News Column

The Incredible Shrinking Business Suit

Nov. 27, 2012

Erich Schwartzel

Bond Suit

The barometer of menswear remains the suit, and it's had a rough year.

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan bragged about his P90X physique and then wore suits that recalled the boxy fit typically seen on bar mitzvah celebrants.

Not even James Bond can escape it: The costume designers behind "Skyfall" have been criticized in recent weeks for a second-skin Tom Ford suit that fits 007 like an 002.

If recent trends are any indication, Mr. Bond was more on track. Suits are shrinking at retailers high and low, and the change appears to be paying off at the cash register. Men's suit sales are expected to climb 10 percent this fall and holiday season, while sales of women's ready-to-wear are expected to remain static, according to the Blacks Retail consulting firm.

Smaller suits are just one recent trend entering the menswear world. Unexpected offerings from everyday brands are some of the most promising new additions, from unabashed preppiness at Brooks Brothers to Dockers items that for once don't seem exclusively designed for dentists. Here in Pittsburgh, shifting shopping economics have spruced up the selection at Nordstrom, which runs the gamut from neon-soled shoes to outfits taking inspiration from the covered-wagon days.

Back to Bond. There's no mistaking the suit's shrinking ways, from trimmer and shorter jackets to skinnier pants that endorse the right to bare ankles, or at least colorful socks. But the incredible shrinking suit's real staying power has been in its trickle-down effect on everyday retailers, moving beyond high-end clothiers such Tom Ford and Thom Browne to mainstream staples such as J. Crew and Jos. A. Banks.

J. Crew's smart Ludlow suits still retail for about $700, and have proven so popular that the company has opened several freestanding Ludlow suit boutiques. Stores like H&M also offer slimmer cuts, although their unfortunate decision to display jackets and pants as separates can require the Rosetta stone to find a full ensemble.

United Colors of Benetton also consistently had nice, reasonably priced suit separates. But the Walnut Street location recently neutered itself and no longer sells menswear.

The most impressive local turnaround in regional menswear, though, is found at Nordstrom in Ross Park Mall, where the buyers have been listening to customers and offering more diverse selections than ever.

When the department store opened in 2008, the menswear options seemed like an afterthought geared toward two demographics: Tommy Bahama enthusiasts and teenage boys dragged to the mall by their mothers.

The location's gradual shift over the past several months toward becoming a "designer-focused store" has presented options that should attract customers who want smart, business casual looks without going the way of the Zuckerberg hoodie.

Part of the shift comes courtesy of city shopping economics. Since Saks Fifth Avenue closed its Downtown location earlier this year, many brands that want a single point of distribution in Pittsburgh have taken up residence in Nordstrom, said Brian Townsend, the Ross Park Mall store manager. Those menswear brands include Versace, Billy Reid and Theory, as well as Manolo Blahnik in women's shoes.

But the best additions to the Nordstrom stores aren't coming from any of those new tenants, but from some of the oldest brands around. The store carries terrific items from Brooks Brothers -- pieces such as thick cable-knit sweaters and two-tone cardigans that take Andover irony to a new level -- that are also available at the Downtown Brooks Brothers store.

The super-prep look that really took off in 2009 -- although some would say its haberdashery homage never went out of style to begin with -- is best seen in some Brooks Brothers' winter separates. Their slim-fitting button-down shirts also come with accents such as elbow patches that make them great for the holiday party season.

Nordstrom has also started carrying Dockers pieces, although as Mr. Townsend put it, "these aren't your father's Dockers." A collection of cropped Dockers sport coats fits nicely and works as casual sport coats. The store has them paired with zip-up hoodies, which with the right button-down shirt can be a great combination without looking too boy band.

The hoodie-blazer duet is part of the high-low combining that Mr. Townsend said is hitting menswear, and the pairing of traditional pieces with more casual elements has been most apparent in the shoe department.

Brands like Cole Haan have ramped up their selection of multi-colored soles, placing neon yellow or electric blue bottoms on traditional bucks and loafers. The trend, once seen only in "really? that's a thing?"-type features in GQ magazine, is now available at most department stores and at Little's in Squirrel Hill.

Colorful footwear isn't meant to replace a traditional lace-up that you'd wear with dress slacks, said Mr. Townsend, but is more suited to jeans and cords. Another option is the desert boot, which rides higher above the ankle and comes in various suedes, cloths and leather.

The Nordstrom theme for menswear this season -- called Heritage -- embraces the desert boot as well as unexpected combinations of textures, said Mr. Townsend, from mixing thick cable-knit sweaters with tweed jackets or selling tops with turquoise and other Native American-inspired designs.

Keeping the Dust Bowl-era items to a minimum -- a cardigan here, high boot there -- can have a smart effect on an outfit. When it comes to Heritage wear, there's a fine line between "O Pioneers!" exuberance and "Oh ... pioneers" boredom.

And if the Goldilocks debate over Paul Ryan's garbage bag and James Bond's sausage casings have taught us anything, it's that moderation in menswear is key.



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Source: (c) 2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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