Sportswear: softer, brighter, slimmer

Sportswear continues to drive business at better specialty retailers.

At Shaia’s in Birmingham, Ala., Ken Shaia has increased sportswear from 25 to 50 percent of the business. “The world became more casual. Men have more time off, they travel more, and they want to be comfortable,” he explains. His clothing business can best be described as “sleepy.”

Overall, fall ’12 selling was flat over the previous year, but Shaia says that’s because Birmingham has been slower to bounce back from the recession. “We’re still down 25 percent from the peak, but I’m happy considering the new environment.” Luciano Barbera, Billy Reid, Scott James and Culturata all performed well.

Among the 50 better specialty stores tracked by retail consultant Danny Paul, sportswear has been driving business, led by sales of casual bottoms in both flat-front and five-pocket models. Those “powerhouse classes” were up every month in 2012, with an average increase of 20.77 percent over the fall ’12 selling period (through November). Sport shirts were inconsistent from month to month but still averaged a slight increase over fall 2011, as did knits and sweaters.

When asked why bottoms have pulled away from the pack, Paul says that because more vendors have started producing full collections, retailers have more bottoms to choose from. When they pass that choice on to consumers, more guys are likely to find a fit, color or detail that will entice them to make a purchase. “My retailers are carrying more vendors across the board,” he says, “because it’s becoming even more important to show newness for repeat customers.”

Though most of the country is experiencing its second warm winter in a row (or perhaps because of this) layering is gaining importance. Scott James designer Scott Kuhlman thinks American men are coming around to the Italian idea of a ‘wear-everywhere uniform’ where the same shirt, jacket and pants worn for work can be adapted as clothing for leisure and travel. “Jeans with an untucked shirt is no longer cutting it for casual wear,” he asserts.

“We’re ready for a more sophisticated, refined time,” agrees Shaia. “Some people say ‘Don’t quit offering it until they stop buying it.’ But in the men’s business you’ve got to save the customers from themselves. You have to evolve them.”

At The Independent, with locations in Little Rock and Rogers, Ark., Sean Cullers and his three partners cater to “young-minded guys from 18 to 70.” Cullers says sportswear business (50 percent of the mix) has been booming since the doors opened four months ago, and agrees that casual pants are doing well. Denim is “holding its own, but there’s no big trend there.” He also says he can’t keep sport shirts on the shelves, with checks and ginghams leading the pack. And, he adds, “It will be hard to wreck the softcoat ship we’ve been on for a while, but I see some changes for next fall, like different fabrics and more patterns. It has to evolve because our customer already has a few solid softcoats in his closet by now.” Reporting success across all classifications, he says the common denominator is “slimmer fits and a great color or detail. Guys don’t want anything plain.”

As long as you find those interesting items, Paul says to plan for the upward trend to continue into fall ’13. “Sportswear has been driving business for the last four years, while clothing sales have been inconsistent,” he sums up. “I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the balance will shift.”

Driving sales

Hand: Retailers and vendors agree that softness has become paramount in almost every classification. “If it’s not kind to the hand, it’s not going to have any traction,” says Shaia. “Customers won’t accept a product that doesn’t feel good when they try it on.” For fall ’13, try adding fine-wale corduroy and flannel fabrications to your casual pants mix.

Color: “Even the most classic retailers have been surprised at how well it’s selling,” Kuhlman reports. “[An array of color] looks cool on the floor, so stores order our brushed twill bottoms in all 20 shades. Maybe the yellow won’t sell, but it will draw people over, and then the colors that do take off can be ordered on replenishment.” So far retailers have favored a faded orange at $145 retail.

Fit: “The cut most guys now want is fitted but comfortable: no excess fabric, and smaller leg openings on bottoms,” Cullers says. “We have a very educated clientele; they pay attention to magazines and notice how guys are dressing in different cities as they travel.” Slim, lightweight knits and wovens will become even more important as the layered look gains traction for fall ’13.

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