The men not in suits: Formal menswear has gone into terminal decline. Roger Tredre investigates

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LORD KING, the former chairman of British Airways, could have been speaking for a whole generation of older businessmen when he said: 'If Richard Branson had worn a pair of steel-rimmed glasses, (and) a double-breasted suit, and shaved off his beard, I would have taken him seriously. As it was, I couldn't'

But, like it or not, the besweatered chairman of Virgin Atlantic represents the future, at least when it comes to dressing for the office. Not long ago, a man would not have considered wearing anything else to work. Now, sales of suits are plummeting.

Combined sales of ready-to-wear and made-to-measure suits fell to 1.18 million in the first three months of this year, a 15 per cent drop on the same period in 1992, according to figures from the TMS Partnership, the clothing market research company. Sales were worth pounds 149m - a fall of 20 per cent. In 1989, 6.8 million suits were sold in Britain. Last year, the total was just 4.5m.

Of course, the recession is partly to blame. But it is not the whole answer. The Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) says that office dress codes are becoming much more relaxed.

Partly this is a matter of changing fashion: after the power dressing of the Eighties, men are dressing down for the Nineties. And it is not just a British phenomenon. The number of business suits sold in the United States fell by 34 per cent between 1985 and 1992, according to the Marketing Research Corporation of America. Nearly half the men interviewed in its survey reported that there were now 'casual days' at work, when even T-shirts and sandals were allowed.

Angela Baron, policy adviser on employee resourcing for the IPM, said: 'The traditional hierarchies of the office are breaking down. With this, we are witnessing the demise of all kinds of symbols that denote status, including the suit.'

There is a general shift away from formal ways of dressing. Roy Holliss, director of the TMS Partnership, said: 'The entire men's formal wear market is sinking like a stone - suits, shirts and ties. It's a disaster area.'

Since late 1990, fashion designers whose reputation was at least partly based on the suit switched emphasis in their collections, producing a broader range of casualwear. Retailers revamped their shops, pushing suits to the back, introducing more casual clothing.

The UK's 8,000 independent menswear retailers have been forced to adapt. Limey's, with stores in Derby, Nottingham and Leicester, has cut its stock of suits by more than half. Roger Wilkinson, managing director, said: 'Our best-sellers are jeans, cotton trousers and casual shirts.'

Now a debate is raging in the industry between those convinced that the suit is in terminal decline and others who say the slump is a passing phase, exacerbated by the recession.

Some retailers continue to champion the suit. Blazer, which has 26 stores, last week reported strong sales of formal wear. Jonathan Silver, a businessman who last month opened a store selling suits at low prices on the edge of Bradford, said: 'Men still wear them. The only reason suits aren't selling is because they cost too much.'

Malcom Levene, a high-fashion menswear retailer in central London, said designers and retailers had to make suits interesting again. 'In the late Eighties, my customers were buying eight suits a year. Now customers are more discerning. They don't want to be sold the same old double-breasted navy-blue suits. We have to win them back.'

However, high-street retailers believe the mass market is moving away from suits. Greg Tufnell, menswear product director of Next, which championed suits in the Eighties, notes a definite move to jackets and trousers. He views it as 'a social trend, the first real sign of some truly European influence coming into the British man's dress code.'

Many businesses on the Continent do not require their employees to wear suits. Roz MacLeod, fashion editor of Menswear, the trade magazine, said: 'The Italians wear jackets, trousers and suede shoes in the office. Until recently, only media and creative types have been able to get away with that in Britain. But that's all changing now.'

Mr Tufnell says: 'It's a move away from conformity, a sign that men are getting better at expressing themselves with clothing.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- MEN'S SUIT SALES ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 Volume (m units) 6.7 6.8 6.2 5.7 4.5 Spend (pounds m) 713 792 768 780 611 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: the TMS Partnership -----------------------------------------------------------------

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