It may only be four years in the past, but 2015 feels like a very long time ago in fashion. It was the year Kanye West’s first Yeezy collection appeared and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White label was shortlisted for (but did not win) the LVMH Prize for young fashion designers. Notably, 2015 was also the year Mad Men aired its final episode. The Mad Men Effect, as it was often called, was exhaustively catalogued at the time: sales of men’s suits were reported to have doubled during the show’s run, everyone from Banana Republic to Prada released collections inspired by the show, and fashionable men everywhere stepped out in grey flannel suits, penny loafers and bow ties. After years of casual Fridays slowly spreading to the rest of the week, tailoring had become more fashionable than ever.
What a difference four years can make. In 2019, the Yeezy brand is valued at more than $1-billion and Abloh is artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton. The Mad Men suit, needless to say, has not fared as well.
“Suits are not exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue [right now],” says Shannon Stewart, a vice-president at Harry Rosen, which has been outfitting businessmen in tailored clothing since the original Mad Men era. While Harry Rosen still does a brisk business in made-to-measure suiting, they have devoted increasingly more floor space to casual clothing in recent years. Stewart says that men – particularly younger, more trend-conscious men – aren’t shopping for suits, shirts and ties the way they used to.
“They’re usually buying a suit because they’ve never bought one before and they need it for a job interview or a graduation or a special occasion,” she says. “I think a lot of people have this misconception that a suit is not this comfortable, relaxed thing to wear. People still think of suits as being uptight and formal, not something they want to put on every day.”
In light of this changing attitude, designers and retailers who cashed in on the craze for three-piece-suits and calfskin brogues have had to retool their approach. In some cases, this has meant leaning into streetwear staples such as belt bags, track suits and sneakers, as Gucci and Prada have done with tremendous success. For brands with identities tied to traditional suiting, however, it has meant re-imagining the suit itself.
“The interesting thing that’s happened, with streetwear and athleisure being so dominant, is that some of that sensibility has started to creep into tailored clothing,” Stewart continues, describing how details and materials once reserved for sportswear are now common in suits. Ermenegildo Zegna, for example, now offers suits made from jersey fabric and trousers with drawstring waistbands. “It looks completely tailored like a normal suit, but it has all of these performance aspects to it,” Stewart says. “You put it on and you feel comfortable. You still have that really polished, sophisticated look, it’s just these hidden advancements in fabrication that make it so much more appealing.”
In addition to being lighter, stretchier and more comfortable, the suit in 2019 is also much more versatile. SuitSupply, a Dutch brand founded in 2000 as a youthful and affordable alternative to the big men’s wear labels, has weathered the decline of the Mad Men era by catering to men who want a tailored look that can adapt to their own style.
“For us, the suit has never gone away,” says Nish de Gruiter, the brand’s vice-president. “We are very successful selling suits not only in the classic way, but in a casual way, that you can wear seven days a week.”
While SuitSupply’s two- and three-piece suits are mostly traditional in their fabrication (although they, too, offer drawstring trousers) their styling sets them apart from more traditional brands. They can be worn straight-up with a collared shirt and tie, but are also intended to easily mix-and-match with a casual wardrobe of turtlenecks, T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. SuitSupply didn’t invent this holistic approach to dressing, but it seems to have found a loyal audience for it: they now have over 125 stores worldwide (29 of which opened in the past two years), and will open two new shop-in-shops at Nordstrom locations in Canada this fall.
In the age of streetwear, the suit may no longer be the de-facto uniform of the adult professional man, but it’s far from dead. Rather, it has just been in search of the right accessories. Or perhaps the other way around. “The streetwear guy who wears a suit, I see those guys a lot," says de Gruiter. “[But] he wants to spend $1,000 on a pair of Yeezys and $500 on a sports jacket, not the other way around. Then he comes to me and says, ‘I’ve got these great shoes, what kind of suit goes with this?'”
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