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Desperate times call for desperate measures — and conservative shirts.

This story first appeared in the April 2, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The recession has prompted men to err on the side of caution when buying dress shirts, leading to a boost in sales of solid white, blue and simple striped styles.

Just as the Great Depression scuttled the dandyism of the Twenties, the economic decline has put the skid on demand for fancy patterns, contrast collars, plaids and bold stripes, according to shirt manufacturers and fashion observers.

“Basics as a percent of total have picked up everywhere,” said Mitch Lechner, president of the designer shirt group at Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., the world’s largest dress shirt manufacturer. “Over the last six months, these styles have completely outperformed french cuff models, textured cloths and fancies.”

In an era where conspicuous consumption has become outré, America’s white-collar workforce is eschewing styles that appear excessive, opting instead for the puritanical and basic, according to Alan Flusser, a men’s wear author and custom tailor.

“Everybody is talking about cutting back,” he said, noting his custom clients are also gravitating to conservative suits and shirts. “On Wall Street, there is a sensitivity to not looking too wealthy. If you’re a person that has had to lay off 10 employees, you can’t walk into the office looking like some sort of Brahmin.”

The solid white shirt is particularly of the moment. Iconic, functional and symbolically associated with purity and power, the white shirt is the ultimate expression of corporate seriousness. And its recent success — PVH reported white shirt sales rose 10 percent in February — suggests to some that businessmen are looking to project confidence and gravitas at a time when companies and jobs are increasingly vulnerable.

“They are dressing like this because they need to hold onto a job or are interviewing for a job,” said Evangelia Souris, president of Optimum Center for Image Management, an image consultant, who added these conservative dressers have a visible role model in President Obama, whose navy suits, crisp white shirts and solid red or blue ties are the epitome of professional raiment. “People are scared and want to play it safe.”

With good reason. The number of unemployed professional and business service workers topped 1.5 million in February, nearly double the number a year ago. The unemployment rate for the professional industry is now 10.8 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than the national average.

Vendors, some of which have been trimming fashion out of their lines and emphasizing classic looks — are partially responsible for this shirt trend. The in-stock program at Gitman Brothers, which is heavy on basic patterned and solid shirts, has grown 20 percent since the start of the year.

The brand also cut 15 percent of its fashion offering from the line, suggesting there will be even more conservative styles on the floor come fall. “I never met a swatch I didn’t like,” said Gitman president John Minahan. “But we feel we can tell a more compelling story by showing less.”

Even Rufus, a brand built on shirts with vibrant patterns and contrasting collars and cuffs, is launching a more conservative range of button-down shirts for fall. “I am seeing a return to a more classic and slightly more toned-down shirt,” said Rufus owner April Singer. “Less embellishments, more simple shirtings.”

The trend could be a challenge for businesses like Robert Graham, whose maximalist aesthetic, typified by daring pattern, bold contrasts and mixed media, is the opposite of simple and white. But the company insists the zeitgeist is not against it. “In the furnishings world, men still want to express themselves,” said Neal Kusnetz, president and partner of Robert Graham, which is known for its sport shirts, but launched dress shirts two-and-a-half years ago. “We are still selling more fashion than basics.”

While there may be a consumer whose sense of fashion is not cowed by the recession, department and specialty stores across the country are seeing an uptick in sales of the demure and understated, vendors said, as if male consumers want the solidity of their shirts to reflect the (hopeful) solidity of their businesses.

“These days, it’s all about fundamentals, whether in apparel or business,” said Flusser. “We’re going through an economic correction, but this a fashion correction, too.”

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