Now that pandemic-era attire is passe, professional men I talk to are puzzled about what to wear to work.
To address the question, I met with Justin Berkowitz, the Men’s Fashion Director at Bloomingdale’s and separately with Louis DiGiacomo, the Senior Vice President of Men’s at Saks. Each of them walked me around their store to explain their thinking on how professional men should dress for work now.
The Words They Use
One word kept coming up in both conversations: “elevated.” That can mean a lot of things but it doesn’t mean sweatpants. Both said that an important component of elevated is some kind of jacket that, Berkowitz of Bloomingdale’s said, makes clothes look “finished.” Both of them used the word “polished” to describe the effect of a jacket on a man going to work.
But a blazer isn’t necessary every day. Berkowitz said, “elevated sweaters, bomber jackets or overshirts also work” to provide that elevated look. What makes them elevated? They both said, “texture.” DiGiacomo of Saks said that coming out of the pandemic, men want “functionality, comfort, elevation, sophistication.”
How can a jacket work when it’s hot and humid? “Linen and linen blends” (linen/silk, linen/cotton) “also work,” DiGiacomo said.
He added that “what’s under your sport coat” is important too, and that “texture” also applied to shirts. Polo shirts can be appropriate for work with a jacket but not the all-cotton variety from the 80s. What works now is polos made of blends like cotton/silk or cotton/cashmere. DiGiacomo said that crew necks can also work if they are “fine gauge”.
I suggested to DiGiacomo that “texture” and “elevated” are cousins and he agreed.
The other thing they both talked about is “flexibility.” Work clothes are now evening clothes and weekend clothes. Men don’t want or need multiple wardrobes for different functions, one outfit should be sufficient for multiple uses. That was not true pre-pandemic, DiGiacomo said.
About pants, Berkowitz of Bloomingdale’s said, “skinny is moving away” but bringing back your pants from the 90s and the early aughts won’t work because “most men look best in slim, but not skinny, with a slight taper,” which is not what those older pants were.
Elastic waists (yay!) with hidden or visible drawstrings are very popular in tropical wools or performance fabrics (”performance” includes durable, lightweight, moisture-wicking, mold-resistant, stain-resistant, thermoregulating, breathable, stretchable). Performance fabrics are now in all kinds of garments that can be appropriate for work, including shirts and jackets.
Five-pocket pants (pants that are cut the way jeans are cut) are often now made in better fabrics and are more appropriate for work based on their new, “elevated” fabrications, as in the image below.
In general, loafers have won out for work although traditional lace-up dress shoes have been trending in the last eight months.
Both Berkowitz and DiGiacomo raised the subject of Chelsea Boots (ankle high boots with goring on the side, below) and said they are trending and go with anything.
Both Berkowitz and DiGiacomo use the word “classic” when they mentioned one type of footwear: the white sneaker. They both say that a sneaker, especially a white one, with a clean, profile (no decoration) is appropriate for professional men. Berkowitz says, “you can take traditional products and pair them with some new,” like a white sneaker, “to make traditional things you own work now.”
When they talked about using clothes already in men’s closets, I asked about using old suit jackets as a sport coat. It’s hard to describe the restrained look of horror they both had.
“Suit jackets are a flatter finish and don’t look right as blazers,” Berkowitz told me. “Sport coats pair with pants better than a suit jacket will,” he said.
DiGiacomo said blazers now are “unstructured,” Berkowitz called them “softer,” with more textured fabrics than in the past but without sharp angles on the shoulder and often with no lining. Those are great for work.
Zegna, Ralph Lauren, Theory, Boss, Canali, Dior, Fendi, Celine are brands that either Berkowitz or DiGiacomo said are doing a good job adapting to what men want now.
These high end brands inevitably raise the question of price. Not every man is willing or able to pay their prices. Berkowitz said, “Price is made of three things: construction, material and brand. Consumers have to decide what each of those things are worth to them.” DiGiacomo said, “It doesn’t have to be silk and cashmere, it can be silk and cotton or silk and wool,” and he emphasized that the Saks store brand is less expensive and “looks just as good.” He also suggested to certain pieces can be more “versatile” and “essential” because they can be worn “over and over.”
One of the ways these brands are doing a good job, DiGiacomo said, is by “experimenting with color.” It’s not that men should go from gray or black to bright orange or green but to change more subtly, with different shades of the colors they used to wear or quieter, “dustier” shades of new colors.
Referring to what professional men wear to work, Berkowitz said, “for a long time, men wore a uniform but the idea of it has gone away.” Now it’s more about individual identity and that is more complicated than wearing any suit with any shirt and any tie in the closet.
About change, Berkowitz said, “don’t change wholesale,” use “building blocks” of your old styles with new things. DiGiacomo said his general advice is to “be more adventurous,” and he adds that accessories like belts and socks are ways of doing that too.
The Final Expert
After speaking with Saks and Bloomingdale’s, I put the question to what is perhaps the most discussed expert in the world right now, ChatGPT. Its answers were not as specific or knowledgeable as DiGiacomo and Berkowitz but still useful as a guideline.
- Dress to impress. It’s always better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed in a professional setting.
- Consider the environment. A more casual dress code may be acceptable in a creative or startup environment, while a conservative industry such as law or finance may require more formal attire.
- Pay attention to personal hygiene and grooming which are important factors in maintaining a professional appearance.
- Dress for the occasion. Meetings with clients, interviews, or business trips may be times to dress more formally than usual.
- Remember that you are still in a professional setting. Avoid shorts, sandals, or graphic t-shirts.
It concluded by saying, “These keys will help establish a positive impression with colleagues, clients, and superiors.”
Even a computer knows.