The lexicon describing male shopping has been lately enriched with newly minted acronyms and portmanteaus, following in the vaunted (and derided) footsteps of “metrosexual”.
Bain & Co calls this spender-to-be Henry (High Earner, Not Rich Yet); the bank HSBC, more cringe-worthily, calls him a Yummy (Young Urban Male). But if you christen him, will he come? The largest players in the industry are hoping so.
“Finally the men's business is waking up,” Gildo Zegna, chief executive of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, says in his office in Milan. “We're taking it more seriously. We're trying to make it more fun.”
In 2012, Zegna tapped Stefano Pilati, the respected but embattled former designer of Yves Saint Laurent, as head of design. His appointment capped a year and a half of designer moves. The year before, Kering, whose stable includes Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen, acquired Brioni, a Roman label known for its suiting, and hired Brendan Mullane away from Givenchy to design it.
Before that, LVMH – home of Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton – hired Alessandro Sartori, then designing Zegna's younger-skewing Z Zegna, to create a full ready-to-wear collection for Berluti, its custom footwear label, and named Antoine Arnault – widely seen as a possible heir apparent to his father, Bernard Arnault, as the LVMH chairman and chief executive – to run it.
All three labels were previously known as bastions of traditional tailoring or shoes, classic but far removed from high-end fashion lines like Lanvin or Dior. Their recent changes effectively blur the once-clear line between “luxury” and “designer” menswear. The appointment of marquee designers poached from the world of runway fashion and the expansion of their once-narrow offerings to include everything from denim to bicycles signal the companies' desire to build these labels into full-fledged fashion brands – and to do so at an unapologetically luxurious price point. Now, the early fruits of that labour are entering the market, at newly built or newly refurbished stores.
With the growth in menswear now outpacing that of women's, according to many in the industry, LVMH, Kering and the Zegna Group are hardly alone in taking notice. Prada, for example, in April revealed to its investors a plan to open 50 more menswear boutiques in the next three years. (In 2013, it opened four.)
“We see clearly a big potential for men,” says Jean-Marc Bellaiche, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, where he leads the firm's luxury, fashion and beauty sectors. “This segment of what we call metrosexuals – those men, living in cities, making a lot of money, taking care of themselves, buying cosmetic products, buying the best brands for apparel, even wearing luxury bags – this is a growing segment. “I'm not the only one in meetings now with a luxury branded bag,” he chuckles.
The tier that is attracting much of the attention is at the very top of the market, in luxury. That tier is “absolutely” growing, says Bill Cournoyer, a vice-president at the Bergdorf Goodman men's store. “There's room for these luxury brands to exist because there's more interest in the demographic for these brands.”
In December, Bergdorf opened a dedicated boutique for the Berluti collection, the only retailer to sell the collection outside of the brand's own stores (which, not incidentally, are multiplying as if by spore). The style favoured by Sartori is young, trim and sleek, and the prices are, to put it politely, astronomical. A three-piece suit starts at more than $5000.
Pilati's purview, as well, is at the very top of the market. He was given charge of the Ermenegildo Zegna Couture collection, previously a small, super-premium line that was sold in a handful of Zegna stores but never made a point of focus. Now it is shown on the runway, enlarged in price and in scale. Prices average 50 per cent higher than the main collection, with suits beginning at $US4895 ($5230).
“I saw the market opportunity at the top,” Zegna says. “We picked the top price because I think this is the market niche that is growing. More and more of the luxury brands are going to that niche.”
Moving into a niche
So many companies are moving so enthusiastically into that niche that it's tempting to see a sartorial arms race. “There are more brands that try to play in the high-end market,” says Francesco Pesci, the chief executive of Brioni, where a suit can cost up to $17,000. “Of course this is a challenge. We like challenges. It's good to have competition in life, eh?”
Beyond price, what unites the companies contesting this territory is a willingness to introduce a more fashion-friendly sensibility.
“I think we needed a kind of fresh look, a fresh fashion look,” says Zegna.
Pilati's debut collection, in stores now, delivered. He showed suits mismatched, silken coats that resembled bathrobes and seemingly yard-long shirt-sleeves scrunched up even under tailored clothing.
“Those collections have evolved,” says Tom Kalenderian, executive vice-president for menswear at Barneys New York. “The product is younger. It's definitely in line with the type of product that formerly only a designer guy might have bought.”
Over the course of 17 years at Brioni, whose storied past stretches back to 1945, Pesci has seen this shift in the landscape first-hand. “When I started out my career in Brioni back in 1994, the market was a very different place,” he says. It was divided between “fashionable brands,” the work of individual designers emphasising trends, and “classic” brands. Brioni was very much in the latter camp.
In 2012, Kering installed Mullane as its first creative director and tasked him with taking the line in a more contemporary direction. In recent collections, Mullane has experimented with silk and hand-painted fabrics, not to mention kimono-belted suits.
“Men have really realised that there is an art of dressing,” he says. “Now it's very accepted. There is a male consumer who knows 'I want this,' and 'I want that.' They know what they're looking for.”
Pesci, while acknowledging that the most fashion-forward pieces do not always translate directly into the highest sales figures, says Brioni was able to shift most of its retail sales from a safe, conservative fitting block (that is, suit pattern) to a more progressive one in a year.
“As you can imagine, we do have quite a few more mature customers, but they understood what we were trying to do,” he says. “They like the new model, which is closer-fitting, shorter, with a higher button stance. It's not only marketing talk. It's very practical experience.”
Sartori, too, sought to give a shot in the arm to the conservative style associated with luxury tailoring.
“We wanted to build the right mix between extremely high quality and modern design,” he says. “There is nothing of that level, like a tailor-made garment but with a modern style. We wanted to go there.”
Eager for Berluti to offer bespoke service, LVMH bought the Paris ateliers of Arnys, an 81-year-old suiting line, complete with its staff of tailors. With it came a challenge for Sartori: to modernise the clothes produced there from traditional to the ultra-trim silhouette he prefers.
“It was a long path,” he said over tea at the second-floor bespoke salon of the Berluti Madison Avenue store. “It was an Italian drama. Or melodrama.”
Not just a trend
He makes it clear that he doesn't view the changes as mere trend. “I don't think it'll be short-lived,” he says. “I don't think this is the way we went from two-button clothing to three-button and back to two-button. It's not so much about the width of a trouser as the way a narrow trouser makes you feel.”
The sensibility of this new younger client, as well as an older one gravitating toward more contemporary styles, is top of mind for the designers.
“I am very intrigued by the new young men power generation,” Pilati wrote in an email. “I asked myself how I could make Zegna distinctive, so I emphasised a studied nonchalance in dressing up for men to make their personality much more visible and contemporary.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES