Haberdashers Team Up for the Tie

The Men's Apparel Alliance declares war on the business casual trend that many say is out of control. Is it just a rearguard action?

Closet those khakis. Deep-six those sandals: The Men's Apparel Alliance, an ad hoc group of haberdashers and clothing outlets, hopes to stamp out the recent trend toward five-day "business casual" at the office. The group has assembled a multimillion dollar war chest, a PR team, and a sharply dressed spokesman, designer Joseph Abboud. Its mission: Do for America's suit-and-tie trade what the "Got Milk?" campaign did for the dairy business.

Message: Dressing down weakens your impact in the workplace. "First appearances do count," says Gary Brody, president of Marcraft Apparel Group in New York, one of a dozen manufacturers in the alliance. Frets Richard Goldman, executive vice-president of clothing retailer The Men's Warehouse: "If we don't watch it, spending may move out of the [men's dress-up clothing] category altogether." These are the folks with the ad slogan: "You're going to like the way you look."

Brody, Goldman & Co. have teamed with the pitchmen at Rubenstein Associates to produce a "member solicitation package" to attract new partners, a logo, and a promotional tour featuring no less than Abboud himself handing out fashion tips. Brody says the Alliance has secured $10 million worth in industry commitments, with a goal of $20 million. The group says it hopes to enlist women's apparel companies in the effort, too.


  So who's the Evil Empire in the minds of the haberdashers? Levi Strauss & Co., which sent out 40,000 "educational kits" to human-resource departments during the mid-'90s, preaching the evangelism of jeans at work. Levi Stauss' multimillion dollar campaign is widely credited with helping to fuel Casual Fridays and Mondays and then the final indignity, full-time "business casual."

As recently as two years ago, a Management Recruiters International study showed that 40% of execs thought the suit and tie eventually would vanish from the workplace. And in fact, many experts believe that one of the lingering impacts of the dot-com revolution will be casual dress in the workplace (see BW Online, 3/20/01, "Legacies of the Dot-Com Revolution").

Perish the thought, says the shirt-and-tie crowd. The time is ripe for a return to formality, the Alliance figures. The influence of Silicon Valley is dwindling, for one thing. Tech stocks have tumbled, and "dot-com envy," which a year ago persuaded even stodgy Wall Street to closet its Brooks Brothers look, has morphed into "dot-com derision." Even Steve Jobs of Apple Computer showed up at MacWorld in Tokyo last month wearing a pin-striped suit and silver tie in place of his usual jeans and turtleneck. His fashion statement caused quite a stir.


  In the latest Management Recruiters study, the anticasual sentiment was strongest in industries where a coat and tie have long been de rigueur. In real estate, for example, 59.9% of those surveyed thought the casual trend has gone too far. In financial services, the number was 47.3%.

Allen Salikof, MRI's president and CEO, says managers in the latest survey seemed especially upset at open-toed shoes, tank tops, and sweat pants showing up on workers. "They started as 'business casual' and it has turned into weekend casual,'" Salikof adds. "Some of the old-line managers are really having trouble with it."

Salikof says he has heard of some companies calling in fashion consultants to educate the troops on what "business casual" actually means. "What we're seeing is a backlash, where companies are dressing up one day a week," Salikof says.


  Some companies have taken action. Korn/Ferry International, the largest recruiting firm in the country, reverted to full-time business attire nationwide in January, exempting only its Silicon Alley staff. Vice-President Mark Nevins, who heads professional development for Korn/Ferry, wonders whether "the fact that a lot of dot-coms have done poorly may make casual attire guilty by association." Itochu International, a Japanese trading company with 350 U.S. employees, has also reverted from five days of business casual to just casual Friday.

But the Return to Formality movement faces tough going. Just ask Vince Rua, CEO of Christopher's Men's Stores, in Albany, N.Y. In January, 2000, Rua launched a "Dress-up Thursdays" movement (officially known as "Let's Get Back to Business" (www.1dressup.com). That project has been fighting a rearguard action with a modest $70,000 campaign directed at corporate leaders. Rua and the Alliance are now merging their campaigns. Still, Rua is weary. He wonders what the Alliance can accomplish, given the billion dollars the men's apparel industry already spends every year on promotion.

Many companies have decided to stay the casual course -- though the grumbling is getting louder. "I would say that every year it gets progressively worse," sighs Patricia King, administrative coordinator at consulting firm William M. Mercer Inc., in New York. At Atlantic Bank of New York, Catherine Papayiannis, director of retail banking, says she has hired fashion consultant Adele Riepe to teach the staff that business-casual doesn't mean coming to work dressed like a slob.

Both women become a tad excited when asked to comment on what they've seen. King, for instance, described seeing Dockers "right out of a dryer," short-short skirts, and capris. "This generation did not grow up in a world where you have to dress," King says.

But a return to business attire? That could be hard, King admits. "It's tougher to go backwards, that's for sure." When you get down to it, liking the way you look is a pretty subjective thing, isn't it?

By Joan Oleck in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson

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