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The Boston Globe

Men suit up for a competitive edge

Casual Fridays are out, dress codes are in, as the job market recovers

By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 9/19/04

When Jason Katsohis heard that men were wearing suits to work again, he wasn' t surprised. He's seen the trend firsthand.

Katsohis, a staffing specialist at Professional Staffing Group, an employee placement agency in Boston, interviews and then matches candidates to jobs. He says fewer men are coming to the placement agency dressed in casual clothes these days. And most are more willing to don a suit for work than they were in the past.

''People still want to find a job that is the right niche,'' said Katsohis. ''But if the right niche requires that they dress professionally every day, then they are going out and buying suits.''

Blame it on the economy. With the nation's jobless rate falling to 5.4 percent in August, companies are beginning to hire again and workers are realizing that it takes more than a smashing résumé and great skills to successfully compete for the right job, say retail specialists.

Talk to fashion mavens and they maintain the suit never went out of style completely: From the classic look of Cary Grant to the hip-hop fashion statements of artists like Nelly, suits are still an elegant - and simple - way to dress.

''There is a cool factor to the suit,'' said Jim Moore, creative director at GQ Magazine in New York. ''When a guy has a great suit on, he gets compliments from people in the workplace.''

The resurgence of the men's business suit is certainly good for the retail business. Sales of men's tailored clothing increased 19 percent between January and June 2004, up from 11 percent in 2003, reports NPD Group, the New York market research firm.

Industry analysts attribute the change to factors ranging from the demise of casual Fridays at some US companies to a penchant for suits among viewers of such popular TV shows as ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.'' In addition, they say, the preppy look is also back along with pin-striped shirts, loafers, and other conservative attire.

Doug Ewert, executive vice president of merchandising for Houston-based Men's Wearhouse Inc., said a number of companies are instituting more formal dress codes in the workplace.

Photos / Columbia Pictures & VNU
Fashion specialists maintain that the suit never went out of style: From the classic look of Cary Grant to the hip-hop fashion statements of artists like Nelly, suitss are still an elegant -- simple -- way to dress.

''People took casual dress too far, with shorts and flipflops at work. But in this economy, things are tougher. People need to put on a more formal face, and their apparel plays a part in that. The change has been a plus for Men's Wearhouse. Earlier this month, the company reported net sales for the four weeks ended Aug. 28 were $96.5 million, up from $85 million during the period last year. The uptick represents a 13.5 percent increase over August 2003.

Men's Wearhouse is also projecting an increase in future sales.

An announcement on its Web page indicates the retailer expects fourth-quarter 2004 net sales to range from $441.7 to $449.7 million, an increase of approximately 4.5 percent to 6.4 percent.

Some analysts believe increased sales of men's suits and ties could be directly related to the fact that more employers are instituting dress codes these days.

At Professional Staffing Group, Fridays used to be reserved for casual attire. Not anymore, said Aaron Green, president of the firm.

''We have moved away from that,'' Green said. ''We decided that it was important to portray a professonal image five days a week and not just four.''

According to Green, last Friday marked the first time in eight years that workers at his company did not dress casually on the last day of the workweek.

John Macht, founder of The Macht Group, a retail consulting firm in Chestnut Hill, said the fact that men are buying suits again suggests that the economy is making a comeback.

''When the economy is off, menswear falls off more,'' said Macht. ''Men tend to defer those type of purchases more than women when the economy is down.''

Miltons, the Braintree menswear store, is fielding more inquiries from local companies who want the retailer to help their employees dress more appropriately, according to chief operating officer Bill Leva.

Leva said the hottest items at Miltons' three stores are Calvin Klein's suit separates. The separates allow men to quickly find their jacket and pants sizes right off the rack.

According to Leva, accessories like cuff links and pocket silks are also making a comeback.

Marcus Shanks, a salesman at Miltons in Braintree, can attest to that. More young and middle-aged men are buying suits because they want to return to a more professional, polished look, he said.

''People who wear suits stand out,'' commented Shanks, 21. ''If a guy goes to a job interview in a suit and his pants are pressed and he's got a nice tie, then he's more likely to get the job because he looks more accomplished.''

Many men thought casual dress at work would be liberating, according to Moore of GQ Magazine. Instead, some found themselves floundering as they struggled to find clothes that were appropriate for the office. Unsure of how to dress, they're choosing the suit again, he said.

''Casual Fridays sent men into a tailspin,'' said Moore. ''I would see guys in sweatpants or sneakers and ripped jeans and T-shirts.''

Retail and fashion specialists say that the suits and accessories men are buying today are different from those their older brothers and dads selected a decade ago. Suits are slimmer, less boxy, and the accessories are more dynamic. Bright ties are in, and so are bolder dress shirts.

''We're seeing more interesting dress shirts, with stripes and varied colors,'' said LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for Lord & Taylor. ''The clothes are not somber or cookie cutter.''

''They are more tailored and slim for the younger people,'' said Macht. ''This is also a reaction to not wanting to look sloppy. They don't want to look as if they are wearing their father's clothes.''

Paul Palandjian, president of the Intercontinental Real Estate Corp. and owner of the Nine Zero Hotel in Boston, said he's noticed that business travelers are dressing a lot more formally today than in the past.

''Clearly, there has been a swing back to more of a formal style of dress among business travellers,'' he said. ''People draw conclusions about another person's ability to manage and their virtue by virtue of the way they display themselves. So, in today's economy, suits are back.''

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at .

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