Why do men buy suits? Most of us, I suspect, buy them to wear to office. Many jobs – banking, the law, higher levels of corporate management etc – require us to come to work in suits no matter what the weather is like. And a few of us are extravagant enough to buy them only for reasons of style: we like dressing up.
What kind of suit you wear usually has something to do with the purpose you intend to put it to. People who own only one or two suits for formal occasions usually don’t care very much about the construction of the suit or the fabric used. It is just a costume that they are obliged to wear. Likewise for those who buy suits for a wedding. They also operate in the realm of costume-wear. The suit will probably be chosen for them by somebody else; they may be swayed by the label and they won’t worry too much about the fit or the comfort factor.
The mainstay of the men’s suit market (especially at the upper end) is the 30-plus buyer who buys many suits because he knows he will be placed in situations where he will have to wear them again and again: to office, to formal dinners, board meetings etc. Sadly, the bulk of such buyers do not understand fabric or construction – strange given that they spend so much money on suits – and their choices are usually brand-driven.
Tell an otherwise sensible guy that his suit sucks and he will look stunned. The usual response will be "but it is Gucci" or "I bought it from Hugo Boss." (I choose the brands at random; I’m sure they make some good suits.)
Some of this brand-slavery probably derives from the fact that we are the first generation of Indians to be exposed to such an array of men’s clothing labels. Our parents’ generation either had suits made for them by the tailor down the road or picked them up on the odd trip abroad. Consequently, we have no tradition of understanding western menswear. And while Indian designers can be brilliant and imaginative with bridal couture, very few of them know how to cut a suit.
In the West, young men will feel no shame in wearing a classic suit, inherited from their fathers and many countries have their own menswear traditions. In Britain, Savile Row still sets the standards. And in Italy, family-run establishments have been turning out quality menswear for the world’s most fashion conscious men for generations. The Italians even reinvented the traditional menswear jacket in the 1980s when Giorgio Armani introduced his unstructured look.
Three months ago, I had dinner with Stefano Canali of the eponymous suit brand in Milan. The Canalis are old-style Italian men’s outfitters. They started out in a village in Lombardy in 1934 and though the company now has 200 boutiques in over 100 countries, it is still a family-run business, driven by the Canalis’ passion for maintaining the tradition created by their ancestors. Stefano is a third generation Canali and leads the business. His brother Paolo is the global marketing and commercial director and his sister Elisabetta looks after the brand image as global communication director.
Stefano told me that he worried that in the craze to wear labels, men were forgetting about the importance of craftsmanship and construction. Every Canali suit is still made in Italy at one of the company’s seven manufacturing operations. The workers (many of them women) have worked for Canali for years, and later, when I visited the Canali plant at Sovico near Milan, I was struck by how much human intervention there was in the process and by how much pride the workers took in their jobs.
But Stefano’s real concern has always been with construction. Though most men who wear suits do not realise this, there are two distinct methods of making jackets. The first is called fusing. This is an industrial process by which the body of the coat, including the outer fabric, the padding and the lining are all glued together. The second is canvas basting in which the inside of the jacket (the material between the fabric and the lining which gives the coat its shape) is made from what the trade calls ‘canvas’ but is usually a mixture of horse or camel hair and fabric.
The tailoring tradition relies on canvas – they would take you out and shoot you on Savile Row if you suggested making a fused jacket – because it makes for a softer construction and allows the jacket to move with the body. The more industrial tradition of cheaper ready-to-wear is based on fusing, which looks fine when you first buy the suit but which begins to make the jacket feel stiff and uncomfortable as time goes on. If you have a jacket in which the fabric has bubbled after dry cleaning, it means that it is fused and that the gum has begun to give way. (That’s why it’s never a good idea to dryclean a fused jacket too often).
Because a canvas basting process is three or four times the cost of industrial-style fusing, only a few readymade brands bother with it, among them Zegna, Brioni, Kiton and Canali. The others reckon – probably accurately – that most guys don’t know the difference, so why bother to spend the extra bucks?
Stefano says that the Canalis take a contrary view. Of course a suit is about looking good. But it is also about feeling good. It isn’t enough to seem well-dressed. You must feel so comfortable in the suit that it becomes a second skin not a suit of armour.
Why is it, I asked Stefano, that brands that cost as much as – if not more than – Canali don’t bother with canvas basting? Surely they can afford some craftsmanship considering the fancy prices that they charge? He shrugged, unwilling to criticise his rivals. But there is a lesson in this for consumers. If you find your suit is restrictive and uncomfortable, it may not be the fit that is to blame – in may be the construction.
Stefano suggests a simple test. The next time you consider buying a suit, take the lapel of the jacket between your fingers and rub it. If you can feel the layers of fabric rustle, then you are holding a canvas-constructed garment. If it seems stiff and unyielding, then it is a fused garment, manufactured at a much lower cost. If you are being asked to pay large sums of money for it, then you are being ripped off.
So it is with the label. If it says “Designed in Italy”, it might well be “Made in Bangladesh”. Only a handful of brands still insist on making all their clothes in Italy, using traditional craftsmanship.
But as the Canalis readily concede, they can’t guarantee a perfect fit. After all, each individual has a slightly different frame. None of us is a perfect 48 or 52. All of us differ slightly from regulation sizes. I buy my suits in Delhi because most global brands employ trained tailors who will alter them to the customer’s specifications. This is much more difficult to do abroad and they often charge huge amounts for even the simplest alteration.
There is, however, another option. Made to Measure.
Made to Measure is emphatically not bespoke. A bespoke suit is cut from a pattern drawn especially for you. A Made to Measure suit takes an existing block (say 52R) and then adjusts the cut to suit your frame. Do your shoulders stoop? Is one arm longer than the other? Is your stomach a little too ample? Are you slightly hunched? If you order a Made to Measure suit, all this can be taken into account and the finished product should fit better on your frame. Plus you can choose the fabric yourself and ask for any little foible you like. (Working cuffs on the sleeves, two pockets at the back, etc.)
Most global brands now offer a Made to Measure service. The Canali version is better than some because you can be measured in Delhi, London or Hong Kong but the suit will still be made in Italy and delivered to you in India. It costs a little more than readymade, but bizarrely it’s still cheaper than some of the readymade fused suits I see on sale at such malls as Delhi’s Emporio.
How does the suit turn out? Canali is making one for me for the next season of Custom Made so I’ll get to find out when it finally arrives in Delhi. And so, I guess, will you!
From HT Brunch, September 9
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