WASHINGTON -- For a year and a half, Paul Elgin walked by Everard's Clothing on his way to and from his Georgetown office. Sometimes the 36-year-old architect slowed down long enough to notice the hand-stitched suit jacket in the big window, or maybe an unusual silk tie.
Elgin knew he wasn't the typical shopper for Everard's, a small shop with Oriental rugs on the floor and $1,500 sport coats on display. So he never stopped.
Until two weeks ago. And Louis Everard was waiting.
Everard knew that Elgin, or others just like him, would eventually come in. One who has just gotten a taste of prosperity. One who has taken Casual Friday and turned it into Casual Everyday. The one who has spooked the men's clothing industry, for which suits and ties have long been the cash cows.
Why did Elgin finally walk into Everard's? A version of the excuse women used well before L'Oreal cosmetics paid a long line of blondes to say it: Because I'm worth it.
And that's why, even though many in men's fashion are crying that the banker's blue sky is falling, old-timers like Louis Everard remain calm.
Sartorial soldiers maintaining their posts, Everard and some of his fellow high-end men's clothiers -- men who once carried their measuring tape from law firm to law firm -- insist men who have grown up working in a sea of golf shirts will come around once they make enough money.
With the right touch, everyone can be rehabilitated, Everard said.
"I think even Steve Case will change," he said confidently, referring to the chief executive of America Online Inc.
Analysts are skeptical.
"My guess is that once those ties come off, it's going to be real tough to put them back on," said Barbara Wyckoff, a retail analyst at Buckingham Research Group in New York. "The men's suits business is horrible," she added.
Indeed, since Levi Strauss & Co. seized on the "casual Friday" concept in the early 1990s, corporate America hasn't been the same. In 1996, men bought 13 million suits. Last year, they bought 11 million, according to the NPD Group Inc., a marketing firm in Port Washington, N.Y.
Now, 76 percent of college students said they would be more likely to accept a job at a company that had a casual dress code, according to a February survey by the accounting firm KPMG.
Don't bother to tell that to Steve Winnick. Winnick, who, with his brother Todd, owns the specialty men's shop Winn Brothers in the Montgomery Mall in suburban Maryland, has heard the statistics. Some of his customers apologized in advance when their offices went casual, or when they left to take jobs at dot-coms.
"They said, 'You probably won't see us as often,' " he recalled.
But a funny thing happened, Winnick said. Those customers came back. "They wanted to be perceived in their workplace as someone who had arrived," he said.
Younger men who have benefited from the technology boom often start to crave a more pampered shopping experience, said Michael Colen, owner of James Ltd. in Virginia's Tysons II shopping center.
"It's exciting for them," he said. "They go, 'Wow, you mean you guys will make this for me and have it ready in 16 days and deliver it to my house?' "
Elgin has a touch of the wide-eyed syndrome. For the first time since college, he has paid off his credit-card debt. He has a house. He is a partner at his architectural firm.
When he walked into Everard's, Elgin went straight for the ties, as the 52-year-old Everard looked on with almost fatherly pride.
"I'm not a real pink guy, or power tie guy," Elgin explained to Everard a little nervously, "but I like the thinner, whatever the word is ..."
"You like the satins," Everard guided him.
Elgin picked out two Dion ties. As Everard's young salesman rang them up, Elgin told Everard he would ask his wife to start shopping for him there.
Said Jack Morgan of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Va.: "If you have a growing class of affluent young people, they're going to want options."
Of course, clothiers like Winnick and Everard have made concessions in the war against casual wear. Winnick now carries fewer suits and more separates. He added a line of Edwin jeans ($89 a pair). Flexibility of inventory, analysts pointed out, is a luxury small retailers have over large department stores.
Everard has added more knits, as well as button-down shirts made to be worn sans tie.
"This is my crossing over gently" to more casual wear, he said, laying out a white cotton shirt. The placket that covers the buttons means the shirt looks "put together" without a tie.
To make up for the decline of sales of his shop's $1,000-to-$1,500 suits, Winnick started carrying outerwear, mostly cashmere coats and leather jackets. To Winnick, this is the smart reaction. Many of his peers, on the other hand, have gone into a very unbecoming panic mode, he said.
He is referring, in part, to a movement called "Dress-Up Thursday" that a group of retailers has organized and that will officially begin Sept. 23. The merchants, including Men's Wearhouse and Neiman Marcus, have asked corporate chief executives to support the effort. They cite a study of human resource executives by the workplace law firm Jackson Lewis. Forty-four percent said they'd noticed an increase in tardiness and absenteeism since implementing casual dress policies.
The Dress-Up Thursday merchants are asking corporate America "to raise the bar," said Vincent Rua, the Albany, N.Y.-based president of the campaign.
Winnick rolls his eyes. "I think it's wishful thinking that (the retailers) can reverse this trend," he said, "no matter how nostalgic some of us might be."
But that doesn't mean the end for these clothiers.
Richard Giss, a retail analyst with Deloitte and Touche LLP, says, "There is still a place for (the upscale) salesman ... because the need for advice from a quality retailer has never been higher."
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