Kenneth Cole has peered into his crystal ball and has a clear view of the future of menswear.
Gone are the days of stiff, uncomfortable nested suits, replaced by more casual, sophisticated options that can work as well in the office as on a Zoom call. More distribution has shifted online and brands that hope to succeed in this new reality will need to be agile enough to address fast-moving changes in everything from virtual worlds to new currencies.
With the changes coming fast and furious, Cole is doubling down on fulfilling the needs of the modern man and has partnered with Peerless Clothing to help him achieve his goals.
At first glance, it may have seemed like an odd choice to charge Peerless, the country’s largest tailored clothing manufacturer, to execute this vision. But Cole believed that Peerless, with its solid infrastructure, large sourcing network and longstanding retail relationships, was the right partner.
Cole, who has built a $1 billion footwear, apparel and accessories brand over the past 35-plus years, said when Lanier Apparel, his former tailored clothing licensee, revealed that it was closing, he started looking for a replacement. And Peerless, which manufactures for myriad brands including Lauren Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger and others, was an obvious choice.
But then COVID-19 changed everything and he knew his next partner had to be able to take on the sportswear collection as well since Global Brands Group, which had manufactured the brand’s sportswear in the past, was also going out of business.
Cole said he still believes traditional tailored clothing has its place, but it’s “tailored softwear” that is where his future lies.
“The world is changing,” he said in an interview. “People are dressing differently. People are working differently. People are very focused on work-life balance. Our concept is ‘tailored softwear’ — it’s more comfortable, less constructed clothing that can work in an office or at home. People have learned how to be productive everywhere, they’re traveling more and that’s going to be reflected in their wardrobe choices as well as their life choices. And we think there’s a great opportunity to help provide and wardrobe them for those new life transitions.”
The fall 2022 collection focuses on core essentials for hybrid dressing such as technical blazers and bombers, five-pocket performance chinos and cargos, and performance wovens, T-shirts and polos with four-way flex, antimicrobial protection, water resistance, breathability and moisture-wicking properties.
These bells and whistles have become key for apparel today, and Cole believes there’s no going back to the old ways of dressing — or working.
“I think this is the new normal, and the next normal,” he said. And while there will be times when in-person meetings, particularly in fashion, will be necessary, many of our work duties will continue to be done remotely — and that’s the market he’s hoping to capture with this collection. “To the degree you can provide for both, then that’s how we’ll create a more productive and appropriate and accommodating business model,” he said.
Since the fall collection was shown to retailers earlier this year, the reaction has been “very good,” Cole said, especially to the Barracuda jacket, cargo pants, reversible blazer, field jacket, mesh quarter-zip, mesh zip polo, five-pocket pants and suit separates.
Dan Orwig, president of Peerless, said that although his company is still “a clothing house, and we’ll never lose sight of that,” he embraced the opportunity to produce the sportswear as well. This marks Peerless’ first foray into the more-casual realm of menswear and it could potentially open up a new revenue stream for the company. “We’re going to walk before we run,” he said. “This sportswear collection complements the suiting — that’s why it fits.”
To produce the line, he leaned on Peerless’s strong relationships with its factories around the world and, where necessary, “found experts to help us.” While there have been challenges, particularly with the supply chain issues and continuing lockdowns in China, “we were able to get ahead of it,” Orwig said.
The effort has been worth it.
“I believed in the brand,” Orwig said of Kenneth Cole. “I knew what it meant to tailored clothing, but I didn’t know what it meant to serve a broader consumer base. But it seemed like a really great opportunity to leverage our core competency of tailored clothing into a sportswear lifestyle brand that leans toward a more dress-up approach to casualwear. So the stars aligned.”
Looking ahead to spring 2023, Cole said the line will evolve but will continue to focus on classic silhouettes with technical attributes, color and subtle prints. “I don’t think there’s a seasonal business anymore,” he said. “That’s not how the customer consumes it.”
That shift is also impacting the company’s footwear offering, with consumers drawn to more year-round models that are lightweight, softer and more durable in both casual and dress shoes, Cole said, adding that more-dressy models have experienced an “extraordinary response” of late.
In addition to prompting a focus on more-casual categories, the pandemic has resulted in distribution changes, with more focus online. And while the collection will continue to be sold at better department and specialty stores, Cole said he’s planning “some interesting things with some interesting parties” online as well as an “urban concept experience” for New York City and possibly others later this year. The New York shop is expected to open in the fall.
He declined to provide more details on the pop-up at this point, saying it was still a work in progress, but the goal is to “try to create a new retail experience that adapts to peoples’ evolved lifestyles post-COVID-19.” The company at one time operated a fleet of retail stores but those have closed over the past decade, he said. One store, on Bond and Bowery in New York, remains and is currently being used as an installation to show support for Cole’s latest social cause, the war in Ukraine.
While there are no immediate plans to open a lot of brick-and-mortar stores, Cole will continue to use his marketing muscle to connect with consumers while adapting to the changing industry.
Peering once more into that crystal ball, Cole believes the industry “has to continue to reinvent itself and look in the mirror to see if we are addressing what our needs are and how they’re changing and evolving. We’re not working the way we used to work and we’re not consuming the way we used to consume,” he said. “There are different currencies, everything happens in real time and the competition is universal to a large degree. It’s not just the store next door anymore, now it can also be virtual and in this universe or another universe. It’s an exciting time and things are going to change much faster in the next few years than they did in the last year.”