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Men go online to cultivate style, but will they shop there?

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
September 16, 2011 -- Updated 1627 GMT (0027 HKT)
Park and Bond, Gilt Groupe's online men's store, offers a mix of the classic and contemporary look. Featured here, glasses by Ray Ban, jacket by Ian Velardi, shirt by Thom Browne and tie by Salvatore Ferragamo.
Park and Bond, Gilt Groupe's online men's store, offers a mix of the classic and contemporary look. Featured here, glasses by Ray Ban, jacket by Ian Velardi, shirt by Thom Browne and tie by Salvatore Ferragamo.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Men are becoming more interested in "looking good," Esquire editor-in-chief says
  • Full-priced retail sites launching this fall target men willing to spend more on quality items
  • Sites hope to build on popularity of style blogs like "Put This On," "A Continuous Lean"
  • "Sometimes it's subtle, but people treat you differently when you dress well," man says

(CNN) -- Mike Berezowsky spends up to 60 minutes a day perusing style blogs, catching up on trends and cultivating his own look.

He's no fashion insider, just a 36-year-old married father and government employee from Edmonton, Canada, who favors what he calls the "college professor" look: tweed jacket, corduroy pants, wing-tipped shoes.

"I'm not going to jump on every trend -- hello camo and driving moccasins, I'm looking at you -- but the sites and their writers often inspire me to try different things and help me develop my own personal style," he said.

He describes his interest in dressing well as "above average," which pretty much makes him the target customer of several full-priced retail websites launching this fall geared exclusively toward men.

Sure, there are already plenty of sites where men can buy the latest Ben Sherman shirt, or find out how to wear a pocket square. The goal is to combine the shopping experience with editorial content in one website, where men can read up on the latest styles and find the look that best suits them. Then, they can shop that look without leaving the site through a selection curated by the sites' editors.

It's an approach that aims to build on the popularity of men's lifestyle blogs, such as "Put This On," "Selectism" and "Gilt MANual," to name a few. The sites have flourished in the past five years amid a resurgence of interest among men in "looking good," Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger said.

"It's an exciting time in men's fashion," he said. "There's been this real return to expressing individuality through clothes and it doesn't have to be through suits and ties. It's the whole gamut of different pieces that men have access to. There's just been an explosion in interesting clothing."

It's a look inspired by Steve McQueen, Robert Redford or Paul Newman, with the most discerning consumers willing to pay a premium for quality goods invariably referred to as "classic" or "timeless."

"Across the board, we are seeing a movement of men who care about their clothing's origins; where they are made and the quality of every detail," said Katherine McMillan, part of the husband-wife team behind "Pierrepont Hicks," designer of American-made men's accessories. "The word 'heritage' is becoming taboo, but it is about American heritage, this momentum."

Like most modern movements, the Internet has brought the world of trade information and style insiders to audiences outside New York and Los Angeles, said Michael Williams, editor and creator of "A Continuous Lean."

Designer menswear is booming
Iconic J. Crew brand hot again

"There's this fostering of guys being interested in menswear and chasing all this menswear and it's created this big growth market online."

But will men shop online for full-priced items they could find in stores? Two websites -- Gilt Groupe's Park and Bond and CLAD -- are banking on the notion that men want more retail destinations made just for them, but they don't want to shop in stores.

It's a model that has proven successful with women, but shopping habits among men are a bit more nuanced.

"It's a touchy subject," said Tim Yap, editor of the Tobe Report. "I don't want to say men don't like to shop [in stores], but I think a lot of the time, my impression with myself and my friends, is we typically know what we want before we go out and shop. I would've researched the product before I go out."

But some existing online stores are already showing signs of promise.

MR PORTER, male counterpart to the popular UK-based women's luxury goods site, Net-a-Porter, debuted in February, and already boasts 9 million page views a month and an average order of $700. It offers style tips, such as 30 essential items for fall, profiles of actors and motorcycle designers, and a Stylepedia that includes terms like "inseam" and "sprezzatura."

"MR PORTER really shows fashion in a more realistic way," said David McGuire, a 39-year-old sales manager from Ann Arbor, Michigan. "A lot of the ads you see in fashion magazines are flawed in multiple ways. The men in those ads are what I refer to as 'skinny boys' -- I'm 6'3, 200 pounds -- they don't represent me, physically or professionally."

Sites like MR PORTER inspire him to take chances wearing a green and purple bow tie to work or stripes and plaid together. Occasionally, there's some backlash, he said.

"I've gotten a few snickers from the co-workers, but they are way out numbered by the amount of compliments I receive," said McGuire. "I think the biggest requirement for being fashionable is to also be confident in your appearance."

Buying clothes online is another matter, he said.

"While my suits are off-the-rack, they still require a good bit of tailoring," he said in an e-mail. "You just can't get the type of service and personalized attention purchasing those things online. Finding a tailor is like finding an attorney: sure, there are plenty around, but when it's your *ass* that's on the line, you want the absolute best."

Berezowsky let his subscription to GQ lapse about two years ago, when he realized he was getting more of what he wanted from men's lifestyle blogs.

Mike Berezowsky uses blogs to cultivate his personal style.
Mike Berezowsky uses blogs to cultivate his personal style.

"The writers of blogs like Put This On and Die, Workwear, in particular, go to great length to explain things like how to select quality clothing, why Goodyear welting on shoes is worth paying a premium for, what to tell your tailor, and the difference between a cheap tie and an expensive one," Berezowsky said in an e-mail.

"Sometimes it's subtle, but people treat you differently when you dress well. It's helped me in my job and I notice it at stores and restaurants."

Style blogs often rely on editorial content from influential people in fashion, advertising, even the restaurant industry to introduce a new generation of taste-makers and products that might not be available in department stores between the coasts, said Tim Yap, editor of the Tobe Report.

Each blog has its own attitude, from Put This On, which describes itself as "a Web series about dressing like a grown-up," to Street Etiquette, which approaches style from an urban perspective. Some are home-grown operations that have grown into their own brands, like A Continuous Lean, while others belong to specific designers or retailers.

The blogs are also forums where men trade ideas and opinions, said Cory Ohlendorf, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Valet Magazine.

"The Web has really turned the topic of fashion and style into more of a conversation instead of a lecture," said Ohlendorf, whose site attracts around 430,000 monthly unique visitors. "We might give you information on how you might want a suit tailored but then users come into the piece and give their own point of view."

When readers began asking for a wider spectrum of colors, styles and price points for specific brands, Valet decided it was time to start a section focused on the buying experience, Ohlendorf said.

Valet's personal shopper section aggregates items from independent retailers and department stores and sites like MR PORTER into a search engine. Readers can also find out about upcoming sales, coupon codes and menswear shops across the country and register for alerts.

"There was always a certain amount of guys who wanted quality, but that type of consumer is getting younger and growing in numbers because the information is now available online to anyone looking for it."

Until recently, shopping for men has fallen into three categories: female-focused department stores, like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom's, where men have to wade through perfume counters to get to the suits; vertical retailers, like J. Crew or Ralph Lauren, which create products for men, women and children; and the independent men's specialty shop, such as Atlanta's Sid Mashburn, which emphasizes in-store customer service and institutional knowledge, but many of which have been slow to enter e-commerce.

"It comes at a time when there's so much product at the retail level, so for the average guy who may not like to shop, a curated site that offers a well-edited selection of goods, that's a really welcome solution," said Yap of the Tobe Report. "It also taps into the old-school notion of what real customer service is, that you know who the customer is and you service them in a more private atmosphere."

CLAD and Park and Bond each boast technology that claims to help users find the right size for them based on their measurements and sizes in certain brands. If it proves successful, it may conquer the final barrier to getting guys to shop online.

CLAD is a joint venture of JC Penney and Esquire magazine -- a seemingly incongruous partnership. JC Penney may seem like an unlikely player to enter the high-end men's luxury market, which is where Esquire comes in, CLAD President Will Swillie said.

"Esquire has been talking to the American male for 80 years," Swillie said. "Who better to align ourselves with than someone who already has a relationship and a credible voice with our core customer."

Who is that customer? "The Esquire man," he said, the American male who's between 24 to 54 and wants to dress well, but not like a runway model.

The magazine was also flirting with e-commerce through its use of QR codes to point readers to products in its pages, Swillie said.

Even if men don't mind shopping in stores, the level of customer service isn't what it used to be, said Kevin Ryan, CEO of Gilt Groupe, purveyor of luxury goods that made its name in flash sales.

"We don't offer content for content's sake. It's about how to pick out a shirt if you're buying a black tie," Ryan said. "I do think that's disappearing from traditional retail. When we ask people if they have salespeople they really trust, 1 out of 20 will say yes. If they could find the perfect salesperson in stores they wouldn't need to go online to find that service."

Berezowsky is slowly coming around to online shopping for clothes, starting with ties and duck boots.

"I still like to try on clothes before buying," he said. "I'm still hesitant. That said, I know someone who has had a great experience buying custom shirts online, so I may try that. "

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