Inside Holt Renfrew's Operation: Dude

Holt Renfrew has set a man trap baited with hot shaves, leather chairs and liquor. Will it succeed in snaring a new breed of fashion-forward guys?

This species changes plumage often. It’s known for its luxurious coat (Gucci suit, $1,810) and identifiable by the fine details around its neck (Stefano Ricci tie, $270), chest (Thomas Pink shirt, $215) and feet (Prada shoes, $640)

(Photos: Javier Lovera)

There is a new buzz term being bandied about the Holt Renfrew offices these days: “the male lens.” After decades of almost unilateral focus on the female market—from CEOs to PYTs to yummy mummys—Canada’s pre-eminent department store has recently embarked on a mission to squeeze that other half of the shopping population. Phase 1 is a pilot project at the Yorkdale Mall location in Toronto, which launched in mid-November and will continue to roll out over the next 10 months as the entire location undergoes a massive, square-foot-doubling overhaul. “For us, it’s really about tailoring a customer experience—what do our male customers want?” says Alix Box, retail VP at Holt’s and frequent employer of “male lens”-speak. The company’s answer to her question sounds like it was drummed up by an elite team of former frat boys—in the best way possible. New Holt Renfrew men’s shops, set to arrive at all store locations by 2015, will boast a dedicated lounge area tricked out with leather couches, the latest gadgets and even liquor (first bump). There will also be shoeshine stations, a hot-shave bar and separate entrances because, according to Ms. Box, “a man wants to be able to get his shopping done quickly and doesn’t want to have to walk through dozens of metres of perfume and makeup counters to do so.” As for the aforementioned pink bags, whether or not they will be given the “male lens” makeover treatment is still up for debate. “At this point,” says Ms. Box, “I can only say that we’re considering it, along with a lot of other options.”

The driving force behind Operation: Dude is Mark Derbyshire, Holt Renfrew’s president and the man personally credited for righting a floundering ship when he came aboard three years ago. At that point, Holt’s was fighting a battle on two fronts—slumping sales resulting from the recession and an increase in competition. The Bay, led by another visionary, CEO Bonnie Brooks, had newly re-established itself as a power player on the high-fashion landscape, while the increasing regularity of online shopping meant Holt’s was also waging war with high-end American brands. Derbyshire’s bold strategy—a return to luxury, fewer sales, a focus on prestige brands—paid off, and the company banked record profits in 2010. At the same time, Canada’s retail landscape on the whole was making a speedy recovery compared to Europe and the States. Our economic health explains the recent frenzy of foreign interest—Louis Vuitton’s top-tier “Maison” locations in Vancouver and Toronto are shiny, city-block-spanning testaments to our nation’s indomitable spending power. Same goes for the collection of J. Crew stores opening across the country and imminent arrivals of Nordstroms, Kate Spade and Bloomingdales, the last of which has been in talks to partner with the Bay.

The fact that the long-neglected luxury male customer is suddenly the most popular girl at the dance was in some ways inevitable. “Part of it is just a matter of responding to an overly crowded market in terms of women’s fashion,” explains James Smerdon, director of retail consulting at Colliers. Rather than fighting for female dollars, he says it only makes sense that retailers would start seeking out under-served markets. Recent data from NPD statistics confirms the boys are a bright spot in a stagnant or sinking market: overall clothing sales in Canada were down by 2% to $22.9 billion in 2011, but the male market rose by 3%.

Case study No. 1: The Obvious Mark.

Christopher Sinclair is a 33-year-old investment banker with a compact, athletic build and a penchant for pricy cufflinks. In the basement of Holt Renfrew’s flagship location on Bloor Street in Toronto, he assesses the collection of designer footwear, handling a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo monk straps like an archeologist examining an artifact. He rules against a pair of Rag & Bone boots (“not me”), a pair of leopard print Jimmy Choo slippers (“definitely not me”), and a pair of suede driving shoes by Tod’s (“they’ve got a better selection of these at Harry Rosen”) before finally settling on an artfully distressed, lace-free pair of black brogues by John Varvatos. “They’re pretty similar to the ones I’m wearing now,” he says. And they are—almost identical, but for the absence of lace detail. Clearly this is a shopper who appreciates the subtler differences. Upstairs in the sportswear and suiting department, Sinclair has just purchased two sweaters—a cable knit pullover and a thick-knit cardigan (both by the Holt’s house brand, both around $500). He showed some interest in a wine-coloured cashmere V-neck, but was concerned about the two inches of ribbing around the waist area. “I prefer sweaters that don’t come in at the bottom,” he says, gesturing to the uncinched, black cashmere number he currently has on. Again with the details.

We skip the cufflinks section (“Holt’s could do a lot better in terms of their cufflink collection,” says his sister and shopping partner Candice) and briefly flirt with a pair of dove-grey Prada suspenders before paying up and moving on in search of the perfect pair of Tom Ford pants at Harry Rosen. (Spoiler alert: we find them.) I have asked to tag along on this late-fall shopping spree to better understand the habits of the retail industry’s current darling and newest cash cow: the fashionably minded male.

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This year, despite economic instability and a worrisome unemployment rate, American men will set a new record for spending on personal luxury goods, meaning clothing and accessories. Even more surprising: in 2011 they out-purchased women in the area of high-end footwear, which is a serious change in the status quo, if not a sign of the apocalypse. Here in Canada, the $7.4-billion men’s apparel industry grew by 4% between July 2011 and July 2012 (the women’s side of things slumped by 1% over the same time period), and on both sides of the border, men’s accessories is the fastest-growing retail market out there. The trend is being driven by a confluence of factors: the oversaturation of the female fashion market, the growing ubiquity of “metro” style (even Stephen Harper owns statement socks), a post-recessionary urge to splurge, and a renewed interest in quality craftsmanship. All of this means that stores like Holt Renfrew are making an unprecedented play for the male consumer, targeting sharply dressed clothes-horse types like Sinclair, as well as more reluctant luxury customers—guys who care about appearance but would far rather spend time in Radio Shack then Ralph Lauren.

As we make our way back out onto the Mink Mile, Toronto’s toniest retail stretch, Sinclair glances down at Holt’s almost alarmingly magenta shopping bag, a staple of the company’s brand for the past seven years: “They should really think about changing the colour.” Funny he should say that . . .

Case study No. 2: The Pusher.

David Barclay is a 42-year-old entrepreneur with a double-decade history in dot-com ventures and various other startups. But if he’s an aspiring Donald Trump on the inside, his exterior looks a lot more like the oldest member of the Gossip Girl gang. He arrives for a morning meeting in a checked tan blazer by Bustle, a striped tie, a cardigan, designer denim, three colourful bracelets on his right wrist and a Rolex Submariner on his left. His socks are bright blue and his shoelaces are red with gold tips. The laces are also the centrepiece of his burgeoning men’s accessories line Stolen Riches, which hawks multi-hewed laces and pocket squares to the masses at $17.50 and $28 a pop respectively. He started the business a couple of years ago after being bought out by his partners at Teehan + Lax ad agency. He decided that he wanted his next venture to focus on a product. “I looked around, did some reading, and the men’s accessories market seemed like the obvious place to invest because there has just been so much of growth,” says Barclay, joking, “I remember when if you wore a pink shirt, everyone assumed you were gay.”

Confident in a colourful on-trend environment, this breed adapts quickly to new social behaviour, sporting bracelets (David Yurman, $270/$295), tie pins (Paul Smith, $125) and pocket squares (Thomas Pink, $85)

These days, pink shirts don’t even merit a mention. Earlier this year, a trend piece in The New York Times proclaimed “Men step out of the recession, bag on hip, bracelet on wrist.” It’s a sentence that would have seemed patently ridiculous (or at least alarmingly euro) following the economic downturn of the early ’90s, but that was before the advent of metrosexuality, an undeniable if annoyingly dubbed phenomenon that has seen men inch a lot closer to women in terms of their fashion choices.

As much as the aforementioned “untapped market” factor, the new men’s retail explosion is being driven by the new man. Male grooming products alone rose by 3% in Canada last year, and currently the market sits close to $700 million. Eventually any self-respecting man must ask himself: Does moustache conditioner exist because I wanted it, or do I want it because it exists? “There is certainly an ongoing chicken/egg debate in terms of the supply and demand we’re seeing in this market,” says Mr. Smerdon. If you’re in the business of pushing product, though, it doesn’t matter which came first. What does matter is that a store like Holt Renfrew is doing brisk business not just in $5,000 suits (top brands like Givenchy and Cavali are up by about 300% since last year) but also in tie clips and bow ties and, yes, even bracelets.

If you’re not in a fashion-forward industry, the male “wristwear” trend probably hasn’t touched down at your office yet, but watch the lower arm areas of your nattiest younger co-workers over the next several months, because it is coming. “A lot of guys are in suits five days a week or more, so things like socks, laces, bracelets, that’s where you can express some individuality,” says Barclay, articulating the reason why designer watches are still selling well when everyone is attached to their time-telling smartphone. Black laces are about function; this is about flare.

Case study No. 3: The Harder Sell.

More likely to be spotted at a Jays game than Fashion Week, this species is increasingly migrating to the Mink Mile to stock up on durable provisions (Gucci shoes, $680; Burberry London suit, $1,250)

Malcolm Johnston is a 29-year-old magazine editor, more likely to be found sitting front row at a Blue Jay game than at Fashion Week. He has a bro-ish demeanor and owns exactly zero bracelets. He is also an essential component of Holt Renfrew’s “bring on the boys” business strategy, and his demographic—young professionals who don’t identify as a “fashion guys,” and who balance a fondness for made-to-measure shirts with monthly mortgage payments—has proven a major player in driving current retail trends. “I find the attempts to be totally on-trend pretty funny,” says Johnston. “Just thinking about keeping up with that gives me a headache, but I don’t want to look like a slob, either.” (He doesn’t.) He shops sparingly, but when he does he’s willing to cough up for garments that are well made and will last. “I’ll get a bunch of nice dress shirts, and then I’ll pretty much wear them until the elbows blow out. Last week, I went to J. Crew, Sydney’s, Klaxon Howl and Ben Sherman to restock. They cost a little more—maybe $120 for a nice shirt.” Other recent splurges include an $800 Hugo Boss suit (“I have two nice suits and I wear them to every professional event I have to go to”) and a $70 Tanner Goods wallet. “I’ve got a buddy who buys $20 shirts from Joe Fresh and just throws them out after he’s worn them,” says Johnston. “I’d rather spend more on something that is a little less disposable.” He’s not alone.

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Mirroring the food trends of the past half-decade, men’s fashion has seen a post-recessionary return to craftsmanship, quality and timelessness. After so much unexpected loss (savings, houses, discretionary spending), a renewed interest in things that are permanent and reliable is only natural—you might drop $800 on a pair handmade John Lobb oxfords, but should the nuclear holocaust hit, those shoes are gonna outlast the cockroaches, which is certainly more than you can say for a trucker cap.

“We’re seeing a lot of what we call ‘pleasure revenge,’ where after poor economic times, consumers seek pleasure through retail therapy,” says Mr. Smerdon. Far from being bad for business, the competitive job market has encouraged spending as a means of standing out from the crowd and “looking the part.” Even more significant, instant gratification has become the de facto religion of members of Gen X and Gen Y. We see, we want, we get and somewhere between the metaphysical uncertainty of post-9/11, the financial instability of the recent meltdown and the newly omnipresent #YOLO mantra, we have come to believe we deserve it too. In what was arguably the last golden age of the sartorial male, Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.” Today’s admittedly less-gilded fashion plate probably doesn’t even consider his appetites to be greedy.

At Holt’s, they’re hoping this means the man cave will be a hit, maybe even “herald a new era of men’s fashion,” to quote Mark Derbyshire. The groundwork is in place: over the holidays, analysts predict that spending will hit an all-time high, which means it’s simply a matter of standing out. It won’t be easy—American interlopers aside, Harry Rosen has recently staged it’s own major expansion, and the Bay unrolled the world’s largest Top Man store in its Vancouver location last month. In other words, we probably won’t be hearing the words “under-served market” for much longer. Gentleman, ready your shopping carts (and save room for a whisky).