By Alan Behr
NEW YORK, 31 OCTOBER 2009 The question hovering in the air
while reading Branding the Man: Why Men are the Next Frontier in
Fashion Retail (Allworth Press, 201 pages) by Bertrand Pellegrin is:
why do so many men still hate to shop for fashionable clothes? The answers
supplied by the author can be illustrated by a true story:
Some years ago, a young man walked into the mens department of a
famous New York department store and asked for a suit in the London cut. A
middle-aged, Israeli-born saleswoman pulled an Italian suit from the rack
and insisted that the young man at least try on the jacket. When he did,
she ran her hands across the back of the shoulders and, purring with
pseudo-erotic interest, said that it looked fantastic.
"Its the wrong silhouette," said the young man.
"Oh, but it looks so great on you," replied the saleswoman.
"But it doesnt fit."
"So well take it in."
"But its too small."
"So well let it out," replied the woman with a shrug.
The customer gave her back the jacket and, although he had begun his
professional career by buying all his suits at the store, he never bought
one there again. It wasnt just that the suit was wrong, it was how the
store tried to sell it: young men dont like buying clothes from
middle-aged women (its too much like shopping with Mom); they dont like
middle-aged women coming on to them, even if its in pretend; and when you
think of foreign citadels of executive style, Israel isnt one of them.
(The law may grant equal opportunity of employment, but marketing is about
positioning products and services to fulfill consumer needs and desires,
and it will sometimes stand in tension with both legal standards and
Pellegrin has clearly heard stories of that kind before, because his
thesis is that mens stores dont understand how to cater to mens needs.
He believes that men have reached a point where their expectations for
clothing are similar to those of women: they want things that confirm not
only status but personal style. The store should emphasize service,
meaning that someone should be there, ready to step in when necessary and
say, "Thats the one you want." Concludes Pellegrin, "A great mens store
should be like your best friend or big brother, or the movie star whose
style youd like to emulate. You trust his taste and respect his
Pellegrin offers case studies of stores that have successfully met the
challenge, such as Wilkes Bashford, in Northern California, legendary for
its pioneering work in coaxing sartorially lost ex-hippies into Giorgio
Armani and Ralph Lauren and, later, for keeping tailored elegance alive
during the dot-com grunge-out. The author also briefs the turnaround of Brooks Brothers, which he
credits in no small part to the decision to bring in the retro-hip
menswear designer Thom Browne, for the premium Black Fleece line. (Browne
practices his more fashion-forward craft with his own, eponymous
Using Ralph Lauren as an
example, Pellegrin correctly explains that each successful brand tells its
own unique story and lays nearly exclusive claim to one variation on the
theme of archetypical Anglo-American Man (captain of industry, college
man, sportsman, big-game hunter, et al.).
The authors basic premise, however, is that most mens shops dont
give men what they are looking for, and his best work is near the
beginning of the book, where he illustrates quite successfully which
commercial environments do appeal to men: sports bars, consumer
electronics shops and strip clubs. As the author correctly observes, men
will socialize in public up to a point; they prefer an interactive
experience that fosters male camaraderie in an environment where the
consequences of testosterone-imbued challenges are never severe. That is
one of the secrets of the strip club, where men can gawk and goad each
other to gawk and stuff banknotes into garter belts, but where safety and
thereby security for the gawkers is always maintained because the women
remain inaccessible. No effort at seduction therefore need be made, and no
embarrassment will therefore follow upon failure.
Pellegrin chides those retail environments that are intimidating or
confusing. The model store he proposes at the end of the book is something
in the nature of a club, where men can feel comfortable and safe, can be
well cared for and can find comradeship in the pursuit of style.
Pellegrin presents his point of view in a clear and engaging manner.
The book is an outgrowth of his Masters thesis and, as is true with most
books of its kind, it is a bit repetitious and has that "puffed out" feel
of something that was tight and complete before being opened up and
expanded. Instead of footnotes, there are case studies and illustrated
points, and the writing does not have an academic quality. The book will
therefore prove quite useful to people interested in the ongoing dilemma
about men and shopping, but there are points it raises that require
Colette, a shop on rue
Saint-Honoré, in Paris, and one of the successful retailers cited by the
author, is more of a unisex emporium of cool (lots of loud music,
electronics and art books for sale, and plenty of womens clothing, along
with a good number of sneakers) than a place built and run with adult men
in mind. The use of Colette is reason enough to ask if there are strong
data that confirm the authors hypothesis that men and women have now
reached parity in their interests in style and that those interests can be
reflected in a revived, male shopping experience. Men and boys like things
that are hard to the touch and, either due to moving parts or electronics,
do things when you fiddle with them. The schoolboy who gets clothes on his
birthday feels cheated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a good number of
men still view clothing shopping of as drudgery and not as the
entertaining experience women report it to be. Men attract women and gain
the respect of other men more by who they are and what they do than by
what they look like. Pellegrin seems aware of this, as when he advises
that, unlike when selling to women who want many choices a retailer is
wise to provide a man with three or so good choices and a knowledgeable
salesperson to guide him in the selection process.
The other point to consider is that, as good as Pellegrins idea is
(selling to men in a club environment), it is hardly new. When Bergdorf
Goodman moved its mens store across the street, in the space formerly
occupied by F.A.O. Schwarz, it put in a bar (which still exists) and a
putting green, which (sadly) was soon removed.
Indeed, new ideas in retailing rarely are wholly new: they are, in the
main, old ideas that have been forgotten. In the nineteenth century, the
most prestigious mens shop in the world practiced Pellegrins philosophy
to the letter: for years, the most stylish men of
London would congregate at the shop of Henry Poole for drinks, cigars,
manly banter and new clothes. "Poolies" became a club in all but name,
while outfitting the likes of Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, and
landing in the fiction of Edith Wharton.
Still a family business, Henry
Poole is clubby to this day. The problem, for Pellegrins model, is that
Henry Poole is a bespoke tailor, on Savile
Row: you dont shovel through racks for suits, jackets and coats; they
are all made to order the method preferred by the worlds most stylish
men. Why has that continued to work so well for so long? Because too many
men still hate to shop for clothes.
Branding the Man: Why Men Are the Next Frontier in Fashion
By Bertrand Pellegrin
Hardcover: 224 pages
Allworth Press; 1st edition (August 2009)
Headline photo above: Bertrand Pellegrin
A regular contributor to Culturekiosque.com, Alan Behr is head
of the Fashion and Luxury Goods Practice at Alston & Bird
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