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Italian menswear industry recovers as dress codes blur

By Weixin Zha


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Image: Nick Leuze for FashionUnited

Italy’s menswear sector is recovering from a slump during the pandemic. Amid easing coronavirus restrictions and rising sales, fashion brands look to redefine what men will wear as they return to offices and go on vacation.

You know men are serious about fashion when they don’t mind sweating in bespoke suits as temperatures soar above 35 degrees Celsius. More of those sartorial aficionados could be spotted last week at Pitti Uomo in Florence as the menswear fair recorded its best season since the outbreak of the pandemic. According to preliminary estimates, 11,000 attended the event, compared to 8,000 in January when travel restrictions and lockdowns still gripped the industry.

'The menswear market is restarting'

The recovery of the Italian menswear industry started last year, when sector sales increased 15.2 percent to 9.4 billion euros from 8.2 billion euros the previous year, according to a study by associations Confindustria Moda and Sistema Moda Italia.

Image: Liu Jo

“The menswear market is restarting,” said Antonio Ricciardi during an interview in Florence on Thursday. He is the commercial director of Cocama Srl, the company that holds the licence for the menswear line of Italian fashion brand Liu Jo. The brand started to sell its men’s collection via wholesale in 2020 and hopes to double its menswear revenues from 46 million euros in 2021 to 100 million euros in 2025.

“In our retail, I can see the need for men to dress up and come back to fashion again,” said Ricciardi. “The men in this moment have to reinterpret the new contemporary formal.” Liu Jo proposes styles in which denim, a central part of its collection, is mixed with formal pieces, such as a denim jacket combined with chino trousers.

Denim is a growing category in menswear this year. Italian retailers from mass to luxury fashion have increased their denim offering by 42 percent in the three months to June 21 compared to the same period 2020, data from retail intelligence company Edited shows.

Comeback of the suit

The upbeat sentiment was echoed by the brand Antony Morato from the vicinity of Naples. “2021 has been a good year for us, we have registered a plus-21-percent increase versus 2020; and 2022 is going even better,” said chief executive officer Lello Cardarelli by email. The brand increased sales by 22.3 percent to 23.6 million euros in the first quarter. “We’re doing even better in these months and we have a forecast of closing this year at 80 million euros,” he added.

Image: Antony Morato

In the first part of the year, the strongest trend for the company was “formal fashion”, said Cardarelli. The founder of Antony Morato believes that this will continue for the remainder of the year as customers begin to attend events and public occasions again. “Suits will certainly be 2022 best-sellers,” he predicted.

The demand for suits has fluctuated in recent years. In early 2020, before the spread of the coronavirus, suiting and tailoring categories were prevalent across Italian retailers, said Edited market analyst Krista Corrigan by email. One year later, the number of new items online declined by 37 percent as brands scaled back offerings in light of lockdowns and cancelled events. The category rebounded in 2022 with sell-outs of suits and blazers increasing 91 percent from 2020.

Comfort and ease

The comeback of the suit signals a rejuvenated desire to dress up; however, men don’t want to let go of comfort altogether. “Things are getting a little bit more classic again. It’s still casual but with a little bit more weaving and more buttoned up,” said Katie Liu, partner of multi brand menswear showroom Black Dog from New York, at a panel at Pitti Uomo.

Even the Italian market, traditionally revered for its smart style of dressing, was forced to turn to loungewear and comfort apparel during lockdowns, said Corrigan. And the trend to cosy apparel prevails: Hoodies and sweatpants are still experiencing double-digit growth compared to two years ago, data from Edited shows. Hoodies increased by 43 percent in the assortment of retailers in the three months to June 21 from the same period in 2020 and sweatpants by 77 percent.

Image: Tombolini

Men are seeking more comfort, said Jacopo Ferranti, communication manager at Tombolini Fashion Group. Currently, customers prefer items from the company's running line to classic suits; there is a preference for stretchy, comfortable and easy fabrics. Tombolini presented its new Zero Gravity suit at Pitti Uomo - a set comprising a blazer and trousers with relaxed fit that can be cleaned in the washing machine.

Green longevity

“The company has to be flexible and fast in answering customer demands that are changing everyday,” Ferranti explained last week at the fair. Tombolini is also reacting to the trend for sustainable fashion by introducing jackets from recycled polyester, and hemp that has the appearance of leather.

“Today, people are very careful about buying good and well-done products and will eventually spend more,” said Raffaello Napoleone, the chief executive officer of the fair organiser Pitti Imagine Srl, during an interview on Friday.

The booming resale market – also a reflection of more conscious shopping behaviour – is one of the factors spurring demand for high quality items that can be sold again.

Image: AKAstudio-Collective

“The very high end of the market is performing well. The middle market is performing but is not as successful as the high end,” said Napoleone about the current Italian menswear market.

Rise of vacation wear

Other rising categories in menswear are beachwear and swimwear. They have been an afterthought for buyers in the past but not anymore, said Katie Liu. As people catch up on vacations, retailers should also consider related fashion items such as a blazer for an after-beach dinner.

Since travel is back “with a vengeance”, swimwear offerings at Italian retailers have jumped 17 percent compared to 2020 and majority sell outs are up 72 percent, data from Edited for the three months to June 21 show. When vacation was halted during the pandemic, the category declined 7 percent in 2021.

“Now, it’s starting pretty well again,” said Pierfrancesco Virlinzi, the founder of swimwear brand Piersicilia. “People want to go to the beach, they want to travel.” He expects that business will grow again, especially in physical shops. His stockists reported an early start of the season this year as people are flocking to luxury hotels and resorts from the French Riviera to Greek islands, which are the main point of sales of the young Sicilian menswear brand. Virlinzi is hoping to double sales in 2022.

Image: Piersicilia

The outlook

Even though Italian menswear sales recovered in 2021 from a slump during the pandemic, they still haven’t surpassed the all-time-high of 10.5 billion euros reached in 2019, the study by associations Confindustria Moda and Sistema Moda Italia shows.

Nonetheless, the market for Italian menswear will continue to grow as sales have largely remained on an “upward trajectory” – except for the decline during the pandemic year of 2020, according to Napoleone.

“It will grow because there are not many alternatives. Europe and especially the United States will remain the driving forces of the menswear industry,” he said. In the past year, Italian menswear exports rose to 6.6 billion euros surpassing 2018, with Germany, France, the UK and the US as top destinations.

It will be hard to reach the sales level of 2019 this year because of many uncertainties such as the war in Ukraine, spiralling energy prices, inflation and markets such as Japan just emerging from Covid restrictions, Napoleone said.

When dress codes are gone

Only knitwear outperformed sales levels of 2019, while categories like confection, leather goods and shirts stayed behind,data by Confindustria and Sistema Moda show. And tie sales even continued their decline from before the pandemic. The reluctance of men to invest in ties and their unabated demand for body-hugging, comfy knitwear underline that men still prefer comfort to formality.

Two years after the outbreak of the pandemic, men will want to look “well-dressed and put-together but there is not necessarily a formula anymore,” said Josh Peskowitz, a New York-based brand director and consultant for Naples-based menswear label Sannino Napoli, during a panel at the fair last week.

“Men have tried to fit in, at least in the past,” he said, referring to dress codes such as the traditional suit, but these rules no longer apply. The new world can also be a scary place: “There is so much freedom, the codes are gone.”

Pitti Uomo