Preening Returns To Form -- And Thats Just Dandy  

Its nice to know that American men havent taken recent corporate scandals lying down. No sir. They sucked in their guts, bade farewell to their families and hurried to the mall. The urge to look corporate -- sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve -- is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.

But surprising or not, sales of mens tailored clothing increased 23.7 percent last year to $4.3 billion, with suit sales alone jumping 34 percent. That halts an eight-year decline.

Some of the gain came from men replenishing wardrobes gone stale from casual Fridays. They probably also discovered that a suit, with its clean lines, was a more effective means of transmitting rank to a dull colleague than a golf shirt and a pair of khakis, and a much nicer way to spend ones bonus.

And though The Apprentice produced a type that represents to many in business the worst human qualities, there is no denying the impact of youth on suits, which are now more tapered, with narrower sleeves and flat-front trousers. This can transform seersucker or flannel into a sexy, yet still formal, package.

Young men are driving this trend, and its the guy in his 40s and 50s who needs to get moving, says Bill Downes, the mens buyer at Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco. In the business world, you want to project youth and vitality. Dockers and a baseball hat, thats not going to do it.

David Witman, the corporate merchandising manager for menswear at Nordstrom, does not agree that young men alone are behind the strong sales, but as he sees it, they now perceive tailored jackets and such accouterments as French-cuff shirts as cool. Its a completely new market for us, Witman says.

Beyond the dandy

But ultimately the timing of the suits return suggests a social shift, toward a climate of conservatism obviously, but also to a culture of money and business.

Theres a huge fascination with the corporate world, with big salaries and big businesses, says Tom Kalenderian, the general merchandising manager for mens fashion at Barneys New York. And that comes with the acceptance that you have to look the part.

To Kalenderian, the spike in tailored clothing recalls the 1980s, when New York was awash in Wall Street cash. Sales of made-to-measure suits at Barneys, which on average cost $2,200, have increased 59 percent during the past three years. More men are ordering custom shirts, suits with custom-color linings, jackets with real buttonholes on the sleeves and $2,000 custom-made shoes.

Its absolutely a keeping-up sort of thing, says Kalenderian, who describes the customer for all this excellence -- usually an investment banker or a chief executive but in any case rarely a middle manager -- as beyond valley of the dandy.

Many men dress well for the pleasure of it and because they know that clothes can telegraph all kinds of messages, above all belonging. Michael Millon, a venture capitalist in New York, recalls telling a friend in Paris who worked for Pierre Balmain that it seemed a waste of her talent to keep such a job just because she got nice clothes. Besides, he said, who would even notice the difference? To which she replied, Another woman in the same clothes.

That was an awakening for me, says Millon, 65, who wears well-cut, costly suits by Brioni and Kiton and admits to a weakness for shoes, especially in crocodile. At last count, he had 300 pairs.

As fashion commentators such as Anne Hollander, the author of Sex and Suits, and Tom Wolfe have observed, it is men, not women, who are more fashion-evolved, in part because of the 200-year-old tradition of the suit and in part because their clothes have more hidden esoteric details that a man can obsess over.

Peacock displays seem to come in 20-year cycles, reflecting the stock market as well as social changes. In the 60s, when Wolfe wrote The Secret Vice, about the mania for custom suits, Pop artists had come uptown, London was swinging, and it was cool to have your clothes made on Savile Row. Even Lyndon Johnson did, ordering six suits from the firm of Carr, Son & Woor, following the 1960 election, with the instructions, I want to look like a British diplomat.

Any outmoded term used to describe a current fascination invariably overstates the case, however. Just because a man splashes around color and pattern doesnt make him a dandy if the basic canvas -- the suit -- fits poorly. Similarly, a man can put on a $300 suit, and if he has gone to the trouble to have it properly fitted, and the rest of the picture isnt offensive, he will be noticed.

Even for those men who have mastered clothes, who perhaps realize its better to be in the hands of an obscure tailor than a flashy boutique salesman, there are limits to self-expression. Even in New York, the business world is still conservative, and dress is ruled by two areas, finance and corporate law. The most inflexible of rules is this: If youre a middle manager, you dont show up your boss or a client.

Im a banker at a branch, says Robert Magliulo, 35, a vice president at Citibank, who deals with private investors. Can I step out? Yes, but its not the norm. I have a Canelli suit that I bought at a discount. To me, its smoking. But I rarely wear it to the office and never if Im meeting with a client.

Magliulo, who has on a black Hugo Boss suit, a white shirt and a red Ferragamo tie as he speaks, continues: Its all perception. A client sees a guy in a $2,000 suit, and he thinks, He makes too much money; hes going to steal my money. So Magliulo considers the emotional response of a client, who very often may be dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis.

And as the corporate scandals have shown, its the chief executive who sets the tone, in both virtue and vice.

Its all about the CEO, Kalenderian says. If the CEO is a slob, then everybody is a slob. If hes immaculate, everybodys immaculate. A middle manager wouldnt get caught dead dressing against the CEOs sense of style.

Lets hope, though, that he will draw the line at cooking the books.

By Cathy Horyn
The New York Times


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