Suit is not a four-letter word

Like the decade, the Nineties suit is lean and mean, says Nick Foulkes. Styling by Phillipa Duck. Photographs by Desmond Muckian

Suit, as in "he's just another suit" is one of the insults of the modern age, replacing "bean counter" or "number cruncher" as the ultimate damner with faint praise.

As four-letter words go it is perhaps one of the most expressive, speaking simultaneously of blind corporate loyalty, anonymity and lack of imagination. How come, then, that the garment from which this put-down is derived is enjoying the biggest renaissance since Italy came up with Michelangelo?

There have been repeated attempts to kill off the suit. Two of the most recent are the leisure wear boom of the Seventies, and the Nike-Umbro sportswear axis of the current decade. Yet, like some drug-resistant strain of malaria, the suit mutates and survives.

A decade ago or so, it was brash City chalk stripes, big-shouldered Boss, or Armani and Comme for the label-conscious.

This time, a new set of cultural influences has collided. From Reservoir Dogs to Pierce Brosnan's slick James Bond, the suit has stormed across the cinema screen. The suit is also the garment of choice to accompany the cocktail lounge style of music and socialising that seems to have gained a certain following.

Even that Establishment British industry, bespoke tailoring, is enjoying something of a Britpop-type revival. It is impossible to open up any of the shinier men's magazines without finding a fulsome essay in praise of the new wave of British tailoring.

Cheeky chappie Richard James has set up shop on Savile Row, opposite the venerable firm of Henry Poole; just off the Row, Ozwald Boateng offers something called "bespoke couture"; while phalanxes of fashionable media men pile into Timothy "fit the best" Everest's Spitalfields atelier, to emerge sharply suited.

The suit has escaped the office and is now rampaging through the fashionable man's wardrobe. However, its current incarnation owes little to the double-breasted swagger of the Eighties; instead, there is more than a hint of Sixties skinniness about today's silhouette. Jackets are fitted, and trousers flat-fronted, with cross pockets.

The core look and styling of the favoured suit of the late Nineties is supplied by the gents' outfitter Hackett, whose three-button jackets and slim-line, tapering trousers have remained largely unaltered during the past 10 years. And, oddly, this tailored, buttoned-up look has led to a freeing of the suit and the way it is worn that the loose boxiness of the Eighties failed to achieve.

Smart urban men have begun to appreciate the decadence of putting on a suit to go out and drink large numbers of Manhattans and Martinis. For them, the Zeitgeist has shifted from Ecstasy and isotonic beverages to cigars and Cognac. Yet there is also a subversive and rebellious edge to today's suit-wearing man: his sartorial model is more John Travolta in Pulp Fiction than Michael Douglas's slicked-back, braced-up corporate raider of Wall Street.

Gucci and Prada, the twin pillars of any self-respecting It Girl's wardrobe and the makers of so many modern must-haves, now make suits for men: slinky, sleek and slightly dangerous affairs that are more at home with the huge, Seventies-inspired spear-point collar of a satin shirt spilling out over the lapel than with a neatly fastened collar and carefully knotted tie.

And when a tie is worn, any notion of succumbing to uniformity is blown away with #a discordant, clashing symphony of cornea-searing colourings, best described as Karlheinz Stockhausen meets Victor de Vasarely. Fabrics, too, have become more adventurous, with frequent borrowings from the conventionally feminine domains of wild silks, luxurious velvets and figure-hugging stretch satin. And with colours from chocolate to metallic red, anything seems to be acceptable - except blue or navy.

For a while, there was some flirtation with a neo-Edwardian, four-or- more-button look, but the unhappy results have been relegated to the high street. Now it seems that, while the slender silhouette is being maintained, the move is towards two- and one-button jackets; the latter configuration, with a tailored jacket, is reminiscent of the clean lines of the Seventies.

Even top-stitching, patch pockets and yokes, decorative touches not seen on any jacket outside a charity shop for the last 20 years, are making a cautious return. Perhaps before long some adventurous designer will start playing with suede shoulder patches and alligator-skin piping, in an effort to recall the heady days of petro-dollar chic

This page

Red metallic suit jacket, pounds 370, and matching trousers, pounds 179, both by John Richmond, from Jones, 15 Floral Street, London WC2; Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1; Flannels, 3 Brazil Street, Manchester; red tartan T-shirt, pounds 99, by Paul Smith, 41-43 Floral Street, London WC2; 10 Byard Lane, Nottingham; 66-68 Bridge Street, Manchester

Scent: Gentleman Givenchy

Opposite page

Turquoise jacket, pounds 388, matching trousers, pounds 200, and turquoise striped shirt, pounds 75, all by Dries Van Noten from Browns, 23-27 South Molton Street, London W1; Jones, as above; Liberty, Regent Street, London W1.

Scent: Hugo by Hugo Boss

This page

Ecru wild silk suit, pounds 513, by Kenzo, from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW3 (enquiries, 0171-229 7993); ecru shirt and matching tie, pounds 135, by Comme des Garcons, as before Scent: Yohji, by Yohji Yamamoto

Opposite page

Black mesh short-sleeved shirt, pounds 200; black satin stretch jacket, pounds 500, and matching trousers, pounds 160, all by Helmut Lang, from Browns; Jones; Harvey Nichols; as before. Lace-up shoes, by Helmut Lang

Scent: Dolce & Gabbana for Men

Tobacco suit, pounds 1,165, by Gucci, 33 Old Bond Street, London W1; 18 Sloane Street, London SW3 (enquiries, 0171-629 2716); brown short- sleeved shirt with orange stripes, pounds 125, by Paul Smith, as before

Scent: Nobile, by Gucci

Fashion assistant Holly Davies

Hair Philippe Baligan

Make-up Cynthia Baligan for Brigitte Hebant

Model George Clements at Marilyn Men, Paris

Orange cotton shirt and matching tie, pounds 170; orange cotton trousers, pounds 45, all by Comme des Garcons, 59 Brook Street, London, W1. Scent: Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male

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