The Best Men's Suits
Overview For some people, suits are back. For some people--particularly in the boardrooms and corner offices of the biggest companies--they never went away. The old saw "clothes maketh the man" is as much of a truism as ever. Today, as always, a wellmade suit is not just a crucial business accessory; it also sends a subtle message that distinguishes the wearer as a person of discretion, taste and, in many cases, as someone with many zeroes in his annual bonus package. What suits don't do to the same extent they once did is reveal the wearer's background. In our sartorially egalitarian age, one doesn't need to be a blue blood or an Ivy grad to occupy the corner office or know the name of the best tailors. The result is that suits have become less a uniform than an expression of individual style. If you're conservative in outlook, the odds are you will dress that way too. Like to be a bit more flashy? Most likely, so are your clothes. What has also changed is the way men buy suits and the occasions to which they wear them. Around the turn of the last century, men of all backgrounds and careers wore ties and a suit pretty much everywhere. These days men are more selective about when and where to dress up or dress down. A board meeting? Wear a suit. A business lunch? Ditto. A corporate retreat in Tahoe? Not if you don't want to look like the hotel manager. Suits are also becoming hip. Design houses like Gucci (nyse: GUC - news - people), Prada, Yves Saint-Laurent and others are coming out with suits that are definitely more appropriate for nightclubs than the boardroom. The idea is to appeal to younger customers who rebel at the thought of wearing a necktie, let alone a day job, but still have the money to spend on a $1,500 suit. Gieves & Hawkes, a venerable London tailor, has even recently introduced a more "styleconscious" line called Gieves, No. 1 Savile Row in the hopes that the customer will keep coming back over the years as his tastes change and waistline expands.
Still, even though Wall Street firms such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers have reinstituted formal dress codes, there are many jobs these days that no longer require men to wear a suit every day. The result is that sales of tailored men's clothing dropped 3% from 43.2 million units in the year ended August 2002 to 41.9 million units as of August 2003, according to Port Washington, N.Y.-based market information firm The NPD Group. t is apparent that many top tailors have had to struggle in the past few years: Just look at the vicissitudes of a respected American brand like Brooks Brothers. Following its purchase by British retailing giant Marks & Spencer for $750 million in 1988, Brooks saw a dramatic decline in profits and popularity. In 2001, Marks & Spencer unloaded the company at a big loss for $225 million to privately held Retail Brand Alliance, which, one hopes, will be able to repair Brooks' tarnished image. It very well could; Retail Brand Alliance is run by Claudio Del Vecchio, son of Luxottica (nyse: LUX - news - people) founder and billionaire Leonardo Del Vecchio.
At the same time, though, the world's top suit makers haven't seen too much of a drop-off in their business. The tech billionaires of the late 1990s weren't exactly regular customers on Savile Row. Bespoke tailors like Anderson & Sheppard in London or Caraceni in Milan can produce only a limited number of suits per year and have no difficulty attracting new and repeat clients willing to pay upwards of $3,000 for a handmade suit. When creating this list of the World's Best Men's Suits, we took into consideration the three key elements that go into choosing a suit: price, style and quality. We looked at the best buys in bespoke, ready-made and more cutting-edge suits from top tailors in the U.S. and Europe. It was important to cover a wide range so that the recent business school grad owing more than $40,000 in student loans could still look good without going even deeper into debt. Moreover, there are lots of newly minted executive vice presidents and managing directors out there who may feel it's time to step up sartorially. While there are many excellent tailors we left off our list, we know that the ones that made it are recognized as the paragons of the industry not only by their customers but also by their peers. So if you are someone who has recently started wearing suits again, or you are maybe interested in learning about a new tailor, we present this handy field guide to finding the right suit to suit your job and your lifestyle. To find out more about our methodology, and how to select and buy a suit, click on the links below.
Which Suit Is Right For You? "The biggest problem in teaching men how to dress is that there's no one for them to look at," says Alan Flusser, author of Dressing the Man (Harper Collins, 2002), who believes that one of the primary reasons business casual failed is that the apparel industry never showed men how to look good in it. "Men in general definitely need help with suits. But once it's explained why they should buy a particular garment, they're pretty quick studies." Suits can be broken down into three basic styles: European (i.e., Italian), British and American. The European suit typically has padded shoulders, no vents, a full-chested and V-shaped jacket and "slash"--i.e., flapless--pockets. Across the English Channel, the classic British suit sports a military demeanor with padded shoulders, two vents, pinched waist, flap pockets and boldly striped or plaid patterns. On our side of the pond, the epitome of traditional American styling is the "sack suit" favored by Ivy Leaguers back in the 1920s, with natural shoulders, one vent in the back, straight-hanging lines and flap pockets. Many designers cross cultural lines, such as Bronx native Ralph Lauren, who has a distinct Anglo-Saxon sensibility, and the Italianesque ensembles of American Joseph Abboud. For tailoring options, the bespoke suit is the finest. Best exemplified by the enduring shops of London's Savile Row, such as Anderson & Sheppard and H. Huntsman, bespoke suits are created by exacting teams of highly skilled tailors and artisans to fit your every inch. They may take up to five fittings and six weeks of work to complete, and starting prices run upwards of $3,000. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is loaded with bespoke tailors who, though not the bargain they used to
be, can still get you fitted nicely--and for a lot less than three grand. Off-the-rack suits are the least costly and the most convenient option, provided you're happy with the fabric and fit. But these days many suit makers also offer a "made-to-measure" alternative that allows customers to choose the fabric, styling options and details before allowing a tailor to take measurements and forward the order to the factory. A semi-finished suit is then returned to the store for fitting and finishing. Brioni, Kiton, Hickey-Freeman and others offer made-to-measure lines, as do specialty men's stores such as Louis Boston. Expect prices to run 15%-25% above offthe-rack. Whatever the tailoring option, men's suits are either "full canvas"--i.e., handmade with a freefloating piece of material between the jacket's exterior fabric and interior lining--"fused" together with glue, or some combination of the two. The benefits of full-canvas construction include attention to detail, durability and a freer and more natural appearance. Though fused suits tend to be stiffer and their glue breaks down over time, they are also vastly more affordable, with prices ranging from $200 to $1,000. Suit fabrics come in a wide array of colors, patterns and qualities: Hickey-Freeman has some 700 swatches available for special order, while H. Huntsman's wools range from Super 90s to Super 200s--a grading designation that refers to the number of centimeters a single piece of yarn can be stretched. The longer the stretch, the higher the quality, the more luxurious the feel and the lighter the weight of the yarn.
Style Vs. Fashion Once you get into stratospheric price levels, it makes sense to ask yourself whether you're making an investment or buying a fashion item. Both have their pluses and minuses. While an immaculately rendered and classically tailored suit may last ten or 20 years and never go out of style, it'll hardly get you noticed in a crowd. Meanwhile, slick fashion suits will have you looking like a rock star, but only for a couple of years The choice between fashion and longevity is a very personal one," says Michael Bastian, men's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, who notes that he has several fashion suits that he wears only once every five or six years. "The best strategy is to play with them." Indeed, playfulness is one of the defining characteristics of the latest generation of suit buyers. "Suits are definitely back, but in a more personal way," says Bastian. "The younger guys are treating suits more as an integrated part of their wardrobe--pairing jackets or pants with less traditional elements for distinctly personal looks. If they wear a tie now it's because they want to, not because their suit needs one." That same philosophy is gradually making its way into corporate culture. "When it comes to a wardrobe, there's no longer the same emphasis on distinguishing between going to work and socializing," says Lauren Solomon, a New York-based image consultant who spent four years as the in-house image specialist at Chase Manhattan and now teaches "The Brand Called Me," a mandatory mini-course at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Your business
wardrobe shouldn't be just navy and gray suits anymore, and your social wardrobe shouldn't be just corduroys. Wherever you're going these days, you're doing business, and you need to feel good about what you're wearing at any given moment." Still, a suit must be appropriate to a region or industry. "What works in financial services in major metropolitan areas is not going to fly out in the middle of nowhere," notes Solomon. For instance, the light blues, greens, taupes and beiges one can get away with in the entertainment industry might not work in financial services, where dark solids, pinstripes and subtle patterns still hold sway. Similarly, the brighter colors and more creative styles of the West Coast look awkward and silly in laid-back New England or the conservative Midwest.
Building A Wardrobe Then there's the matter of how many suits to own. Alan Behr, an entertainment lawyer and moonlighting journalist on New York's Upper East Side, keeps 15 suits in his closet to cover every possible scenario. "If your company has a one-day-a-week casual policy, you'll need at least four suits to rotate, plus a fifth in case someone calls a meeting on Friday," says Behr, who favors Savile Row's Henry Poole and, unlike a lot of fashion editors, pays full price for his suits. "I keep five suits for the warm weather, five for cool and some additional ultra-lights for boiling hot days." Joseph Rosenfeld, an image consultant in Dallas with a large corporate clientele, recommends that men get started with a three-suit foundation: one dark blue, one dark gray and one black or, if you can't get away with that, dark brown. "From there you can branch out into a blue with a Glen plaid, a gray with pinstripes and perhaps some individualistic lighter tones," says Rosenfeld. "Men are fickle, and eventually they get bored or tired. Adding a new suit or two now and then makes them feel powerful and good about themselves." In the end, looking sharp in any suit is primarily a matter of color, proportion and individual style, and the best way to get the right suit for you is to find a good salesman and stick with him. Alan Flusser recommends visiting high-end men's stores and then either buying or taking the ideas somewhere you can afford. "Either way, you've got to find a mentor," he notes. "It's usually not a woman or a fashion designer, but a salesman who has the tastes you like." Bergdorf Goodman's Bastian concurs. "It's like asking for directions: Guys don't always want help, but they really should consult with a salesman they trust," he says. "I've seen those relationships that last for decades." For your wardrobe-building needs, we've compiled a dream dozen of great men's suits. Broken down by style--European, British, American and Cutting Edge--and encompassing a range of prices, it's the first stop on your road to sartorial splendor.