The Guys Have It

Menswear designer Thom Browne in his office
"I don't kid myself thinking everyone loves it," says designer Thom Browne of his signature slim-fitted silhouette. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006


Hartmarx is a nondescript Goliath of a clothing corporation that traffics in charcoal suits, pleated trousers, tweed blazers and Sansabelt slacks. Last year, it reported net sales of more than $598 million from its many brands and licenses.

But now this corporate giant, known for speaking the sartorial language of average Joes, is whispering brazen come-ons to fashion aesthetes: Wanna hickey ?

The American menswear industry is in the midst of a fragile renaissance. The transformation at Hartmarx isn't loud or shrill. The shrunken silhouettes championed by new designers Thom Browne and Alexandre Plokhov have not overtaken men's affection for Dockers. But slowly and quietly, menswear is evolving.

For nearly 120 years, Hart Schaffner Marx -- a mid-priced member of the big, boring Hartmarx family -- contentedly and profitably dressed the sort of no-nonsense man who'd wait for its $695 suits to be marked down . . . twice.

Now Hart Schaffner Marx is gussying itself up, expanding its creative sensibility, sniffing around for a new kind of customer.

For the first time in 40 years, the company hired a new executive vice president. Eric Jones arrived from Polo Ralph Lauren, where he worked on Purple Label, known for its lean Savile Row silhouettes. A man could buy four Hart Schaffner Marx suits for the cost of one Purple Label ensemble. Jones's mission: update this conservative American brand.

"We didn't have a lot of personality. We'd been a utilitarian business product for guys that are conservative," Jones says. "But we could also be a fashion house."

Jones's attire underscores the new template. He wears a pair of roughly distressed jeans, a lime green track jacket and a navy pinstriped suit coat. This, he says, is the way a young man might wear a suit.

In the course of expounding on the new, hip HSM, Jones talks excitedly about a recent party he attended in Santa Monica at the Viceroy Hotel. There were hundreds of young men at the party, Jones recalls, and the majority of them were wearing jackets. They "didn't want to look like they'd crawled out of bed, or like a grunge rocker or a Wall Street guy."

This new customer, Jones says, "lives now and sleeps later." He's a guy who has "saucy" dates. He could be "in a band."

Maybe, Jones says, he was the kid "selling joints at recess."

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