A Stitch In Time

Time-cutting strategies making the suit’s appeal stronger

Tom Ford‘s presentation at this month’s London Collections: Men surprised commentators for showcasing atypically casual and informal designs. Suiting was shunted to the sidelines as knitwear and high-top trainers – albeit very expensive trainers that had undergone three-days of hand polishing – took centre stage. Ford’s show grabbed headlines, but it was indicative of a general trend that was to be repeated in Milan and Paris. Editors, journalists and photographers have all chronicled the relaxed shapes, softer silhouettes, temperate tones and textures that appeared on the catwalks and will, in some vague form, be reconstituted as next season’s department store offerings.[i]

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Conspicuously Inconspicuous

‘Comfort’ and ‘informality’ might be next season’s sartorial watchwords, but the suit was hardly inconspicuous at any of the recent fashion gatherings, on or off the catwalk; many of the men who flocked to London, Paris and Milan in the hope of getting street-styled evidently neglected to check the sartorial winds before their departure and arrived clad in bespoke tailoring and double-strap monks shoes – with at least one buckle unfastened, of course. On the catwalk, Tom Ford’s velvet jackets with trademark oversize lapels appeared with comforting inevitably. Ford himself was dressed in Black Tie when he was quizzed about his new departure in casual footwear. Italian brands continued to conjure with the cut and colour of their suiting, reflecting the fact that men are now disinclined to follow the age-old dichotomy stipulating sharp work wear and soft leisure wear. But the tailoring that featured in presentations by Giorgio Armani, Brunello Cucinelli, Ermenegildo Zegna and Dolce & Gabbana was still conspicuously costly, even if its softer vibe is more likely to elicit cuddles than scowls from envious colleagues.[ii] Column inches championed the return of the roll-neck and lauded the men who layer, but the suit has not had its day. As ever, the stage and screen distils the sartorial zeitgeist, and what we seem to want is high-end style. The musical of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and the movies, Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, highlight people’s perennial fascination with distinctive dress, which the suit has long contributed to. Sartorial studies treat Thorstein Veblen’s observations on status affirming dress gingerly, but the suit wearer’s ability to command respect and envy was ably demonstrated by Savile Row’s strident presentation in the Churchill War Rooms during London Collections: Men.

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Creatures Of Comfort

The reputation of the suit undoubtedly suffered because of the economic ennui. The pin-stripe suit, in particular, will forever be associated with bankers, estate agents and dodgy-dealing of all kinds, but the editors who rushed into print with their musings about the suit’s demise overlooked the fact that men’s penchant for comfort in dress refers to tradition probably more than it does tone and texture. The suit has formed the basis of the male wardrobe since the nineteenth century and men’s attachment to it has long withstood the seasonal turns of fashion’s wheel. Last Spring, editorials prophesised the suit’s demise.[iii] Come Autumn, they were enthusing over the three-piece’s return.[iv] This is particularly good news for Marks & Spencer, who unveiled a range of provocative off-the-peg suiting at London Collections: Men. Considering the company’s abysmal record of fashion forecasting, banking on the suit for the prospect of profitably seems wise.[v]

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Prêt À… Acheter

More generally, Marks & Spencer’s foray into trendy tailoring is noteworthy for showing how the principle and practice of bespoke suiting is now appreciated by an increasing number of men. This is the real story in suiting. Forget the softer silhouette, which Anderson & Sheppard has been crafting meticulously since 1906, the most significant development affecting men’s Old Faithful concerns sales. Much has changed since Beau Brummell’s day, when Savile Row tailors eschewed advertising and concealed their products behind shuttered windows.[vi] Tailors operating along London’s golden mile now showcase their hand-crafted wares like any other retailer; stores owned by Ozwald Boateng[vii] and Richard James[viii] have walls of glass, enticing customers to view and buy. Some tailors are now celebrities. The owner of Norton & Sons, Patrick Grant, has become a pin-up for mothers and grandmother’s the nation over after appearing as a judge on The Great British Sewing Bee.

The lure of London tailoring has probably never been stronger, but for those whose time is just too precious to peruse, Henry Herbert, who operate from the fifth floor of 9-10 Savile Row, offers a unique scooter service that combines elements of the Bat-Signal and a Q-Branch issue vehicle. Within a day’s notice, customers can arrange to be visited by one of the firm’s tailors on a custom built liveried Vespa, equipped with fabric swatches and measuring tape. At a time when conspicuous consumption is derided and hard graft is dignified, Henry Herbert’s strategy is a clever way of showing how it might be possible for men to have their suit and wear it, and at a reasonable price to boot. Irish tailor Louis Copeland, who recently collaborated with TV presenter Darren Kennedy on a range of limited edition off-the-peg suits, is on the same wavelength. Since November, gift-seeking customers have able to purchase a Louis Copeland gift box containing all of the essentials for a two-piece made-to-measure suit, all for €995.00 (c.£821).

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Suits You, All

Initial predictions that the economic downturn would negatively affect suit sales proved false because they underestimated the comfort that men derive from sartorial custom. The success of London Collections: Men, the ascendancy of Savile Row and the use of novel marketing strategies, means the suit, which has satisfied men for over 200 years by providing panache and practicality, has become as accessible, if not always as economical, as any other part of the male wardrobe. The combination of traditional tailoring, flexible customer service and more discriminating customers, who are being schooled to appreciate quality and detail in a period of economic stringency, have created an environment in which suiting will thrive. It’s just as well, then, that Tom Ford’s new trainers look just as good with formal trousers as they do with casual.

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[i] A. Blimes, ‘Pleat-front trouser and rollnecks – they’re back. No really’, The Times (5 January, 2014), pp. 6-7.

[ii] L. Leitch, ‘Sleek in Wolf’s Clothing’, The Daily Telegraph (5 January, 2014), p. 23.

[iii] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013), p. 125; D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), p. 5.

[iv] J. Shi, ‘Three: the magic number’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (5/6 October, 2013), p. 5.

[v] C. Croft, ‘Marks & Swagger man’, The Sunday Times (5 January, 2014), p. 3.

[vi] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 204.

[vii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2012), pp. 184-91.

[viii] Ibid., pp. 198-204.

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