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American men confronting fear of fashion


Men: Does the thought of coordinating a suit and tie make you break out in a cold sweat? Would you rather have dinner with your mother-in-law than go shopping for clothes?

If the answer is "yes" to either of those questions, you probably suffer from fashionphobia.

And you have plenty of company. Only a small percentage of men in this country have an interest in fashion, says Howard Weinstein, owner of Irv's Men's Clothings stores in Chicago.

Why such apathy for apparel? Explanations range from psychological to sociological in scope.

For starters, fashion is generally associated with attracting attention. Yet the very thought of standing out in a crowd sends shivers down most men's spines.

"Women use fashion to differentiate while men use fashion to assimilate," says Peter Sipos, a management consultant who spent the first 14 years of his career in men's and women's clothing manufacturing.

Sipos poses the following situation: Two women show up at a party wearing the same dress a nightmare. However, if two men wear similar or even identical garb, they would heave a sigh of relief.

"Men approach fashion from a military perspective," says Sipos. "It identifies what camp they belong to."

Yet, fashionphobia appears to be a uniquely American affliction.

"In this country, it's a struggle to induce men to shop. In Europe, we shop for fashion, we talk about fashion, we breathe fashion," says Luciano Franzoni, a transplanted Italian and the designer of Hartmarx's Confezioni Riserva men's clothing.

"A man's wardrobe is a priority in Europe even though apartments or cars may not be lavish," says Jordan Leff, vice president of Zanzara International, a Chicago-based tie manufacturer.

Wally Steiner, vice president of Tiffany & Co. in Chicago, also promotes the Europeans-know-better belief: "In Europe, where the fashion houses originated, the entire culture is built around fashion like cars in Detroit. Here, most men grew up thinking about clothes as something to keep you warm."

There are indications that the number of fashionphobics is beginning to drop, though.

For starters, sales trends indicate men are gaining color confidence in their casual clothing choices. Retailers report that khaki and navy, which have long been the best-selling sportswear colors, now have stiff competition in the form of bright red, lime green and orange.

And though rising prices and a sluggish economy generally are not good news, the pervading gloom and doom has made men better shoppers.

"Although there's still a lot of fast-food out there, Americans are getting back to a sense of quality," says Hollis Wayne, fashion director of Playboy.

"Men are very interested in the textiles. They want to know where fabrics come from some of them are even becoming familiar with the names of mills," says Paul Buckter, merchandise coordinator at Bloomingdale's. "Men are also more aware of labels. They aren't just coming in and asking for a suit, they're asking for an Armani or Valentino suit."

Advertising executives report that new trends in marketing have made fashion more palatable to men, citing The Gap for making fashion "hip" instead of "fruity."

"Do American men sit around and discuss fashion at the health club?" asks Tom Julian, co-fashion director of the Men's Fashion Association in New York. "No, I don't think so. But they are out shopping for themselves more."

Indeed, according to Playboy magazine, 82 percent of men felt comfortable shopping for themselves in 1990 versus 75 percent in 1984.

"The men's clothing business will never be like women's, however, men are starting to show more of an interest in what they wear," says Wayne at Playboy.

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