Recently I had a communication from my Japanese friend Kawasaki-San, asking me what I thought of the Cool Biz phenomenon – the annual summer campaign in Japan where office workers are encouraged to dress more casually both to keep from overheating and to help reduce air conditioner use – and the growth of the “business casual” style generally. This was the gist of my reply…
As far as I can see, Cool Biz has led to an anonymous corporate look of white short-sleeved shirt with dark lightweight trousers. This is a shame, as no-one has suggested what the alternative could be.
On recent trips to Japan I’ve noticed a growth in formal casual wear within department stores like Isetan and shops like Beams and United Arrows. They cover the “business casual” option – blazers, suit separates, print trousers – more than adequately. But what about something more formal? A suit, shirt and tie is still relevant and most appropriate to business formal, but with lighter construction within the tailoring and use of cool wool and ice cotton, one can look elegant as well as comfortable.
Savile Row and the “London Gentleman” have long been seen as the aspirational style for men all around the world, as something to reference, emulate, or, more recently, rebel against. Recently I met with a retired Swiss banker who started his career in London in 1972. Most City workers then still wore three-piece pinstripes, bowler hats and gloves. He had long hair and extravagantly-lapelled pastel suits that he wore with dark shirts and kipper ties. His employers hated this look that he and his friends sported but never complained, as they were making money. Maybe this was the start of the decline in formal clothing, when money and rebelliousness took over and traditions started to fade?
Next came the “yuppie” in the 1980s who was loud and brash and delighted in flouting convention – remember a 21-year-old banker boasting how he wore a mink coat onto the trading floor.
The early 90s brought austerity and a brief return to formality, to be replaced by the “dress down” movement from the US, embraced by Tony Blair when he became Prime Minister in the UK. Suddenly legions of office workers were sporting a new uniform – blazer, chinos, button-down shirt, loafers. It didn’t resonate, and men returned to the suit, but opted to lose their ties – a poor halfway house for those politicians and businessmen still in their formal suits and shirts. This confusion has continued to the present day, in the UK, Japan, and around the world, where many guys still feel trapped in this halfway house and feel they don’t have an alternative.
Interestingly, there’s a new younger internet generation who follow street style blogs, soaking up information and shopping on websites like Mr Porter, who now consume many looks and styles. I believe this consumer is happy to wear formal-inspired attire, though a little neater and sharper than business casual – knitted ties, fitted jackets – and is a receptive audience who wouldn’t dismiss the suit and tie as long as it looked sharp and modern and they could alternate it with more casual looks. I don’t believe the pleasure in dressing up has completely disappeared – if anything, it may be one of the most rebellious things left to do, now that dress codes have relaxed so much. We just have to make sure that we continue to educate and enthuse people in the art of dressing well – for every season.
Hope this helps.