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The suit strikes back: menswear's new approach

Traditional tailors are facing disruption from high street rivals and direct-to-consumer brands that put a fresh spin on the menswear staple.

The premium tailoring market had a turbulent 2019. In a year in which heritage tailors Hardy Amies and Chester Barrie folded, shirtmakers and suit brands had to rethink their strategies after a decade battling the dominance of casual- and streetwear.

Sven Gaede, CEO of TM Lewin, outlined his vision to transform the shirtmaker into a broader menswear outfitter in an interview with Drapers last year. As well as opening a new concept store on London’s Oxford Street in June, TM Lewin wants to make casualwear a larger part of its product mix.

Meanwhile, after losses deepened for for British shirtmaker Thomas Pink, in April it announced a rebranding to Pink Shirtmaker and a premium repositioning with higher-end finishing, reining in discounting and pushing up its price points. And, perhaps most notably, Marks & Spencer  announced in October that it would be reducing its formal tailoring offering as sales fell victim to casual and workwear trends.

However, fashion is a fickle business and the tailoring tides are turning. Although a casual look has dominated menswear for many seasons, tailoring has been slowly re-emerging, and sauntered back on to the catwalks for spring 20.

Some of the brightest and best names of London Fashion Week Men’s presented tailoring – emerging designers Stefan Cooke, Per Götesson and Eastwood Danso all put their own twist on the classic suit with details such as bold checks and ruching. 

At Paris Fashion Week Men’s spring 20, notable names showed statement suits in bright colours. Louis Vuitton and Dior sent tailoring in eye-popping shades of ketchup red and acid yellow down the catwalk, alongside playful florals from Alexander McQueen. Tailoring remained a strong presence in LFWM’s autumn 20 collections.

Tm lewin autumn 19

TM Lewin

A change of approach

Where traditional labels have faltered and failed to adapt to a changing market, high street players and direct-to-consumer brands have stepped in with modern, colourful collections.

Tailoring is different this time around, and is returning in a more modern and relaxed way

Terry Betts, Thread

Terry Betts, head of business development at menswear personal styling website Thread and former Selfridges buying director of menswear, argues tailoring’s return is “a natural swing from a decade of streetwear”: “Tailoring is different this time around, and is returning in a more modern and relaxed way. 

“It’s not a suit of armour or a dull Monday-to-Friday uniform. It’s a mode of expression. For autumn 19 we’ve seen a shift away from denim, sweatshirts and bomber jackets to chinos, knitwear and unstructured blazers.”

M&s menswear aw19 image 242

Marks & Spencer

He adds: “Colour and texture are becoming more and more important. It’s not about a flat grey suit. Customers using Thread who are asking their stylists about new tailoring trends aren’t particularly formal, but are curious about how to dress smarter in a more modern way. 

“[Menswear label] Wax London’s Harris Tweed items have been a highlight this season [autumn 19], and Oliver Spencer is leading the way in terms of fit and fabrics. The new direction at Jigsaw under creative director Jo Sykes is a template for how the modern man dresses – sustainable fabrics, soft tailoring, a sophisticated palette and incredible knitwear.”

Betts says the M&S menswear range for spring 20, under menswear director Wes Taylor, is another one to watch: “The fits, the fabrics, the styling of the campaign – it’s all so much more relevant than anything we’ve seen there for a very long time.”

Jessica Havard, menswear tailoring buyer at River Island, agrees that tailoring has returned for spring 20 in a much bolder way: “It’s a move away from more classic fabrics, colours and fits, and is all about being a lot bolder in your choices. 

“Colour is key. Green is one of the main colours for spring we’ve seen across menswear tailoring, particularly sages and mints. Interesting colours on classic fabrics, such as linen, also give suits a great refresh for the season.”

Relaxed silhouettes and double-breasted designs will be a focus for River Island for spring 20. The retailer has also elevated its suits with increased proportions on lapels and pockets to give a fresh look.

There are two types of customers shopping for tailoring at River Island, Havard argues: one who wants a new take on the classic shirt and tie, and the other who is looking for a statement suit to dress down with T-shirt and trainers.

This blend of streetwear and tailoring may have been influenced by cult skate brand Supreme’s introduction of tailoring into its collections for spring 19, she points out.

Take it to the street

Tailoring may be making a gradual return to the  market, but the influence of street- and casualwear is still being felt: suiting is taking a more relaxed form, even for big occasions and events, says Asos head of menswear design, James Lawrence.

He explains: “Young guys are no longer expected to wear head-to-toe formalwear on special occasions. They are now allowed to experiment by mixing tailoring with casual pieces, just as long as the overall look still appears smart.”

The sharpness of tailored suits is in more of a demand than mix-and-match pieces

Simon Whitaker, Master Debonair

Asos spring 20

Asos spring 20

Although checks, stripes and patterns will remain key, Asos is also seeing a shift to the use of plain fabrics in wider, relaxed silhouettes.

“We relaunched [occasionwear brand] Asos Edition in November. It now includes casual shapes in elevated evening fabrics to redefine occasionwear for our twenty-something customer,” Lawrence says, citing actor Timothée Chalamet’s red carpet style as an inspiration for young shoppers.

To decipher this new take on formalwear, more male shoppers may turn to personal styling services and bespoke tailoring.

Simon Whitaker, CEO of menswear retailer Master Debonair, which has branches in East Boldon, Tyne and Wear, and London’s Shoreditch has witnessed this growth: “The sharpness of tailored suits is in more of a demand than mix-and-match pieces, hence us expanding our in-house [bespoke] tailoring team. Men and women want their suits tailored to fit perfectly. Men are becoming more experimental and there has been no slowdown in blazers, waistcoats and trousers.”

The direct approach

A wave of direct-to-consumer brands are reimagining suit shopping for a new generation of tailoring customers. One such innovator is east London’s Tailor Made – which fuses tailoring with a high-tech twist. Using 3D body-scanning technology, the company takes precise body measurements, which eliminates the need for repeated and time-consuming visits often required by traditional tailors.

Ben Farren founded direct-to-consumer, made-to-measure trouser etailer Spoke to fill a gap in the market for a perfectly fitted trouser.

He believes it is the blend of convenience and personalisation that will win customers over: “I am directly connected to my consumer – there is no latency. I talk to him every single day, and get really raw and immediate feedback. 

Spoke 01

Spoke

“We will soon offer 400 sizes, and those are constantly under review from periodic fit evenings with our customers, and questionnaires. Direct to consumer represents a genuinely new opportunity to access men who care about how they look but don’t want to look like they’re trying too hard.”

These new players, including multichannel shirt and tailoring brands Suit Supply, Propercloth and Untuckit, Propercloth and Untuckit, can no longer be ignored by traditional players, believes Ray Clacher, retail consultant and former executive vice-president at Hong Kong fashion group Trinity, which owns tailoring brands Gieves & Hawkes and Kent & Curwen.

“In a year where we’ve seen profit warnings from many of the lower-end high street brands, Savile Row and online disrupters are having a good time,” he says. “These guys have proved you can order tailoring to fit you perfectly online. When we launched the Gieves & Hawkes website around 10 years ago, the board and customers said we would never sell a suit online. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Tailoring is making a return, so menswear retailers must keep a close eye on its evolution to ensure they can capture spend from demanding shoppers. As new brands steal market share, those with bold styles and flawless attention to fit will succeed in competing for tailoring’s new consumer.

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