After being on a spending frenzy for the past several years, buying up casual clothes for the relaxed business dress code, male shoppers like Robert Volmer and Steve Rosa are pulling back -- way back.
Volmer, a 30-year-old Washington, D.C., lobbyist, used to spend $6,000 a year on clothing, but this year it will be no more than $1,000. Rosa, a 37-year-old advertising executive from Rumford, R.I., estimates he'll cut his spending by half this year. But, he adds, image is still important in his business so he'll spend about $15,000 on his wardrobe.
Upscale male shoppers like Volmer and Rosa aren't the only ones cutting back on buying apparel. Others who have less money to spend are also retrenching, wreaking havoc on the menswear retailing sector, from high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue to moderate-priced chains like Gap Inc. The new climate represents a reversal of fortunes for the menswear business, which enjoyed robust growth over the past few years, fueled by the trend toward casual dress and the robust economy.
Now, men say they have enough sweaters and khakis. And even with this fall's return to a more formal dress policy at many corporations, many men don't feel compelled to buy new suits. They can resurrect their old ones.
"Dressed down has reached a saturation point, and now men don't know how to dress up in a modern way," said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group.
Indeed, Volmer built up his casual wardrobe for four years and "now I look around and there's nothing new to buy."
"I even got a call from Burberry's," he added, "saying they haven't seen me for a while."
Rosa, too, has a full closet and is reluctant to change it all. "I just don't want to get swept up in everything," he said.
Compounding the menswear woes, retailers noted, is that in an economic downturn, husbands are the family members who cut back the most on discretionary spending, particularly apparel.
Clearly, overall apparel sales have been in a funk, but the $52 billion menswear industry, which is about half the size of the women's market, has been the weakest. Since January, sales of women's apparel in department stores have been up, albeit no more than 1 percent, while menswear has declined 4 percent to 6 percent, according to Wall Street analysts.
Only a handful of menswear designers are participating in New York's Fashion Week, failing to fill even one full day of the eight-day preview of spring 2002 styles
Even the young men's area is weak. Unlike their female counterparts, who are snapping up low-rise jeans and sparkly T-shirts, young men haven't found anything novel. There are some exceptions, like rap artists Sean "Puffy" Combs' white-hot Sean Jean line. It's in 2,700 stores, and is rapidly taking over space once devoted to Tommy Hilfiger and CK Calvin Klein.
"Everybody's weakness has been in men's," said Joseph Teklits, an analyst at First Union Securities.
Men are not exactly depriving themselves of all luxuries, according to Carl Steidtmann, director of Deloitte Research. They're still splurging on things other than clothes.
"Apparel is the easiest area to pull back. Men's styles just don't change that much," said Volmer, who recently purchased a new $3,800 Sony Laptop and a Range Rover.
Retailers are focusing a lot of energy on reviving their menswear business, from adding bolder colors to calling clients and throwing cocktail parties. Saks is taking special clients out to dinner.
"The women's business is tough, but men's is even tougher," said Dan McCampbell, vice president of men's fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, which is expanding its tailored clothing section.
Meanwhile, struggling Gap Inc. is now focused on fixing menswear, which accounts for about half its business. "Men's needs a lot more work than women's," president and CEO Millard Drexler told investors.
Pacific Sunwear of California is taking the opposite strategy. The teen retailer is accelerating its growth plans for its hot women's business at the expense of young men's, which has been weak, according to its president, Tim Harmon.
Even tony retailer Paul Stuart, which stuck to selling tailored looks at the height of the casual trend and reports strong sales, isn't sitting back.
It has stocked up on basic blue suits and white shirts for the young male executive and is bringing in snappier tailored looks with bolder stripes for more established customers, said president and CEO Cliff Grodd.