Are buttoned-up men unbuttoning?

Jul 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

When the ’80s Masters of the Universe took off their neckties for casual Fridays and began telecommuting, did they change the men’s apparel catalog business? The answer: yes and no.

According to the marketing information company NPD Group, overall sales of men’s tailored apparel fell 10.5% in 1997, while sales of men’s casual pants climbed 12.4%. But a number of catalogers report that both men’s casual and some classic looks in dressy apparel are doing well.

At San Francisco-based cataloger/retailer Bullock & Jones, executive vice president Eric Goodwill reports that sales of casual trousers, sport coats, and polo shirts are strong for the $20 million catalog. (The increased popularity of more casual apparel inspired Bullock & Jones to spin off the Basics catalog in 1991. Mailed four times a year, it sells sport shirts, mock turtlenecks, V-necks, and blazers.) At the same time, however, Goodwill points out that tailored men’s apparel, such as the neckwear and dress shirts in the quarterly Cravats book (a ’93 spinoff), is doing well.

Speaking of cravats, at Columbus, OH-based mailer Huntington Clothiers, where tailored apparel accounts for 75% of the monthly catalog’s revenue, sales of neckwear are at an all-time high, says CEO Michael Stern. But like many other men’s apparel catalogers, Huntington is seeing strength in both casual and dressy apparel styles.

Stern believes regional style differences help keep both casual and tailored business segments healthy. In Key West, for example, men tend to dress more casually than in New York City, he says. He also contends that men now need three wardrobes: dressy, weekend, and “dressy casual.” Sales are climbing because men have to fill that dressy casual gap in their wardrobe, Stern says.

In a variation on that theme, Joe Hudson, product manager of men’s tailored clothing for Dodgeville, WI-based Lands’ End, suggests that the quality of casual apparel will improve. People will realize that they can dress down, but that combed cotton, for example, is a better choice than denim, he says. According to a survey the company conducted, 75% of men care about how they look and say they still have a need for tailored apparel. The tailored apparel catalog Beyond Buttondowns, launched in 1990, is one of Lands’ End’s fastest-growing specialty books; suit separates, offered since 1995, are the leading products. The core catalog (whose more casual clothes have had a good two years in terms of sales, he says) accounts for about two-thirds of the company’s business; overall net sales for the fiscal year ended Jan. 30 totaled $1.264 billion.

“Men will look for more polished accessories, more complex and richer elements for their wardrobes, things they can wear for a long time,” Hudson says. “At the same time, fabric manufacturers are improving materials like wool, which people are realizing can be lightweight. So ultimately, though there may well be a trend toward a more casual workplace, the meaning of casual is trending upward and becoming a bit more refined.”