Washington area witnesses revival in menswear

Chris Masters enjoys a well-made suit. But recently he has been looking for a place to buy them other than frenzied department stores where women’s clothes dominate the sales floor.

That’s why Masters treks to the appointment-only menswear boutique Alton Lane in Dupont Circle for custom ensembles.

Clients in the newly opened third-floor showroom are escorted into a fitting room to be measured by a body scanner that captures as many as 400 measurements in 30 seconds. A stylist then uses the reading to pencil in an order for a form-fitted suit at a starting price of $500. The high-tech encounter scored points with Masters, as did the men’s club ambiance, complete with flat-screen TV and leather sofas.

“Women are not the only ones that put extra care into their appearance,” said Masters, director of marketing for a real estate firm in Alexandria. “It’s nice to see more stores recognizing that this area is full of sophisticated men that want to look good.”

Alton Lane, originally a New York City boutique, opened its first branch in Washington recently as part of a resurgence in menswear that has drawn new retailers to the market, while spurring the expansion of existing stores in the past year.

Jack Spade brought its messenger bags and crewneck sweaters to Georgetown in September, just as HMX Group introduced the Streets of Georgetown, featuring an assortment of its brands such as Hickey Freeman and Bobby Jones. Brooks Brothers, meanwhile, turned on the lights at its sixth location in the area about the same time.

There are dozens of area department, specialty and discount stores that carry men’s suits and sportwear. But the new shops are fueling a nascent movement in local retail catering to men who are interested in tailored suits and custom jeans.

Guys across the country are buying slacks, shirts and coats at a pace that exceeds women. Sales of U.S. menswear climbed 6.5 percent to $53.7 billion through October, eclipsing the 1.5 percent gain in women’s wear during the same period, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Men retreated from shopping after the recession but are at a point where they need to replenish their wardrobes, said NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen. He suspects that men are also keenly aware of their appearance as they attempt to keep or seek out employment.

“It’s no longer good enough to look like you just rolled out of bed and went to work,” Cohen said. “Guys are dressing better to separate themselves from the competition, which we haven’t seen in decades.”

Responding to the trend, designer Vera Wang is making a foray into men’s formal wear, while Isaac Mizrahi’s label is set to bring out a collection of dress shirts and neckties, analysts note.

Hakob Stepanyan, a 26-year-old research associate at an investment firm in Arlington County, admits that he spends more on shirts and slacks these days to make an impression at work.

“I’m more selective about what I wear than I was in college, because you have to dress the part to get ahead,” he said. “Value and durability also mean a lot more.”

Alton Lane has surpassed 3,000 customers and $3 million in sales without advertising. The company sources fabrics from 10 mills in Europe and has the clothing made by tailors in Southeast Asia. The stores are tucked away on side streets, rather than along fashion rows such as Fifth Avenue or M Street, and welcomes clients by appointment only.

“The retail industry runs on brand inflation — the $3,000 Prada suit doesn’t cost close to that to make, but they’re paying for the Fifth Avenue address and ads,” said Colin Hunter, a co-owner of Alton Lane who met his partner, Peyton Jenkins, while attending the University of Virginia 12 years ago. “There are ways to offer a more honest pricing structure that’s focused on a better shopping experience for guys.”

The approach of Alton Lane mirrors that of homegrown haberdashery Lost Boys on 31st Street in Georgetown. Owner Kelly Muccio created a space in 2008 where guys can kick back in a leather recliner and watch a little James Bond, while her team pulls together an entire wardrobe for $250 an hour.

This “style bar,” as she calls it, has become so popular that Muccio expanded her ground-floor operations upstairs for the Black Room, a members-only studio that debuted on Black Friday. Guests are treated to cocktails as Muccio offers personal styling and consultation starting at $600.

Muccio says her frequent clients include executives, government officials and local celebrities. She would not reveal names.

“Washington is a very important market for retailers,” said Robert Hensely, executive vice president of store operations at Jos. A. Bank of Hampstead, near Baltimore. “The growth of collateral industries associated with the federal government, be it lobbying or communications, works hand in hand with our fashion.”

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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