Clothes make the man — again

The workingmen in suits moving around the Financial District are few and far between. This isn’t surprising given the casual work environment that is one of few residuals of the dot-com era. But retail and fashion experts believe more formal office attire is making a comeback.

“There is an overall trend back to a more formal dress,” said Dale Lottig, a managing partner in the consumer business division for Deloitte Tax LLP in San Francisco. “Whether this will have an end-point in the more traditional business attire is still a little bit of an open question. It’s hard to think that we’re going to go back to button-down three-piece suits.”

According to a survey by the NPD Group, a consumer and retail analysis company in New York, men’s apparel led the clothing industry in 2005 with an increase of 5 percent, compared with 3 percent for women’s apparel. Tailored clothing, which includes suits, suit separates, sport coats and jackets, led the growth in the men’s sector, totaling more than $5 billion in sales.

“I think that today’s executives are going back slowly but surely to a little bit more dress-up,” said Bob Sockolov, president and CEO for Rochester Clothing, which is headquartered in San Francisco. “They’ve gotten away from the Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday casual deal. I think people feel more comfortable doing business with people that look like they want to do business.”

This year, Rochester celebrates its 100th anniversary. The company was started just after the 1906 earthquake by four brothers who opened a small shop South of Market.

“Until the mid-1950s, Rochester sold regular-sized clothing,” Sockolov said. “But since we catered to lots of firemen, policemen and waterfront workers, we tended to sell more of the larger sizes.”

The company changed its name to Rochester Big & Tall in 1957. In October 2004, Casual Male Retail Group Inc. (CMRG) purchased the company, adding its 74 stores to CMRG’s 470. Sockolov said business is doing well and is thrilled to see more formal business attire back in style.

“What’s happening is the guys who want to be fashionable find there is more fashion in dressing like your dad than there has ever been,” according to Esquire magazine fashion editor Nick Sullivan. “The only way to be a maverick is to wear a suit these days.”

Sullivan says that is good for his business because younger men, who did not grow up with suits around, have to turn to magazines and specialty stores to learn the rules of “business formal.”

“A lot of guys have spent the last 10 years coming out of college into a work environment where they were not expected to dress up at all, but as that fades away, they don’t know where to start,” said Sullivan. “People my age — I’m 40 — either rightly or wrongly learned from our dads. We learned the basics that really do govern the backbone. Without those rules, you can’t successfully break the rules.”

Apparently they’re learning because the NPD Group survey showed the sale of suits, suit separates, sports coats and jackets grew 53 percent among men between the ages of 18 and 24.

“Teens and young adult men have finally ‘discovered the suit,’” said Marshal Cohen, author of the NPD survey and chief industry analyst. “NPD found that young men never owned a suit, never wore a suit and never saw their father in a suit, yet, they have migrated toward dressing up to be ‘cool.’ We are seeing a shift in the younger generation reaching their image through grooming and dressing up.”

Lottig said the volatile job economy is one reason men are tying their ties once more.

“With a significant outsourcing of white-collared jobs, there’s an increased level of personal insecurity and that this could be leading toward viewing attire as another area of competition in a dwindling pull of opportunity,” he said.

This newfound interest in suits makes the smaller specialty retailer all the more important. Lottig said the increasing popularity of suits may hurt traditional department stores.

“There are two segments within the market that are expected to benefit from the growth in the men’s clothing industry: specialty stores like the Men’s Wearhouse and the mass merchants such as Target, Wal-Mart and Gap.”

Sullivan agrees and says American men typically need help from the pros when it comes to tailored suits.

“American men think that all suits are uncomfortable,” he said. “In America, a guy likes to have a bit of room to move around in so they’ll buy a size bigger and have a bunch of extra cloth. Any tailor will tell you that it’s more uncomfortable dragging extra cloth around. The new generations of business suits that come out of Italy and France are much more fitted than they are in America. It’s something that American men are starting to embrace, really.”

But Sullivan said the West Coast hasn’t been as quick to embrace the formalization of work clothes as the East Coast. Chet Holmes, a marketing consultant in San Francisco, agrees. He says that when he has speaking engagements, it is not unusual for him to be one of three men in a suit on a panel of a dozen men.

“Casual day has now become casual week,” he said. “But there are studies that show that the environment where people where suits is more productive.”

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