Is This Dressy or Casual?

by Harry Sheff
Grungy Gentleman spring  2015
Grungy Gentleman spring 2015

Are we in a dress-up cycle or a casual phase? Depends on who you talk to. When I spoke to Durand Guion, the men’s fashion director at Macy’s, back in May, we took it as a given that the menswear business was enjoying a robust dress-up cycle—the question was only how long it would last. But for Guy Trebay, writing in the New York Times yesterday about Fashion Week, we’re clearly entering a new casual age of practical sweats, super-expensive sneakers, technical fabrics and the occasional suit piece (pants or jacket).

Trebay concedes that many designers showing at Fashion Week threw in “a few obligatory suits,” but for Todd Snyder, Tim Coppens and other designers, “the essence of where […] much of men’s wear is headed was communicated by a single outfit: a white Champion sweatshirt worn with a pair of suit pants.”

This prompted an indignant menswear retailer, Eliot Rabin of Peter Elliott on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, to call MR editor Karen Alberg Grossman to vent. Both passionately agreed this didn’t sound quite right.

Many of Trebay’s examples for a new casual phase in menswear are in fact rooted in sportswear. “I mean, did anyone ever expect Lacoste, Hood by Air, or Public School to give us tailored dress up?” quipped MR fashion director William Buckley in an office discussion.

Elements of tailored and sportswear together at Bespoken's SS2015 show
Elements of tailored and sportswear together at Bespoken’s SS2015 show

Hmmm. Let’s go back to Durand Guion at Macy’s. Back in May, he told me, “We’re re-entering—we’re not fully there yet—back into a period when guys, especially younger guys, understand what it means to be dressed up and what it means to be dressed casually.”

He continued, “We won’t go completely into a dressy cycle, we’ll just start to see more balance, especially as more newness starts to evolve back into sportswear. I definitely think this slow movement toward dress-up will continue to gain momentum.”

Guion, who may have a broader view of the menswear market as it applies to average American men, isn’t saying suits are dominant; he’s saying men are finally understanding that there’s a time and place to dress up. And, I’d add, that younger men are much more excited about creating occasions to add dressy elements to their wardrobe: a bow tie, better shoes, a blazer with jeans, non-silk ties with just about anything, pocket squares, etc.

I would argue that Trebay is looking at a cross-section of Fashion Week and seeing the so-called Ath-leisure trend play out further. It’s not new, and it’s not replacing anything else overnight, it’s merely evolving at about the pace anyone paying attention to men’s fashion trends might expect. Sneakers in the $800 to $1,500 range are exploding for luxury retailers like Saks. Sweat pants are getting dressier. Tailored pants are getting more casual. Stretch fibers are being incorporated into everything. But this is old news—we’ve been talking about it for more than two years.

Equally notable is that online retailers like JackThreads, which has roots in streetwear (profiled in June by Elise Diamantini), are investing in affordable tailored clothing for their young clientele. Their customer was asking for it, founder Jason Ross told us.

In the same June issue, Diamantini talked to Carson Street Clothiers, a SoHo retailer on the other end of the price spectrum from JackThreads, but still catering to a younger guy. Co-owner Brian Trunzo described the modern look: “It’s a combination of sportswear and tailoring, contemporary and heritage, designer and emerging—it’s whatever the wearer wants it to be. He’s buying clean, sophisticated pieces that mesh well with his wardrobe, starting with the basics (navy blazer, ecru sneakers, raw denim, longwing derbies and a white oxford), and elevating to the more adventurous pieces (tailored sweatpants, patterned shirts, more interesting fabrics on outerwear).”

The traditional segments and categories that retailers and vendors from the Baby Boomer generation may rely on are not relevant to younger men. Ask a guy under 40 what tailored clothing is and he’s likely point to an unlined cotton sport coat in a sportswear department — something the sellers upstairs in the clothing department wouldn’t dream of calling tailored. Look at almost anything in Billy Reid’s spring/summer 2015 collection (see the six looks below) and it could just as easily prove that we’re going casual as we’re going dressy, because it combines elements of both.

The challenge for the menswear trendspotter in today’s market is that there are so many things going on. There are almost always hot items in certain segments of the market, but dominant trends are harder to come by. Are we in a dress-up cycle? Yes. Are we in a casual cycle? Of course we are: it’s all happening at once.