It could have been just another group of businessmen meeting for a convention last week at the Stouffer Hotel last. But broad-shouldered, double-breasted, and ventless, their suits told who they were --the International Association of Clothing Designers.
A few women designers were present, but the annual convention, held in Baltimore for the second time, was mostly made up of male designers and manufacturers from around the world. An envoy of lively Italians kissed each other on the cheeks, the Japanese bowed, and contingents from Canada, Uruguay and other places also exchanged greetings.
In spite of the babble of languages in the air, the word on everyone's lips, in all languages was "soft."
Softness is comfort and everyone wants to be comfortable," says Daniel Dymenstein, chief executive officer for Dymac, a fine clothing manufacturer based in Uruguay. "The technology of trimmings and the making of a suit will change. The problem is not fabric, but the way you can sew fabric. The hard suit will never come again. It's uncomfortable. It's like the pant was for ladies. Once it was introduced 35 years ago, no one wanted to give it up."
The softer suit with broader shoulders originated in Europe, yet had a strong bearing on the styles presented in the clothing designers' fashion show. Color also was news: swaggering overcoats in earth tones, stand-out dinner jackets in chartreuse, black and white houndstooth suits with a 1930s feeling, sportcoats trimmed in suede, and sophisticated double-breasted suits in colors such as olive.
Many of the styles are something of a stretch for a Baltimore man, especially the ones designed with a ventless back. Tony Barbato, vice president and men's merchandise manager of Hamburgers, Kennedys, Harris & Frank, the Baltimore-based retail company with stores nationwide, believes that change comes slowly but surely.
"It's not easy making a transition, but you can make people's attitudes change. A lot of people want to get away from the traditional uniform -- they want to wear something that pops out at you. If you ask who this customer is, I can't tell you-- I've seen 30-year-olds and 60-year-olds," says Barbato, who himself was dressed in a stylish gray suit made by Hugo Boss, owner of his company.
"What has slowed up [selling] is merchandise that has a pedestrian look, that's very middle of the road, very classic. What's turned up is that replacement clothing -- a blue blazer or gray suit to replace one already in the closet -- is not being bought. Upscale fashion merchandise that pops out, that's what people will spend money on," says Barbato.
Saturday, a style forecast workshop was held with discussion of trends that should emerge in the decade. White, neutrals likened to "laboratory chemicals," primary brights, camouflage and earth tones should all have their place, according to Carol Weber, one of the forecasters. New "microfibers" refined polyester that looks and feels like silk -- are booming as less expensive alternatives to wool.
The three-piece suit, and other elements of America's past, are embraced by Bill Robinson, the New York and Tokyo-licensed designer who is now creating suits for Schoeneman, the local manufacturer.
"The general pattern is to refer to anything hip or stylish as European," rues Robinson, who spoke on the forecasting panel. "In America, we should be more in tune with our style instead of just looking far ahead. It's important that our references are from our culture. All of my references are from Americana -- it could be New England boating, Miami Beach, the funky '50s or old Cary Grant movies."
"An American look and spirit is popular all over the world. There's no reason we can't get that across ourselves. If the peasant look is in, it's up to Americans not to do Italian peasant, but American worker," says Robinson.
In fact, the designer predicts that in a few years -- after everyone in America has been to Italy and back the international fashion rage will be the old-fashioned, American business look.
"I think what's going to look fresh in a couple of years is a charcoal suit, a white shirt and a crisp Rep tie," says Robinson.
Baltimore guys, rest easy.