Men's Fashion

Penguins and peacocks

Men’s eveningwear is breaking free from black tie, with fashion houses and tailors offering formal suits in a sumptuous range of colours and fabrics. It’s all in the best possible taste, says Jonathan Futrell.

November 26 2011
Jonathan Futrell

This winter, men’s eveningwear is as bright and colourful as a chap is prepared to go. Think pillar-box red, golds, greens and blues, in rich velvets, luxuriant satins, and even linen. A far cry from the regimental black barathea that’s been the default evening attire for men since the second world war.

You can almost hear an entire generation punching the air, thrilled at the prospect of not having to turn up to an event in their best bibs and tuckers looking like waiters.

“We are definitely seeing a shift towards the unconventional,” says the Spitalfields-based tailor Timothy Everest. “The boundaries for formal dressing are shifting.” Shifting? There’s been an earthquake.

Some of the most seductive new looks come from Tom Ford’s suave salon of after-hours elegance. The former creative director of Gucci’s dinner jackets (£2,050), with their single buttons and shawl collars, come in saturated purple, kingfisher blue and burgundy – eveningwear for peacocks on a high.

There are pink and yellow satin evening jackets at Lanvin (£1,790); camel and navy tuxedos at Dries Van Noten (£540); and a delicious paisley baroque’n’roll velvet jacket at Etro (£810). While at Ermenegildo Zegna there is a sensational, Oriental-flavoured collection of elaborately patterned bronze and red satin combinations of tight-fitting, wing-tip jackets (£1,610) and frock coats (price on request) with shawl and notched collars, and matching or co-ordinating shirts and bow ties.

But arguably the most radical, even bombastic, statement of them all is a camouflage dinner jacket (£695) from Savile Row’s Richard James. His Togs of War – black grosgrain shawl collar, single button and matching camouflage tie – is guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows. “Just the job for covert mingling,” James says.

Timothy Everest’s contribution to the colour palette is a magnificent double-breasted jacket, from his bespoke range, in fire-engine red velvet with wing-tip lapels (price on request) and another single-button jacket in tartan with a matching “horseshoe” waistcoat. Those waistcoats – long enough to show plenty of shirt at the top and to keep everything tucked in, no matter how exuberant the dancing – are another sign of the times.

“Colour reflects the personalities of today’s edgier and quietly confident creative types,” says Everest. “Today’s formal aesthetic is quirkily classic, but definitely more fashion forward.”

The reasons why more men are moving away from traditional black into the realms of glorious colour are varied. Breaking with the old and having fun is enough for some, but there is a more prosaic reason, too: black evening jackets are becoming just too commonplace for the fashionably inclined buck. For some time now, black satin jackets, paired with jeans and an open-neck shirt, have been the default outfit in London’s private drinking clubs, from Soho, London, to SoHo, Manhattan. The effect has been to devalue the look. It follows that when those men are attending a black-tie event, they won’t want to wear something so ubiquitous and overplayed.

Edward Sexton has done more than most over the years to help men break with the formality of traditional black tie, both on his own and previously as the dapper business partner of Savile Row iconoclast Tommy Nutter. The designer who famously dressed both Mick and Bianca Jagger for their wedding, and who made “that” white suit John Lennon wore on the cover of Abbey Road, is at the vanguard of luminous men’s eveningwear.

“Clients want something that is going to look great for formal events that start during daylight hours,” says Sexton’s right-hand man, Dominic Sebag-Montefiore. “You see people walking around at 5pm in black tie, and it just looks harsh and unsophisticated. Weddings start during the day and continue until the wee small hours. In daylight, the classic dinner suit can also look a bit ‘waitery’. We steer a lot of our clients away from black for that reason.

“A hundred years ago men would change outfits during an event – from their dinner suits to white tie and smoking jacket, depending on how formal the occasion was. Sadly, people don’t take their valets to weddings any more.”

Sexton has been busy making red velvet, single-breasted dinner suits with satin-edged tape (£4,200), and others in white gabardine or linen (both £4,800) for his customers attending functions on the Riviera and in the Caribbean. Naturally, there is a halfway house; something for men who want to break away from the yoke of an old-fashioned evening suit but who are not prepared to stand out completely from the crowd. Savile Row’s Spencer Hart understands that balance. He has retained the sharpness and understated style of what Americans call the tuxedo, while the colours he has introduced are muted. His suits come in chocolate brown and charcoal grey (from £700), and jackets in midnight blue (£500). Each is single breasted, with one button and a shawl collar.

My hat comes off to Brunello Cucinelli, the purveyor of luxury cashmere based in the idyllic hill-top setting of Solomeo, in Umbria. His mid-grey evening suit (£3,390) is simply stunning, and for me this year’s most elegant rejection of black. With a shawl collar and tapered trousers, this is the softest and coolest thing you can wear with a bow tie. Grey has never looked more elegant.

Across the Apennines, Tuscan designer Roberto Cavalli – no stranger to courting controversy himself – is also part of the move towards more flamboyant eveningwear. The man who once judged the Miss Universe contest in which his wife, Eva Düringer, was competing, says, “When it comes to eveningwear, I design for a man who wants to stand out from a sea of black dinner suits – a man with presence, who wants to make an impression; who appreciates the finest silks or velvets in lush oil tones and rich blues.”

Among his eveningwear this year is a crisp navy silk suit with a shawl collar (£2,365), and a sumptuous green velvet suit (£1,315) that looks absolutely right dressed down with a cravat. (Sexton recommends cravats tucked inside the shirt with linen evening suits.) Both Cavalli suits are single breasted with flush double-welt pockets, providing a sharp contemporary edge.

“I like to reflect on the past, when men really dressed up for all occasions, and to take a detail such as a wide lapel or a shawl collar and give it a contemporary, Cavalli twist,” he says.

Breaking with tradition is never easy – especially with something so ingrained in the modern male psyche as the black evening suit. But there’s no denying the new alternatives put fun back into formal wear. “Truly great men’s formal wear is achieved through striking the right balance between cut and confidence,” says Everest. There’s never been a better time to test that theory.

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Tailoring