Has Covid-19 killed the suit? How tailoring has changed during the pandemic

With streetwear dominating the runways and normal working practices being upended by the pandemic, is there any space for the suit in the modern man's wardrobe?

For his spring/summer 2022 menswear show in June, Giorgio Armani sent out soft blouson jackets paired with pleated trousers and shorts, in a showing so effortless and laidback it was only once the parade had finished that the audience realised there had been only a smattering of suits.

Dolce & Gabbana, a brand famed for its sharp men's suiting, offered something looser and more roomy, embellished with crystals and shiny gewgaws that were more pitched to evenings out than office wear; while at Celine, designer Hedi Slimane – whose skinny-cut suits for Dior in the early 2000s kick-started the global obsession with slim silhouettes – embraced baggy jeans and layered T-shirts.

In itself, none of this was groundbreaking, but coming off the back of a global pandemic that had much of the world's workforce sent home, it was telling. By downplaying the importance of suits, the trio of labels were inferring that in a world still reeling from the pandemic, the suit had lost its status.

“Covid brought the world to a standstill and people could wear whatever they wanted,” says Gary Sweeney, brand and style director at Ascots & Chapels. “For a traditional British bespoke suit maker, that was not good news.”

Founded in 1871, Ascots & Chapels has been making bespoke suits for generations of British gentlemen. “I will be honest, when Covid first hit, we were all worried,” says Sweeney.

This sentiment is echoed by Amer Ejjeh, master tailor and designer for Ejjeh 1926, a Lebanese company that has been dressing well-heeled Beiruti men for almost a century. Both men were forced to sit back and watch as the pandemic swept away their clients' need for suits, while Ejjeh had the added strain of Lebanon's financial collapse to contend with, which he says was worse than the war. Back then, he explains, at least there was still access to food, electricity and fuel. "Now, there is nothing."

In addition, as the banks caved in, Ejjeh lost all his money. "Everything I saved all my life. Puff, it was gone.” With 65 people under his employment, Ejjeh felt a responsibility to safeguard their future, as well as his own. “I had to think of a way to make this business survive.”

So even as traditional suit wearers, such as businessmen, bankers and lawyers, were sent off to work from home, both men found a way to navigate this new reality. For Sweeney, this started with clients asking for advice. Within days, he explains, he was being contacted by clients saying: "I've had two weeks of being at home and need to get back into some sort of normality. I have Zoom meetings and I want to look the part. What do you recommend?”

For men used to an office environment, working from home threw up sartorial dilemmas. What was the dress code for a meeting held at the kitchen table? Sweeney’s clients looked to him to steer them through this new fashion minefield.

The relationship between a man and his tailor is unique and intimate. To get the best from their tailor, a client must be comfortable enough to discuss his body, insecurities and foibles. Want to hide a paunch or straighten up shoulders? A tailor can do this and more, but needs to know at the start of the process. To foster such a candid relationship, Sweeney says that absolute honesty is key.

“I will tell you exactly if something doesn’t suit you and I can explain why. It’s not in my interest to hard sell. What do I get out of it? One sale and you never come back? I will say: 'Don’t take that, it is not for you’. And if that means you don’t buy anything now, no problem. I think clients appreciate that honest approach.”

Strong tailoring know-how mixed with an understanding of current trends means Sweeney is well placed to offer expert advice. “Every season, you see these really beautiful, out-there suits, but what looks good on one person doesn’t necessarily look good on another. If you are a shorter guy, you might need something to elongate, like pinstripes, rather than a windowpane check. Or depending on your skin tone, certain colours won’t suit you. When you visit your tailor, he has years of experience that you just don’t get on the high street. It is part and parcel of the journey of bespoke – the experience – which is a huge part of the finished garment.”

Ejjeh echoes this view. “People think of a suit as being uncomfortable, but this is because they are shopping in the wrong way,” he says. “In a bespoke suit, you will feel as comfortable as in your pyjamas – if the suit is well made, in the proper fabric, in the proper weight for the weather, and allowing for your body shape. If I construct the perfect suit for you, you will be comfortable anywhere.”

While Sweeney could rely on his existing clients, Ejjah had to find an entirely new tranche of customers because of the crisis in Lebanon. While there were restrictions on movement in the country, he began doing research and quickly unearthed a whole new sector of entrepreneurs making fortunes in the fields of technology and online services. “These new jobs generated six, seven-figure incomes. New clients who had never worn suits before and now wanted to, not to attend meetings, but for their lifestyle.”

These clients wanted only the best, to telegraph their success. The traditional customer might spend $3,000 to $4,000 per suit but, as Ejjeh explains, “those who are newly rich spend even more. They want the best fabric, the newest colours and the most extravagant design. They are not looking for something they can wear to the office, they are looking for suits they can show off with. They want to pamper themselves.”

Ejjeh also unearthed new markets across Africa, including in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt, where men were eager to invest in bespoke suits. In one year in Egypt, he says he sold more suits “than in 10 years in the UAE”.

The secret to crafting a good suit, says Ejjeh, is understanding not only what the client wants, but what they will use it for and where. “I really try to understand the purpose of this suit. The first question I ask is where are you going to wear it? In Lebanon? In Dubai? In Moscow?”

Part of the beauty of bespoke is not only the custom fit, but the actual process of creating it, Sweeney says. To make a suit, the client must attend an initial consultation and several fittings to make adjustments. For those more used to the instant thrill of fast fashion, this extended time frame can take some getting used to. But being entirely made to order, bespoke is the logical option for those concerned about their carbon footprint. “It is literally one of one, as opposed to going to the high street and selecting one of 4,000,” Sweeney says. Tailoring is by definition sustainable. “A garment is being cut and stitched and finished by hand, as opposed to being mass-produced and air freighted from one city to another.”

Crafted from the finest quality materials and exceptionally well made, bespoke is designed to be enduring, meaning a classic suit can be passed from father to son, and beyond. “They last a very, very long time,” Sweeney says.

With the recycling company RoadRunner estimating that up to 84 per cent of clothing now ends up in landfill, the slow approach of bespoke begins to hold more appeal. Ejjeh, too, has seen first-hand how bespoke can be a family experience. “Many times the client will bring me his brother, his cousin and even his children.”

Yet, even before the disruption caused by the pandemic, men’s formal dress codes were unravelling, driven by younger, more streetwear-inspired designers such as Kim Jones at Dior Men and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t be in the financial sector without a tie," Sweeney explains. "Now, if you walk down Wall Street, people are wearing shorts and that’s perfectly acceptable. Long before the pandemic arrived, men were comfortable pairing a work suit with a T-shirt.

Yet, as workers resist a return to the office full time, with Business Insider putting the number of New Yorkers back in the office at 41 per cent, and Bloomberg putting the London number slightly higher at 50 per cent, Sweeney says there is still demand for what Ascots & Chapels can offer.

“The client that came to me for the charcoal grey suit 18 months ago is now coming to me asking for a well-cut sports jacket, chinos and button-down Oxford shirts,” he explains. “While the requests have changed, the demand is still there.”

Ejjeh, too, is convinced there will always be a place for well-made clothes. Like most bespoke ateliers, he assigns one tailor to complete a suit from start to finish. "I believe a bespoke suit, stitched by hand, has a lot of emotion," he says. "And emotions come out when people are in their happy place, which is usually where they are comfortable, in their own home."

Updated: October 24th 2021, 8:48 AM