Author: Men's Fashion Retail Should Get Back to Basics, Classics

Last Updated Sep 11, 2009 3:14 PM EDT

Bertrand Pellegrin, author of the new book Branding the Man: Why Are Men the Next Frontier in Fashion Retail has been a senior retail strategist with Gensler Worldwide, director of marketing for the luxury department store Lane Crawford Ltd. in Hong Kong, and brand development consultant for Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Lotte Department Stores in Korea. He took a few minutes to discuss the future of men's fashion retailing with Bnet.

Bnet: Over the 20 years leading up to the recession, it became increasingly acceptable for men in the United States to become deeply involved in fashion, with terms such as "bling" and "metrosexual" becoming part of the American lexicon. Now, frugal is everyone's favorite word. Is the era of the male clotheshorse over and what do expect to happen to apparel retailers who focus on men in the recovery and beyond?

Pellegrin: I believe that men are a long-term investment for retailers. The changes in their self-presentation and awareness of fashion are not going to end just because of a recession. You still need to get up and go to work. Or look for a job. Clothes are quite simply a part of our daily lives, and men now know that they have a choice in how people perceive them. They now know what women have known a long time: that they can change their bodies through exercise and dieting, and build an image through the signifiers of fashion. Retailers need to stay true to their core values as a brand but keep in mind that men really focus on their basics and then build out from there. They are also learning quickly about quality and tailoring, so these need to evolve too. American men's suiting is still deficient in this area.

Bnet: Accepted wisdom is that the first budget that gets slashed when the family is in trouble is dad's clothes allowance. Given the severity of the recession and the fact that many people are going to come out of one set of problems -- pay cuts, unemployment -- into another -- rink fees, dance lessons, tuition -- will the family man of the upcoming era dress down, slipping from Brooks Brothers to Men's Warehouse to Target?

Pellegrin: It's certainly possible. But is that such a bad thing? The resourceful shopper doesn't only do head-to-toe designer, and that's one of the most appealing parts of creating a personal style. Also, I think men will discover that there are certain things you can't compromise on, like a great suit. Designers and retailers are also getting much more creative in terms of their offer, so it will be interesting to see how they begin to segment their brand offer in terms of price point. Good/better/best is still an important mantra in terms of developing a brand offer that targets more than the top two percent.

Bnet: The Baby Boomers are retiring with depleted 401Ks, and young people who are new to or are entering the job market have experienced significant economic dislocation. Are these chunks of the population that fashion retailers are going to lose and do ways exist to win them back?

Pellegrin: Boy are you down in the dumps! Just kidding. It kind of goes back to the answer I made in the previous question. There is lemonade to be made if one is an innovative retailer. This recession caught far too many people off guard, and some just sat there doing nothing. They all, quite frankly, should have had a game plan going. That's Business 101. Accessories and entry-level brand products are certainly ways to activate interest in shopping. Regardless, men are learning that people do judge you by how you look, and if you want to move up into senior management, you certainly better look the part.

Bnet: Long term, what kind of trends to you see emerging in fashion retailing -- not only as a result of the recession but other factors as well -- that might drive change in the fashion business on the men's side of the aisle?

Pellegrin: I think classic is going to continue growing as men discover the versatility of beautiful basics. I'm intrigued by how creative the GenY customer is getting in how they dress. They will be important demos to watch. Internet retailing is another behind-the-scenes player that people don't take seriously enough. Men are now the fastest growing demographic of Internet shoppers, which is maybe surprising. Retailers of all kinds will discover they need to get better about making websites that are designed for them. Department stores are going to continue to struggle to bring in male shoppers. They are simply not the ideal environment for the majority of male consumers. A sharper edit is going to be in order. Just because you are a department store doesn't mean you have to be all things to all people.