As Long As I’ve Got My Suit and Tie!
My earliest memory of wearing formal attire was when my grandmother took me to hear the North Carolina Symphony. I was 6 years old and dressed to the nines in a cobalt blue suit with three gold buttons down the front. I had other “dress-up” clothes reserved for churchgoing—a navy blue blazer, a little pair of khaki’s and clip-on ties in various stripes. As I grew into a young man, the blazers and pants naturally got bigger—the ties no longer clip-on’s but ones my father pre-tied for me—making sure to preserve the knot so I could slip it on and off my neck with ease.
Through it all, nothing compared to that cobalt blue suit with the three gold buttons. I guess you could say it was my first bite from the fashion bug. I’m certain the suit was horrible (you did read the word “cobalt” in the description of it). I’m sure it was made from awful material and purchased in the kid section of a mall department store. Nevertheless, it was my choice and I felt fabulously grown-up in it. Next to the patchwork OshKosh B’Gosh overalls I lived in as a child, it was my first statement piece. So when I turned 16 and my mother announced that it was time to buy a new suit, I was particularly excited.
We jumped in the car and headed to Men’s Wearhouse (Keep in mind this was Durham, NC circa 1999—a suburban town not exactly teeming with designer menswear purveyors). If it had been up to me, I would have gotten a different suit for a variety of occasions including one in seersucker…you know, for that International Polo Club Palm Beach Match I was destined to attend in the near or distant future (delusions of grandeur indeed). My mother on the other hand, restricted me to one—insisting that it be something “suitable” for all occasions. I decided to go with a lightweight, mercerized cotton blend in charcoal grey by Ralph Lauren. Ever the frugal one, my mother also stipulated that it be a suit I could grow into. The tailor measured me making sure to leave enough room for my arms and legs to get longer and my waistline to expand. If I played my cards right, I could hang on to this suit for a lifetime.
Over the years I’ve added to my collection, always selecting timeless fabrics in more stylish cuts while still managing to be economical. When I moved to London a suitcase of mine got lost in the transition, and in it were two of my suits. Upon moving back to the States and out to California where the number of occasions to wear a suit are about as common as the number of times it rains in a drought year, I wasn’t in any particular hurry to rectify the situation. I opted for buying designer blazers or great pairs of dress pants that could easily be mixed and matched. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I unexpectedly found myself hoping on a plane bound for a funeral on the East Coast that I needed a proper conservative suit ensemble. There I was staring at my closet coming up empty. What the bleep am I going to wear? Certainly not the Issey Miake distressed blazer with the pleated lapels, I’m a freakin’ pallbearer for God sakes!
Just before the meltdown was to truly ensue, I saw the little-engine-that-could in its Ralph Lauren garment bag hanging behind my winter coats. Wiping away the dust I remembered my mother had sent it to me a few years back in a box along with some other things I had asked her to store while I was away in London. This suit had some mileage on it. In the beginning I’d had it adjusted right before moving to NYC; forgotten about it until it was time to pack up my apartment and ship things to North Carolina; and finally we’d been reunited in LA—only to be hung up and forgotten again.
To my surprise, it fit. To my horror, it looked like a shapeless box of crap. The material had definitely held up (thanks RL), although I wouldn’t say that the sheen of mercerized cotton was the most conservative material. The sleeves were slightly too short; the waist slightly too tight, and I was pushing high-water status in the pants area. Thanks to suit makers like Tom Browne, at least I could kind of get away with the pant length, but still, this was a mess. The worst part was the amount of extra fabric in the pant leg and the lower back of the jacket. Far from an Italian or British cut, it looked like my legs were swimming in fabric.
Obviously, the focus that day was not about me and in the end, no one really noticed or cared. I was there to honor a man that I truly loved and respected and be supportive of my family. But the perfectionist inside who knew better than this—the me who cursed Virgin Airlines for losing my suitcase during my transatlantic migration— the me who had better outfits in my closet back in LA that truly represented my style, couldn’t help but pick and pull at the suit. I felt secretly uncomfortable and embarrassed as I performed the sacred act of carrying the casket.
To be fair, modern culture doesn’t really call for formal attire, especially in California. Outside of the lawyers and traders on Wall Street climbing the corporate ladders of Roman numeral firms, not many professional environments require men to wear suits at all. Gone are the days of Madmen when ad executives drank martinis in tailored suits with slicked comb-over’s and wing-tipped shoes. They kept the martinis and traded in the dress code for casual comfort. In high school those suits might have gotten a lot of use. Between formal dances, bar mitzvahs or baptisms, and graduations, it seemed like there was always a reason to dress up. But once college rolled around and millennial men moved into a work force that viewed this practice of dressing to impress as antiquated, all bets were off and prioritizing investing in a suit became obsolete.
Nowadays, most men think about purchasing a suit when they get married, when they have to attend a wedding or when there is a death in the family. Suit buying has become a reactionary response to an anomalous event that pops up out of nowhere and generally involves procrastination if not scrambling and stress. But there comes a time in a man’s adult life when they need to bite the bullet and invest in a great suit or two, ensuring that no matter the occasion, or however sudden or inconvenient; they are prepared.
With hundreds of mourning eyeballs on me as I carried the casket I later was introduced to new people during Shiva—all in that terrible suit. I vowed right then and there to never let this happen again. I looked utterly ridiculous and it was a betrayal to the Boy Scouts motto I had taken to heart.
I’m sure there are many other men out there in my same position, holding on to out-dated suits that no longer fit because they’ve either gained or lost weight, gotten taller or the suit simply hasn’t been tailored but serves its every-blue-moon purpose. Let me encourage you to take the initiative and remedy this problem. Don’t wait like I did and get caught with your proverbial pants down. Here are a couple of tips that will help you in the process of buying your adulthood suit.
THE SUIT BUYING PROCESS
The Style & Fit
There are three popular suit styles that dominate the market. The American style made popular in the 1920s with an Ivy League collegiate flare is known for its straight lines, flap pockets and boxier silhouette. The British style is more fitted with high waist pants and defined shoulders. It’s more traditional and straddles the line between boxy and contoured. The Italian style is the most fitted and trendy of them all, perfect for tall and slender men. Italian suits have very little padding; no pocket flaps, and tend to be slightly tapered at the leg and waist.
Whether you’re going for classically conservative or fashionably trendy, having your suit tailored to your specific measurements is a non-negotiable.
A tailor can make the cheapest of suits look expensive, so if you invest in nothing else, at least invest in that. Many of the department stores have tailoring services, or you can always go into a local dry cleaner in your area. Often dry cleaners have a tailor on site.
When buying a suit off the rack, the most important thing to keep in mind is how it fits in the shoulders. The shoulders are the structural framework of the suit and are the most difficult for a tailor to adjust. So even if you’re planning on loosing a few pounds or packing on some muscle, your shoulders will be the major determining factor.
Unless you “be big pimpin’ spending G’s” or paying homage to the Zoot Suit era, there is no reason for anyone to look like they’re playing dress-up in their Father’s suit that’s three sizes too big. Nowadays all suit silhouettes are more slender than they were 30 years ago, and for good reason. Suits are more flattering to the male form and look clean and sleek when they are fitted as opposed to sloppy and unkempt. The other day I was getting ready for work at the gym and a young gentleman was putting on his suit. I looked up and cringed when I saw the final look. Fabric had swallowed this attractive young man with a nice athletic body. He might as well have been wearing a pin-stripe sweatshirt and baggie pants. The material was nice but the fit made it look inexpensive and out-dated. I can’t stress it enough: tailoring is key!
Keep in mind that suit-sleeves should fall 1/2 or 1 inch above the shirtsleeve. Pants should be hemmed to just kiss the top of the shoelaces—right at the shoe-tongue or bow.
The Color & Material
Personally, I think it’s good to have three solid colored suits: grey, navy and black—and in that order too. A charcoal grey or a lighter steel grey can easily be dressed up or dressed down. It’s the perfect compliment to a pastel colored shirt and brown shoes/belt during the day or a white shirt with black shoes/belt for evening. If you can only afford to invest in one at the moment, start with grey and gradually move on to navy and black. Black is great for funerals and very dressy occasions but you can get away with looking perfectly appropriate for any occasion in a grey suit. Once you’ve acquired those three solids, then it’s time to move on to patterns and fabrics that are less conventional. For example, because I still can’t let go of that Polo Match in my mind, I’ve seriously been looking for that seersucker suit I mentioned earlier for next spring/summer. Branching out with a burgundy or olive solid, or perhaps a herringbone or elaborate plaid could be an exciting way to express yourself and broaden your wardrobe.
It’s best to choose a lightweight fabric—you can always throw an overcoat on in colder climates. Generally a wool-silk blend is comfortable in all types of weather but it should feel light on your body and shouldn’t restrict your natural movement.
A single-breasted suit is definitely more modern and versatile than a double-breasted suit. There is a simple elegance inherent in a single-breasted suit with two or three buttons. It can easily be thrown on with jeans for a more casual function. This is not really the case with a double-breasted suit. It reads more formal. However, when a double-breasted suit is tailored to perfection, it can look very sophisticated and chic.
Every suit needs a good dress shirt, shoes and tie. If you can’t plunk down the cash at Ferregomo or Prada, an economical option is Nordstrom Rack. You can score on designer belts, ties, dress shoes, pocket squares and cufflinks and not break the bank. Designer one-stop-shopping. Even Marshall’s and Ross Dress for Less have good belt and dress-shirt options. A warning about choosing a dress shirt: please try to get a slim-fit or classic fit shirt in a slender cut (provided that its comfortable around your neck). Those baggy shirts with too much armpit or back fabric, or balloon sleeves that become tighter at the wrist look terrible. Again, this isn’t 1990, and giving a baggy throw-back-Thursday look isn’t very appropriate in these formal settings.
Where To Buy it
Upon my return I transferred some bite-the-bullet-funds from my savings and took my behind to Paul Smith, my favorite suit designer. There I purchased a light grey, a black and a navy polka dot suit. Now I’m ready for whatever event comes my way. Although I invested a sizable chunk of change for designer threads, there are more affordable options out there. Typically a well-made suit that fits all the above criteria ranges from $700 to $1200. However, there are some retailers that sell beautiful suits that are on trend for less than $500 (Zara, Topman, J.Crew and H&M). I always keep my eye out for sales (Black Friday or end-of-the-year clearance) and if you live close to an outlet mall (Camarillo Premium Outlets or Cabazon Outlets), there are bound to be great suits for a fraction of the original price.
The safest bet for the one-stop shopper is going to a department store. Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Men’s Wearhouse etc. carry designer brands and provide in-house tailoring services as well as all the other accessories (shirts, ties, shoes etc) that you’ll need to complete the look. When I lived in NYC, I’d go to the Barneys Warehouse sale twice a year and see the Wall Street folks buying designer suits and overcoats for a steal.
It’s a little riskier but shopping online is also an affordable way to buy a suit. Ebay has tons of designer suits for sale, and as long as you purchase from a person with a good return policy, if it doesn’t fit, you’re not stuck with it.
After you’ve bought it, make sure you take care of it. You’ve just invested a lot of time, energy and money in a multi-stepped process. Hang your suit up so it doesn’t get wrinkled, keep it in its garment bag, and make sure you get it dry cleaned, steamed and/or pressed (every couple of months if you wear it on a regular basis). These simple steps will protect the quality of your investment.
Like Justin Timberlake sings:
“As long as I got my suit and tie,
I’ma leave it all on the floor tonight,
And you got fixed up to the nines,
Let me show you a few things”
All photos were taken by Gerardo Guillen @gerardoguillen