VOL. MMXIII..No. 208

Bertrand on Brand

Suited for Battle: A Boy, a Man, and the Search for the Perfect Suit

Courtesy AMC/Lionsgate Television

 

When a man goes into battle, he dons his battle dress. Well, not exactly a dress—a suit.

The classic suit — a pair of tailored trousers with a matching jacket – has been augmented and arranged in a variety of ways but regardless, it always acts as the ultimate modifier of manhood, making a man more than a man.

In AMC’s “Mad Men,” Don Draper is most himself when he is in an impeccably pressed steel grey suit, his Teflon coating against the perils of a boozed-up advertising client.

I grew up watching my own Don Draper, my father, a Frenchman who didn’t work in advertising but dressed just as impeccably. In the early 1970’s, he dressed for work in button-fly, thin flannel trousers, crisp cotton shirts with very small pearl buttons and French cuffs (no pocket on the front – only Americans do that), a bold tie, and narrow zippered boots in glove leather. With his wraparound sunglasses and leather wristlet clutch (which my brothers and I were terribly embarrassed about), he was chic and suave. Now, several decades later, I want some of his mojo.

 

My father was a secret sartorialist. He didn’t talk about clothes but he was very particular in what he wore and how it fit. From left to right, my father, mother, and eldest brother, circa 1963.

When my book, Branding the Man was published in 2009 I found myself in need of a suit that could ready me for the arrows of critics and personal appearances at big city cocktail parties or even strip mall bookstores. In this country of men dressed as 35-year-old boys in baseball caps, fleece jackets and sack-like jeans, I implore for them to learn what every Don Draper used to know, and what I know all too well: the clothes do indeed make the man.

However finding the perfect suit is no easy task. There are acres of homeless suits dying to join a power lunch, wanting nothing more than to emerge from a four-star restaurant with a beautiful woman clutching its pure virgin wool. There are suits languishing on hangers that would be grateful just to attend a funeral, let alone clothe the man who will is awaiting to be buried once it’s all over. Suits are plentiful, good ones are not.

Recently, I toured dozens of outlets and stores, and saw hundreds of suits, from Men’s Wearhouse to the Nordstrom; Macy’s to the wholesaler on the corner. What I found is that most men’s departments have become kind of like bugs trapped in amber; nothing more than a time capsule of the way men have shopped and dressed for the better part of the last 100 years.

One afternoon at a crumbling suburban Macy’s, I found a men’s department that was virtually unchanged from my high school years. A salesman, looking like a sportscaster in a plaid jacket, Countess Mara tie and gray slacks, was in the midst of assisting a boy on the brink of his teenage years purchase what was likely his first suit. For the boy’s father, this was probably an auspicious moment: his son, on the threshold of manhood and poised to be molded into a “little gentleman.”

But for the boy—skinny, slouched, pimply and as awkward as any boy can be at 13—this was a less than thrilling moment. The jacket hung on his little shoulders like a waterlogged Sunday paper. “You look great!” beamed the father. An indifferent sigh from his son followed. “You want the gold buttons?” asked the salesman. “They’ll make you look sharp!”

Can the American man be liberated from the poorly fitted suit and not spend a fortune? It depends. The anatomy of a finely made suit is actually fascinating, and like wine, once you learn the about the details it makes the final product that much sweeter. In Europe, tailoring is an art, and what every American man must learn is that a great suit is an investment. If it is the right suit, you’ll discover—as so many men have—that a beautifully tailored suit opens doors.

A big part of what makes a suit a success is the tailoring. Fine fabrics certainly help, and in the case of this suit I found at Yves Saint Laurent, wool flannel gives it structure without stiffness.

My fantasy store would be one that doesn’t bother stocking every suit imaginable, in every shade of gray and black. A great store needs to help a man discover his inner peacock with an edited collection of suits that have a point of view. Forget the pleated trousers – who really looks good in them anyway? Let David Lettermen wear the double-breasted windowpane plaid. Give me Bond, James Bond—shaken and stirred! I want a suit that makes ladies swoon and men bow.

Short of taking a sewing class, I recommend that every man have at least one suit custom-made. A great tailor is like a great barber: he can work miracles on that poor carcass of yours. Learn from your tailor what looks best on you. Let him teach you about the marvels of high-twist yarn, the subtleties of a hand-canvassed shoulder, or that the shoulders and lapels are the make-or-break details of a great suit. Contrary to what the department store salesman tells you, that suit you are trying on does not look like it was made for you — in fact it’s meant to fit about fifteen other guys of varying proportions, like a police lineup.

Alas, with the clock ticking before my New York press tour, I didn’t have any time for a custom tailored suit and instead found myself at Yves Saint Laurent. There I discovered an exquisite suit of smoky blue wool with softly drawn charcoal stripes. The generous lapels recalled Johnny Depp in Blow. I slipped into the lean, button-fly trousers and looked at myself in the mirror. It was expensive but, after all the miserable suits I had seen, this one was the one. I felt tall, fearless, and suited for battle.


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