NEW YORK TIMES | KATE WEISMAN
NEW YORK — Moms of the world, rejoice! The men's suit is on a roll. While your 20-something son might be giving up his disheveled look, he will likely need to be bankrolled because it is this younger consumer, 25 to 40 years old, who is driving the designer and luxury suit market, fashion executives say.
At the Dior Homme flagship boutique on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, teenagers sometimes swing by with their fathers. Buying a €1,300, or $2,000, suit for a special occasion is not uncommon, notes Sidney Toledano, Dior's president.
The teens that Toledano refers to make up a minority of luxury suit sales. But they are part of the new and young male suit customer who arrived on the scene about five years ago, at the same time that the new suit styles did.
These consumers had never been obliged to, or felt the need to, wear suits. Either they were still pursuing their studies or perhaps they worked in creative professions like advertising, architecture, design or dot-coms, which, until recently, favored casual dressing. Now, they are looking for a fashion statement and enjoying dressing up.
"It's that post-'metrosexual' generation. They read Men's Vogue or Details, and it's not considered 'gay' to be interested in fashion," said Michael Macko, vice president and men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. "Going shopping with a girlfriend is an activity like going to the movies."
Executives say this group's interest in suits is due largely to the media's focus on fashion. With fashion everywhere from newspapers to YouTube, young men are exposed at a younger age and more frequently to fashion information.
But they are not interested in the suits that their fathers wear. They know about and want the suits with the shorter, more tightly fitting jackets; narrower lapels and skinnier pants without pleats, a style pioneered by the New York designer Thom Browne, who shocked the fashion world in 2004 with a ready-to-wear collection featuring shrunken men's jackets and high-waisted nonpleat pants that fell to the ankle.
They also know about Dior Homme's lean, slim suit silhouette introduced by its former creative director, Hedi Slimane. The new consumer sees male starts like Brad Pitt, Jude Law or Justin Timberlake sporting these fine-tuned threads on the red carpet.
This new interest in fashion, and in suits in particular, translates to more action on the sales floor.
"We will see a increase in suit sales, as younger men with expendable income are beginning to appreciate the elegance of a suit," said Ben Curry, an assistant buyer in men's tailoring at Harrod's in London.
While there still remain endless racks of grey suits in stores, there have also been new, exciting entrants into the men's suit market. Tom Ford introduced his signature collection this past spring, created in partnership with Zegna. Hickey Freeman launched a younger, snazzier collection of suits and sportswear, Hickey, two years ago. At Dior Homme, the new creative director, Kris Van Assche, will show his first full collection on Sunday in Paris. And Brooks Brothers signed Browne for a capsule collection of men's and women's wear, Black Fleece, which debuted last fall.
These new brands and styles are revving up a fashion category that has been slow to change, notes Gildo Zegna, chairman of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group. Zegna and other suit vendors are actively catering to this young, savvy male with style but also with great price points.
Zegna introduced the younger Z Zegna brand for spring-summer 2004 and suits retail for about €900, or $1,330. Zegna, a privately held family company, has not released 2007 figures yet but, in 2006, profits rose 20.3 percent, to €63.3 million, on sales of €779.4 million, which was up 9.4 percent from 2005. The company does not break out figures for Z Zegna, but Gildo Zegna said the collection's sales had "exceeded expectations."
Z Zegna's price points reflect a trend in demand for the "under $1,000" or "under €1,000" suits, executives say.
About three years ago Brooks Brothers introduced the 1818 Collection of suits, which retail for less than $1,000. The range has three styles, two of which are more fashion-forward - the Regent, with its more European-inspired fit, and the Fitzgerald, which recalls the suits that John F. Kennedy bought when he was a client of Brooks Brothers.
1818 is now the fastest growing collection of suits for Brooks Brothers, representing 60 percent of the company's suit business, up from 25 percent from three years ago, says Louis Amendola, the brand's chief merchandising officer.
Six months ago, Brooks Brothers introduced "Suiting Essentials," a semi-custom-made suit range whose prices start at $580. Amendola said that this collection also is aimed at the new, young suit customer "who never thought he could afford a custom suit."
Brooks Brothers is privately held and does not disclose financial figures but, based on press reports, 2007 sales may have reached $875 million.
The uncertainty of the American economy makes vendors and retailers cautious about sales for the overall suit sector in coming months.
Yet Toledano believes that the Dior Homme business can grow in the United States, even in a potential downturn, by taking market share from traditional suit brands.
Last year, sales for Dior Homme achieved "very strong double-digit growth," said Toledano, without disclosing specific figures. Dior plans to open 10 more wholly owned stores this year, for a total of about 40 shops worldwide. Dior Homme is part of Christian Dior Couture, whose sales for the first half of 2007 grew 16 percent, to €368 million, and whose operating profits more than tripled to €28 million, compared with the first half of 2006.
And other fast-growing markets like Asia or Eastern Europe can help offset a downturn in the United States, executives say. Moreover, many say that the designer or luxury suit market will be relatively immune to jitters.
"At the high-end level, there continues to be a consumer who will spend significant amounts of money on clothes," said Robert Burke, a luxury-goods consultant and founder of Robert Burke Associates in New York. If this consumer does change his habits, he will still spend money, just on fewer items, Burke said.