CHICAGO — The aisles were bustling and the mood was buoyant at the Chicago Collective men’s show last week. Thousands of specialty store retailers came to the Windy City to check out the 400-plus classic and contemporary brands showing at the Merchandise Mart.
The stores were in good spirits after a strong holiday season, during which they managed to maintain the momentum that started mounting after the pandemic eased its grip.
While tailored clothing and complementary products still represent the bulk of their business, sportswear and gifts were also on retailers’ shopping lists as they searched for something new to offer customers.
This season they had more time to shop since the Chicago Collective added another day to its run, opening at 2 p.m. Saturday and running through Tuesday.
“Saturday was an experiment,” said Bruce Schedler, vice president of apparel trade shows for the mart. “Everybody on the floor wants more space and we can’t accommodate them. So if we can’t give them more space, we can give them more time.”
Schedler said his goal was to draw 200 buyers on Saturday, but more than 500 showed up — many before the official opening time. “They were all here so we opened at 11,” he said.
As a result, the show will open on Saturday in August as well, he said. “It was a really good outcome. We’ll definitely do it again — and probably move the opening time earlier.”
It wasn’t just Saturday that was a success. Schedler said all told, the show drew more than 1,900 buyers over its four-day run, nearly a 15 percent increase from last February.
Among those buyers was Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Business is very good,” he said. “Last year was the best year we’ve had since we reopened.” The store originally opened in 1909 but took a hiatus from 2010 to 2015, when it reopened in a new location closer to Wake Forest University.
Stockton said the location has attracted new customers affiliated with the university, along with newcomers to the city.
They’re attracted to sport coats and wovens that they can wear to return to the office, added Richard Stockton, Hill’s son, who works for the store. Sweaters and outerwear have also been strong.
In Chicago, Richard Stockton said they were looking for additional shoe lines as well as leather goods, luggage and other gift items. “That’s something we’re missing,” he said.
While their attitude was upbeat, Hill Stockton said they were being careful to not overspend for fall. “We’re going to be careful with our inventory levels going into fall. With everything going on in politics, it affects people’s buying habits.”
Ted Silver of Weiss & Goldring in Alexandria, La., was also searching the show for gifts. “We have reinvented ourselves and just added another 735 square feet,” he said. In addition to the customary suits and sport coats, the store now carries Baccarat crystal, olive oil, knives, exotic peanuts, Native American blankets and other unexpected items in an area he calls Pop’s Closet.
“In a town of 50,000 people, if you want to sell luxury merchandise, you need to be a destination luxury store,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a game to get people in the store.”
When they do visit, in addition to olive oil, he’s also selling them pocket squares, cushioned socks, comfort shoes, shirt-jacs and pants they can wear to the office or the golf course. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Ken Giddon of Rothmans in New York said that after a great 2022, business in 2023 continued to grow, albeit not at the same rate. “We were pleased with that and are happy and optimistic about 2024,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the economy will bring but it’s usually pretty good in an election year when the incumbent is running.”
That optimism was evident at the show, which found the booths packed with retailers writing orders.
For Rothmans, he especially liked Surfside Supply; Frodi, an Italian luxury outerwear brand; Cardinal outerwear; Marine Layer; Jack Victor; L.B.M., and Gimos.
“I think 2024 will be right there with the previous two years,” he said. “I see no storm clouds. Our job is just to find the right stuff.”
Craig DeLongy of John Craig in Florida, who operates eight stores under three nameplates, said business in 2023 was up 4 percent over the strong prior year. The trend is continuing this year with business in January up 7 percent. He’s expecting sales to be up 3 to 5 percent overall by the end of the year.
As a Florida retailer, most of his business is sportswear but he said his sport coat sales are “off the charts” and his made-to-measure business has tripled.
DeLongy had just visited the Dallas men’s show and was finishing up his buying in Chicago, where he was shopping for special products such as socks and cuff links to round out his assortment.
Casey McNeil of McNeil & Reedy in Rutland, Vt., said the store’s business is “very good,” thanks to new brands and products that have been added since the pandemic. “We’ve been up since the post-COVID-19 lockdown ended,” he said, “and we had a good holiday last year — up over last year.”
Tailored clothing continues to lead the way from moderately priced brands under the Peerless umbrella as well as Baroni and shirts from David Donahue and Mizzen+Main. The wedding and special occasion business also continues to spur sales.
In Chicago, he was searching for suits and outerwear under $1,000, as well as comfortable dress casual shoes and affordable cashmere sweaters. “More and more, people want five nice pieces, not 20 average pieces,” he said.
Looking ahead, McNeil said he was optimistic about the future and will be signing a lease for adjacent space he can use to showcase the in-store tailor. “We’re going to bring our tailor shop inside so we look like a real men’s store.”
Elliot Rabin of Peter Elliott in New York also said business has been good, particularly in tailored clothing, as well as ties. “Men are getting dressed up again,” and companies are cracking down on guys wearing athleisure at the office and requiring them to step it up a notch.
He said Coppley has done well for the store and he was shopping the brand at the show, as well as knit clothing that is comfortable and good for traveling.
Rabin believes the strong business trend will continue despite the upcoming U.S. elections and the unrest in the Middle East. Although sales dipped immediately after the Israel-Hamas war started, they have since rebounded, he said.
Orion Hiler of Charles Men’s Shop in Batavia, N.Y., said that although summer is the store’s biggest season, business has been improving in the winter months lately thanks to men going back to work and heading out to events again.
Tailored clothing is the top seller, notably suits and sport coats, along with dress pants and the accoutrement that goes along with it.
“They’re looking for something they don’t have,” he said. “And even though we’re steeped in tradition, we’re selling things like turtlenecks and mock necks to wear under a suit jacket.”
He’s hopeful the strong sales will continue. “I don’t want to tempt fate, but we’re on a 25-year high.”