It has defined everyone from James Bond to Don Draper, but is the tailored suit dead? With changing tastes and office dress codes, it is going through an identity crisis that brands are struggling to resolve.
Last week Justin O’Shea, the creative director of Brioni who was brought in to modernise the luxury Italian brand, left abruptly after just six months in the job.
Brioni was the main costumer for Bond between Goldeneye and Casino Royale, before Tom Ford swept in for Quantum of Solace. But the company has been suffering in recent times. In March Bloomberg reported 400 job cuts at the fashion house because of a fall in demand. Then a few months later the Business of Fashion website noted that Donald Trump had been wearing Brioni suits throughout his campaign.
O’Shea thought he could update Brioni’s trademark style by bringing the force of his personality to the label. He told Vogue: “I would change the shitty logo. I would change the campaign. I would change the clothes. In fact, I would change pretty much everything.” The announcement of his departure has been seen by many as another nail in the coffin of the suit’s reinvention. “If Justin O’Shea can’t, can anyone make the tailored suit cool again?” said W Magazine last week.
Indicators that the suit was under threat came in the summer when JP Morgan and PricewaterhouseCoopers revised their dress code. JP Morgan in a memo to staff at the start of the summer said that it had decided to allow employees to wear business-casual attire on most occasions. A few weeks earlier, PwC had moved to a more casual dress code, allowing employees to wear jeans so long as there are no client meetings.
“Suits have definitely been in a rut,” explains Rob Nowill, senior menswear editor of Style.com. “There has just been less demand for tailoring: as office dress codes have relaxed, most men don’t have the need to wear a suit regularly.”
On the catwalk, labels such as Balenciaga are deconstructing the suit’s silhouette by exaggerating its proportions, while high street brands such as New Look are incorporating sportswear elements. “To mix and match your tailoring with sportswear makes you look smart but not too formal,” says New Look’s menswear director, Christopher Englinde.
Strategically, Brioni and O’Shea together made sense. A street-style star with a distinctive look – a tattooed bad boy – and a huge Instagram following, his appointment was based on the assumption that his popularity would translate into sales. The O’Shea-ification of Brioni began when he restyled its flagship shop in Paris into a temple of minimalist chic and changed the label’s font.
At Brioni’s Paris couture week presentation, O’Shea went further down his aesthetic rabbit hole. Unlike other fashion houses that nodded to “athleisure” and the hippy movement, O’Shea upped the peacock factor. The collection featured crocodile-skin jackets, chinchilla fur snoods and a calf-length jacket covered in a gun print, as well as O’Shea’s interpretation of the classic Brioni suit. These were slim fitting, nipped in the waist, in white, velvet and pinstripes, suggesting his muse was a high-end criminal, coolly exiting a bank he had just robbed.
Some have suggested that O’Shea’s exit from the company is part of an elegy for menswear as we know it. With the collections of Burberry, Balmain, Gucci and Bottega Veneta mixed into the women’s collections, there is a suspicion in some circles that the dedicated men’s fashion week could become a thing of the past. “It’s been fascinating to see so many of the heritage tailoring brands grappling with how to offer what modern men want to wear, with varying degrees of success,” says Nowill.
Brioni will continue, pointedly showing its autumn/winter collection for buyers in its Milan showroom rather than the catwalk. As for O’Shea, he posted a picture of a Brioni-branded coffin on Instagram a day before the news was announced. A prophetic vision for the future of menswear and the suit? We’ll have to wait and see.
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