Men's Fashion

Tailors of the unexpected

Designers famed for their directional ready-to-wear are now producing elegant suits that bring individuality to the business wardrobe. Mark C O’Flaherty reports.

October 27 2011
Mark C O’Flaherty

The relaunch of the Mugler menswear label earlier this year was a typically hyped-up major fashion event. The autumn/winter show in Paris mixed dark pantomime with self-consciously edgy high-shine glamour. Male models’ faces appeared to be dipped in black, satanic, glossy tar and – with Lady Gaga’s stylist on board as new creative director – there was an avalanche of fashion blog hyperbole and frantic trending on Twitter. For anyone uninterested in such things, it represented a parallel universe that will never have a sense of its own ridiculousness. Eyes rolled… And yet, while there were bald-headed men with full facial and cranial skull tattoos stalking the runway, there were also, quietly strolling among them, some of the sharpest, most appealing suits that you can buy right now.

For many of the world’s directional designers – often better known for their womenswear – also produce smart and luxurious men’s tailoring. While showtime is intended to grab the attention of the most jaded of the world’s fashion editors, when it comes to what the buyers order, the edit is surprisingly wearable. What these designers bring to the cutting table – and what makes them worth considering as an alternative to the bespoke tailoring of Jermyn Street and Savile Row – is a strong sense of body-consciousness. This shows itself in a more sculpted, slightly exaggerated silhouette, which can be used to inject the business wardrobe with individuality and power.

Some directional designers have developed entirely separate lines to hone their men’s tailoring, such as Comme des Garçons’ Homme Deux range, which designer Rei Kawakubo describes as “suits for the handsome mind – where casual becomes smart and smart doesn’t have to mean stiff”. The Homme Deux range represents a mix-and-match collection of jackets (from £750) and trousers (from £190) that would be the perfect capsule wardrobe for a less formal business trip.

Similarly, Maison Margiela’s 14 label is reassuringly focused on relaxed, classic tailoring. “We introduced Margiela 14 alongside the more fashion-forward 10 line,” says Browns menswear senior buyer Mei Chung. “It has luxurious tailored pieces in handsome fabrics, and the silhouette is cut in a very defined way that falls beautifully.” Within the Margiela 14 line this autumn is the most classic, meticulously constructed single-breasted mohair suit (£955). It’s a suit that looks unlikely to date, and which will take you seamlessly from office to evening engagements (double-breasted wool suit, £1,118).

Alexander McQueen’s menswear became more prominent in autumn 1996 when it formed part of his ground-breaking Dante collection at Hawksmoor’s iconic Christ Church in Spitalfields, London. “Classic with a twist; that’s the only way you can do menswear,” McQueen said some weeks before the show – and he was, as ever, right. While still enjoying a meteoric rise to fame with an aesthetic defined by psychotic-looking models storming down catwalks with their eyes blacked-out by contact lenses, his early menswear was a sober nod to his Savile Row roots. A year after his death, McQueen menswear (which, like the womenswear, is now designed by Sarah Burton) continues in the same vein and assiduously eschews trendiness: jacket lengths are longer than the current norm (76cm rather than 72cm) and trousers break on the shoes, not above the ankle. Yes, elsewhere in the collection there are flamboyant prints and a sharp “McQueen shoulder”, but at the core there is simple, fully canvased, precisely structured tailoring. Standout pieces for autumn include double-breasted blazers in exclusively woven plaid English-milled wools (from £1,215) and a one-button single-breasted suit in a soft two-colour check (trousers £495, jacket £1,215) with sharp peaked lapels.

McQueen’s tailoring is distinctly British, playing on notions of the gentry and the gentleman’s outfitter. So are the suits in the Man range by the grande dame of showmanship, Vivienne Westwood. For some years now, Westwood has been a very reliable source of suits with a subtle but seductive twist. This autumn there’s an elegant charcoal three-piece with amber buttons (£779) and a chic, black, single-breasted suit with a double pocket detail on the right of the jacket (£885). Fashion insiders will clock them immediately as Westwood, but everyone else will read them as straightforwardly smart and luxurious. Many men find that the strong shape and broader lapel is just the thing for them, and go on to buy nothing but Westwood suits. “We work a lot with small details,” says Westwood menswear designer Francis Lowe. “For instance, we may have higher placement of notches on the lapels. We also develop our own fabrics, and play with traditional patterns, such as Prince of Wales checks and pinstripes, changing the colours and scale of the design, remaining true to our British roots, but with a slight twist.”

Shoulder shapes can define a period in fashion. David Bowie once remarked, “The shoulder pad is the flared trouser of the 1980s.” Contemporary menswear isn’t defined by one single shape but the shoulders at the reborn Mugler label are certainly as strong as they were when the house’s originator, Thierry Mugler, first launched in 1979. “The Mugler way of tailoring is sharp, with no compromise,” says its current menswear designer Romain Kremer. “It’s about masculine shapes; more of a shell than a second skin. It’s powerful.” There are the angular, collarless, single-button jackets that defined 1980s menswear, but within the autumn collection there is also a sleek, midnight-blue, single-button, double-breasted suit (trousers, £175, jacket, £750) that makes for a simple yet handsome outfit.

Roland Mouret’s tailoring is unswervingly elegant and, for autumn, focuses heavily on texture. He is designing for himself rather than for the catwalk, and there are few men who wouldn’t want to look like Mouret, oozing mature, confident, Gallic chic. “I have just turned 50,” says Mouret. “With my menswear I asked myself what I wanted to wear now. I want clothes that define a man without being in your face or outrageous. They shouldn’t create a new experience for you, because you have the experience already.” The men’s department of his Mayfair boutique (trousers from £325, jackets from £765) takes in elements of the softer, tweedier, more luxurious side of the 1980s and could be described as the perfect modern male wardrobe.

Rick Owens is a designer known for an unstructured, monochromatic, gothic aesthetic that’s so all-encompassing that there are even grey M&Ms in a bowl on the counter of his Paris store. His work is immediately identifiable, and has a cult following. Yet within his racks of drapes and folds and washed and skewed leather, there are conservative, pared-down pieces of beautiful black and grey tailoring (jacket, £1,052; coats from £1,900), still very much informed by Owens’ thoughtful approach to proportion. “I’m trying to get the armhole as high as possible and the sleeve length as long as possible too,” he says. “I want a long, slim line without getting too gimmicky. I use interior pockets as opposed to welt ones for one less layer of fabric and a reductive smoothness.” Practicality has not been sacrificed for style, though: “Every man’s jacket comes with zippered interior patch pockets big enough for your phone charger, a magazine, a ChapStick and passport.”

As Owens’ Paris store seems to illustrate, the misperception of many of the world’s more progressive designers is that they don’t offer credible clothes for the modern, working man. The reality is that they are laboratories for proportion and textiles that also produce garments that just might flatter and suit you more than your tailor can, or is prepared to. They could be infinitely more “you”. Go forth and experiment.

See also

Suits, Tailoring