MARKETRENDS;FASHION'S STRONG SUIT IS OFTEN A 'SOFT' ONE;SUITED FOR YOUNG MEN;DESIGNERS SEEK RIGHT FIT AS MANY MEN THINK MORE CASUAL

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Men's fashion designers are putting more stock in dressing up and are betting their consumers will follow suit.

With the advent of casual Fridays and the spread of more relaxed office attire to other weekdays, particularly in the past two years, fashion pundits were predicting the demise of the suit. But designers aren't about to give up on suits.

All manner of suits were in this year's spring and fall collections: three-button, double-breasted, single-breasted with large and even notched collar styles. There were also untailored, soft suits, called that because of their more stylish and comfortable cut, which appeals to younger men who shun traditional suits.

"The general fashion direction is soft suits," said Frank Brenner, corporate VP for Hartmarx Corp. "Almost everything is soft today, and designers are really trying to push them."

Designers hope the fresher and more fashionable styles will "lure the young guys in. Designers want to still be designing 30 years from now so they need to attract and keep a following of young men," said Jack Herschlag, executive director of the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers.

While there are fewer men wearing suits these days, those still wearing them are buying more.

MRCA Information Services, Stamford, Conn., says although actual penetration of the 12,000 households it monitors fell from 0.6% in 1993 to 0.3% in '94, the remaining households increased their purchases of suits from 2.5 to 4.

And U.S. sales of tailored clothing hit $4.2 billion in 1994, up 10.5% from the previous year, said Alan Millstein, of the Fashion Network Report, a retail consultancy.

Suits are a matter of survival for designers because they have marquee value and impart an aura of prestige. "In the fashion world, the suit is really a status symbol. Without suits, a collection would be incomplete," Mr. Herschlag said. "If a designer wants his own department in a store, he has to have all types of clothes, including suits and sportswear."

Now that men are no longer tied to a strict dress code, even at the office, designers have to strive to make their suits more appealing, especially to young men.

And most experts agree that advertising, in order to attract young men, should convey a real message: hip but comfortable. Said designer Joseph Abboud: "In terms of advertising, the fashion industry is living in the '80s while the consumer is living in the '90s. We have to stop advertising for ourselves with all these chic, slick campaigns. We need to let the consumer know what our clothes can offer him. That's smart marketing."

Added Tom Wallis, senior VP-marketing and sales for GFT Apparel Corp., the licensing company for many designers including Mr. Abboud and Andrew Fezza: "The traditional, sleek, Italian ads seem a little '80s to young men."

The menswear pendulum, he said, will eventually swing back to a middle ground from casual.

"The trend is still very new, and people are coming to work in clothes they mowed the lawn in over the weekend. How long is management going to put up with that?" Mr. Wallis asked. To help ease the way: more casual suits.

Mr. Abboud introduced American Soft last fall geared toward younger men or those "young at heart," said Bob Franceschini, senior VP-marketing for Joseph Abboud Co.

The jackets, soft and semiconstructed, are often displayed with turtlenecks and polo shirts as an alternative to dress shirts.

Ads for the Joseph Abboud Collection spring line, created in-house by GFT, appeared in a variety of publications such as GQ, Vanity Fair, Esquire and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

The American Soft line hasn't been advertised yet, but Mr. Franceschini hopes the company will support it next spring. At that time, he said, "We want to expand our media to include more alternative books like Rolling Stone, Interview and Details by spring of 1996, in addition to outdoor advertising, which we've never used before. It is a great way to reach the twenty-and thirtysomethings."

The number of retailers stocking Joseph Abboud suits, priced from $550 to $795, rose 22% for the fall 1995 collection.

Andrew Fezza's ads for his spring line include a cartoon strip featuring Gary, the hip New Yorker, who turns into a superhero wearing an Assets/Andrew Fezza power suit.

"The cartoon speaks to a younger consumer. It's a little more entertaining," Mr. Wallis said. GFT created the advertising in-house.

For his spring collection, the designer branched out to publications such as Interview, Out and Swing to grab younger consumers. The company plans to use more alternative, youth-oriented books this fall.

"We are experimenting with non-traditional media and looking at less obvious placements for our ads," Mr. Wallis said. For his spring collection, the designer began using outdoor advertising in New York City with a board on the West Side Highway and will soon use outdoor in other cities.

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