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Gentry

Menswear Retail’s Minimalist Movement

The lumberjack schoolboy days are over

Once upon a time, three to five years ago, the fashionable masculine ideal was a mutant hybrid of a British schoolboy and a lumberjack who quit the logging business to move to Brooklyn but kept his wardrobe. Heavy fabrics with recognizable Anglophile lineages abounded. Menswear stores like H.W. Carter & Sons, Gant, and Carson Street Clothiers in SoHo boasted salvaged wood shelves stacked with thick sweaters, tweed, and chambray. In a faux cabin in Tribeca, you could even buy a functional axe from Best Made.


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These retail spaces were warm and dark, the equivalent of exclusive men's clubs: comfortable leather-upholstered places with unimpeachable masculine credentials. You could probably even light up a cigar in peace. But in February of this year, Carson Street, which opened at the height of the heritage boom in 2012, moved into a new space on Greene Street in far south SoHo that ditched the clubby vibe for a kind of enlightened austerity.

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Inside Carson Street. Image: Carson Street

"The last store was things that you traditionally see in a partner's office at a law firm," Carson Street co-founder Matt Breen told me in April, reclining on a mid-century modern couch in the back of the store's classic iron-columned loft, which more closely resembled a spotless Chelsea art gallery than the dusty upper floors of a yacht club. "This is more clean, minimalist." In the store, clothes clustered by brand on custom steel racks set against monochromatic walls with scattered niches holding white flowers and austere lighting fixtures from Apparatus.

Call it minimalism or modern revival, a new interior style has taken hold in men's retail, presenting edgier brands that swap heritage nostalgia for urban futurism. In Brooklyn, the trend can be found at Gentry, which emerged from H.W. Carter & Sons and now occupies a sleek Williamsburg townhouse with a black-painted facade, as well as Swords-Smith, which hosts brands like Journal, Henrik Vibskov, and Stutterheim inside a barely-there showroom.

"Everything has changed in the past five to six years."

"Everything has changed in the past five to six years," says Sergio Mannino, an Italian architect whose eponymous retail design firm creates pop-ups in New York and London. "Men shop in a different way. Men's stores are now designed and curated like a women's clothing store. Before, I think men cared less about design, and so now the store has to really step up."

The shift reflects an increasing fluency in luxury brands on the part of American male consumers, who want a fitting backdrop for their expensive purchases, according to Mannino. "Either the stores change and make the design much more upscale or they're going to have some trouble," the architect says.

Alan Maleh, the founder of H.W. Carter & Sons and Gentry, noticed this increase in expectations as he was designing the new store that opened in summer 2015. The result is a white-walled space set with plastic Eames chairs, plinths, and rolling racks hung with deceptively simple (and thus deceptively expensive) labels like Visvim, Engineered Garments, and Our Legacy.

It's a far cry from "an old-time small-town Piggly Wiggly," as the New York Times described H.W. Carter & Sons. "The minimal backdrop lets you do unique installations to show different vibes for different brands," Maleh says. He cites the example of an overcrowded J.Crew emporium driving down demand for its own clothes. Stores must "create this exclusivity where a guy buys something and he feels like he can tell a story about it," Maleh says. A $120 t-shirt from the Danish brand SNS Herning, for example, is sewn by one of four employees on looms dating back to the 1930s.

Stores must "create this exclusivity where a guy buys something and he feels like he can tell a story about it."

Upstairs from Gentry is a pop-up shop from Man of the World, the sumptuous men's magazine that Maleh also founded. So story-rich is the sparely renovated space that visitors would be forgiven for thinking they just stumbled into the private apartment of a retired safari hunter with a penchant for ivory-handled knives and hand-carved longboards. Buying anything would feel like theft.

Carson Street's second space previously hosted pop-up stores and was left in disarray when they began planning the new design in November 2015, after being pushed from their first lease on Crosby Street by the building's owner. Emporium, the same architecture firm behind the Crosby store, had two months to complete the project. "This was a more mature, grown-up approach," says Robert Stansell, the firm's co-founder with Timothy Welsh. "The first store was, let's try to fit as much as we can in there. The second store, they wanted the luxury retail experience," Welsh adds.

The selection became edgier and more luxury-focused, too. "When we came into the industry, classic hashtag-menswear was the it thing of the moment," Breen said, referring to the Tumblr-ready style of heritage fabrics and traditional cuts. "Over the last three-and-a-half years you started to see these other sects of menswear popping up."

A modern minimalist at NY Fashion Week Image: Driely S. for Racked

On the low end, a pair of SNS Herning shorts ran $240. Other brands like Ovadia & Sons and Craig Greene displayed athleisure hybrids, with jackets made of mesh and neoprene, with diagonal pockets and zippered apertures, prices quickly rising over $1,000. They aren't garments your grandfather would recognize, let alone wear.

As fashion changes, stores must change as well, even in the more conservative menswear market. Updating the retail environment doesn't always sustain a business, however.

In late April, Carson Street's other founder, Brian Trunzo, revealed he was leaving both Carson Street and Deveaux, the menswear line he and Breen had launched, scheduled to enter stores this year. "At this point, I am seeking new professional challenges in the fashion industry," Trunzo says. Then, on May 3rd, Breen announced Carson Street would be shutting down entirely, the store as well as its e-commerce component.

"Where am I going to get clothes now? I have to go all the way fucking uptown."

"Brian's departure required me to take a long hard look in the mirror," Breen tells me following the announcement. "Carson Street is our baby but Deveaux is where my passion lies." The capital costs to scale the store beyond New York City while sustaining SoHo rent were too high. Breen doesn't rule out a Deveaux-only store, however.

The sudden Carson Street closure is leaving its customers adrift, wondering what could possibly fill the gap. "It was far enough away from the tourist crowd that only people who were really serious about menswear would know about it and bother shopping there," says John Jannuzzi, a store regular and former GQ editor. "Where am I going to get clothes now? I have to go all the way fucking uptown."


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