SImon Cundey’s family has been making men’s suits for seven generations, taking 37 measurements of each customer during the Great Depression and both World Wars. The tailor’s arsenal of chalk, scissors and thread were put to work every day of the week from the company’s inception in 1806, until March 2020, when the government ordered nearly everyone to work from home.
“If there’s one thing you can’t do at home, it’s measuring people for suits,” says Cundey, who works for his family business, Henry Poole & Co, tailors on Savile Row in London since his early twenties. “The pandemic is, by far, the worst crisis the company has ever faced. It’s far worse than the Great Depression or wars ever were.
“In wartime, Allied forces were here, so we made uniforms for Americans and Canadians, and we could still see customers face to face,” he says, as we chat on leather sofas in front of a roaring log fire in the shop. , surrounded by 48 framed terms from the royal family and other world leaders.
Post-lockdown, Cundey and his team of tailors, undercutters, makers of trousers, jackets and vests are back at work at 15 Savile Row – the street known around the world as the home of the best menswear on extent – and customers come back through the doors. But there aren’t as many as before the pandemic, and fewer than before the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a story repeated up and down “in the row,” and at other tailors across the country, as well as at high street retailers from Marks & Spencer to Reiss, and online businesses from Mr Porter to Asos.
Statements of falling popularity don’t carry much more authority than those from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which last month removed the combinations from the basket of goods it uses to calculate the annual inflation rate. The government’s statistics agency said the suits, which had appeared in the basket every year since 1947, were not purchased often enough to appear in the basket of 733 representative goods and services selected to measure the cost of living in the UK. They have been replaced in the ONS basket with a ‘formal jacket or blazer’.
Nick Paget, menswear editor and “trend forecaster” at consumer insights firm WGSN, says “many men have simply fallen in love with suits, if they ever did.”
Paget, who has worked in menswear for more than 20 years, says suits were on the decline long before the pandemic, with Dress Fridays slowly reducing office paperwork. “But 18 months of hanging around the house in joggers and hoodies has definitely sped things up,” he says, adding that people just need less suits than they used to.
“When a guy had to wear a suit to work, it wasn’t just one. He would have a number of suits on rotation and at the cleaners.
Men, says Paget, are no longer afraid to tell their bosses what they want to wear to work. “I expect that as part of the back-to-work agreement, people will be expected to wear less formal suits,” he says. “I personally hate wearing a collared shirt, and I know I’m not alone.”
Figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel confirm this. He revealed spending on men’s suits rose from £460million in 2017 to £157million in 2020, before recovering slightly to £279million last year. The costume is replaced, Paget says, not with joggers, jeans, or hoodies, but with “chore jackets.”
Asked to explain himself, he replies: “It’s really in the name.” These are jackets first designed for craftsmen to wear for DIY, painting or plumbing. Originating in the late 1800s in France, where they were worn by farmhands and laborers, the jackets were nicknamed “bleu de travail” or “worker’s blues” for their deep indigo hue.
“Comfortable and practical workwear has been elevated to office wear, especially in the creative industries,” says Paget. “Fabrics and details have been improved, but basically it’s clothes an old-school plumber would have worn.”
M&S, which cut the number of stores selling suits to 110 across its 245 largest locations, credited the workwear trend with helping it return to profit on a half-yearly basis.
Wes Taylor, director of menswear at M&S, says the suit has been in decline since at least 2019, when the market for them fell by 7%. As a result, the company focuses on “separates” – pants and suit jackets sold separately so they can be mixed and matched with less formal garments.
“The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards more casual attire — especially for the office, where, for many, chinos and shirt are the new uniform,” Taylor says.
Gieves & Hawkes, Savile Row’s best-known tailor, which dates back to 1771, may soon disappear completely. Trinity Group, the Chinese owner, collapsed into liquidation earlier this year after failing to find a buyer for the tailor.
Like most others, Gieves & Hawkes began by selling military uniforms to army officers. It operates from No 1 Savile Row, the former headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society and is by far the largest store on the street. Under Chinese ownership, the company has expanded to 58 stores in 25 cities, which experts say may be why it has been a tough sell. “The ubiquity has somewhat diminished the exclusivity,” says Paget.
Gieves & Hawkes isn’t the only struggling tailor. Hardy Amies, the firm founded by Sir Edwin Hardy Amies in 1946 and specializing in costumes for British Olympians, went bankrupt in 2019. City blouse maker Thomas Pink went bankrupt in 2020 before being bought out of the former owner, luxury conglomerate LVMH ( Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) by former JD Sports executive Nick Preston.
Andy Saxton, director of business intelligence for fashion at Kantar, doesn’t expect the office suit market to pick up, but believes people are more willing to spend money on suits than ever before. weddings and parties. “Casuality has been growing for a few years now,” he says, while wearing a navy sweater with dark jeans. “The suit market has fallen by 40% in five years, I don’t think it will ever return to this level. But I think there are huge opportunities to dress up for celebrations – I feel like everyone is going to go really big for weddings.
Saxton says people demand clothes to “work harder” for them. “They don’t want to spend money buying something just for the office,” he says. “They want their clothes to be flexible and versatile: ‘Yes, I can wear it to work, but I could also wear it on a night out with my friends.’ Now it’s about blurring the lines between work and life.
On Black Friday in the UK, suits were the most discounted item, with 54% of all tailoring items marked down, according to data from WGSN Instock.
At Henry Poole, Cundey believes society is on the verge of a mass “period of smartening” that will ripple through all walks of life as we return to life as it was before the pandemic. “It’s like the big beast waking up from a slumber,” he said. “As people return to work and re-engage socially, they will remember why they have to be smart.
“Soon there will be Ascot and Wimbledon, of course,” he says. “But for everyone, there’s always a time when you have to dress up to some degree.
“When your wife or partner dresses up and you go out in a hoodie and sweatpants, you have to ask yourself, would they be happy with you? The answer is no, of course.”
Cundey believes the reason many young men don’t like suits is because they’re the wrong size. “A lot of people say they hate wearing costumes, but that’s probably because they were forced to wear one that didn’t fit them in school,” he says. “I too would hate to wear them if they didn’t fit. Rule #1 is that you shouldn’t smell a suit. It should feel natural, there should be no tension or looseness.
Wearing the wrong suit, says Cundey, is worse than not wearing one at all. “Remember when [Mark] Facebook’s Zuckerberg got hauled in front of Congress? said Cundey. “He looked like a naughty schoolboy because his suit was three sizes too small.” The New York Times dubbed it the “I’m sorry suit”.
Cundey, who wears a suit every day, has her sights set on just about every famous man and their wardrobe. Criticizing Boris Johnson, he says, is too easy, but he tries anyway. “Obviously there could be a better look for Johnson – his suits are way too big. But really it depends on the mentality and how you carry yourself. Some people get it, some people don’t.”
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, meanwhile, is praised for always looking “thin and neat”, but “maybe his suits are a bit small”.
Cundey’s sons – Henry (who is nicknamed Henry VIII, as he is the eighth generation since the first Henry Poole) and Jamie – are expected to carry on the family tradition of tailoring, but even if they don’t wear suits every day, Cundey eventually concedes.
“They’re smart and casual,” he says, “but they don’t let me down.”