Unsuited to New Era? The Future of Formal Fashion Looks Bleak

Brunello Cucinelli, a renowned Italian luxury designer known for his expensive men’s suits, is experiencing a personal predicament – he hasn’t worn a suit himself in months, just like most people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended work habits and canceled social events such as weddings and parties, leading to a drastic decrease in demand for formal wear. This shift not only impacts the fashion industry but also the entire supply chain involved in the production of suits and other formal attire.

Australia, the largest producer of merino wool, has been hit hard by this seismic change in demand. Prices have reached their lowest point in over a decade, causing significant financial strain on sheep farmers. Wool mills in northern Italy, which rely on purchasing wool from farmers to create high-end suit fabrics, have experienced a steep decline in orders from retailers. In the United States and Europe, retail chains that specialize in business attire like Men’s Wearhouse, Brooks Brothers, and TM Lewin have either shut down stores or filed for bankruptcy. Clearly, the industry players are being forced to adapt in order to survive the current circumstances.

To meet the evolving preferences of consumers, farmers are exploring alternative forms of agriculture, while mills are focusing on producing fabrics that offer greater comfort and practicality. Silvio Botto Poala, the managing director of Lanificio Botto Giuseppe, a wool mill in Italy, acknowledges the shift towards more comfortable clothing and a decreased interest in formal suits. The rise of Zoom conferences and remote work has normalized a more relaxed dress code, with men opting for shirts and ties rather than full suits.

The impact of this trend is evident in the Australian wool market, where the price of merino wool has decreased by more than half in the past 18 months. Traditionally, Italian mills were major buyers of Australian merino wool, but the decline in demand has resulted in excess supplies. China has become the primary buyer, though even their purchases have decreased. Some sheep farmers are storing their wool, while others are selling it at a loss to keep their businesses afloat.

Up the supply chain in northern Italy, wool mills are bracing for a significant drop in sales and projecting a recovery period of 2-3 years. Businesses have reported a staggering decline in sales, ranging from 50% to 80%, severely impacting their financial health. To adapt to the changing market, mills are investing in the production of fabrics that offer stretchability, resistance to stains, and reduced wrinkling. These types of fabrics are now in higher demand, even for casual wear. In fact, luxury brand Etro recently released a “24-hour jacket” made of jersey fabric mixed with wool and cotton, catering to the growing trend of comfort-oriented clothing.

The shift towards casual wear has been gradually gaining traction for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transformation. Comfort clothing and sportswear sales have surged, while business attire has suffered significant losses. Major retailers like Nike have experienced an increase in sales during the lockdown, while traditional office attire brands like Banana Republic have faced substantial setbacks. Suits, once considered a wardrobe staple, now rank among the least-selling and most heavily discounted items across France, Italy, and Germany. Consequently, retailers specializing in office wear have had to declare bankruptcy, creating an uncertain future for many.

The decline in demand for office attire is particularly evident in cities such as London, where lawyers and bankers – the typical clientele for bespoke suits – are predominantly working from home in their pajamas. Tailors in famous locations like Savile Row are experiencing an extremely slow business, even after the end of the lockdown. Clients are hesitant to collect their ordered suits since they have no occasion to wear them.

The formal fashion industry finds itself in a precarious situation, with no clear path to recovery. In order to survive this new era where comfort and practicality take precedence over traditional formal wear, it will require substantial innovation and adaptation.

Useful Links:
1. The Demise of the Tailored Suit
2. Fashion’s Biggest Resource – Water: The Dirty Little Secret