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Where Does the Suit Fit into the Modern Wardrobe?

The fate of the traditional suit was already in question long before the pandemic. Where does the market go from here?
SuitSupply's fitting room post-pandemic | Source: Courtesy
  • M.C. Nanda

NEW YORK, United States — In February, right before New York was put on lockdown, menswear designer Todd Snyder held a made-to-measure suit fitting at his stores on Madison Square Park and West Broadway. With wedding season looming, it was a huge success, generating the largest order of custom suits in the brand's history.

By mid-June, however, those orders were still on hold as New York began easing out of lockdown and factories slowly reopened.

In the meantime, the brand, like many others, has emphasised more casual offerings through e-commerce, including sweatpants, hoodies and yes, face masks, as offices remain empty and the need for formal dress options has all but disappeared.

“We’re not walking away from the suit,” designer Todd Snyder said. “I don’t think it’s’s just on vacation.”

So, is the suit gone forever..or not? Fashion media has eulogised the end of the traditional two-piece frequently in recent years, particularly as streetwear, athleisure and the famed "Midtown Uniform" — a ubiquitous combination of fleece vests, blue button-downs, slacks and Allbirds sneakers worn by finance crowds — became appropriate workwear. The US market for suits reflects this transition, inching down to $1.9 billion in 2019 from $2.1 billion in 2014 and from $2.7 billion in 2005, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

It isn't surprising that Tailored Brands, owners of off-the-rack suit seller Mens Warehouse, and Brooks Brothers, the originator of the off-the-rack suit, were two of the first retailers put on the bankruptcy watch list at the beginning of the pandemic. J.Crew, whose slim Ludlow suit became an office staple in the 2010s, has already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

So while some of the distress has been brought on by changes in wardrobe related to pandemic lockdowns, the downfall of mass-market, mid-priced suit makers is also indicative of much bigger shifts.

“There is no need for a mass option at all anymore because it’s not how people dress,” said Lawrence Schlossman, co-host of menswear podcast Throwing Fits and a brand consultant.

That's especially true in a recession. High-level executives will still be able to buy Brioni suits or other investment pieces in the coming months if they find a reason to wear them. Millennials and recent college graduates looking to distinguish themselves for entry-to-mid level positions in a bleak job market may not. For events that do require formal wear, they may be more likely to rent a suit from a service like The Black Tux.

I don't think [the suit] is dead, it's just on vacation.

In order to combat this dip, brands known for suiting may attempt to expand their businesses in Asian markets, where casual workplace attire has yet to reach the C-suite, and demand continues to grow. In the Asia Pacific region, the mens suiting market was worth $23 billion in 2019, up from $11 billion in 2005 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3 percent over a five year period from 2019, according to Euromonitor. (In the US, CAGR was down 2.4 percent over the same period.)

However, many brands and experts have faith that they can reverse this trend, looking to the end of lockdown restrictions as a transition out of the work-from-home uniform, and the chance to make traditional menswear a part of a new kind of social life.

“I think it’s the ultimate phoenix rising for tailored clothing,” said Michael Fisher, vice president of trend forecasting and consulting agency Fashion Snoops. “[I expected] really beautiful return to the embrace of tailored shapes."

Fisher points to mass suit makers SuitSupply and Alton Lane, along with brands emphasising casual tailoring like Bonobos and Everlane, as companies set to benefit from a renewed interest in tailoring.

But it may not be so easy. Fashion runway trends come and go, and suiting and tailoring has certainly been popular on the men's runways, from Louis Vuitton to Dior. But will the suit ever be more than a fashion statement?

"It's not so much a pendulum swinging's shifting just enough to bring an interesting hybrid that can exist between these kinds of modes of dressing," said Schlossman, identifying streetwear collaborations with more established menswear players — Supreme and Loro Piana, Fear of God and Zegna — as an indication of what's to come.

Even Stefano Canali, president and chief executive of the family-owned menswear brand Canali, believes the classic, traditional suit is “definitely in a deep crisis” that will outlast the pandemic. The brand is brainstorming new offerings for upcoming seasons that move away from formality in favour of tailored separates that can be mixed in with more casual pieces.

Traditional brands are more focused than ever on comfortable styles that make wearing a suit feel like less work, including elements of activewear — elastic waistbands, performance-based fabrics — that offer more flexibility and comfort.

Todd Snyder’s traveller suit incorporates several of these elements, including an elastic waist, and says it has sold well during the lockdowns. “It’s been a blessing for us,” said Snyder. The suit comes in a variety of sizes, and doesn’t require more precise tailoring. “It’s been a lot easier to sell these because there aren’t too many measurements.”

He's also simply scaling the suit business back. Typically, he designs 14 suits per season. For the Spring/Summer 2021 collection, he halved that.

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