BY DAVID COLMAN
Since last September — you know, when bleakonomics ousted chiconomics — most of us have put ourselves and our Visa bills through a painstaking, pain-making review. From flashy extravagances like Range Rovers and diamonds to low-profile upgrades like business-class air travel and Starbucks coffee confections, every line item on the modern luxury list has come up for withering review.
So you would assume that the relentlessly tweaked wardrobe of the modern urban man would be high on the watch list. The fedoras, the vests, the striped shirts, the ankle-baring suits, the premium jeans — doesn’t it all seem a little … prelapsarian?
Well, no. It seems they are cushioning the fall.
What has landed on the slag heap of style is the old three-button power suit: slickly conservative, oversize and overpriced, worn with a boxy white shirt and a wide silk tie. It was all, as GQ’s creative director, Jim Moore, put it, “too big and too bold in all the wrong places.” Not so long ago, that ensemble blared of Wall Street success. Now, with public sentiment against financial institutions still high, racks of expensive Italian beauties languish in shops across the country.
While double-digit declines have hit much of the retail sector, one of the few pieces of good news is one of the most surprising. In a reversal of every recession in the last 100 years, figures show that men have not cut back on buying clothes as much as women have. They’re not buying power suits — they’re replacing them.
“I have guys coming in here saying, ‘I don’t want to look like a banker anymore,’ ” said Eric Goldstein, an owner of Jean Shop, a premium denim store in the meatpacking district. He is now dispensing advice on how to look like a “creative professional.”
The new look is still professional enough for work, even a business lunch. But it is quirky and cool enough to suggest that you haven’t spent the last decade lounging in the old boys’ room inhaling cigar smoke and default swaps.
Just peruse the 25 candidates in Esquire’s “Best Dressed Real Man” online contest or the current cover of GQ, with Zac Efron in a trim navy suit, blue gingham shirt and black knit tie, and you will get the gist. Culled from all over the department store, this as-yet-unnamed wardrobe takes pieces of sporty country-club clothing, traditional business attire and off-hours favorites like premium jeans and high-top sneakers. “Business casual” is too corporate a designation, too 50-something. You might call it the Friday wardrobe, given how appropriate it is for wearing to work on Friday morning, then out Friday night.
“The banker suit is definitely dead,” said Euan Rellie, an investment banker in New York. The market’s uncertainty, Mr. Rellie said, has voided former rules about dress. “You used to wear a uniform to work because you wanted to give yourself a certain authority, but that doesn’t necessarily convey that now. I was in a meeting the other day with five people, and they were all dressed entirely different. And because there isn’t a dress code, you have to think about what you wear.”
Man Friday certainly has plenty of choices. The look he has gravitated to is not in itself new; it represents a refinement of trends that men have picked up on in the last three or four years. Slim suits. Oxford cotton shirts. Skinny wool ties. Fine-gauge cardigans. Seersucker. Madras.
“Fashion didn’t stop this year, and it didn’t change,” said Tommy Fazio, the men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. “It’s the preppy chic these guys have been into, and they’re just refining it, with the right madras, the right pair of khakis, the right cotton sport jacket.”
Or, most emblematically, the right gingham shirt. From Brooks Brothers to Thom Browne (where GQ got Mr. Efron’s cover look), good old gingham is a hit. At both of those stores, sporty-yet-elegant styles — low-key stripes and basic checks — have driven up sales of dress shirts over last year. The reason is simple, said Louis Amendola, the chief merchandising officer of Brooks. Such shirts look jaunty but businesslike with or without a tie.
Mr. Amendola echoes press officers at Prada, Gucci, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Paul Stuart who confirm that men’s business has fared better than women’s. According to NPD Group, which tracks retail sales, comparison of the six months ending Feb. 29, 2008, and Feb. 28, 2009, reveals that sales of men’s clothes costing more than $100 were up 4.3 percent. It is a surprising figure given the general retail anemia.
“This is different than anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief analyst, who in 32 years in retail has seen many ups and downs. “Traditionally, men’s wear is the first category to head south in a tough patch. This time, guys have looked at the downturn, and said, ‘I have to look the part, find ways to compete.’ ”
And given that both men in general and men over 40 have been disproportionately hit by unemployment in the last eight months, a more youthful outlook offers a better edge on the competition than clinging to old ways of thinking, or dressing.
“That stodgy look is kind of dead,” said Eric Blumencranz, an insurance broker in Manhattan, who was shopping at Bergdorf last weekend. “I used to wear a plain white shirt. Now I’m wearing stripes and checks, and ties that are a little more fun, too.” But, he pointed out, propriety has to come first. “It’s got to be professional, with a little style to it,” he said. “You can’t come in in an old polo shirt and ripped jeans.”
As usual, it boils down to attitude. “There’s still so much uncertainty in the economy that it’s hard to know what outlook to have,” said Jaime Wolf, a media lawyer in Manhattan. “It’s kind of the same with what you wear to work. I feel that the best attitude now is to be cautiously optimistic, and you could say that’s the way I’ve been dressing.”
For Mr. Wolf, qualified confidence means a blue blazer or a V-neck sweater, slim-cut trousers and a low-key dress shirt and tie. “It’s not the full-on go-go optimism of a business suit, but it’s not the apocalyptic schlumpiness of khakis and a polo shirt.”
Oddly, it may seem silly to change your style amid so many pressing concerns, especially when donning a suit and white shirt is far easier than trying to figure out something casual yet elegant yet sporty yet professional. Still, if a change of clothes is all you need, you’re not doing so bad.
See Related: SOCIAL DIARY