DJs boss Zahra talks men's fashion and the online boom

Paul Zahra glides though David Jones's flagship store in Melbourne's central business district, bidding good morning to the make-up girls at the fragrance counters, and chatting with a store manager to hear first hand the latest ups and downs of what remains a jittery environment for department stores.

Now more than two years into his role as chief executive of the iconic upmarket retailer, Zahra has taken all the panicky global economy can throw at him and has remained surprisingly upbeat through it all.

It hasn't been easy. On some days during the worst of the global financial crisis and debt death spirals in Europe, his department stores, known for their upmarket and pricey fashion items, were notching up double-digit sales dives as shoppers refused to shop.

This has flowed through to a David Jones share price that has slumped 50 per cent since 2010.

But the Melbourne-born Zahra, whose family emigrated to Australia from Malta, knows he can't control the macro-economy and is focused on the massive job at hand. On November 6 he will see a key plank of his restructuring and rejuvenation plans for the 174-year-old retailer spring to life when David Jones launches its new website.

"We will be the oldest newest thing on the internet," Zahra jokes.

The relaunched David Jones website will feature 90,000 product lines for online purchase, up from the 9000 available on the old site, and this will help change the way people shop, especially men, says Zahra.

The web has made fashion and shopping more accessible to men, he explains, offering them greater choice and search engines they feel comfortable using.

Zahra, who, since 2003 was essentially groomed by the board to take over as chief executive, has spent 30 years in the retail trade and seen the way men shop for fashion change radically. This extends across the age demographic and income levels, and includes choices made by white-collar workers when they dress for work.

EXECUTIVE STYLE: How have men changed in the way they shop for fashion?

PAUL ZAHRA: I think what the internet has done is open the whole world up. You could argue Australian retailers haven't been leaders in this area and you have got to remember – people forget – there are only 22 million people living in this country, so innovation comes at a cost, and generally Australians are risk averse, or companies are. So we might have spent a lot of effort in building brands, but men in particular are not particularly brand savvy and they can now do a search on the internet and get all the information they need.

ES: So the proliferation of the internet and online retailing has made men more fashion conscious?

PZ: Men have become a lot more fashionable. They know what the latest trends are, they have got access to information that they never had before and they can use online search engines to get that fashion information much more quicker.

ES: How would you describe the fashion style of Australian men?

PZ: Men in Australia are generally much more, I would say, "classical conservative", but what we are seeing now, if we go down the generations, there is less conservatism. Men are seeing ambassadors of fashion, celebrities like David Beckham for example, how they dress and in some cases following their example. Australian men are no longer so structured in their thinking, they want to look for individualism through fashion, so where men would stick to the blues and blacks, which is conservative, they will now wear colour.

ES: It's almost rare to see men wearing full suit and ties in the workplace these days. The casual look is in, even in business. What is going on?

PZ: From a man's perspective, there is a fashion term called "bleisure", which is something you can wear at work and go straight from that to drinks or something else, like an evening event. So, often what you will find is an executive still wearing a jacket to work, maybe not on them but bring it in, and they will wear an open-neck shirt or take their tie off, or wear jeans if they want to, and move from business to leisure.

ES: So sales of ties at David Jones are diving?

PZ: Ties are still selling exceptionally well; there is a time and place for them. There is a relaxing of office gear but people still want to look good, and they might be spending more on their business shirt, for example, because if they are not wearing a tie they have to dress up with a nice business shirt.

This article DJs boss Zahra talks men's fashion and the online boom was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.