Recently I found myself stumped for inspiration while working with an actor/comedian client in the bespoke room at Gieves & Hawkes. My charge didn’t want to look like a stuffy City guy when on stage, nor did he want slick-and-sheeny showbiz. What he wanted was to look smart and cool – and, above all, he finally said, relaxed. With that word, it struck me like a bolt: corduroy. We narrowed the options down to a rich olive cord from Scabal, at a midweight 360g (£1,650 for a two-piece made-to-measure). We then paired it with suede Cleverley boots and a dark poloneck, and boom – my client was placed neatly between Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Woody Allen in Annie Hall: perfectly laid-back and suave – but individualistic.
I shouldn’t take full credit, though. Not only did I not invent corduroy (ridged fabrics like cord have been around since Ancient Egypt, with more refined versions rechristened “cloth of the king” by the English in the 18th century), but it’s so visible this autumn as a significant menswear trend that you’d be hard-pressed to miss it. While it amounts to a refreshingly outré choice, corduroy is still fundamentally low-key in its associations, which makes it unexpectedly versatile. (A style navigation note: wale refers to the number of ridges per inch – four is pretty jumbo, 11 or 12 is needle.)
At Brunello Cucinelli’s style showcase, models milled about in elegantly slouchy corduroy. Deconstructed fine-wale Sea Island cotton-cord jackets and pleated trousers (£3,250 for the pair) were teamed with gilets. A wide-wale one-and-a half-breasted coat (£2,910) in slate-grey, water-repellent cord had extra clout when paired with a cable knit. Sea Island cotton, used for its far longer fibres, lends Cucinelli cords a deep lustre. This fabric is all about texture, and layering it with tonally similar knits, even other patterned cloths, delivers great ensembles; the deconstructed double-breasted suit jackets (from £3,250) with swept-back peak lapels, for instance, have a nonchalant presence worn with rollnecks.
Sophisticated autumn hues enhance these new tailoring statements. A beefy fawn corduroy suit (£1,510) by Camoshita has a retro feel, with patch pockets and dropped peak lapels, while at Caruso, a daring ruby-red blazer (£1,655) with brass hardware was the show-stealer. Caruso has also taken its Gobigold fabric – made from the hair of Gobi Desert camels, previously only used for thick outerwear – and parlayed it into a super-smart Gobigold double-breasted suit (£1,690) and gilet (£454).
Warm vintage shades aren’t the full colour story, though; a few designers are playing with bolder hues and gradations. The gorgeous smoky effect on Helbers’s washed-cord Slack jacket (£1,140) is the result of garment dyeing. “My collection is inspired by painterly fluidity – I referenced paint strokes, cutting panels cross-grain or on the bias, so they caught the light in different ways,” says designer Paul Helbers. Casual padded jackets (£1,090) and a wide-leg trouser (£590) with a pleat have a sophisticated but insouciant quality. Boglioli’s teal Visconti suit (£1,022), meanwhile, derives its modern silhouette from its unconstructed shoulder, draping beautifully when styled with a light denim shirt and a blue tie.
The cord interpretations at Giorgio Armani are sporty, almost futuristic, with deep-green and royal-blue needlecord velvets used for double-breasted jackets (£1,400), paired with wide trousers (£590). Double-breasted, flocked navy or green needlecord jackets (£1,400) make real statements; there are even iridescent metallic colours, seen on a sporty blouson (£1,650) and a hooded waistcoat (£1,400).
There’s more sportif style at Moncler, with cord making appearances in many après-ski pieces to underline the 1970s inspiration. Vibrant retro colours such as turquoise, leaf green and pillar-box red are mixed in with neutrals. For these proper performance pieces, cord is manipulated into quilting, bonded for volume or trimmed with leather, as with the fawn ski pants (£500) or the forest-green puffa (£1,655) with matching trousers (£500). The pièces de résistance, though, are the shearling- and leather-trimmed padded cord jackets (£1,655), which pack seriously cool ’70s Brooklyn street style.
The Prada men’s show was a veritable cool-cord spectacular – one could see Jarvis Cocker totally at ease in this gear (a palette heavy in rich chocolate brown and burnt orange, and large acetate eye glasses, evoked Cocker chic). Cord trousers (£595) come narrow at the top, with a confident flare; a series of two-button suits (£2,400) in that burnt orange have leather-trimmed patch pockets; and leather patch pockets on brown cord blazers (£1,580) elevate the tailoring to something altogether more fly. Prada has some impressive cord outerwear, too, such as mac-style coats in jumbo cord with bold trench details: one in rich burnt umber has leather sleeve buckles (£1,980), another in caramel has trench storm flaps (£1,890). A belted car coat (£2,065) with safari patch pockets and fur-trim collar is a double helping of Jarvis cool.
Elsewhere, designers take corduroy’s ridged motif merely as inspiration, translating it into other materials. The cashmere “cord” at Kiton is a next-level luxury innovation, especially the unstructured cardigan blazers (£5,600) in navy, steel blue and fawn. The Kiton technique allows elastane to be integrated into the weft yarn, creating a cashmere/wool that is then carefully laundered so the elastane melts into the fabric. It drapes like knitwear but maintains a surprisingly robust shape, the “melting” process guaranteeing structure. At Tod’s, meanwhile, an innovative laser-etching technique has been used on shearling leathers to great effect. A striking peacoat (£3,890) with sheepskin collar has an antiqued-like finish, and rugged Western jackets (£3,890) come in two deep-camel shades. There’s also a weathered fishtail parka (£5,450).
The idea of corduroy still connotes a bookish/boyish air, as represented by McQueen and Dustin Hoffman’s ultra-preppy character in The Graduate, but now it has evolved into something racier and super-cool. Texture, laid-back luxury and roomy cutting are seminal tailoring trends; the new corduroys lend themselves beautifully to all of these. Forget going with the flow; this autumn it’s far cooler to adopt the ridge.