How We Shop In 2015: The Rise Of The Male Spender

According to cliché, we men hate shopping. But if that’s right, how come menswear sales are booming, in the real world and online? Kevin Braddock charts the rise of the male spender and wonders if we’ve ever had it so good

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Somehow, the truism that men hate shopping persists.

A recent tabloid survey suggested that eight out of 10 men “hate” shopping with their partner, while 45 per cent avoid it at all costs. One in four will end up going home without their partner, citing being “hungry”, “thirsty” and “wishing they were outside” as the main reasons.

There is an Instagram account called “Shopping With Their Ladies: The Miserable Men Of Instagram” that has 180,000 followers. “It’s a global epidemic”, it suggests, above a sorry selection of sorrier-looking fellas, head-in-their-hands in the shoe concession, with thousand-yard stares by the changing rooms or, in one memorable case, conked out completely in the middle of H&M. Twenty-six minutes: apparently, that’s how long it takes us to get bored at the shops.

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I say us, but if you are reading Esquire then it may be we can assume you have a greater-than-zero interest in looking at nice things to buy. Let us make the assumption that you’re a more enlightened sort of chap. Perhaps you don’t hate shopping with your partner (at least not that much). Perhaps you even enjoy making a few purchases of your own. Because, actually, some of us must like shopping for clothes. The statistics say so.

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In June, market researchers Verdict announced the UK menswear market was forecast to grow by a whopping 25.7 per cent in the five years to 2019, outperforming all other clothing sectors. That’s on top of an 18 per cent growth in the past five years, making the market worth £12.9bn, a serious rival to the traditionally dominant womenswear market in the UK.

Although trends tend to move more slowly in menswear, research by Mintel suggests wearing clothes that feel current (as opposed to bowler hats or spats, presumably) is an increasingly important factor for young British men. Twenty-six per cent of those aged 25–34 said they were driven by the latest fashions when buying clothes, compared with 17 per cent of women in the same age bracket. “Retailers must act now to take advantage of this flourishing market,” Verdict admonished.

In fact, they already are. If much of the menswear boom is down to changing attitudes among men to their appearance – the boom in gym-time, David Beckham as a role model, knowing one end of a moisturiser from another, etc etc – at least some of it must be down to the change in attitude of retailers.

In the past few years, both physical and online shops have massively upped their game. They’ve risen to meet our needs. No wonder we’re buying more clothes and not all of us are running screaming from the sales.

Simply: there’s never been a better time to be a man and go shopping.

You can see it in the success of online portals including Mr Porter, Matches Fashion, The Chapar and Thread. There’s also the fast-expanding retail topography, which includes new boutiques dedicated to men by McQueen and Burberry (opened in London in 2012 and 2014 respectively), and the new menswear floor at Hermès’ Bond Street location, which opened this year.

In the capital at least, you can now take your pick of the new fashion-destination drags of Chiltern Street (hosting Trunk and John Simons, with fancy swimwear brand Frescobol Carioca nearby), Lamb’s Conduit Street (home to British independent brands including Folk, Oliver Spencer and Private White VC) and Redchurch Street (APC, Sunspel and Club Monaco) over to the east. And these smart new physical destinations are being complemented rather than cannibalised by online retail.

Another recent report suggested that not only are men happy to be shopping online, but also that 40 per cent of them would happily do all their spending on the internet.

And if you have ever considered the profusion of styles worn by all the men sauntering around Oxford Circus and Old Street in London, and then boarded the tube and wondered what, exactly, those same blokes are staring at on their phones, chances are they’re doing the same thing both on URL and IRL (In Real Life): surfing for fashion, buying it and embodying it. Because that’s how a lot of men’s fashion shopping happens today: between smartphone and changing room, remote algorithm and bricks-and-mortar store, alone and in the company of someone they trust.

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Fashion has long sold conformism under the masquerade of individualism, but today’s tech’ed-up menswear market is moving closer to true individuation: that is, selling to every chap as the individual he feels himself to be, rather than as a demographic, a tribe member, or a market digit. It’s where a generation of informed and researched, individualistic and experimental, and technologically equipped male shoppers meets the trickle-down of the bespoke practice in a booming industry, and it makes for a lot of style, and a lot of money.

According to Simon Chilvers, men’s style director at Matches Fashion, buying online “solves the problem of changing room anxiety”. It was a throwaway remark delivered when Esquire met him at the retailer’s plush townhouse in Marylebone – a kind of private dressing room-cum-salon, bedecked with artworks and Diptyque candles, where VIPs and power-spenders are treated to a sensory back-rub – but it speaks volumes.

Often these days, menswear shoppers browse intensively on personal devices before journeying to the house for try-outs, and the online-offline experience exemplifies much of how men shop, and what they want from fashion.

If fashion retail has changed, it’s because men have changed, too. “It’s more than a moment,” Chilvers says, “it’s a profound shift.”

“Menswear is less done up today,” Chilvers continues. “That’s partly to do with confidence, partly because men’s lives have changed. There’s less formality in the workplace, more opinions. Everything is more open about shopping and how men are wearing clothes.”

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Enduring masculine anxieties around beeing perceived as vain, or silly, or caring too much, are also fading away. “Eighties style magazine culture broke the barrier of being interested in clothing,” says Chilvers. “Now there is a generation who are more exposed to more things. Social media, bloggers, all the stuff around the fashion shows; for them, fashion is more out there and much less, ‘Oh, I can’t be fashionable.’”

Previously Chilvers was a journalist on The Guardian’s fashion desk. “Even eight years ago, there was the sense that the runway was for a very small number of people, but that’s been opened up by bloggers. All you used to see was these skinny boys wearing quite silly clothes. Once streetwear started to open up, it shifted a sense of what fashion was about: not just boys in Vivienne Westwood or skirts.

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“Menswear has come out of the shadows of womenswear,” he adds. “At The Guardian, you used to have to battle to run something on menswear. Slowly it happened, and now everyone gets it. There’s been this huge shift in the way men feel about clothes. There aren’t the hang-ups that used to exist. You can capture more people. Inclusivity is a massive part of it.”

Just as fashion is itself no longer considered some remote, fabulous savannah inhabited by mythical, cheekboned beasts, Britain’s clothes retailers now know that older orthodoxies of tribe and trend have also collapsed, and been replaced by what Chilvers describes as “a broader sense of what you can be and wear as a man. It is not as prescriptive anymore.”

If fashion is less shy of men, as well as the other way around, then much of that improved relationship is thanks to technology, with algorithms delivering customer service, personalisation and identification, all app-ed up into coherent narrative.

“It’s a fundamental shift in the way men shop,” Chilvers says. “Thirty per cent of our sales are on mobile, 50 per cent on computers and 20 per cent are in-store.”

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This is all the more striking when you consider how fashion has spoken to men in previous decades, and how shopkeepers have kept shops. In the past, menswear was often presented bluntly, like something ranged against you: here’s what you can get, make your choice, now cough up and be gone. Away from the cloistered world of tailoring, menswear was the rag trade’s afterthought; on the whole, fashion wasn’t considered to be a man thing.

In the late Eighties, my own trips to the then-popular chain of Fosters, Oswestry’s sole fashion platform, were unsatisfying: I came out as yearningly uncool as I went in, unable to replicate the daring looks I’d seen in Sky magazine. My hometown also had a fusty “men’s outfitters” stocking Gant, Pringle and Lyle & Scott, though it targeted 19th-hole squires rather than the savvy casuals who fetishise those brands today. Scarcity prompted quests to Afflecks Palace in Manchester for flares, Stone Roses’ Reni hats and Stüssy T-shirts, and later, in the Nineties, to the London department stores that were making hay shifting exotic “designer” brands to the moneyed masses.

More of a necessary mission, shopping wasn’t especially nice, or fun, or particularly friendly: at the indie end, the experience could be forbiddingly exclusive, while service in the big outlets was icily impersonal, as if shoppers like me were there to worship the brands, rather than the brands striving to outfit us.

It’s different now; service actually serves, particularly men. “The consumer is much more powerful and knowledgeable,” says Eric Musgrave, editorial director of fashion trade journal Drapers. “There’s tons of information online about quality, provenance, social media criticism. Plus, online, you can shop the world.” If the downside of the menswear boom is that, as Musgrave suggests, “we’re overshopped”, then the benefit is that those retailers must compete harder.

Musgrave reckons about £36bn is spent every year on clothing in the UK, but women still spend more than men and the menswear market is a tougher one to generalise about. Men tend to be more brand-loyal, and buy less stuff, less often, than women, and it means retailers need to work harder. In other words, they have to be nicer.

Success depends on the conversation between retailer and shopper, Musgrave says. “Particularly in physical shops. You go to an indie boutique to get the experience the owner has created for you, you buy into that vision. People have tons of quantitative information now, but not a lot of qualitative info. E-tailers can’t just run a business on sales data, you’ve still got to have a conversation with your consumer,” he says. “If you’ve got a physical shop, the punter comes in. If you’ve got a website, do you know what makes him tick, or are you guessing? How to personalise is a challenge for the industry.”

In fact, it’s simultaneously old-fashioned and newly voguish, this kind of personal service – up-close, hands-on, intimate – which was codified by bespoke tailors. The fact that it was overlooked in retail for decades is significant.

According to Karl McKeever of retail consultancy Visual Thinking, the bespoke approach is to men what “pampering” is to women. “It’s about confidence and trust. Women like to feel that sense of indulgence and environment plays a part in their emotions. For men, it’s about the personality and relationship, establishing a connection is important. Men are creatures of habit: if you find a good barber, you hang on to him for life. Men prefer to do the research once, do it thoroughly, and then stick with that decision for quite some time.”

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Brands and retailers have been talking about “empowering the consumer” for years now. Has that finally come to pass?

“Totally,” says McKeever. “And they’ve got choices. Online has raised expectations in terms of convenience, and online retail experiences have to combine the best of both worlds. What they can do is swift delivery, exchange and swatch samples, especially when the exchange is automated. Being able to swap and change orders is what people expect. In the past, when you made a bespoke order, getting anything changed was a nightmare. Now, it’s par for the course.”

Still, it’s worth asking what that empowerment means for men and the stuff they wear: how it is enacted and what it looks like in the modern fashion merry-go-round. Skeletal Saint Laurent clone, or gnarly, Supreme-fetishising hypebeast? Double-denim selvedg-isto, or blazer-wearing office mankle-barer – or mash-ups of all those, every day?

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In this new, person-centred shopping, we turn to the founder of person-centred psychotherapy, Carl Rogers, for a clue on the experimental, highly individual mindset that defines how a generation shops today, with its shift from the instrumental (I need a coat; this one fits) to the expressive (this coat demonstrates who I am).

Becoming one’s self, Rogers wrote in 1961, “appears to mean less fear of the organismic, non-reflective reactions which one has, a gradual growth of trust in and even affection for the complex, varied, rich assortment of feelings and tendencies which exist in one at the organic or organismic level.” Véronique Nichanian, menswear designer at Hermès, agrees, telling The Daily Telegraph that “men no longer dress solely according to the social pressures of uniform… they will not buy a coat or a suit because they feel they must, but par plaisir.”

Indeed: varied, rich and assorted par plaisir only begins to describe what’s happened to men’s fashion in the decade since Scott Schuman launched his Sartorialist photo blog. Back in 2005, it symbolised the revolution that was to come in fashion, with its inverting of hierarchies (and the power to dictate what counts as stylish) from the ateliers and runways back to the man on the corner and how he wears it.

In Schuman’s optic, the peacocking outside the fashion shows was more interesting and vivid than what was happening inside, heralding the kaleidoscope of insta-content, from blogs, feeds and portals to stores, mags and personal styling services, within which the godlike shopper finds himself a decade later.

“The idea that men are only just discovering clothes is inaccurate,” Eric Musgrave says, “It’s a great time.” More than simply great, it’s also helpful and definitely enjoyable, this tidal surge in fashion consciousness with its currents of permission and expressivity, and its techno-seamlessness. It is most alive in London, a city with a unique multilateral heritage in tailoring, subcultural style, streetwear and the avant-garde, but it didn’t begin there.
No, today’s shopper was conceived some 20 years ago in Milan.

According to David Bradshaw – a creative director who styles Versace menswear shows and owns the independent Huntergather boutiques in London – Italy’s fashion capital was where the conversation on how to dress men was first broached, leading to today’s boom.

“In the early to mid-Nineties, the industry woke up to the fact that there were lots of men who wanted to spend money on fashion,” Bradshaw says. “There’s been an upward trend since then. Men and the market are still catching up. Saturation? We’re nowhere near yet.”

Bradshaw talks about how the German designer Jil Sander’s ideas on dressing men pushed a new vanguard, likening her 1997 minimalist men’s line to “a piece of undiscovered code within the syntax of menswear”. Later that year, his interest piqued by Sander, Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli launched Prada Man (Bradshaw worked on both).

“The thought was, ‘Let’s create that man,’” Bradshaw recalls. “The first season of Prada was a very significant moment, and the next five to 10 years were dominated by that conversation. Prada knew there was a big space to walk into, and there was a lot of conversation about how to get more men into more fashion — not ideas purely designed to stimulate fashion editors, but really affecting the way we dress as men. That conversation is still going on.”

Considering the past 20 years between London, Milan and Paris, Bradshaw says, “The men I’ve dressed have all acquired taste through those years. Not only was the offer narrow then, so were men’s imaginations about what was allowable, what their peers would support.”

“Men need people talking about how we should dress,” he says. “That’s how progress is made. It makes men more confident thinking about clothing, about fashion — a lot of men still have a problem with the word ‘fashion’. And that’s a similar conversation I’m having at Huntergather, giving guys what they need to be contemporary, not break the bank, and not be embarrassed. A wardrobe of staples.”

Bradshaw understands the importance of keeping good shop. As does Terry Betts, former menswear buyer at Selfridges and Mr Porter, now head of business development at thread.com, a start-up that matches punters to products via personal stylists. Both offer the same insight on the contemporary menswear shopper, from opposite ends of the physical-digital continuum: whether you call it personalisation or the personal touch, in the end it comes down to human contact.

“However passionate guys are about shopping, they still want an expert,” Betts says, “to talk to someone they trust, and for it to be easy.” Nonetheless, overwhelm is a big problem today. “Online has been great for men, because they embrace the tech element. But men think, ‘I could do with a bit of help here. I’m interested and I want to know provenance; were these shoes made in Northampton, these jeans dyed in Japan?’ It’s trainspottery, it’s a real passion. There’s an overwhelming number of options out there.”

If it all went wrong in the Nineties and Noughties when blockbuster shops, antiseptic concept stores and immersive experiences were au courant. In this new era shopping strives to make the shopper himself the hero in a yarn of pursuit, discovery and transformation: transcendence to the divine in the company of a trusted consigliere.

Social: in the end, isn’t that what the relationship between a man and his outfitter is all about, regardless of what tech lies between them? Intimate and confidential in the sense of engendering confidence in the timorous shopper. Thread.com’s uptake – 200,000 registered users since last year, Betts says — suggests so. And, as with all the best technologies, algorithms only replicate and improve pre-existing behaviour, in this case the interpersonal source code Savile Row has been developing since the 18th century, the man-to-man bespoke approach.

“What technology should be able to solve is something quick and frictionless,” Betts says. “A real-life human stylist, someone to message back and forth with and go a bit deeper, but you do it on your phone. This is the way guys will shop.”

Men shop promiscuously, technologically, aggressively and expressively now but not really alone. All the tech and insight above belies what men really want from shopping: someone to help them do it. A trusted confidante, a buddy-system, style sponsor, or just a good mate to accompany them on the perilous expedition.

As the fez-wearing shopkeeper would have said to Mr Benn, “Try this, sir, I feel this is the one for you today,” before ushering him through the magic door and on to the next mad adventure.

Which, when you’re a man, is kind of the point of getting dressed in the first place.

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