The suit is not dead. The question is, what role does it play in a customer’s wardrobe, and, therefore, how is it treated by brands and retailers?
Even if that office staple of yesteryear was already diminished by the rise of more-casual looks and is now utterly lost in the work from home closet, there is a post-COVID-19 life for foundational tailored clothing.
The function of the suit is changing and — along with all of the other changes sweeping through the industry — presents opportunities for brands willing to change and retailers ready to change with them.
The suit in American life is now a special occasion business. That occasion may be a wedding, but going forward, it may also be a business meeting. There is little doubt that the convenience we have discovered in virtual meetings will not be completely discarded and in-person meetings will be reserved for more meaningful occasions.
So how does retail solve this problem when so many businesses are reliant on a tailored business? Initially, I think we have to address the bifurcated nature of the customer. There is the guy who needs one or two good suits for meetings, weddings, funerals, etc., and then there is the enthusiast who has multiple suits in his closet for a variety of reasons. For the basic customer, it’s going to be important to provide an interesting selection of separates and to make it easy for him to get the right fit with minimal alterations.
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Price point and performance are two other key elements we need to consider. Every product in your store needs to be able to tell a story, and that story needs to be some combination of price, performance and style. The suit business has not been as susceptible to disruption as other categories because of the fit complications and need for basic alterations; however, it is not immune to the disruption caused by a convenience/value proposition model and that has to be taken into consideration for our opening price points.
There is also an opportunity for a more robust tuxedo and dinner jacket presentation as differentiation for these special occasions that are more ceremonial becomes important. There will be renewed demand for formal options as we go back to a world of weddings and parties that has been absent the last year. If people aren’t wearing suits to work, they will want to dress up for the things we get together to celebrate, and they will want to look different than the person sitting next to them.
The enthusiast customer needs to be addressed with a personalized made-to-measure program. We can win this customer with a wide selection of fabrics, customizable options, and, most importantly, time of delivery. There will have to be a more coordinated partnership with manufacturers on how to cut the traditional delivery time of four-to-eight weeks in half. All of these factors will change how and what retailers should hold in inventory and their open to buy. The day of hanging dozens or hundreds of nested sleeves are over.
When I launched Strong Suit in 2014, I did it the same way most wholesale brands had been launched to that point. I put samples in my car and drove all over the country to explain my point of view to specialty stores. I set up booths in New York at the trade shows hoping the right store would walk in and see the potential of what I was trying to do. The logic then was that as a new brand I needed to leverage the credibility and the customers of established retailers. That dynamic has totally changed as the most interesting and dynamic brands are d-to-c brands and the department store experience has become stale and inconvenient. It is now brick-and-mortar stores that need to leverage the enthusiasm and innovation of the d-to-c brands.
The hardest lift in retail today is getting a new customer to walk through your front door. Strategic partnerships between established retailers and d-to-c brands are going to be critical for brick-and-mortar survival. This is especially true for department stores. They will need these partnerships more than the established d-to-c brands so these partnerships will need to be overly advantageous to those d-to-c brands. Stores should be aggressive in identifying potential partnerships with acorn brands for whom they can provide value in the early development of a brand’s growth cycle and strategy. Retailers also need to get back to the idea of narrative. Every significant d-to-c brand has two components: a value proposition and a strong narrative. Salespeople sell by telling stories. Give them a story to tell.
Department stores have innovated with high-quality private label brands for years, but they left the importance of the story behind. Most private labels only market within the four walls of the store they live in, but that won’t bring new customers in the door. D-to-c brands have used the megaphone of social media to tell their stories while stores have largely relied on the brands they carry to tell their own stories and hope the value transfers to them. This has proven not to be the case as brands have been able to capitalize on these direct relationships. More and more are realizing that brick-and-mortar retail, with the headaches of driving to a mall or store for customers and all of the traditional obligations brands must meet in the wholesale relationship, is often more of a hurdle to selling their products than a benefit.
The key takeaway is: If you own a business that has four walls, focus on the experience that you provide. That is why your customers come to you. But do not turn your back on convenience. If there is a way for you to take your business to your customer, do it, because if you can’t, I promise, someone else will.
Jamie Davidson is the founder and creative director for Normandy & Monroe, Tre Vero, and Strong Suit Clothing. Jamie sold Strong Suit to Oxford industries in March 2017. Jamie is currently the president of Davidson Design and Tic Toc Automotive.
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