MEN IN BLUE
After a decade of trying to subvert the corporate uniform, men's-wear labels are embracing the fact that guys just want a sharp, navy suit. Jeremy Freed canvasses Bay Street to learn whether the approach is paying off. Bay Street photos by Jenna Marie Wakani
It's Monday morning at the corner of King and Bay Streets in Toronto, and the great migration is underway. While they move in every direction at once, these are all clearly animals of the same species, clutching briefcases, gym duffles and lunch bags, their glossy shoes scuffing the pavement on the way to the revolving door, to the elevator, to the desk.
Over the last decade or so, the people who design and sell clothing have turned up the heat on these unsuspecting men. In an effort to encourage guys with corporate jobs and disposable incomes to take a greater interest their wardrobes, they've tried to introduce the speedy women's-wear trend cycle into men's wear. To a certain degree, it has worked: New brands and boutiques spring up constantly, marrying streetwear with heritage workwear with formal wear, offering men ever more choice to express their personal style. But to stand in front of a bank tower and observe the men walking by, you might question whether the whole effort has been futile. Bay Street boys may have embraced pastel ties, statement pocket squares and jaunty socks, but it appears as though things have stalled there.
From this vantage point it seems, in fact, as though the fashion industry is in a standoff with corporate culture, with one side declaring that you can wear sneakers and a quilted hunting vest with your suit and that's A-okay, and the other saying, "Yeah, maybe in Europe," and turning its attention back to its spreadsheets. There is one place, however, where fashion seems to be making inroads this fall, and it's the one item none of the men in Toronto's financial centre need to be persuaded to wear: the blue suit.
"Most people are wearing darker shades this time of year and I like to stand out," says a banker in a trim, peak-lapelled jacket in an Aegean blue. "Everything's so drab in the city, so I like to mix it up," says a lobbyist whose shirt, tie and shoes match his navy two-button. Another banker in an immaculate blue Zegna combo with a delicate herringbone pattern shows off a hand-painted silk pocket square and red-laced two-tone brogues. "I dress simply, but I'll use other things to accentuate," he says. To anyone who doesn't work in Bay Street's cubicles of power – particularly anyone the least interested in high fashion – the idea of a blue suit might not seem all that exciting, regardless of its hue, fabric or accessories. But exciting isn't the name of the game here. Instead, standing out among your blue-suited brethren is all about subtly and nuance.
For Vancouver-based retailer Indochino, which sells affordable made-to-measure suiting online and through a handful of flagship retail locations, the blue suit is central to its boardroom strategy. The brand's Pacific Blue collection, which launched this fall, is made up of business-ready ensembles in a range of hues from teal to slate to deep navy. While there are examples in pinstripes and bold plaids, there is still plenty for the straight-laced man who wants to stand out.
"Blue is such a flexible colour," says Tom Kearnan, the brand's global director of fashion. "Navy carries easily from a business meeting to a dinner party and the colour is easy to pair with accessories." Among the brand's top sellers is an indigo suit with a subtle raised bird's-eye texture. The fabric creates a gentle shadowing effect that, paired with a knit tie and a pale-blue checked shirt, is just rakish enough without going full-on dandy.
Other brands are on board, too. This season, Scandinavian label Cos released a navy wool-blend suit with slim notch lapels. It's in keeping with the brand's trademark minimalist aesthetic, but could still pass muster at a law firm. "A navy suit is not just easy to wear, but also highly practical," says Martin Andersson, the head of men's-wear design at Cos. "It acts as a blank canvas to showcase someone's own personal style in any given situation."
Netherlands-based Suit Supply, a brand known for its boisterous styling, stocks dozens of blue silhouettes, from a standard dark navy two-button to a range of bold windowpane checks and a midnight-blue tuxedo. "It's our bread and butter," says creative director Nish De Gruiter of the brand's range of navy suits, praising them as the foundation of a man's workday wardrobe.
De Gruiter accepts that men might not have a lot of freedom to splash out in their nine-to-five attire, but is convinced that the suit remains at the fashion-forward centre of the ever-expanding men's-wear universe. "If you have a wool suit, people think office, tie, brogues. But the younger generation is thinking high-top sneakers, cashmere scarves. It's not just buying a suit and going to work; it's going out on Friday night. I saw a guy wearing Birkenstocks with a suit and an off-white T-shirt. It looked perfectly fine. It's really how you style it and put your own spin on it."
One certainly can't fault a fashion insider like De Gruiter's enthusiasm for the emergence of a suit-and-sandal trend, but on Bay Street that sort of Friday night experimentation is nowhere to be seen. Here, it's Monday morning and business as usual.