It has been described as the ultimate expression of masculinity and one of the most visible aspects of western cultural dominance and, worn by everyone from Bryan Ferry to the Emperor of Japan, the suit has proven to be one of history’s great survivors.
Despite the growth of casual wear, high street brands now cater for an unprecedented array of tastes and styles in suits, from the impossibly skinny silhouette of Topman to Paul Smith’s outrageous twists on traditional styles and the no-nonsense of Marks and Spencer’s waterproof suit.
The focus on style follows the credo that the suit is a conduit for confidence and sex appeal and that, in the words of Topman’s design director, Gordon Richardson, if you are not comfortable in what you’re wearing, it shows.
This is echoed on that great English institution of tailoring, Savile Row, where the focus is not so much on fashion as long-term wear and the uniqueness of the individual.
“Purely bespoke tailoring is all about balancing you up,” says Simon Cundey, director of Henry Poole and Co. “For example, if you lean slightly to one side, that’s taken into account and everything from the lapels and width of the shoulders are cut to be in keeping with your body shape.”
In this sense, Simon says, bespoke tailoring is often at odds with the fashions of the time but, given the garment is expected to last at least 10 years, this is something of a boon. Such precision will set you back about £2,800 and can take up to three months to complete, but as Simon hastens to add, at £280 a year, it’s a pretty fair deal.
The long-term life of a bespoke suit is partly down to the craftsmanship of the tailor but also to the quality of the cloth – much of which, unlike off-the-hook suits, still comes from Yorkshire’s mills. “Places like Huddersfield and the Colne Valley are still the best places in the world for worsted wool,” Simon adds.
One of the company’s major suppliers is Dugdale Bros of Huddersfield, which has been run as a family business for more than a hundred years. The firm recently supplied the cloth for Mike Tindall’s wedding suit as well as Jim Carrey in Mr Popper’s Penguins and Shia LaBoef in Wall Street 2 – which adequately reflects the firm’s large City customer base.
And, although it is a supplier rather than a manufacturer, the vast majority of the company’s stock comes from mills within a 14-mile radius of its Huddersfield city centre warehouse. Packages sat on shelves in the old Victorian building read like a tour of the world – with fabric waiting to be posted to clients in Japan, America and Malaysia.
Developing countries in the east are taking up a growing share of the company’s custom, according to director Rob Charnock, as demand for a world-famous quality grows with an equally expanding prosperity. Somewhat ironically, however, Indian and Chinese producers are continuing to undercut the home industry with cheap imports. But, despite this, Rob says he is not worried as he has faith in superior quality of Yorkshire cloth.
“We put a lot of raw material into our cloth because it’s not just made to look at, it’s to wear as well. It’s very labour intensive and tends to be in short runs, too, so it means we’re too involved, too fussy and too expensive for what the high street wants.
“But there’s a growing demand for this type of cottage industry and methods that have been handed down from generation to generation, so if we stick together, there’s a bright future ahead.”
This feature was originally published by Mosaic magazine.