The traditional black dinner jacket and bow-tie combo might seem preserved in a mixture of aspic and Krug, but while for certain outfitters there will never be a deviation in the form – Mayfair stalwart Anderson & Sheppard reports it has made no significant changes to its black-tie tailoring in more than three decades – many designers and tailors are taking creative liberties with it.
Take Thom Browne, currently one of the most celebrated as well as idiosyncratic tailoring designers in New York, or indeed the United States, right now. He is the tastemaker who singlehandedly persuaded sophisticated businessmen to have trousers with hems 3in higher than they used to, and is one of the most influential figures in the reconfiguration of black tie. His 1950s modernist cut, with truncated arm and trouser lengths, finds its most powerful and persuasive expression in his version of the tuxedo, with silk-faille lapels or grosgrain-tipped ones that mirror the piped edges of the jacket (both styles are made to measure from his Manhattan store – jacket from $4,100, full tuxedo from $5,900 – and have become something of a high-fashion and Hollywood classic). “I use familiar fabrics, such as wool/mohair, but it’s the detail and proportion that makes my version different,” explains Browne. “I like the tuxedo because of the backstory – it is truly American formal clothing, but can be both subversive and playful.”
Browne is correct on the heritage of men’s evening attire: while one may think of black tie as British, much of the iconography around it stems from its development Stateside. Consider Bogart et al, who immortalised the tuxedo on the silver screen and took it to a new level of glamour. It is here too that black tie has embraced irreverence. “The Americans have been more liberated in the way they wear it,” says Bayode Oduwole, creative director at Pokit, a London outfitters also known for its individual, modernist approach to tailoring. “I love the pre-Rat Pack era suits, which were in salmon pink or Panama blue,” he continues. “At Pokit, we produce black tie [made-to-measure suits from £995] that’s either old-school American, in tartan with black lapels, or very English, with a 1950s silhouette and a straight trouser rather than the style that came in after the 1960s, when dinner jackets used a lot of shiny satin.” This is black tie with the high gloss toned down. One loyal customer of the label’s British-style black grosgrain on black washed-cotton suits is Ian Dejardin, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. “I always used to find black-tie events trying,” he says, “but what I wear now is more me; it isn’t stuffy at all.”
In terms of silhouette, most contemporary high-end designers now take a narrow approach to black tie (quite literally) – a look that has grown ever stronger and more refined since designer Raf Simons created it in the late 1990s. This season there are notable slim‑fit tuxedos at Burberry in black mohair (£1,495) and navy wool/mohair (£2,495) and at Z Zegna with a contemporary shawl collar (£950), while at Givenchy fully canvassed suits in barathea wool with shawl collars (from €2,200) are cut with a strong shoulder silhouette, as part of Riccardo Tisci’s Tuxedo Capsule Collection. The look is sharp and suave, and for extra visual frisson, there are contrast lapels – a black satin lapel beneath a navy wool collar (£995) at Burberry, for example.
There’s more playfulness at spirited Italian label DSquared2. Dean and Dan Caten, the twin brothers behind the brand, give their tuxedos (£1,520) a modern, not-too-serious take by combining different fabrics and subtle details. “We also ensure that each suit is constructed to allow for quick alterations, to create a more flattering look, close to made to measure.”
Fit and proportion aside, there are tailors and designers who are making confident moves in terms of the fundamental silhouette of black tie. Under the auspices of freelance creative director Carlo Brandelli, Kilgour has become perhaps the most directional and interesting operation on Savile Row. Take, for example, this season’s dark navy suit (£2,850) with contrasting silk collar and what Brandelli calls “the contemporary peak lapel” – the seam running diagonally upwards to the outer part of the lapel, rather than downwards, which elongates the line of the collar with an outward diamond-shaped point. It is more formal than a military notch lapel, but less predictable and showy than the traditional peak. A double-breasted-style secret button fastens it invisibly – with off-centre originality.
Father and son team Joe and Charlie Casely-Hayford create suits – both within seasonal collections (jacket, £895) and by special order – that acknowledge the heritage, craft and parameters of black tie, but, according to Joe, “reflect the significant lifestyle changes that have occurred since its heyday in the 1930s”. It’s a respectful update: “Black tie might seem archaic, but it’s a sartorial anchor and a symbol of glamour. When I wear it, I like the instant feeling of elevation and power.” Joe recommends pairing the brand’s fully canvassed, slightly oversized silk shawl jacket (£895) with its signature quilted Albert slipper (£225).
Formalwear doesn’t, of course, have to be a suit, or even include a black tie. At its dressiest level, during summer or on a yacht, for example, the colour of the jacket can be inverted: “I love a white silk dinner jacket,” says Jason Basmajian, chief creative officer at Gieves & Hawkes. Formalwear is a cornerstone of Gieves & Hawkes, and Basmajian enjoys pushing its boundaries. “There are fewer rules today,” he says. “This season we have done a series of suits in exploded Prince of Wales and herringbone jacquards (jacket, £2,195, and trousers, £1,895) in tonal black on black and burgundy, as well as straight black, that can cross over from day to evening.”
Another particularly flamboyant example can be found at Bally in the form of a primary-red tuxedo jacket with black shawl collar (£1,695). Similarly, Duchamp sells velvet tux jackets with a paisley print (£550), as well as a more subdued and extremely chic three-piece Royale version in a dark grey wool/mohair mix (suit, £650, and waistcoat, £150). “Alternative tuxedo attire is something that we have really honed,” says Duchamp’s creative director Gianni Colarossi. “Men can be more expressive and inventive with outfits today.” And that sentiment extends to accessories.
No one has reinvented the bow tie because no one needs to, but steer clear of dated narrow black styles and bright patterns. Instead, look to the evergreen archives of classic outfitters. Budd in Mayfair stocks a library of excellent choices, including the muted colours of madder silk (£65), La Coupée (£55) and the Oyster Point (£55), which has a great monochrome print by Claire Gaudion, inspired by the landscape of Herm Island, off the coast of Guernsey. It has a masculine 1950s ring to it – like Pucci refracted through the lens of the Festival of Britain.
With shoes, “shiny patents are the correct form”, says Pokit’s Oduwole, “but black loafers or Oxfords look best. In November and December, if you stand around London’s Charing Cross station, you see all the older men going to their club dinners in their ancient, cracked Oxfords, and they’re perfect. That kind of insouciance has tremendous charm.” John Lobb’s 2014 Oxfords (£1,215) will certainly last decades and still, as Oduwole says, look spot-on.
There are also contemporary brands doing sterling work in updating classics, such as Mr Hare, whose wedding collection features the Orwell Stingray (£799), which mixes retro patent shine with textured natural stingray to stylish effect. For a more relaxed tux, check out the Bux Black (£359), a black Derby shoe with a graphic, lighter sole.
In so many films that depict black-tie occasions, it’s the after-dinner scenes, where jackets are unbuttoned and ties undone, that look the most fun. Perhaps that moment can be captured earlier with a more individual – and adventurous – approach to dressing up.