Like most brushes with terror, it started innocently enough.
There I was, browsing in the men's department at Hecht's, minding my own business. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the voice thundered in my ear:
"Can I show you something in a 42 long?"
I must have jumped a foot.
But it was only a smiling salesman trying to interest me in an Italian suit. Still, I broke out in a cold sweat, gasped for air and my heart raced: No, not this -- I'd rather do anything than look at a new suit.
Then I felt a sharp pain in my ribs.
It was my wife's elbow.
"Lighten up," she growled. "Why do you always act this way whenever we shop for clothes?"
"You don't understand," I said, struggling to regain my composure. "I've got a little-understood affliction that only strikes men.
"I'm 'fashion-impaired.' "
That's right. I suffer from a consumer disorder that leaves me shaking with fear at the mere thought of shopping for new clothes. For example, I can never tell whether the $300 sports jacket I just bought will stay in style for more than 45 seconds after handing over my credit card. Another telling symptom of my disorder: I'm at a complete loss at figuring out whether the snazzy Italian silk tie I just plunked down $35 for will evoke nods of approval -- or snorts of laughter.
Sufferers like me -- and I can't help but think there are others out there who are clothing-disabled -- even have a patron saint: noted haber--er Will Shakespeare. Here's what he said: "The fashion wears out more apparel than the man." Shakespeare, I propose, was one of us.
This year, however, there's a ray of hope for people like me: The latest reports from the fashion capitals of Europe say we're in for a well-earned break in this year's search for new fashions. Thanks to a combination of recent events -- the recession, detente in the rules of dressing and some uniquely '90s social trends -- the iron grip of the designer gurus of Paris and Milan has relaxed, which means the search for suitable, stylish clothing this spring should be easier than ever. Even if you're fashion-impaired.
Here's why: There's a swing toward traditional clothing styles that should stay in fashion for years. Moreover, many of this spring's new clothes work well in and out of the office. In other words, they feature good values, traditional styles and versatility.
Here's the million-dollar question: How did all of this come about? To answer it, let's take a closer look at the factors that are influencing fashion menswear this spring. First, the recession: The current economic downturn came with a silver lining -- at least if you're planning to invest in new clothes. Why? Because of poor retail sales over the holidays, virtually everything you purchase this spring will be bought on sale.
"It use to be nobody ran sales until April, but I don't think that will be the case this year," says Ted Olson, director of marketing for Jos. A. Bank Clothiers. "If retailers aren't promoting, they aren't selling. Nobody pays full price anymore."
Retailers also say they detect a new conservative attitude among today's consumers.
"Because of the recession, people are not as frivolous when it comes to buying clothes," says Larry Belt, owner of Saeno Menswear Collective in Mount Vernon. "The '80s are over. Men are looking for multipurpose clothes that can be worn more than once."
Besides flexibility, retailers say customers demand more value than ever when they shop for new clothes.
"People are looking for investment dressing," says Mr. Olson. "They want to buy clothes that are good for three or four years -- because money is tight."
And that's good news, not just for the fashion-impaired, but for everyone. With a demand for clothes that stay in style, retailers and manufacturers are stressing traditional clothing, not fads. Jos. Bank, for example, is emphasizing suits and silk sports jackets in its spring lineup. "People are trying to get back to basics in career wear," Mr. Olson says.
But a return to traditional styles doesn't mean old-fashioned stodginess. "More prevalent in all kinds of clothes is a fully cut look," says Tony Barbato, vice president for men's clothing at Hamburgers. "That means they offer a loose, easy, comfortable fit."
At Brooks Brothers, a bastion of fashion conservatism, managers say they saw the move toward more traditional clothing coming.
"Every three or four years, men's clothing swings back toward traditional, and that's what we're seeing now," says Gordon Ashby, the store's manager.
In addition to a return to classic styles, there's an innovation in many shops that should further reduce stress among the fashion-disabled when it comes to buying a new suit.
"A lot of manufacturers are going to suit separates," Mr. Olson says. "Instead of buying a jacket and pant hung together, you can choose, say, a 41-long jacket and buy the pant separately, either pleated or non-pleated -- and in the waist size you need. That way you don't need to have the pant altered."
If traditional styles and good values aren't enough to brighten the day of men who hate to shop for clothes, here's more good news: With a shift toward more relaxed rules of dressing, you can get more bang for your wardrobe buck.
"People are Friday-dressing," says Harvey Hyatt, co-owner of Hyatt & Co. "It means you can wear more casual clothes to work -- say, a denim dress shirt with a tie and jacket that you can wear straight from work for the evening. It's a warm, comfortable, witty look."
The new casualness in business dress opens a new era of flexibility, Mr. Hyatt says. And it allows for more expressive dressing.
"You can dress in a classic style but still not look like everybody else -- and avoid being outdated, or worse, a fashion fatality. Looking aggressive or colorful is more in tune with the world; looking like everyone else is passe."
Take, for example, the chambray shirt, a classic example of how some items can help bridge the transition from work to leisure.
"It's a relatively new fabric for business wear, with the color of light denim, but a more open weave," Mr. Olson says. "It's showing up everywhere, except for accountants and lawyers."
Another new shirt fabric promises both flexibility and style, according to Saeno's Mr. Belt. "This spring we're carrying a white cotton shirt made in an eyelet fabric with little holes with stitching around it," he says. "It's got an open weave and a cool texture. The shirt's something people haven't seen before, but you can get a lot of use out of it."
While flexibility and style are the watchwords for shirts, look for a big change in neckwear this spring: a move away from flamboyant abstracts and motif ties.
"This year, there's a return to rep stripes in neckwear," Mr. Olson says. "Last year, people were buying florals and medallions, but that's gone by the wayside."
While ties are getting more conservative this season, a pant style that gained wide acceptance in the '80s should remain popular. "Pleated pants are more prevalent this year, representing about 70 percent of Bank's pant business," Mr. Olson says.
A more sudden fashion shift this spring is the demise of a signature accessory of the boom-boom '80s -- suspenders. "Belts are more popular now," Mr. Olson says. "We're not seeing the interest in suspenders of two years ago."
How about some of the other changes in men's fashions? To counter society's pervasive sameness, look for fashion items that emphasize a person's individuality -- and they don't have to be expensive, one-of-a-kind custom suits, either.
How about something in a nice shirt?
"Dress shirts are loosening up," says Arnold Borenstein, owner of Eclectic. "This spring, look for shirts with oversized buttons and double-track stitching on the collar. Bankers won't buy it, but someone else will say, 'That was made for me.' "
Other retailers, too, report a burgeoning popularity in quirky items that appeal to hard-core individualists -- definitely a '90s trend. "Customers don't want to be wearing what everyone else is wearing," Mr. Belt says.
One item he predicts will do well this year is a novelty fabric in shirts: "It's almost a dish towel fabric and made to be worn outside the pant -- a very cool cotton. It's dressed-up casual."
With baby boomers moving into their 40s, new fashions will have to do more than satisfy the individual ego: A social trend called "down aging" addresses the fact that the over-35 generation is fighting like hell not to get older. Look for fashion innovations that will take boomers back to their youth: soft stripes in dress shirts with a '50s look, cowboy belts with Southwestern motifs a la Roy Rogers, tartan madras ties with a '50s, cartoonish flavor.
"Fashions like that help us stay young and live through another childhood," says Mr. Borenstein, 41. "Our kids don't get it, but
we go nuts."