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Height of Fashion

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If you know anything about the vast majority of professional basketball players, it’s that they are well taller than the average man. That includes retired NBA player Kevin Willis, a strapping 7-footer who gained fame as a member of the Atlanta Hawks with Dominique Wilkins, Glenn “Doc” Rivers and Spud Webb and retired at the end of the 2006-07 season.

Willis is also co-founder and president of the Willis & Walker clothing line that specializes in outfitting men 6 ft. 3 in. and taller. Willis and Ralph Walker, a former collegiate teammate at Michigan State University, founded the business in 1988 as a boutique-like operation offering premium denim attire to friends in basketball and other clients. They opened a flagship retail store in 2010.

Willis & Walker is now marketing the brand as a full lifestyle men’s apparel collection to retail and other buying channels. Willis, 49, knows full well from his own experience — when pants he bought off the rack would rise above his ankles — that a market opportunity exists for tall men’s apparel.

“We’re servicing a guy out there who doesn’t have any choices,” Willis says. “When he finds something that fits him properly, and it looks good on him, and he loves the selection, he’s going to buy it. I don’t care what it is.”

Pent-up demand
W illis & Walker is seeking to expand its reach at a good time for the apparel segment. Market research firm NPD Group noted in an August 2011 report that overall apparel-market dollar sales are on the increase — and the men’s segment is outpacing women’s apparel in post-recession growth.

For the first six months of 2011, men’s apparel sales grew 4.6 percent, while women’s apparel sales declined 0.8 percent, according to the NPD Group – figures that NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen calls “unusual on several counts.

“Rarely does the women’s market lag behind coming out of a recession,” he says. “And this time around, the pent-up demand for apparel is greater in men’s, as they were the first to vacate fashion as the recession began and, in turn, have been the first to return. Usually they are the first to exit and the last to return.”

Along with that pent-up demand, Cohen says, “the desire to use fashion as a way to succeed both personally and professionally has now become the choice men are making.”

Additional good news for a brand like Willis & Walker is that sales growth of tailored clothing increased by more than 11 percent during the first six months of 2011, according to NPD Group’s market analysis. This category includes suits, suit separates, jackets and sport coats.

Staying true to basics
A s a fashion and textiles major in college, Willis approaches tall men’s apparel thoughtfully and expertly. He is not just relying on his name or the strength of his relationships with millionaire athletes. Sure, all that helps, but Willis says his aim is to build a brand that will rival Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein — and win placement in the men’s departments of major retail and specialty stores.

“The thought process that goes through my mind when I am … creating a selection for a particular season or holiday is to stay true to the basics,” Willis says. For Willis & Walker, that includes fashionable apparel with superior fabric that renders a proper fit, that “shows off proportions … and drapes well.”

Willis keeps his ears to the ground for emerging trends. In addition to going to shows and meeting with buyers, Willis monitors the Internet to determine what is being seen “out on the street. The buyers have to take notice of that. They have to listen to that. They have to see for themselves.”

The point of fashion design, Willis says, is not to reinvent the wheel but to “add a spoke to it ... add that certain fabrication or style to it to give it uniqueness. That’s what really dictates fashion.”

The Willis & Walker brand, he says, stays true to core colors, even when developing spring and fall collections, or apparel for special occasions like Father’s Day. To add that spoke to the wheel, he’ll add a splash of lavender, pink or mauve to an item.

“I take an assessment and see if there is consistency to what everybody is saying,” Willis says. “If they are saying the same message, then I ... say, ‘Okay, where does Willis & Walker fit in with this? Where do we see these colors fitting in for this season?’”

Competing with heritage brands
C ohen says innovation in product and brands is key to success in the men’s tailored clothing segment. Retailers will seek out innovative products, and new and emerging fashion lines will be given some opportunity to make their mark in the industry.

“The biggest challenge for new brands is how to dethrone or even make a dent in those heritage brands that have been around for decades,” he says. “The challenge is how to get the space to compete. The answer is … new and exciting merchandise, and the other answer is social commerce — selling direct to the consumer. New brands can make their mark by getting traction with consumers and building interest that way.”

Last summer, Willis & Walker entered into an equity partnership with Marcraft Apparel Group, the largest vertical men’s tailored clothing company in the United States that provides expertise in product design, product development, marketing and product packaging. The deal will expand Willis & Walker’s presence in the tailored category. Willis & Walker jumped into the big leagues when it previewed its line to retailers during New York Fashion Week last fall.

“A normal-sized guy ... can go to any store on the corner and get whatever he wants when he wants ... there is so much out there for him,” Willis says. “We want to be that brand who makes that taller gentleman feel he belongs in society, that he belongs right up there with everyone else.”