Walk into Selfridges’ men’s formalwear department in its Oxford Street flagship store and you’ll be hard pressed to find a suit. Where once rails of navy ready-to-wear suiting and white formal shirts stood, is now a sea of Gorpcore – named after the colloquial term for trail mix ‘Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts’ – meaning Pyrenex puffer jackets and The North Face fleeces.
It is a stark contrast, illustrating the contraction in men’s suiting and the entire formalwear category in general. We’ve gone from office wear to pseudo mountain climbing in a few short years.
A photo of Selfridges’ ‘tie department’ went viral on Twitter recently. Five forlorn looking rails of pretty nondescript ties, bar a Versace silk Medusa print, was all that was left. William Wright Tweeted: “This is the entire tie department at Selfridges in London. The end of days is upon us.”
But, just this week, Selfridges announced a 75% increase in its ‘men’s fashion tailoring’ for SS23 because it has seen “an increase in demand”. It has added a made-to-measure service across eight brands, including Giorgio Armani, Prada, Tom Ford and Thom Browne. Customers can make an appointment at Selfridges Personal Shopping where their “exclusive experience” will begin.
The message is clear; if you want a suit you’ll have to order it. Brands will no longer carry the expensive inventory of ready-to-wear suiting. Somebody like Montague Burton, who took ready-to-wear suiting to the masses, will be turning in his grave.
Selfridges goes on, “an in-store suite will be transformed into a luxurious ‘tailoring workroom’ where customers can discover specialist tailoring brands, also including Ozwald Boateng, Zegna, Corneliani and Eleventy.” This is also ‘men’s fashion tailoring’, so the prices will be higher.
In 2021, M&S stopped selling suits in many of its stores amid a slump in demand caused by the pandemic and the rise of working from home. In August, 2021, over 50 percent of M&S’s bigger stores were no longer selling suiting, with tailoring available in just 110 of its 254 larger stores open at the time.
Sales of suits in the UK fell by 2.3 million over five years, according to the market research firm Kantar Group. It said men purchased two million of them in the year to July 2021 compared to 4.3 million for the same period in 2017. Annual sales of men’s suiting fell from £469m in 2016 to £159m in July 2021. In March 2022, men’s suits were taken out of the government’s ‘inflation basket’ because they were no longer relevant.
The spectacular fall in sales of suits has made many retailers wary of rushing straight back into the category. While sales at formalwear lead brands like Hugo Boss reported full year 2022 sales were up by 27% to a record level of £3.2 billion (€3.65 billion), marking the first time in history that the company has surpassed €3 billion, some of it was because of a pivot in the product offer. BOSS menswear up by 27%, but more casual items and categories had been introduced by the brand.
Many retailers too aren’t sure where the dial will rest when it comes to WFH and also what attire and in what qualities people will be wearing back to the office, even if it is 3 days a week. Made-to-order, and bringing outside expertise in, will make sense for many while they are tentative in the reemerging category.
There was always going to be an inevitable bounce off the bottom. Marks & Spencer has said sales of formalwear jumped 40% after workers started returning to the office. It said sales of mens’ suits were up 28% over the 13 weeks to Dec 31 2022, compared with the same period the previous year. This comparison is to a pandemic year.
Victoria McKenzie-Gould, director of corporate affairs at M&S, told The Telegraph: “Suiting is up, [but it’s] a kind of slightly more modern take on what you might wear to the office.”
M&S also stated that formalwear saw a similar increase, with sales up by more than 40%. Bow ties were up 41% compared to last year, with dinner shirts up 65%.
If men are buying for a special, formal occasion like a wedding or graduation then they won’t mind waiting, but for officewear and browsing brands and understanding the different fits and options, ready-to-wear is essential. Brands such as Suitsupply or Moss Bros have the opportunity to fill the gap in ready-to-wear suits if larger retailers decide to stick to made-to-order. Made-to-order, if speedy enough, could also grow as people buy fewer but better suits.
Marks & Spencer says it’s a slightly more modern take on what you would traditionally wear to the office, and with not a tie insight at any recent G7 summit, the depressing Selfridges tie department won’t be looking better anytime soon.