The signs are unmistakable. Hush Puppies, those rubber-soled, suede pigskin shoes that are almost too comfortable to wear without pangs of guilt, are treading with greater frequency in corporate boardrooms.
Starched white button-down Oxfords are no longer the law of the land at IBM, that former bastion of automated formality.
And retired priest Frederick J. Hanna of Baltimore can't even find a seersucker suit anymore.
What's the world coming to?
To the dismay of the stiff-upper-lip crowd, it's called casual wear. And it's coming to a store near you: Jos. A. Bank Clothiers.
For generations a purveyor of formal attire, Hampstead-based Bank is tossing out its women's wear and debuting this week a new line of men's casual haber--ery in its catalogs and chain of 83 stores in 36 states.
It's not a fashion statement. It's the difference between stagnating and thriving. But there is an inherent risk: The company is banking on replacing 20 percent of its annual sales -- $35 million in women's wear -- with a melange including soft jackets, knit shirts, sweaters, turtlenecks and corduroy slacks.
"It has nothing to do with survival. It has a lot to do with the strategic direction of the company," said Timothy F. Finley, Bank's chairman and chief executive officer. "We finally got the nerve to bite the bullet and said, 'We're going to do it.' "
It might have been riskier to maintain the status quo. For the most recent quarter, which ended April 29, Bank lost $4.2 million because of weak suit sales and the cost of phasing out its women's wear. And there's more to come: At a time when the apparel industry is mired in sluggish sales, the company has already signaled that additional expenses are expected to eat into second-quarter earnings.
Bank isn't alone in coping with changing fashions. The casual-wear phenomenon has prompted many traditional outfitters to take the plunge and others to buckle under. A case in point is the recent bankruptcy filing by Plaid Clothing Group Inc., a maker of men's tailored clothing that owns J. Schoeneman Inc. in Owings Mills.
Casual-wear combat has even reached into the upper echelons: Brioni, an Italian clothier boasting the world's most expensive off-the-rack suits, including those that actor Pierce Brosnan will wear in the upcoming James Bond movie, has for the first time deemed it necessary to market its $2,500 to $5,000 suits.
Meanwhile, powers in casual wear -- big names such as the Gap, Eddie Bauer and L. L. Bean -- continue a relentless march into new territory. "The only place they haven't put a Gap is in my living room," quipped Alan G. Millstein, editor and publisher of Fashion Network Report in New York.
It's only a slight exaggeration. Casual clothing accounts for about two-thirds of the $39 billion men's apparel industry in the United States and about 40 percent of the $71.8 billion in women's clothing. And the influence is showing: Only 20 percent of consumers usually wear formal business attire, and almost 90 percent wear casual clothing to work at some time during the year, according to a recent study by market researchers NPD Group Inc.
There is at least one compelling reason for the wardrobe revolution: "Performance doesn't necessarily suffer," said Peter Simon, NPD's director of soft-goods services. "It's almost a pain-free perk to come to work in casual apparel."
It happens that International Business Machines Corp., for one, has achieved record earnings in the first and second quarters this year, just as the huge computer company went casual.
"But I'm certainly not going to say there's a correlation," said IBM spokesman Tom Beermann, a holdout who still wears the corporate uniform: a tie, blue blazer and wool slacks.
Nevertheless, Mr. Beermann said, IBM is "trying to break out of a rigid bureaucratic mold," which included an unwritten dress code of "white shirts, blue or dark suits, wing-tip shoes and a boring tie."
Boring is one thing, but it isn't the only thing fueling the casual-wear trend.
Analysts point to other social forces at work: Some who went through the counterculture of the 1960s -- which was not exactly known for three-piece suits -- are now corporate America of the 1990s. The 501 generation is all grown up but still wearing jeans. More people are working at home. And the technology craze -- fax machines, computers and cellular phones -- means that fewer people have to look at each other face-to-face or get dressed up for power lunches.
Then there is the vague, gestalt explanation.
"The '90s have, to me, almost no fashion personality. I think fragmentation is the fashion of the '90s," said Jack Herschlag, executive director of the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers Inc. "To me, it mirrors what's going on in life in general. We don't have a coherent political structure as far as I can tell. I just think that where there was a unanimity a generation ago, now, nobody assumes anything. It's very here-and-now."
In other words, people are wearing what they want to.