PURSUITS
Whatever suits us
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, June 22, 2012

Believe it or not, men’s fashion tends to OSCILLate between whimsical and convenient. When it comes to the classic suit, rules are broken — and then fixed

It is a well-established rule of women’s fashion that look is more important than comfort. Nobody ever sold an evening gown to a woman by telling her, “This is a really comfortable outfit.” Instead, women’s clothes are sold on the basis of silhouette, colour and overall appearance. When a woman spends money on clothes, she does it because she wants to look good.

How many men have looked at a well-dressed woman and wondered, “How did she squeeze into that dress?” Or, “How is it possible for any human being to take more than two steps in those impossibly-high heels?”

But while men gawk in amazement, women don’t care. As long as they manage to look good, then comfort is entirely secondary. If they wanted to be comfortable, they would just wear pyjamas and stay at home.

On the other hand, comfort has always been the guiding principle of the menswear market. A decade ago, French menswear designer Hedi Slimane presented his designs to his bosses at Christian Dior and was rebuffed. They told him that his suits were too tight and too constricting and that men would not buy them. “They claimed,” remembers Slimane, “that men should be able to drive cars while wearing Dior suits. How ridiculous!”

The drive-a-car test was always the crucial one in the menswear market. If a guy could not drive to work because his suit was too uncomfortable and the jacket too tight, or so the argument went, he would never again buy a suit from that designer.

Slimane went on to successfully challenge the suit orthodoxy and his bosses at Dior eventually fell in line and let him do what he wanted. His suits were, almost by definition, not designed for comfort. The jackets were short, the waists were tiny, the trousers did double-time as testicle-crushers and it 
was difficult to raise your arms in one of his suits. I have no idea whether Frenchmen actually drove to work in Dior Homme suits but if the accident rate did go up, then we’ll know who to blame.

Dior is always unwilling to say quite how commercially successful Slimane’s suits were. What is clear, however, is that he did start a trend. For two decades before, the menswear market had been dominated by Milan designers. But after Slimane redesigned Dior suits, French designers finally got a look-in and all suits changed subtly. Even Giorgio Armani, whose cuts had once set the trend, changed his silhouette in line with the new slim style.

These days, the Dior Homme style is on its way out. Slimane himself moved on after a few years and his successors tried to play around with his silhouette. Menswear designers now follow a simple principle: the suits they show on the catwalk are slim-cut and made for the slender figures of the androgynous young models who walk the ramp. But the suits they sell in their stores have a much fuller cut and are designed to be worn by normal people and, yes, by people who want to drive cars.

Most menswear companies will now sell more than one silhouette even though they will be unwilling to talk about it. For instance, Veronique Nichanian, the well-respected menswear designer at Hermes, told me that she likes three different silhouettes: one for the catwalk, one for the kind of man who can afford to pay Hermes prices, and one somewhere in between. The British designer, Paul Smith, whose men’s suits have always been trendier and closer-cut than many of his Italian counterparts, told me that he likes to offer customers a variety of silhouettes because he feels that, these days, men are emphasising comfort.

Ah, comfort! Though we guys talk about it, do we really know what a comfortable suit feels like? Obviously, the Slimane-style suit is uncomfortable because of its cut. But what we don’t realise is that many normally-cut suits can also be uncomfortable because of their construction.

These days, the menswear companies keep very quiet about construction but, in the old days, the principle was that the inside of a jacket was as important as the outside. At some level, we know that a jacket must be constructed: there must be shoulder pads; stuff between the lining and the outer fabric; etc. But few of us now bother about the process or the nature of the filling. For those who do care, there are the really upmarket options (Savile Row bespoke, Kiton, Brioni, etc) where only the finest materials are used for the insides of each jacket.

For the rest of us, however, the difference between a fused construction and its sartorial counterpart seems elusive. Speaking for myself, I was only vaguely aware of what the difference was till I went to see Canali’s factories in Milan last month.

TRUE TO TRADITION: Canali makes its suits the expensive, time-consuming, old-fashioned way

Canali is a family-owned Italian menswear firm that makes very sharp suits (they have seven different silhouettes) but never allows look to completely overshadow comfort. The Canali family’s proudest claim is that each of its suits is so perfectly constructed that when you wear a Canali suit, it will move when you do and follow the contours of your body.

The key to this is the sartorial construction. While many expensive Italian designers (yes, most of the brands you are thinking of) fuse their jackets by machine, the Canalis ensure that each jacket is constructed from a mixture of canvas and horse hair so that the insides float gently over your body. The shoulder pads are made from the softest Egyptian cotton (I know because I felt them) so that they delicately frame your torso.

Superficially, a Canali suit may look just as good as any expensive Italian suit. But when you wear it, you can tell the difference because the jacket seems so much more comfortable. And for men like me, who will never fit into a Hedi Slimane-style silhouette, comfort is the most important thing.

I asked Stefano Canali why his firm persisted with this kind of construction when many customers were not even aware of the difference. Surely, Canali could do fused jackets and save a lot of money?

Stefano had no real commercially savvy answer. Canali doesn’t even emphasise the sartorial construction of its jackets in its publicity so there is no clear commercial benefit.

Ultimately, Stefano and the rest of his family make their suits the expensive, time-consuming, old-fashioned way because this is how their ancestors made them. It may not always make commercial sense. But tradition is tradition and quality is quality.

And once you wear the jacket, you can tell the difference — instantly!

 

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow 
Vir’s other writings, visit 
www.virsanghvi.com)

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