• U.S.

Look, Ma, No Stains

6 minute read
Michele Orecklin

Henry David Thoreau is considered a thoroughly American thinker, but in 1854, when he wrote, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothing,” he proved he was also a thoroughly American male. As many a wife and mother will attest, Thoreau’s wariness toward fashion is a gender trait that persists to this day. But as frustrating as male shopping avoidance may be for women, their angst is nothing compared with that of menswear manufacturers and retailers.

Sales of men’s apparel were down 7% last year from the year before. Sales of women’s apparel were down as well, 6.7%. But $89.3 billion was spent on women’s clothing, while only $50.9 billion was spent on men’s, according to the market-research firm NPDFashionworld. The perennially smaller menswear figures have been exacerbated in recent years by a sluggish economy and the switch to casual dress at work. While a high-quality man’s suit, with its attendant tie and shirt, starts at $400, a pair of khakis and a polo shirt can be had for $100. Though the garment industry sees hope in the return to more traditional dress codes at a few buttoned-down firms, it seems doubtful that there will ever be a widespread restoration of the formality of years past.

Given that most men don’t buy new clothes until the ones they have are irredeemably stained or torn, how do retailers get them to acquire more khakis and buttoned-down shirts when they already have several in their closet? In effect, by throwing in the towel. A wave of new products suggests that manufacturers are finally conceding that they will never get most men interested in high fashion. So, helped by new technology, they are appealing to men’s baser fashion instincts and habits.

Thus stain-resistant trousers. The idea of pants as a bib is one whose time has come. Levi’s Dockers brand has unveiled its Go Khaki with Stain Defender line. Treated with DuPont Teflon, these trousers allow the wearer to spill any “oil or water-based liquid” (e.g., beer, salad dressing) and have it bead up and roll off. Earlier this year, Lee introduced its Performance Khaki, which uses Nano-Care, microscopic whiskers that repel spills.

The mere challenge of testing the product may be inducement enough to buy. “Men like gadgetry, and any kind of product enhancement that doesn’t sacrifice style can drive them to purchase even when they don’t need to,” says Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld. Dockers declined to give specific sale figures, but the company is so pleased with the response to the new product that it has introduced stain-resistant shirts. Ties and dress pants are next.

At the Marshall Field’s department store in the suburban Chicago Woodfield Mall, salesman Jim Heneghan, 17, finds that demonstrating the Dockers technology for customers often helps close a sale. “They’re in awe,” he says. “Mostly it’s the wives–they’re tired of getting the stains out of the pants.”

Heneghan has hit upon a crucial aspect of marketing to men: women. Last year more than half of men’s pants were bought by women. And not only are women doing the buying, more often than not they are doing the washing and ironing as well. This helps explain the success of the latest version of the wrinkle-free shirt, which can be found everywhere from J.C. Penney (average price, $25) to Brooks Brothers ($65). Years ago, a resin coating was used on cotton-polyester blends. Then improved technology allowed the coating to be applied to heavier, all-cotton fabrics like oxford cloth; now it is being added to softer ones like broadcloth. Lou Amendola, vice president of menswear at Brooks Brothers, says sales of its wrinkle-free apparel, introduced in 1998 for dress shirts and now expanding into casual wear, have been “phenomenal.” He notes, “People respond when there’s a performance element.”

Wrinkle-free is sort of old hat to clothing manufacturer Haggar, which introduced a wrinkle-free pant in a limited number of fabrics in 1992. (Pants are easier to treat with wrinkle-free chemicals because they are usually made from a heavier fabric than shirts are.) At that time, Haggar was still primarily focused on men’s suits. But the shift to casual dress forced the company to reposition itself, according to Alan Burks, the company’s marketing chief. Once it did, Haggar faced the same problem as everyone else in the industry. “We needed to give a new reason to buy pants,” says Burks. “We had done wrinkle-free, so what was next? Comfort.”

Haggar’s internal research showed that the people working for Enron and WorldCom weren’t the only ones in corporate America allegedly tinkering with numbers. It seems most men don’t like to admit their true waist size and end up buying pants that are too small. The product born of this realization was Comfort Fit, a cotton khaki that expands up to three inches through hidden elastic embedded in the waistline. The pant also appeals to more economically conservative men who, even if they’ve gained several pounds, hate to throw out pants in good condition. The success of the Comfort Fit has not been lost on Dockers, which next year will add its own expandable version, called Individual Fit. This sort of cross-pollination is going on throughout the industry, and the time seems near when consumers will be able to purchase virtually any garment in a stain-free, wrinkle-free, expandable variant.

But are these developments enough to rescue the menswear industry? Some are skeptical. “These things are nice, but they only add a couple dollars to the cost of a garment,” says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard’s Retail Consulting Group, which forecasts consumer-spending patterns. “They don’t accomplish the one thing men’s retailers are dreaming about, and that’s a switch back to formal dressing, and that ain’t happening.” Barnard, like many other analysts, says that in the current economic environment, most companies are not likely to force their employees to start spending the kind of money it would take to make the transition back to a stricter suit-and-tie code of dress.

Instead, according to analyst Cohen, men are searching for value, and the brands that are doing best are those sold at discount retailers like Costco, where men can shop for motor oil and not worry if it leaks onto their new stain-resistant pants on the way to the parking lot. –With reporting by Matt Baron/Chicago and Jyoti Thottam/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com