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The global economy was not the only thing to collapse two years ago. As banking institutions crumbled, so too did efforts to promote dress-down Fridays. Serious times demanded serious suits, and a generation who came of professional age in a world of open necks and chinos suddenly found themselves adrift in their closets without a sartorial anchor.
“Everything that has happened in formal men’s wear since spring 2009 has been affected by the collapse of Lehman Brothers,” says Robert Johnston, associate editor of British GQ. “Post-economic crisis, men who might not have been caring about their appearance came under pressure to wear suits. Many feel they can’t do that, but simply can’t go casual anymore.”
Happily, there is now a third way: welcome to the age of the men’s wear separate. Though the idea of a jacket in one style, skirt or trousers in another is not new to the female wardrobe, for many men, it’s a liberating notion.
Cue a breed of young contemporary men’s wear labels focused on a more independent way of dressing. Rake, a tailoring brand founded by former Kilgour tailor Clive Derby, focuses on the mix of men’s suit jackets and trousers (prices from £675). “Flexibility is key,” says Derby. “Every single piece is sold as a separate: break them up and they still stand up in their own right as an individual garment.”
At London tailors Thom Sweeney, separates make up 40 per cent of the business (prices from £380), with the tailors Thom Whidett and Luke Sweeney setting the standard themselves. “It’s hard to dress down and look good and it’s also more complicated,” says Whidett. “We started wearing navy blazers and grey flannel trousers ourselves,” says Sweeney, “and our clients realised they can dress down in a bespoke way.”
Windowpane check jackets teamed with plain narrow trousers (prices from £895) now typify their signature separates, which are “mostly check flannels, not tweeds, as they are lighter weight. An ‘urban tweed’ we call it, not stiff, hairy or heavy,” says Whidett. “We often suggest a guy orders a navy and grey suit, and considers swapping the trousers for two additional looks.”
Patrick Grant, director of the British tailoring brand E Tautz (prices from £595), says, “Separates are the uniform of the ‘new financial industry’ – the hedge fund and private equity areas which set themselves up very deliberately as non-suit-wearing institutions. Their wardrobe helps define who they are in business – ‘We are not the old financial industry, we dress in a different way because we think about our products differently, too.’”
Take Jim Chanos, a New York businessman, who says, “Most of the time I’m in a suit but increasingly I’m in a jacket and trousers to travel. [I am] the principal of my company [and] I have to set a standard. However, as we are a money management firm, circumstances don’t always lend themselves to a pure suit. The hedge fund world is more casual than banking.”
Similarly, an investment banker who prefers separates to suits, notes: “I don’t want to look too starchy, especially in internal meetings. Separates are ideal if I’m about to travel on a plane and then at the other end I go straight to a dinner at which I need to be reasonably smart.”
According to Grant, a vogue for European styles such as those of Loro Piana and Cucinelli also plays a part in the rise of the separate. “With a proliferation of very high-end Italian brands comes an overwhelming push towards softness and unconstructed jackets in fabrics such as cashmere, which are just inappropriate for making trousers.” Grant says that customers are building “libraries” of separates that can be mixed with other elements.
British department stores have seen a similar evolution in their men’s wear sales. Selfridges formal wear department reports a 48 per cent rise in formal jacket sales and a 27 per cent lift in units of trousers (year on year from 2009 to 2010) compared with a suiting increase of half that amount.
Jason Broderick, head of men’s wear at Harrods, says, “Our trouser business is up 22 per cent, while ties sales depreciated 40 per cent [also year on year, 2009-10]. This says a lot about how men are wearing smart clothes in a less formal way, the suit often being left to evening wear now. When you go into a designer’s showroom to buy and all you see is jackets and trousers, you have to reflect the offering.”
And the offering, according to Zegna chief executive Gildo Zegna, is dictated by the customer. “Our ‘upper casual’ collection [prices from £200], which launched in 2008 was conceived to meet the emerging needs of men who want a less formal look that is as elegant as a suit,” he says. "It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of our global business.”