Speak softly and don't wear an Armani suit: Roger Tredre asks: why was the D-G stitched up?

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NEVER mind the secretarial expenses, the travel and accommodation bills or the entertaining. It was that Armani wardrobe that nearly did him in; it is the Armani suits people will remember.

The subject that intrigued the reporters mobbing John Birt outside Broadcasting House last week was this: was the DG's neat single-breasted grey suit definitely an Armani? When he went back to work this Tuesday, the question came up again. The governors were about to give him the 'carry on as normal' signal, sure. But was that jacket a Giorgio? And by the way, asked the wider public, what was that crumpled linen thing we'd seen him wearing in some old pictures in the papers last week? You'd never have caught John Tusa in one of those. Looked terrible; must have cost a bomb though.

How he must wish he had nipped round the corner to Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street and invested in a couple of St Michael's, good solid clothing for chaps who have got their priorities right. (Actually for pounds 625 - the price of an Armani suit at Harrods - he could have bought five or six M & S whistles.)

They would have understood M & S in Broadcasting House, where only Jeff Banks wears expensive clothes these days, give or take an Alan Yentob or two. Salt of the earth, Marks & Spencer. Not bad for the price. Lasts forever. Always take it back if it doesn't fit.

Mr Birt might have had an easier time if he had chosen Savile Row. In Lord Reith's day, a made-to-measure suit from The Row was a sign that a man was made of the right stuff: dependable, discreet, honest all the way down to the soles of his Church's brogues. Even today it provides a sort of social armour against lowlier hordes. Marmaduke Hussey has moved through life in a decent suit and lived through many a managerial infelicity.

Mr Birt's suits, on the other hand, are provocative to the fashion-resistant British. It's as simple as this: he chose a 'designer' label. Even in the Nineties, after more than a decade of designer dressing, we British have a sneaking suspicion of the kind of man who buys those kinds of clothes. They may be all right for admen or pop stars - nobody thinks the less of Eric Clapton for moving from jeans to Giorgio - but for men at the helm, arbiters of public affairs, men to be mentioned in the same breath as archbishops and cabinet ministers, dear me, no.

Can an Englishman in a designer suit show moral seriousness? Is Paul Smith, British to the core and with Jermyn Street resonances, suitable wear for a grown-up pillar of the establishment? And if not Paul Smith, then how much less so is Giorgio? Armani may be fine in Milan and Rome, but in Broadcasting House it is quite another thing. A man from another world in a suit from another world. Englishmen may have come on a little from the days when Germaine Greer said you couldn't go near their lap because they never sent their trousers to the dry cleaners. But not that far.

In Italy, of course, no such philistinism would surface. The Italians are very comfortable with designer suits. Every Milanese businessman has an Armani suit in his wardrobe; professors wear them, captains of industry, probably government ministers too. The fact that most of them have turned out not to be men of honour but Apennines of corruption does, however, make one wonder.

But let us address ourselves to the suit itself. For those who have never seen an Armani, here follows some illumination.

The Armani suit is the epitome of relaxed, effortless elegance - the quintessence of modern tailoring. The Armani suit is neither shiny nor over-tight. Fine- tuned over two decades, it is quite the reverse of flash-brash dressing.

Giorgio Armani's trick was to remove many of the key structural elements of traditional tailoring. He ripped out the interlinings and paddings that made suits look (and feel) like armour. He used lightweight fabrics, creating a jacket that floats on the body like a cardigan. And the designer was actually fully in tune with the vision of Savile Row. He makes unobtrusive clothes that don't shout anything so vulgar as 'fashion'.

It is not easy to be a public figure, and nowadays men in the public eye come in for wardrobe scrutiny in a way they never did before. John Major's frayed shirt collars and ill-fitting suits caused him to be pilloried from the day he entered No 10. He was too dowdy. Michael Heseltine, on the other hand, was too smart. On a celebrated cover of GQ magazine, he was dubbed 'Britain's beautiful bad boy'.

Mr Heseltine, not the world's least vain man, acknowledged the difficulties of his situation in a speech at a London Fashion Week reception at Lancaster House this month. 'I was criticised for wearing Eighties shirts in the Nineties,' he told his designer guests. 'Well, I bought them in the Eighties, didn't I' The designers laughed politely. 'It's a sign of the times when Ministers of the Crown are supposed to check up on their appearance before leaving their front door,' continued the President of the Board of Trade. 'I assure you, I shall take this subject more seriously in the future.'

Perhaps John Birt should fortify his seriousness and reduce his otherworldliness. Maybe he should sit down with his wife, Jane, and replan the wardrobe, cloaking himself head-to-toe in Marks & Spencer grey. You can always take it back if it doesn't fit, John. And if you're wondering what to do with all those suits by that dreadful Italian designer, give me a call. I'm roughly your size.