Former Jos. A. Bank executives launch men's apparel brand in Maryland

Some former Jos. A. Bank executives are launching a new mens apparel brand.

Several former executives of Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. plan to launch a retail brand that will be based in Maryland and sell classically styled men's apparel for business professionals.

Plans call for menswear retailer Wilkes & Riley to open online in November and expand with stores, most likely after the first couple of years, said Steve Marshall, CEO of the Bel Air-based company.

Marshall, who left Jos. Bank as a divisional vice president of merchandising at the end of May, has joined with five other former Bank merchandising executives who hope to replicate Bank's rapid period of growth during the last decade.

"We did some remarkable things there," including contributing to a long, continuous stretch of strong year-over-year sales, Marshall said.

The Hampstead-based national chain struggled in recent years as its strategy of offering deep discounts failed to lure shoppers, hurting sales and profits. Bank was acquired last year by Men's Wearhouse for $1.8 billion after a contentious takeover fight and now is run as a brand of the Houston-based retailer.

In March, Men's Wearhouse announced it would lay off 122 employees at Bank's Hampstead headquarters, about 15 percent of the 780-person workforce. The company said those employees were duplicating work at Men's Wearhouse offices in New York City and Fremont, Calif.

A spokesman for Men's Wearhouse did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Marshall declined to discuss circumstances of his and the other executives' departure from Jos. Bank or to name his partners in the new venture, other than to say they each represent key areas in menswear merchandising.

He said the newly created Wilkes & Riley brand would "reach for a more affluent customer" with merchandise he described as "affordable luxury," including suits, dress shirts, sport shirts, neckwear, shoes and accessories.

"Men are shopping more and paying attention to what they're wearing and how they're wearing it," Marshall said. "It's a really exciting time in the men's clothing business. … We believe we can scale this company very rapidly."

He said the brand name is designed to evoke elegance — not trendiness.

"It's the classic guy looking current," he said.

Products will only be sold online for the first two years.

"The Internet is the future, and as the millennials get older, they have grown up on the Internet, and their way of shopping is on mobile phones," Marshall said. "Men's Internet sales have outpaced women's for the last five years. There's really an opportunity to get in now and grow online."

Though any startup carries a high level of risk, the Wilkes & Riley focus on the higher-end menswear segment makes sense at a time when stores that cater to the middle class are struggling, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm.

"If you look at the retailers that are succeeding, the best part of retail is the higher end, and the best part of the economy is the higher end," Davidowitz said. And "the menswear category is doing much better than women's."

He said experience in menswear retailing should give the former Bank executives an advantage launching a startup.

"I like the online approach, because … any retailer will tell you the fastest-growing area is online," he said. "That's a good place to start."

Marshall, who joined Bank in 1999 and became merchandising manager of dress shirts in 2000, had served as a divisional vice president since 2008. In that role, he oversaw merchandising of dress shirts, neckwear, accessories and shoes. Over his career at Bank, Marshall purchased 33 million dress shirts and 11 million ties for the stores.

While many of the details are still being ironed out, all of Wilkes & Riley apparel will be designed in house and manufactured by suppliers in Asia and Italy, he said.

"Our mission is to make the best, and we have to source it with best," said Marshall, who said he is putting in his own money and has the financial backing of an outside investment group. He declined to estimate startup costs or identify his backers.

For now, the company has set up a teaser website at www.wilkesriley.com that says the grand opening will be Nov. 10 and that "we're working on something special."

If the online launch is successful, the company hopes to eventually open stores, likely in business districts along the East Coast near potential customers.

"We love competing … and we want to be here in Maryland," Marshall said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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