A 55-inch flat screen television hangs above the maple wood bar where Sam Adams is on tap and a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey cozies up to swatches of Italian wool.
In this second-story boutique on Newbury Street, Alton Lane’s founders are trying to revolutionize the male shopping experience with private appointments, free drinks, leather couches, a body scanner, handwarmers — and of course, the custom clothes they are trying to sell.
Alton Lane, which opens next week, is one of a cadre of new retailers in Boston, including Bonobos and J.Crew’s Ludlow Shop, that aim to capture a larger share of the growing menswear business by offering personalized service in intimate spaces that almost disguise the fact that men are shopping. Salespeople are called guides or style experts. The men are clients, not customers. The retail outlets look like living rooms. The clothes are tailored to fit and there is no women’s merchandise in sight. Men don’t even have to carry bags out of the stores.
“Most guys we know don’t like the typical shopping experience. We treat them like they are coming into our home,” said Colin P.G. Hunter, Alton Lane’s chief executive, as he flipped through fabric samples at the “design bar.”
Here, men can sip bourbon as they create custom suits starting at $525, selecting everything from lining to piping to buttons. The fabrics are made in Italy, then sent to factories in Asia, and the custom suits show up in about four weeks at the clients’ doorsteps.
“For decades, men’s was an afterthought for retailers. But that’s starting to change as companies recognize this multibillion dollar business,” said Hunter, who also runs stores with cofounder Peyton Jenkins in New York and Washington, D.C. “We are an experience company that happens to sell clothing.”
If experts forecasted that menswear would lead the apparel market out of the recession, their prediction would have been labeled a sure miss, according to Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm in New York. But in fact, menswear is projected to increase to $55.5 billion by the end of the year, up more than 7 percent from 2010, while women’s clothing only recently started posting some positive growth. Retailers are tapping into a broader interest in fashion among men and getting them to spend more money on custom clothing.
“In order to stay competitive in the job market as part of their quest for success, men have learned the importance of keeping up their appearances,” Cohen said. “They pay extra attention to detail — modern silhouettes, slimmer cuts, narrower lapels — and shopping is no longer a chore but a game they want to master. And stores that focus on them and their likes are faring well.”
Bonobos, which started as an online-only retailer, opened a temporary store on Newbury Street in May and decided to make it permanent in July. The company has two other shops, in New York and California, and its 500-square foot “showroom” in Boston features a curated selection of merchandise, including $88 washed chino pants that are curved to fit the natural contours of a man’s body. A small fridge is stocked with beer to serve to customers during their appointments or for trunk shows the store hosts. After a personal fit session, men can place orders for the items they want, and they are sent to their homes with free one-day shipping.
“There are no bags to carry out. There’s not a ton of people. It’s hand-holding in a good way. Guys welcome it. For too long, shopping has been a negative experience,” said Lauren Cuozzo, Bonobos’ manager in Boston. “We make it fun and interactive.”
That has helped attract devotees like Christian Hurst, a 24-year-old medical research assistant who lives in South Boston. Hurst showed up for his appointment earlier this summer and was greeted with a cold Corona after a hard day of work. (Retailers can serve alcohol if they get a permit or a finding by the local licensing board that the activities don’t qualify as the selling of alcoholic beverages, according to Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.)
His “guide” helped him find the right size, and he ended up spending roughly $200 on two pairs of pants — about twice as much as the Levi’s already in his closet.
Hurst said the tailored fit and personal attention made it worth the investment, and he has since come back for shirts, jeans, swim trunks, shorts, and a blazer and has referred several friends. He plans to return soon to update his fall wardrobe.
“I just get really overwhelmed in department stores with different brands all over the place and you can never find your size,” Hurst said. “This was unlike any shopping experience I’d ever had. It was just the two of us. It was nice and relaxed and she offered me beverages.”
Some mainstream merchants are also pushing the boundaries at their traditional retail outlets. Brooks Brothers created a floor in the Madison Avenue store in Manhattan that has a pool table and bar near their custom made suits. UGG, which hired Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as a pitchman, opened its first men’s store in New York and has others planned around the country.
Last month, J.Crew debuted its second Ludlow Shop in the country at Copley Place, a store the company claims has the “charm and services of an old Haberdashery, but with an updated and modern look.” The shop features 27 styles of the Ludlow suit, a tailored fit with bespoke-inspired details including a floating chest piece, hand-finished collar, and a Bemberg lining. There are suiting experts on site along with services such as tailoring, monogramming, and door-to-door courier service. Some wool suits cost around $700 and cashmere jackets can top $1,000.
“Our Men’s Shops give us a chance to show our guy who we are and what we stand for. Our guy appreciates what we are doing and he is paying more attention to the garments and the details, down to the fabric, stitches, and buttons,” said Frank Muytjens, head of men’s design for J.Crew. “We love hearing that guys like what we are doing and that we’ve made their lives a little bit easier.”