Thursday, April 20, 2006

Suitable Attire?

Suit Goes in Washer, Dryer, But Traditionalists Recoil: 'This is the Antichrist'

By CECILIE ROHWEDDER
The Wall Street Journal

LONDON --Tim Blackshaw still winces about the night two years ago that a party guest spilled a glass of Chateau Lafitte 1975 down the back of his Christian Dior jacket, the fine red wine ruining the expensive light-gray suit.

Yet, as the 30-year-old chef browsed the racks at a Marks & Spencer PLC store here recently, that episode wasn't enough to persuade him to bite on the retailer's heralded new product: the first suit that can be washed, machine dried and worn without ironing.

"I am not sure it would come out looking okay," he says, even though it looks like the other suits hanging on a rack, with its brightly colored silk lining.

And therein lies the problem plaguing the wool/polyester/lycra suit like a stubborn wrinkle. The suit maker, Bagir Ltd. and its retailers, M&S in Britain and J.C. Penney Co. in America, are fighting powerful forces of anthropology and sociology with mere chemistry and marketing. Men, long accustomed to armoring themselves in creased-and-pressed formality as a sign of their status and aspirations, would have to risk not looking just so in professional situations.

"Suits aren't meant to be convenient," says Anne Hollander, a fashion historian in New York and author of a book about suits. "If you wear a suit, you are joining the company of respectable people."

She says men in general feel more insecure about clothes than women. "What men fear the most is something that makes them look like a fool," she says.

Thomas Horton, the 44-year-old chief financial officer of American Airlines's parent AMR Corp. expresses the befuddlement of many men when asked about the idea of a wash-and-dry suit.

"That would be hard for me to get my head around," says Mr. Horton, who like his boss, AMR Chief Executive Gerard Arpey, has his suits custom-made by Chris Cobb in Dallas. "It's a foreign concept. It's like starching your jeans. I wouldn't do that either."

But the retailers and the suit maker aren't aiming quite that high up the executive ladder. Instead, they are banking on the mix of convenience and price (about $225 in the United Kingdom and $177.99 in the U.S.) to lure in a certain type of buyer.

"There are a lot of very busy blokes about who wear a suit for work, who go through a lot of wear and tear and who'll want this because of convenience," says Stuart Rose, chief executive of M&S, the biggest seller of suits in Britain. Tim Danser, a buyer for tailored clothing for men at Penney, says, "The customer is time-compressed and, in middle America, also pocket-book compressed."

Kenny Cook, a 37-year-old desk clerk for Royal Mail in London, plans to buy one of the new suits for a friend's wedding later this month. Mr. Cook says he eats lunch at his desk and often drops a piece of his sandwich on his suits. "I can't be bothered to go to the dry cleaners," says Mr. Cook. "But I've mastered a washing machine."

The quest for convenience suited with style has been going on for decades. The first "wash-and-wear suits" appeared in the early 1950s, when polyester was invented, but they were more often the butt of jokes to indicate the wearer's humble circumstances. They have quietly occupied a small market niche.

In the summer of 2002, Bagir, which is based in Israel, decided to pursue the concept as a way to distinguish itself from garment makers in low-wage countries. At the time, suit makers like Bagir were also suffering because the trend toward casual wear was at its peak. One reason men were rejecting suits, market research showed, was that they thought of them as inconvenient. It came up with a washable suit that could be drip-dried. That suit, which needs to be ironed, is now M&S's biggest seller and has sold 750,000 since 2004. Penney also sells a version.

Despite the success, Bagir executives wanted to go further and make a suit that could go in the dryer. But heat from the dryer created a problem. In long trials, it would render the front of the suit either wrinkled or as stiff as cardboard. In tests, Bagir washed and dried the suits 30 times and checked after every five cycles to see that the garment's shape and color could withstand water and heat. Finding the right formula took over two years and $10 million.

The new dryer-friendly version is made of 45% wool, 52% polyester and 3% lycra. The man-made fibers, says Offer Gilboa, chief executive of Bagir, prevent the wool from going back to its origins "as a wet lamb." The wool content prevents the plastic feel of earlier, all-polyester suits. Many men trying on the new suit in London say it isn't shiny, scratchy or hot and looks like the other middle-priced suits at the store.

At M&S, the "Wash and Tumble Dry Suit" went on sale a few weeks ago and comes in gray, black, navy and classic British chalk stripe, as well as double- or single-breasted. It costs £129 (about $230), less than most department-store brands. At Penney, the pants and the single-breasted, two-button jackets can be purchased separately. Neither Penney nor M&S would say how many of the suits they have sold, but both stores said the suit was selling well.

Upscale U.S. retailers Barney's New York, a unit of Jones Apparel Group Inc., and Brooks Brothers, a unit of Retail Brand Alliance Inc., declined to say whether they would ever consider selling a wash-and-dry suit. At Nordstrom Inc., spokesman Deniz Anders says, "It is a great idea though it needs more development."

In at least one corner of the fashion world, the suit is drawing praise.

"For some guys, polyester carries a stigma but it shouldn't because of its high wool content, which makes the suit hang very well," says Jim Moore, creative director of men's magazine GQ in New York. "This is a real business suit." He notes that polyester is losing its negative image, as an increasing number of fashion designers, including heavyweights such as Giorgio Armani, use synthetic fibers in men's suits. "I don't think it's a suit that's for every single man out there," he adds, "but it has a sensible price and would be great as a starter suit, or for a guy who is traveling a lot."

But, in Britain, the new suit may face a particularly tough time, even though it costs £9.99 (about $17.80) to dry-clean a suit in central London -- about twice as much as on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In Britain, where casual Fridays never caught on, suits are still de rigueur for business.

"It's about the image you want to project," says Steve Hughes, a 39-year-old information technology consultant who says he dreads wearing the wrong suit to work. "What you wear is a reflection on you as a professional."

Catherine Hayward, fashion director of British men's magazine Esquire, says she didn't see a great need to wash suits to begin with. "It's not like men are going to the meat market where they get covered in blood, or doing gardening in them," she says.

For Marc Psarolis, sales director for upscale British clothes maker Daks, the reaction is much more visceral.

"This is the Antichrist of what we believe in," he sniffs.

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