There’s no unequivocal right way to run a menswear business but playing it safe is surely the wrong way.
As a menswear trade magazine, part of our job is to advise. Spending much of our time interviewing key industry execs, MR editors set out to share winning strategies and recommend follow-up. Should stores be trading up or down? Everyday value pricing or high-low? Satisfy existing customers or go after new ones? In-store or online? Vendor shops or key items? Knits or wovens? Denim or chinos? Brands or private label? Proven designers or untested new ones? As we all know, menswear retailing is a precarious balancing act and what works one season might fall apart the next, depending on ever-changing variables.
What is real and true and constant, however, is the need for differentiation. How tempting it is in uncertain times to play it safe, yet how instinctively we realize that safe is not the answer. We’re in the fashion business, after all, and if we can’t entice, excite and entertain, why bother? More than ever before, customers can find nice clothes anywhere at any price from any maker. The merchant’s job, therefore, is to raise the bar, to provide not just nice but exceptional product to help men look better and as a result, feel better, perform better and more thoroughly enjoy their lives. Not a bad mission statement for those who want one.
I was reminded of this recently when Stu and I went to visit Debi Greenberg at her spectacular new Louis Boston store on the harbor. Taking a huge chance with a 10-year lease on a still-developing area near the Institute of Contemporary Art, Greenberg has created a relaxed waterfront retreat with amazing views and a wonderful mix of narrowly distributed apparel, accessories and home goods. (Interestingly, men’s apparel is arranged by size rather than by vendor, with clothing, sportswear and accessories displayed to work together.) “My goal is to encourage customers to dress more creatively,” she told us over oysters and beet salad at Sam’s, her casually chic restaurant overlooking the water. “Enough with the blue blazers, untucked shirts and jeans! It’s a competitive world out there and guys need to stand out from the crowd, even in subtle ways. I’m selling them non-denim trousers and beautiful cashmere sportcoats and accessories with personality.”
Also raising the bar in its own way is MR‘s Retailer of the Year: Casual Male Retail Group. Under the leadership of David Levin, CMRG has moved from a collection of struggling low-end specialty stores to exciting, well-merchandised superstores for big and tall men. While they’ve got their work cut out for them (convincing luxury makers to get into this business, balancing diverse lifestyles/incomes/taste levels, getting the sizing right), CMRG is doing it with surprisingly strong results. For their vision, execution and risk-taking, we salute them!
And along with the rest of the world, we’d like to salute Steve Jobs. Among his many brilliant quotes, my personal favorite is this: “Knowing I can be dead soon helps me make the most important decisions in life based on what is real and true and not based on fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, pride, or any other external expectations.” What better words of inspiration for retailers seeking to reinvent themselves, and for a whole new generation of menswear pioneers!