American men embrace slim-fit shirts

Bloomberg NewsJune 5, 2014 

American men over the past decade have embraced the slim-fit shirt styles long favored by their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

Now the fashion industry is betting that U.S. guys, spurred on by encouraging partners and the spread of social media, are ready for something more extreme: extra-slim fits, which can be 4 inches smaller around the waist and chest than plain old slim versions.

“We’ve gone from people being afraid of the slim fit to people accepting the slim fit to people wanting something that is even more fitted,” Paul Trible, co-founder of shirt maker Ledbury in Richmond, Va., said in a phone interview. “That has been a style and attitude change over the last four years.”

The dress-shirt industry could use a new trend to revive U.S. sales that researcher NPD Group says fell 3 percent to $2.8 billion in the 12 months ended in March. Total men’s apparel sales grew 0.9 percent to $59.8 billion in the same period, the firm said.

Until the late 1990s, American men were stuck with their local brick-and-mortar retailer, which took a one-silhouette-fits-all approach to shirts, Trible said. Men mostly limited themselves to fashion cues from their immediate peers, he said. In the 1980s and 1990s, men’s fashion took a turn toward looser looks. Think of basketball star Michael Jordan’s baggy shirts and Don Johnson’s roomy jackets on “Miami Vice.”

The great slim-down began in 2000 with a push from luxury menswear designers Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne, said Jorge Valls, Nordstrom’s men’s fashion director. They started with the suit, and the dress shirt followed proportionally, he said.

The look, an homage to the skinny styles of the 1960s, was quickly embraced by actors, musicians and athletes, such as George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, Tom Brady and LeBron James. Regular guys slowly followed, Valls said.

The Internet has helped the shift along, as have the women in men’s lives, said Trible, whose company is now developing extra-slim versions of its shirts.

“Now you get online, you see blogs, all sorts of people in pictures, and it is a more tailored and a more European look,” he said. “When guys show it to their wives, their wives really think it is more flattering.”

Among the men who credit their spouses with pushing a slimmer dress style is Robert Burns, 33, a marketer for a European luxury car brand who lives in Montvale, N.J.

“She would say, ‘My God, you can fit four of you in this shirt,’ ” he said. “ ‘It’s not 1996 anymore!’ Once she level-set me, I developed my own interest in claiming how I present myself.”

After some trial and error, he discovered slim versions from Gap’s Banana Republic, J. Crew and Ledbury two years ago. Now, he easily spends $100 to $150 on a shirt, compared with only $60 before. And, the 6-foot, 180-pounder is ready for extra-slim.

“My taste has changed, and my standards have certainly gotten higher,” he said.

Changing dress codes

Burns’ generation of 18- to 34-year-olds, an 80 million-strong cohort, is leading the switch to tighter fits, said Tom Julian, men’s fashion director at Doneger Group, a New York-based trend forecaster.

“The men’s apparel market is really being driven by what millennials are purchasing,” he said.

More casual dress codes at work also have contributed to the trend, Julian said. When men started taking off their jackets, they saw a greater incentive to wear a better-fitting shirt, he said.

Slim shirts are suitable not just for lean and V-shaped men. Stockier gents also can wear such shirts, which don’t have to be tight to fit well, Nordstrom’s Valls said. Seriously overweight men, however, are likely to stay clear.

Currently, 40 percent of Nordstrom’s dress-shirt sales are regular, 50 percent are trim, and 10 percent are extra-trim, Valls said. Five years ago, 60 percent were regular, and 40 percent were trim, he said.

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