Free trade, common currency and Europe's jet-speed progress toward a borderless continent notwithstanding, one thing will always distinguish the nationality of well-suited gentlemen from abroad as they stroll through the arrivals lounge stateside: fashion. When it comes to style, there will always be an England…nd a France and an Italy.
It is easy for Americans to forget that our styles in menswear have long been sucked into the slipstream of supersonic arrivals from Europe by designers with hubs in London, Paris and Milan. And while national suit identities aren't as glaring as they once were, distinctions still exist. Because knowledge of Europe's sartorial niceties will boost your mileage reward, we offer our guide to frequent flyers.
Logic suggests that the serious dude striding in lace-up brogues to the baggage check, orange Financial Times folded neatly under the arm of his respectable chalk-stripe, ticket-pocketed three-piecer, chin craned forward from starched contrast-collared shirt completed with four-in-hand repp tie, is carrying an English passport. He may well be. But the cliché of the buttoned-down Brit with the stiff upper-class fashion consciousness belies a cheeky stylishness that more than any other country's has informed menswear for the past century and longer.
Enter the way-back machine, Sherman. Before the nineteenth century, fashion in menswear was all the pomp, circumstance and foppishness of French dressing at court, where clothes were meant to advertise social status. The Brits freed men to dress like men and in doing so created one of history's most enduring uniforms: the business suit, an egalitarian garb born of manly pursuits.
An outdoorsy lot, the English were given to field sports, the hunt, riding and going to sea. They took the relatively simple silhouettes of these pursuits -- hunting coats, hacking jackets, blazers, etc. -- and moved them indoors. They also had a rather damp, chilly climate. Hence, the suit came to be a heavyweight garment, created from fabrics such as Harris Tweed (a weighty twill, misspelled from the Gaelic tweel). Another important texture was redoubtable gabardine (an invention of Thomas Burberry, founder of the 145-year-old company enjoying newfound popularity not undermined in the least by recent advertisements featuring a Burberry-plaid-bikini-clad Kate Moss).
English invasions stateside have come in waves. We caught on via '30s screen icons such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant that the precise tailoring of Savile Row was where it was at. Unhappily for British style dominance, so did every tailor around the globe. The fashion architecture that the English created was co-opted by the French, who called the studied casualness style anglais, the Italians and the Americans.
The Brits came storming back in the '60s with the Beatles' arrival in the United States. With them came the Mod Look, Carnaby Street and a breath of fresh air on Savile Row via designers such as Tommy Nutter. Bell-bottoms structurally finished the wild, colorful patterns of hipster dress, while the rock star intonations of Mick Jagger and David Bowie spoke for a generation of English and English-wanna-be youths. Traditional shirtmakers on Jermyn Street also became very flamboyant with screaming palettes and wide ties.
When economic austerity returned to the United Kingdom, England retreated to hang its reputation for fashion on the corner of Savile Row, an area of London's West End fenced in by Bond and Regent streets (west/east), and Burlington Gardens and Conduit Street (south/north). For years the Europeans embraced anything that looked or felt "American." Today American designers borrow freely to create their own Savile Row styles. Many, such as Ralph Lauren, have opened shops on Bond Street, advertising that very English- tailored look.
The English have segued into the modern language of today's business attire with comfort fabrics from Italy and beyond, measurements from the New World of America, and colors inspired by France and Scotland. But the shapely, silhouetted details long associated with English design, such as a slender, yet sporty fit appropriating ticket pockets, side vents and three-button closures, are cross-pollinated today with the more relaxed silhouette of Italian clothing and the uptight French styles.
Fashion-forward clothiers from London, such as Oswald Boateng, Richard James and Hackett, have embraced English heritage and craftsmanship, while ushering them into the hip, new era of Cool Brittania. Alfred Dunhill, head of another highly respected English lifestyle company, was one of the first Brits to capture the lifestyle brand approach to dressing. Consider The Dunhill Man and compare him with America's Marlboro Man -- just a bit more buttoned-up in his attire and savvier in his smoke. Dunhill smoking jackets, traditional suits and upscale luxury accessories (for both the smoker and the nonsmoker)\ are available round the world.
The preferred customer scenario has a robust physical build, an athletic definition of life, and a tough crossover business/personal life. He is a banker, a real estate mogul, a hotelier, a Texas oil magnate, a college professor. Wear clothing from Dunhill, Burberry, Richard James, Oxxford, Paul Smith, Nicole Farhi and the Savile Row firms of Hardy Amies; Kilgour, French & Stanbury; and Gieves & Hawkes.
You might assume you could stamp "French" on the passport of any traveling gentleman seen sporting a cadet blue-hued French cuff shirt or navy-and-white horizontally striped knit shirt under a narrow-shouldered, slender-cut midnight serge suit. Sacré bleu! You'd probably be right. However, shape is more to the point when describing French style, which is so much more than what colorfully meets the eye.
The French, at once diminutive and tightly wound, have held the historical record for jackets with slender point-to-point shoulder widths, high armholes, shorter lengths and nipped cuts that fit snugly against the body. Obviously, the French inherited that more petite body build, but the Napoleon complex reflects more than just size. It's about adopting what's best from other cultures, imprinting it with a Gaulish savoir faire and calling it French.
Back in the day (in this case, when Louis XIV ruled the country in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) the French reigned supreme in fashion. Young men bought their robes in Paris and were every bit as "done up" as young ladies. The fop, as he came to be known, was perfumed, powdered, beribboned and bewigged, even to the point of carrying a fur muff.
Accoutrements were frilly, ostentatious, colorful and fey. Doublets, blousy-sleeved jackets that plunged in at the midriff, were boned like corsets to slim the waist. Ruffs, the bigger the better, adorned the neck and trunk hose the legs. But the French Revolution changed all that. Fashions that made gentlemen more feminine than women were quickly left on the couturier's cutting room floor.
The French remounted the fashion throne sometime in the 1950s, when the postwar world was looking for something fabulous to live for. The New Look crowned Christian Dior le roi du monde for women. Men's fashion soon followed suit, imitating the same wasp waist of the New Look, and the French were soon reveling in fashion importance again.
The men's look as proffered by former Dior cutter Pierre Cardin was close fitting, squared off, body defining, two-buttoned and unvented -- a backlash to the baggy three-button sack suits that defined America's Ivy League style. It was a look so mod that the Beatles went to Cardin for their signature collarless jackets.
Design marketing was also a Cardin forte. He was one of the first couturiers to create ready-to-wear lines, and he branded all sorts of other products, such as cologne and furniture.
French style, reinterpreted as an insouciant, individualistic approach to menswear, reigned again in the early '90s until the globalized commercialism of fashion reined in designers for the next decade.
Today, the slim, sleek body-skimming silhouette that French suits have been known for since Pierre Cardin's preeminence in the 1960s is making a striking comeback. Cuts hearken back to Peter Sellers' Pink Panther films. The most wearable of the new shapes are from the ever- reinvented Christian Dior collection for men under its new designer, Hedi Slimane. Slimane has been a champion of the new ultraslim silhouette since his earlier days, only a few seasons ago, as head designer of Yves Saint Laurent/Rive Gauche.
The young, trés cool Slimane has said his approach toward dressing men points toward "the principle of military tailoring." Slimane, who offers a tapered shape -- a longer cut on jackets with narrow shoulders, trousers with a subtly relaxed, low-slung fit -- explains that he gives the "same comportment" to men of different shapes.
After the much-reported Gucci takeover of Yves Saint Laurent in 1999 placed Tom Ford at the design helm, Ford manipulated the master's signature forward, into the new century. For spring 2002, Ford's superslick suits in shiny silk with knife-like tapering and super-fly accessories may prove too form-fitting to be practical for anyone other than a fashion pimp. Fashion must be pushed, but there are limits.
The French-tailored man is a creative type, an architect, art director, graphic artist, restaurant or gallery owner, or maybe just a trust fund baby. He possesses a svelte constitution, but a grand disposition. If you can afford to leave the greenbacks on the table, go for Hermés, the quintessential tailored clothing and sportswear design house for the horsey, on-the-go set. Other important French-based designers: Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto.
Glance over at the monochromactically decked-out cell-phone abuser whipping through the first-class lounge, the one wearing the minichecked sport coat softened by a merino sweater cascading from his shoulders and flowing, creaseless trousers that dip just above low-vamped glove-like leather driving moccasins. Validate this one Venice, Italy…tailor-made, Milano.
The Italians have always conceived of great style and achieved it with equivalent craftsmanship. High style lies at the cornerstone of the entire Italian lifestyle, but applies more to clothing than perhaps any other category of consumption.
Italians take to heart Giorgio Armani's three rules of style and design: "Eliminate the superfluous, emphasize the comfortable, and acknowledge the elegance of the uncomplicated."
When Italy first waved the fashion scepter sometime in the early 1400s, Renaissance Romans were weavers and creators of beautiful fine fabrics that they sold throughout Europe. Ancient lore has it that Italians mastered the art of working with tender silk after two monks visiting the Orient smuggled out silkworm eggs in their telescoping canes. Italy conquered the use of other fine fabrics as well, among them cashmere, super woolens, vicuna and linen. A vivid sense of color inspired by the Mediterranean Sea and sky has always imbued Italian clothing with intense and bright saturated hues: such as azure, coral and sage.
Italy discovered tailoring by way of the English suit model in the late nineteenth century. Its skilled craftsmen emulated the form and added their own elegantly insouciant details as they caught on to the style in the early twentieth century.
The Italians made great inroads on the '50s fashion catwalks with their own versions of the tightly fitted suits the French were creating.
Italy's claim to recent fame coincided with Giorgio Armani's seduction of the world in 1980 with actor Richard Gere erotically dressing for the evening in the movie American Gigolo. Italian (and American) style would never be the same again. Armani's genius was not that the suit made Gere look great (that's easy enough). It could make anyone, particularly the man of a heftier American build, look good. Armani's flowing new business silhouette was born of physical reality. You could hide an entire corporation under the generous drape of yards of luxurious fabric. It was just what Americans wanted after years of trying to pinion their milk-fed physiques into European hourglass suits.
Today, Italy represents the assimilation of fabric mill technology and designer creation of shape and silhouette. Design houses such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali and Giorgio Armani operate mills where fabrics are woven, new technologies tested and bested, and styles manufactured.
Joseph Barrato, Brioni's chief executive officer, speaks of his company's exclusive high-performance wool that emphasizes natural stretch along with the hand of cashmere. Called Escorial, the material -- although quite expensive -- is used for suits that can be worn 12 months out of the year.
Ermenegildo Zegna pushes the envelope, too, when it comes to high-performance textile development, which it then incorporates into its various clothing collections. According to Djordje Stefanovic, Zegna's fashion director, the family reworks techniques for fabrics with the softest hand and highest resilience. One such process applies chemicals to linen, providing a finish similar in appearance to Irish linen but with a softer hand and greater endurance.
The Italian suit customer is a man of many talents driven by aesthetic desires, a world traveler. He may be young or older, in the best physical state or just aspiring to it. Wear suits that are relaxed confidence boosters from designers such as Brioni, Zegna, Canali, Corneliani, Armani, Gianfranco Ferre, Nino Cerruti, Luciano Barbera and Etro.
Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance writer living in New York.