San Francisco Chronicle
July 21, 2001
By George Raine
Business Section

Suiting The Public

Menswear manufacturers, retailers hope business casual has had its day

Did the business casual attire trend have its beginnings in 1986 when Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the Dockers brand? Perhaps. Or was it circa 1960 when the men of Arthur Andersen Co., who were required to wear hats, were told it was no longer mandatory that hats be worn but they still must be carried. Whatever the origin, business casual has changed the look of the American workplace, and the purveyors of more formal men's attire have had just about enough of it. "Casual Friday has crept into Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday," said Richard Goldman, executive vice president of the Men's Warehouse.

The Men's Warehouse, based in Fremont, has joined an alliance of apparel manufacturers and retailers to fund a public relations campaign with a formidable task. It's to "uphold, or better yet, return to the standard of dressing well," said James Ammeen, of Neema Clothing Ltd., a New York men's clothing manufacturer.

The short history of the group, the Men's Apparel Alliance, exemplifies its predicament. Goldman's original plan a year ago was to try to raise $15 million from industry colleagues -- the Men's Warehouse pledged another $5 million -- for an extensive advertising campaign to entice men to buy a suit, buy a tie -- anything other than that ubiquitous golf shirt.

The campaign was produced, by the San Francisco creative shop Red Ball Tiger Co., but there was no money to buy air time or print space. "Of course, things are not good all around and we could not get commitments" for the ad campaign, said Goldman. In fact, the alliance fell $19.8 million short of its goal and is making do with a mailing of press releases.

"Tailored clothing sales have gone down for several years, and what we're trying to do is talk to men and say what you wear is important and you need to dress for the occasion," said Goldman.

It's tough sledding in retail. The Men's Warehouse reported July 12 that sales for its stores that have been open for a year or longer decreased 6.9 percent for the five weeks ended July 7, compared with a 6.9 increase for the same period in 2000.

The Men's Apparel Alliance will also be placing brochures with fashion advice at men's stores, such as this: "The angular form and clean lines of the classic suit make it a businesswear option calculated to represent authority and command respect. Softly tailored dress sends a message -- approachable and receptive."

The idea is to plant the suggestion that the suit is back and men would be wise to maintain a "situation-appropriate" style of dress.

There's some truth to the suit's return but only a modicum, said Bert Hand, the chairman and chief executive officer of Hartmarx Corp. in Chicago, the nation's largest provider of tailored suits, sport coats and dress slacks.

Hartmarx this summer is booking advance orders for spring 2002, and they are even or slightly ahead of those of a year ago, said Hand. "That is a different trend than we have experienced the last four seasons, which were in decline," he said.

"There is not a dramatic increase in sales yet, because sales in general are very soft," said Hand.

He added, "Clearly the tide has changed. I just can't say whether it's an ebb tide. At the same time, nobody today has benefited from business casual, manufacturers or retailers. The consumer is very confused about what to do."

There's also a modicum of statistical support for making the case that men are getting more dressed up.

The Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association in Alexandria, Va., found in an annual benefits survey of its members that in 1992, 24 percent of their organizations allowed some form of casual dress, either daily or once a week. The number grew to 71 percent in 1995 and to 95 percent in 1999, but fell back to 87 percent in 2000, said Kristin Bowl, a spokeswoman.

She thinks the slight decline is attributable to some confusion at the office over what constitutes business casual and when it's appropriate. "Employers have differing understanding of what is appropriate. There needs to be a written policy. And I think some workers slipped into something that was more sloppy than casual. Employers put a stop to that," she said.

Sherry Maysonave, a writer who chronicled business casual in her book "Casual Power," said the men's apparel forces are benefiting from "the demise of the dot-coms and the downturn in the economy, as men get into suits to look for work." She added, "People are taking business a little more serious now."

Nevertheless, business casual is a powerful retention tool and valuable benefit, as David Etheridge, a partner in the San Francisco office of Arthur Andersen LLP, the professional services firm, can attest.

"We adopted a business casual dress policy because it was clear to us that young professionals want a more casual business atmosphere, and if we were going to recruit the best and the brightest -- our goal -- we have to comply with what everyone wants," said Etheridge.

Casual does not mean athletic at Arthur Andersen -- the code is pressed, professional looking clothes -- and what is acceptable is made clear to new employees, said Etheridge, 41, himself a suit wearer until three years ago.

"It might be true in certain places the suit is back, but we have enjoyed the flexibility of the business casual approach," he said.

Suits, however, have reappeared at several offices of Korn/Ferry International, the recruiting firm, where business casual had been adopted, said Dan Margolis, a company spokesman in Los Angeles.

"An internal memo was sent out in January advising that offices that had adopted business casual policies would revert back to traditional business wear," said Margolis. "That is because we are in line with our clients, and we noted that more and more our clients were going back to traditional wear. If we're in a meeting with a client we want to wear what the client is wearing," he said.

The exception to the Korn/Ferry rule: Its Redwood Shores office, where khakis still rule.

As with most debates, there are surveys aplenty:

The Men's Apparel Alliance points to a survey from the national employment law firm of Jackson Lewis that concluded that while 40 percent of human resources executives surveyed saw an increase in productivity after permitting dress-down days, relaxed attire can result in an overall laxness in workplace behavior. Jackson Lewis found that 44 percent of those surveyed noticed an increase in tardiness and absenteeism and 30 percent reported a rise in flirtatious behavior.

Then there's this from Levi Strauss: A survey of 1,000 office workers for Levi by Lieberman Research Worldwide found that 78 percent believe business casual is here to stay, and 48 percent said they feel more camaraderie with their managers and co-workers with a business casual policy.

"This is no longer a trend, because business casual has completely shifted to commonplace," said John Ordona, a spokesman for Dockers. "It's impossible to reverse."

It stuck, he said, because "it's a morale factor, a comfort factor, and it allows people the option and freedom to dress the way they see fit according to their plans for the business day."

Levi Strauss has taken the Dockers brand one step further, introducing the "Mobile" pant that features "invisible" storage pockets for carrying hi-tech gadgets. "People drive around in their offices these days," said Ordona.

Said Goldman of the Men's Warehouse: "What it comes down to is dressing appropriately for the occasion. There has to be some logic in the workplace. We're just asking men to stop and think about what they are wearing when. But, yes, our business is, quite frankly, tough."

(Copyright 2001, San Francisco Chronicle)

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