It began – as so many things do in fashion – on the Prada catwalk, way back when during the January menswear shows.
Whereas Miuccia Prada's recent seasons have seen her blokes kitted out in technicolor floral bri-nylon, lurex cardigans and stack-soled wedges, this time we saw suits... and suits... and suits. Grey, black, single and double-breasted, some with natty astrakhan collars, some seemingly sans trousers (but with flapping boxers and over-the-calf City Boy socks). It was all about the suit – but they were suits that could be worn anywhere and by just about anybody. Prada wasn't the only one proposing that men be permanently suited and booted for winter: the power of this label is in epitomising what's making fashion tick at any one moment. Hence Italian cohorts Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana proffered a parade of braid-embroidered gabardines, Tomas Maier's Bottega Veneta showed sleek, single-breasted styles and Christopher Bailey at Burberry Prorsum put a new twist on the Sloane Ranger with jewel-toned corduroy and whipcord two-pieces (Mellors flat-cap optional). Even Roberto Cavalli's usually navel-gazing, flesh-flashing catwalk was buttressed with Savile Row quality tailoring, give or take the odd odd chartreuse tux.
Is this really so surprising? The suit, after all, has been the linchpin of the male wardrobe for about two hundred years. What's rare is to see fashion designers embracing that conservatism with quite so much gusto.
The Italians, of course, have a tailoring tradition to rival Savile Row's – although their craftsmen dotted about Rome, Milan and Florence cannot compare with the world's only true "disguisery" (the wonderful plural noun for a group of tailors) on "The Row". But the suit reigned supreme during Paris fashion week too, Lanvin's muscular and full-shouldered, Louis Vuitton's sleek in camel and grey, and leather-bound at Stefano Pilati's final menswear show for Yves Saint Laurent (Raf Simons showed that over in Milan for his penultimate Jil Sander collection, too).
So what does the suit represent in the menswear landscape of today?
Power on the one hand and conservatism on the other. Mere months before The Iron Lady nabbed Meryl Streep an Oscar for her depiction of Margaret Thatcher, it feels as if this could be fashion's return to Wall Street's "Greed is good" Eighties ethos. These suits may be relatively sombre, even staid at times, but they scream "money" in a way a sweatshirt never could. A suit today can be the perfect sartorial palimpsest for rebellion; a language of dress every man understands but which can be utilised to say something revolutionary.
That's the way the American designer Thom Browne has always looked at the suit, using its "rules" to fight against the conventions still evident in male fashion. Browne's suit, less skinny than shrunken, single-breasted with trousers cropped high on the ankle, has dominated male style for the past half-decade. "My goal for my collection is to be provocative and to make people think," says Browne. That's the purported aim of much flamboyant modern menswear, the difference with Browne's work being that the basis for these experiments are classic grey wool suits that could have been worn by bankers in the fifties. Turn a blind eye to the attention-grabbing "skorts", beaded kaftans and tulle puffs Browne often favours: it's the proportions of the suit that are the most controversial and interesting thing.
Browne's combination of an ultra-trad base with subtly radical details finds echoes throughout menswear today. It's there in a poplin men's shirt by young London label Palmer//Harding, tucks and spiral pleats giving it a third dimension; and equally in Lucas Ossendrijver and Alber Elbaz's cross-breeding of a down jacket and officer's greatcoat at Lanvin.
"The mix between tradition and newness is the story of this collection," said Elbaz backstage. And, for many men, raised on Casual Fridays and sportswear as everyday wear, there is a newness in the tradition of the suit, full stop.
The omnipotence of the suit for autumn/winter 2012 is part of fashion's standard flash-in-the-pan seasonal volte-face, but men are universally reclaiming the classic suit as a means of dressing up for the everyday. "What we're seeing more and more of is younger customers buying into suiting," says Adam Kelly, buying manager of men's formalwear at London's Selfridges. "The look is in no way just about workwear or occasionwear any more – I think British guys in particular just have an increasingly vested interest in looking sharp." The cold hard facts back that assertion: at Selfridges, suiting sales to date have increased 28 per cent on last year. "I look for something classic and timeless in dress," says Constantin Bjerke, the dapper founder and CEO of media website Crane.tv, who buys his suits from London's Turnbull & Asser. "A well-cut, beautifully-detailed and constructed suit will last a lifetime and always look stylish."
Nick Lazarus, a treaty underwriter with Hiscox in the City, concurs that in his clothes he seeks "an emphasis on quality and not visual impact. Save the odd unfortunate incident, I have never really been one to stick my head above the parapet on account of an outlandish wardrobe".
Those characteristics – stylish, timeless, quality – are endlessly assigned to suits, especially in the bespoke bracket. The latter is suiting at its most traditional, time-consuming and expensive – ready-to-wear (or, as tailors often disparagingly term it, "off the rack") cannot compare to bespoke, where a pattern is drafted to a customer's individual measurements. Savile Row tailor Richard James describes the bespoke process as "indulgence... time spent considering fabric,working on style, discussing small but important details to devise a unique suit that not only fits you perfectly and makes you feel great, but is also something you helped create". Even made-to-measure is a poor substitute in the eyes of the tailoring trade. "It's not quite the same as having someone actually take a set of measurements and alterations for your figure. You can't improve on the fittings... distilling the pattern down till it actually fits," says Ritchie Charlton, managing director of Hayward of Mount Street. Charlton has been in the tailoring trade for three decades, working at high-profile establishments including Kilgour French Stanbury and the tailoring workrooms of Her Majesty's choice dressmaker, Hartnell, under former Christian Dior designer Marc Bohan in the early 1990s. In short, he knows his stuff – today, his custom-made, four-figure suits clothe dedicated followers of style, rather than fashion, including Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie and perennially pin-neat photographer Nick Knight. When asked about seasonal changes in bespoke, Charlton shrugs his shoulders and responds "there are seasons as far as the weather goes". But he does concede that "bespoke tailoring moves with men's fashion... a young guy who comes into the shop, generally he's going to want a neater, shorter-fitting jacket at the moment than perhaps he would have wanted in 2002."
That's possibly one of the most seductive things about suiting: the subtlety.
"Every collection, I address different ideas of proportion," says Thom Browne, attesting that the elements that make his suits stand out are "attention to detail, the quality of the make, but most importantly the proportion". That's what proves seductive for many men and indeed for designers: using the convention of the suit to say something new; a quiet radicalism.
That could be the strap-line for Savile Row's latest leap into the 21st century: a made-to-measure collaboration between H Huntsman & Sons – a bespoke bastion of tailoring tradition – and Alexander McQueen, another bastion, albeit of iconoclastic rebellion. Both are quintessentially British: Huntsman has been tailoring to royalty for more than 160 years and McQueen, of course, created that dress. Lee McQueen himself was also responsible for outfitting royals in rather more anti-establishment styles, legend being that he scrawled a variety of four-letter pejoratives across the canvas interlining of suits destined for the Prince of Wales whilst apprenticing at Anderson & Sheppard in the late 1980s.
Sarah Burton's offerings, available from June, veer towards the traditional, with cashmere frock-coats, dinner-jackets and, fittingly enough, Prince of Wales check suiting. Albeit with breeches and embroidered lapels, the jackets cut slimmer and tighter against the body. A tongue-in-cheek twist on three all-important classics of men's suiting, they seem tailor-made for the archetypal English dandy – probably the most compelling argument for any style-conscious gentleman when buying another perfectly-proportioned suit.