The potential impact of the Republican candidate in the American presidential election on world peace, global trade and democracy in America have been exhaustively covered. Less discussed is the dark shadow that Donald Trump casts over the world of fashion, but for those of us who live under it, it looms large. For I am not alone in suspecting that Trump will go down in fashion history as the man who killed the business suit.
Donald Trump loves his suits. Whether he is on the stump, Fox News or “The Apprentice”, he wears one, and they are undoubtedly very expensive. How do I know that? First, it stands to reason that they must be – they belong to Donald Trump. And second, you can see it in the fabrics: Trump seems fond of light, finely woven superfine wools, sometimes in mohair or silk mix blends, that come in a slightly varying suite of the classic sartorial patterns. Just like his political spirit-cousin Silvio Berlusconi, he favours a notched lapel so confidently broad as to border on the comically brash. Unlike Berlusconi, however, Trump has a cavalier disregard for fit. The powerfully roped shoulders on his jackets are much too broad for the man inside them, lending him a silhouette so oddly emphasised as to appear prosthetically enhanced. Inexplicably this complements his hair.
Down on his southern borders Trump has built himself a collection of pants whose cut is as disturbing as the Great Wall of Mexico. It is as expansive as his demeanour, as loose as his tax arrangements, as unstructured as his policies and as overlong as his fits of pique with anyone who criticises him.
And I am not one of those people. Oh no. Because Trump’s suits really do suit him. They are cartoonishly plutocratic, historically accurate Eighties power suits. They are lumpily rendered emblems of success (also the name of Trump’s fragrance) that absolutely add to an aura so many seem bewitched by. Clothes maketh the man, and all that.
Yet while Trump’s suits are great for Trump, they are terrible for businesses that depend on the world’s executive classes wearing them too. For his emergence as the most rolling-news, front-page prominent avatar of the two-piece couldn’t come at a worse time for a business that is already suffering.
The suit reigned supreme as the default vernacular of menswear for most of the 20th century, but has been in decline for much of the 21st. Yes, financial professionals, civil servants, lawyers, politicians and undertakers are still institutionally uniformed in tailoring. But sportswear and workwear (jeans, etc) now rule on the street. And this trend has trickled up. The male digital entrepreneurs who represent the apex of influence and aspiration in 2016 wear T-shirts and hoodies. The ultimate expression of masculine, millennial power dressing is now informal wear: wearing track pants to a board meeting and sneakers instead of brogues shows that you don’t work for the company – you started it.
This June, the largest financial institution in America, JPMorgan Chase, updated its dress code by downgrading the suit: in a company-wide memo issued to 237,000 employees it specified that “casual pants” and “casual shirts that are business appropriate” are now acceptable working attire. Only for meetings with clients – such as Trump, perhaps – who expect to see Chase bankers in top-to-toe tailoring is a suit now required.
Only yesterday I met a mournful luxury-tailored menswear executive in a $4,000-ish cashmere blazer (soon to be available for far less on clearance): anonymously he conceded that his firm’s suit sales are slumping. Brioni, one of Italy’s most wonderful tailoring houses, was recently forced to lay off several hundreds of its tailors. And Canali and Zegna have both recently parted company with their chief designers.
These companies still employ thousands of tailors and sell tens of thousands of beautiful, liquid-soft, precision-cut suits. And there are still millions of men who are required to wear tailored clothing to work. Being obliged to wear something, however, is very different from wanting to wear it.
The suit is much more than a clownish uniform of power. It is a wearable expression of culture, an emblem of discernment whose details transmit a sophisticated, time-honed code of craftsmanship. Barack Obama and even Vladimir Putin (who are both clients of Canali) are in their ways both politically prominent exemplars of that. But Trump? The higher he rises, the more likely it is that a generation that is already increasingly uninterested in aspiring to tailoring will be turned off it for good – repelled by the cut of his cloth and appalled by the man inside it.