New York Times February 20-2012

- March 6th, 2012 -

Men Step Out of the Recession, Bag on Hip, Bracelet on Wrist
Published: February 19, 2012

He’s back.

Spending on men’s accessories, like handbags, grew 14 percent in the last half of 2011.

The male shopper, who pretty much was missing at the onset of the recession, is buying again. And to the delight of retailers, he is not just stocking up on suits and dress shirts, but also doing something women have been doing for years: binging on accessories.

Bracelets. Bags. Hats. Umbrellas. Men are buying so many accessories that some forecasters predict sales growth for men’s clothing and accessories during the first three months of this year will set a 20-year high.

“That guy had been away for a while during the tougher times,” said David Witman, general merchandise manager of Nordstrom’s men’s division.

To get traditional women’s accessories to appeal to men, some designers are giving them manly names and styles. That’s not really a bracelet; it’s wristwear. And that’s not a purse, nor the dreaded murse, but a holdall.

“It doesn’t look like you borrowed it from your girlfriend,” Nicolas Travis, 24, a business school student who runs the blog Style Flavors, said of the manned-up styles he prefers. “A little bit more bling, and you run the risk of it looking a bit more feminine.”

The return of the male shopper could have broad consequences for the economy. Retail sales plummeted during the recession, with men’s apparel sales dropping almost twice as fast as women’s in 2009, according to an I.B.M. Global Business Services analysis of retail data.

Women started buying again, and that helped push the recovery along. But men held off on buying apparel and accessories until last year, when estimated men’s sales rose more than 8 percent, outpacing the growth in women’s sales.

Spending on accessories is driving the men’s category: those sales grew 14 percent in the last half of 2011, to about $6 billion, according to the market research firm NPD Group.

“Men were the last to start spending coming out of the recession,” said Eric Jennings, fashion director for men’s wear at Saks Fifth Avenue. “If they learned one thing through the recession, it’s that looking schlumpy is not going to help you keep your job, get promoted or get a new job. I think they’re taking their appearance more seriously.”

The rebound in shopping may also reflect an improved jobs picture for men, who were hit disproportionately over the recession. The gap between men’s and women’s employment rates was about as high as it had ever been as the recovery started in June 2009. Only last month did the men’s and women’s unemployment rates reach the same level.

The male models walking the runway at New York Fashion Week shows this month wore, among other adornments, scarves that could double as blankets; belts, pocket squares and fur neckwear; caps and handbags; feather necklaces; and metal cuffs.

Jewelry designers and fashion executives say the trend comes largely from Italy and Japan, where men throw on silky scarves or pile on bracelets and berets with nonchalance. Given the proliferation of street-style blogs, young men, in particular, can quickly adopt trends from overseas. Mr. Jennings, of Saks, also points to TV shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” where the cool characters dress with panache, as a big influence.

“Where before wearing a leather jacket and jeans was a way to rebel,” he said, “now you see guys on the fringe, edgier characters, wearing suits and pocket squares and tie bars.”

He added, “Men are feeling more confident to experiment and realizing that they do have more options, and it’s showing in the numbers — it’s showing in sales.”

At Burberry stores, for instance, men’s accessory sales increased about 50 percent in the six months through September 2011 compared with the same period a year ago. Coach, which makes items like briefcases and tote bags for men, says global sales of men’s goods doubled, to $200 million, for the fiscal year ending in June 2011, and it expects sales to double again, to $400 million, for its current fiscal year.

The bracelet is perhaps the most striking example of the accessory craze.

It is hard to imagine the archetypal businessmen of recent decades — the power-suited broker of the 1980s, the khakis-and-blue-oxford-shirt-wearer of the ’90s, or the hoodie-clad tech titans of the 2000s — selecting a piece of jewelry each morning as they dressed for work. But now, fashion executives say, sales of men’s bracelets, especially thin versions in leather or metal, are increasing at a rapid pace.

“Bracelets are on fire right now,” said Tim Bess, who analyzes men’s fashions for the Doneger Group, a trend forecaster. “I’d say it’s the No. 1 look for the young man.”

Tateossian, a London-based jewelry designer, says sales of its men’s bracelets rose 30 percent in 2011.

“On a global basis we’re known as a cufflink brand, but in the past year our sales have shifted in a way that we’re selling, now, more bracelets than we are selling cufflinks” online and in Tateossian’s own stores, said Robert Tateossian, the company’s chief executive.

When he saw the sales start to tick up, Mr. Tateossian said, he began pushing American retailers to increase their inventories. Saks, after testing his men’s bracelets at a few locations, is now carrying them more broadly, while Neiman Marcus has agreed to carry the bracelets this spring.

“You can go to a meeting, and it will be discreetly hidden under your sleeve with just a piece showing,” he said. “You will look sharp, you will look professional, and you will have that complete look. In a way, it’s how to look polished without looking like a banker.”

The designers are keeping the accessories as far away from the feminine as possible, for the most part.

“It’s not necessarily a big statement saying, ‘I wear men’s jewelry,’ ” Evan Yurman, director of design, men’s and timepieces, at David Yurman, said of the company’s bracelets that can be hidden under a sleeve.

Miansai makes its men’s bracelets out of thin rope, similar to what a rock climber would use, and uses a metal anchor as a clasp. David Yurman sells one made from braided brown rubber, and Diesel is producing leather cuffs studded with metal.

“It’s leather; it’s hardware; it’s a military aesthetic,” said Theresa Palermo, marketing director for Fossil Inc., which has the license for Diesel accessories.

Mr. Tateossian said his brightly colored bracelets, in shades of orange and red, had nowhere near the sales that more subdued versions did. Men, after all, can be pushed only so far.

“The colors that have sold out? Take a guess,” he said. “The black, the blue and the brown.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 20, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Men Step Out of the Recession, Bag on Hip, Bracelet on Wrist.