I recently read an interesting article that noted even in these challenging financial times, the sales of high end handbags – timeless and iconic styles rendered in exotic skins like crocodile – are in fact quite strong and by some accounts, growing.
According to industry analysts – and fairly clear to most people with a passing interest in sociology and economics – the women buying these expensive, sometimes very expensive, bags are making very deliberate long-term investments. The very opposite of the “It Bag,” these classically shaped and handcrafted bags bespeak luxury and class, often without a hint of a logo or brand name. They will be in style for a very long time, if not indefinitely; and that is key. This kind of accessory buying is a clear signal that consumers, at least moneyed consumers, are eying their pocketbooks. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that wealthy consumers are still spending, but across the board are focusing more on classic and less ostentatious fashion.
When things get rough out there, people tend to look inward and seek the comforts of the familiar and the traditional. Think of the home nesting boom that followed the brutal attacks of 9/11. By focusing on objects, places and styles that remind us of a safe and happy time, individually or collectively, we often find a common reference point at which to start again.
The classics do just that.
Today, with the near collapse of the world’s financial markets we face a similar psychic trauma. The economic crisis currently whacking people’s savings accounts across the globe is also affecting how, when and if people shop. Since the liquidity of everyday folk like you and me is not what it was even a few days ago, the investments we make in clothing and accessories take on greater importance. No longer buying to pass the time, people are looking at each purchase and asking about its long term staying power.
Back to the Classics
For example, if tomorrow I were to walk into the local haberdashery, which do you think I would go for: an of the moment skinny suit, skinny tie and schoolboy high-water trousers, or a more timeless cut that will carry me through a few years in style?
Put another way, in times of crisis we look to solid and trustworthy archetypes. After mixed results, institutions like law firms and financial services companies were some of the first to pull back on casual workday attire and the current crisis in confidence has the trend toward professional workplace dress accelerating.
When things are shaky in the world, the people handling our legal and financial security can’t just be competent, they better look competent too. We want to be reassured and comfortable with those who are supposed to serve or look after us – we need to see it.
In the simplest of terms, we want a suit. We want a briefcase and legal pad, a nice tie and polished shoes. These are the comforting images of stability, professionalism and classic, timeless style.
I suspect that we will be seeing a broader trend toward traditional work attire. It began about two years ago with the over-the-top preppy look driven by strong mid-market brands like J. Crew. That trend drew on the traditional New England seaside lifestyle, amped up with color and repp stripes as far as the eye could see.
Over the past few seasons, that trend has mellowed a bit and grown up, bringing with it more refined yet comfortable versions of traditional classics. Because classic styles and colors have the kind of staying power which can outlast most recessions, it is to those influences we turn when financial instability makes us reconsider the difference between “needs” and “wants.”
Retailers at every price point have indicated that menswear – meaning classic clothing with a capital “C” – will be a focal point for the coming seasons. Three piece suits – both gravitas inducing and functionally versatile – are starting to show up again. The blue blazer is getting a fresh round of appreciation as the go-to workhorse of many a wardrobe.
Basics, Basics, Basics
So, what does all this mean to you? I think, like the real estate mantra “location, location, location,” that the menswear mantra should be “basics, basics, basics.” Take the time and effort to build up the basics of a long-term wardrobe and it will pay you dividends.
The Grey Suit (in this case, Zegna)
So, before you rush off and drop a few weeks’ pay for some fancy Canali peak lapelled mauve and blue windowpane suit, make sure you already have at least one go-anywhere single breasted, two-button, notched lapel, medium grey suit in a nice three season weight – 120s is good. That suit will take you from first interview to cocktail hour with the CEO and back again.
And the rule of investing applies here too: always buy the best you can afford. Good clothing is an investment and should be treated as such. Continuing with the financial metaphor, the next step is asset allocation.
In addition to your core grey suit, get yourself a good stock of basic button down collar shirts in white and blue, maybe a pink one. The button down collar brings the shirt’s formality down just enough to allow it to work well with a suit or a blazer, tie or no tie.
Pinpoint dress shirts with barrel cuffs and point collars are a good choice too, though they are best suited for more formal outfits. Get a couple of French cuff shirts as a dressy option. Tailored khakis will cover most light business casual situations and a good pair of trim grey flannels will probably wear out before they are ever out of style.
Buying the best you can afford is never truer than when speaking about footwear. Good shoes will last you years, decades even. While there are several excellent style options when it comes to dress shoes, cap toes are a safe first choice. Formal enough for a suit when a heavier soled design is chosen, they can work equally as well with tailored separates. As an added benefit, black cap toes can be buffed to a high gloss and be paired with a dinner jacket. Add some wingtips, loafers and a pair of casual leather lug soled shoes to the closet and you have most of your footwear bases covered.
See what I mean? Basics; but basics that are well chosen, pull multiple duty and are of the best quality you can afford. With these essentials in your wardrobe you can ride out the swings of fortune secure in the knowledge that at least you will always be well turned out.
Having the classics taken care of also allows you the flexibility to play a bit with interesting ties or alternative shirts, unique cuff links, fancy socks or funky pocket squares. By investing in quality core clothing – and by no means was this an exhaustive list – you are building a stable base from which you can launch the occasional foray into trends and new styles while never losing your ability to show up looking sharp.