Fashion 89 : Sack Suits Make a Big Comeback in Fall Menswear

Times Fashion Editor

The men’s clothing industry is just dull enough to make everyone happy these days.

How dull is it? Consider that the sack suit, that three-button, shapeless, soft-shoulder style of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s--also known as the Ivy League or Brooks Bros. look--is hot news for 1989.

Sack suits emerged last week as the top trend at Italian menswear shows for next fall. And they made front page last Friday in the menswear journal Daily News Record, when Ralph Lauren claimed he reinvented them before the Italians did.

“I did the sack suit statement last year,” Lauren told DNR, under the banner headline “Ralph Claims the Sack Suit.”


Now that’s dull--except to millions of American men who apparently can’t wait to buy suits whose main virtue is that there is absolutely nothing exciting about them.

Statistics confirm it. Despite sluggish 1988 retail sales of women’s clothes, which are usually exciting, if not necessarily wearable, purchases of men’s clothing increased dramatically.

Figures from New York-based KSA/NPD Purchase Panel reveal that men bought 6% more suits, 10% more dress shirts, 12% more dress socks and 21% more ties in the first three quarters of ’88 than they did in the same period the year before.

(Women’s clothing sales dropped an overall 5% for that time period, with an 11% skid in skirts and a 6% drop in blouses.)

What does it all mean?

“Men’s resistance to the idea of wearing business uniforms has completely vanished,” said Norman Karr, executive director of the Men’s Fashion Assn., here last week for the MFA spring meeting.

“Even young men who detested the idea of wearing traditional suits or ‘uniforms’ every day have decided to do it for the sake of their careers,” Karr said. “Most have even begun to like it. They want to look like (Lee) Iacocca. They want to think and aspire to that kind of life and that kind of money.”

With their 9-to-5 wardrobe choices decided, fashion-conscious men have greater interest in more varied wardrobes for leisure wear. They’re experimenting with all sorts of new sportswear shapes, such as unconstructed summer-suit looks featuring jackets with walking shorts instead of long pants. They’re trying out trendy accessories and spending big bucks on sweater vests, very popular these days under sport coats or even traditional suit jackets. Sweaters of all sorts, especially cardigans, are selling extremely well, Karr said.

So while trendiness is still out of style for most men, dressing fashionably isn’t.

Karr attributes the relative solidity of his industry to its basic stodginess, and sees an inherent irony: “The menswear industry has been criticized for years as not being revolutionary enough in fashion trends. But we deal with reality, with an evolutionary process. We make slower changes, take fewer risks. Menswear manufacturers don’t try to propel consumers in any particular direction, the way women’s clothing manufacturers do.” Implicit in this comment is the suggestion that women’s clothing makers might take a lesson from the people they’ve criticized all these years.

“All these women in the work force would probably benefit from their own version of a uniform; from one or a number of looks that they could rely on as correct and comfortable and elegant. A man knows pretty much he has to wear a suit. Women are just floundering around out there. They need to find what’s appropriate for business and invest in a wardrobe for their careers,” he said.

Creativity has not been stifled for those menswear designers willing to ignore the mass market in favor of avant-garde consumers. Cecilia Metheny, a New York-based designer here last weekend for the MFA convention, has been breaking boundaries since she opened her firm four years ago.

Using Italian fabrics and tailoring, Metheny’s daytime-suit jackets have shawl collars or no collars at all. She even offers cardigan tuxedo jackets, with edges bound in black satin. And the ultimate black-tie look, in her opinion, is a “formal” black cardigan sweater ($600 in cashmere, $200 in cotton/silk knit), to be worn with a white dress shirt, bow tie, gray flannel evening pants and evening slippers.

Metheny suits cost from $800 to $1,400 at Neiman Marcus and Torie Steele in Beverly Hills.

Designer Henry Grethel, whose suits are made by HartMarx has a more mass-market orientation. But he too says men’s tastes are changing “within the confines of traditional tailoring. I’ve never seen a time when men’s clothing has changed at such a rapid rate as this,” Grethel said when here last week with the MFA.

“Men don’t want outlandish looks, but they don’t want to be behind the times,” he added.

Grethel’s jacket shoulders are a bit wider these days, and there’s a little more drape and ease through the chest. More importantly, he said, pleated trousers were considered “too much” by most men as recently as five years ago. Now they’re standard issue.