The discreet revolution in menswear (Black Card)

Bryan Ferry, known for a smart whistle or two, once explained why his attire has rarely deviated from a simple, impeccable Anthony Price suit: ‘Because a suit is the only thing that doesn’t look ridiculous in photographs twenty years later.’ Fashion may be something of a nonsense to even the mildest of cynics, but there’s no denying that the suit is one of those alchemical devices, whether the transformation is geared around upgrading the physique or persuading a magistrate that the individual in front of them is more accustomed to roaming miscellaneous halls of power than a sink estate.


A suit is a suit and unless your surname is Furnish or you’re an authentic dandy, the design concerns of menswear that aren’t exclusively concerned with fit and creating flattering proportions can never extend past ‘classic with a twist’. And yet… men’s fashion has moved on. Over the last six or so biannual seasons (like dog years when you think of the rollercoaster trend-speed of corresponding women’s fashion), there has been a hugely significant change in the male silhouette… The times they are a-changing.

The most radical move – and no eye rolling please, we’re not about to start talking men-in-skirts here – has been a long overdue move back towards the double-breasted ensemble. There may be some of you reading this for whom the double-breasted suit has never lost currency. So be it. If it ain’t broke, and all that… But in terms of what looks both current and forward thinking (two attributes anyone in business needs to exude by the bucket load, now more than ever), it’s been a solid twenty years since double breasted was the norm. In the 1980s the likes of Thierry Mugler championed an aggressive single buttoned, single breasted jacket that looked every stitch like the future and resigned double breasted to the charity shop along with the shoulder pad (‘the flares of the eighties,’ as David Bowie so correctly diagnosed at the time).

So what happened to bring it back? Well, the return of double breasted is very much a part of the return to favour of traditionalist dressing. It’s conservative and luxe, but with a fresh twist. One of the upsides of the free market discovering that the world was, despite so much circumstantial evidence to the contrary, flat, and that it was sailing right over the edge of it, is that the more ridiculous element of menswear departments is shrinking fast. The market for £800 jackets that make you look like Sgt Pepper just isn’t there anymore. People want to look serious, not frivolous.

When Tom Ford opened his first standalone store in New York City it aped an upscale classic gentleman’s outfitters rather than the Studio 54 tart’s handbag of his Gucci stores. Ford, backed by Ermenegildo Zegna’s meticulous manufacturing arm, has been at the forefront of the double-breasted renaissance. Ford’s styling and shape is sleek, modern and high fashion without smacking of the fashion victim. This is where Cary Grant would get kitted out if he were around today, and where the current James Bond does.

The edgier international designers are also embracing and fast tracking the change in style. For this autumn Alexander McQueen showed sedate but perfectly handsome double-breasted suits (styled tieless but with top shirt buttons fastened, very au courant) while Martin Margiela, whose artisanal white-on-white Mayfair boutique with lab coat wearing shop assistants is a temple to the avant garde, has embraced a mature and serious aesthetic with his capsule Sartorial collection. Sartorial utilises the kind of tailoring expertise more commonly associated with the very best of Milanese bespoke to create discreetly luxurious suits and coats that work well with the other similarly less showy and publicised pieces in the Margiela canon: the Perfect White Shirt and the Perfect Black Trousers. And who hasn’t gone shopping for those simple pieces and given up when faced with racks of over fussy details that have been tacked on gratuitously to differentiate the current season from previous ones? No wonder so many of us, when dabbling with off the peg, dash straight back to our tailors to get what we want.

Around the corner from Margiela’s London store, on Savile Row, Gieves and Hawkes is pushing the new look with its ready to wear range in the form of a beautiful dandy-meets-neocon chalk stripe double breasted suit and, more excitingly, double breasted black velvet evening jackets – something that Giorgio Armani has also been doing for his Emporio label. The double-breasted evening jacket is the epitome of dressy, and its resurgence points to things having come full circle from the 1980s. It’s shamelessly showy but not vulgar. It has to be tailored at the Savile Row level to be done well though – a cheap knock-off has all the panache of the Nigerian wedding outfits that line the shop windows of Dalston Junction.

The one problem with double breasted is that it can be unforgiving if you have a paunch. Like fine gauge knitwear (particularly cardigans) it can add pounds on top of already surplus pounds. Far more forgiving is the other main strand to the new traditionalism that is reappearing in men’s suitings – the three piece. This really has taken off over the last couple of seasons, and its formal, slightly fogey quality has been spliced with a just-the-right-side-of-outré selection of fabrics. Paul Smith has mixed the look up for this winter with Wind in the Willows mismatched tartans and bow ties while Ralph Lauren has taken a power broker stance with his top-end Purple label – monochrome checks and charcoal greys, cut slim but muscular, that look like they, and their wearer, really mean business. The label also boasts some of the best double-breasted suits around. That Ralph Lauren has shown these suits in an advertising campaign styled with a bowler hat speaks volumes. There’s been a resurgence of the bowler amongst east end kooks and wannabe flaneurs in 2008, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it came back properly, Steed-style?

While half of the men’s fashion world has been looking to the pre-micro chip past to create a well dressed future, the remainder has been reworking the minimalism that the likes of Jil Sander and Miuccia Prada have made their own over the last decade. You could call it the Scandic-American look, even though it stems from a German and an Italian designer respectively: the silhouette is currently being refined by Swedish designers, like Filippa K, and Americans, like Thom Browne. The Scandic elements are in the narrow cuts, monochrome palette and never more than two buttons that all of the suits in this category have. The American element is in the change in proportions that have been taking place. The trousers break above rather than on the shoe and the jackets show a good couple of inches of shirt cuff. What Thom Browne does shouldn’t really work. Essentially he makes shrunken suits – stuff that doesn’t fit. As New York magazine says, ‘he dresses like an insurance adjuster circa 1957,’ and he dresses like he designs. There’s a touch of the Pee Wee Herman as well as the mid century modernist about Browne, but he’s dead clever and a skilled tailor. To see his own label at New York Fashion Week is to see it in what one could kindly call a ‘pure form’ – overstyled to the point of the risible. And if you aren’t stick thin and over six foot, forget it. To see it at Brooks Brothers, where Browne designs the Black Fleece range, is to see it in an entirely wearable form. The quirk is there, but the Black Fleece man is resolutely a serious Eames-era, super-stylish Hitchcock villain, made modern. And then there’s Browne’s double-breasted suit, bringing it all together in one look, straddling both schools of design. This is very possibly where men’s fashion is ultimately going – a little bit minimalist but more than a little bit traditionalist, but with the confidence to bring the elements together in a brand new way.

No matter where it ends up, menswear has moved on. Men will never be slaves to fashion like their wives – mercifully the silhouette and proportions of menswear move at a pace that you’d need Peter Greenaway stop-motion cinematography to chart – but the only thing worse than having no interest in fashion is not knowing anything about it. Despite the metrosexual revolution, the explosion of the men’s style press and the popularity of the personal shopper pour homme, the city of London is still full of men wearing clothes that are badly made and don’t fit. No Swedish or Italian businessman would ever keep wearing a suit that only fit them before middle aged spread took hold. For this very reason, your wardrobe needs to be reassessed every year. The fact that small details change season upon season also means that only the most bland of suitings avoid becoming, eventually, trite. Look at the flared suits of the 70s. Or the pegged and pleated trousers of the 80s. Or Bowie’s shoulder pads.

A young generation of men, fashion literate but with more experience of the high street than Savile Row, is demanding a higher quality of design and finish in menswear. The likes of Pokit, with smart but decidedly casual HQ on London’s Lamb’s Conduit Street, is a fine example of the change in the market. Pokit tailor suits for the kind of man who might work in typography, photography or furniture design, but for whom the idea of jeans every day is as unthinkable as a baseball cap. Their customer is likely to mix one of their suits with a Margiela shirt, a Mulberry bag and Uniqlo socks. Ultimately, there is more choice than ever out there off-the-peg, which means there’s no excuse for merely making do with what’s in the wardrobe when you haven’t bought anything new for five years. Go shopping. Make sure it fits. Make sure it flatters. And finally, make sure you’re wearing it, not vice versa.


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