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REAL MEN DON'T SHOP (AT LEAST NOT FOR FASHION)

 

 

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 men’s 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.

"It’s the wrong silhouette," said the young man.

"Oh, but it looks so great on you," replied the saleswoman.

"But it doesn’t fit."

"So we’ll take it in."

"But it’s too small."

"So we’ll 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 wasn’t just that the suit was wrong, it was how the store tried to sell it: young men don’t like buying clothes from middle-aged women (it’s too much like shopping with Mom); they don’t like middle-aged women coming on to them, even if it’s in pretend; and when you think of foreign citadels of executive style, Israel isn’t 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 political correctness.)

Pellegrin has clearly heard stories of that kind before, because his thesis is that men’s stores don’t understand how to cater to men’s 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, "That’s the one you want." Concludes Pellegrin, "A great men’s store should be like your best friend or big brother, or the movie star whose style you’d like to emulate. You trust his taste and respect his choices."

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 line.)

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 author’s basic premise, however, is that most men’s shops don’t 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 Master’s 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 further examination:

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 women’s 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 author’s 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 Pellegrin’s idea is (selling to men in a club environment), it is hardly new. When Bergdorf Goodman moved its men’s 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 men’s shop in the world practiced Pellegrin’s 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. "Poolie’s" 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 Pellegrin’s model, is that Henry Poole is a bespoke tailor, on Savile Row: you don’t shovel through racks for suits, jackets and coats; they are all made to order — the method preferred by the world’s 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 Retail
By Bertrand Pellegrin

Hardcover: 224 pages
Allworth Press; 1st edition (August 2009)
ISBN-10: 1581156634
$27.50

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 LLP.

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