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Fashion: High-Tech Tradition

Flannels, Cashmeres, Wools, Tweeds Modern Lightweight Fabrics Spur a Luxurious Return to Traditional Styles
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 2)

"My customers are happy with 10- to 12-ounce cloth in the fall," agrees Dallas' consummate custom tailor, Chris Despos. "Today, it's possible to have cloths with substance without all the weight and bulk. Not only reduced weight, but increased qualities of fineness, because advanced spinning technology now produces finer and finer yarns.

"The three cloths that I do best with are: one, a Super 120s wool and 15 percent cashmere blend from Isles Textiles; two, a Super 120s and 10 percent cashmere blend from Samuel Lehrer; and three, a Super 120s and 10 percent cashmere blend from Lesser Textiles. Each weighs about 10 ounces and responds beautifully to tailoring. I try to make the finished suit even lighter and more comfortable by using lighter inner linings and less padding in the coat."

There had been a vogue for a few years--started in the 1980s by Armani and company--for crepe- and boucle-type fabrics that had a pebbly, dry, limp hand. They seemed a good medium for the unconstructed casualness of the period because they had overstated surface texture and a very loose weave. But things are decidedly dressier now.

"All those high-twist crepes are on the wane, and the pendulum is swinging back to much more traditional cloths," says New York designer Alan Flusser, owner of his own custom shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and author of the recently published, definitive book on buying men's clothes, Style and the Man (HarperStyle, 1996, $24). "The fashion spirit now is for harder-finished cloths, cloths with more substance that can be tailored better. There's more interest today in dark, dressy clothes in a slightly slimmer silhouette. And if you're wearing solid-colored satin ties and white cutaway-collared dress shirts, you certainly want a more sophisticated suit. And that means good fabrics and good tailoring."

The biggest news these past several seasons has been in the cloths known as "Supers." Super fine wools are a relatively new phenomenon that followed recent advances in technology. Supers are made from what is the world's finest wool: pure-bred merino sheep from Australia and New Zealand grow wool that is supremely soft, silky and fine. The diameter of a strand of Supers-quality merino is less than 20 microns (one millionth of a meter); the smaller the micron number in the designation, the finer the wool. Thus, the first generation of Supers were in the 80s and 90s range of fineness, about 19 microns; newer 110 and 120 Supers are in the range of 18 and 17 microns. What's most noticeable about these cloths is the atypical combination of a soft, buttery texture with great durability and drape.

"Theoretically, you can make Supers of any number in any weight," says Neal Boyarsky, president of Beckenstein Men's Fabrics in New York City, the most prestigious cloth merchant in the United States. "The art comes in getting the right fineness in the right weight. We have now progressed to 140s, 150s and even 170s Supers, which are in the range of 14.5 microns. For fall, we like to combine the higher-quality Supers with cashmere in 12-ounce weights. It makes a superb cloth that reacts well to tailoring and humidity, and retains its shape even though it's incredibly soft. It's one of the most luxurious cloths you can buy."

Dougal Munro agrees about the 170s. "This year we've woven enough 170s for just 240 suit lengths, and I can tell you that it's finer to the touch than worsted spun cashmere. At around $800 a yard, a top tailor--and to whom else would you entrust such a cloth--would have to charge perhaps $10,000 for a suit."

Luxury is, of course, the name of the game. "The better cloths are selling better," says Boyarsky. "We do lambswool and cashmere blends, baby camel hair, silk and cashmere blends at 10 ounces, 130s Supers cashmeres, and 120s Supers cashmere with a touch of vicuna, as well as pure vicuna in both 20-ounce topcoat weight and 12-ounce sports coat weight. The vicuna sells for a neat $3,000 per yard. But my favorite suiting for fall would be a 150s Super-and-cashmere blend at 10 ounces--just perfect for a successful businessman."

The essentials of the tailored wardrobe always follow the dictates of taste and quality. Fine fabrics and classic styling are the best fashion weapons with which to take arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Since the Second World War, the textile industry has created new fibers, developed blended fibers and refined existing fibers. Wool still comes from sheep, cashmere from mountain goats and vicuna from a camel's cousin, but the standards of quality today are pushing the luxury properties of these fine fibers higher than ever. On the drawing board are Super 200s woolens, vicuna blends and whisper-weight worsted cashmeres.

In a world in which so much seems to be of the fast-fickle-and-forget-it brand of shoddiness, men's tailoring is actually getting much better.

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