Can Booze Cure Men's Fashion Phobia? Upscale Stores Hope Spirits Boost Sales.

by Tony Dokoupil

Beer doesn't usually take center stage in upscale fashion boutiques. But that didn't stop six men from recently slashing holes into the sides of Modelo Especial cans, hoisting them to their mouths, and sucking down the exploding contents, frat-boy style, in the rarefied inner sanctum of Billy Reid, a dandyish, mostly men's clothing store in New York's Bowery district. The beers, part of a promotional party held in May, add to the alcoholic accent in Reid's northward-creeping empire of Southern charm. In New York, as well as the store's other outposts in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas, men sip free glasses of bourbon—Woodford Reserve and Pappy Van Winkle, among other small-batch brands—while lingering over immaculate $800 bags and $1,500 suits. "It's like spending time with a friend, hanging in the parlor of a Southern home," says Billy Reid publicist Megan Maguire.

Such Dixie-tinged descriptions make it easy to forget what actually goes on inside Billy Reid—and that's the point. Most men still hate to shop. They fear the crowds, the changing rooms, and the sneaking feeling that it's all a bit unmanly (no matter the state of Vogue intern/New York Rangers left-winger Sean Avery and metrosexual America). Unlike women, they still don't call up a boyfriend to hit the stores, or casually e-mail information about a shirt that "your friend Tommy saw and thought you would like too." But thanks to a 90-proof nudge, the fashionphobic may be poised to take their first tentative steps toward confident shopping. Over the last few years, in the same way that "grooming lounges" now offer drinks as an alibi for self-conscious guys in need of a little manscaping, a slew of shops have added hooch to haute couture, with an eye toward taking the shame out of clothes buying. And, of course, adding to their own bottom line.

"It definitely creates an environment that men feel comfortable in," says David Blend, the executive editor of Thrillist, a style newsletter for urban guys. Since 2004 his staff has covered at least a half-dozen shops mixing booze and business. Last fall, On the Fly, a boutique in the Embarcadero Mall in San Francisco, began serving bourbon and espresso shots, while Ken's Man's Shop in Dallas decided in 2007, after more than four decades in business, to start offering Fat Tire Beer and "Texas vodka" (tequila) in addition to a traditional selection of wines. In New York, both of J.Crew's new men-only shops have a list of crapulous special events planned for the next few months, including scotch, whisky, and bourbon tastings.

On one level, the cause of this sartorial sipping is simple: men like free drinks, and a wave of designers like Billy Reid have been willing to give them some. It's the kind of fare on offer that suggests something more—a semi-conscious effort to make it easier for the fashion-curious male to not only finger fabric and talk detailing, but to do so without feeling the sting from pressurizing peers. Baumans, a slate-floored men's shop in Little Rock, for example, has survived for more than 90 years in the generally fashion-hostile Deep South. The secret, says owner Wayne Ratcliff, is partly Budweiser—a "manly" beer that the shop has served for decades as a way to break the ice with new patrons.

The results speak for themselves: an 85 percent customer-return rate, and three decades on Esquire's list of the best men's shops in the U.S. The only catch, as is the case with most liquor-soaked style houses, is a two-drink limit. "We don't want to take advantage of anyone," says Ratcliff. (Then again, two bourbons could be enough to land you in jail for drunk driving in most states. Might it also encourage an ill-advised impulse purchase?)

All this might sound a bit pathetic to braver boys who have long embraced their inner Calvin. But for the rest of us, who live in a world of heckling high-school friends and family that wears only Fruit of the Loom, the drinks provide a much-needed masculine cover for our inner stylistas. Whether swigs of bourbon help wash away decades of sublimated fashion consciousness remains to be seen. Men developed their fear of frills in the mid-18th century, when the velvet- and lace-wearing aristocracy was replaced by a class of meritocratic capitalists who had to dress more responsibly for work. After all, would you give your nest egg to an accountant wearing a pirate shirt? Not much change there. And a renaissance in men's shopping, however small, runs the risk of increased vanity, credit-card debt, and anxiety about looking good.

But on the whole, the new drinking-parlor feel is a development that's worth savoring, restoring to guys a long-lost pleasure in the finer details of dress: the cut of a suit, the feel of a shirt, and the subtle slope of a well-made shoe.