Last week, the designer Jil Sander told the New York Times that it was time to finally ditch sweatpants because “down-dressing is a drainer”.
A harbinger of a certain shift in mood, Sander has captured a moment in which, with lockdown soon to give way to a new tiered system of restrictions in England, we are ready to get dressed again.
“I genuinely feel that post-lockdown there will be a reaction to how we have all been dressing recently,” says Sean Dixon, the managing director of the bespoke tailors Richard James, which has dressed Prince William and Liam Gallagher. “I believe there will be an outpouring of expression, a desire to ‘dress up’.”
His words might feel optimistic: this year, the men’s suit companies Tailored Brands – which owned Men’s Wearhouse among others – J Crew and Brooks Brothers were all casualties of the pandemic. But with the glimmer of a vaccine in the distance, the days of comfort dressing could soon be numbered.
“I love a good pair of sweatpants as much as the next person, but yes I do believe the surge of preppy comes from a longing to look a bit more proper and dapper,” says Christopher Bastin, the global artistic director of Gant, which was influential in creating the Ivy League look. “It’s been dark times for a while now. Preppy, with its colourful, whimsical approach to style, feels like a relief,” he says. “It’s OK to be happy again [and] dress accordingly.”
At a time when elasticated waist bands have grown in popularity, the rise of items such as cardigans and tank tops suggested a yearning for more formality. Similarly a fortnight ago, sales of Gap khaki trousers increased by 90% online after MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki wore a pair during his US election coverage.
“We have been hearing about ‘the death of the suit’ since we opened our doors over 28 years ago,” says Dixon. “There will always be a place for the suit and tailoring in general.”
But the legacy of the sweatpant will live on, in suits with a bit of give. “We offer performance fabrics with a little bit of stretch and even a formal trouser with an elasticated waistband – something that would have our Savile Row forefathers rocking in their graves, but we now recognise that comfort is as important as looks.”
Those who are still wearing suits are doing it out of choice and with a newfound freedom. “Long gone are pinstripes and now people are opting for interesting tonal colours,” says James Sleater, the owner of Savile Row’s Cad & the Dandy, who has dressed Stormzy and Ed Sheeran, as well as Mike Tindall for his wedding to Zara Phillips, “meaning the jackets can be worn with jeans and have it not appear to be just an orphaned suit jacket”.
Dario Carnera, the head cutter at Huntsman, says: “[We] are making more in the way of sports coats and separate trousers for people at the moment. Since lockdown we have seen that our clients are moving away from structured workwear and conventional suiting and instead opting for more tailored separates.”
In June, when tailors reopened after the first lockdown, they had to adapt by dispensing with their personal, bespoke services, a cornerstone of their business model. Huntsman is doing a virtual screen-to-screen tailoring service. “While our overseas clients are unable to make it to Huntsman, we continue to ensure clients receive the same level of personalised engagement online that they would expect,” says Taj Phull, the head of retail.
The suit is not dead but more easy-fitting options are likely to remain popular after the pandemic, Sleater says. “Comfort is the future, and while sweatpants might not be for everyone, unstructured and softer jackets will also continue to rule the roost.”
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