MILAN — As the June sun beats down on the Piazza degli Affari, groups of men in their 30s stroll back to work after lunch. Some have taken off their jackets and rolled up their sky-blue or white shirtsleeves. Most wear ties. And the navy, black or brown of their neatly tailored cotton and wool crepe suits distinguishes them from their sun-bleached surroundings, if not from each other.
Ten hours later, a similar group of men are clustered around the colonnades on Corso di Porta Ticinese. Now they are wearing polo shirts and sneakers in all the colors of a candy store, but often with the same kind of suit trousers.
Marco, a senior financial consultant, could be one of these men. He buys about three suits a year, all in sober colors, from the likes of Dolce & Gabanna and Prada. But his suit jackets in light fabrics and fitted shirts from Dior and Prada cross over into weekend wear as he matches them with jeans and sneakers.
Formal wear has not disappeared from Milanese men’s sartorial vocabulary. Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, who has been focusing his menswear on an easy elegance based on soft tailoring, says, “I often see these young kids who are really inspired and are wearing the small fitted jacket, bowties, classic shoe” — but incorporated into a modern wardrobe rather than a formal style.
The Milanese man is trying to find a place where the values of “bella figura” — the classic Italian style of “the beautiful figure” — coexist with a foreign sense of ease. And the two worlds are just as manifest in the city’s shopping.
On one side of the Duomo are the traditional Italian suitmakers and formal wear brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Tom Ford and Armani. Then there are the boutiques around the Corso di Porta Ticinese — denim brands like Diesel and Lee; skater brands like Carhartt and Stussy; fashion-forward boutiques like Frip and WOK, which mainly sell Scandinavian designers; and casual outfitters like American Apparel.
Tiziana Cardini, fashion director at La Rinascente, the largest department store in Milan, says the “bella figura” has a strong cultural imprint, even for the younger generation. So, despite the economic downturn, the store’s sales show that “pieces sell well if they retain quality and style.”
La Rinascente sells menswear on two floors: the first has secondary lines like Versace Jeans Couture, Just Cavalli, Lacoste and Armani Jeans, whose faded gray jacket of leather and denim retails for €520, or $725. Upstairs, the customers are men in suits buying more suits.
The days of that second floor are numbered, said Renzo Rosso of Diesel, speaking from the label’s headquarters in Molvena, Italy. “Nowadays, the formal men’s suit has been replaced with a more comfortable wardrobe, and this is a great goal for men, who can wear clothes they feel more at ease and stylish in.”
Anna Zegna, image director of her family’s company, Ermenegildo Zegna, notices a similar trend but does not look at it in the same light as Mr. Rosso.
She talked about the importance of “bella figura” across generations of Italian men, describing the splendor of her father’s tuxedo brought back to life on her 18-year-old son, and how Zegna was careful to present linen in a way that it looks worn and “as if one has always had it.” She lamented the loss of a gentleman’s aesthetic, an appreciation for the old and historical.
But Mrs. Zegna is all for bringing the heritage forward. “I was looking in the archives recently,” she noted, “and I picked up a summer suit jacket which weighed as much as a winter coat would now.” Stripping out the linings, which concealed the craftsmanship beneath, and choosing lighter padding and fabrics is all part of that effort.
To Mrs. Zegna, the Milanese sense of caring about how one dresses betrays a certain environmental awareness, like her own recent fabric research on what the brand calls “High Performance Cool Effect” that reflect the sun’s rays.
Tom Ford echoes Mrs. Zegna’s approach, saying, “The beauty of fine Italian menswear is that it is steeped in tradition and beautifully made, and this is not something that has changed over the past 20 years or will change any time in the near future.”
10 Corso Como stocks Mr. Ford’s suits as well as his €3,355 silk robes.
“For a long time now, formal business wear has loosened up, and there is more of a mix of sportswear and formal,” said Carla Sozzani, who founded the bazaar-like boutique-come-gallery in Milan. “The new generation is looking for more special things; the brand is not so important anymore to give security and self-confidence.”
So 10 Corso Como’s strategy is to sell top-range formal wear from the likes of Tom Ford and Charvet alongside graphic T-shirts and gold-winged Adidas sneakers, as well as limited-edition pieces designed for the store by designers like Paul Smith, Raf Simons and Borsalino.
“A Milanese man might wear a T-shirt,” said Federica Zambon, co-owner of WOK, a colorful store near the Porta Ticinese. “But the cotton should be of the finest quality, and he’ll wear it with particular trousers, not just shapeless jeans.”
She displayed a pair of putty-colored cotton trousers in a high-waisted, baggy-kneed silhouette by the Swedish designer Henrik Vibskov — an example, she said, of how “bella figura” is evolving, rather than disappearing.
The pants, she said, are selling very well at €175: “The pleats at the waist are a very popular detail. It’s not a silhouette that men over 40 can wear easily — they’re not used to it. But these changes in shape are being embraced by the younger Milanese man.”
Ms. Zambon maintains that “bella figura” is evolving, not being discarded.
“The Italian man is still spending as much as he ever did,” she said, “and he’s never going to compromise on quality, and will never, as a result, abandon high fashion for the high street.”