The look and feel of the modern man's closet owes much to the military.
Standard-issue pieces including the trench coat, the khaki trouser and aviator-style sunglasses have come to the wardrobe via the warrior.
Over the years, a handful of clothing makers now considered "heritage" brands have also benefited from military connections. Supplying the troops gave these companies the boost into the public consciousness (not to mention the revenue stream) that a shout-out on "Oprah" might have in more recent times. Outer-wear manufacturer Woolrich, for example, made its name supplying woolen blankets to troops during the Civil War. And contracts to supply military uniforms through both world wars transformed tiny Chicago-based retailer Hart Schaffner & Marx into one of the biggest domestic makers of men's suits. It was the label that President Obama wore to his inauguration.
Now a West Coast company that few people outside of the military know exists is preparing to leverage a decade of dressing troops on the battlefield into a line of designer clothes for civilians that will meld high tech with high style. The garments will look like John Varvatos or Hugo Boss, but they'll also be designed to follow the articulations of the human body, prevent body odor, wick moisture, offer a greater range of motion and be studded with stealth pockets. Called Massif Collection, the line is poised to hit stores with fall clothes in late July 2012.
It's the first foray into fashion for Ashland, Ore.-based Massif, a company that began in 1999 when its two founders — veteran search-and-rescue mountaineers Jeff Roberts and Randy Benham — became frustrated with the dearth of options available when it came to flame-resistant cold-weather garments. A dozen years later, the company (acquired by military footwear supplier Tactical Holdings and private equity partner Golden Gate Capital in 2009) boasts $100 million in annual sales. It provides a wide range of high-performance apparel to smoke jumpers, SWAT teams, military snipers, the CIA and elite U.S. fighting forces of every stripe, and it has sold some 3 million of its technical garments to the U.S. government. Massif's most high-profile piece is a flame-resistant shirt called the ACS (short for Army Combat Shirt) which, according to company Executive Vice President Chris Wasgatt, has been the only combat shirt authorized to be worn by troops "outside the wire" (anywhere off-base in the combat theater) for the last 31/2 years.
A year ago, to help the label move from barracks to boutiques, the company enlisted Scott Branscum to serve as vice president and general merchandising manager of Massif's consumer brands. A menswear veteran whose résumé includes stints at Perry Ellis, Eddie Bauer and Cutter & Buck, Branscum is wiry and enthusiastic, coming across like a slightly smaller, more compact version of menswear designer John Varvatos — a resemblance made unintentionally humorous since Branscum often uses the Varvatos label as a point of reference.
"There are some elements of Hugo Boss to [Massif Collection], some elements of Victorinox and RLX Ralph Lauren, but looking at everything — how it relates, the taste level of the consumer, the price point and everything the closest thing would be Varvatos," Branscum said. "It's classic, it's got beautiful style and beautiful fabrics."
Indeed, many of the 40 styles in the inaugural collection have the same crisp, tailored, military-meets-minimalist aesthetic of Varvatos' oeuvre, especially pieces like the five-button wool blazer that could have marched right off the end of a European runway.
But a closer look reveals a Swiss Army knife's worth of functionality lurking beneath the luxe. The super-soft blazer is crafted from a four-way stretch wool and is designed with articulated sleeves and diamond-shaped gussets under the arms — characteristics that afford comfort and a greater range of motion. It also boasts anti-microbial and moisture management properties (to control odor and speed drying respectively), four inner zip pockets and a fifth, barely noticeable, zippered stealth pocket built into the blazer's left forearm. (But unlike its military counterparts, the civilian wear is not flame-resistant.)
These kinds of performance details run through the entire collection, which includes lightweight jackets (most at a suggested retail price of $250 to $350 with one leather jacket priced at $850), blazers ($350 to $550), sweaters ($350 to $450), button-front shirts ($100 to $200) and trousers ($120 to $220).
To date, prototype pieces have been shown to only a handful of industry insiders, but the full fall-winter 2012 Massif Collection is scheduled to make its debut before the fashion press and retail buyers at the Pitti Immagine Uomo menswear trade show in Florence, Italy, in mid-January.
Branscum said that though he isn't at liberty to discuss the specific retailers that might carry the collection, he was happy to share his wish list. "We're certainly looking at the higher end of menswear, which for department stores means Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, and for specialty stores, boutiques like Fred Segal."
Heading for the high-end boutique makes sense beyond simply brand positioning, says Tim Bess, a men's fashion trend analyst with New York City-based Doneger Group. "I see it selling well in the kind of luxury environment where an employee can really tell the story and explain all the details," Bess said. "It's got a great story behind it."
But, Bess points out, if all Massif brought to the front line of fashion was a "rah-rah we protect the troops" kind of back story, it wouldn't be enough to win the hearts and minds — and dollars — of consumers.
"I think it's the story that gets you," he said. "But when it comes to luxury and high fashion, it's got to look good, and this [line] looks fabulous; it has a little bit of that Prada feel to it. And they've done a really good job with fit, which is also important these days."
Bess said that the performance fabrics and design details such as the articulated sleeves, gusseted underarms and crotches, and a barely there cellphone pocket tucked behind the side seam of a dress trouser pant leg — the kind of things that consumers have come to expect from activewear and technical outerwear garments over the last decade — will make the line appealing to the tech-savvy early adapter.
And that is the Massif Collection's target demographic. "This is for the 25- to 55-year-old guy who waited in line for every new iPhone and iPad when it came out," Branscum says. "He's well-educated. He's more of an urban, big-city guy — a guy with an active lifestyle and who wants to look sharp no matter what and needs stuff to keep up with him no matter what the environment."
Of course, as military men return to civilian life, there's also a little something called brand awareness, which labels such as Hart Schaffner Marx have historically leveraged to build the business on the home front. Joseph Abboud, the chief creative officer and president of that label's parent company HMX Group, says he's found early advertising campaigns that emphasize the connection. "Ads that show a college kid sitting at his desk in a tweed jacket with a military helmet sitting nearby," Abboud said. "Or that talk about the company's expertise at making things like the Norfolk jacket, which reminds people of its ties to the military."
Does Branscum think Massif has that kind of recognition?
"Four of Massif's ACS shirts are issued to every U.S. soldier that goes into battle, complete with a hangtag that has a Massif logo sticker," Branscum says. "The company gets photos of Massif stickers all the time — on walls, on the sides of tanks, all over the place in Afghanistan."
Doneger's Tim Bess doesn't think Massif's inaugural campaign to cross over will be much of a battle. "Are you going to wear these clothes into a volcano? No. But at the end of the day, if the product looks fantastic — which it does — and the story is right, and truthful and positive — which it is — I think it's a win-win situation."
And whether it's in reference to a war or a wardrobe, a win-win is a very rare victory indeed.