Dress Reversal

The scene is an expensive, high-tech racing yacht returning to its slip on Long Island Sound. The time is the day after another dramatic Wall Street sell-off. Belowdecks, several men in their thirties bare their souls:

“I was up at Morgan last week,” the boat’s owner confides. “And they just went casual all the time.”

“And no one knows what to wear!” a Bear Stearns banker confirms, throwing his hands up in exasperation. You see, his firm is among the host of financial and legal institutions – along with Morgan Stanley; Goldman Sachs; and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft – that have suddenly and stunningly switched from their traditional uniform of conservative suits to a dressed-down free-for-all.

“The guys at J.P. Morgan are all coming in wearing their suit pants and a tieless shirt,” the owner says. “All they have is a closetful of suits and some ratty jeans for the weekend.”

“My wife is going to Woodbury Common to get me some khakis and a slew of Ralph Lauren polo shirts,” he adds, “since it’s the only thing she knows I can color-coordinate.”

These young bankers and lawyers can be forgiven for thinking that their firms would never loosen up – despite the fact that the rest of corporate America lost its taste for proper business attire some time ago. But now that they have, there’s a sartorial vacuum to be filled (and a whole new wardrobe to acquire.)

“This is a total failure on the part of the menswear industry,” designer Alan Flusser laments. “The industry has a great variety of men’s clothes. But there is no one to show men how to wear them.” English custom shirtmaker Frank Rostron agrees. He laughs while recounting how one of his customers, a senior vp at Merrill Lynch, attended a company-sponsored seminar on casual dress where he was advised to hit the nearest Banana Republic. “Imagine that!” says Rostron. “Men making $2 or $3 million a year showing up to work in clothes the rest of us wear on the weekend. Those are great clothes – but not for work.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that this isn’t really about casual; it’s about comfort. The impression you want to give with a casual wardrobe is that you are comfortable in your clothes and comfortable with your job. So comfortable, in fact, that you don’t need some silly suit to show that you are a serious player. (Think David Geffen, pre-DreamWorks.)

Comfort and style, however, are two different things. So here are a few rules to help you sort them out, and a few people around town who’ve been thinking about the problem for some time.

First rule: As Flusser points out, “The male wardrobe is built around some sort of coat.” Second: Luxury fabrics show you’re in another league. “If you’re going to wear a T-shirt,” Madison Avenue haberdasher Peter Elliot says, “make sure it is a linen T-shirt.” The same goes for any item in suede, cashmere, or Sea Island cotton. Third: As Oxxford Clothes’ Tom Stotler advises, “Get to the gym. A suit hides many sins.”

At a place like Sean (132 Thompson Street; 212-598-5980), Parisian Emile Lafaurie designs a stylishly casual painter’s jacket ($98) in a number of mordant colors and lush but serviceable fabrics. Put on one of his equally colorful cotton shirts and a solid tie, and you have a look that owner Sean Cassidy calls “workday meets play day.” Ideal for advertising or marketing types, these clothes say I’m a creative genius, but it’s all in a day’s work.

Chelsea’s Camouflage (141 Eighth Avenue; 212-741-9118) goes further with the outerwear-as-officewear trend. Norman Usiak will put you in a waxed-cotton white raincoat ($395) over dressy gray pants and a brightly patterned shirt. Though it might not be raining, you’ll look like you know something no one else does.

Albert Goldberg, the force behind Façonnable (689 Fifth Avenue; 212-319-0111), is something of a French Ralph Lauren. He uses the button-down spread-collar shirt ($90-$125) – and shirt jackets ($325-$495) in linens and such – as sartorial wedges that separate his tasteful, playful preppy clothes from their fussy Ivy League antecedents.

Another master of wit is Paul Smith (108 Fifth Avenue; 212-627-0770), whose long, lean suits ($1,400) have puckish details like fluorescent linings that go well with tieless shirts ($150- $170) in pastel green, say, and softer collars. His shop’s advice: “Don’t give up on the suit altogether; just reinvent it.”

Uptown, Peter Elliot (1070 Madison Avenue, near 81st Street; 212-570-2300) has been selling casual clothes to serious machers for 25 years. But he cautions against taking this fad too far. He tells his customers to wear their clothes the way they want to. Try suits with a pair of cowboy boots – or a denim shirt with French cuffs ($95-$125) and a casual tie. “Upgrade your slacks, shirts, and shoes,” he admonishes those who don’t want to spend money on casual clothes, “so you don’t look like a locker-room fool.”

Frank Rostron, the shirtmaker, who comes to town about five times a year (check www.frankrostron.co.uk, or call 011-44-161-236-5379 for his American schedule), also makes looser casual shirts designed to be worn open without a tie. He has been asking his New York clients: “How many times have you been told how good you look when you’ve been dressed casually? If never, perhaps because you don’t.” Rostron offers his customers free consultations at their offices and recommends smart checks and stripes in summer colors.

Finally, Oxxford Clothes (36 East 57th Street; 212-593-0204) has a sign in its window that reads casual day guidance counseling, 10-6. “These guys cannot get enough gabardine,” Stotler says of the fabric once familiar only to connoisseurs. His alternative-dress advice is long on classic combos like navy blazers ($1,450-$1,650) and buff-colored pants ($395-$695). “No one knows if this will last, but I’m selling great clothes that will stay in your closet no matter what happens.”

No one caught in this sartorial confusion is willing to make a prediction on whether a new sort of dress code will emerge or the old guard will return once the dot-com craze has passed. In a classic example of finessing the problem, Goldman, Sachs (where investment bankers are required to meet with all sorts of casual entrepreneurs as well as corporate types) is calling its dress code “business-appropriate.” Which sounds like another way of saying you’re on your own for now.

The wise money, though, will probably hedge this market. Stotler finds most 30-year-olds still buying suits. “When you are young and trying to make your mark,” he explains, “it is hard to create a commanding presence in a T-shirt.”

Dress Reversal