By  on December 18, 2008

Tailored clothing is far from recession-proof, but the category could be rejuvenated in 2009 as suit makers borrow a page from designers, injecting more contemporary styling and youthful, trim fits into their lines.

This year suits and sport coats have been pegged by retailers as one of the softest spots in the down economy. Sales for the category slumped 4.5 percent for the 12 months ending Oct. 7 to $4.2 billion, according to data from The NPD Group. Men’s wear overall dropped 3.5 percent for the same period.

Market sources said the picture has become grimmer since then, citing increased pressure on big-ticket items. “Guys are updating their wardrobe with a new tie or shirt,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD. “A new suit is too big of a purchase for this environment.” Heavy promotions have followed as both better retailers and national franchises slash tailored clothing prices by as much as 50 percent.

That’s not the only challenge weighing on sales and margins. “The other issue is redundancy,” said Cohen. “Tailored clothing tends to be more commonplace product. Trends emerge so slowly that there’s not enough differentiation.”

But previews of fall 2009 lineups show that brands are working to live down the old saw that a tailored clothing department is a “wall of black sleeves” by updating fit and adopting a collection approach to design.

Fit remains the focal point of a quiet revolution in tailored clothing as American males gradually acquire a taste for slimmer-fitting garments. Led by contemporary brands like Theory and Hugo Boss, which have been producing little black suits for years, more conservative labels are now embracing a modern cut, while others are courting younger guys with irreverent styling and Thom Browne-inspired shapes.

JA Apparel Corp., which owns the Joseph Abboud brand, launched its “profile” model, a slimmer but still approachable silhouette, three years ago to little avail. But this season, the company said, the light went on for retailers as well as consumers. “It took a few years for their eyes to adjust to the slimmer model,” said Randy Fields, JA Apparel’s vice president of design, merchandise and production. “It’s nipped in the waist and more narrow at the shoulder but still fits a lot of people. Suddenly, it looks really right.”

Profile suits and sport coats, which are emphasizing fashion plaids, vests and a gray palette, had accounted for 2 percent of orders; for next season, the model represents 30 percent of the buy. Even Lord & Taylor’s clothing department, typically steeped in traditional brands, has given more floor space to contemporary labels like Hugo and Ted Baker.

Ben Sherman tailored, which is made under license by Lanier Clothes, has started selling its slimmest model into Nordstrom and is producing sport coats for its own doors that are so short they barely pass the hips. “We’re pushing Ben Sherman forward,” said the clothing division’s creative head Keanan Duffty. “Everybody has stuff they need right now. They’re not spending money on things they already own. It’s right to come to the table with more design development.”

Duffty created an edited collection of tailored clothing for next season that owed much to evening suits. He updated the tux for day by using contrasting men’s wear fabrics on jacket lapels that work back to details on vests and pants. Shawl collars and three-piece suits abound in irreverent versions of classic plaids and banker stripes. “We want to reach our customer in a focused way,” he said. There are, of course, the basics, but the line is much bolder than Duffty’s previous iterations, a move he said points to the changing way men wear tailored clothing.

In a watershed launch, Oxxford Clothing — for decades the vanguard of high-end, American suits — will unveil its first collection at Pitti Uomo in Florence. The edited range of trim tailored clothing includes bold and graphic black-and-white checks, plaid dinner jackets in acidic colors and sport coats that evoke Seventies Princeton with shrunken versions of prepster standbys. Brand president and ceo Mike Cohen says it was time for the label to express its unique, American perspective on clothing, but Oxxford’s move into fashion territory also suggests how contemporary standards for “dressing up” are prompting even the most classic vendors to diversify their offerings.

Blame the zeitgeist: Tailored clothing is having a uniquely American moment. Once home of the slouchy sack suit, the U.S. is now the front line of contemporary dress. Thom Browne’s influence on silhouette continues to hold sway as both high-end brands and midtier merchants shrink their models. AMC’s “Mad Men” has revived an era of taut tailoring and flannel. And President-elect Barack Obama, in wearing domestically made Hart Schaffner Marx suits, has shown how contemporary American clothing can be both professional and modern.

“The thin suit used to be a fashion item,” said JA Apparel’s Fields. “But the consumer is catching up. Now it’s about not looking schlumpy.”

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