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He cuts a figure at once elegant and authoritative as he strides confidently into the boardroom. Some glance at the perfectly dimpled tie tucked neatly under the soft collar of his dress shirt; others focus on the brown suede perforated oxfords. As he walks to the head of the long table, all notice the subtle glen plaid double-breasted suit that seems to move effortlessly with him, like a second skin. Taking his seat, he fails to unbutton the suit jacket, which doesn't tug or pull but instead drapes perfectly to accommodate the position of his body. He is the very essence of executive style, yet something is amiss.... It is almost as if he looks, well, comfortable in his clothes.
It is not by accident or divine intervention that the finest tailored clothing today fits with all the softness and comfort of sportswear. While few have noticed, a new era in men's fashion has been ushered in--that of the seasonless suit--and there will no doubt be scores of men more comfortably dressed as a result. That collective sigh of relief you hear is Corporate America finally relaxing, from Wall Street to Walla Walla. Indeed, it is reassuring to know that ease and elegance need not be mutually exclusive in men's suits, at least for those with the means to afford such tailored luxury.
Credit for this development in men's clothing may be traced to a handful of progressive Italian fabric companies that have been making technological strides in producing lightweight, supple yet sturdy woolens and worsteds. In turn, clothing designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Luciano Barbera, Nick Hilton, Oxxford, and Donna Karan have worked these soft lightweight fabrics into suits that offer comfort and drape without sacrificing propriety in the process. The man in the gray flannel suit is now the man in the lightweight, 100s high-twist (superfine weave) worsted. And certainly not just in gray.
Of course, most of these luxurious wool fabrics, which are spun from superfine yarns--sometimes in combination with cashmere and baby alpaca--require a good amount of hand tailoring, with natural canvas-sewn fronts as opposed to fusing (a process in which nonwoven material is glued between fabric layers). Hand-tailored clothing, like the special fabrics from which it is often produced, doesn't come cheap. But for style-conscious men in search of the finest tailored clothing offering the greatest amount of comfort and refinement, only the best will do.
"High-quality hand-tailored suits wear so well, they can last more than ten years or so," says Derrill Osborn, vice-president and senior buyer of men's tailored clothing for Dallas-based Neiman Marcus. "And that represents a good investment. This is clothing for the man who has arrived, who doesn't need to dress fashionably to get to the top. He already has the best money can buy on his back.
"We need to appreciate fine clothing more," continues Osborn. "It's like fine paintings; we have to hold on to these precious things as long as we can."
One of the earliest purveyors of luxurious clothing in seasonless-weight fabrics is Ermenegildo Zegna, an 83-year-old Italian clothing company, which is unique in that it raises its own sheep, spins its own yarn and weaves its own fabrics, in addition to manufacturing finished clothing. According to Barry Miguel, Zegna vice-president and creative director, the most exclusive Zegna suits, which range from $1,300 to $1,600, are made of a high-twist fabric known as Tindaril, which keeps the wearer cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It also travels extremely well, since it's resistant to wrinkling.
"We live in a modern global society," explains Miguel, "and businessmen travel and need to wear suits that are comfortable enough and versatile for any climate. And in today's economy, a man wants to be able to wear a suit at least nine months of the year."
Giorgio Armani's preoccupation with comfort and drape in tailored clothing dates back to the late '70s, according to Ed Glanz, senior vice-president of merchandising and production for Giorgio Armani Fashion Corporation, when the Milan-based designer started turning out suits in lightweight natural linen that wrinkled like crazy. To further shock, he often showed them worn over white T-shirts, condemned by some at the time as a form of fashion heresy. In fact, the look was immortalized in the movie American Gigolo, about a suave hustler played by Richard Gere, whose extensive wardrobe was designed by Armani.
"Back in the '70s, the statement was that casual can also mean a suit, whether it's day or evening," explains Glanz. "Armani's look then, and even today, reflects a casual approach to tailored clothing without turning it into something it isn't."
Armani's fabrics this fall, at once lightweight and textural, are also highly sophisticated in terms of color and pattern. And when combined with a relaxed drapey fit, the result is tailored clothing that in many ways redefines the genre.
While Armani suit jackets may feel like a favorite cardigan when worn, the finely tailored elegance is unmistakable. Expect to pay at least $1,400 for ease and elegance Armani-style. That's for the designer's white label clothing. For the black label collection, which is Armani's signature line and is sold only in Giorgio Armani boutiques and certain specialty stores such as Barneys, the prices ascend to $2,000 and beyond.
Luciano Barbera and Brioni are two more examples of sheer artistry in Italian suiting, the latter a hallmark of what has come to be known as "Roman style"--a conservative yet meticulous approach to fine tailoring that favors economy in balance and shape rather than the generous, relaxed silhouettes typified by Armani. Brioni clothing is made almost completely by hand and is sold only in its own New York boutique and in better specialty Stores such as Neiman Marcus, Barneys, and Maus & Hoffman in Florida.
For those in the know, Barbera represents the Château Pétrus of Italian tailored clothing, so masterful and meticulous is the hand-tailoring, so idiosyncratic yet discreet are the patterns and colors. This is arguably the most luxurious tailored clothing available today and is made exclusively of its own rich and expensive fabrics. In balance, shape, and detail, the man in a Barbera suit strikes an elegant silhouette. This is clothing that will mold to the wearer's shape to ensure comfort and ease of movement. A little more than $2,000 will put you in a Luciano Barbera suit. And a cashmere sportcoat by Barbera, at $ 2,500 or more, is as coveted as a box of Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos.
Stateside, a number of American clothing designers and manufacturers are following the lead of their Italian counterparts, turning out hand-tailored suits of luxurious fabrics that are seriously elegant yet don't sacrifice comfort and ease. Oxxford Clothing, a conservative yet quality-oriented company, has never stopped producing suits that are 90 percent sewn by hand. While Oxxford patterns lean toward the classic, and the styling is more mature, few American-made suits fit as comfortably or will endure as long.
Equal in quality hand-tailoring is the clothing produced in the Brooklyn factory of Martin Greenfield, whose educated eye and remarkable craftsmanship graces the private label suits of such prestigious stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Dunhill. Greenfield, who stands as the last of the bastion of hand-tailors who once reigned in New York, also hand-sews the collections of designers Alexander Julian and Donna Karan. Perhaps even more impressive, Greenfield is the tailor of choice for Bill Clinton, whose sartorial style is virtually the only attribute of the president that has not been under siege.
Luxurious tailored clothing continues as a cornerstone of the Polo by Ralph Lauren fashion empire, as the designer continues to be unrivaled as the best interpreter of classic English-pattern suits. Always an inspiration to young designers, Lauren has spawned a wealth of creative offspring such as Joseph Abboud and Nick Hilton.
One of the newest names on a dwindling roster of American designers still in business, Nick Hilton was born to the clothing business as the son of Norman Hilton, a traditional suit manufacturer who recently retired from the wholesale business. Nick reinvented the company in his own image and renamed it Nick Hilton. The objective: to design clothing for the stylish sons of his father's customers.
Combing the international fabric markets for the softest richest fabrics that are still lightweight, Hilton brings a well-trained and tasteful eye to his designing. The clothes are classic yet modern, with unusual mixes of textures and colors--a deft design trick that he performs with ease. The look has fast become a Nick Hilton trademark. This is American-made clothing that artfully combines form with flair. In just two short seasons, Nick Hilton has made serious inroads on the men's fashion front despite the $1,500 and higher price tags his suits can command. Look for a Nick Hilton boutique in the new Barneys scheduled to open on Madison Avenue in New York City this fall.
From Milan to Manhattan, men are beginning to embrace the idea of comfortable suits. While this newfound comfort in tailored clothing has its price, it is worth noting that as the '90s unfold, ease and elegance are becoming an integral part of the new fashion vocabulary. And that spells good news for those who want to be well dressed in the boardroom and beyond.
Ralph DiGennaro is a freelancer who writes frequently about fashion.