With new menswear hire, Nordstrom tackles a major weakness

Jian DeLeon’s recent arrival as Nordstrom’s men’s fashion and editorial director may be coming in the nick of time for the embattled retailer.

Nordstrom confirmed the hire of the former editorial director of influential online streetwear publication Highsnobiety by email Thursday after DeLeon himself made the announcement via Twitter. He started work in the newly created role this week from his base in New York, reporting to Nordstrom Creative Director Red Godfrey.

The role encompasses a broad swath, including “Active, Apparel, Designer, New Concepts, Performance Outerwear and more” and streamlines the retailer’s “efforts in creating alignment across our Men’s Fashion Direction and Editorial story telling,” per an emailed press release.

“As we continue to evolve our approach in servicing customers with the right products and the most engaging content and experiences, Jian brings specific and relevant expertise to our endeavor and rounds out our creative leadership team,” Godfrey said in part in an emailed statement. “We’re thrilled to have him on board.”

And none too soon, as the same day the retailer suffered a downgrade from S&P Global Ratings analysts citing “lasting damaging effects” from the COVID-19 pandemic. S&P Global Ratings lowered its long-term issuer credit rating to BB+ from BBB- and its short-term, commercial paper rating to B from A-3, per an emailed press release. Analysts also lowered their issue-level ratings on the company’s senior unsecured debt to ‘BB+’ and assigned a ‘4’ recovery rating. The issue-level rating on the senior secured notes remains ‘BBB-‘, with a ‘1’ recovery.

In the discussion of their rationale, S&P analysts Declan Gargan and Helena Song acknowledged that “Nordstrom’s fashion curation and partnership with strategic designer brands are important elements of its merchandising strategy,” but called it “less diverse than peers” and heavily dependent on women’s apparel.

“Casualization trends in fashion have resulted in wardrobe consolidation and consumers electing comfort over dress wear and formal attire,” they wrote. “We believe COVID-19 has accelerated these trends and will pressure other key categories, including women’s accessories.”

Similar concerns were expressed last month by UBS analysts led by Jay Sole, who warned in an Aug. 26 client note that Nordstrom is unable to take market share as it once did because consumers find its prices high and are turning to off-price retailers for the “business and special occasion attire” they once found there. (S&P also said the retailer lacks enough merchandise in key categories like home that stuck-at-home consumers are scooping up right now. President and Chief Brand Officer Pete Nordstrom told analysts last month that the company has pivoted to expand their home and activewear assortments in response to customer demand.)

“Nordstrom has taken what I think is a very brave move in hiring this very young person, whose background shows that he has an almost fluid and ephemeral view of contemporary menswear, and that’s what they’re lacking.”

Mark-Evan Blackman

Menswear Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology

But Nordstrom also possesses merchandising strengths, notably a buyer approach localized to regional tastes, according to Mark-Evan Blackman, menswear professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. DeLeon has an opportunity not just to revamp Nordstrom’s men’s assortment but also to help lead the way in the segment more broadly, Blackman said in an interview.

In his own statement, DeLeon pointed to Nordstrom’s service focus as a strength, as well as its forward thinking, despite its 119 years. “It continues to astonish me how empowered consumers are today. There has never been a more knowledgeable and discerning customer, especially when it comes to menswear,” DeLeon said, adding, “Nordstrom understands that fashion today is more of an ongoing conversation, and I’m excited for the opportunity to help this impressive team continue to define that conversation.”

Men’s fashion players have taken a beating in recent years as even blue-blood firms relax their dress codes, and the pandemic has further decimated many of the remaining shreds in jacket-and-tie suiting. Two major U.S. menswear retailers with divergent consumer bases — Tailored Brands and Brooks Brothers — turned to bankruptcy court recently. But some observers see a lot of potential in what is now a less dictatorial, more diverse market.

“Nordstrom has taken what I think is a very brave move in hiring this very young person, whose background shows that he has an almost fluid and ephemeral view of contemporary menswear, and that’s what they’re lacking,” Blackman said. “This young man could step in and turn people’s heads in a slightly different direction — away from what traditional tailoring was doing and more so toward the future.”