New duds for dudes

NEW YORK — Steve Hale has discovered a reason to splurge on clothing again: the slim silhouette in suits to shirts that's replacing the baggier fits of past years. But his wife, Cathy, has slashed her monthly apparel spending, saying she's ”bored“ by what's out there.

In tough economic times, men are traditionally the first to cut back — but the Hales represent a new phenomenon in retailing: Over the past year, men have been on a clothes-buying spree, while women have pulled back even more.

”I did feel for a long period that there wasn't anything new to buy,“ said Steve Hale, 37, a financial consultant who had stuck with the business casual uniform of khakis and dress shirts since the late 1990s. ”But I really like the slim fit. It's not so roomy, not so bulky, and it's a lot cleaner.“

The lopsided fortunes — solid sales gains in menswear and a deepening funk in the far larger women's clothing business — is creating a rare sales disparity that hasn't been seen in years, according to David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, a buying office.

Fashion observers say the main catalyst fueling menswear buying is the slimmed-down styles shown on the runways a few years ago by designer Thom Browne that have recently garnered mass appeal. The look is being popularized by AMC's award-winning series Mad Men about ad executives in the 1960s.

Over the past year, the fashions, from body-conscious suits to leaner khakis, have been heavily promoted by an array of stores from conservative haberdashery Brooks Brothers to department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

Executives from those stores said menswear sales began outpacing women's wear last year. They wouldn't give exact figures for competitive reasons. But the disparity has been widening, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for research company NPD Group Inc. According to NPD's most recent data, menswear sales rose 0.8 percent in the year ended in May, while women's wear sales fell 3.5 percent. In the three months ended in May, women's wear sales dropped 3 percent, while menswear sales rose 2.3 percent.

With women's fashions accounting for 65 percent of the $155 billion adult apparel market, the rising fortunes of menswear — accounting for just half the size of women's wear — hasn't significantly helped lift overall sales. For the year ended May, adult clothing sales fell 2 percent.

Still, fashion pundits such as Wolfe hail the trend as the biggest change in men's fashion in more than a decade, since the relaxation in business dress codes enticed men to fill up their wardrobes with khaki. Major menswear brands like VF Corp.'s Nautica and Levi Strauss and Co.'s Dockers have reworked their fits. Pants, for example, have less material in the seat and thigh and have no pleats; suit jackets have higher armholes with narrower and shorter sleeves.

”Suddenly, a pair of cargo pants and a polo shirt doesn't look good anymore,“ said Wolfe.