Essays - Issue 103 - Magazine | Monocle

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Essay 1: Survival of the fittest

H&M may be losing ground to cheaper competitors but it’s not taking it lying down. The high-street heavyweight is about to unleash its newest – and most unusual – beast.

You need to be a super-fit and fast-to-react brand to survive on the modern high street. Consumers are a fickle bunch and purchasing no longer demands that they pound the pavement. Just ask H&M, which has been having a tough run of late, posting slowing profits as it loses territory to the cheaper Primark and the quicker, more reflexive Inditex, owner of Zara and king of fast fashion.

But the Swedish conglomerate has a plan. It has announced that by late summer or autumn it will launch Arket, a more upscale label with offerings for men, women and children. More interesting, however, is the set-up of the Arket shops (the first of which will be on Regent Street in London, followed by Copenhagen, Munich and Brussels). As well as minimalistic own-brand clothing, they will house a Nordic-style café, homeware and items from other fashion labels with a similarly sleek aesthetic. “The idea is to collect everything under one roof,” says Arket’s managing director Lars Axelsson. He is calling the flagship a “modern-day market”, though “mini department store” or “high-street concept store” would be equally apt.

What to make of this move? H&M, like Inditex and Uniqlo, has continually diversified its portfolio, adding brands that are more expensive (Cos and now, in a slightly lower bracket, Arket), sophisticated (& Other Stories) and jazzy (Monki) to its low-cost H&M label, as well as branching out into furnishings. Yet a multibrand, multidiscriplinary shop such as Arket is a first for any of these mass-market giants. Could this elaborate bricks-and-mortar arrangement be the blueprint for all future high-street flagships?

Many in the industry are calling it a canny – and logical – move to woo today’s ever-more-fussy shoppers. For starters, despite cries to the contrary, investing in bricks-and-mortar stores still makes sense. “Physical stores account for 85 per cent of global fashion sales,” says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. “They are still a hugely important retail channel.”

Yet the rise of online has narrowed their role. We will visit them, yes, but only if the shopping experience is good enough to justify putting away the laptop and getting off the couch; the mere act of purchasing is not enough. “Online has taken over the role of transactional shopping,” confirms Kissane. The pressure is on, then, for retailers around Arket’s Regent Street neighbourhood to up their game too.

These retailers must walk a tightrope, though. Shops must entice with well-presented and plentiful offerings without falling into department-store territory – a space that even the best players struggle to finesse (Macy’s, JCPenney and Kohl’s among others have waved goodbye to hundreds of outposts in recent months).

Arket will avoid that fate because, as a shrunken version of a department store, its offerings will be more focused. It has a distinctive point of view: everything is woven around the idea of Scandi chic, the siren of urbanites across the western world. This extends from the branding (crisp black text against a white background, rather reminiscent of Finnish design house Artek – how do you say lawsuit in Suomi?) to the other brands that it stocks: clean-cut trainers from Veja and sculptural Peugeot pepper mills (even if these brands are not Scandinavian, they fit the aesthetic).

The addition of other brands is perhaps the most surprising – and savvy – element of the whole enterprise (although we have seen this tried by J Crew). “Including third-party labels is not something you’d expect from a big brand because the edge you get from selling your own brand is that you dictate your margins,” says Kissane. Bringing in wholesale goes directly against the industry thrust towards online, direct-to-consumer retail. But, for a bricks-and-mortar shop, it adds a crucial additional pull factor. “I think it’s strategically clever,” adds Kissane.

As is adding cafés serving healthy “new Nordic cuisine”. Food has a proven track record in luring customers into retail spaces: research firms have a separate category for “food service through retail” and, in real time, Ikea and its meatballs have proven that it doesn’t take much to get people spending an extra €10 to €15 per visit. Just as importantly, the particular type of food served at Arket hammers home the brand’s theme.

In the past decade the fashion, design and food industries have all been captivated by Scandinavian modernism and simplicity. And while fashion houses, design studios and restaurants from Stockholm and Copenhagen have thrived, few have thought to neatly package these products under one super-Scandi umbrella. Now that they are being combined and commercialised like never before, H&M may well claw back some ground from that pesky Inditex. If it is a last-ditch attempt, it’s been very well thought out.

Why we like this:
It knits together H&M’s Regent Street outlets.
As firms such as Starbucks are starting to sell accessories, it makes sense for H&M to do this the other way round.
It follows luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry which are focusing on F&B developments.
It embraces the changing times as traditional zoning for fashion versus food is breaking down.
It allows H&M to test third-party brands in real time, thus acting as an M&A lab

Essay 2: The suit gets formal notice

As even big banks tell staff to ditch the suit, it’s a tough time for the two-piece. Does formalwear have a future?

Will the suit be extinct, relegated to the annals of fashion, in a generation’s time? It may be the traditional masculine uniform but some in the fashion business consider this a feasible thought. Just look around you: that trim twenty-something sporting a charcoal suit while sipping coffee looks undeniably dapper, as does an older gent on the Tube dressed in an inky-blue number and encircled by North Face windcheaters – but both men stick out like Bermuda shorts on a ski slope.

It was a similar sartorial story at recent fashion events. At menswear fair Pitti Uomo in January, Norwegian Rain co-founder Alexander Helle was a throwback to old-world glamour in his taupe three-piece. So too was Tom Ford when he took a bow after last season’s New York runway show in a classic black suit and tie. Both were beacons of formality in a sea of turtlenecks, deconstructed blazers and selvedge-denim jeans.

“Casualwear is the new frontier,” says Andrea Perrone, CEO at Brescia-based Boglioli, which is renowned for its relaxed blazers. “Men are shifting from formal to contemporary looks and are definitely wearing fewer ‘stiff’ suits.” His thoughts are echoed across Italy. At Milan Fashion Week in January, several tailoring brands were troubled by slumping suit sales at the hands of mix-and-match dressing: pairing an unstructured blazer with a shirt and chinos, or a T-shirt and jeans. Marco Pagani, brand director at Neapolitan tailor Orazio Luciano, is more forthcoming. “There has been a big change since 2010,” he says. “Suits have dropped to 20 per cent of our sales, while blazer sales have more than doubled.”

This contemporary style is epitomised in the looks of London menswear label E Tautz, with its billowing T-shirts tucked in to pleated trousers (tricky to pull off no matter how svelte your frame) or windowpane-checked blazers worn with jeans. According to Patrick Grant, owner of E Tautz and Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, it’s an aesthetic that has engulfed both work and off-duty attire. “For the most important meetings, men will wear a suit and a tie. But for other office-based stuff, the customers at E Tautz and Norton – who are among the most formally dressed men – wear cotton trousers, possibly jeans, with a poplin shirt and a blazer.” They don the same outfit at weekends, whether for long lunches or trips to the pub. “We sell more separates and fewer suits now. There is an unmistakable generational casualisation.”

Market statistics support this. According to Euromonitor, in the past decade combined suit sales in the US, the UK and Japan have plummeted by 25 per cent. The US has suffered a particularly drastic decline of 33 per cent. At Mintel, senior fashion analyst Tamara Sender confirms that “there has been a move away from formal suits towards separates. Men are increasingly dressing more casually.”

The two-piece has fallen a long way since achieving peak glitz in the 1980s, when a booming economy kicked corporate glamour into overdrive. Bankers, yuppies and “new economy” players such as property agents rose up the ranks in pinstripes and tomato-red braces. “The way you show you’ve made money is by emphatic tailoring,” says Chris Breward, professor of cultural history at the University of Edinburgh. “The suit is a symbol of affluence.”

Three decades on, moneymen have lost their sexiness and, as their official uniforms, suits have too. “The dream of being a banker doesn’t exist any more and no one else wears suits to work,” says Pagani. His conclusion? “We have a new social perspective.”

This new perspective is indebted to that new breed of entrepreneurs who have robbed bankers of their desirability crown: the technology crowd. “Now the dream is being an IT guy,” says Pagani. When taken to the extreme, that guy dresses like Mark Zuckerberg, who wears the same sort of grey T-shirt every day. “These people have had a big impact on dress,” says Benjamin Wild, a London-based fashion historian. “Steve Jobs was iconic in his roll-neck and jeans, making the point that ‘I am a powerful, influential guy’. Eschewing the suit suggests ‘I don’t need clothes to have this status’.”

Private members’ clubs such as Soho House have got in on the comfort-dressing action by banning suits and ties. Even the highest temples of finance have folded. Last year JP Morgan, the US’s largest bank, adopted “business casual” as its official dress code, following in the footsteps of industry giants General Electric and ibm. Counterintuitively then, casual dress – which we think of as “wear whatever you like” – has become strictly enforced. “If you are working in the digital sector the casual dress code is as strictly prescribed as the insistence on a suit and tie once was,” says Breward. It is, he says, “just another type of uniform”.

What then is the future of men’s formalwear? Many say that suits will never disappear and, given the enduring need for special-occasion outfits that is seeing ultra-luxury tailors such as Kiton post healthy results, they likely have a point. Additionally monocle has observed instances around the world of tailors fighting back.

For most style-conscious men in most situations, however, Pagani sees luxury technical kit as the future. “I think the direction will be ‘upper sportswear’, which doesn’t look too sporty but is still casual,” he says. “It could be a blazer but it will be in a technical – maybe waterproof – fabric.” The creation he speaks of is perhaps what you’d get if you crossed the dapper navy suit of that man on the Tube with the hardy North Face parkas that surrounded him. We’d take that hybrid any day.

Suits in history

1800 English dandy Beau Brummell invents the suit when he rejects breeches in favour of dark tailcoats and tailored trousers.

1846 Henry Poole & Co sets up shop on Savile Row in Mayfair. The term “bespoke” is used when a suit has “been spoken for” by a client.

1850s The first sack – or lounge – suits appear in the UK and the US but are donned only for holiday trips.

1860 Henry Poole & Co invents the tuxedo when it creates a silk smoking jacket for the Prince of Wales.

1930s The sack suit is now standard business attire for all men except bankers, professors and morticians, who still dress formally in black knee-length frock coats.

1955 American author Sloan Wilson emphasises the ubiquity of the two-piece in his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

1970s Giorgio Armani deconstructs the suit, stripping it of bulky shoulder pads to create a slouchier shape.

Early 2000s Designer Thom Browne shrinks the suit, as does Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme; their skinny silhouettes reignite young men’s interest in tailoring.

Top tailors

Some suit stars have dodged the turndown and now have their finger on the – three-piece – button.

Saman Amel, Sweden

The up-and-comer

This Stockholm atelier doesn’t look like your average tailor. Inside a neat white room with taupe curtains, its 23-year-old founders, Saman Amel and Dag Granath, are surrounded by double-breasted blazers and crisp white shirts. “For our showroom and branding we look to high-fashion labels such as Céline,” says Granath. “We want to present something different from other tailors.”

Clothes-wise their point of difference is subtler. “Our style is Neapolitan insofar as it’s close to the body but our Scandinavian heritage is prevalent in the muted tones,” says Granath, adding that their pieces are handmade in Naples and Florence (with tweaks done in Stockholm). For the childhood friends, who set up the business in 2014, less is more. “We don’t want the outfit to scream for attention.”

Cesare Attolini, Italy

The Italian stalwart

This tailor has been helping gentlemen look sharp since the 1930s when Vincenzo Attolini created what is known as the Neapolitan jacket: deconstructing the heavier English style in favour of a sloping shoulder and no padding. In 1987 it opened a workshop in Naples, where today a staff of 130 handmake its designs. “These are difficult pieces to sew given how little structure is inside; you can fold one of our jackets eight times,” says Massimiliano Attolini, who runs the label with brother Giuseppe.

It exports 90 per cent of its wares, the majority made from UK and Italian fabrics, and this year it will open shops in Milan and Miami. “Well-dressed types flock to us later in life when they’ve become successful,” says Attolini. “It’s no surprise: Italy is synonymous with great style.”

Ring Jacket, Japan

The rejuvenated veteran

The seasoned Osaka suit-maker has become a big hit in the US and Europe of late with its relaxed, lightweight designs. It was founded in 1954 by Joichi Fukushima, who was adamant that ready-to-wear suits made in a factory could compete with the finest bespoke pieces.

Today Joichi’s son Kunichi employs about 45 craftsmen to make suits, jackets and shirts using English, Italian and Japanese fabrics. The label, which boasts six shops in Japan, takes design cues from Neapolitan tailoring but also looks to American and UK styles. “Our suits have similar details [to these tailors] but are not the same as any of them,” says creative manager Takeshi Okuno. “What is valued in Japan is that manufacturers are always trying new things – no matter how small.”

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