Men are discovering a little fashion trick women have used for years accessories.
When a new suit is too much of a budget stretch, a new tie often isn't. That's one reason accessories manufacturers are still smiling in the face of economic downturn.
"We're almost recession-proof," says Tom Gilbert, chief executive officer of Gilbert Hosiery, which holds licenses for several designers including Pierre Cardin and Ron Chereskin.
"If someone wants a lift and they can't buy big-ticket items, they'll buy accessories like socks or suspenders. Having something new on makes them feel better," Gilbert says.
Arthur Pulitzer, president of Wemco neckwear which holds licenses for Oscar de la Renta, Charles Jourdan and Allyn St. George agrees with Gilbert. "With recessionary times, accessories are more affordable than big-ticket items. All accessories will be popular."
Stores are becoming savvy to this and are changing their marketing techniques, says Tom Julian, fashion director for the Men's Fashion Association.
"Accessories are no longer a dark area in the corner of a store....The shirts are out of cellophane and displayed with suspenders and ties. It's no longer just glass shelves," he says.
Display isn't the only thing that has changed in accessories, Julian adds, pointing out that socks are "no longer just basic black, brown or gray." He expects men's socks to be as much a fashion statement in this decade as neckties were in the '80s.
With accessories increasing in importance, here's a primer on some key trends for the coming months:
Width-wise, the standard is 3 3/4 inches with a 1/2 -inch to spare in either direction. For the man who wants to make a fashion statement, a narrow 2 1/4 -inch tie will do it.
The conversation quotient is key to a successful tie these days. Some of the best are from Dallas-based Barry Wells. A former graphic designer, Wells switched to neckwear two years ago and now his ties are strong sellers at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Wells likes repeating designs that prompt "true conversation but that can be worn by a conservative dresser. I only wear navy blue suits," he says.
For spring, Wells' prints include: "Neither Fish Nor Fowl," with flying birds transforming into fish; "Haute Cowtour," with Holsteins wearing hats; "Spur of the Moment," with red spurs and a single gold one; and "Knot a John Philip Sousa," with stars and stripes. The Wells ties, which sell for $60-$65, have the pattern name on the label.
The floral prints of a year ago continue to flourish, along with related fruit, vegetable and leaf motifs. The traditionals will remain, but an interesting twist on paisley comes from Cesarani, which has a series of bandanna-print-inspired ties.
Be they flamboyant or subtle, it's patterns, patterns, patterns at your feet. Jockey is covering all bases with plaids, argyles, polka dots, geometrics, abstracts and ecological patterns in both mid-calf and over-the-calf lengths. Most are subdued enough to wear to a board meeting.
On the brighter side, Gilbert Hosiery is introducing the Coogi line with as many as five different colors in a single sock design. It's a tie-in with the wildly colorful Coogi sweaters, designed and produced in Australia.
E.G. Smith, the man credited with taking socks from basic to brash, continues to expand his line for men and women. This spring, men can look for '60s-inspired daisy prints, peace symbols, happy faces and op art patterns; computer-aided designs with fruit, tulips with butterflies, sunglasses and film strips and a merman with a treasure chest; and Smith's continuing series of "messages to raise global consciousness" one has a map of the world and the phrase "world love" around the top.
When it comes to dress shoes, only one thing really counts comfort.
"We have a whole generation that grew up in tennis shoes and athletic shoes and all they know is comfort. They're looking for what they've come to know and love," says Herb Wallace, director of fashion development for Johnston & Murphy, which has introduced a "Trampoline Cushion System" into more than 20 dress-shoe styles.
"They're truly dress shoes," Wallace says. "You can walk in with them on and not have everyone staring at your feet." Wallace cites laboratory tests that show shoes with this system provide more shock absorption and breathability than ones by Rockport and Cole-Haan.
Owen Baxter, vice president and general manager of Hush Puppies, says "40 to 60 percent of sales are now based on comfort. Comfort is the shoe industry buzz word." Not surprisingly, Hush Puppies is introducing what it calls the "Bounce" system.
A belt is another necessity that can add wardrobe flash. For dress, the width is 1 to 1 1/4 inches with woven leather the new look, followed by alligator-grains and lighter finishes that show slight imperfections in the leather.