Simon Cundey’s family have been tailor-making men’s suits for seven generations, taking 37 measurements from every customer through the Great Depression and two world wars. The tailor’s arsenal of chalk, scissors and thread were put to work every weekday since the company was founded in 1806, until March 2020 when the government ordered almost everyone to work from home.
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“If there’s one thing you can’t do at home, it’s measure people for suits,”Cundey, who worked for Henry Poole & Co in London’s Savile Row since his early 20s, says that he has been tailoring for the family firm since then. “The pandemic is, by far, the worst crisis the business has ever faced. It is far worse than the Great Depression or the wars ever were.
“In wartime, the allied forces were here so we made uniforms for Americans and Canadians, and we could still see customers face-to-face,”He says this as we sit on leather sofas next to a roaring log fireplace in the shop, surrounded with 48 framed warrants from other world leaders.
Post lockdown, Cundey and his team of cutters, undercutters, trouser-, jacket- and waistcoat-makers are back at work at 15 Savile Row – the street known the world over as the home of the finest bespoke menswear – and customers are coming back through the doors. There are fewer people than before the pandemic and fewer than before 2008’s financial crisis. It’s a story repeated up and down “the row”, and at other tailors throughout the country, as well high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Reiss, as well online companies such as Mr Porter and Asos.
Declarations of falling popularity don’t come much more authoritative than from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which last month removed suits from the basket of goods it uses to calculate the annual inflation rate. The government’s statistics agency said suits, which had been in the basket every year since 1947, were not bought often enough to make it into the basket of 733 representative goods and services selected to measure the UK’s cost of living. They have been replaced with a “formal jacket or blazer”.
Inside Gieves & Hawkes, Savile Row London.Photograph by Adrian Lourie/Alamy
Nick Paget is a senior editor for menswear. “trends forecaster”WGSN is a consumer analytics company that specializes in data and analysis. “many men have simply fallen out of love with suits, if they ever did love them”.
Paget, who has been in menswear for more 20 years, says that suits were on a decline long before the pandemic. Fridays are now dress-down, and the office is slowly losing its formality. “But 18 months of slouching around the house in joggers and a hoodie has definitely sped it up,”He says that people need less suits than they used to.
“When a guy used to have to wear a suit to work, it wasn’t just one. He would have a number of suits on rotation and at the cleaners.”
Paget states that men are no longer afraid to tell their bosses what clothes they like to wear to work. “I expect that as part of the deal to go back to work, people will be expected to wear formal suits less,”He said. “Personally, I hate wearing a collared shirt, and I know I’m not alone.”
Kantar Worldpanel, a market research firm, supports him. It found that spending on men’s suits collapsed from £460m in 2017 to £157m in 2020, before recovering slightly to £279m last year. Paget states that the suit is being replaced not with work-from-home outfits such as joggers, jeans, or hoodies, but with a suit. “chore jackets”.
When asked to explain, he replied: “It’s in the name really.”These jackets were originally designed for tradesmen who needed to wear them for plumbing, painting, and handiwork. The jackets were first worn by farmers and labourers in France in the late 1800s. “bleu de travail”Or “worker’s blues”Because of their deep indigo color.
“Workwear staples that are comfortable and practical have been elevated to office attire, particularly in the creative industries,”Paget said. “The fabrics and detailing have been improved on, but fundamentally they are clothes that an old-school plumber would have worn.”
M&S has reduced the number of stores that sell suits to 110 of its 245 larger locations. This has been credited to the workwear trend for helping it return to profit in half-years.
Wes Taylor, M&S’s director of menswear, says the suit has been declining since at least 2019, when the market for them dropped 7%. The company has decided to shift its focus on “separates” – suit trousers and jackets sold separately so they can be mixed and matched with less formal clothes.
Henry Poole & Co, the family firm founded by Simon Cundey on Savile Row. Photograph: Roger Hutchings/Corbis/Getty Images
“The pandemic hit fast-forward on the trend for more casual dressing – especially for the office, where, for many, chinos and a shirt is the new uniform,” Taylor says.
Gieves & Hawkes is the most famous Savile Row tailor and dates back as far as 1771. It could soon go extinct. After failing to find a buyer, Trinity Group, the Chinese owner of the tailor, went into liquidation earlier in the year.
Gieves & Hawkes, like many others on the row started selling military uniforms for army officers. It is located in No 1 Savile Row which was once the home of Royal Geographical Society. It is the largest shop on the street. Experts speculate that the company’s Chinese ownership has allowed it to expand to 58 shops across 25 cities. “The ubiquity has diminished the exclusivity somewhat,”Paget said.
Carrier Company’s Norfolk work jacket.Photograph by Andy Hook/Courtesy Carrier Company
Gieves & Hawkes wasn’t the only one in trouble. Hardy Amies, a 1946 firm founded by Sir Edwin Hardy Amies that specialized in suits for British Olympians collapsed in 2019. Thomas Pink, the City shirtmaker, collapsed in 2020 before it was bought from the previous owner, the luxury conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) by the former JD Sports executive Nick Preston.
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Andy Saxton, strategic insight director for fashion at Kantar, doesn’t expect the market for office suits to recover but reckons people are more willing than ever to spend money on suits for weddings and parties. “Casualisation has been growing for quite some years now,” he says– while wearing a navy jumper with dark jeans. “The suits market is down 40% in five years, I don’t think that is ever coming back to that level. But I do feel there are huge opportunities for dressing-up for celebrations – I feel like everyone is going to go very big on weddings.”
Saxton claims that people are looking for clothes “work harder”For them. “They don’t want to spend money buying something just for the office,”He said. “They want their clothes to have flexibility and a multipurpose nature: ‘Yes, I can wear it to work, but I could also wear it out on a night out with my mates.’ It’s now all about blurring the boundaries between work and life.”
According to WGSN Instock data, suits were the most heavily discounted item on Black Friday in the UK. 54% of all tailoring was marked down.
Cundey, Henry Poole believes that society is about to undergo a mass transformation. “smartening up period”As we return to pre-pandemic life, that will be felt in all walks of our lives. “It’s like the great beast waking from a slumber,”He said. “As people go back to work and engage socially again, they will remember why they need to be smart.
“Soon there will be Ascot and Wimbledon, of course,”He said. “But for everyone, there’s always a point where you have to dress to a certain degree.
“When your wife or partner dresses up and you come out in a hoodie and a pair of jogging pants, you have to ask yourself, would they be happy with you? The answer is no, of course.”
Henry Poole & Co, Savile Row: An apprentice coatmakerPhotograph: RJT Photography/Alamy
Cundey reckons the reason many young men don’t like suits is because they have been wearing the wrong size. “Lots of people say they hate wearing suits, but that’s probably because they were forced to wear an ill-fitting one at school,”He said. “I’d hate wearing them, too, if they didn’t fit. The No 1 rule is you shouldn’t feel a suit. It should be natural, there should be no tightness and no looseness.”
Cundey states that wearing the wrong suit is worse than not wearing it at all. “Remember when [Mark] Zuckerberg of Facebook got hauled up before Congress?”Cundey said. “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 suits every day, has a view of just about every famous man’s wardrobe. He says that criticizing Boris Johnson is too easy, but he gives it his best shot anyway. “Obviously, there could be a better look for Johnson – his suits are far too big. But really, it comes down to mentality and how you carry yourself. Some people get it, some people don’t.”
Rishi Sunak (the chancellor) is praised for being always open to new ideas. “slim and trim”But “perhaps his suits are a little on the small side”.
Cundey’s sons – Henry (who is nicknamed Henry VIII, as he is the eighth generation since the original Henry Poole) and Jamie – are expected to carry on the family tailoring tradition, but even they don’t wear suits every day, Cundey finally concedes.
“They are smart casual,”He said, “but they don’t let me down.”