Bracing for change

Good news in tailored clothing: retailers at both ends of the spectrum have proclaimed comebacks in the category. Men of all ages and professions have been updating their suit wardrobes, motivated by an interest in the new slimmer fits, a desire to move from pleated to flatfront pants, or a change in size.

Saks’ tailored clothing business continues to be strong with sportcoats leading the surge, according to VP/DMM Shawn Howell. Last year separates were a growing part of the luxury department store’s business, but sales have since slowed considerably. “True sportcoats and seasonal pants are doing well; they give a customer more creative freedom than just matching sizes in suit jackets and suit pants,” explains Howell. No particular seasonal fabrication stood out during spring selling, but Howell tells us, “We’ve been having continued success with color. Red bottoms are trending really well, as are sportcoats in shades of gray and suits in shades of blue.”

Steve Pruitt of Blacks Consulting, which tracks sales data for a number of luxury retailers, reported YTD numbers in tailored clothing up 8 percent over last year. In the 90 days from March to May 2012, sportcoats were driving the growth at 14 percent, and suits were up 9 percent. But with few men required to wear suits to work everyday, how many do they really need? What happens after they’re done replenishing?

Pruitt’s research shows that after every election but two since 1950, the following year has brought a drop in the financial markets and a corresponding retail slowdown. This doesn’t necessarily mean negative numbers for next year, but retailers experiencing gains of 7 or 8 percent might slow to a 2 or 3 percent rate of growth, or flatten out. “We’re conservatively planning fall 2012 gains at two-thirds of spring 2012 gains, with a further dip after holiday,” Pruitt reveals.

What does the impending slowdown mean for the clothing business specifically? Howell thinks that a swing back to sportswear may be around the corner. “We all know the retail business [rotates] 360 degrees, so eventually true sportswear will be at the forefront of trends. However, I do think that clothing will still have a presence in a lot of sportswear lines. It’s become a staple for brands like Theory and Burberry, and full lifestyle brands have become more prominent.” If this resurgence in sportswear does indeed occur, blazers and soft coats (the items currently providing most of the newness in the clothing category) will likely remain strong, especially in seasonal fabrications and colors. Also likely: increased competition between true tailored clothing brands and sportswear vendors clamoring to tap into the category.

Phil Borntrager of Mark Shale in Chicago agrees that sportcoats are doing better than suits. They’re already noticing the uptick in sportswear over tailored clothing, so they’ve been merchandising blazers and softcoats in both clothing and sportswear departments. “Trim is finally catching on in the Midwest. I was nervous about bringing in a line like LBM 1911, but it’s really working, especially the softcoats.” Haberdash, also in Chicago, and Badower’s in Des Moines have reported similar success with the line.

For now, Saks’ true suit business is still strong at a sweet spot around $1,500, and they’ve also experienced growth at the top end of the luxury market over the past year, driven by the success of Isaia and Kiton. “MTM continues to be strong, especially in luxury brands,” Howell adds. “I’m very optimistic about it and luxury in general… cautiously optimistic. The world is still a bit fragile.”

Prepare to prosper with these tips from retail consultant Steve Pruitt

* Start taking money out of inventory and putting it in the bank. Once the industry begins to identify new trends, you’ll be in the position to take advantage of them. You won’t have to wait long: things should start moving again about six months after the post-holiday slowdown.

* Look hard at your vendor structure. Who are the weak players? Make sure that everyone you work with continues to evolve and innovate. A slower period is the perfect time to experiment, so try a few new things and see what your customers respond to.

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