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Suits Out, Stretchy Pants In: More Retailers Go Bankrupt

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Suits are out. Stretchy pants are in. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on fashion retail, leading more and more prominent brands to file for bankruptcy. Lord and Taylor and Jos. A. Bank are two of the latest. NPR's retail correspondent Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: There's a simple truth about clothes, says Vincent Quan from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

VINCENT QUAN: You normally buy new clothing and new goods to do what? To show it to others, right? You want to look good, but you also want others to see you.

SELYUKH: That's been turned upside down by our new pandemic reality, where most social interactions are virtual. And nobody's really paying attention to what you're wearing on that Zoom meeting.

QUAN: You're moping around your home, right? No one's really going to see you. You might as well be comfortable. People are wearing comfort clothes, athleisure.

SELYUKH: So, sure, we might be buying new matching sweat suits. But overall, demand for new clothes tanked this spring. That plus temporary shutdowns have been disastrous for retailers who rely on visits to their physical stores. The loss of casual shoppers has been especially ruthless for struggling clothing stores, leaving a cascade of bankruptcies - J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Ann Taylor Loft, Brooks Brothers and now also Lord and Taylor, Men's Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank.

KEANAN DUFFTY: What's happening for apparel actually has been kind of on the cards for a long time.

SELYUKH: Keanan Duffty is a director at Parsons School of Design. He says the problem with many of these storied brands has been both a matter of business and fashion missteps. It's a familiar retail story. A prominent chain roots itself too much in stores, too little online, then falls behind on being fashion cool, then takes on too much debt and then can't cope with a pandemic. Take Men's Wearhouse, a suit emporium known for its founder's gravelly one-liner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE ZIMMER: You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.

SELYUKH: The company, like many others in bankruptcy, got stuck - neither high-end luxury nor cheap and trendy. It bought Jos. A. Bank, loaded up on debt. And now the parent company, Tailored Brands, has to close up to 500 stores. Duffty says modern shoppers are dubious about companies that want to sell you four suits for the price of one. And in general, corporate dress style does evolve. Executives at some of the world's most valuable companies wear sneakers and T-shirts. Duffty says the suit culture started to change decades ago, ever since casual Friday became a thing.

DUFFTY: I mean, of course, casual Friday became casual Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday.

SELYUKH: And now it's 24/7 elastic bands.

DUFFTY: Actually, the real tailors are doing a roaring trade right now because they're having to let out everybody's dress pants.

SELYUKH: And you know who else is doing a roaring trade? Online sellers, especially those who sell basics like Amazon, Walmart, Target. In a country where tens of millions are still unemployed, pricy office attire has become simply unsuitable.

QUAN: By the time we're done in 2020, my professional opinion is that the total number of bankrupt retailers will eclipse the total of 2019 and 2018 combined.

SELYUKH: Quan and Duffty both say the question is whether these bankrupt retailers will use the restructuring to meaningfully recreate their brands or simply trim the fat and squeeze out another buck for the investors.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.