Suited For Battle

When a man goes into battle, he dons his battle dress.

Well, not exactly a dress—a suit. Such was the case when, poised to begin a book tour, I found that my collection of suits was pretty tired and not what was needed to adequately represent a book about the evolution of men’s retail. In this country of men dressed as 35-year-old boys in their baseball caps, fleece jackets and bargain jeans, it’s time to learn what every modern guy used to know: the clothes do indeed make the man.

There are acres of homeless suits dying to join a power lunch, and wanting nothing more than to emerge from a four-star restaurant with a beautiful woman clutching its pure virgin wool. Recently, I toured dozens of outlets and stores, and saw hundreds of suits in the San Francisco Bay Area—from Men’s Wearhouse to Nordstrom; Macy’s to the wholesaler on the corner. What I found was that most men’s apartment stores have become kind of like bugs trapped in amber; nothing more than a time capsule of the way men have shopped and dressed for the better part of the last 100 years. At a crumbling suburban Macy’s one afternoon outside of San Francisco, I found a men’s store that was virtually unchanged from my high school years. A salesman, looking like a sport-scaster in a plaid jacket, Countess Mara tie and gray slacks, was in the midst of assisting a 13 year-old boy with what was likely his first suit. For the boy’s father, this was probably 
an auspicious moment: his son, on the threshold of manhood, was about to be molded into a little gentleman. For the boy—skinny, slouched, pimply and as awkward as any boy can be at 13—it looked as if this was a less than thrilling moment. The jacket hung on the boy’s little shoulders like a waterlogged Sunday paper. “You look great, sport!” beamed the father. An indifferent sigh from his son soon followed.

As men become more self-aware, working out and dieting, the suit has the power to sculpt and enhance the power and poise of a man’s body. But buying a suit in the United States is nothing short of a miserable experience. The shop design is antiquated and fussy; and, generally, so are the salesmen. The suits, in their orderly displays, are drab and uninspiring. They hand me suits to try on that make me look like I’m going to a bar mitzvah or a funeral. In short, instead of feeling like a million dollars, I feel like a dollar-fifty.

Can the American man be liberated from the poorly fitted suit and not spend a fortune? It depends. The anatomy of a finely made suit is actually fascinating. In Europe, tailoring is an art. So what every American man must learn is that a great suit is an investment. For a really great one, you won’t get out of the store for less than $1,500—and that’s low-balling it. But consider that if it’s the right suit, you’ll discover—as so many men have—that a beautifully tailored suit opens doors.

My dream shop would be one that doesn’t bother stocking every suit imaginable; in every shade of gray and black. A great store needs to help a man discover his inner peacock with an edited collection of suits with a point of view. Forget the pleated trousers – who really looks good in them? Let David Lettermen wear the double-breasted windowpane plaid. Give me Bond, James Bond—shaken or stirred! I want a suit that makes ladies swoon and men bow.

Short of taking a sewing class, I recommend that every man have at least one suit custom-made. Your tailor is like your barber: he can work miracles on that poor carcass of yours. Learn from your tailor what looks best on you. Let him teach you about the marvels of high-twist yarn; that the shoulders and lapels are the make-or-break details of a great suit. Contrary to what the department store salesman tells you, that suit you’re trying on doesn’t look like it was made for you. It is a suit that was meant to fit about 15 other guys of varying proportions.

Alas, with the clock ticking before my New York press tour, I didn’t have any time for a tailored suit, and found myself at Yves Saint Laurent. There I discovered an exquisite suit of smoky blue wool with softly drawn charcoal stripes. The generous lapels recalled Johnny Depp in Blow. I slipped into the lean, button-fly trousers and looked at myself in the mirror. It was hideously expensive but, after all the miserable suits I had seen, this one was the one. I felt tall, fearless, and ready for battle.

For more insight into the next fashion frontier pick up Bertrand Pellegrin’s informative and insightful new book Branding the Man (Allworth Press).

– Bertrand Pellegrin