Mens Wearhouse Suits Up Millennials
By: Hadley Malcolm, USA TODAY
Men’s Wearhouse wants to compete with the likes of Suitsupply, Indochino and J.Crew for the attention of fashion-forward Millennials.
The company — traditionally seen as somewhere a Millennial’s parents, or grandparents, might shop — hopes to broaden its appeal with a younger age group by expanding its line of custom clothing this year and by pushing its higher-end Joseph Abboud line, an American-made suit manufacturer it acquired nearly two years ago and opened an upscale flagship store for in New York City in April.
“Custom clothing is new to us,” says Men’s Wearhouse CEO Doug Ewert, but it’s “a big growth opportunity.”
The challenge facing Men’s Wearhouse: how to court a younger, more stylish shopper without casting off the middle-age man who has been its core customer for more than 40 years.
Ewert, 51, says the brand can do both, and he is working to change young people’s minds about being outdated.
“The Joseph Abboud acquisition was designed to bring a new customer to shop at Men’s Wearhouse,” he says. “Over half of customers that come in and shop Joseph Abboud have never shopped at Men’s Wearhouse before.”
Men now shopping for themselves
Custom and tailored menswear has become an increasingly popular market for Millennial men interested in fashion and developing personal style. Brands like Indochino, Suitsupply, Bonobos and J.Crew let guys order tailored suits, shirts and pants through trendy online shops or boutique stores with curated lounges of clothing.
Overall, the menswear industry is one of the fastest-growing retail categories in online sales, according to research firm IBISWorld. And sales of more form-fitting, trendy styles have jumped the past three years. Sales of modern, slimmer suits and formalwear grew more than 21% from 2012 to 2014, according to retail consulting firm Conlumino. Sales of bespoke clothing grew 11.7% in the same period, while sales of traditional suits grew 3%.
Guys have started looking for clothes that fit them better, from e-commerce-centric brands that make it easy to shop without investing a lot of time, says Andy Dunn, founder and chairman of Bonobos, which started as an online store and now has 16 “guideshops” across the country where men can work one-on-one with stylists to get fitted and pick out colors and fabrics, but still place orders online for delivery.
“For a long time it was seen as somehow unattractive or unmasculine for a guy to spend too much time thinking about what he wore,” he says. “Now we’ve kind of evolved to a place where it’s unattractive if a guy doesn’t.”
Men’s Wearhouse says slim-fit suits, popular with younger men, make up about 45% of its business. Sales have also been solid; same-store sales grew 3.9% last year. The company won’t release specific figures, but Ewert says traffic was up in 2014.
Men’s Wearhouse started offering custom options with the Joseph Abboud line of suits, sport coats, pants and vests a little less than a year ago, after buying the company in July 2013. It plans to add custom dress shirts to Abboud within the next year, as well as a “survival suit” made from stretchy, stain-repellent, anti-microbial fabric, with pockets designed specifically for electronics and a way to feed your headphones through the lapel.
Ewert says the shift in the menswear market can be pinned on style-conscious Millennials who actually like shopping.
“They see dressing as a way to express themselves more differently than the Baby Boomer generation did, and custom clothing is just a part of that,” he says. “They like not looking like everybody else.”
Brands aim for cooler image
Still, even the name Men’s Wearhouse invokes the Costco of suits, says Neil Saunders, managing director at Conlumino. Stores have racks upon racks of gray and black and blue jackets and pants at relatively inexpensive prices.
“It doesn’t have that special feel,” he says.
The Abboud line aims for that special feeling. It is the company’s most expensive, and meant to target a more “aspirational” customer, Ewert says. Suits run on average $600, while the average at Men’s Wearhouse is closer to $300. The price difference is due to higher-quality construction and fabric selection.
Men’s Wearhouse has been trying to aim younger since abruptly firing its founder and chairman George Zimmer in June 2013. Zimmer was the Baby Boomer face, and distinctive gravelly voiced star of the company’s commercials. Now ads feature younger men, in trendy black-framed glasses and hip facial hair.
In the last 15 years, the company has primarily gotten the under-30 set to step inside its doors through its tux-rental business, which spikes during prom and wedding season.
But with more online shops and start-up brands entering the market, guys can often get a custom suit or tux rental in a similar price range as at a middle-market retailer without ever having to go to a store, says Alex Ingram, the co-founder of a Boston-based men’s style blog called abostonblazer.com.
Ingram, 26, says he’s never bought anything from Men’s Wearhouse. He prefers local or direct-to-consumer brands.
“I’m really interested in being unique and dressing in a way that’s not necessarily how everyone else dresses,” he says.
Adding to its image challenge is the fact that eight months after acquiring the Abboud brand, Men’s Wearhouse bought Jos. A. Bank, an older, traditional brand known for its outrageous deals. It’s unlikely to entice Millennials looking for one-of-a-kind items; Ewert says it’s meant to target an older crowd. Sales at stores open at least a year fell 2.5% in 2014, though that was better than expected.
“We’ve got to stay relevant for the Baby Boomer customer as well,” Ewert says. “But also align ourselves with brands that are relevant to the Millennial customer.”
It will likely be difficult for the company to do both at once, Saunders says.
“There is a part of the Millennial market that … likes very smart clothing and likes to look very on trend and is willing to spend on clothing,” he says. But, “in that market, Men’s Wearhouse isn’t particularly edgy.”