Menswear designers have discovered a truth that shoppers have known for years: People don't change their wardrobes overnight.
So for fall and beyond, the savvy merchandisers are pushing men's styles with gentle nudges, allowing what has been fashionable to blend in, not look drastically out of style with what's new.
"But we still have to give men a reason to buy," says Tom Julian, fashion director of the Men's Fashion Association, which held its fall and winter preview recently in New York. "What we're showing is the new direction."
The new direction is sobered by fiscal reality in a business that brings in $32 billion annually but has seen many retailers have flat sales during this recession. The exceptions are the sportswear marketers such as The Gap, Eddie Bauer, J. Crew and Lands' End. Their influence is seen in new sportswear collections where men can look as though they are about to climb a mountain, even if they never intend to leave a city sidewalk. Every designer is using the term "updated traditional" which really translates into "we're showing you clothes that are pretty mainstream and we hope you like them."
The following trends are likely:
* Suits: Double-breasted, European-style suits are giving way to narrower shoulder, single-breasted, three-button suits. Very few suit makers are offering matching vests; instead you'll see patterned vests that can stand on their own. Suit shoulders are lightly padded, but not as dramatic as the Armani-influenced styles of the past few seasons. Double breasted is still being offered, but the new style is a six-button tailoring with a one-button closure.
Pleated pants are still strong, but designers are pushing plain front pants. We're guessing that men will continue to embrace the pleated pants because they are comfortable and the pleats can camouflage a little extra weight (The same thing happened in women's wear when designers tried to cut out padded shoulders. American women said no thank you, we like this look.). Another strain is the country gentleman look in four-button tweed walking jackets, and trousers in tweed, cotton gabardine or twill.
* Sportswear: Think of the television show "Northern Exposure" and you have some idea of where this category is going. Casual weekend wear has taken its influence from the rugged outdoorsman with lug-soled shoes, heavyweight pants, flannel shirts and oversized coats. Men have more choices than ever; they can dress up for the office with a sports coat or dress down for the weekend with a baseball jacket. Wool and leather-accented jackets with jeans, corduroys, chinos and twill pants topped by baseball caps is the traditional weekend uniform.
Most designers have imitated The Gap style. Comfort is the key. There is much chat about more casual looks at the office, "but I don't really see that happening in any big way in American business," says Lisa Cohen, men's fashion editor for GQ magazine. What this probably translates to in most offices is a chambray or denim shirt with suit or sports coat. The western look, another variation, is also expected to be strong.
Skintight bicycle pants and workout outfits are joined by Lycra-enhanced knit pants. We're not sure these will catch on with any but the most fashion-forward man, but Lycra is creeping into jeans, suits and socks for added comfort and wrinkle-free dressing.
* Shoes: Comfort paired with fashion is on the way. Dockers, the tremendously successful spinoff of the Levis Co., has licensed its new shoe line to the traditional American footwear company, Johnston & Murphy. If the market for the shoes is just a fraction of the demand for the pants (Dockers reports sales of about $700 million a year) the company will be a hit. The new shoes take the cue from the pants, a little larger for comfort, and casual. They come in a loafer, leather chukka with rubber sole and nubuck oxford with rubber soles. They sell for $50 to $90. Western boots are another line that's expected to be strong as the cowboy look continues to be in demand.