Monday, July 10, 2006

The Guys Have It

Under American Menswear's Newly Acquired Stubble, a Flash of Ankle and Hints of Chic

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Hartmarx is a nondescript Goliath of a clothing corporation that traffics in charcoal suits, pleated trousers, tweed blazers and Sansabelt slacks. Last year, it reported net sales of more than $598 million from its many brands and licenses.

But now this corporate giant, known for speaking the sartorial language of average Joes, is whispering brazen come-ons to fashion aesthetes: Wanna hickey ?

The American menswear industry is in the midst of a fragile renaissance. The transformation at Hartmarx isn't loud or shrill. The shrunken silhouettes championed by new designers Thom Browne and Alexandre Plokhov have not overtaken men's affection for Dockers. But slowly and quietly, menswear is evolving.

For nearly 120 years, Hart Schaffner Marx -- a mid-priced member of the big, boring Hartmarx family -- contentedly and profitably dressed the sort of no-nonsense man who'd wait for its $695 suits to be marked down . . . twice.

Now Hart Schaffner Marx is gussying itself up, expanding its creative sensibility, sniffing around for a new kind of customer.

For the first time in 40 years, the company hired a new executive vice president. Eric Jones arrived from Polo Ralph Lauren, where he worked on Purple Label, known for its lean Savile Row silhouettes. A man could buy four Hart Schaffner Marx suits for the cost of one Purple Label ensemble. Jones's mission: update this conservative American brand.

"We didn't have a lot of personality. We'd been a utilitarian business product for guys that are conservative," Jones says. "But we could also be a fashion house."

Jones's attire underscores the new template. He wears a pair of roughly distressed jeans, a lime green track jacket and a navy pinstriped suit coat. This, he says, is the way a young man might wear a suit.

In the course of expounding on the new, hip HSM, Jones talks excitedly about a recent party he attended in Santa Monica at the Viceroy Hotel. There were hundreds of young men at the party, Jones recalls, and the majority of them were wearing jackets. They "didn't want to look like they'd crawled out of bed, or like a grunge rocker or a Wall Street guy."

This new customer, Jones says, "lives now and sleeps later." He's a guy who has "saucy" dates. He could be "in a band."

Maybe, Jones says, he was the kid "selling joints at recess."

This storyboard hipster is the holy grail of Hart Schaffner Marx, inspiring the company to create the Travelor suit, with its simple orange-and-brown label, three-inch-wide-lapels, lean cut and side vents.

Down the hall at Hickey-Freeman -- one of Hartmarx's luxury brands -- executives have introduced the "hickey" line, in which a cashmere jacket sells for $1,395. Created by a team of designers moonlighting from sister labels, hickey is a retro-preppy collection filled with slim-fitting blazers, lean chinos with a shortened rise, quilted corduroy jackets, ties printed with tiny marijuana leaves and an intarsia sweater that reads, "Wanna hickey?"

"What we're trying to do is bridge between adolescence and adulthood," says Paulette Garafalo, CEO and group president of Hartmarx's luxury group.

The design team dresses nothing like the traditional Hickey-Freeman customer who prefers business casual chinos and country club blazers. Instead, its members wear narrow flat-front dress pants and no socks with their tassel loafers. They are awash in pastels from lilac to cornflower blue. There are no laces in their sneakers.

The hickey suit, says designer Billy Draddy, "probably fits more like your grandfather's Hickey-Freeman suit from the 1960s. It's reminiscent of something JFK might wear."

The jacket is about 29 1/2 inches long instead of 31. It has a narrow lapel; it has a center vent. The suit has a seven-inch drop -- the difference between the jacket and the trouser sizes -- instead of the more traditional six inches. And the collection also is filled with color, such as strawberry pink corduroy trousers.

"It was such a long time since anyone wore color," Draddy says. "My whole childhood was about wearing pink and green and yellow Lacoste shirts."

Under the giant umbrella of Hartmarx, menswear has been colorized and doused with Rat Pack attitude. "Pleasantville" has collided with "Ocean's Eleven."

Preppy Love
After a decade of dormancy, young designers have emerged with strong points of view. They are enamored of style rather than trends. They are keen on tailoring, preppy formality and Ivy League tradition. Designer John Bartlett, one of the most creative and intellectually agile of menswear designers, is back in business after financial woes forced him to close shop for two years.

Bartlett has a lean, no-carbs-have-passed-these-lips physique. He has short sandy hair, wears wire-rimmed glasses and when he smiles could easily pass for a kindly English doctoral student. He launched his collection in 1992 and quickly gained prominence for his Forrest Gump geek chic that incorporated Hush Puppies in shades of purple and green.

Since his return in 2004, Bartlett has muted some of his more provocative tendencies. He's not presenting his collections as a meditation on the writings of Jean Genet, for instance. He signed a suit license with prices ranging from $995 to $1,500. And he has refocused on the preppy heart of American menswear, as underscored by a recent presentation at the Harvard Club, a social outpost of his alma mater.

The media are feeding interest in menswear. The fashion Web site expanded last year, giving birth to a separate men's site: .

"We've been surprised at the number of guys hanging out in the forums talking about very highbrow designers," says Jamie Pallot, editorial director of CondeNet.

While "metrosexual" shopping magazines such as Cargo and Vitals folded, Men's Vogue, which launched this spring, will begin a regular schedule of 10 issues per year in fall 2007.

"There's a generation of young males that are using clothing as their image yet again. Generation X couldn't care less about clothes. For them, it was all about technology. Now the next crop of upstarts -- teenagers, early career people -- everybody is on equal footing with technology," says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group, which tracks retail sales. "Now it's really about, 'What separates me from everybody else?' It's image."

"Eighteen-to-25-year-olds are not buying suits to go to work," he says. "They're buying them to go out and socialize, to elevate their image beyond the next guy's."

In 1975, only 25 percent of men bought their own clothes; women did their shopping. In 2005, 75 percent of men bought their own clothes. "We live in a very androgynous society with a younger generation of guys shopping with girls," Cohen says. "It's shared entertainment."

Bartlett has noticed a similar shift. "Fashion for men used to be very segmented between suits and sportswear, clothes with a gay following or a straight following," he says. "All those lines are blurring now."

Last year, U.S. sales of men's apparel increased by 5 percent to nearly $53 billion. (Women's apparel sales grew by only 3 percent to $101 billion.) Tailored clothing sales grew by 7 percent to more than $5 billion. Within that category, sales of tailored clothes to men 18 to 24 increased by 53 percent.

The American menswear market slipped into the doldrums in the 1990s. For three or four days, twice a year, menswear designers used to present their collections in New York. It was a cohesive group of installations and runway shows. And the participation of big brands such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein made it all seem important and significant.

"The plug was pulled out when all the major players went to Europe and all that was left were the commercial brands and the minor players," says Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Klein, Lauren and Donna Karan began to unveil their collections in Europe in a search for international press and respect.

Over the years, the community of menswear designers in New York disintegrated. Karan dropped her signature men's collection. Some designers became embroiled in trademark disputes or had other legal and financial travails. No new designers were in the pipeline.

The tide began to turn a few years ago with the decline of gigolo style and the rise of preppy chic.

The timing was perfect for the emergence of designers Thom Browne and Alexandre Plokhov.

Browne is a former actor who once worked for Lauren. He won the 2006 CFDA award for menswear designer of the year and accepted his trophy dressed in one of his signature suits. His jacket barely reached to his hips. The sleeves were eccentrically short, revealing more than a few inches of his white French-cuffed shirt. And his trousers, with their flat front and slim cut, ended high above his black dress shoes, revealing the full expanse of his naked ankle.

His sensibility represents the most significant shift in the proportions of American men's tailored apparel in more than a decade. In an industry where change is an evolution -- rather than a revolution -- and where those transformations are measured in millimeters, Browne struck at the very core of menswear.

"A suit is a suit is a suit, whether it has a notched lapel, a peak lapel, two buttons or double-breasted," Herman says. "The only thing that distinguishes them is fit."

Browne -- medium height, slim, with a buzz cut and a television face that is all sharp angles and high planes -- is tucked into a corner at the restaurant Pastis in the city's Meatpacking District. It's easier for him to settle into a conversation here, despite the din of a lunch crowd that never thins. His studio, just around the corner, is small and already crowded with the three members of his staff.

The two men who work with him dress in the designer's signature flat front gray trousers with white shirts. They just as easily evoke the image of a 1950s door-to-door salesman as a debate team captain or a Sinatra enthusiast. (The lone woman wears an extremely skinny white pantsuit.)

"I don't kid myself thinking everyone loves it. But I'd rather have people either love it or hate it," Browne says. "I'd rather not please everyone."

None of it, of course, comes cheap. His ready-to-wear suits start at $3,200. For bespoke, which is a significant part of his business, a man should expect to pay at least $3,800. Never mind the price, many men will have a hard time getting past those Pee-wee Herman pants.

"They do get hung up on them," he says. "But I love the proportion. It shows a guy something he's so familiar with. His father wore a suit. His grandfather wore a suit. It provokes something. And he thinks about it."

Instead of a runway presentation, Browne creates vignettes that evoke a mood and a moment in time. For his fall collection, he had models, in his shrunken jackets and short pants, ice-skating around a makeshift rink in an exhibition space. Many designers will present garments in an extreme manner only to offer more restrained versions for sale. Not Browne. If a man likes the idea of a Thom Browne suit -- the fabric, the construction, and the narrow silhouette -- but is uncomfortable showing off his ankles, the designer would not be inclined to placate him.

"He shouldn't be coming to me," Browne says, "if he doesn't want these proportions."

Plokhov's work is more reassuring. He has a shop in SoHo filled with substantial wooden tables, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a custom-made leather sofa reminiscent of something that might be found in an old-fashioned gentleman's club. There is nothing flashy or off-putting about the surroundings or the clothes that fill the racks. Plokhov creates fashion that sneaks up on a man.

The Russian-born designer is tall with ivory skin and rosy cheeks. He speaks slowly compared with the rat-a-tat pace of the typical New Yorker and considers each word, not because he is cautious or because his English is uncertain but because he is precise.

His background is as a patternmaker for designer Marc Jacobs and he once had a bespoke business in Chicago. Plokhov is a man trained to obsess about the details.

His Cloak label is inspired by the military, by rock-and-roll and by the idea that a man's clothes should be serviceable for more than a season -- which is why he chose a career in menswear in the first place.

"The lasting quality is what was attractive for me," he says. "Guys don't change their entire wardrobe in a season. It's not about length and silhouette but about minute changes."

Plokhov compares the process of designing menswear to the typically male pastime of working on a car: "You're constantly in there poking, constantly tinkering."

"The changes are so minute you can tell the collection by the shoulder," he says. The signature Cloak shoulder has a subtle curve, like a barely perceptible wing. The sleeves are narrow and the armhole is set high. He chooses shades of gray and black for the majority of his work. He uses signature wolf-head buttons and favors skinny jeans and longish coats that skim the body. During his five years in business, he has avoided creating clothes that fit only the most emaciated young men. His work is fashionable and pleasantly macho.

"I want to keep that 'guyness,' " he says.

The Lauren Factor
Earlier this year, Ralph Lauren put his menswear collection on a New York runway for the first time in 30 years. (When he wasn't debuting the collection in Europe, he was presenting it informally in his offices.) The show was billed as a last-minute decision, and it was one that made other menswear designers practically giddy. The bulk of Polo Ralph Lauren's $3.3 billion in revenue comes from the sale of men's clothing. So when the designer speaks, mumbles or even whispers, the industry listens.

"Ralph is one of the biggest figures in menswear, not in America, but in the world," Plokhov says. "If he felt like he should put his clothes on the runway, God bless him. "

Lauren's show had the panache and glamour that one would expect. The models were so attractive and meticulously groomed, they looked like they'd been flown in from Gattaca.

The clothes painted a nuanced picture of Lauren's painstakingly crafted lifestyle of 20-room cottages and gentleman ranchers. And the audience had a fine sprinkling of glitter: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, talk show host Charlie Rose, comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Lauren's return, it seemed, was a celebration of New York men and their panache.

Afterward though, Lauren wouldn't discuss the new generation of designers, the state of American menswear or his leadership role. If the industry thought it had found a public voice in Lauren, it was wrong. Lauren, his spokeswoman Maria Prorok explained, doesn't participate in stories that are not solely about him.

Menswear is "coming onto the radar screen," says the CFDA's Herman. But the industry continues to search for a Ralph Lauren-size designer who will not only give its motley schedule of shows razzle-dazzle and stature, but also serve as an ambassador and anchor.

The industry buzzes with creativity, but rising talents struggle daily with the less glamorous elements of fashion: manufacturing, distribution and financing. Bergdorf Goodman remains Browne's sole significant retail outlet. Plokhov's clothes are not widely available either -- limited to a few specialty stores, three branches of Barneys New York and a handful of Japanese retailers.

"It's still really hard at the department store level to get any kind of business," says Bartlett, who sells to Saks Fifth Avenue. "They're very focused on large brands."

The sky-high prices need to come down, too, says Herman.

After all, if the ideal customer was selling pot at recess, fancies himself a slacker musician or invests all his money in limited edition sneakers, he won't be in a position to buy a $3,000 suit.

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