Why white collar WFH could mean bye bye business shirt

Thomas Pink Shirtmaker
Pink Shirtmaker, Jermyn Street

Where would London’s historical and once thriving Jermyn Street be without the business shirt? That’s the question being asked now white-collar-WFH has made this stalwart of the formal menswear trade somewhat redundant.

From the days of Beau Brummell flaunting his dandyism to the dress down, tie-less pre-COVID corporate world, the classic men’s shirt was a volume item sustaining many Jermyn Street brands despite sales of suiting and other formalwear items ebbing away over recent years. The business shirt was a guaranteed seller and many menswear chains and brands, on all price levels, had built their businesses upon it.

One of the first of the shirt brands to hit the rocks was TM Lewin. At the beginning of July it was announced that around 600 workers, over 85% of its workforce, would lose their jobs with the closure all 66 of its UK shops. The firm said most of its 700 workers would be laid off as it took all of its sales online. It came just weeks after Torque Brands, a subsidiary of Stonebridge Private Equity, bought the business in May with plans to restructure it.

In a statement, it said, “The decision to significantly reduce the scale of the business in order to preserve its future will regrettably result in job losses at TM Lewin, as a direct result of the closing of the store network as we right-size the business.”

TM Lewin
TM Lewin to disappear from the high street

TM Lewin is at the more affordable end of the market encouraging multi-buys on shirts and currently offering 4 shirts for £110. It needs volume to generate enough sales and help with cash flow. It also, along with all of these brands, needs men, and often women, to wear a fresh business shirt every day.

The business shirt is in big trouble, both here and over the pond. Brooks Brothers recently tweeted to its 71.2K followers “True story: a loyal customer once wore the same BB shirt for video calls on 70 consecutive days. When he told his colleagues, they didn’t bat an eye, they say ‘Oh, yeah,’ and they pull up two shirts hanging on the back of their chair.” Then there’s a link to “Shop shirts”.

Wearing the same shirt for 70 consecutive Zoom days is not going to help with future sales.

While recently rescued from bankruptcy by venture backed apparel-licensing firm Authentic Brands Group LLC and mall owner Simon Property Group Inc., Brooks Brothers was teetering on the brink. America’s oldest apparel company was bought for $325 million and included a commitment to keep 125 Brooks Brothers stores open. The retailer has roughly 200 stores in North America.

Before the rescue Brooks Brothers had already announced it was shutting down its shirt factory in Garland, North Carolina, a move that will eliminate nearly 150 jobs in the small Sampson County town where the clothing maker is the largest employer.

The factory was the only one making the brand’s famous Oxford cloth button-down shirts left in the United States. It also announced a further two other factory closures in Long Island City, N.Y. and Haverhill, Mass., with a total of 700 job losses and the remainder of its “Made in USA” production facilities.

A spokesperson said in May, 2020: “It is likely that we will be closing our factories in Long Island City, N.Y.; Garland, N.C., and Haverhill, Mass. The factories are incredibly meaningful to our heritage and we value our employees. All opportunities on the table are still being explored to avoid this difficult outcome.”

Despite being part of the huge LVMH group, Pink Shirtmaker, the recent rebrand of Thomas Pink, announced the closure of its London flagship on the Jermyn Street after footfall continued to stall after the lifting of lockdown.

It re-opened its store when Government guidelines permitted on 15 June but has since decided to close it permanently. 

Sadly, it probably won’t be the last. As the furlough scheme is wound down, many men’s formalwear businesses will need a radical uptick in footfall and sales if they are to sustain themselves on one of London’s premier streets. As leases need renewing, many will be thinking twice as the business shirt is the crux on which other sales also rely upon. You’re not going to buy a tie if you’re not wearing a shirt.

Jermyn Street: is its character under threat?

What was once a thriving and robust category, the men’s business shirt was the last thread holding the venerable formal menswear sector together. While the neck tie and traditional suit may well have been made redundant, some time ago, the business shirt was still flourishing until COVID-19 relegated every office worker to working from their spare room.

Without the daily West End hedge funders and tourists, Jermyn Street’s character and importance could be under jeopardy. Jermyn Street is bigger than a single street, it is a description of traditional British menswear rooted in history and centuries of menswear evolution, and represents the entire segment.

If WFH becomes the new norm, what hope is there for the business shirt category and its associated brands? Will this be a temporary blip or will this have devastating consequences for both Jermyn Street and the entire formal menswear industry?

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