Menswear is definitely having a moment—and the excitement was palpable during the first few days of New York Fashion Week.
Though the twice-a-year extravaganza in the past has arguably been all about the ladies, male-focused designs shifted more into the spotlight during the spring collections, as men's apparel and footwear sales growth outpaces women's.
Renewed interest in the segment also left its mark on the designers' collections, which reflected the notion that men are now more comfortable with style and experimenting with new looks.
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"The increasing popularity of the menswear market has caused designers to take more risks," said Matt Feniger, associate editor, menswear at trend forecasting firm WGSN. "It also helps that men are much more willing nowadays to experiment with fashion and try new things."
Designer Lucio Castro, for example, whose spring collection hinged on the irony of spending leisure time at a beach in a buttoned-up communist country, said that more and more, his customer is looking to wear something "very special."
"Many times I've designed stuff that was more, I guess, safe [but] I usually sell more [of the] stuff that is more special," he said.
Donna Kang, head designer at Timo Weiland, said the biggest change is that customers now want their everyday clothing to be more creative—not just their special occasion wear. The design house's creative team, which defines their look as "prep meets street," said men being more in-tune with what they're wearing has come as the stigma once attached to the word "metrosexual" has faded.
"The term 'metrosexual' is not really said anymore," Timo Weiland design director Alan Eckstein said during the label's presentation.
The collections also infused the casual tone that has taken hold in the women's market, where the "athleisure" look has shot to popularity. Castro, who designed his collection to invoke the idea of a terrycloth beach towel, said he chose a casual tone for spring because people no longer go into the office as they used to; when they do, they don't need to be as buttoned up. He pointed to the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs' iconic black turtleneck as an example.
"The formal dressing is really, really changing," he said. "A successful businessman doesn't necessarily have a suit and tie."
Even designers David Hart and Todd Snyder, who are known for their dressed-up, tailored look, took things more casual for spring. Hart's models wore sandals with their seafoam and baby-blue suits, while Snyder—who also has a collaboration with sportswear company Champion—dressed his models in PF Flyers sneakers.
"I always liked how you can play something casual with a suit, or pairing a suit with a sneaker," Snyder said.
Designers aren't the only ones who have answered men's call for updated fashions. As men's apparel sales have grown (they increased 5 percent in 2013 from the prior year, according to The NPD Group), retailers and other fashion-facing companies are also boosting their inventory in the segment.
Macy's is expanding the men's floor at its Herald Square flagship to cover 200,000 square feet, while specialty men's store DXL is expanding its footprint to attract a younger, more fashionable male; designer Tory Burch is building out her line to include men's, and Coach is working to grow its men's sales to $1 billion by 2017.
"It is opportunistic," said Tom Julian, branding expert at The Doneger Group trend forecasting firm. "We are in a millennial marketing moment [and] millennials are definitely fashion savvy."
Still, challenges remain in bringing and retaining men's talent in NYC. The New York circuit has lost some big-name designers over the past few seasons—whether because they're seeking a larger platform for their brands at the Milan or Paris shows or because New York's week falls after menswear merchants have already made their buys for the season.
Erin Hawker, founder of Agentry PR, is looking to change that. Two seasons ago, her firm was trying to build buzz around two of her menswear clients, Bespoken and Ernest Alexander, and the idea of New York Men's Day was born. The following season, the event grew to six designers; this season, it featured 10. Hawker said she could see the event one day being separate from the women's season to be more in tune with when men's buyers choose what items they want to sell in their stores.
"Our focus is really trying to be on the American market now and designers that have a presence here and trying to help them," Hawker said.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America is also looking to create a separate event for men's fashion week, though initiatives have yet to gain much traction (the council did not respond to request for comment). London, Milan and Paris hold a separate men's fashion week each year, in January and June.
Although the benefits of showing abroad can be tempting, several New York-based designers have decided to stick it out in the city. Iowa native Snyder, for one, said it was an easy choice for him to continue showing in NYC, despite the fact that he's growing his brand overseas.
"I'm an American designer, and I think it's important to show here and to always be rooted here," he said. "People in Japan like our brand because we are American, and I think it's important to honor that, but also it's really who I am."
—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson