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As gender norms shift, ‘women’s brands’ are going after a new demo: men

MZ Wallace, Malone Souliers, and Lululemon on what they’ve learned about making their brands appealing for men.

As gender norms shift, ‘women’s brands’ are going after a new demo: men
[Photo: MZ Wallace]

When designers Monica Zwirner and Lucy Wallace Eustice launched their women’s handbag startup, MZ Wallace, in 2000, they spent a lot of time pondering what they should call their new brand. They considered following the path of many other American designers—Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Rebecca Minkoff—and simply using their own names. But they were worried that approach would make their brand sound overly feminine, something they wanted to avoid. “Neither of us has a particularly feminine sensibility,” Zwirner says. “We think of ourselves first as a design company, and we think really good design isn’t gender-specific. We wanted to leave open the possibility of making men’s products in the future.”

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[Photo: MZ Wallace]
So they settled on a name they thought would read as gender-neutral: MZ Wallace. All of this forethought has paid off: This week, the brand launches its first men’s product line, officially called the Bleecker Collection, which includes duffels, messenger bags, and backpacks, and comes in black and blue camo. And unlike some of the brand’s counterparts, who have had to create entirely new brands for male customers (Kate Spade launched Jack Spade, and Rebecca Minkoff launched Uri Minkoff), MZ Wallace now sells both men and women’s products under the same brand.

Transitioning from a women’s brand to a unisex brand can be a smart business move, one that potentially doubles the size of your market. But it’s also tricky, thanks to deeply entrenched gender norms. While women tend to be comfortable buying and using products marketed to men, men have been historically less comfortable buying products marketed to women. MZ Wallace is among a very small group of brands (including shoemaker Malone Souliers, which is debuting its men’s line this fall, and Lululemon, which expanded into menswear in 2016) taking the bold step of asking men to shop with a brand previously associated with women. Their efforts show how society may be changing—but also how fraught gender dynamics can be.

[Photo: MZ Wallace]

Buying into gender roles

Many gender scholars believe that this difference in men and women’s behavior comes down to the fact that masculinity has been historically linked to power, whereas femininity has been linked to notions of submission. As a result, women often embrace symbols of masculinity through their shopping habits, since it allows them to take on this power, whereas men feel uncomfortable being associated with weakness. And shopping is one way for men and women to perpetuate these (messed up) gender roles.

“Throughout history, our consumption has been gendered and consumers have relied on gendered products and brands as props to perform their gender identities,” wrote Harvard Business School lecturer Jill Avery in a marketing journal in 2012. “Most men manage their masculinity through consumption to ward off fears that others will see them as effeminate or gay. For men striving to achieve masculinity, success largely depends upon renouncing the feminine.”

Women jumped at the opportunity to wear traditionally male garments, such as suits and trousers, more than a century ago, and yet it is still not common for men to wear dresses and skirts. Women frequently use men’s deodorants, touting how much more effective and affordable they are, but men rarely use women’s deodorants. Some women are even comfortable wearing men’s underwear: Startup Tommy John recently started making women’s underwear after female customers said they loved wearing the brand’s male briefs because they were so comfortable.

[Photo: Tommy John]

But some believe these rigid gender norms are slowly shifting. Back in 2013, marketing expert Laura Frieden wrote her graduate school dissertation on how difficult it was for women’s brands to market to men, but she believes that things have changed even over the last six years. There are many possible reasons for this. For instance, the LGBTQI and #MeToo movements have grown quickly in these years, forcing society to rethink traditional gender roles. There have also been brands such as Gillette that have tried to address toxic masculinity through advertising campaigns. “It used to be a huge risk for a women’s brand to try to reach out to men,” says Frieden. “It costs an enormous amount of money to market to them, and if it doesn’t work, it could ruin your brand. But I think it’s less of a risk these days, and more of a business opportunity.”

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The founders of MZ Wallace observed this shift themselves. When they first launched their business, they never saw men carrying their products, but over the last decade, they began spotting guys walking down the street with an MZ Wallace backpack or tote. The most noticeable shift came in 2016, when they launched a gym bag that they called the “Jim Bag” almost as a joke; it took off with male consumers, including NFL players and other fitness professionals. “Men seemed to think that because of the bag’s name, they were allowed to buy it even though we are known as a women’s brand,” Zwirner says. “That’s when we began to think the time might be right to become a unisex brand. Men seem to be changing.”

[Photo: MZ Wallace]

Marketing to women, marketing to men

In many ways, MZ Wallace’s new men’s line isn’t very different from its women’s. The brand is known for creating highly functional bags from lightweight waterproof nylon, offering many pockets and straps for different carrying styles, and making them in a range of neutral colors, such as black, gray, and blue. But before launching the men’s line, they held several focus groups to better understand how men approached accessories. They discovered that men have a slightly different approach to bags than women do. “Women consider how the bag looks, whereas men are primarily concerned with what it can do,” Eustice says. “They want to know how it will perform, how durable it is, and where they will put their laptop.”

With this in mind, MZ Wallace founders used a particular type of nylon that has more structure and a highly durable feel. In reality, they say the soft quilted nylon they use in many of their women’s and unisex collections is just as durable, but they had gotten feedback from their focus groups that many men mistook that softness for being more delicate. (It looks a little like the exterior of a puffer jacket.) But they thought it would appear more hardy to men. And while they aren’t particularly prescriptive to customers about how they should use the bags from the women’s line, they offer more deliberate instructions for how to use the men’s bags. One bag is for travel and going to the gym, for instance. Another bag is to bring your iPad to work.

[Photo: Malone Souliers]

For Malone Souliers, a women’s luxury shoemaker, entering the men’s shoe market is slightly trickier because the brand’s existing products are very feminine. The brand is best known for its sky-high heels that are frequently worn by celebrities on the red carpet, including Blake Lively, Beyoncé, and Lupita Nyong’o. Think shearling-trimmed ankle booties, or strappy gold and silver sandals. “The women’s line has been an exercise in taking femininity to its very extreme,” says Mary Alice Malone, the brand’s founder and creative director.

[Photo: Malone Souliers]

Malone was very aware that men might find such a feminine brand intimidating, so she made an effort to make the men’s line hypermasculine. She went back to the highly traditional men’s patterns she learned when she apprenticed as a shoemaker, creating a line of brogues, loafers, and boots that are unmistakably designed for men. And to make extra sure that men feel comfortable, the new men’s line will not appear near the women’s line in stores. Malone Souliers sells largely through high-end department stores, which means male customers will discover the shoes in the men’s section. “We think that we’re moving to a point in culture where many men don’t have a problem shopping from a brand that began making shoes for women,” Malone says. “But we’re still making an effort to simplify the brand for these male consumers to give them a clear sense of what they’re getting from the men’s line.”

By contrast, it’s much easier for a men’s brand to begin appealing to women. A decade ago, Tommy John launched as a men’s underwear brand. Despite its masculine name and product line, women clamored for the brand to create products for them. Cofounder Erin Fujimoto once spotted a Facebook photo of a woman wearing Tommy John men’s boxer briefs, extolling how comfortable they were. In response to all of this feedback, the brand launched a line of women’s panties and bras, and Fujimoto says these products have been flying off the shelves, without much of a marketing push. “Women have been organically coming to us in their search for comfortable underwear,” she says. “The fact that we launched as a men’s brand hasn’t been a problem at all. If anything, it might help us stand out from the other women’s underwear brands on the market.”

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[Photo: MZ Wallace]

Raising brand awareness

Given how hard it can be to market to both genders, is it worth the effort? The answer seems to be yes. Just ask Lululemon, which launched as a women’s activewear brand in 1998 and is still best known for its sports bras and women’s yoga pants. Executives began toying with the idea of launching a men’s line more than a decade ago, but in 2016, the company decided to go all in and make menswear one of the brand’s key areas of growth in its five-year plan.

Like MZ Wallace and Malone Soulier, Lululemon had to do some gender gymnastics to appeal to men. Take its retail strategy. Last year, I visited Lululemon’s very first store, in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver, close to the company headquarters, where the brand often rolls out new products. The store manager said that when the brand first launched men’s collections, it was important for retail associates to fill the window displays and the racks close to the entrance with men’s products. He said that it quickly became clear that women would be willing to walk past men’s products to find items they were looking for, while men tended not to come in if the first thing they saw was women’s clothes.

For the past three years, Lululemon has worked hard to make men feel welcome. Yet even now, only 21% of the company’s business comes from menswear, reflecting just how hard it is to become a dual-gender clothing brand. The company’s CEO, Calvin MacDonald, recently pointed out to analysts that many men still aren’t aware of Lululemon’s extensive product offerings for them. “We have very low brand awareness with men,” he said. “The opportunity isn’t just to be known, but also being understood” as a brand that men—not just women—can shop.

But despite this low brand awareness, Lululemon expects its men’s business to keep growing. In fact, it hopes to double men’s sales by 2023, which would bring revenues in that category to more than $1 billion. All this goes to show that while it might take time to bring men into the fold, women’s brands stand to thrive by starting to cater to male consumers. “This feels like the right moment for us to go into the men’s market,” says MZ Wallace’s Zwirner. “I think men are able to spot a good product when they see one, regardless of the origins of the brand.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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