• Chunichi Shimbun

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It’s the time of the year when you see new students and fresh graduates starting jobs dressed in brand new suits for a fresh start in April.

But with more people working remotely from home due to the pandemic and recent trends leaning toward casual office clothes, suit sales have been pushed down.

In order to survive, many apparel companies are testing new business models to attract more customers.

The menswear section at Nagoya’s Meitetsu Department Store, for example, which has suits from 14 brands, is experiencing hardship. Usually, the section sees a surge in demand in the spring from students and workers joining universities or new companies. But with the pandemic, it was forced to temporarily close or shorten business hours in the spring of last year.

“Since the spread of the coronavirus, it’s been very difficult for us,” said a department store employee in charge.

This year, sales have recovered, but not to the pre-pandemic level of two years ago.

The pandemic also sparked a change in demand from customers.

Due to the increase in teleworking, people have opted for more casual workwear. As a result, the menswear section began focusing on jackets and trousers made of comfortable, stretchable materials.

Even with new product lines, the men’s clothing industry as a whole is struggling. Major companies, including Aoyama Trading Co., well known for its Aoyama Tailor outlets, Aoki Holdings Inc. and Haruyama Holdings, all expect a plunge in revenue and profits in the business year through March.

After seeing the decline in its business due to the coronavirus, Aoyama Trading solicited workers for a voluntary retirement program from December to February, prompting about 600 workers to take up the offer.

The company had been planning to close 85 unprofitable outlets from the three years to the end of fiscal 2021, but it expanded the target to about 160 shops, accounting for about 20% of outlets.

“Though we expected a decline in sales due to the retirement of baby boomers as well as a decrease in the number of people wearing suits, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the trend,” said an Aoyama employee.

With people having fewer opportunities to wear suits due to a decrease in business trips and life events such as weddings and funerals, there is less chance of suits wearing out, which explains the decline in sales, the employee said.

It’s not just Japan, though. In July last year, Brooks Brothers, the oldest retailer in the U.S., whose suits have in the past been worn by presidents, filed for bankruptcy.

Despite being on the chopping block, each company strives to adapt to change. Companies are pushing cardigans and jackets better suited to teleworking.

In June last year, Cross Plus, a clothing company in Nagoya, started selling polo shirts, knitwear and T-shirts under its men’s business clothes brand called Bizcos to offer a better casual clothing lineup.

“You can wear (a polo shirt) in both business and private settings, and you can even match it with a jacket,” said a Cross Plus employee. “We discussed what would be necessary to create a comfortable working environment.”

In order to give a clean impression even when not worn tucked in, polo shirts and T-shirts are offered in multiple lengths for each size. They are made with a material that doesn’t wrinkle easily, and knitwear uses yarns that don’t pill easily.

The company expects teleworking to become even more widespread, especially in urban areas, and that this will allow workers to wear a variety of clothes for work.

“There is more freedom in what people can wear for work. We want to offer clothing that can be used in many business settings,” said the official.

Even without the pandemic, the market for suits has been declining in recent years. According to a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, annual expenditure on men’s suits per household was ¥19,043 in 1991. Although the survey started including households working in the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors in the count in 2000, thereby complicating the comparison, the figure decreased to under ¥10,000 and stayed around ¥5,000 from 2009 to 2019.

In 2020, it eventually fell to ¥2,893.

“Until the first half of the 1990s, as a social custom, suits were essential in expressing one’s social status within an organization,” said Kensuke Kojima, president at apparel consultancy Kojima Fashion Marketing.

Kojima points out that the decline in wearing suits can be attributed to the retirement of baby boomers, in addition to the Environment Ministry’s Cool Biz campaign, which kicked off in 2005, encouraging casual work clothes during the summertime.

The Sports Agency’s push for commuting in sneakers in 2018 also contributed to the adoption of casual work clothes, Kojima said.

Moreover, he explained that premiums for nursing care insurance programs for those over 40 and other tax hikes caused “workers to spend less on clothes.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 29.

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