In the past five years, says market researcher IBISWORLD, menswear has been the fastest-growing product category sold online, outpacing groceries, shoes, and electronics. When Theboutique@ogilvy, a fashion PR agency, surveyed adult men in January, 53 percent described their style as “basic bro” vs. “practical,” “professional,” or “rugged.” Although many guys still affect a preppy look, they’re not going to Brooks Brothers to get it. “If you’re trying to reach young men,” says Ty Montague, chief executive officer of consulting firm Co:collective, “adopt the tone and manner of young men, which is by nature irreverent.” The brotailers have raided Dad’s and Granddad’s closets and jettisoned the pretense older brands relied on. It’s less high-cheekboned bon vivant on a pheasant hunt, more dad-bod with a can of Tecate.
What brotailers offer is more than just a retail experience. “It’s almost like these brands are creating safe spaces where dudes can be dudes,” says Heidi Hackemer, founder of marketing agency Wolf & Wilhelmine. This isn’t necessarily a positive thing. “We’re in this really weird phase of masculinity, where all the rules are shifting,” she says. “Everyone is talking about women, and Beyoncé is, like, ‘Go kill it, ladies,’ and Sheryl Sandberg is leaning in, and guys don’t really know how to move forward. You almost see this regression into a safe space, which is the bro cave. I don’t think anyone has told the guys what they’re supposed to do now.”
Chubbies is happy to make suggestions to the citizens of Chubster Nation. Staffers sort through more than 1,000 photos a day that Chubbies die-hards submit through e-mail, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter in the hopes that theirs will be reposted to the company’s social media feeds. The pics provide instant product and marketing insight. “We’re so empowered to see what the customer is doing,” says Castillo, who dismisses the more ivory-tower methods apparel makers use to figure out the next big trend. “I don’t need to shop the world to see that. I can see exactly what he’s doing on my phone today.”
The company also maintains a network of more than 300 “Chubbies Ambassadors,” college students who promote the brand for free gear. On the ambassador application (or “chublication” as it were) Chubbies describes its ideal candidates as “bad*ss shorts aficionados in a sea of confused cargo and man-capri-wearing jabronies.” Recently, Chubbies started mailing orders with a free set of vintage baseball cards and a note from Rutherford, along with his cell phone number. “We were all standing there 10 minutes before Preston walked down the aisle for his wedding,” Castillo says, “and he gets this call, and he answers it. He says, ‘Hey, man, I’m about to get married, so I’m going to need to call you back a little bit later.’ ”
Business is good. In 2015, Chubbies saw a revenue gain of 50 percent from 2014, and the company says it’s on a similar pace this year. There are plans to start making women’s shorts ( both product directors are women), golfwear, and, possibly, child sizes. “We’re seeing a lot more dads among our customers,” says Chubbies public-relations chief Kit Garton. The standard operating procedure is to have as much fun as possible, share that fun with customers, and watch the orders for shorts come in. “We’re trying to make our friends laugh, bring a little bit of levity to their day,” Rutherford says. It’s not exactly hiring Bruce Weber to photograph Argentine polo star Nacho Figueras for a Ralph Lauren ad. At Chubbies, the big concern at an afternoon meeting is how many Nerf guns they’ll need for an American Gladiators tribute video they’re planning. <BW>