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The future of the suit

Joseph Bullmore, editor of Gentleman’s Journal, explores the suit’s history, its relevance in the world today and where to find the best ones on Sloane Street

8 September 2022

Brunello Cucinelli A/W 2022

There is nothing quite so murderous as a luxury lifestyle journalist on a deadline. And I should know. Short on scoops and long on waffle, I have often attempted to sharpen my pieces at the last moment by slapping a death sentence in place of a title. ‘The Michelin Star is Dead’, I claimed in 2018, before going on to explain how it really wasn’t. ‘Paris is Dead’, I wrote this spring, after a lovely long weekend in the city and a rather nice comped hotel stay there. In fact, a cursory search of my bylines at Gentleman’s Journal shows that I have casually killed the following, in no particular order and with little apparent remorse: the negroni; the necktie; the Labour Party; open-plan houses; chivalry; the tablet; and the Bullingdon Club (you’re welcome).        

And then, of course, there’s the suit – perhaps the item in the men’s wardrobes that’s most regularly hung, drawn and quartered. I killed it at the end of last summer, during that particularly heady moment when Marks & Spencer – long the outfitters of Middle England – announced that it was canning suits from half of its locations. This raised the vampire hacks from their slumber all right, and for a few days one could barely move for frothy opinion pieces on why this was all such terrible/brilliant/irrelevant/portentous/Brexit-y news. 

Some linked the suit’s decline to the uptick in home working following the pandemic (all Rishi Sunak’s fault, then – he wears a bespoke £3,500 Henry Herbert number, if you’re interested). Others said it was just another symptom of the general slovenliness and laziness among the youth today (Soho House memberships and avocados, etc etc.) But no one pointed out what suddenly seemed to me so glaringly obvious. That the suit was never meant to live that long anyway. At least, not in its modern, common-or-garden form. It wasn’t Marks & Spencer’s culling of the garment that killed it – it was Marks & Spencer’s stocking it in the first place. (With all due respect to M&S, who sold me my first suits, and quite right, too.)

The truth is that those nylon, off-the-peg commuter-boilers were a far, far cry from the suit as it was meant to be. Beau Brummell brought the garment to life with true pomp and ceremony. He took five hours a day to get dressed and polished his boots with Champagne. The British military (and then the clubmen of St James’s) honed it into a new armour of snobbery and elegance. The Neapolitans buoyed it with relaxed rigour and accidental perfection. And then, somewhere along the way, the suit became quotidian and banal, in this country at least – something to sling over the back of a wheelie chair or dust off for a wedding; suits you could tumble-dry and suits you could see your face in. Now, though, cosmic forces have conspired to place the garment on its rightful pedestal again – as an item for high-days and holidays, not District Lines and desk jobs.

The best tailors and designers saw this coming some time ago. Brunello Cucinelli – a Sloane Street fixture, of course – has long elevated the suit beyond the workaday, with inviting, Italianate cuts, gorgeous details and sumptuous materials. (It makes a wide-wale corduroy so thick you want to spread it on toast.) Cucinelli has been a steady advocate of ‘suit separates’, an inelegant phrase for what can be a very elegant solution – essentially broken-up blazer/trouser combinations that feel spiritually continental or Japanese. Here, the flattering, dashing lines of the suit remain, but the block formality has been softened. Hackett has form in this department, too, with its distinctly English take on the suit separate, while Ralph Lauren lends an American East Coast, preppy inclination – and often a dash of colour.

Not that traditional suits are any less desirable. It is just that we now want personality and luxury over conformity and durability. To this end, I’m fond of P Johnson, an Australian tailor based in Fitzrovia under the watchful eye of Gavan Lee, who brings a Neapolitan persuasion and understated elan to its house cuts. The storied houses of Savile Row, meanwhile, remain the very best places in the world for classical English tailoring — utterly refined without ever being ordinary. But Sloane Street has established itself as a sort of happy international pick’n’mix of suiting, too. Burberry brings its perennial upstart energy to the garment with autumn-toned suits in wide-legged silhouettes (plus splashes of their famous print); Tom Ford offers up Lothario-grade jacquard numbers; while Fendi rounds things out with pale, natural-toned suit separates that hint at some endless summer.

It’s no secret that the likes of Savile Row are in trouble, of course. Rising rents, a decade bookended by a recession and a pandemic, and the decline of high streets everywhere has made things ugly for this most handsome of places – and that’s before you get to the Zoomification of modern work or our Zuckerbergian love of T-shirts. Some commentators say the tailors had it coming, chiefly because they hadn’t seen it coming – an anachronism, they say; a thing of the past. To me, this is not just a misunderstanding – it’s a compliment. 

Anyone who has ever worn a proper, lovely suit knows that how it looks matters less than how it feels, and that you just walk and think differently inside one. Modern tailoring should lean once again towards occasion wear, in the proper sense of the phrase: elevating, enlivening, celebratory style, even if there isn’t much to celebrate. This is not a backwards step. The fact the suit is from another age need not be its cause of death – but its reason for living.

Joseph Bullmore is a London-based writer who has contributed to Tatler and The Spectator. He is the editor of Gentleman’s Journal and editor-at-large at Air Mail.
Loro Piana Milano jacket, £2,795
Hackett wool suit, £650
Burberry wool suit (inc. trousers), £1,590
Brunello Cucinelli corduroy suit jacket, POA
Brunello Cucinelli corduroy suit trousers, POA
Brunello Cucinelli suit jacket, POA
Brunello Cucinelli suit jacket, POA

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