At the men’s clothing store Steadbrook on South Broadway Denver, items like a baseball cap by the Denver design company Jiberish and a Gitman Vintage Hawaiian floral print shirt line the soothing, neutral space of white painted walls and cream-colored wood tones.
The store displays just one of each item. And employees are on hand to provide polite advice about sizes and offer browsing customers cups of coffee.
Steadbrook is just one of a growing number of menswear boutiques in Denver that more closely resemble trendy art galleries / cafe spaces than stores where guys buy clothes.
The men’s clothing business was hit particularly hard by the economic downturn of a few years ago. According to a poll by business and financial news organizations Fortune Magazine and CNN Money, menswear sales fell 6.2 percent in the U.S. between 2008 and 2009.
But today, menswear has become fashion’s new success story -- and Denver is part of the trend.
In just two years, four independent menswear stores have opened in the city: Berkeley Supply, Tikwid, Steadbrook and Armitage & McMillan. A fifth business is rumored to be launching later this summer.
In addition, European tailored clothing and accessory brand Suitsupply, which caters exclusively to men, opened last November. Add these stores to longstanding specialty shops like Andrisen Morton, and men’s style is more dynamic in Colorado than it’s been in years.
The growth appears to be in line with the surge in the national menswear market.
Men’s apparel sales are now outperforming women’s in the U.S.: Global management consulting firm Bain & Co reports that sales for men’s high-end and ready-to-wear apparel grew 10 percent in 2012. Womenswear inched up less than 1 percent over the same period.
So why is Denver experiencing an explosion in men’s boutiques?
Eli Cox, owner of Berkeley District American workwear shop Berkeley Supply, says Denver has always had leading menswear retail leaders like Lawrence Covell and Andrisen Morton.
However, it’s the emerging hipster scene that’s pushing the trend.
“This city is seeing a tremendous boom of people moving here and it’s a lot of young people,” Cox says. “When I opened, I was it. Now there are four stores, and that’s just a year-and-a-half later.”
Mackey Saturday, owner and creative director of Steadbrook, agrees.
“A lot of these people moving in are influencers,” Saturday says. “They work at cool jobs and know the brands we carry. So, with the community they establish in Denver, they influence a few people. Those people influence a few others and, eventually, they impact those who already lived here but hadn’t discovered us yet.”
Oklahoma natives and business partners Daniel Armitage and Darrin McMillan of the Riverfront men’s casual essentials store Armitage & McMillan say they saw a gap in the market.
“When I was at Unis in New York, I was working with shops like ours all over America,” Armitage says of his time working for the classic minimalist label. “For some reason, Denver didn’t have one yet. We figured there’s got to be more guys out there like us who want to learn about these brands.”
Another influence on the men’s market is the media’s focus on inspiring men to dress with more flair.
Whether it’s the detailed how-to-wear sections in GQ magazine or menswear-focused style blogs like Put This On, The Art Of Manliness and Dappered.com, men now have a vast amount of resources for style advice and ideas.
“There’s a lot more print and social media out there telling men how to dress,” buyer for Cherry Creek North luxury lifestyle store Andrisen Morton Lindsay Morton Gaiser says. “From magazines and celebrity red carpets to street style blogs, men are gaining a better awareness of what it means to be well outfitted, whether casually or suited up.”
Gaiser also points out that unlike the women’s market, which tends to see dramatic trend shifts every season, menswear evolves more slowly.
Nevertheless, although season-to-season changes may be slight, over a period of a few years, men’s styles undergo significant changes. The full-sleeved shirts and pleated pants still widely seen in Denver prior to the recession have given way to fitted suits, shirts and skinny jeans over the last three to five years.
“Everything’s a little shorter, a little trimmer,” Gaiser says. “There’s not these big balloon pants, so I would say it’s also a change in the styling as well.”
A cultural shift is also influencing the growing interest in men’s style in Denver.
Stores are doing more than just selling clothes. They are forming a burgeoning community that supports the local retail scene as well as designers.
In it’s own way, every store serves as a kind of social space. Clients can come in, have a cup of coffee and discuss everything from their wardrobes to their jobs with staff.
For Andrisen Morton, this approach is an extension of the store’s high level of customer service.
For Berkeley Supply, Steadbrook and Armitage & McMillan, it’s a holdover from the owners’ skateboarding days, when they would hang out at their local skate shops with friends.
“We grew up skateboarding and with punk rock,” Armitage says. “It feels like our generation is at an age now where we’re starting to take that DIY mindset and turn it into real grownup businesses.”
Regardless of the reason, the social element functions in two key ways: It gives clients an excuse to visit a store without the pressure of purchasing anything, and it allows the staff to casually introduce customers to new products.
The social aspect is particularly crucial for stores carrying lesser known, artisan accessory and clothing brands.
For clients unfamiliar with, say, the understated aesthetic of American leather and canvas goods company Billykirk and Taylor Stitch’s limited edition shirting, stores must serve as educators as well as sales people and brand champions.
Education is particularly important when it comes to familiarizing customers with local brands that many shoppers might not have heard of.
The City’s hip menswear retailers carry and champion such Denver-based companies as handmade leather goods designer Winter Session, novelty cotton neckwear maker Primary Ties and functional backpacks and outdoor gear company Topo Designs.
“It’s about supporting the kind of community you want to be in,” McMillan says. (Armitage & McMillan will be hosting a two-week Winter Session and Primary Ties pop up shop for Father’s Day through June 21.)
And it’s not only new stores that are supporting local brands.
For the first time in about two years, Andrisen Morton is taking on a Colorado-based designer by launching luxury men’s bag line Borlino. The line launched last weekend.
Borlino’s rugged and functional totes, luggage and briefcases handcrafted in Italy of buffalo and vachetta (untreated, vegetable-tanned leather) are exclusively available in Denver at Andrisen Morton.
Outside the Mile High City, Borlino bags can be found at Neiman Marcus in Washington DC, White Plains New York and Dallas Texas.
And what of the average Denver man -- the one who can’t tell a Borlino briefcase from a L.L.Bean backpack?
Armitage believes even that male is becoming more fashion-savvy.
"Beyond that guy who makes fashion a big priority, there is definitely a Denver guy who doesn’t care so much what the brands are, but still wants to wear nice clothes and dress well,” Armitage says. “The trend is pushing men to think more about fashion than they did a few years ago."
Georgia Alexia Benjou is an international fashion stylist and editor. Her work is regularly featured in 5280 Magazine, where she serves as fashion editor, and has also appeared in Vanity Fair, among other publications.