Well Furnished

by Harry Sheff

Shirt and tie business at better men’s specialty stores is in stasis: good, but not growing.

Robert TalbottThe better furnishings business, up low-to mid-single digits in 2013, continues to be helped by strong clothing sales. But that doesn’t mean that shirts and ties have reached the performance of suits and sportcoats.

“Clothing has been on a four or five year run,” says consultant Steve Pruitt. “Sportcoats have been particularly strong, but that doesn’t always bode well for neckwear.”

“In general, yes, furnishings are doing well because we’ve had a strong tailored clothing cycle,” explains Jeff Blee of Brooks Brothers. “But the way our promotional cadence works, we’ll run a clothing event and it won’t really drive a ton of incremental shirt and tie business. The consumer comes in prepared to spend on clothing—he’ll pick up an extra pair of trousers rather than adding shirts and ties to a suit purchase.”

For many better men’s specialty stores—and for some better brands—the shift to sportswear has helped balance things, but it’s also changed the business.

“We have always been a tailored clothing store first, so shirts and ties were always strong,” observes Carl Slesinger, owner of Larrimor’s in Pittsburgh. “Now we’re driving sportswear, and that affects our furnishings business as a percentage of sales.”

Robert Talbott, a company founded on neckwear, has stepped up its diversification strategy. “Neckwear continues to hang in there, but you have to work twice as hard to stay even. It’s the heart and soul of this company but other categories have more traction,” CEO Bob Corliss admits.


Neckwear, in the better and luxury end of the market, is in an odd place. For most retailers business was up no more than 5 percent in 2013 according to our research, and for many was flat—a business that is merely stable. And yet there are pockets of excitement. Bow ties continue to do well for some retailers (they tend to be regional or catering to a younger, more fashion-forward customer) and knit ties, while a small part of the business, are finally picking up after years of stumbles at retail.

Brooks Brothers Signature Tartan“It’s a challenging business right now,” says Lisa Slesinger of Larrimor’s. “There’s less demand than we’d like. At this stage, I’m much more focused on the sell-through and customers responding to what we buy, rather than thinking about how to grow this business.”

Brooks Brothers, while it does have a good bow tie business (5 percent to total) and a knit tie business that has continued season to season for years, has a similar view of neckwear in general. “It’s been in a holding pattern for a number of years now,” says Blee. “We haven’t seen a season where the tie trend has moved much in either direction, up or down.”

For Brooks Brothers, neckwear is up mid-single digits for the year, just behind dress shirts.

Corliss notes that at Robert Talbott, pocket square sales have helped make up for slower tie sales. “I really do believe that the pocket square is the tie of the decade,” he says. “As neckwear declined, pocket squares went up dramatically, and I think that as pocket squares get more colorful and more beautiful, neckwear will again become hot. I don’t know how soon, but we’re ready for it.”

Says Barbara Blank at J.S. Blank Neckwear, “The good news in neckwear is that retailers are willing to try new ideas right now. For example, we had many stores testing woven square-bottom ties, even though it’s totally new and different.”

Dress Shirts

The consensus among most of the retailers we spoke to is that dress shirt business has been a little bit stronger for better stores than neckwear has. And in those stores, luxury product is doing even better. However, it’s a mixed bag: Pruitt’s research found that while dress shirts were strong in the fall, from January to November 2013, they were only up 3 percent—behind neckwear’s 5 percent. He’s optimistic for 2014.

At Brooks Brothers, “The big increases in shirts are coming from the fashion side and the better side—the shirts over $100 retail,” says Blee, adding that Black Fleece is doing particularly well in furnishings (dress shirts: $195 retail).


“Dress shirt business is pretty strong, and it’s driven by solid colors,” observes Harris Hester of Forsyth. “Saturated colors have been doing very well at retail for us now and booked well for spring. Our sell-throughs at Von Maur are extremely good and Patrick James is doing great.”

Hester adds that oxfords are doing well in basic colors—and gray—and that checks, which are big in Europe right now, may have a resurgence here.
That’s already happening at Brooks Brothers, says Blee. In fashion shirts, checks outsell stripes. “Things that look like a traditional dress shirt probably aren’t selling that well, and things that have more crossover appeal are.”

Robert Talbott launched an in-stock shirt program earlier this year with 20 classic-fit shirts and 21 slim-fit shirts. Slim fit, new for the otherwise traditional Talbott, has had a great response. It’s been positive enough that Corliss says they’ll be launching an extra-slim-fit shirt model this month.

“Eton continues to perform for us and Robert Graham has a solid broken herringbone that has blown out as an item,” says Pat Mon Pere at Patrick James. “We’ve recently brought back Gitman for some basics made in the USA, which is becoming a focus for us. Wrinkle-free shirts from Andrew J and Forsyth are also nice staples.”