The Future of Formalwear: now that “fleece fatigue” has set in, will it bounce back?

Louis Copeland

Formalwear has taken a particular battering during the pandemic, with venues closed, events off and occasions massively restricted, but is there a brighter post-Covid-19 future ahead for smart dressing and formalwear sales?

Figures released from LovetheSales.com, the world’s largest sales shopping marketplace which hosts over 16,000 brands, have revealed that suit sales in 2020 were almost half of sales in 2019 at -49%. Blazers were even harder hit at -71%, formal shirts saw a -39% decline and ties were -36%. The demand for formalwear brands was also hugely evident comparing 2020 to 2019, with TM Lewin seeing a drop in demand of -45%, and both Charles Tyrwhitt and Moss Bros -33% down year-on-year.

Formalwear retailers across the board – from high street to bespoke tailoring businesses – have all felt the hit, but there’s a cautious air of optimism in the air across the sector, especially since the roadmap out of lockdown has now been released. It’s even been reported that some wedding venues are already fully booked until the end of 2022, and that area alone will give a massive shot in the arm to the suffering suit sector.

We talk to some familiar industry figures who largely ply their trade in the formalwear market to get their take on what to expect going forward.

Louis Copeland, CEO, Louis Copeland & Sons, Dublin, Cork and Galway (pictured above)

Since last year people obviously haven’t been wearing suits, everybody has gone very casual and people are even doing their Zoom calls in their casualwear. They probably need to up their game when doing presentations on Zoom!

I think the suit market is going to stay quiet until things open up, but hopefully with the vaccine roll out things will open up sooner rather than later, and certainly by August/September time.

I think we’re going to have a ‘roaring 20’s’ effect and business is going to boom. With weddings, functions and events on hold last year, when things open up again I really believe business is going to skyrocket.

I know there’s this negativity with some people saying they’re not wearing suits anymore, and some retailers are going to move away from selling suits, but I think that’s probably a mistake.

“I think we’re going to have a ‘roaring 20’s’ effect and business is going to boom. With weddings, functions and events on hold last year, when things open up again I really believe business is going to skyrocket.”

Weddings are a big part of our formalwear business, so when they are back on properly then I think we’ll be inundated. Also, they’ll be so many functions that have been put off from last year. I don’t only think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I think there’s a big spotlight at the end of it.

Also, I know people are saying that they’re going to continue to work from home, but the people I’ve been talking to want a bit of a mixture – say three days in the office and two days at home. I do think people will want to get back in their offices though, and will want to start dressing up again.

It’s a bit like a policeman or an army officer, when you put a suit on it gives you that little bit of an edge and, with business generally being bad across the board for the last year, I think people will want that little bit of an advantage and that edge that wearing a suit gives you.

Sales of formalwear have unsurprisingly been disastrous over the last year, and it will take a while to come back, but I’m confident that it will come back.

Sales on our website have been off the Richter scale, mainly on our casualwear offer, and we’ve still been doing Zoom calls with customers we already have measurements for. We’ve had to adapt what we’re selling because before the pandemic it was about 80/20 suits to casual, but now it’s more like 80/20 casualwear against suits, and has been for the last year. Going forward I think sales of suits will improve and casualwear is here to stay. They’ll be more of a balance.  

Mark Powell

Mark Powell, Tailor and Designer, Mark Powell Bespoke Tailoring

I’m lucky in that I’ve very much got my specific type of clients. When we came out of the lockdown in the summer, we actually had quite a good time for the period we were open. There were some weddings, but not many. I think they’ll be more this year. Weddings are a part of my bread-and-butter business, so they are important. I think we will do good business in the summer on the wedding side, as a lot of people that wanted to get married last year will do it this year instead.

I think, because a lot of my clients are into what I do and my style, they’ve still be coming to me for new clothing throughout this tough period. I’ve also been spending a lot more time and money building the website, so we’ve selling a bit online – a lot more than we ever did. We never used to sell suits online, it was always more shirts, but we have actually been selling some ready-to-wear suits too, which is a good sign.

Everything was difficult last year for everybody selling formalwear, but I’m not quite the same as say the Savile Row businesses, which I think have been impacted more as they rely a lot on overseas business, especially from Americans visiting London. That’s not an essential part of my business.

“It makes total sense that people are going to want to get dressed up again after dressing down for so long, and I think there will be a feelgood factor.”

Also, I did do a reduction of 30% on all my bespoke suits for a set period when we weren’t in lockdown. We were literally taking bespoke orders right up until last thing on 19 December, when we had to close as London went in to Tier 4 restrictions from 20 December. It really helped to pull in business, and it also kept all my workers happy as well. My thinking was, if I’m doing the volume then I can still make a decent enough margin. It also kept me active and stimulated. Additionally, I got my latest ready-to-wear collection in a lot later than normal, and we did really well with that in late November and early December.

Currently I’m getting the new shop ready to go at 10 Newburgh Street for when we can reopen for business mid-April. It’s a different space and layout to my previous shop round the corner on Marshall Street, so I’m doing the ground floor as more like a bespoke showroom with the ready to wear stock predominantly downstairs. Obviously, we also offer made-to-measure.

I’m actually quietly confident going forward, especially as I’ve now got the new shop and regular clients who’ve made it known that they want to come down and support what I do.

It makes total sense that people are going to want to get dressed up again after dressing down for so long, and I think there will be a feelgood factor. Also, going in to the autumn a lot of events will hopefully be back on which could be good for business too. I’m sure people will really want to start going out again as a backlash against this dreadful last year.

David Johnson

David Johnson, Owner, John Douglas, Macclesfield

I unfortunately caught Covid-19 and ended up with a kidney infection and was subsequently out of action for the whole of January. Thankfully, I am getting over it now and I’m back on my bike, though obviously the shop is still shut and there’s plenty of stock sitting in there!

Formalwear is 60% of my business, so as a result of the pandemic 60% of my stock is currently redundant. I have not bought any suits or smart jackets for SS21, and nothing for AW21 either. I’m thinking it will realistically be at least another year before events make a proper come back, so I am hoping for a good hot summer to move last year’s carry over stock. I also took advantage of some deals and topped up casual product rather than buy new collections for this spring.

“I’m thinking it will realistically be at least another year before events make a proper come back, so I am hoping for a good hot summer to move last year’s carry over stock.”

I think it’s going to be a really hard year trading with no real events, so buying forward again I am treading very carefully. I am also sat on a lot of outerwear and knitwear, which again will have to wait until AW21 to be brought out. I have decided to use brands with a good never out of stock service so I can fill in when needed.

Regarding the formalwear hire side of the business, I stopped doing wedding suit hire a while ago as people seemed to be wanting to buy more individual outfits instead. Moving forward, we will now only be doing hire for black tie events when they are finally back on.

Oliver Spencer

Oliver Spencer, Founder and Creative Director, Favourbrook and Oliver Spencer

It’s my belief that when we do come out of this very difficult time people are going to want to go out and celebrate. Whether it’s for a birthday or a wedding, people are going to want to go out, have a drink and have some fun. Dressing up will become more theatrical, which is why the Netflix series Bridgerton has proved such a success. People are looking forward to being extravagant again. I do believe that it is going to make a big difference for sales post-Covid. We’re just refitting our Piccadilly Arcade store in preparation.

“In creative industries, it’s impossible to do your work from home, and I think that people will run out of the house when they are given the chance!”

During the lockdown, formalwear sales have been very challenging. The situation has unfortunately delivered a mindset that celebrating and dressing up is not worth doing, and sales have not dramatically shifted to our online business. People don’t tend to dress up for parties online! They want to come into a store, try things on and invest for that special occasion. For Favourbrook, 9/10 people want to come in to have that garment tailored so it fits properly for an occasion.

I do not believe that working from home will become the norm. That’s fundamentally flawed. Especially in creative industries as it’s impossible to do your work from home, and I think that people will run out of the house when they are given the chance!

Gregor Thissen

Gregor Thissen, Executive Chairman, Scabal

It is indeed quite likely that once restrictions are lifted and travel can resume, people will feel an irresistible urge to make up for the time ‘lost’ during the various lockdowns. Of course, a lot depends on how and how fast we will get out of the crisis, but if things go remotely to plan then we should soon see events that were cancelled or postponed quickly rescheduled, and every occasion to meet and socially interact will be welcome. This could lead to a phenomenon comparable to the ‘roaring 20’s’ of the last century. In that case, smart dressing and formalwear will be part of the journey. We could indeed see a boom in sales of these items towards the second half of this year.

Throughout the industry, formalwear sales will have been affected differently depending on the sector you are looking at. According to our information, companies will have their seen their 2020 formalwear sales down between 30% to 60% compared to 2019. Thankfully, luxury and made-to-measure, which is Scabal’s market segment, have been more resilient. But, overall, the impact on the clothing industry, and formalwear in particular, has been very significant.

Due to the very nature of the made-to-measure business and our positioning in the premium and luxury sectors, the scope for shift to online business has been quite limited. That being said, we have noticed that the intimate relationship between our customers and their clientele has helped them to remain in close touch and to maintain some level of physical business – even throughout the various lockdowns. We have also started to develop so called ‘phygital’ solutions for our customers, so there’s a continuous interaction.

“Our assumption is that, yes, people will certainly be very happy to get out of their eternal jogging pants and ‘Zoom outfits’ and start to dress more smartly.”

Will people want to dress up again after dressing down for so long? Well, this is of course the million-dollar question. Our assumption is that, yes, people will certainly be very happy to get out of their eternal jogging pants and ‘Zoom outfits’ and start to dress more smartly. However, we also believe that smart casual and formal will undergo some changes. People will want to perpetuate part of the comfort and ‘lounge’ feeling that they have come to appreciate during the long periods of home working and confinement. This should give rise to new opportunities for designers and product managers to reinvent style and functionality of formal and smart casual outfits.

It is likely that home working will remain a part of our new reality, but we also believe that it will not be the only form of work in the future. Employees and employers will equally feel that social interaction at the place of work, and the need to cement corporate culture, are a necessity. Therefore, physical presence at the place of work will return. In general, we will probably see more flexibility and mobility in terms of where the work is performed. In terms of clothing codes at the workplace, it is likely that the relaxation of dressing, that was already taking place before the Covid-19 crisis, will continue and probably be amplified. But, like with any trend, it will probably create a cyclical counter-movement that should see a return of the suit as a means to distinguish yourself.

Simon Carter

Simon Carter, Founder and CEO, Simon Carter

There will be two years of weddings, parties and anniversaries to catch up on and so I think there will be a spike in formalwear sales as a result. My shirts are a bridge between ‘traditional’ formalwear and more modern business dress, but still require an occasion to wear. So, for the first six months sales were very badly hit. As the end now looms into view, sales have picked up considerably, which is encouraging.

Given that you don’t ‘need’ a Simon Carter shirt if you’ve nowhere to go, then the migration to online has not taken up all the slack of five stores being closed. Nonetheless, we have grown sales, and had our busiest month ever online in November, 2020. We also started 2021 well with January sales up 98%.

“I definitely think that people will want to dress up again after dressing down for so long. There’s a sense of ‘fleece fatigue’ that’s really prevalent.”

Smart jackets have been dormant too, though we are buying extensively for Q4 – in patterned velvet from Pontoglio – as we anticipate a very festive and ‘dressy-up’ Christmas.

I definitely think that people will want to dress up again after dressing down for so long. There’s a sense of ‘fleece fatigue’ that’s really prevalent and I am predicting a strong reaction once people can go out again.

I believe that flexible working will be the new norm, and that there will be a meld of home and office for many people. They will want to mark that delineation with different sets of clothing. Also, the recession is likely to continue for some time post Covid-19, and workers may very well want to appear that they are taking the office and their jobs more seriously by dressing smarter.

Timothy Everest

Timothy Everest, Tailor, Designer and Founder, MbE

I certainly hope there’s a future for formalwear, but people have obviously got very used to being comfortable now and there’s some great “athleisure” product out there. So, if you want to get people back in to some kind of formalwear, then it’s got to be comfortable.

We are developing our online and digital offer and exploring the idea of a ‘Zoom to cocktail’ wardrobe, but we have still had interest in our bespoke service as people really want special pieces now. As I’ve said before, there are people buying less but buying better, so they are looking at investment pieces. That might be a suit, not lots of suits, but it’s now more about a softly constructed jacket or a great outerwear piece. In fact, I was talking to one of my coat makers and he was saying that everything seems a lot more complicated now because of the details being requested – such as inverted pleats, soft construction and special pockets. People want something special, not something very basic, if they are going to invest at that kind of level.

We’ve also been developing a more casual approach to tailoring with my MbE pieces, and that’s something we will continue with now I’ve taken over the Grey Flannel shop at 7 Chiltern St, Marylebone, which we are now looking forward to reopening on 12 April. Grey Flannel was one of the first businesses in the UK to stock Stone Island, CP Company and Armani and it always had a very casual approach to formalwear ever since it opened in 1974. I acquired the business at the end of last year from Richard Fromberg, who was looking to retire but wanted a legacy. He is still involved on a part time basis, as is long standing manager Graham Petit. As we’ve been developing a more casual offer, it made sense for the two businesses to come together, and the name will remain the same.

“What kind of formalwear are we going to have going forward? I think it could be as simple as a navy Harrington with a great piece of tailored knitwear and a drawstring pleated flannel pant.”

For MbE, we’ve done a tailored chore jacket called the Chore Deluxe which you can ‘smarten up’ or ‘casual down’, and a classic Harrington jacket in a luxury cloth – with a tailor’s eye – called the Harrington Deluxe. Then there’s the Cargo Deluxe, which is a tailored single pleat cargo trouser, which has recently been worn by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s about taking those more casual pieces and elevating them to another level.

What kind of formalwear are we going to have going forward? I think it could be as simple as a navy Harrington with a great piece of tailored knitwear and a drawstring pleated flannel pant. That could be the new ‘blazer look’. Accessories could also become more important to dress things up, such as a neckerchief. Or, occasionally, it could be a soft cotton shirt with a knitted tie – something very textural. Colour palette and pattern could also be more of a focus. I think that, coming out of this difficult time through Covid-19, people will want to be a bit more playful and fun.

Suits have become more fluid at the contemporary end, with some volume and drape. These shapes lend themselves to new fabrics, and the idea of a jacket and trouser that matches is formal enough.

There will be a ‘new normal’ which will be quite different from before, but I still believe people will want to look elegant and individual even if they are more casual and are embracing new fabrics and technologies. We are working with recycled fabrics such as Ocean Balance 100% recycled plastic, along with antiviral protection.

Simon Cope

Simon Cope, Owner and Managing Director, Skopes

Since last March, the pandemic has ravaged the formalwear business due to either being in lockdown, or simply because there’s been little demand for our sector. We have 16 Skopes stores and about 50 concessions – in places like House of Fraser. There’s been no weddings, no days at the races and people have been working from home. There’s been no need to buy formalwear. That’s why many organisations have gone bust or gone in to CVA’s, or they are limping through wondering if they can survive. There’s only so much spare cash flow that you carry to get you through the hard times.

The government stepped in to help with the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), but that was for Lockdown 1. We’re now on Lockdown 3. The press has earmarked the hospitality sector (as suffering the most), but as I said to one restaurant owner that I’m friendly with, pretend your food didn’t go off and pretend you had to buy six months of everything you need ahead of when you need it. He said he’d be bust overnight. I said, well there you go, that’s what we have to do. We have to buy six months of everything we need, millions of pounds worth of stock, to then get told we are not allowed to sell it, apart from a little bit online. We’ve got many millions of pounds worth of stock that has had to go to third party warehouses because we’ve been unable to sell it. When we do get round to selling it, it’s going to be in the wrong season – and the wrong year! So, then we will have to discount it to sell it.

Pre-pandemic a lot of businesses were very viable ongoing concerns, and very stable, during the pandemic it’s completely ripped many businesses apart. But post-pandemic, when we are allowed to reopen, there’s going to be a massive pent-up demand. Our thoughts are, the market share may be smaller but we can possibly attain a larger share of that smaller marketplace, because many competitors are now not there. For example, Debenhams has gone and Moss Bros has thinned out through a CVA, as has BMB which has Suits Direct retail. And other people that were doing formalwear are now ditching it. So, there will be less people doing it but the demand will still be there. The question is, who will survive to the other side to take advantage of that? That’s the million-dollar question.

“We deal with a lot of wedding hire shops, in the last month there’s been a flurry of orders coming in. So, it’s all going to come back. Formalwear is not dead by any means.”

I have to say that our bank, HSBC, has been incredibly supportive, and all of our partners have been great and very understanding. We’ve run a whiter than white company for many decades, and because we’ve never paid a bill late and we’ve always run the operation absolutely correctly. Everyone has been very understanding and very helpful. I couldn’t speak more highly of our landlords, our trading partners and even our suppliers in China. We’ve never cancelled an order, which a lot of people did. We’ve honoured every order, and a lot of our overseas suppliers have said they’d store the goods for us and we can call them in when we need them. Everyone has been fantastic.

Pre-pandemic we were just on the cusp of opening several new stores. They were all negotiated, but they weren’t yet signed for, so we had to postpone, but not cancel the new openings. Our philosophy hasn’t changed, as we still believe in bricks and mortar retail, though we are now going to put more emphasis on our online business as well.

We made big losses last year, as you would only expect, so first we’ve got to get our house in order and then we can start the expansion plan again – when we know financially where we are at after all this.

We absolutely believe there is a real pent-up demand out there. On our wholesale side, we deal with a lot of wedding hire shops. Many have kept on ticking along, and in the last month there’s been a flurry of orders coming in. So, it’s all going to come back. Formalwear is not dead by any means.