June 13, 2014 7:17 pm

Boom or hype? The truth about menswear

The fashion industry loves to talk about a menswear boom but how much do the big brands actually sell?
Models at the Bottega Veneta menswear show in Milan last year©Getty

Models at the Bottega Veneta menswear show in Milan last year (Getty)

It’s a simple question: how important is menswear to the main fashion labels? It seems timely, too, since this weekend sees the beginning of the menswear collections for spring/summer 2015. Ideally, the show experience is supposed to be intoxicating, creating a happy stupor that luxury conglomerates hope will make male consumers buy yet more stuff. But how much menswear are the brands actually selling?

Fashion loves a narrative arc and, right now, one of its favourite stories to tell about itself is the boom in menswear. The plot has been developing since the beginning of the 21st century, when the marketing term “metrosexual” was latched on to as a way to describe young men spending money on their appearance.

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In Paris, a young designer called Hedi Slimane was creating an elevated new menswear mood with his mix of high fashion and youth culture at Dior Homme, while in the US Thom Browne’s radical new shortened suit cut was aped by the TV show Mad Men, making vanity, rather than function, the purpose of tailoring. Meanwhile, the rise of the tech industries and unconventional working habits have allowed men’s wardrobes to expand, no longer necessarily stuck with five days of office uniform and two days of comfort clothes in which to forget the week.

There have been magazines (GQ Style, Fantastic Man) and blogs (The Sartorialist) that have set the tone of optimism within menswear, and online stores (Mr Porter) to capitalise on the moment. The effect of it all is cumulative, and today menswear retailers have a sense of giddiness about them. “We’ve had double-digit growth against last year in our menswear market,” says Terry Betts, director of menswear at Selfridges, “and we’re certain it’s a long-term growth opportunity.” Talk of a menswear boom is now such a given, it is often seen as the industry’s salvation. Last weekend’s FT report of Prada’s poor results cited “the rapidly growing menswear sector” as a key route towards greater profitability.

There are certainly valid reasons for optimism. These days the season starts with the London shows, titled London Collections: Men, which didn’t even exist until 2012. From having no men’s schedule at all, the city now boasts three days crowded with both the big brands, led by Burberry, and the young talent for which London is renowned. LC:M’s nothing-to-everything storyline has provided perfect fuel for the impression of a menswear boom. Yet there can still seem to be a disconnection with the average male, who is more likely to experience a gradual change in his attitude to clothing rather than performing a sudden volte-face – from fashion-averse to clotheshorse.

There is also a lot of hyperbole. Much of it comes from research documents that have become industry folklore. One oft-quoted document claims that Chinese men spend more than women on luxury. Men spending more than women! It’s like a victory in a battle no one knew they were fighting.

This information came from a research document released in January 2013 by CLSA, an Asian brokerage, which said Chinese men accounted for 55 per cent of the luxury market. The same document stated this was above the global average of 40 per cent – 40 per cent! That’s substantial, right? There must be a boom. As the menswear season begins, it would help to have some clarity.

First, some new statistics to add to the pot. The research company Mintel has on Saturday released figures that say the menswear market in the UK grew 4.8 per cent in 2013 to reach £12.9bn. Fine, but the figures are meaningless in isolation. How big is the womenswear market? In 2013, it rose 4.6 per cent to £24.9bn. Add those two figures together, and menswear accounts for about 34 per cent of the UK adult clothing market.

Mintel’s focus is high street brands such as Marks and Spencer, Primark, Next, etc. The figures do show growth in menswear, though it is only slightly higher – 0.2 per cent – than in women’s. And while much of mass menswear is bought on whim it also includes clothing bought purely out of necessity.

However, the upcoming shows are focused on the kind of luxury clothing bought out of desire rather than need, which could be the definition of boom. “Historically men would buy items they needed when they needed it, often dictated by the season,” says Toby Bateman, buying director of Mr Porter, “but now we certainly seem to have a customer who is savvy about forthcoming trends and will buy into them when they become available. You could certainly say they are buying more for pleasure than necessity.”

. . .

In search of answers, I emailed the same three questions to 13 different luxury brands, each of which offers both menswear and womenswear. The questions were: how big is your global menswear business in terms of volume? What percentage of your global business is menswear as opposed to womenswear? What is the percentage growth of your menswear business?

Straightforward questions but asked with knowing naivety. The luxury industry is not one to expose itself willingly. It is the legacy of a business structure based on aspiration, where too much detail about what sells (fragrance or accessories as opposed to four-figure garments, say) might tarnish the luxury veneer. In addition luxury brands are often family businesses, or labels owned by family conglomerates. Cards are typically played close to the chest.

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