Retailers welcome the new male consumer

He's hooked on designer sneakers, fashion and grooming. And he's reframing masculinity.

Photograph by Jennifer Roberts; location courtesy of Holt Renfrew and Kiehl’s

Andrew Grella is enthusing about the benefit of eyeliner for men—and it has nothing to do with mimicking “guyliner” pioneers David Bowie and Russell Brand. The 22-year-old founder of ManUp, a Mississauga, Ont.-based line of men’s cosmetics, skincare and fragrances, recommends men dust the $20 “Eye Chalk” lightly on the lower lid. “It makes the white of the eye pop,” he says. “If you’re wearing it properly, no one will know.”

Grella, who incorporated ManUp in 2010 while studying commerce at Ryerson University, is on the vanguard of a retail moment, one focused on the rise of a new male consumer who’s an advance man of sorts for seismic social and economic shifts. He arrives on a road paved with “manscaping,” Manxx “shapewear” and “mantyhose,” all evidence—along with the rise of “manoxeria,” the dismissive term for male eating disorders—that consumer pressures are now genderless. And now, we’re watching the dismantling of the last taboo: male makeup. This fall, designer Marc Jacobs launched unisex beauty products. Last month, designer Tom Ford, the best-groomed man on the planet, added a men’s beauty line backed by Estée Lauder that includes concealer, bronzing gel and $150 “skin-revitalizing concentrate.” It’s forecast to ring in $2.5 million in its first year.

ManUp, which sells online and moved into its first Toronto storefront this month, isn’t in the same league—at least not yet. Grella saw an untapped market after his skin broke out before his Grade 12 prom. He finally agreed to his mother’s offer to cover it with makeup and was amazed by the result. It inspired his “all natural” line, which is packaged in glossy black with playful macho names—“Eye grenade” mascara, “Jackhammer” cleanser.

Tom Ford also tries to neutralize any girly associations: “It’s not a feminizing product,” he has said. “It’s designed to make your skin look better.” Ford wants men’s makeup out of the closet: “I know so many guys—gay, straight, whatever—who steal a woman’s concealer and dab a little on their fingers when no one is looking.” A recent British survey similarly found 10 per cent of men borrowed women’s products. And a recent “state of men” survey of 1,000 men in the U.S. and Britain conducted by advertising giant JWT revealed shifting tolerances: 60 per cent approved of skincare products for men; 18 per cent approved of foundation; 12 per cent accepted eyeliner. Grella, who counts James Bond and the actor Andrew Garfield as fashion role models, embodies the new attitude. He wears ManUp’s “No Shine” camouflage powder and “Cover Stick.” “I still break out,” he says. He’s conscious of his appearance, reporting that he dropped 35 lb. one summer: “I felt people won’t take me seriously if I was overweight.” The JWT report also found men struggle with the destabilizing concerns that fuel female consumerism: 79 per cent felt under pressure to be in shape; top worries included “man boobs,” “beer belly” and “height.”

Blurred gender lines are becoming manifest on store floors, literally. In January Holt Renfrew officially launches its pilot “Holt’s Common”—a unisex department boasting such fashionable brands Rag + Bone, Zadig & Voltaire, Comme des Garçons and the Kooples. The concept reflects “a redefinition of the contemporary world today,” says Barbara Atkin, Holt’s vice-president of fashion direction: “More and more, shopping is a social activity, a hub of interaction between genders.” Barriers still exist, Atkin notes: women have no problem raiding the men’s department, but men won’t do the reverse. Men tell her: “We’re skinny guys and we can’t find jeans skinny enough. But they then reject her suggestion to try on women’s J Brand jeans. But that stigma is disappearing, she says. “Men are embracing self-expression—as they did in the ’60s.” Only today it’s not counterculture: it’s self-branding.

“Men are the new women,” says Bret Pittman, director of J. Crew’s the Ludlow Shop, a New York City-based chain of men’s stores. Pittman attributes the shift in part to the Internet: “Men are now exposed to lifestyle and street-style blogs. They can be as educated as women.” But gender fluidity on the shop floor also reflects a redefinition of men and women’s social roles: “I have two kids,” Pittman says. “And I spend a lot more time in a traditional mom role than my dad did.” He sees men’s interest in style as a “virus” that taps into the male territorial imperative: “Certain men start dressing better and you start to notice it and then it becomes a competition.” The 2011 movie Crazy Stupid Love starring Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell provides a template, he says: “You saw a cool young guy tutoring the older slob. Basically that’s happening on a national scale.” The Ludlow Shop, which sells suits cut in the fashionable slim silhouette championed by designers Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne, is a beneficiary: its pilot store opened in New York City in 2011; the suits are now available at dozens of locations.

Men are the new frontier for retailers: Harry Rosen, Holt Renfrew and the Bay have all expanded their men’s departments and offerings. And it’s a market poised for growth, says Sandy Silva, a fashion industry analyst at the NPD Group. Women’s clothing sales are down, she says, but the market catering to 20- to 35-year-old men is up 18 per cent over a year ago, or almost $400 million, with the greatest growth in the “smart casual” category—suits, dress shirts, pants, separates, outerwear. Pittman explains: “It’s wearing a suit when you don’t have to.”

Terms once limited to women’s wear, such as “day to evening” —clothing worn to work then adapted for later—have infiltrated the men’s market, Silva says. So have high-end shoe brands once exclusive to women, like Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin.

That latter development signals a profound shift in sensibility, says fashion historian Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum: “That men are willing to wear brands so associated with sexualized femininity is groundbreaking. Seepage from female culture into male culture is very rare.”

As Semmelhack sees it, the “sneakerfication” of male style, witnessed on red carpets —Robert Downey Jr. in a suit and Gucci runners, Justin Bieber in a tux and Lanvin kicks—has given rise not only to the new male consumer but a new definition of masculinity. It’s a theme explored in the museum’s current exhibit, “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” Men can be “shopaholics” about sneakers without any stigma, Semmelhack says: “They can collect and lust after them with no perceived loss of masculinity.” Brand choice—from Air Jordans, vintage, Adidas superstars, Converse high tops—has come to signal identity in a way business brogues cannot. Bonnie Brooks, president of the Hudson’s Bay Company, agrees, noting that the company’s expanded men’s shoe department is on fire: “Shoes are a gateway drug for men.”

The upshot? Nothing less than the slow dismantling of traditional patriarchy: “The suited Bay St. banker has been usurped as a masculine role model by Internet boy geniuses, musicians, actors,” Semmelhack says. “It’s a model focused on youth, success and insane amounts of money. It’s linked to what Jay Z says: ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’ ”

And in the end, it’s about business and economics. Genderless consumption is grounded in the growing gap between rich and poor, Semmelhack says: “In a world where you have ‘wealth’ and ‘everyone else,’ it behooves the makers to create as big, and as fractured and fragmented a market as possible.” As they have: Tom Ford’s women’s concealer sells for $60, his men’s concealer, available at a separate men’s counter, costs half that. So it appears the rise of the male consumer is ripe with hidden opportunities for women as well.