The gods of public relations are smiling on Burton. The official sponsor of the Football Association unveiled its England 2002 World Cup suit on Monday, modelled by a "mystery guest" – Sven Goran Eriksson, the England manager. It was Eriksson's first public appearance since speculation about his affair with fellow-Swedish export, Ulrika Jonsson emerged.
As the cameras fought for photo-opportunity space at the Burton parent-company Arcadia's London HQ, Eriksson emerged on the podium against a bank of TV screens bearing the recently redesigned graphic black Burton logo. The BBC presenter John Inverdale's first question left us in no doubt that Burton's press call had been hijacked by the tabloid press. "Let's start with the question I know Sven's been dreading," he mugged. "Do you like the suit?" Whether or not the shamefaced Sven is worth the salt in Ulrika's tears, the Burton suit – emblazoned with England's three-lion badge of honour – gave him a touch of class in the face of adversity.
The suit, which went on sale in Burton's 376 UK stores on St George's Day (Tuesday 23 April), is a classic cut in 100 per cent lightweight navy wool. "This is football, not a fashion show," says Burton's style director Wesley Taylor of the suit. "And we were aware that the suit had to live up to the scrutiny it will undergo at the World Cup."
Taylor and his team have been in consultation with Eriksson and England's captain David Beckham since September 2001, perfecting the suit that will travel with the 22-strong England team to Japan for the World Cup. "It was vital for Sven and for David that the boys had to be seen as a team on the pitch and off. So the inclusion of the England three-lions shield was non-negotiable. David was adamant that his team felt comfortable in the suit, as well as looking like they mean business," says Taylor.
Beckham's input into the development of the suit shows a man considerate of his team mates and also up to speed with the direction of contemporary menswear. "David didn't want the narrow cut of trouser that's currently dominating men's fashion," says Taylor. The England 2002 suit is cut with a 20in parallel trouser, while the lapels of the suit are narrow and cut lower to reveal more navy tie action.
It's a smart move on Beckham and Taylor's part. At the Gucci autumn/winter 2002 menswear runway show in Milan, Tom Ford showed a wider cut of suit trouser and (you guessed it) deep, narrow collars; a fact not lost on the fashion-conscious Beckham.
The last time that Burton designed the England World Cup team suit was in 1966, the year that Bobby Moore captained England to a 4-2 World Cup victory over West Germany – so fingers crossed, everyone. And the Burton design team, too, is hoping to boost the brand back to its former glory by retailing the England suit (minus the monogrammed tab bearing the players' names and the England badge). It could be a long, hard climb. At the onset of the Second World War, 25 per cent of the British male population wore Burton suits. By 1950, Burton was the largest tailoring firm in the world. The phrase "the full Monty" may have been coined when men bought the suit, shirt and tie from the ubiquitous retailer (the label was established at the turn of the century by a Lithuanian immigrant, Montague Burton). Fashionable men, however, now go for a Gucci rather than a Burton. Suffice to say, Burton's glory days seem to have kept in step with the England team's declining fortunes since 1966.
Though Burton's parent-company Arcadia announced first-half profits up 60 per cent to £57.9m last week, Burton was not one of the group's star players, with like-for-like sales up only 3.3 per cent compared with the Topshop chain's 19.2 per cent. The chief executive Stuart Rose knows that Burton is the weakest link of his six-strong group (including Topshop, Evans, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge). "That [3.3 per cent rise] is not good enough for me," he said. "It is profitable and will increase its profits. It ain't the sick man, but we haven't been as imaginative as we could have been."
Burton has been eclipsed by the younger, more fashion-forward menswear stores of Zara, H&M, and stable-mate Topman. But the brand director Frances Russell sees little point in giving the brand a hip-replacement by chasing teenagers. "Our target market is the man of 20-40. He's into fashion but not with a capital F. He wants to look sharp but doesn't have time to experiment."
But 53-year-old Eriksson's appearance in the Burton suit shows a more realistic profile of Burton's target market. The number of men comfortable to experiment with high fashion on the high street wouldn't fill the Ministry of Sound, let alone Wembley. It's the core Everyman customer lost by Marks & Spencer that Burton wants to charm. It won't do it with the present bland store designs, but getting the product right is a more pressing concern than window-dressing, and the England 2002 suit is a winner.
The suit scores as an instant classic because Burton treated the brief with reverence rather than playing with jingoistic gimmicks. The suit stands centre-forward in fashion, but the cut is classic, not extreme. The inside of the suit has finishing touches that have both class and wit. The label is a discreet cross of St George. The lining plays with the Union flag, but with reverence: a thin piping of white between the blue of the collar-interfacing and the red lining. Pockets, too, are bound in white.
Sold off-the-peg for £175, and made-to-order for £250 (roughly an eighth of the starting price for Savile Row bespoke), the garment is packaged in an England Team suit-carrier with a George Cross-logo hanger. The shirt (£16), white cotton with French cuffs, silver Union-flag cufflinks (£10), and the three-lion logo discreetly embroidered in white, is also retailing at Burton along with the navy wool tie (£10).
Even without the England association, this is a great suit. Before Sven took to the podium modelling the England 2002 suit, I had a sneak preview in the Arcadia showroom. The jacket feels as effortless as a cardigan. It is super-light because the guys will be wearing it not only in Japan and South Korea but also in Dubai. It's going to travel well because the panama weave of the cloth gives it stretch. The trousers feel like pyjamas, and it's great to see navy back in business after a 10-year hiatus.
Few of us can bend it like Beckham, but here's an opportunity to wear the same suit as the national hero as he leads England to victory or defeat (second metatarsal permitting). Between 30 and 40 of the suits were made-to-measure on the shortlist of England hopefuls, which means that the Burton tailors probably have as much insight into the final 23 (to be announced 7 May) as most sport pundits. If you weren't measured for a suit, chances are you won't measure up for the England squad.
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