The fi­nal dy­ing days of the power suit

What ex­actly does the business suit mean to­day?

The Hamilton Spectator - - STYLE - ROBIN GIVHAN

Dou­glas Heye wears suits.

Like a lot of men, he gives a fair amount of con­sid­er­a­tion to the way those suits are styled. Un­like a lot of men, he is will­ing and able to break down those con­sid­er­a­tions into specifics.

“I like a pocket square, but I gen­er­ally don’t wear one with a tie,” says Heye, a former Repub­li­can strate­gist, now a CNN con­trib­u­tor. “If I’m wear­ing a tie, three out of four times it’s blue. I like blue and I’ve been told it works for me . ... If I’m wear­ing a jacket and no tie, I al­ways like a pocket square. I think it’s a lit­tle bit more dressy. It shows a lit­tle bit of ef­fort.”

Ef­fort is im­por­tant. The whole rea­son for wear­ing the suit, he says, is to set a tone. He re­cently at­tended a meet­ing where he knew ev­ery­one else would be ca­sual. But he couldn’t bring him­self to show up in khakis and a golf shirt. A suit, he rea­soned, sig­nalled a certain se­ri­ous­ness.

“But I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it means some­thing to me and not the viewer.”

What ex­actly does the business suit mean to­day? For many men, it is for­mal­ity and pro­pri­ety. A suit an­nounces that a man has grownup in­ten­tions — even if he is wholly im­ma­ture. It’s an ex­pres­sion of per­sonal es­thet­ics.

But in the world of men’s tai­lor­ing — re­tail­ers, de­sign­ers, shop­pers — the suit no longer rep­re­sents power. The power suit is dead.

Slip­ping on a suit is no longer a re­quire­ment for mov­ing into the ex­ec­u­tive suite. It does not au­to­mat­i­cally im­bue its wearer with author­ity. The most im­por­tant person in the room is prob­a­bly not wear­ing a suit. The pres­i­dent wears some­thing that can only loosely be called a suit; it is more of a sack.

The “suits” may still be the rule mak­ers. But what are the rules worth these days?

“To­day, the suit of ar­mour has a dif­fer­ent mean­ing and a dif­fer­ent pur­pose,” says Tom Kal­en­de­rian, a 38-year vet­eran of Bar­neys New York and the store ex­ec­u­tive in charge of menswear.

The power suit did not die a quick, pain­less death. It was not slaugh­tered with one brisk pen stroke on a de­signer’s sketch pad. Its demise was slow and an­guished.

Decades ago, Ca­sual Fri­day tried to kill the power suit. Ca­sual Fri­day gave men Dock­ers, and men de­served bet­ter than that. The power suit sur­vived. Then, the en­trepreneurs of Sil­i­con Val­ley re­belled against the business suit. They wore hood­ies and jeans while they built their brands, and they con­tin­ued wear­ing these in­for­mal clothes af­ter they be­came ty­coons.

Still, when Wall Street de­manded dis­ci­pline and fo­cus from these 21stcen­tury com­pa­nies, the youth­ful wizards brought in suit-wear­ing business veter­ans to cor­ral the chaos.

But then fash­ion be­gan to muck around with suits. Thom Browne made them in grey flan­nel and shrank them for max­i­mum stylis­tic effect. J. Crew, Zara and oth­ers took the down­sized “Mad Men” sil­hou­ette to the mass mar­ket. The run­ways dis­as­sem­bled suits. Stylists paired $3,000 de­signer suits with lim­ited-edi­tion sneak­ers.

In 2016, the clas­sic Ital­ian menswear house Bri­oni hired a former street style star in a bid to boost sales. Justin O’Shea, a lean, tat­tooed Australian whose main re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence was as fash­ion di­rec­tor of a women’s e-com­merce site, sought to rad­i­cally re­make the 72-year-old brand in his own rebel im­age. He created a col­lec­tion of an­gu­lar, hy­per-sexy suits. On the run­way, mod­els wore them with chin­chilla overcoats. O’Shea aimed to woo cus­tomers with an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign fea­tur­ing the heavy-metal band Me­tal­lica pho­tographed in shad­owy, gothic glam­our.

It was all too much, and O’Shea was out of a job in six months. But no mat­ter. His time at Bri­oni might have been short and his vi­sion ex­treme, but it was in keep­ing with the new re­al­ity. Suits had be­come fully in­te­grated into the fash­ion ecosys­tem. In­deed, for his spring 2018 show, the avant-garde de­signer Rick Owens, who called suits “a clas­sic sym­bol of civ­i­liza­tion,” in­cor­po­rated them into his menswear col­lec­tion along­side his bul­bous bags, tiny shorts and vinyl trousers.

Suits were no longer about power. They were about style.

To­day, suits are fash­ion­able. Or they are just a habit. Capi­tol Hill still loves suits. So do lawyers and TV an­chors. Is that power or sta­sis?

“To me, it’s like putting on a uni­form,” Heye says. “I don’t look at it as power.”

Not ev­ery man loves suits, but a lot of men do. Made-to-mea­sure tai­lor­ing has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar as it has be­come more ac­ces­si­ble fi­nan­cially. There are more mod­estly priced brands such as Suit­sup­ply and Strong Suit mak­ing in­roads by push­ing style, panache and flex­i­bil­ity. By cel­e­brat­ing ev­ery­thing but power.


Suit­sup­ply pushes fash­ion over power.

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