Men’s suitable attire
The Casualization of Men’s Suitable Attire
Last night, FGI hosted a panel discussion at l’atelier de Kenneth Cole titled, with no vested economic interest whatsoever, “The Casualization of Men’s Suitable Attire.” This group-think gathering included Chris Mitchell, GQ Magazine VP and publisher, with panelists: Kenneth Cole (!) designer/visionary, Eric Jennings, Saks Fifth Avenue VP, Fashion Director Menswear,Todd Snyder, designer, and Will Welch, GQ Senior Editor, Style. It may truthfully be said that they agreed to not disagree about Menswear 2.0, and there is absolutely no collusion of any kind between advertising and editorial at Men’s ‘zines
Everyone was so agreeable: important points were that men’s suiting is selling again! The panel, comprised of unusually chatty Kathies, cited “economic necessity,” which possibly did not include unemployed steelworkers or 7-11 clerks struggling to make rent or mortgage payments ( as Cole pointed out only 8% of the US population wear suits on a daily basis), the popularity of suits among celebrity ikons with stylists and loaner-designer clothes such as Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, and Barack Obama, a fit dude, who buys his threads locally but stays tres pres du corps with his severe tailoring. The subliminal message for dudes was the perennial myth of sex appeal: Sell the dream of the peacock effect, and the merch will move itself. Market the message that a suit will score more chicks than a slept-in polo with mustard stains and a pair of rumpled khakis which scream GAP clerk. Further, suiting has evolved into a deconstructed, less formal version of its former Mad Men stiff boxy uniform, which means cheaper construction and ‘more affordable’ price points adding up to increased sales, which is basically the standard business model these days. As Sidney Poitier’s character told his students before their epic class trip to the V&A in To Sir With Love “Every new fashion is a form of rebellion” – he just did not mention that one had to pay for such rebellion in order to conform. Todd Snyder and Kenneth Cole are at the forefront of this new casual formal business attire thing. If Hans Christian Anderson were in the audience, he might have rewritten his classic fairy tale as The Emperor’s New Leisure Suit or The Knave’s Deconstructed Sportscoat and called it a night. Snyder recently partnered with Nordstromto launch a $795 American-made quality suit, which is quite a savings considering most men buy off the rack on sale for no more than $200. Cole breaks up the uniform “mens suit” concept into easier to buy and wear separates in the manner pioneered by Brooks Brothers. Snyder is competing with $2000+ suits with his Nordstrom line and in doing so, deflating both price and some traditional elements of quality while adding modern points of value.
Smartly dressed in an on-trend oxblood blazer, sans tie, Jennings posited that space coexists for both fast fashion and quality (expensive) suiting. Bespoke up-brand suits allow male consumers to justify $2000 to $10,000 outlays and instant gratification lag. It’s also the material that distinguishes a Brioni or Kiton suit from the thin wool Stoff from H&M that your mother hemmed into cuffs in order to make sure that if you stepped in a puddle up to your knees your suit would stay dry. Snyder and Cole made sure to point out that American-made fabrics and tailoring are comparable to Italian. That might be a hard sell for most men, but let’s hope xenophobia generates sufficient jobs to sustain American mills. Maybe they will, as Americans romanticize the reconstructed dream of the underdog rising out of the tattered fibers of initial defeat, humbled but stronger. Technological advances in fabric designed to respond to global climate change will add value that may counter the mystique of Italian tailoring — especially if offered at a competitive price. Muji and some Asian designers have been working on this for a decade, and America sees an opportunity. Snyder, incidentally, developed a metal suit that creases perfectly. Voicing concerns about the astronomical cost of clothing and $450 Thom Browne button downs, Snyder also believes there is room in the middle market between Zara and Bergdorf Goodman. However, it is difficult to make margins, and Snyder admitted he had to reduce his margin and impose harsh cost controls on all segments of his supply chain for his Nordstrom line. Cole has always dwelled in that territory between high and low end and has profited enormously from maintaining this unsustainable balance. Cole is actually under-rated as a designer but a healthy business is the best revenge.
An East Coast viewpoint dominated the discussion, as panelists kept referring to MBA grads and Wall Street types as their new consumer. What about the Best Coast where casual cool is the dress code? Basically, young men with disposable income – think Christian Bale’s 80’s incarnate Wall Street M&A character in American Psycho or more recently Wolves of Wall Street- are as bad as teen girls with a charge card and will step up to Saks or designers for casual workwear. Cole’s street inspired separates could work there.
Panelists fielded questions from the audience such as “What to wear with tailored sweatpants?” (Heels with goldfish, natch!) and “Will kilts ever go mainstream?” All answers can be summarized as “Timberland style boots and trainers work but never wear anything with “Pink” across the ass, and just say no to kilts.”
In sum, Menswear is declared alive and interesting again, but will consumers follow suit?
By Elizabeth Maher