Suits you sir? Maybe it doesn’t any more. Sales of formal tailoring have taken a fresh dive as chinos and trainers replace suits and ties in the office.
In a presentation to City analysts earlier this week, Marks & Spencer, the UK’s biggest menswear retailer, said it was cutting back its formalwear ranges and the space devoted to selling suits, pointing to a market-wide 7% fall in suit sales.
Sales of ties are down by nearly 6% while blazers and formal jackets fell by 10% year on year, according to market analysts Kantar.
Jacob Rees-Mogg may be hiding inside a giant ill-fitting suit, but the typical British man is not only unlikely to have to wear a jacket, tie and tailored trousers to the office but has also eased out of a suit for formal occasions.
Goldman Sachs relaxes dress code for ‘more casual environment’
City banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, once bastions of sharp suits, have relaxed their dress-code to keep pace with rival employers such as tech giants Facebook and Apple, where the founders’ famously casual attire has become the mark of a modern workplace.
According to Kantar, more than £100m has been wiped off annual suit sales since 2015. British men spent £393m on suits in the year to the end of August and they paid an average of just £102 for each purchase.
The downturn has left high street suits specialists struggling. Moss Bros issued three profits warnings last year while Yorkshire-based menswear chain Greenwoods called in administrators earlier this year.
Even James Bond doesn’t always wear a suit these days – with Daniel Craig seen sporting a cardigan and a bomber jacket in the last two films of the franchise.
“It’s a generational trend,” says Chloe Collins, an analyst at GlobalData. “Offices tend to have more relaxed attire and in general men have got more options. They want to be more fashionable and have the opportunity to update their look which you can do more with casual wear.”
She says younger men are more interested in fashion and more confident about choosing outfits, so less reliant on the safe uniform of a suit for work or occasions. Retailers such as Asos and other young fashion stores are also helping men put together more interesting formalwear outfits.
“There’s more inspiration out there – celebrities going to an event are wearing something fashionable rather than just a suit and tie and that gives men more confidence to try things out,” she says.
From the rise of freelancing and working from home, to the decline of the kind of nightclubs that demand smart attire, changing habits mean spending on workwear and clothes for a big night out is down, with men spending a fifth more on gym and fitness kit and smart daywear.
Tighter budgets are also putting a squeeze on the suit. “Consumers want to get more usage out of their clothes,” says Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar. He says men might buy a blazer, some smart shirts and a pair of tailored trousers and then combine them with jeans or knitwear to give a variety of looks suitable for both home and office. “You no longer need two wardrobes,” Tooke adds.
“People say they want to show who they are by the way they dress and the suit potentially doesn’t allow you to do that.
“There are things it’s still deemed you need to wear a suit for, but those events are becoming fewer and farther between,” says Tooke.
To get more in tune with those trends, Marks & Spencer’s menswear boss Wes Taylor told analysts this week that the retailer, which sells one in seven suits in the UK, would be cutting back the number of suits and formalwear options on sale by 14% while increasing leisurewear by 12%.
Its a sad moment for the modern lounge suit – a short jacket and trousers of the same fabric – which first came to prominence in the 1860s. Popularised by the then Prince of Wales, over the ensuing decades it replaced the then traditional frock coat as the uniform for business wear and respectability.
By the 1950s and early 60s those in white collar jobs, such as banking, insurance or the legal profession were expected to wear a suit to work and even men who wore overalls or a uniform to work were likely to change into a suit to go out for the evening.
The suit has been in decline since then, according to Eric Musgrave, author of Sharp Suits, a history of mens’ tailoring. He says that change has been exacerbated by the rise in popularity of the athleisure look.
But Musgrave says the suit still has a place – as signified by the all-prevailing presence of suits in politics and when world leaders meet. “The suit is still a signal you are respectable and powerful. It is the uniform of people who run the world.”
Thanks to wannabe world leaders, and many others who want to look smart, the UK suit market is still worth nearly £400m a year while sales of smart shirts and trousers are still on the rise.
Brian Brick, chief executive of Moss Bros, says the chain’s suit sales are up this year despite the overall fall in the market, with younger people still splashing out on a special suit for a special occasion. It’s the everyday suit that is in the doldrums.
“The replacement suit, which somebody is wearing for work, that part of the market is tougher,” he says. “People are buying for the big moment.”
When they do buy for a big day, Brick says they are being more adventurous – looking for tweed or other interesting fabrics or a light coloured suit for a wedding.
“The younger generation want something more fashionable and on-trend. We are talking about a new formal – a suit but worn differently.”
Taylor agrees, saying that M&S isn’t ditching the suit but giving it a good tweak. “Men now wear elements of a suit with more casual items such as rollnecks and trainers, and we need to be the go-to for these casual items that work alongside great blazers and trousers,” he says.
Teo van den Broeke, style and grooming director of menswear mag British GQ, thinks suits are far from dead – and might even be about to make a comeback, pointing to the menswear catwalks at Balenciaga and Gucci and the fashion choices of young actors such as Timothée Chalamet and influential older men such as David Beckham.
“There is something to be said for a man in tailoring. It is much better on a date or a job interview than a track suit. No man over 18 looks good in that at any time.”