Loosening the tie

by Harry Sheff

The furnishings business grows market share by going after men’s leisure time.

We’re seeing an increasing casualization in the furnishings market lately, but this time it’s not spelling the end of the category. This trend manifests itself in both patterned dress shirts crossing over to evening and weekend wear and in neckwear in seasonal fabrics being worn with soft coats and jeans. But we’re also seeing a new crop of neckwear customers: younger guys who see ties—both bows and four-in-hands—as fashion pieces, rather than mandatory accessories for the office. What the market does with these sales and fashion trends may decide the future of the business.

It probably started with dress shirts. Despite the category’s slowness to adopt smaller collars to match the increasingly narrow ties and suit lapels, dress shirts offered more exact sizing (incremental collar and sleeve sizes, rather than S/M/L) and plenty of slim fit options. Dress shirts began cannibalizing sport shirt business for another reason, too: guys wanted shirts that they could wear to the office, tie-less or not, that could also be worn after work; it was a matter of value.

As neckwear makers saw their market share disappearing with office dress codes, two things were starting to happen: slimmer ties (both with suits and pockets squares and with jeans and sportcoats) caught on with younger men and small neckwear brands began experimenting with fabrics and patterns. Bigger neckwear manufacturers, seeing the smaller brands’ success with bow ties, seasonal fabrics and vintage patterns editorially, began to experiment.

“One of the great things about neckwear is our lead times are short, so we can experiment,” said PVH’s David Sirkin. “Wool ties may have shipped too early last year, but we took a stand. We learned when to ship and at what volume.”

“Wool felt mainstream for the first time ever,” remarked Sugar Chicago’s Greg Shugar. “And I expect the same with cotton for spring.”

“It’s not about functional furnishings anymore, it’s about lifestyle and fashion—that’s how the consumer is seeing it now,” insists Randa’s John Kammeier. Randa, which increased its bow tie production ten-fold since 2009, says guys are buying them in multiples. Seasonal fabrications tend to work best for Randa in bow ties, but linens, wools and cottons make up about 5 percent of four-in-hand ties. Counting seasonal effects (silk woven to give the texture of wools and linens), it’s 20 to 25 percent.

All of this playing dress-up—bow ties, wool ties and tweed, Fair Isle patterns and what Randa calls an “alpine gentleman” look—is great for shirts and ties. Likewise skinny ties with jeans and the dress shirt that keeps working outside the office. But how can furnishings vendors and retailers keep it going?

One furnishings vendor I spoke to still lamented the lack of risk-taking in the market, bringing up the bankruptcy of Hostess, the maker of Twinkies and other packaged desserts. “With all the emphasis on health and obesity,” he scolded, they knew the market was changing, so why didn’t they change?

I would argue that the furnishings market is taking risks. I still see brands big and small trying out knit ties and even leather ties. And risk doesn’t always mean new; many brands have had great success mining heritage and retro looks. On the retail side, Saks Fifth Avenue began merchandising ties within the contemporary sportswear department. The trick will be to make sure neckwear in particular isn’t just a passing fad—or a stuffy relic from 20th-century offices.