April 27, 2012 9:23 am

Forging their own fashion path, men taking their own approach to shopping

NEW YORK – Don’t be fooled by the old “my girlfriend bought me this” line.

Fashion insiders say men are taking a keen interest in how they dress – and that means developing their own shopping habits. The biggest difference in how they shop for clothes? Probably research – and purpose.

A Saturday at the shopping mall is not a highlight on most men’s calendars, says Tyler Thoreson, head of Gilt Groupe’s menswear editorial and creative divisions. Even when they’re shopping online, they’re not surfing many websites or coming back to them day after day, he says, but when they find something they like, they are passionate and potentially more loyal than women.

Call shopping “entertainment” and they’re not buying it, but describing it as a “hobby” is something else, he says.

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Men can “geek out” when it comes to construction and even minutia of a garment. “I’m not just talking about a ‘fashion guy.’ For many men, your wardrobe is part of your program of discernment. They’ll learn about it like a car or a wine or a watch,” Thoreson says. “Guys can be busting each other’s chops in one breath and talking about soft construction on the shoulder of a suit in the next. They love construction, specs. It’s about what’s under the hood.”

You now see men dressing for the life they want to lead and image they want to project, agrees Eric Jennings, vice-president and fashion director of menswear for Saks Fifth Avenue. Shopping and, even worse, trying things on are necessary evils to get there.

They go to stores on a mission and like to get it accomplished, he says. They’ll come in knowing exactly what they want and will buy in multiples. But, he adds, the modern customer is buying a broader range of products and sees a value in having knowledge about them.

Paul Grangaard, CEO of shoe brand Allen Edmonds, says when it comes to fashion, men are hunters and women are gatherers. Different methods, different mentalities, but both can end up with full closets, he says.

“Shopping is not a man’s favourite when it’s about waiting for women. It’s not a leisure activity. Shopping for their own clothing isn’t their favourite place, either, but there is a renaissance – it’s small but steady – as men are interested in an upgrade,” Jennings says. “Coming out of the recession, they know they have to take appearance more seriously. It can be that thing for a new job or a promotion.”

And, he adds, if they’re dressing well during the week, it’s likely to become a habit on weekends.

“Men travel in herds, and when it’s OK in your friendship group to care about how you look on the weekends, it spreads pretty quickly,” observes Grangaard. “Since the recession of 2008, you’re always networking. Men dress better for midweek coffees and lunches and on weekends because you never know who you’ll run into where. You always want to look secure, stable and reliable.”

It’s hard to do that in beat-up jeans and running shoes.

Thoreson says he looks around midtown Manhattan and quite literally sees the change. You see men – creative types and hipsters, not just bankers, he stresses – voluntarily wearing ties. On Gilt’s upscale Park & Bond website, for example, neckwear sales increased 33 per cent in 2011 over the previous year. “They’re wearing ties because they want to, not because they have to.”

Other booming items are pocket squares, Converse sneakers, tie bars and rope bracelets.

Suiting was the overall bestseller on Gilt for men in the second quarter of the current fiscal year, Thoreson says, and 85 per cent of its customers were doing their own shopping. (They’ll still leave cuff links and sweaters to the women in their lives to buy. They’re just not as exciting, he says.)

Suits are selling better with unexpected customers, from DJs to hoteliers, notes Saks’ Jennings, but they’re not necessarily wearing them every day. It might be a suit one or two days a week, a sportcoat another and dressed-up denim the other days at the office, he describes. “Men just have more options. It used to be that you were a suit guy or a business casual guy in khakis and a polo, or jeans and a T-shirt. Those days are over.”

Back to that pack mentality, Jennings says he notices groups of friends and colleagues often dress in similar styles. Many men don’t want to ask for style advice from wives, friends or salespeople – the way they don’t like to ask for directions – and even compliments are few and far between, but, he says, they more easily ask peers, “Who makes that suit?” or “Where did you get that?”

Fashion might even start to appeal to a man’s sense of friendly competition, Thoreson says with a laugh. “You want to know more than the guy next to you. The guys who were obsessing over types of denim a few years ago are now obsessing over Neapolitan tailoring. … Now you hear guys talk about this stuff. There’s no fear and all enthusiasm, and there can be some one-upmanship of dropping the lingo and that’s part of the fun.”

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