'Office Formal' Is a Perfect Fit for Low-Cost Clothiers

Last week, The New York Times joined a growing chorus of media outlets hailing the return of traditional office clothing. According to the Gray Lady, the new formality has a pretty strong generational breakdown: While baby boomers often saw office casual as a hard-won privilege, many of their children and grandchildren see the traditional work look as a rebellion of their own. For some retailers, on the other hand, it is one of the few bright spots in a brutal economic climate.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Over the past few years, three of the biggest influences on male fashion -- hip-hop artists, hipsters and Hollywood -- have been working to bring back formal men's clothing. From the hip-hop angle, P-Diddy's ultra-elegant men's fashion, Outkast's playfully dandified look and Kanye West's (possibly) ironic preppy togs all highlighted a growing move to bring back formal clothing.

On the other end of the spectrum, hipsters added a fresh (if ironic) fascination with cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses, vintage suits and thin-brimmed men's hats. In pop culture, Harry Potter and Gossip Girl reintroduced the wonders of prep school style, while TV's Mad Men showed that the sixties were about more than casual racism, misogyny and alcoholism. Right now, the trend's entertainment relevance seems to be hitting critical mass with Daniel Day-Lewis's Marcello Mastroianni imitation in Nine and Tom Ford's casual elegance in A Single Man.

Turtleneck Tuesdays and Thong Thursdays

As one of my twenty-something colleagues recently pointed out, the move toward office formality may be a reflection of the job market. After all, with unemployment hovering at a 26-year high, looking professional has never been more important. While casual Fridays, turtleneck Tuesdays and thong Thursdays are all well and good, it's easy to see how a young office worker looking to hold onto a job would want to look his best every day of the week.

For the struggling young worker, the elegant business look can be tough to attain: Most of the obvious sources for luxurious men's clothing -- like Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic (GPS), Jos. A. Bank (JOSB) and Thomas Pink -- are way too expensive. Meanwhile, common routes for cheaper clothes, like Land's End or Walmart (WMT), don't quite have the goods.

For the last couple of years, Target (TGT) has tried to work its way into the trend with its collection of Merona and Converse One Star suit separates. Unfortunately, the store's formal attire was often made from stiff polyester blends that looked decent until the wearer actually moved. Recently, Target has shifted toward wool and rayon blends that wear a little better, and it's price point -- generally around $99 for a suit jacket and $35 for a pair of pants -- makes its items highly attractive to young office workers.

Although the company declined a request to discuss the sales of its individual items, it seems likely that their massive third-quarter jump this year, which Daily Finance's Mercedes Cardona attributed to apparel, may owe much to the chain's improved formal business offerings.

The Biggest Winners

Gap has also gotten into the game, albeit on a lower scale. While the company usually leaves office clothing to its big brother Banana Republic, the store is quietly offering a line of ties, a collection of dress pants and several sweaters and sports coats that straddle the line between casual and office. While representatives of the chain note that their stores carry a limited collection of office-ready fashions, they say Gap has no intention of changing its overall focus.

Ultimately, the biggest winners in the move toward office formality are European and Asian companies like Sweden's H&M. Riding a wave of $70 blazers and $40 dress pants, the chain has risen to become the world's third-largest retail clothing company, behind Gap and Inditex SA. It has opened more than 200 new stores in 2009, and its revenues have been up for much of the year. In 2008, its profits jumped by 11%; in 2009, its shares rose 29% on the Stockholm stock exchange.

Another emerging clothing giant is Zara, one of nine chains owned by Spanish clothing conglomerate Inditex SA (OHAB). The company has probably been the biggest success story in the trend toward cheap office wardrobes: In 2009, it passed Gap to become the world's top-selling clothing retailer. A large part of this growth has resulted from the company's massive expansion. Between February and November 2009, Inditex opened 266 new stores. In terms of revenue, 35% of Inditex's sales in the first half of 2008 came from Spanish shoppers; in the following year, that number dropped by 3%.

Luxury at a Low Price

While Europe has traditionally been the worldwide hotbed of fashion, Asia is quickly taking its place among the top sellers of inexpensive office clothing. Although Japan's Uniqlo chain's 2009 growth rate slowed toward the end of the year, it continued an upward pace throughout 2009. In November, in fact, it had 7.9% growth over the previous year. Much of this was likely due to its extensive offerings of cheap, high-quality office clothing.

With the formal office trend showing no signs of slowing, the future looks good for companies that are able to offer luxury at a low price point. And with even cheaper companies like Korea's T.I for Men waiting to enter the pipeline, it seems like this trend might be here to stay.
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