The perfect jacket (Annabel’s)

I once flirted with anarchy in New York’s 21 Club, one of those increasingly rare and historical institutions that, despite its bistro tablecloths and burgers, calls for a certain level of sartorial decorum amongst its clientele: Jackets for lunch and jackets and ties for dinner. Halfway through my Cold Senegalese Soup I slipped off my Comme des Garçons blazer and folded it on the banquette beside me. It was an out of character move, a moment of madness perhaps. I’d been taken over by a mischievous whim, spurred on by a second lunchtime martini. ‘Will the room take offence? Will the sky fall?’ I wondered. Action followed thought, with a waiter swiftly behind: ‘Can I help you with that sir?’ he offered, smoothly opening the jacket out and inviting my right arm back into its sleeve. ‘We wouldn’t want you to catch cold’.  That told me. As, indeed, it should.

the perfect jacket 1

In a world where the most casual of eateries have to put signs up at the door to insist on footwear and clothing on their customers upper bodies, what price a civilised lunch? And what price the perfect jacket to wear to that lunch?

There are those who would argue that when it comes to shopping for a jacket, ‘off the peg’ is as reprehensible a concept as fast food. If you’re making do with whatever single breasted homage to Prada that Zara is selling this season, they will argue, then you may as well kick off your shoes, tear up your shirt and live on Chicken McNuggets. There are plenty of reasons why off the peg doesn’t cut it. Fit is everything with menswear. There must be no puckering, bagging or unflattering tightness anywhere. The perfect jacket is smooth to the point of invisibility and empowers the wearer. Our physical shapes are all as individual as a fingerprint, so when it comes to anything tailored and fitted, adjustments must be made to achieve balance.

With made to measure no sleeve is created equally because no two wearers are cut from the same cloth. ‘There are extremes,’ explains Mark Mahon of Savile Row’s English Cut, ‘such as a military man who’s always standing to attention. He will need the sleeves to be pitched low. Conversely an older gentleman with a stoop for instance will need to have his sleeves pitched high.’

The perfect jacket should transform a man in a way that nothing else short of six months with a personal trainer could. ‘The perfect jacket should make the wearer look fitter, taller, slimmer and perfectly proportioned’, believes fashion designer, historian and lecturer Andrew Groves. It sounds like fashion hyperbole to those unaccustomed to the alchemy of tailoring, but it’s entirely possible. This alone should be more than enough reason to never risk the horror of the ‘loan jacket’ when visiting premises that have a reasonable minimal dress code that you’ve failed to meet. The only thing worse than no jacket is an ill fitting one. There is, I’m sure, a certain kind of crime and punishment angle to the concept of the ‘loan jacket’, one which management take rightful glee in.

There might well be no such thing as ‘the perfect jacket’, merely the perfect one for you. As Richard Walker, author of Savile Row: An Illustrated History so famously puts it, ‘like the perfect wine, it does not exist, except in terms of individual taste’. There are as many variations in tailors as there are in jackets, and not all suit all. Within tailoring there are hard and soft styles and a myriad of variations in between. When someone finds the right tailor, they usually stick with them for life and many tailors, by the nature of the size of their output, simply cannot accept any more clients.

The world renowned interior designer and architect John Stefanidis is, along with the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, faithful to Ferdinando Caraceni in Milan. ‘A Caraceni jacket is like wearing a jumper’, says Stefanidis. ‘Any other jacket is never as comfortable’. The Caraceni surname looms Medici-like in modern day tailoring in Italy. It is a tailoring dynasty. Three brothers, Domenico, Augusto and Galliano all set up their own tailoring operations, the first dating back to the 1920s. These are all family businesses that have survived and still prosper and foster legend today, with Nicoletta Caraceni taking over Ferdinando’s business after her father’s death last year. This is, like most of the best tailoring operations in the world, a small scale set up. Nicoletta, like her father before her, has a hand in every single garment that leaves the workshop. Garments typically take two months to produce, from the pattern stages to the meticulous hand ironing of the finished product. When perfection is your goal, you simply can’t rush a detail.

Italy and England still dominate the world of men’s tailoring, with Savile Row and it’s surrounding thoroughfares blending the tradition of Henry Poole’s (established 1806) with the likes of Ozwald Boateng and Richard James, bringing a respectful but vividly coloured breath of fresh air to the area. Within these few square hundred metres of central London you can find Your Perfect Jacket.

Once you’ve got Your Perfect Jacket, you have to know how to wear it. A good stylist will invariably direct a model on a menswear shoot to leave the bottom button on their jacket unfastened, anything else just looks nerdish and doesn’t hang well. Etiquette, as much as form, dictates the appropriate procedure: ‘What really grates is men who insist on buttoning up all three buttons on a three button jacket’, says Andrew Groves. ‘Middle button only, please!’ With two buttons, fasten only the top one. When sitting down at a table, you can unbutton the lot, but refasten when you rise.

Annalisa Barbieri, fashion correspondent to the New Statesmen and author of the forthcoming book Menswear, has undertaken a deeper analysis of the semiotics of the button: ‘To do the top two buttons up hints at a certain flirtatiousness, which is no bad thing in the right circles,’ she says. ‘Not buttoning-up on standing up hints at two things: laziness and arrogance.’ This particular phenomenon is ‘going “politico”’, seen most frequently on politicians who rise to make their point without buttoning up. ‘Always be wary of such a man’, she says. ‘He will interrupt frequently and not listen properly to your point of view.’

When we’re dealing with formal dinner jackets – acceptably white in summer and invariably sported with a bow tie – then single breasted remains the most modern silhouette and anything with more than two buttons looks affected. It can be black, but only if we’re talking a serious tuxedo jacket here as black can, as Annalisa Barbieri says, ‘look cheap, unless it’s extremely expensive.’ Black is also, as she says, ‘very boring’. ‘A very dark navy or very sooty grey is a far better choice and shows greater imagination and confidence’.

When it comes to fabric choice, wool and cashmere for winter, and cotton or linen for summer, or a mix of all and any aforementioned natural fibres, all make the grade. Shun anything with synthetic coloured ‘shots’. Velvet, in a restrained colour, walks a chic line that remains both dandy and suave. One thing to remember is that an unseasonably heavy choice will make you sweat and your look will unravel in a club ambience.

Then, of course, there is the tricky business of what you wear with Your Perfect Jacket. Invariably a collar and tie looks best, but many men have coerced the jacket into casual or quirky territory. Tom Ford created an iconic look by wearing his with jeans and a shirt unbuttoned to below the chest but unless you’re Tom Ford (or at a push Jude Law), adopting this particular look is as bandwagon jumping and ridiculous as carrying around a lace fan to emulate Karl Lagerfeld.

Stark white shirts work best with a black or white tux, but for anything more subtle, blend off-shades of shirt and tie. Matching shades of jacket, shirt and tie can look modern, but you risk resembling staff, whilst a classic yet dramatic Missoni print on a tie brings to life the most conservative of colourways.

In the States, turtlenecks remain a popular alternative to collar and tie, and the look is slowly gaining acceptance even in the most rarified environments. On being asked what he would do if a party of four arrived at the 21 Club, three wearing jacket and tie and the fourth wearing a turtleneck, restaurant manager Brian McGuire says ‘chances are, we would seat that gentleman’.

The times they are, of course, always a-changing. Colin McDowell, in his book ‘The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen’ recalls history’s first sighting of the dinner jacket, around the 1880s, when the discussion went something along the lines of “It can certainly not be worn in the Stalls, but is it permissible in the Dress Circle?”

And what of off the peg? Is there any hope? The best designers invariably offset the inherent flaws of prêt a porter with other qualities. My Comme des Garçons blazer has, as it typical of Japanese fashion, a loose construction to allow for the wearer’s body to dictate the final shape and immaculate finishing, with hand-sewn buttons and laboratory flawless stitching. The likes of John Galliano over compensate for the logistical impossibility of perfect fit with an almost exaggerated sharpness, something that isn’t to all tastes. As Andrew Groves says, ‘with the perfect jacket, quality and style should be subliminal. It must, on no account, make a statement’. But then directional fashion is, so often, about statement and the perfect jacket is something that you wear rather than having it wear you. A better compromise is to buy off the peg and have a tailor alter accordingly. I have friends who have spent more on alterations to something from Hugo Boss and Jil Sander than the original items cost themselves. But then, what price perfection?

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