. For fall ’11 we’re sticking with opening price classics. We still think sportcoats and trousers are key. And anything you can do to a sportcoat to make it interesting—plaids, patch pockets, seasonal fabrics—those things have been getting a lot of interest from our clients.

The color that’s stood out has been Bordeaux. It’s different from your typical black, navy and gray, but it’s still a very masculine color. I’ve seen it in wools, and right now we even have a Zegna sport coat on the floor in wine-colored linen. We’ve also been looking at green and camel for fall. We typically do well with camel in cashmere and other seasonal fabrications in top coats and sportcoats.

Have you had problems competing with single brand stores or websites? Not really. You would think if a single brand store opened up in one of our markets that it would take away from our business. In a lot of cases, it almost helps. We show things differently than a single brand store would, and if a customer doesn’t find it there they’ll come to us. We tailor our service to making it look special, as different as possible, so the client can get the maximum shopping experience. Websites don’t affect my business at all. Tailored clothing is so specific. You have to feel fabrics, try things on, etc. It’s not like buying T-shirts or denim.

How has Saks handled rising wool and cotton prices? We haven’t been affected yet, but I’ll take it as it comes. We try not to pass off anything to the consumer. Thankfully there’s been a positive reaction to tailored clothing the past couple seasons, and the sky’s the limit right now. Over the next few years we’re definitely going to see returns on our investments.

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