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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Beyond Guayabera: Hispanic Men Are A Lucrative Fashion Market, One That Until Now Many Apparel Firms Practically Ignored

By Thomas Cunningham

January 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

It's time for the men's apparel industry to learn some Spanish.

In the past 12 months a number of major apparel retailers, from Wal-Mart to Macy's West, have stepped up their focus on the huge Hispanic market.

What took them so long?

After all, Hispanics are America's fastest-growing minority group. In 1999, they spent an estimated $12 billion on apparel, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. By 2010, they will be 40 million strong, making them the largest minority group in the country.

Moreover, the Hispanic community has attributes that make it especially attractive to the fashion industry in general and the menswear industry in particular.

Hispanic households spend, on average, $1,290 per year on apparel, compared with $1,128 for non-Hispanic households. They also spend more on men's clothes: $391 per household, almost $70 more than non- Hispanics.

At the same time, Anglo consumers are starting to think Latin, inspired by the crossover appeal of Hispanic stars and athletes like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Alex Rodriguez.

It all adds up to a potent market, one that until now many apparel firms practically ignored.

Apparel labels including Levi's and Dickies are now making concerted efforts to reach Hispanic customers, as are retailers like J.C. Penney and Kmart. Brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, A/X Armani Exchange and Banana Republic have already gained a following among fashion-forward Hispanic consumers.

Miami-based Perry Ellis, formerly Supreme International, is one company that's well positioned to take advantage of this booming market.

George Feldenkreis, Perry Ellis' Cuban-born chairman and founder, started Supreme in Puerto Rico, where the company produced the quintessentially Latin guayabera shirt. Although Supreme became a leading private-label manufacturer here and then purchased the Perry Ellis brand in 1999, the company still sells the guayaberas.

"There hasn't been a single year when we haven't sold a large number," says Feldenkreis, "so we've always been in contact with the Hispanic market."

As a marketer with a genuine understanding of Hispanic cultures, Feldenkreis is watching the current vogue for all things Latin with cautious bemusement. Although the numbers look attractive, he warns opportunists not to jump in too quickly.

"You have to approach this market very cautiously because a lot of Hispanic-Americans do not differentiate themselves from Anglo- Americans," he says.

That view is seconded by Eddie Rodriguez, creative director of Wilke-Rodriguez and winner of the MODA Award for Menswear given by Hispanic Designers Inc.

"My mission is to create a global lifestyle brand that fits with men in London, Mexico City or New York," Rodriguez says.

"I was born in Cuba and I'm a proud Cuban-American, so for me to think that my clothes aren't influenced by my culture is silly, but Wilke-Rodriguez is not a Hispanic brand," he adds.

One point everyone seems to agree on is the complex nature of the Hispanic market. On the top tier, led by trendy Miami, are fashion- conscious consumers looking for brands like Armani and Kenneth Cole.

In the middle market are urban-oriented consumers who are very label-conscious. And in the chain and mass market there are a large number of Hispanic shoppers that are looking for value.

In general, the upper-tier Hispanic customer favors contemporary brands with a sophisticated, urbane point of view. Popular brands include Polo Ralph Lauren, Polo Sport, Kenneth Cole, Banana Republic and Gucci.

Feldenkreis says that for retailers to reach Spanish-speaking consumers they need to educate themselves on the markets they are selling into.

At J.C. Penney all Hispanic-oriented advertising is coordinated by its agency, San Antonio-based Cartel Creativo, to make sure the ad speaks properly to Hispanic consumers.

Though Wilke-Rodriguez has never specifically targeted Hispanic consumers, the label has benefited from close relationships with, and being worn by, important Hispanic figures such as actors Jimmy Smits, Benjamin Bratt and Bobby Cannavale.

Given the size and continuing growth of the Hispanic market, retailers and vendors alike must find ways to service it as well as possible. It's a complex task, but not impossible.

"You have to continue to service that Anglo customer," Feldenkreis says. "But you have to do something extra to reach the Hispanic consumer."

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