Tony Nunes was already planning to sell his long-standing men's clothing store in downtown Waterbury, Conn. But since the coronavirus shutdown in March, the 25-year-old business faces an uncertain future.
"When we got back in May, the other person who was going to take over opted out," Nunes told Cheddar. "He said that he had no interest in being a business owner anymore, especially in men's apparel."
Tony's Men's Shop, a modest glass storefront containing dense rows of quality slacks, shirts, jackets, and ties, is now set to close down and liquidate before the end of the year if Nunes can't find another buyer.
"I asked other merchants in the tri-state area and no one seemed interested in expanding," he said.
Tony's is the kind of old-school men's clothing store where salespeople carry a piece of yellow measuring tape around their necks and remember your size if you're a returning customer, but its recent troubles aren't limited to independent shops from a bygone era of retail.
Multiple high-profile bankruptcies are changing the face of the men's clothing industry. The parent company of Men's Wearhouse and Jos. A. Banks filed in early August, and the 202-year-old retailer Brooks Brothers filed back in July.
Other companies specializing in business and formal attire, including women-centered brands such as Ann Taylor, Loft, and Lord & Taylor, have suffered a similar fate, but the men's clothing category saw the steepest drop.
The industry hit rock-bottom in April at 12 percent of January sales after adjusting for seasonal variations. By June, it had clawed back just 38 percent of sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most retailers agree that shutdowns and a shift to working at home are partly to blame for the drop, but men's clothing stores, which tend to specialize in formal and work attire, have been fighting to make up for the drop in business clients for years as offices have become more casual.
"We still have a small business-attire clientele in comparison to five [or] six years ago," Nunes said. "I still have a customer base that returns, but not as much as before. That's got to be down over 50 percent."
He added that he's made up the difference by appealing to fashion trends. His business now relies more on younger men looking for a "hip, tailored suit" than office workers looking for the obligatory shirt and tie.
Men's clothing is also tied directly to the health of the broader economy. Demand for new men's clothes rises with the employment rate, because many jobs still require men to wear office attire to work, according to IBISWorld, a marketing research firm.
In other words, the strong macroeconomic conditions of the last five years have propped the industry up, despite increased competition from online retailers and a shift toward more casual attire at the office.
Two miles down the road from Tony's Men's Shop is friendly competitor Ram's Clothier, another long-time purveyor of men's attire.
For owner Dave Ram, whose father started the business in the 1970s, the last few years were actually the best he's seen in his career.
"It's sad, but we were at an all-time high pre-COVID," he said. "Our business was better than it's ever been in 40 years before March 20, which is the day we shut down as a non-essential business."
Ram said sales are still down 30-40 percent, largely due to losing the 2020 prom season, but are now ticking upwards thanks to upcoming weddings that were rescheduled due to the virus.
Weddings, in general, have been a boon to men's clothing shops, especially as the tuxedo rental business has fallen off.
"The tuxedo rental business has almost become non-existent," Ram said. "Instead they're buying a new slim-fitting, tailored suit for themselves for a little bit more than what a rental would have cost them."
IBISWorld predicts that the industry revenues will decline over the next five years, even as employment and discretionary spending bounces back in the wake of COVID-19.
In the shorter term, Ram anticipates weathering the pandemic, but changes in the industry will continue to force his business to adapt.
"Guys are definitely wearing fewer suits," he said. "You would walk into any car dealership in Connecticut or the U.S., and the salesmen would greet you in a suit, shirt, and a tie. Now you see them in company-logoed polos."
But neither Ram or Nunes are nostalgic about the old days. Changing consumer expectations are just a part of the business.
"I never really depended on my businessman," Nunes said. "It was always the younger guys getting into the business world. He didn't want what his father was wearing or what his grandfather was wearing."
Leonard Simon of Wright & Simon in Wilmington, Del., whose father opened the business in 1935, is decidedly more frustrated with the lack of interest in old-fashioned business wear.
"Most of my customers who know of us know our reputation and know-how to find us," he said. "However, there are a lot of younger people out there who don't even understand the concept of a suit. They call a shirt a button-up. I had never heard that before."
Being in Wilmington — a tight cluster of banking and financial services firms with a venerable business culture — the store has been able to beat the industry trends. But that hasn't made it any easier for Simon, a veteran sartorialist, to watch how customers have changed.
"They're in a lost little world when they come into businesses like this," he said.