It was in March last year that Richard Jarman, founder and creative director of the Sydney-based menswear label Commas, realised he might be in trouble. The Covid-19 pandemic was becoming less an abstract possibility in Australia and more an eventuality. Department stores were closing their doors and the lack of precedent left him and others in the industry in a state of paralysis. “It got super scary for everyone,” he says. “People here were either just sending collections, or in the process of sending collections, and really trying to navigate what on earth to do.”
Jarman picked up the phone and began calling other young designers to survey the damage. He frequently exchanged notes with Charlotte Hicks of Esse Studios, who suggested it might be time to launch an e-commerce store, a step he’d been hesitant to make since the brand’s 2017 launch. “We were always so focused on the international retailers,” he says of the strategy. Still, he took Hicks’ advice. Commas quietly started an online store in early July — and got immediate traction. The label was picked up by Bloomingdale’s in Dubai and the Canadian retailer Ssense, which both placed orders for the spring 21 season, along with current stockists Matchesfashion, Mytheresa and Harry Rosen. A collection with the luxury Byron Bay hotel Raes on Wategos followed, along with an invitation to present at Milano Digital Fashion Week, with a follow-up spot in the 2021 showcase.
Somehow, in the midst of a pandemic and the biggest economic collapse ever recorded in Australia, Jarman managed to more than double the brand’s sales and distributors. This would be less surprising if Commas specialised in lockdown go-tos such as jersey tees and trackpants. But the label’s bread and butter is European-style swim shorts and holiday-ready resortwear. A simple print shirt in a blend of silk and cotton retails at more than $500, and though the label’s signature Italian linen robe feels loungewear adjacent, its price tag doesn’t exactly scream recession-era spending. But the brand’s growth highlights two shifts that were percolating prior to the pandemic.
The first is that menswear is both a nuanced and expanding sector in the Australian retail market, illustrated in a 2019 report by the research and advisory company Technavio, which predicted global market growth of almost $US154 billion ($200 billion) from 2020-24. In that period, it’s estimated, more than 39 per cent of growth will come from the Asia-Pacific region.
The second shift is that, more than ever, men want their wardrobes to align with their values. “People really care about authenticity,” Jaman says. “Menswear as a market is very competitive; however, consumers are now on the lookout for something original and something meaningful.” Meaning has underscored Australian fashion trends over the last year, with designers seeking out new, evocative ways to sell collections in light of widespread pandemic-induced spending freezes. In an update to its “Clothing Retailing in Australia” report, IBISWorld estimates that the local fashion industry suffered an 8.5 per cent decline in revenue in 2019-20, a stark contrast to the 0.4 per cent increase it had anticipated.
In 2020, a number of Australian brands entered voluntary administration, including Seafolly, Alice McCall and retailer Tuchuzy, while international menswear giants G-Star Raw and Brooks Brothers declared bankruptcy. Nathan Cloutman, a senior industry analyst at IBISWorld, puts it down to remote working and a lack of foot traffic during lockdowns. “We saw that demand for suits, ties and shirts — business wear — really dropped off,” he says. “We saw hoodies, sweats, trackpants really start to increase in sales.” Athletic wear was another winner. “Because gyms were shut, a lot more people were exercising in the park or outside,” he says. “So there was definitely a lot more push for running shoes, running tops and more athletic clothes.”
While bricks-and-mortar retail suffered, digital sales continued to climb. “We saw digital penetration in menswear go from 17 per cent in around 2018, that’s jumped up to around 22 per cent now,” Cloutman says. And the market is predicted to grow. IBISWorld’s “Online Men’s Clothing Sales in Australia” report forecasts a 5.7 per cent revenue increase in 2020-21. Beyond our shores, it’s a similar story. Damien Paul, the head of menswear at Matchesfashion, says the online retailer encountered numerous logistical side effects, but had generous growth in some areas. “We worked closely with our brand partners to understand their struggles, supporting them as much as possible,” he says. “However, after overcoming many of these challenges, we have seen some fantastic growth across many different categories.”
Jewellery, for example, is expanding, with the site selling an additional 13 fine-jewellery brands. The retailer’s basics category has grown by almost a third and loungewear sets are up 97 per cent. “Activewear is now part of our everyday uniform,” Paul says. “This is a growing category for us, up nearly three-quarters year-on-year. The result is a new and relaxed uniform, interspersed with sporty, high-performance pieces.” He says the Australian menswear labels Matchesfashion now offers — including Commas, Ksubi, Cleverly Laundry, 2xu and Dear Letterman — are successful because they have global appeal and the designers understand seasonality. He’s seen the rise of “mood purchasing” spur investment in special pieces. “This works really well with the high/low dressing trend we are seeing, which feels more appropriate for the current climate. Examples include adding a pendant from Dear Letterman to go with a silk printed shirt from Commas,” he says.
As for future fashions, he points to the psychological benefits of harnessing one’s wardrobe. “I also think that the idea of dressing up is a mood lifter, especially for a fabulous dinner party, albeit for a small number of people,” he says. “There’s happiness to be found in dressing up in these restricted times.” Which raises the question: after a year of intense change, what can we expect from men’s fashion in the seasons ahead? Quality materials, for a start. Technavio’s report reveals a growing demand among men for organic fabrics. Paul agrees: “I think people are definitely more considered in terms of the pieces they are purchasing. I think there will be a real focus on the foundation pieces in our wardrobes, whether it’s a cashmere sweater by Brunello Cucinelli, jeans by A.P.C. or a white T-shirt from Sunspel.”
However, Melvin Tanaya, one half of the cult Sydney label Song for the Mute, believes Australians’ growing desire for considered consumption will extend beyond the material. “We have to try and take care of each other,” he says. “I think that’s what 2020 has taught us with the bushfire and then the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid. It’s more about, ‘How do we leave better footprints?’ and ‘How do we use our platform to help people?’ ” Tanaya launched Song for the Mute in 2010 with his long-time friend and collaborator, Lyna Ty, starting out with an eight-piece menswear capsule. Ten years later, more than 75 retailers worldwide stock the label (including the luxury department store Harrolds and London-based Dover Street Market). The brand has won a handful of national design accolades and has expanded into womenswear.
Much of the brand’s success lies in its signature comfort-driven silhouettes and the immersive narrative that shapes each season. Its agility has helped it weather the pandemic. Case in point: while manufacturing is typically split 70/30 between Australia and Japan, last year the business moved all production to Sydney. “With a lot of other businesses cancelling or unfortunately folding, our factories needed help,” Tanaya says. “We have to support our homegrown manufacturers. We’re part of this ecosystem that is bigger than just our business.” It’s a strategy that is sure to resonate with the local consumer.
Byron Bay-born model Jordan Barrett is a passionate advocate for sustainable consumption and manufacturing. “I would love to make a pair of shoes out of recycled tyres,” he says in the kind of hybrid Australian accent that suggests a frequently stamped passport. The last year’s social hiatus has provided the usually frenetic 24-year-old with a rare opportunity to slow down and, he says, “pause and recalibrate, mentally and physically and emotionally”. On Australian soil with time to kill, Barrett reconnected with old friends Sophie Coote and Nikki Campbell, co-founders of the contemporary womenswear favourite Sir. What started as a casual FaceTime conversation soon blossomed into a creative partnership and a capsule collection designed with sustainability front of mind.
Scheduled for release later this year, the Jordan x Sir. wardrobe will be made up of six to eight pieces that evoke Barrett’s personal style while remaining aligned with Sir.’s minimalist aesthetic. Think lightweight sweats, relaxed tailoring and mix-and- match separates. Describing the pieces, Barrett says they “have that streetwear-meets-off-duty kind of utilitarian vibe that I’ve always followed”. They are, he says, “My ideal dream outfits: made in sustainable ways and with recycled materials, and being able to be worn by men and women.” The collection is a counterpoint to the fast- fashion cycle that many in the industry are at pains to course correct. “I want just one wardrobe that I can go to for the rest of my year and to wear for the coming years,” Barrett says, “and for it not to go out of date too quickly. I want it to be that you can wear it all the time.”
“Creative collaboration, when it works, can be so powerful,” say Coote and Campbell, touching on another trend to come out of 2020. “We share the same aesthetic and creative eye so designing the collection was very natural.” Creative alliances are cultivating strong audience connection and brand longevity. The Italian label Moncler, for example, generated millions of dollars in earned media value with its multipronged Moncler Genius strategy, in which the brand released capsules with design visionaries such as Pierpaolo Piccioli, Richard Quinn and Simone Rocha.
Closer to home, Song for the Mute is continuing its partnership with the heritage American hat maker New Era. The suite of accessories includes a 1970s-inspired branded cap, embroidered bucket hat and utilitarian shoulder bags. “Definitely, we’re seeing a lot more collaborations,” says Harrolds contemporary menswear buyer Marco Zappatore. And, he notes, it’s not just brand-on-brand partnerships: companies, including Harrolds, are working closely with designers. “It’s essential to support our local designers,” he says. “It’s not just about having brands across the portfolio, but it’s also providing mentoring and actively participating in the creative process.”
In a cross-continental call, the Australian-born, New York-based designer Dion Lee describes his vision for menswear, one that negates the need for overtly gendered fashion. “I think the classification of gender in terms of a shirt or a T-shirt feels somewhat irrelevant in 2020,” he says. Lee expanded his eponymous label to include menswear in 2017. He says the subsequent decision to merge the categories was an obvious one. “So much of clothing is kind of how people interpret it and I think for me there was just a very intuitive crossover between how I design for both men and women.” That, and having two ranges a logistical nightmare. “The men’s and women’s calendar is slightly different from when collections are being sold and the buyers are travelling at different times. I found that approach to treating it as a separate category slightly more difficult.”
He’s not the only one putting the brakes on the gendered runway. Gucci, Burberry and Bottega Veneta have blended men’s and women’s shows, and London Fashion Week Men’s has been absorbed into the gender-neutral London Fashion Week. While this increase in gender fluidity, both in design and marketing, might seem radical to some, it has long shaped Lee’s collections. “Playing with people’s perception of those gender codes is what is fun to design with,” he says.
Barrett echoes the sentiment. “If you can both fit it and you both like it on yourself, why does it need to be men’s or women’s? It’s that simple in my head,” he says. “It’s also just making more junk. Do I have to make double of it for no reason?” In his collaboration with Sir., Barrett has tried to find middle ground, creating pieces that work for both genders.
Lee believes the changes we’re seeing could be long term. It’s true that it has never been a more vulnerable time to be a suit. The office trappings that historically shaped the working man’s wardrobe are no longer (or at least less frequently) worn, and the hallmarks of activewear and leisurewear are evident throughout most new season collections. Is it time to resign ourselves to a life of grey marl tracksuits and jersey tees? Not quite, Zappatore reassures. “There will always be a part of the [Harrolds] selection, and the product, that’s like a party,” he says. “It will never be overshadowed by other categories or other ways of living. It’s only human: we want to be out there and enjoy ourselves and look good and feel good about ourselves.”
In a year ripe for renewal, Jarman’s spring 21 Commas offering paints a brighter future. Unabashedly optimistic, it features soft silks and cotton crepes rendered in piscine blues and buoyant yellows. Song for the Mute strikes a similarly joyful note with its current release. Aptly titled Naïve, it’s inspired by the child within and the playful abandon of formal structure. Meanwhile, Lee is looking directly to the earth, a yearning for nature shaping his spring 21 collection. His trademark sensual technicality is manifested in hand-crocheted knitwear, macramé accessories and monstera-inspired patterns.
Menswear is a shade softer than it was in previous decades, coloured by a respect for the planet and one another, creative collaborations, fluid interpretations of masculinity and an emphasis on comfort-driven occasion wear. Why? There’s been no shortage of comparisons to the post-war party that was the Roaring Twenties and declarations of ongoing extravagance once we’re pandemic-free. So why is design favouring gentleness over the dandy opulence of, say, a three-piece suit?
A theory: because we’ve lost interest in the fantasy. Not, to be clear, the fantastical — theatre and fiction will always captivate sartorially. Rather, we’re done with the pretence and status-driven approach that the industry has perpetuated for so long. Logomania was on the decline prior to the pandemic but it feels even more gauche to advertise one’s income so blatantly in light of the year that has passed. Fashion has always been about more than covering our bodies, but in this new world it takes on a richer, weightier role. It’s emblematic of our principles, not our bank account. In a world that is no longer familiar terrain, our efforts must be channelled into shaping a brighter reality rather than replicating an old dream. This will require nuance, vulnerability and an armour that’s cut to liberate — not harden — the wearer.
Photography by Jake Terrey. Styled by Petta Chua. Hair by Keiren Street at HM Division, using Wella Professionals. Makeup by Cat Smith at HM Division using Sisley.