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."