Slim Shirts Get Slimmer as Nordstrom Courts Fitter Guys

American men over the past decade have embraced the slim-fit shirt styles long favored by their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

Now the fashion industry is betting that U.S. guys, spurred on by encouraging partners and the spread of social media, are ready for something more extreme: extra-slim fits, which can be 4 inches smaller around the waist and chest than plain old slim versions.

“We’ve gone from people being afraid of the slim fit to people accepting the slim fit to people wanting something that is even more fitted,” Paul Trible, co-founder of shirt maker Ledbury Inc. in Richmond, Virginia, said in a phone interview. “That has been a style and attitude change over the last four years.”

The dress-shirt industry could use a new trend to revive U.S. sales that researcher NPD Group Inc. says fell 3 percent to $2.8 billion in the 12 months ended in March. Total men’s apparel sales grew 0.9 percent to $59.8 billion in the same period, the firm said.

Until the late 1990s, American men were stuck with their local brick-and-mortar retailer, which took a one-silhouette-fits-all approach to shirts, Trible said. For their part, guys mostly limited themselves to fashion cues from their immediate peers, he said. In the 1980s and 1990s, men’s fashion took a turn toward looser looks. Think of basketball star Michael Jordan’s baggy shirts and Don Johnson’s roomy jackets on “Miami Vice.”

Great Slim-Down

The great slim-down began in 2000 with a push from luxury menswear designers Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne, said Jorge Valls, Nordstrom Inc.’s men’s fashion director. They started with the suit, and the dress shirt followed proportionally, he said.

The look, an homage to the skinny styles of the 1960s, was quickly embraced by actors, musicians and athletes, such as George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, Tom Brady and LeBron James. Regular guys slowly followed, Valls said.

The Internet has helped the shift along, as have the women in men’s lives, said Trible, whose company is now developing extra-slim versions of its shirts.

“Now you get online, you see blogs, all sorts of people in pictures, and it is a more tailored and a more European look,” he said. “When guys show it to their wives, their wives really think it is more flattering.”

Among the men who credit their spouses with pushing a slimmer dress style is Robert Burns, a 33-year-old marketer for a European luxury car brand who lives in Montvale, New Jersey.

‘Not 1996’

“She would say, ‘My God, you can fit four of you in this shirt,’” he said. “‘It’s not 1996 anymore!’ Once she level-set me, I developed my own interest in claiming how I present myself.”

After some trial and error, he discovered slim versions from Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic, J. Crew Group Inc. and Ledbury two years ago. Now, he easily spends $100 to $150 on a shirt, compared with only $60 before. And, the 6-foot, 180-pounder is ready for extra-slim.

“My taste has changed, and my standards have certainly gotten higher,” he said.

Burns’s generation of 18- to 34-year-olds, an 80 million-strong cohort, is leading the switch to tighter fits, said Tom Julian, men’s fashion director at Doneger Group, a New York-based trend forecaster.

“The men’s apparel market is really being driven by what millennials are purchasing,” he said.

Dress Codes

More casual dress codes at work also have contributed to the trend, Julian said. When men started taking off their jackets, they saw a greater incentive to wear a better-fitting shirt, he said.

Slim shirts are suitable not just for lean and V-shaped men. Stockier gents also can wear such shirts, which don’t have to be tight to fit well, Nordstrom’s Valls said. Seriously overweight men, however, are likely to stay clear.

Other men who could pull off the look remain intimidated and fear the slim shirt’s higher-cut armholes will impinge on their movements, he said. It also can be challenging to find the right shirt because the terminology and actual sizes vary from brand to brand, with a range of almost 3 inches in the chest sizes of the extra slims Nordstrom carries.

Currently, 40 percent of Nordstrom’s dress-shirt sales are regular, 50 percent are trim and 10 percent are extra-trim, Valls said. Five years ago, 60 percent were regular and 40 percent were trim, he said.

More Mainstream

As slim has become more mainstream, even classic-fit shirts have become more streamlined, so that they don’t look blousy, said Mitchell Lechner, president of the dress-furnishings group of PVH Corp., the New York-based owner of Van Heusen.

Seattle-based Nordstrom’s shares rose 0.4 percent at $68.29 at the close in New York, while PVH’s were up 0.3 percent at $130.68. San Francisco-based Gap advanced 1.1 percent to $41.15.

Rick Hanson, an information-technology vice president from Portland, Oregon, is among those who have been converted to closer-fitting dress shirts.

“I bought one, and I wore it to the office, and people said, ‘Wow, you look great,’ so I bought some more,” said Hanson, an athletic 44-year-old. “I eventually purged my closet. I’m not kidding, the feedback I got was just so stark.”

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