The pandemic has claimed a lot of victims. In addition to significant loss of life, it has also wreaked havoc on the apparel industry. And one of the hardest hit categories has been tailored clothing.
As men are stuck at home conducting business on computer screens rather than in person, their suits generally are gathering dust in the closet. They are opting for sweatpants, shorts and other comfortable work-at-home attire — maybe with a dress shirt and sport coat on top to look good on the video screen.
Ironically, tailored clothing was all the rage on the European runways last year and had been expected to experience a major rebound this fall as streetwear started to decline in importance.
But that was pre-pandemic.
Evidence of the struggling tailored clothing category was the final blow to some major retailers, including Tailored Brands, parent of Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, as well as Brooks Brothers. For Tailored Brands, formalwear accounts for more than 40 percent of the company’s overall sales. And while the retailer has been moving more toward “polished casual” offerings, it was too little too late. At Brooks Brothers, the percentage of tailored clothing sales to the total is not as high, but the retailer is still best known for its classic suits, sport coats and furnishings.
And the overall numbers are not pretty. According to Euromonitor International, retail sales of men’s suits in the U.S. are expected to drop 24 percent this year to around $1.5 billion. Five years ago, the category accounted for $2.1 billion in sales.
Since silhouettes and patterns of men’s suits change at a snail’s pace, most retailers don’t feel the need to significantly increase their buy for the fall season. With stores closed for months and shoppers returning slowly, merchants will just hang onto what they already have for those guys who are planning to return to work after Labor Day — either full- or part-time.
Case in point: In its earnings call last week, Harvey Kanter, chief executive officer of Destination XL Group, the country’s largest men’s big and tall retail chain, said tailored clothing “continues to remain very challenging,” and he expects it will remain that way for a while. This fall, Kanter said he expects men will “continue to work from home. Our merchandise strategy for 2021 will focus even more on categories that are rooted in comfort, functionality and versatility to accommodate the new work-from-home lifestyle.”
Dana Katz, owner of Miltons, a two-unit men’s retailer based in suburban Boston — and a self-professed “tailored clothing store” — said he expects to be able to fill customer demand with “replenishment goods.” Ditto for Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C., which is also servicing shoppers with sportswear and not ordering any more suits and sport coats. “Until there are events happening again, people won’t be buying clothing,” said owner Hill Stockton.
Even the country’s largest suit manufacturer, Peerless Clothing, isn’t expecting a rebound for a while. But the company that produces suits under Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and other labels is hopeful that sales will improve in 2021.
“There will be pent-up demand,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and creative director. With so many special events such as weddings and graduations canceled and being rescheduled for 2021, “as the economy comes back, people will want to stand out and replace their old dusty suits.”
Add to that, the number of men who will be looking for jobs. Douglas Raicek, executive vice president of Peerless, said there will also be 30 million to 50 million Americans “trying to get back to work,” so many of them will need suits in order to look professional during their job search.
Other retailers have also maintained a positive attitude about the future of tailored clothing. But it may not be the traditional nested suit of the past. Instead, guys will seek out a mix of tailored and upscale sportswear that would be appropriate at both the corporate or home office to present what Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, has described as “a polish.”
That’s what is resonating at Tailored Brands. A spokesman said while suits “will always be a part of our DNA as they will always be relevant to a men’s wardrobe,” the company is banking more on casual offerings such as unstructured jackets, polos, chinos, shirts with four-way stretch, etc. And while it is seeing strong performance in suits online versus last year, the mix is more diversified to adapt “to what our guy is looking for. The assortment shifts we were making prior to COVID-19 were clearly resonating as we saw positive comps across all four brands in February and we continue to see momentum across our style range.”