During the height of the pandemic, even staunch fans of the tailored suit found themselves leaning into the ease of the unofficial local work-from-home (WFH) uniform of a casual top and shorts.
In the first two years of the pandemic, shares James Harris, a partner at a multinational law firm and a long-time customer of family-run bespoke business Joe’s Tailoring, he wore shorts and a polo shirt most days when he did not have an online meeting.
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A Queensland native who has been based here for over two decades, Harris recalls, “The days were starting to blur. I would wear smarter polo shirts by brands such as Ralph Lauren during the workweek, and sportier ones by the likes of Nike and Adidas during the weekend — just to help remind myself whether it was a workday or not.”
Indeed, for several years now, menswear watchers have been predicting the death of the men’s suit, as fashion trends such as athleisure and streetwear took hold. For a while, it seemed that the pandemic might have been the death knell for the suit.
Up until then, it had remained a sartorial staple for many senior executives, especially those in conservative, client-facing industries such as law and finance.
During Covid times, however, the matching jacket-and-trouser set was increasingly left in wardrobes as home-based work arrangements became the norm.
Even so, tailoring did not completely disappear during the pandemic. Video conferences saw the emergence of waist-up dressing, with many people sporting a shirt and jacket while wearing shorts unnoticed on camera to speak with colleagues or clients online.
The shift was certainly not limited to our shores: Over in the UK, a bastion of traditional tailoring, the Office for National Statistics recently removed the suit from its basket of 700 representative goods used to calculate the annual inflation rate, for the first time since 1947. Taking its place is the jacket, a sure sign of the times.
Tailoring back in demand
Unsurprisingly, the first two years of the pandemic were largely uncertain for the owners of local tailoring businesses.
When The Peak spoke to them last year, several were exploring various alternatives: Some, including Dylan Chong of Dylan & Son and Leslie Chia of Pimabs, were offering casual items such as drawstring shorts and polo shirts, whether made to measure or off the rack.
Kevin Seah had taken the opportunity to expand his clothing business into a lifestyle brand, introducing gourmet products such as wine and sake to his web store.
Explaining that his casual offerings were primarily meant as a way to create an alternative stream of income during the height of the pandemic, Chong notes, “The way we are set up means we are unable to offer such items at a low price.”
“You don’t need too many pairs of sub-thousand-dollar drawstring pants or sports shorts in your wardrobe. So while that helped a little in terms of sales, it didn’t move the needle all that much.”
Fortunately, many of these businesses have seen a significant rise in the demand for tailoring since the easing of Covid-related restrictions this year. Seah says, “Our business has picked up since the last quarter of last year, and we expect 2022 to be back to pre-Covid levels.”
Over at The Prestigious at Boat Quay, co-owner Alvin Lin shares, “Sales in the first week of May alone have propelled us very comfortably into profit territory for the month.”
He hopes the momentum continues, unlike the choppy uncertainty that characterised the first two years of the pandemic. As a result of the continual easing and retightening of restrictions then, he says, “there were times when there were no new commissions for four to six weeks, which could be followed by a week of sales that could comfortably tide us over for the next month or two”.
Eager to suit up
Many returning or new clients are ordering suits, as people begin spending more time in the office, and physical events resume.
Lin has noticed that The Prestigious’ clients seem to be even less price-sensitive than before, and are “more comfortably and confidently” purchasing suits made of premium, higher-end fabrics, typically spending an average of S$7,000 to S$9,000 on a single suit.
Lin muses: “Perhaps, for our segment of the market — business owners and C-suite executives —the need for a suit is just as, if not more, important now.”
“It could be that these customers are looking to set the tone, are more immune to rising costs, or are optimistic about being able to aggressively pursue new business opportunities.”
At Kevin Seah Bespoke, the increase in suit orders has been led by orders for weddings. Seah shares, “In the first quarter of 2022 alone, there has been an increase of about 30 per cent compared to the same period last year.”
For professionals, classic bespoke suits remain in demand. “The majority of our clients work in the financial industry, so they tend to be fairly conservative in style.”
Besides wanting a fresh start as offices and borders reopen, clients often get new suits made for another reason: their changed physiques.
Chong says, “This pandemic has completely changed the body measurements of many clients. Some have gained a lot of weight and are in the process of losing, while some have lost a lot of weight and are trying to bulk up.”
“The amount of alteration jobs we have been doing this year has been off the charts. Of course, with such drastic weight changes, a lot of people simply have to order new clothes as there is only so much that can be altered.”
Refined but relaxed
While the suit still has plenty of adherents, the ease of pandemic dressing and the blurring of work/leisure boundaries appear to have influenced the rise of more relaxed tailoring, a segment that had already been popular pre-Covid.
Alvin Gan, owner of menswear business Last & Lapel, notes: “People are ordering suits that are more casual. They want a suit or jacket they can wear to places other than the office.”
Joseph Koh, the founder of Joe’s Tailoring, has also observed this shift, which he attributes to a general lingering sense of caution and uncertainty.
“Although we have seen the lifting of restrictions, people are still cautious about attending physical seminars or face-to-face meetings. We have been getting more orders for smart-casual wear or blazers from customers who want to look presentable during Zoom meetings.”
Koh’s aforementioned client of more than a decade, James Harris, is one such example. While he used to regularly order more formal pieces — such as three-piece suits or overcoats — he has been buying more casual jackets during the pandemic.
In all, he says with a laugh, “I probably have about 30 blazers now.”
Currently, Harris and his colleagues return to the office a maximum of three days a week. Even though he still wears suits to the office “90 per cent of the time”, he has observed that his colleagues have been dressing down slightly with greater frequency.
It has subtly but surely influenced his own professional style. “A couple of days at the office this week, I was wearing jeans and a good shirt with a jacket,” he says.
Even though the pandemic has led to some pretty rocky times for the tailoring industry, unique new opportunities have also arisen.
While consistent orders by a small, core group of supportive customers throughout the pandemic have been sufficient to sustain his higher-end, bespoke line Pimabs, Leslie Chia had to shutter his lower-priced line, Closeknip, because demand was not enough for the volume-based brand.
However, the enterprising menswear veteran is currently in talks with US-based entrepreneurs who are interested in taking the Closeknip concept — a tailoring system created by Chia — to California, and orienting it towards women.
Another local tailoring house that will be making its debut overseas soon is Dylan & Son. South Korean native Kim Juseok, a tailor formerly employed by Chong here, will be opening a Dylan & Son store in Seoul.
Says Chong, “He was based in Singapore but went back to Seoul before the circuit-breaker. He expressed interest in starting a new venture in Seoul, so we have worked out a partnership. It’s still in its infancy, and is slowly coming along.”
The tailored suit, it seems, is very much alive, whether broken up into its parts or worn in its entirety.
At the end of the day, there might just be one simple reason for its continued importance in a man’s wardrobe — it is an easy way to look like you have made plenty of effort.
Says Harris, “On the days I don’t wear a suit, it takes me longer to decide what to wear. It’s so much easier to just put on a shirt and a suit, and go.”