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.
“If there’s one thing you can’t do at home, it’s measure people for suits,” says Cundey, who has worked for his family firm, Henry Poole & Co, tailors on Savile Row in London since his early 20s. “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, as we chat on leather sofas in front of a roaring log fire in the shop, surrounded by 48 framed warrants from the royal family and 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. But there are not as many as before the pandemic, and fewer than before the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a story repeated up and down “the row”, and at other tailors across the country, as well as high street retailers from Marks & Spencer to Reiss, and online companies from Mr Porter to 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 in the ONS basket with a “formal jacket or blazer”.
Nick Paget, a senior menswear editor and “trends forecaster” at the consumer analytics firm WGSN, says “many men have simply fallen out of love with suits, if they ever did love them”.
Paget, who has worked in menswear for more than 20 years, says suits were on the wane long before the pandemic, with dress-down Fridays slowly chipping away at office formality. “But 18 months of slouching around the house in joggers and a hoodie has definitely sped it up,” he says, adding that people just need suits less than they once did.
“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.”
Men, Paget says, are now unafraid to tell their bosses what they want 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 says. “Personally, I hate wearing a collared shirt, and I know I’m not alone.”
Figures from the market research firm Kantar Worldpanel back him up. It found that spending on men’s suits collapsed from £460m in 2017 to £157m in 2020, before recovering slightly to £279m last year. The suit is being replaced, Paget says, not with working from home outfits of joggers, jeans or hoodies but with “chore jackets”.
Asked to explain, he says: “It’s in the name really.” They are jackets first designed for tradesmen to wear for handiwork, painting or plumbing. Originating in late 1800s France, where they were worn by farm workers and labourers, the jackets were dubbed “bleu de travail” or “worker’s blues” for their deep shade of indigo.
“Workwear staples that are comfortable and practical have been elevated to office attire, particularly in the creative industries,” Paget says. “The fabrics and detailing have been improved on, but fundamentally they are clothes that an old-school plumber would have worn.”
M&S, which has cut the number of stores selling suits to 110 out of its 245 larger locations, has credited the workwear trend with helping it return to profit on a half-year basis.
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%. As a result, the company is switching to focus on “separates” – suit trousers and jackets sold separately so they can be mixed and matched with less formal clothes.
“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, the best-known Savile Row tailor, which dates back to 1771, could soon disappear altogether. Trinity Group, the Chinese owner, collapsed into liquidation earlier this year after failing to find a buyer for the tailor.
Like most on the row, Gieves & Hawkes started out selling military uniforms to army officers. It operates out of No 1 Savile Row, the previous home of the Royal Geographical Society and is by far the biggest shop on the street. Under Chinese ownership, the company has expanded to 58 shops in 25 cities, which experts say may be the reason it has been hard to sell. “The ubiquity has diminished the exclusivity somewhat,” Paget says.
Gieves & Hawkes is not the only struggling tailor. Hardy Amies, the firm founded by Sir Edwin Hardy Amies in 1946 and which specialised 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.
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 says people are demanding clothes “work harder” for them. “They don’t want to spend money buying something just for the office,” he says. “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.”
On Black Friday in the UK, suits were the most heavily discounted items, with 54% of all tailoring marked down, according to WGSN Instock data.
At Henry Poole, Cundey thinks society is about to go through a mass “smartening up period” that will filter down across all walks of life as we return to life as it was pre-pandemic. “It’s like the great beast waking from a slumber,” he says. “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 says. “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.”
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 says. “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.”
Wearing the wrong suit, Cundey says, is worse than not wearing one at all. “Remember when [Mark] Zuckerberg of Facebook got hauled up before Congress?” Cundey says. “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 a suit every day, has a view on just about every famous man and his wardrobe. Critiquing Boris Johnson, he says, is too easy but he gives it a go 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, on the other hand, is praised for always looking “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 says, “but they don’t let me down.”