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Beyond the Business Suit

It' a good time to be in tailored clothing. After a decade of dressing down, men became—and continue to be—interested in clothing.

It’s a good time to be in tailored clothing.

Not long ago clothing was relegated to the boardroom and the country club. Men wore suits and jackets for formal dinners, office parks, weddings and funerals because they had too.

But after a decade of dressing down, men became—and continue to be—interested in clothing. According to the latest data from The NPD Group, tailored clothing for the year ending October 2007 grew 4 percent to $4.9 billion, just outpacing men’s wear overall.

But this “return to dressing up” isn’t so much a return as a new approach. Unhinged from formal dress, tailored clothing has been free to evolve, and in the process has permeated—and borrowed from—the rest of men’s wear. Cue sportswear and denim collections that stock sport coats and jackets that function as outerwear. In the opposite direction, sartorial clothing has recently become capital “F” Fashion (see Tom Ford), as dandyish silhouettes, fabrics and patterns have added new interest to the category.

In short, tailored clothing is no longer just a classification business, and as our fall 2008 preview shows, industry vendors are following suit. “Tailored clothing is becoming increasingly niched,” says John Fowler, creative director for the Joseph Abboud brand. “We have to think about dressing him from jeans and dresswear to active.”

THE SPORTING LIFE
Tailored clothing vendors are borrowing sportswear ideas and in the process transforming the sport coat, which has become shirt-like. Last spring both Kiton and Isaia introduced unlined, shoulderless jackets cut from shirt fabric. Domenico Vacca is doing the same this fall as the demand for casual, lightweight clothing surges.

The bottom line: The market is still enamored with the unconstructed, casual jacket. Even fall goods are getting the stuffing yanked out of them with less lining (John Varvatos Star USA) and lighter internal components and cloth (Tom James, Hickey Freeman and Jack Victor). Victor is taking its cloths on a diet this fall with average weights ranging from 270 to 310 grams, as opposed to 310 to 360 grams last year.

The sport coat is also an alternative to outerwear. Joseph Abboud is putting storm flap collars on wool jackets, and Jorge Molina, creative director for George Weintraub & Sons, is slapping leather trim, elbow patches and undercollars on the Star USA line. Oxxford too is on board, lending an outerwear feel to its English hunting jacket via a gun patch and belted back.

And in the latest evolution the sport coat is standing in for the cardigan as vendors cut unconstructed blazers from knit fabrics, like Arnold Brant’s macaroni-weave coat. “It’s got a sweater feel,” says Craig Lickliter, the brand’s vice-president of merchandising.

Even traditionally dressy looks have moved into the realm of sportswear. Vests are now being sold as separates (even at mainstream retailers like J. Crew) as the consumer looks for another way to dress up jeans. Neema is offering vest separates in its Haspel line, as is Ben Sherman and Theory. “Like the double-breasted, vests are now being accepted,” says Chris Manley, Theory’s president of men’s wear.

NEW ELEGANCE
In the opposite direction, tailored clothing is going glamorous, culling traditional, sartorial touches that lend a polish long absent from the market. Tom Ford—perhaps more than anyone—popularized this elegant, wide-lapel look, but others have quickly joined the party. Many vendors, from JA Apparel to Domenico Vacca, are pushing “modern” double-breasteds, as others, like O Oscar, made by Lanier, offer three-piece suits. “Not in a long time have I seen such a fusion between fashion and sartorial in men’s clothing,” says Vacca.

The trend extends beyond model, however. Vendors are upgrading makes and components. This is the land of luxury fibers, where cashmere, mink and vicuna (even at opening luxury brands like Arnold Brant) rule. Patterns too are tending to the fancy, as if to be distinguished from banker stripes, with an emphasis on Prince of Wales, checks, bird’s eye and donegal tweed. “But they must be contemporary,” warns Vacca. “Our patterns are muted: two shades of gray for a modern Prince of Wales.”

That color, last season’s baby, continues to be strong, but brown is in ascendancy. Belvest, Oxxford, Varvatos Star USA and Hickey Freeman are all showing brown in the chocolate variety. “Brown used to be associated with country suits, but we’re offering it in the power suit version,” says Mike Cohen, president of Oxxford Clothes.

In further deviation from humdrum worsteds, flannel and flannel looks are gaining popularity. Dougal Munro, president of Holland & Sherry, says the company has increased its flannel collection over the last two years, including a lightweight, eight-ounce cloth that has the look but remains light. Tony Iuliani, vice-president of merchandising at Jack Victor, says 40 percent of the offering at cloth shows this season had milled finishes and that the Canada-made brand will show some lighter milled cloths in, what else, gray. Even brands that generally offer sleeker cloth are buying in. Keanan Duffty, creative director of Ben Sherman tailored, is introducing flannels to the collection for the first time. “Flannel had been a big no-no for us, but I feel like it’s the right time to do it,” he says.

That line, back on track since Duffty took over, is all evening elegance next season with dark, tuxedo-inspired suits that boast velvet-trimmed collars. Nighttime looks for day are also cropping in Kenneth Cole and many vendors seem to have a renewed taste for velvet, except this time they have traded the solid blue and black of past years for printed patterns, like the jacket to the left.

THE SHRINK
Attenuated silhouettes on the runway, coupled with a growing interest in more-body-conscious clothing, are still causing a slim-down across the market. This varies in degree. On the extreme side are John Varvatos Star USA’s new Soho fit and Theory’s updated model that features double besom pockets, a skinnier lapel and a stronger shoulder. Even mid-tier brands, like Kenneth Cole, are investing in the modern look. “This [suit] does not fit everybody,” says Rodney Rosal, vice-president of merchandising for Lanier Clothes, which produced the new model. “We’re approaching a smaller percentage of the market, but we think this is what they want.”

Even companies with more-traditional brands are hacking away at their patterns, including Neema, Oxxford Clothes and JA Apparel. The changes may be modest, a quarter-inch here and there, but the alterations have added up. Even the model at Tom James, which markets clothing to businessmen, has lost half an inch in the lapel and two inches in the shoulder over the last four years.

In short, the mainstream is cozying up to modernism, and not just in fit. Other brands are introducing technical fabrics (at least in appearance). Bagir’s sleek suits are machine-washable, and stain-resistant. Ben Sherman is introducing stretchy, chintz fabrics to the line, in addition to employing unexpected techniques, like embossing. On the technique front, few are more inventive than Alexander Julian, who is printing photographs to create trompe l’oeil tweed.

While the clothing business has grown modestly in the last year, vendors are generally upbeat about the category. “That’s the exciting part of the male consumer today,” says John Fowler at Joseph Abboud. “Guys are expressing interest in tailored clothing again at every level.” Most encouragingly, clothing has been liberated from the associations that made it elitist, corporate and fusty. The good news in a market accustomed in recent times to disappointment is that jackets may no longer be required, but increasingly men are opting to wear them.