By Kelley Shields / Photos by Victoria Stillwell
What is driving the rash of men-centric retail environments in this area, such as barber shops/shaving parlors and higher-end apparel boutiques like Barber & Supply, HW Carter & Sons, Cadet, Robinson Brooklyn, Genuine Motorworks and By Robert James? Could it have something to do with the “recovering” economy?
It could, depending on how one looks at current available stats, but bear in mind that data on unemployment is rampantly skewed by age, ethnicity, data collection time frames—you name it. So maybe the bump up in male-destination retail growth in our area does not really have too much to do with female unemployment surpassing male joblessness for the first time in six years, as reported by the New York Times in January. It would probably be too simplistic to associate guys suddenly having a .1 % advance in employment over gals with the sudden surge in this sector of retail offerings in our area.
Perhaps, then, it has to do with shifts in the gender division in the ongoing tide of new residents. What do those stats look like?
Well, they are pretty close, as reported by citymelt.com, a demographics data site. The figures are close enough, in fact, to suggest that the activity in the retail sector showcasing male assortments and/or services could not be related to a marked difference in population values by gender. In zip 11211, the population is split fairly evenly: 44,522 males and 45,595 females. And in zip 11222, there is an even smaller gap between the two sexes: 18,415 males and 18, 519 females.
So what is fueling this almost frenetic pace of retail men-centricity?
The associate working the register on a recent Thursday afternoon at Barber & Supply tried to answer my question: “It’s just a trend, and like any other trend it’s related to demand, like all the Americana restaurants opening up.” He also commented on their other Barber & Supply locations in Manhattan, thereby qualifying, I suppose, his statement about demand; on this particular day, and at this particular time, the chairs were empty, employees draped across them chatting with each other. I will concede that on other days, at off-work hours, the chairs are likely occupied, and the beautiful wood waiting-bench is probably full. The only problem I have with his answer is that trends don’t manifest out of nowhere. There is generally something that topples the first domino.
Maybe it has to do with a shift in the historically (read: possibly outdated) female prerogatives of, 1) shopping for pleasure, and 2) curating one’s self image; that is, literally projecting the perception being sought through choices in wardrobe, hair, makeup, body art, jewelry, etc.
Justin, the store manager of HW Carter & Sons, offered his observation that dandyism was most recently revived around the time the influence of two pop icons—Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Moss—was cresting, pointing out that both figures emanated a powerful opposing energy to their idol category. He was a beautiful boy, and she, a thoroughly non-voluptuous woman. Perhaps the celebration of sexual duality within a single gender was responsible for setting the stage for the dandy’s concerns to not only return, but to thrive. And thrive they have, for some time. It would be a mistake to infer that because shops like By Robert James and Robinson Brooklyn (both labels already established in Manhattan with doors recently opening here in Williamsburg around the same time HW Carter & Sons did) have cropped up in Williamsburg at this time, that dandyism is suddenly a thing again. To Justin’s point “it” has been a thing for a while, citing the long-running success of the RRL label as an example, a brand he feels perhaps HW Carter’s fall assortment shared at least some customer crossover with.
That assessment explained a lot to me, paired with his observation that his customer base is densely weighted by tourists from the also relatively new (and swank) local hotels. The takeaway is this: residents of Manhattan and points elsewhere are coming here both to shop for things they are familiar with, and for a little fun thrown in, the fun of “discovering” something new.
The area’s fate is sealed. It is well on its way to being Soho-ized. With Racked’s confirmation of leases being signed by Urban Outfitters, J.Crew, and Anthropologie, someone ought to be working on a tear-jerker of a eulogy: “RIP Williamsburg. From those of us that knew you from way back. It has been a beautiful run.”
Re-enter the demand theory, which I find on some level anemic as the complete answer, in that demand is collateral; meaning, it is a response to something. Unsatisfied in my quest to identify the progenitor of “what” is behind this response/surge in male-focused retail activity, I went shopping for some more perspective. I dropped in to Alter Men, possibly the pioneer of the male destination retail trend in this area, established on Franklin Avenue in 2007, and talked shop for a bit with Gordon and George. I also stopped by Hollander & Lexer, a brand first established in Manhattan in ’06, with their Metropolitan Avenue location opening in 2009, and chatted with Manny. I asked them what they thought was driving the growth in men’s-only shops in the neighborhood, and if they felt it was helping or hurting their businesses.
Manny, of Hollander & Lexer, feels there has been a growing interest in men’s wear in general over the past two years due largely to his observation that the volume of male celebrity icons is surpassing females for the first time in a long while. He thinks this has influenced the editorial coverage of men’s fashion and pushed male wardrobing and body care past the previous metrosexual ideal; his sense is that more males than ever now feel comfortable admitting they want to look good.
Gordon and George, of Alter, have not noticed any change—negative or positive—in their business (which looks very healthy from the density of shoppers trying on, cashing out, and perusing racks the Sunday afternoon I was there) since the arrival of the newbies. Their take on what is driving the growth and how it might affect things is demand-based. Gordon believes that filling a population’s need is usually the fuel feeding the fire of any growth, adding amusingly (referencing the glass towers that rim Kent Avenue and perforate the surrounding blocks), “After all, Wall Street needs to be dressed…”
Brad, one half of the gorgeous Cadet enterprise, suggested the surge in demand is most probably a reflection of an insufficient assortment of offerings in the area. Without a doubt, Cadet will make shorter work of searching for well-made, simultaneously elegant and classic, well-priced men’s clothing. To top it off, they also have a Community-Conscience (my term for keeping it local): their factory is in Brooklyn.
Penultimate pioneers on the men’s apparel scene, the Brooklyn Tailors team began their bespoke operation way back in ’07, out of their apartment, opening their storefront in 2011. Client services rep Justin and I talked about the flurry of haberdashery-esque activity. His take is that the male population that arrived here during the first wave of gentrification arrived young; they have since matured and recognize the need for classic, expertly fit clothes with a superior make. Brooklyn Tailors offer both ready-to-wear and bespoke services to fill this need, and they are clearly doing very well. While I chatted (and shopped!) there was at least one client happily waiting outside the elegant little space while Daniel finished fitting an earlier appointment, and Brenna worked with another client finalizing the fabric details of his bespoke order. I mentioned to Jacob that with their volume of business (evident not only from the bodies in the room but also from the full rail of suit bags identified with handwritten order numbers, suspended wall-to-wall near the ceiling), it is a good thing they are a bit off the beaten path. Justin agreed; their goal is to provide design and service of equally high quality, a mission that could not be managed with throngs of “shoppers” milling in and out.
Ad Hoc opened its doors in 2011. I asked shopkeeper Ally about the uptick in foot traffic due to the neighborhood becoming a shopping destination. She observes that, while it has brought more people to the area, the broader swath is not necessarily a focused consumer base. She refers to Ad Hoc’s assortment as being a curated blend of vintage and new production that, hopefully, has the feel of looking through a good friend’s closet, checking out “stuff” of theirs you’d like to wear. I detected concern that the population this appeals to is perhaps shifting. She reflects that a lot of the increased traffic consists of folks coming to shop from outside the neighborhood, or newly arrived residents. Although they’re curious and want to feel as if they know the old artist vibe, there’s so little evidence of it anymore. So they’re more likely to shop at any of the stores, rather than at specific stores. Ad Hoc’s décor is best described as thoroughly authentic, reflecting the neighborhood of yore, sporting the feel of found furniture and spare embellishments, and leaving key aspects untouched, like the wainscoting and linoleum floor tiles.
So if there aren’t more males here than females, and it isn’t that males suddenly are more flush than they’ve been since the depression/recession began, then the reason for the sudden flourish of male-assortment shops is most likely a confluence of three factors: 1) a bigger population in general equalling increased retail opportunity of any type, 2) reduced risk for new arrivals on the men’s retail scene due to the trail being well-blazed by the likes of Alter, Hollander & Lexer, and Brooklyn Tailors, and 3) a “maturing” of males generally, an exponential dial-up from the early ’90s male psyche, one that broke down barriers to dressing well, and enjoying it, and making it the birthright of any male, whether he be metro, homo, or heterosexual. This historic shift took male shopping and preening—openly and with enthusiasm—well past the straight/gay question.
When studying trends, you examine three levels of behavior: what was happening, what is happening, and what will happen. On what might be next retail-wise for this area, Justin of HW Carter & Sons offered the interesting statistic that 40% of his customers are women. That generated an initial assumption that females are shopping for the males in their lives, but something about his response caused me to infer that Justin was suggesting that, at some point, women may be shopping the assortment for themselves.
The whole androgyny and unisex wardrobe idea is, in fact, the next white space I perceive. An indication of a bubble (not nearly an actual bubble yet, but a hint of a potential for a bubble) is blistering. We saw it in Hedi Slimane’s debut collection for Saint Laurent Homme Fall 2013, a unisex collection. Both male and female models walked the same runway wearing the same clothes. And there is also the model Andrej Pejic, a beautiful and handsome person, equally male and female in energy, with an utterly indiscernible gender while modeling, unless you are aware of his renown. In 2011, Pejic ranked simultaneously in the Top 50 Male Models list and FHM magazine’s The 100 Sexiest Women in the World.
The Saint Laurent Homme show was striking and alienating in many respects, as runway generally is. Even so, one can’t help but imagine just slightly more commercial iterations of such clothing, and where shops that feature truly unisex assortments might make their home. Ten bucks says there will be one right here in Williamsburg—sooner rather than later.