Men's Trend: The Retrosexual Revolution

The latest incarnation of the male consumer is a throwback to traditional masculinity, but he hasn’t abandoned the metrosexual’s attention to detail.

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FSC Barber in New York.

Photo By Andrew Ingalls

FSC Barber in New York.

Photo By Andrew Ingalls

The fall Gilded Age presentation.

Photo By Todd Matarazzo

Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 06/21/2010

Shopping patterns have converged in other ways, as well. Male shoppers are becoming as frugal as women, according to the research firm WSL Strategic Retail. In its 2010 “How America Shops Survey,” the percentage of men concerned with getting the lowest price was 62 percent, up from 59 percent in 2008. That’s not quite the same level as women, 70 percent of whom seek the lowest price, but it’s close. A growing number of guys—49 percent—even admitted to clipping coupons. “Traditionally, we see men as less concerned about [price], but this recession has really gotten their attention,” says WSL president Candace Corlett.


Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York, maintains that men are increasingly drawn to traditional expressions of masculinity for two reasons: the recent recession and the more long-term confluence of gender roles. He recalls a study that showed that men grew their sideburns and beards during periods when women made visible strides toward equality. “If the sexes are equal, men will gravitate to the things that differentiate them,” says Kimmel, the author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History and 14 other books on similar subjects.


Certainly barber shops have enjoyed a surge in popularity. There were 235,000 barbers in 100,000 shops in the U.S. last year, the highest in recent memory, according to the National Association of Barber Boards of America. Those numbers have increased steadily since a low in the mid-Eighties. “I think the unisex years are over,” says Charles Kirkpatrick, the association’s executive officer, referring to the dual-gender hair salons favored by metrosexuals.


If men feel anxious, marketers have begun to pick up on it. In February, Super Bowl ads seemed preoccupied with male powerlessness. Dodge launched a controversial commercial where beleaguered-looking men dully recite the little sacrifices they make for their wives: “I will hold your lip balm. I will say ‘yes’ when you want me to say ‘yes.’” Old Spice aired a funny spot that called attention to the difference between the brand’s handsome spokesman and the average joe watching at home. “Look at me. Now look at your man. Now look at me,” the spokesman urges, pointing out the inadequacy of the lump on the couch.


Dockers unveiled an ad declaring that men, represented by a group of homely guys marching around in their underwear, need to buck up and start wearing The Pants. Jenn Say, Dockers vice president of global marketing, says various trends—including studies that show a decline in sperm counts in American men—sparked the latest campaign. “Men are struggling in today’s world,” she observes.


Perhaps that struggle has inhibited a strong return to spending. According to The NPD Group, men’s apparel is rebounding more slowly than women’s. “Guys are thinking two or three times before buying something and asking themselves if they really need it,” says NPD Group chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. “Conspicuous consumption has changed to calculated consumption.”


For the 12 months ended in March, total men’s apparel sales fell 3.3 percent to $51.58 billion, while total women’s sales dipped 1.5 percent to $105.48 billion. Still, those decreases are smaller than the 4.8 percent decline in men’s, and the 3 percent drop in women’s, in the same period a year earlier.


One men’s apparel category making a strong rebound is designer labels. For the three months ended in March, total sales of designer brands in men’s rose 9.6 percent to $922.6 million, according to The NPD Group. In the same period, sales of designer brands in women’s wear declined 3.7 percent to $962.8 million. “Brands mean more to men than to women,” notes Cohen. “For guys, the label is sort of like the car he drives.”


The revived designer business for men points to the lingering effect of the metrosexual phenomenon as it evolves into today’s retrosexual. Even if the term metrosexual seems dated, the trends it represented have become mainstream. “The whole metrosexual thing is still very real,” contends Marian Salzman, a forecaster at Euro RSCG who helped identify the trend a decade ago. “The term was a fad that passed, but what we call ‘the trend’ is irrelevant. The neutralization of gender differences it described is still happening.”


Earlier this year, when GQ and Allure jointly conducted a study of grooming behaviors and attitudes, 83 percent of men said there is more pressure to care about one’s appearance today than 10 years ago. The majority—63 percent— said they have a more extensive grooming regimen than their fathers’ generation did, while 88 percent said they spend more money on grooming products.


“The by-product of the whole metrosexual trend is that most guys feel that having good clothes and brands is an important part of life,” says Nathan Richardson, vice president and general manager of men’s at Gilt Groupe, which has 625,000 male members who account for 25 percent of the e-tailer’s total membership base. Richardson notes the company ships its trendy merchandise to all 50 states. “Technology is really giving men all over the U.S., even in remote areas, access to these brands and styles, which would not have been available to them five years ago,” he says.


So the metrosexual isn’t completely dead: He simply moved from the city to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the leading edge is gravitating to fashionable products and services with more traditionally masculine packaging and presentation.


“I think there is a longing for something that was missing in the market,” says FSC’s Somer when asked about his barbershop and boutique’s appeal. “If you look at the market, there was not really a space that was by regular dudes for regular dudes. Guys are very suspicious of fashion. They want stuff that’s been around and been tested and will last. Guys respond to a feeling of history.”

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