How Clothes Speak for Men

The modern department store has still not recognised the fundamental difference between the self-employed and the white-collared. Many marketers make the crucial mistake of treating both as SEC A customers

Damodar Mall
Published: 19, Nov 2012

‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world. To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying! Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc. I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala

Men shopping

Sanjay and Rohan live with their families in a modern residential complex in upmarket Versova in western Mumbai. They often visit the new mall close by to watch a movie, eat in the food court, and of course, shop.

Sanjay likes to check out the latest trends and colours of the season in apparel while choosing his formals and casual 'Friday' dressing. The large department store in the mall meets his needs since it keeps an 'in-season' range most of the time. It is a well-stocked store, and keeps almost all brands in men’s clothing. There are store assistants in most of the aisles and the changing rooms are cool, pleasant places. Almost all the time, Sanjay is able to refurbish his wardrobe in this store. He is familiar with the merchandise and knows that the brands there follow international trends. The sizes are uniform and the pastel pinstripes and checks conform to his idea of both sobriety and trendiness.

Rohan, on the other hand, can’t find anything to his liking in the hundreds of shelves. He finds the almost uniform colours and patterns indistinct and boring. He wants something that stands out, preferably in solid colours with a little ‘twist’ in the design that makes the garment unique. The classy fit and international flavour that most brands advertise is lost on his sensibilities. Everything looks the same to him, and his wardrobe contains almost nothing from the store.

Why does this happen? What is the difference between the two men? They live in the same building, have similar disposable incomes; their children go to the same school and their age difference is negligible.

The only difference between the two men is their profession. Sanjay is a senior manager at a private bank while Rohan is a successful businessman who runs an injection-moulding factory in Vapi. The different professions of the two men lead to vastly different sensibilities and tastes. And nowhere is this more apparent than in their choice of attire.

Clothes speak a lot about the man. We normally think of clothes in the context of women but that’s a fallacy. The spate of designers who are now designing exclusively for men is testimony to the rising trend of men wanting more out of their attire than just an elegant covering.

Clothes can also give an indication of a man’s profession. The American TV show, Suits, is, as the title indicates, all about lawyers. A ‘suit’ is a derogatory term for someone working for the government and is no longer just an item of clothing. The kind of suit one wears is indicative of the kind of profession one is in.

Fashion, tastes and preferences are means by which we make a statement about ourselves. The white-collared Sanjay and the businessman Rohan have similar income levels, but what they seek to say about themselves is very different. A peep into their occupations and the dynamics therein could help us understand this phenomenon better.

When Sanjay joined the bank, he entered a well-defined hierarchy that he aspired to climb. He compared designations of his classmates to see where he stood on the corporate ladder. His desire was to belong, to follow the prevailing norms. Every Sanjay in the white-collared world of banks, multinationals and large corporate organisations wants to make a statement – that he deserves to be there. In dressing and fashion, this is a ‘club’ where the executive wants to ‘belong’.

Extend this scenario across the entire white-collared world and you get a class of educated people who follow the same trends – pinstripes, blues and greys, buttoned down collars, soft colours. It’s almost like a uniform; boys in a premier school. A manager is one who, while leading, also wishes to conform. There is a strong need not to ‘stand out’ lest one be thought of as a maverick. Also, the banker’s calling card says everything about him. He doesn’t need his shirt to do so.

Rohan inhabits a very different world where he is the boss. Everyone looks up to him. He has no corporate umbrella protecting him from the vagaries of the Indian system. He needs to exude power, confidence and unquestioned authority. He doesn’t have a large corporate name or a fancy designation on his visiting card and so he needs his own statement of power.

This he derives from his clothes, accessories, phones, pens, cars and so on – instruments he uses to signal his distinctive taste, influence and power. He needs to look distinguished and expensive, and his individuality has to come through. After all clothes maketh the man.

He cannot afford to drown his personality in shirts that can be found in every department store. Ideally his shirts have to be custom-made, but in a world of dwindling services he needs to find outlets for ready-mades where he is convinced that no two shirts look the same. He knows that department stores with their emphasis on subtlety and uniformity cannot offer him this customisation.

The modern department store has still not recognised this fundamental difference between the self-employed and the white-collared. Many marketers make the crucial mistake of treating both as SEC A customers. Most corporate fashion houses are inspired by Western fashions and 'think' seasons, cuts, designs accordingly. This might have to do with the fact that their leaders, designers, buyers, marketers are all from the white-collared world and hardly mingle with self-employed people professionally or socially.

At the other end of the spectrum are fashion designers who tend to ignore the world of professionals while creating their ‘look’. As a result the two worlds hardly meet sartorially.

Twenty years ago, this wasn’t the case. Good shirts were either bought on trips to the West or were stitched by experienced tailors. With liberalisation, the business manager was relieved to discover that the kind of shirts he prefers could now be found in his own city.

On the other hand, the self-employed wanted a distinctive look, embellishments and Indian motifs. They believed in their own design preferences and refused to follow the style diktat of mass designers. Fortunately for them, there are still some fashion brands that understand this need well.

Retailers like Benzer and Chirag Din and brands like Color Plus are known for catering to the tastes of the self-employed successfully. They offer individuality and slight flamboyance that almost every self-employed person sports. But are these brands large enough to cater to the entire population of entrepreneurs in this country? And can other brands afford to neglect this target segment?

A recent estimate indicates that in urban India, for every white-collared worker, there are five people with gold-collared – self employed, tastes and preferences. And like the professionals, this category also has huge spending power. Missing them would therefore mean ignoring a huge slice of the market, and thereby a huge opportunity.

If brands truly wish to extend their reach, they’ll have to cater to the gold-collared, as we call them, consumers as well. If they are able to straddle the twin requirements of conformity and flamboyance, they’ll have truly made a significant difference to the way apparel is marketed in this country.

One wonders if the large difference in fashion preferences also extends to other spheres? What about entertainment, food, fashion for other family members, credit cards? If apparel is so sensitive to a professional outlook, aren’t other things as well? Can the same marketing strategy be applied to all customers, irrespective of the occupation segment?

Do look around to spot the differences, next time you come across them.

  • Shruti

    Nicely explained. Its true that different professions have different lifestyle and clothing likes. Its not necessary that all international brands will flatter you just because of their brand names. Few of my friends too are disappointed with those typically styled, plain yet highly priced mall outfits! Its maybe a common problem these days as a lot of people are just strolling in the malls, wasting a lot of time choosing the right clothes!

    on Sep 25, 2013
  • nihaal

    Nice distinction, but frankly i don't see many gold collared individuals opting for these "loud" clothing options. I don't think the shirt market has evolved enough in India. Most of the individuals (blue or gold collared) wear ill fitting shirts (drooping on the shoulders, long sleeves, loose on the waist). If you really want to stand out in the crowd with your clothing a well tailored shirt solves the purpose. Raymonds "made to fit" has ventured into this uncharted territory and i think other shirt makers should follow suit.

    on Jul 30, 2013
  • Vimal Solanki

    Some consumer classifications cannot be learnt in schools or management books. Thank you for bringing simple yet important insights through your observations. Now that you have categorized them so well, I can see how the choices of the white collared and the gold colored brigade vary in other categories as well. For instance fragrances. I can now so easily tell the man who buys a Boss or a Dolce & Gabbana or a Dior against another who wears an Eternity, Burberry or a Davidoff. The gold collared dude wants his perfume strong, aromatic and spicy, while the white colored will most likely choose from the woody, fougre, leathery. Ditto with watches, furniture, paint, cars.

    on Jul 10, 2013
  • Pooja

    Interesting article. It made a nice read. Previously I never spot these differences; however now onwards I will.

    on Jan 17, 2013
    • @damodarmall

      Pooja, trust me, you can tell the occupation profiles of two neighbours by just looking at their (men's) wardrobe:). Try noticing the differences beyond the wardrobe, too!

      on Jan 18, 2013
  • Mudaromundo

    Fantastic article ...loved reading it.... Would there be a correlation in what women choose to wear -say western formals or a neat pastel color salwar kurta? Incidently just read this morning that sarees have begun to find their way into placement interviews at b schools and are viewed as appropriate even by multinationals. I wonder whether just like your 2 protagonists, could what women choose to wear also has something to say about what they wish to project?

    on Nov 25, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      White collared men want to copy those above them in the hierarchy. That leads to everyone wearing similar boring stuff. Women dont have enough women on the ladder to copy. Also, if you notice, senior white collared corporate women are choosing not to blend in and stay distinct. Role models matter. Women's individuality and fashion quotient is therefore higher. Western brands selling pastel colours have not found traction. Women assert their tastes and Indian preferences better. Going forward, I would bet on western silhouttes n cuts with distinct Indian design n colour influences as women's choices. What do you folks think?

      on Nov 27, 2012
      • Mudaromundo

        I agree... Most of the women leaders today stick to sarees. And interestingly enough they come from sectors known for their unique dressing cultures like banking and media. Also, as far as i remember most of these women have come from business families or have inherited the thrones. They would have grown up in the 80s ...DU/ Ivy leagues. Would the same be true for today's woman ... Well educated.. With global exposure.. who would want to prove a point in an otherwise male dominated corporate world? Also if you look at the second generation of leaders from business families -- ones in their 30s or 40s, i se a lot of western outfits there. It will be interesting to see the fusion of western cuts with indian designs... Cant think of any brand that is doing this currently..

        on Nov 28, 2012
  • Rish Mehta

    Nice article & articulation. Being the only professional in the entire family of businessmen, I relate to the causes and effects quite well. However, I would be very skeptical grouping all non-white collared into gold collared or for that matter putting every business owner into gold collar category.

    on Nov 22, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Rish, at the core is the difference in desires and motivatins of men - to 'blend in and belong' vs 'be distinct and stand out'. And that desire difference can be largely linked to profession....

      on Nov 22, 2012
  • Sridhar hari

    Damodar, nice article. This is a little like the India vs Bharat paradigm. I am also reminded of how white collared folks take pride in presenting their business card which indicates the company they work for,whereas the self employed have to present themselves and hence their appearance etc has a lot more meaning and significance.

    on Nov 20, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Sridhar, unlike India, Bharat, there is more purchasing power, more money to be made in serving the Gold Collared.... Also, there is a lot of behaviour difference beyond choice of shirts, between white n gold collared. Maybe we'll take it up in another blog post!

      on Nov 21, 2012
  • kj

    very true and very often ignored!!

    on Nov 20, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Ignored by the modern marketers n retailers. But well served by designers and speciality stores with a combination of style, customisation and service.

      on Nov 20, 2012
  • Sonia sharma

    Is this the reason I start yawning the moment I enter men section in a store?

    on Nov 20, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Sonia, men's formals section, metaphorically, is like a 'uniforms' section! In women's formal wear, while the forms are getting more contemporary, the colours and designs stay a lot fusion, a lot interesting. Women from white collar homes and occupations wear more interesting fashion.

      on Nov 21, 2012
  • Mansi

    lovely article and the power bit was a clean, clear insight.

    on Nov 20, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Mansi, apart from the choice of attire, Gold Collared men give out 'power signals' in many other interesting ways. Its fun to spot them...

      on Nov 20, 2012
      • Mansi

        Yes, they do. In the manner they speak to those they consider less powerful than them is a very funny yet sad example. One of the brands I handled was focused on the Gold Collared men, so could draw the parallels and snicker.

        on Nov 22, 2012
  • Khushal limbad

    Mr Mall you have hit the right target..infact this is 1 of the biggest reason why departmental stores n malls don't do well in the so called interiors of India. The reason being such districts/village/town have more of "gold collered people" than white collar people. The day any retailer will be able to understand this and come up with an execution plan to tap the market, that is the day we would call A REAL RETAIL REVOLUTION.

    on Nov 19, 2012
    • @damodarmall

      Khushal, I differ with you only in 1 respect. Even in metros, men with Gold Collar tastes are more than those with white collar preferences. But as in case of sarees, creating fashion for those people is something mass marketers and modern retailers find difficult. But India is an asserting market. The customer will have his way. Maggi has to learn to sell 'bhunaa masala'! At a personal level, while being in a white collar profession, I like to wear short collar linen is almost impossible to find them in modern stores :)

      on Nov 19, 2012