Will Suits Make A Return To The Office?

Autumn runways saw the welcome return of tailoring – but where to from here after a lengthy and casual stint working from home?

By Jean E, Palmieri, Samantha Conti, Alessandra Turra, Luisa Zargani For Wwd 14/04/2020

One year ago, the men’s retail community was all abuzz at the prospect of tailored clothing rebounding as streetwear started to wane.

Fast-forward to 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic stopped business in its tracks and left everyone working from home in tracksuit pants.

So when the situation finally normalises and men are able to return to their offices — whenever that may be — will the once-expected popularity of tailored clothing become a reality, or a lost opportunity?

Designers and retailers remain upbeat, expecting pent-up demand to spur sales of suits and sport coats as guys happily ditch their work-from-home attire and get dressed up when they can finally get back to the office.

“Guys inherently like to get dressed up,” said designer Joseph Abboud.

Dressing well helps men feel powerful, and considering how out of control the world has felt in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, a suit is an easy, but highly visible, statement.

But it won’t be his grandfather’s suit. Instead, the power suit of 2020 will be more comfortable with technical attributes such as stretch, antimicrobial properties, antiwrinkle and other performance features. The contemporary silhouette is often oversize, double-breasted and boxy with retro Nineties references, while some guys may pair it with everything from upscale T-shirts to sneakers.

 

Designers Dish on Tailored’s Return

 

For Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino, today’s tailored clothing is much less formal than in the past.

“I believe that the sense of intimacy behind the art of tailoring is what matters,” he said. “I want to dismiss the idea of formalwear as a uniform by making it more sensitive and romantic. I think a man has to change his perspective and take away some formalities from the formal. Formalwear has evolved by eliminating the bossiness that has always characterised it.”

Alessandro Dell’Acqua, founder and creative director of No. 21, also sees a new reality for tailored clothing, particularly in light of the pandemic.

“I really think that after long days spent at home wearing super comfortable pieces, men will definitely be willing to return to wearing suits or more sartorial designs,” he said. But the suit is not traditional. Instead, he said, “I imagine a revisited formal suit influenced by feminine elements, as well as characterised by intentional mistakes. An example: the double-breasted blazer will be completely unlined and maybe paired with shorts or with slim-fit pants. In addition, coats will be deconstructed, striped shirts will be sleeveless and knitted tops will feature one-shoulder cuts. To sum up, I imagine a slim, elongated silhouette, not touched by streetwear and sportswear references.”

Sir Paul Smith said he is “already dreaming of the day I get back to work properly and I’m looking forward to getting dressed up in a suit, shirt, tie and proper shoes, in a way I haven’t done for years. So many people will have spent so much time trapped at home in their casual home clothes, I think we’ll see an interesting return to getting dressed up and feeling special. For me that’s definitely helped by the elegance of a good suit.”

For Smith, today’s suit “is definitely divided into two quite distinct categories. There is the suit as we’ve known it in recent years: it fits the body, it’s smart and elegant in a more traditional manner and it’s worn with a tie and leather shoes. Then there is the suit that everybody has been talking about this season: the more relaxed, softly constructed suit, sometimes in colour, with more volume and worn in a more alternative way whether with a T-shirt, trainers or otherwise. And so, the suit for me has an enormous relevance this winter but the choice is yours which one you select.”

Sander Lak, creative director of Sies Marjan, too, believes men will be itching to get dressed up again as soon as they can.

“We have actually been talking about this a lot, as many of my team members have joked about living in their sweats and I think we are all getting a bit sick of it. I think after we no longer have to social distance, everyone will be racing to the bars and restaurants and exploring the rest of their closets. I think that there is a way to still dress relaxed, and comfortably without having to live in your sweatsuit.”

Lak added: “In a way, part of the Sies Marjan uniform has been relaxed items such as our fluid cord pieces. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort to dress up, so I do think people will incorporate that idea into their day-to-day [lives] after this is over. I also think that we will embrace and appreciate those moments of getting dressed up for a dinner at our favourite restaurant or dressing up to go to a play or putting on our favourite suit to go to the office. The rest of our wardrobes are screaming, ‘Wear me!’”

Pierre Mahéo, founder and designer of the Paris-based Officine Générale brand, said he believes tailored clothing “has already taken over the momentum of streetwear. This was evident when some of the most iconic streetwear brands included suiting in their collections and on the runway during men’s fashion week last June.”

And even though he doesn’t believe everyone will immediately jump to wearing suits or jackets, he sees “a progressive curve.”

“When quarantine is over, I don’t believe we’ll be seeing sleepy zombies wearing sweats to work all the time. Going out and getting dressed is something we are all waiting for.”

But the tailoring will be different than in the past. “Tailored clothing was certainly a big trend on the runway. I think tailoring will be back, but not in the literal way. It will be in a much cooler, creative way. I think guys will play and mix up their tailored clothing — it’s the only way to make a suit cool again. I don’t think guys want to wear a suit in the Gordon Gekko way. It has to be dressed down, with a touch of nonchalance, getting rid of the serious part of it.”

Heron Preston, who has been a leader of the streetwear movement, said his most recent collection includes more tailoring. “I think that is because we’re experiencing the maturing of a generation of designers, creatives, and fans. We all grew up a bit and started to appreciate more than just T-shirts and denim, and the collection is a reflection of that real-life process. That process also presented an exciting opportunity to evolve my perspective by adding twists on conventional and traditional designs. It was a creative exercise to take what was meant for the office and envision it on the streets, to loosen up ‘formalwear’ and wipe it free of corporation through a filter of culture.”

Paul Smith Men’s Autumn 2020

Preston said he hopes that when the pandemic passes, “people come out of this with changed perspectives, and I think that fresh mind-set will be apparent in our approach to fashion. When we came out of the last recession, people went back to the basics and more practical clothing. I think when we come out of this time, people will be wanting to get behind brands that stand for something. I think tailoring will be important because we are hurting economically and people are looking for jobs, but I am hoping that we don’t all just replicate what we were doing before. I think we’ll be looking for creative ways to evolve the system, be it changing our buying habits, reprioritising elements of our lives or simply finding styles that deconstruct traditional.”

He believes that people are “realizing all the trivial things that we took for granted and we will hopefully come out of the other side with a new vantage point, a reset perspective toward the world. I think this can also be applied to fashion in that we will reset all this noise that we have been creating. This has been an equalizing experience, and going back to basics will make it easier for people to relate to one another once this is over.”

Willy Chavarria also believes the impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting. “Going out in public is more precious to us. It will be from now on,” he said. “We will want to look better and feel better than we have throughout the duration of the crisis. For this reason, we will embrace tailoring, but it will be worn differently. We will have a more sensitive and relaxed approach in the way we present ourselves.”

Chavarria said that after experiencing loss, everyone will have “a new sense of values which I think will guide us away from opulence and more toward a gentler way of being. The mixing of casual with tailored will be more ever-present. Even now I find myself getting dressed to look good even if just to get Clorox wipes and pasta.”

Chavarria’s Autumn’20 collection consists of almost all tailored styles, he said, and uses recycled materials. “It is a eulogy for the world as we once knew it.” The presentation and video that he hosted to show the collection actually turned out to be a “foreshadowing of what was later to come,” he said. “When I designed it, I was sad for the world. I felt that in many ways man was a lost cause. But now, I actually find inspiration in the way that man is getting a slap across the face and being forced to wake up. Fashion will reflect this feeling.”

Patrick Grant, designer and owner of Norton & Sons, E. Tautz and Community Clothing, said: “I imagine people will be longing for an opportunity to get dressed up a bit, with a bit of distance. It might be that ath-leisure reminds them of lockdown wear. Trying to predict what people will feel is too tough of a question, but I do think this is an opportunity for everybody to reflect on the way we live. And in fashion, things move in cycles. The pendulum swings in one way, and then all the pioneers, the Virgil Ablohs and the cool kids were all into one thing. But when everyone else piles in, they go the other way.

“If you are a cool guy, you don’t want to be wearing the stuff everyone else is wearing. I’m a person who’s into clothes, and I know that I just get bored. I got bored with slim, fitted suits, that’s why we went to looser and baggier suits. Tailoring has moved on a lot, it feels very different now. It’s back to this really nice ‘Miami Vice’ vibe, which I really like. It feels fresh. Ath-leisure doesn’t feel fresh to me, it feels like every single teenage boy on the streets of England wearing black Nike trainers, black sweatpants, black top. It’s kind of boring.”

But not everyone thinks the pandemic will immediately boost interest in tailored clothing.

According to Palm Angels founder and creative director Francesco Ragazzi, “People will have a bigger desire to take care of themselves at all levels. I think this will also impact the way people will dress, but I don’t think that the sartorial suiting will be the answer to this crisis. I hope that consumers will rediscover quality, will look for beautifully crafted products, giving more attention to fabrics and yarns, one of Italy’s true excellences. I think this might be the answer.”

He said he hopes that fashion in the future “will be less driven by trends, but that it will be more connected to reality. I don’t think that suiting really reflects the moment we are living or what we will experience in the future. And I think this ‘future’ will last for many months.”

Mike Amiri, founder and designer of the Amiri label, weighed in: “Evolution of all things is natural and necessary. The spirit of curation within streetwear will simply evolve into finer things. Easy tailoring mixed with new fabrications, relaxed proportions, and novel details feels like a natural progression.” He added that the “relaxed nature of sweatpants and comfort clothing” guys are becoming so fond of during the virus, “will now be an addition to the elevated street wardrobe. However, it would be paired with a beautiful coat or leather jacket — a perfect mix between both leisure and luxury.”

Daisuke Obana, founder and designer of N. Hoolywood, also believes the pandemic will drastically change the way people think about clothes. “Even tomorrow is unpredictable,” he said. And while he showed a lot of tailored clothing in his last collections, he’s just not sure how it will all shake out. “In the first place, easy wear will be inevitable. I guess people will be creative and wear what’s in front of them for a while. And the stylish person will play with accessories and styling, Or they will have no interest in fashion at all. I have no idea.”

For Abboud, when things finally return to some sense of normalcy, he believes consumers will seek “comfort and safety” in both their lives as well as their wardrobes. And he’s not expecting tailored clothing to be the immediate beneficiary of this trend.

“When we came out of financial crisis of 2009, the last thing to come back was men’s wear,” he said. Guys were quick to take care of their children and their wives as well as responsibilities such as mortgages. Their wardrobes had to wait. “Clothing tends to be the last thing out.”

And custom clothing, a saviour of a lot of men’s wear manufacturers pre-COVID-19, is expected to have a particularly tough time. “The custom business will take a halt,” Abboud predicted, saying the category will be viewed as “conspicuous consumption,” a major no-no with all the unemployment and angst sweeping the world.

That being said, Abboud does expect the softer side of the clothing market — unconstructed sport coats, sophisticated pants with technical attributes, and shirts with stretch and antimicrobial features — to be the first place men gravitate when they do start shopping again. “The softer side of tailored clothing will thrive more quickly,” Abboud said.

 

Brands See Bright Future For Suits

 

Some of the more-traditional tailored clothing brands also — not surprisingly — claim to be optimistic about what the future holds in terms of the sector, but they too have evolved to meet the demand of a modern customer.

Tom Kalenderian, strategic adviser to Ermenegildo Zegna in the U.S., said “there will definitely be a change when we get back to reality.” And part of that change is that men will embrace getting dressed up again once they can retire their work-from-home sweatpants.

For him, even though many offices have relaxed their business dress codes, guys will still wear suits. “Men are going back to suits by choice,” he said. “They like the way it makes them look and feel. It has a serious and successful connotation.”

But instead of the uniform of the past, men are breaking apart the suit and pairing it with more casual shirts or pants, especially younger men.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, 2020 “was poised to be a great year for tailoring,” Kalenderian said, and Zegna is prepared with options that range from high-end couture to wash-and-go suits. Its City suit project is targeted to younger guys with a slimmer silhouette and fabric and colour options that speak to the needs of a modern wardrobe.

“City suits can be worn with or without a tie or mixed with sophisticated leisurewear underpinnings for a ‘smart casual’ attitude that feels right both for business and leisure moments,” Kalenderian said.

Zegna is also embracing the sustainability movement, with more natural and technical fabrics that are intended to be reused as well as reusable, he said. That includes this Autumn’s introduction of regenerated suits from Zegna’s Achill Farm that are made from wool remnants discarded during the production process that are remixed and rewoven.

Roberto Compagno, chief executive officer of Slowear, said the brand has been moving toward a more comfortable way of dressing for some time now through the use of technology and performance fabrics that “need no ironing, that stretch, that are antibacterial, that don’t crease. This moment accelerates that process, and you can be informally elegant in a new way, wearing a suit that is comfortable and less traditional. It’s inevitable — look at what happened to hats and ties, which were considered musts in the past.”

Stefano Canali, CEO of the family-owned Canali company, agreed. “The pandemic is accelerating a trend that was already evident, a search for comfort, which derives from the materials, the construction of the clothes. When this is over, there will surely be a desire to buy less, but better, there will be more sobriety and a desire to turn to brands that are known for their authenticity, history and credibility, with high value for money, quality and durability with the right stylistic approach. The power suit will be represented by suits that are not rigid, more stretch and that have a lighter construction. The jacket will be increasingly important, but it will be lighter, thin, deconstructed. It will have a cocoon effect, responding to a need for comfort blended with quality. It will all be smart casual as the differentiation between formal and informal is increasingly less sharp.”

Hermès Men’s Autumn 2020

Anda Rowland, owner of Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard, has also seen a return to a more tailored aesthetic brewing for a few season. “What we have seen with some of our best dressed younger customers is a mixture of tailoring and streetwear. Customers are more adventurous with their cloth choices and may choose less formal materials such as heavy cottons, jerseys or corduroys and brighter colours rather than the classic worsted wool cloths. Flannels work well as they can be dressed slightly less formally.

“We believe that the general trend toward more structured men’s clothing and toward mixing streetwear/ath-leisure with tailoring will continue despite the current disastrous situation. Many of our customers wear their tailored clothing for social occasions and out of work as dress codes at the office are far more relaxed and they will continue to be when normal life resumes.”

Although Rowland expects men to be cautious in their spending when the crisis abates, she believes they will gravitate toward comfort, which she said is “very addictive, and we believe that the power suit will be more softly tailored than its Eighties ancestor — men are used to moving freely and are expecting their suit to work for them across a wide variety of occasions. Also, we expect materials to be harder-wearing given the technical improvements brought in by the woollen mills over the last few years.”

But on a more serious note, with so many millions now unemployed, when they are back out interviewing for jobs, they’ll need to look professional. “A great-fitting suit will undoubtedly help them stand out from the competition,” he said.

 

Retailers Expect Sales Bump

 

The retail community is hopeful that heightened demand for tailored clothing will help spur much-needed business for them as well. Face it, after months of their stores being closed and relying on whatever business they could get from their e-commerce sites, retailers — at least the ones that will survive the pandemic — will be desperately searching for any sector that can get consumers back into stores and generate revenues.

Sam Kershaw, buying director for Mr Porter, is bullish on tailored clothing for Autumn (our Spring).

“After several years of a streetwear-dominated runway, we saw such fantastic suiting in January,” he said. “From slim-cut silhouettes at Givenchy and Valentino, to classic Italian tailoring from Canali, it was clear that tailoring is back, and in a considered, varied way.

“At Mr Porter, we’ve gotten behind the classically relaxed styles from brands like Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana, as well as the Seventies-esque silhouettes from Tom Ford and Tod’s. Later in the year, we’ll also be launching our third ‘costume to collection’ collaboration for our own label Kingsman, which is inspired by the forthcoming film, ‘The King’s Man.’ What will be evident come Autumn is that we’ve made a commitment to tailoring, as well as the diversity on offer from our brands.”

That diversity will be evident through a number of different trends. “The power suit of 2020 is less about a specific style or block, and more about the wearability and swagger of the approach,” he believes. “Whether it’s sharp and structured or relaxed and unstructured, the new power suit is in the eye of the beholder.

“Look at The Row, whose modern approach to traditional tailoring has created a new standard in impeccable suiting; Ermenegildo Zegna, who is collaborating with streetwear brand Fear of God, and Ralph Lauren, whose double-breasted suits look like they were made for Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. All three brands fall on different points of the suiting spectrum, and perfectly embody what’s exciting about today’s chop-and-change approach to wearing tailoring,” said Kershaw.

Federico Barassi, vice president of men’s wear buying for Ssense, said the company started seeing “an industry shift toward tailoring for a little over two seasons now. Styles that are emblematic of streetwear, like hoodies and T-shirts will always be relevant, but designers are moving the focus of their collections toward more tailored and timeless pieces. Ermenegildo Zegna and Jerry Lorenzo’s collaboration is an example of how tailored clothing can pull from streetwear codes in an unexpected way.”

He said that even during the stay-at-home orders, many men are “still maintaining an office wardrobe for meetings and video calls. That said, the tailoring focus will organically continue to grow season over season; I don’t think the current circumstances will impact future demand for tailored goods.”

Barassi said the Ssense customer has been “gravitating toward building their wardrobes with staples like a classic overcoat, and well-cut trousers for quite a few seasons. This Spring, they’ll continue to elevate through more tailored pieces such as double-breasted blazers and leather details. We saw a lot of tailoring on spring/summer ’20 runways and shows, like at Bottega Veneta, so that will definitely influence people’s buying behaviours as well.”

Bottega Veneta RTW Autumn 2020

So pairing a wide-leg trouser with a fitted jacket, for example, with detailing such as notch lapels on the jacket, layered over a hoodie or turtleneck, will define the power suit of 2020 for the Ssense customer, he believes.

According to Bosse Myhr, director of men’s and women’s wear at Selfridges, “The tailored approach that a lot of brands have been applying for their autumn/winter ‘20 show collections is going to have an impact on the way people style streetwear. I think the important thing to remember is that, yes, there was more tailoring in the shows, but it’s very far away from the uniformed suit, shirt and tie. I think the future of tailoring is in its relaxed attitude, be that in the styling or the cut. I do think there is a chance that casual Friday will be replaced by dress-up Fridays.”

Nelson Mui, merchandising director for fashion at Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford, believes, “Ath-leisure and streetwear will always have universal appeal — you can’t unlearn comfort — but designers and luxury brands have been exploring creative ways to do tailoring: part of an overall mood toward more polished dressing. We are particularly excited about the Fear of God x Zegna collaboration, the idea of melding a street sensibility to traditional tailored codes. This is a very fashion concept.”

Mui added that “Zoom parties notwithstanding, the pandemic certainly reduced a lot of occasions to wear tailored clothing. But in times of economic uncertainty, with a good number of people out of work or worried about losing jobs, there’s a security to dressing up. Most men feel more confident and authoritative when they are in a sharp-looking suit. There was a time when it seemed tailored clothing was obsolete: remember casual Fridays in the Nineties and the rise of corporate casual? But the rise of the slim fit suit gave a new generation of guys in the 2000s a boost of confidence and fashion/sex appeal. What favours this trend toward tailored again is that people are looking for more investment pieces and fewer micro-trends, hype, and steady stream of drops. It takes less effort and money to put on a suit that you can wear over two or three years.”

Chris Kyvetos, men’s wear buying director for MyTheresa, said that for the past 18 months, streetwear has been “getting tired” and the industry is “naturally gravitating back toward a more-classic luxury direction. As an industry, when we reach saturation, we crave freshness.”

He said when deciding to launch Mytheresa Men for spring/summer ’20, “we took the view of no streetwear, and it’s worked exceptionally well for us. Going forward we see a heavily tailored influence in post-streetwear luxury. However, we are not planning on selling suits instead of sweatshirts, so some of the runway [collections] and collaborations I’m seeing between the two worlds are a bit literal and won’t go very far.”

He believes that for Autumn, tailored clothing will need to be fresh and new, such as Bottega Veneta’s tailored nylon jackets or Kiko Kostadinov’s tailored outerwear. But if a brand has its roots in streetwear and is pivoting to tailoring to catch a trend, that’s an example of being “too literal and irrelevant,” he said.

During the streetwear years, he said, “men’s fashion lost context,” and when people resume their “normal” activities, “it stands to reason that they will crave something new. It could be a job, a holiday, a personal trainer, an apartment, a dog or a jacket.”

Of course, who knows what the male consumer — or any consumer — will want to buy coming out of the global crisis (beyond more toilet paper and disinfectant, that is)?

While brands and retailers are bullish about the suit for Spring, it must be remembered that their orders were placed in January, as the coronavirus was only just beginning to spread in China. Orders were based on those fundamentals and the idea that a male shopper who was already spending more than ever would continue to spend. Given that, they felt confident about moving away from baggy and roomy streetwear toward a more tailored look.

So men’s store floors and web sites come Spring will be heavily slanted toward suits and sport jackets, albeit 21st-century versions. All brands and retailers can hope is that in a world that will never be the same again, even post-COVID-19, men will still go back to feeling about fashion the way they did a mere four months ago.

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