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How to Sell Clothes to Men

Upscale brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce sites are figuring out how to create a shopping experience that men find appealing—and enjoying hefty profits in return.
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Carson Street Clothiers. (PHOTO: MATT BREEN & BRIAN TRUNZO)

Carson Street Clothiers. (PHOTO: MATT BREEN & BRIAN TRUNZO)

Carson Street Clothiers, on the cobblestoned Crosby Street in Soho, Manhattan, is a welcoming den surrounded by luxury clothing boutiques—cold spaces with minimalist presentations of just a few dresses or a small clutch of handbags. The upscale men’s clothing store is less fashion mausoleum than messy living room. Garments are strewn over tables and knick-knacks line the shelves. In arm’s reach of a pair of large leather club chairs in the back is an empty Budweiser bottle and a partly crumpled pack of cigarettes. A TV built into the wall shows a baseball game. Sex and the City, this is not.

Launched by two former corporate lawyers, Brian Trunzo and Matthew Breen, in March 2013, Carson Street Clothiers has quickly become one of New York’s premier shopping destinations for men, capitalizing on a growing wave of enthusiasm for menswear and a sea change in the fashion industry, which has traditionally devoted itself to women. The gender power balance is shifting. In 2011, the U.S. market for menswear expanded 5.3 percent, while women’s clothing grew just 1.4 percent, according to Euromonitor International, hitting an estimated $107 billion in revenue in 2012.

Jesse Thorn, founder of the men’s clothing podcast Put This On, described the menswear market as undergoing a “renaissance.” The surge was prompted by the post-boomer generation’s acceptance of dressing nicely, “complimented by the recession and people refocusing on what has traditionally been a pretty masculine value, which is craftsmanship and quality,” Thorn wrote to me in an email.

“Sure, there are guidelines to help the clueless, but most guys with an interest in clothes know what to bend and what to ignore completely.”

By offering a warmer kind of shopping experience and embracing those new ideals of men’s clothing, businesses like Carson Street, as well as online-only tech start-ups, are capitalizing on the growing menswear market, and helping men change their attitudes on fashion in the process.

On a recent afternoon at Carson Street, Trunzo, wiry and energetic, was dressed in a tightly buttoned club-collar by Patrik Ervell and the store’s in-house high-cropped linen pants, while Breen, the more relaxed of the pair, was decked out in a provocative bird-print shirt. Together, they represent not just the next wave of menswear vendors but the market’s new buyers as well.

After attending Villanova law school and finding their successive jobs dissatisfying, the two hatched a plan to give New York men what they thought was missing—“a low stress, welcoming” shopping environment for the casual, tailored clothes that were becoming popular on style blogs but remained unavailable in the city. Visitors can “come in, grab a beer, look at a magazine, and there’s clothes around here,” Breen explained. “Eventually a guy’s going to want to buy something and we hope to be able to provide that.”

The store promises to educate their customers as well as give them a shopping experience, providing a level of personal style that Trunzo felt was missing even with friends he considered to have good taste. “There was a barrier with the way he dressed himself. He found it intimidating or effeminate to be into clothes,” Trunzo said. By being approachable in a world that’s often seen as pretentious the Carson Street duo is turning their former colleagues into their ideal customers.

The store’s offerings are as fit for a high-power office meeting as they are for Sunday brunch—masculine, but with a fresh sense of creativity and play. Selections include handsome leather Yanko shoes handmade in Spain, tweed blazers from the Brooklyn-based Ovadia & Sons, and shirts courtesy the pugnacious Canadian brand wings + horns. Seeing them in person makes it clear that they’re worth their price tags, but it’s not just physical spaces that are helping men shop.

The e-commerce website Mr Porter is turning to the Internet to provide a space for men to explore luxury fashion items like Dolce & Gabbana leather jackets and Burberry blazers without the potential embarrassment of face-to-face interaction. Through its editorial journal, the site guides its customers just as the store clerks of Carson Street Clothiers do, with posts like “Beach Etiquette,” a Hamptons primer, and “Dressing the Part,” a guide to appropriate outfits for the tech industry (Maison Kitsune cardigans, J. Crew shirts, and A.P.C. backpacks all come recommended).

Mr Porter and its competitors, among them the younger Frank & Oak and the cheaper JackThreads, are becoming influential clothing brand voices in their own right. Mobilizing their male audiences has lead to hefty profits: Net-a-Porter posted revenues of $564 million in 2012. With prices in the thousands of dollars rather than tens, the sites encourage spending that wouldn’t have been thinkable in an older era of big-box stores.Rather than buying simple basics, men are developing a taste for more complicated, crafted garments.

Jian DeLeon, associate editor at Complex Magazine, founded by fashion mogul Marc Ecko, points out the importance of investment pieces. Men are picking up “big-ticket items like English-made shoes or Italian-tailored suiting, where the cost is justified because of the quality,” he explained in an email. “You wouldn't buy a shitty car, why would you settle for shoddy clothing?”

Yet as menswear acquires some of the same complex ecosystem of designers, brands, and buyers that drives womenswear, it’s also becoming more exclusive. No longer is donning a waxed Barbour jacket or swiping a vintage tie from grandpa’s closet necessarily a marker of good taste. Businesses have to take care to position themselves between the burgeoning mainstream menswear market and the elitist avant-garde, without chasing after tastemakers’ constantly changing whims.

Critics of men’s fashion are swinging back against the menswear in-crowd. The slang “#menswear” references both the influential Tumblr category run by early adopters like blogger Lawrence Schlossman and the entrenched clique at the center of menswear style. The scene’s quirks, like leaving one collar button open or undoing the straps on a pair of double-monk shoes, have already passed from cool to cliché, some argue. “Individuality has become a uniform,” writes Alexander Aciman in a recent blistering critique of #menswear in the Wall Street Journal.

Such rules are meant to be broken rather than slavishly obeyed, DeLeon advised. “Sure, there are guidelines to help the clueless, but most guys with an interest in clothes know what to bend and what to ignore completely.”

Visitors filtered in and out of Carson Street Clothiers at a consistent rate over the course of the afternoon, leaning in to feel the store’s fabric wares and investigate stitching details. The crowd was male and female, young and old, dressed in everything from tailored suits to baggy jeans. No one seemed to care much about rules; the store presented an opportunity to simply enjoy clothes without fear of judgment from bosses, friends, or bloggers. “We built the space to be what guys would like and everyone absolutely loved it,” Matthew Breen said. “It felt like home.”