The Suit Deconstructed


stories by ROBERTA VOWELL
photography by AMANDA LUCIER
illustrations by JOSEPH WAGNER

     A jacket. A matching pair of pants. That’s a suit, right?

     But a suit is so much more.   For many men, it’s a second skin. A man’s uniform, if you will, a signal that he is a man of business, a man to be reckoned with.

     He unfurls a banner – crafted of subtly pinstriped 100 percent wool, of course – and sets forth, hunting for one perfect suit to fit one slightly imperfect man.

     Beyond the constant of jacket and pants, he considers the details: Boxy or fitted? Single-button or double-breasted? Pleated or plain? Stripes, plaids or simple shades?

     It’s complicated.

     So herewith, our guide to successful suiting.

PLEASE TOUCH

     When it comes to fabric, go natural. This means wool, silk, linen, cashmere, even bamboo. Natural fabrics breathe – they absorb moisture and disperse it away from the body so you’ll stay cooler in summer, warmer in winter. In coastal Virginia, a lightweight wool suit will work both summer and winter (haberdashers will point out the suits that they consider year-round wear). Natural fibers also accept and hold dye better, offering more subtle shades and less fade.

     The easiest way to determine the fabric, of course, is to check the label. But the fabric’s touch is also a tip-off. Gently squeeze a handful. If it crumples like paper, it probably contains man-made fibers. But if that fabric mashes into a soft ball, like yarn, it’s natural fiber. That quality is pliability, which makes for a softer fabric that drapes instead of creasing.

BUILT TO LAST

     Two considerations here.

    A fine suit is hand-stitched – yes, we’re talking a human holding needle and thread. It will be more expensive, because it’s much faster to whip up those seams on a machine. But the price is worth it. “To engineer a garment with a soft shoulder by machine is not possible,” says Craig Beecroft, co-owner of Beecroft & Bull in Virginia Beach and elsewhere. “Hand-sewn seams are stronger, more flexible. The seams have more memory; they return to their original shape.” To test, grip the shoulder in the classic “attaboy” gesture and squeeze. It should feel like a wad of tissue; if it’s solid, it’s machine-stitched, which makes the curved seams stiff.

     Second consideration: Conventional wisdom says the jacket must have a lining that covers the entire interior. True, a good lining gives the jacket structure, helps it drape better, helps it slip on more easily and makes you more comfortable when you’re wearing, say, a heavy tweed. But jackets don’t always have a full lining, unless there’s an interlining under it for structure. Less is better for cool comfort or to show quality craftsmanship. In fact, a “quarter-lined” jacket – lined in the arms and down through the shoulder blades – can be the hardest to make, and the most revealing of a tailor’s skill.

SHAPE SHIFTING

     When it comes to cut, your suit should follow the lines of your body – lightly padded shoulders and slightly indented waist, pants that resemble two stovepipes, neither narrow nor full. “The evolution in the market is trending toward a more streamlined silhouette,” Beecroft says. “A softer shoulder, flat-front trousers, tapered at the waist.” Trying to hide a gym-free physique in a boxy jacket will make a man look, well, boxy. Newer suits are cut with expanding waistlines in mind – large sizes will nip in just enough to give the illusion of a waist.

When trying it on, give the suit a brief workout. Reach over your head to make sure the entire jacket doesn’t rise. Give yourself a hug, and consider whether the fabric pulls alarmingly across the back. Sit down and lean forward (board meeting posture) to ensure that shoulders don’t creep up the back of your head.

PATTERN FOR SUCCESS

     For most men, stripes are good, plaids are not. A vertical stripe, either a delicate pinstripe or what is called a bead stripe – think of it as a dotted line – elongates and slims a man. And who doesn’t want to look taller and thinner? Ulysses Johnson of The Quality Shop recommends that stripes be placed no more than a quarter-inch or half-inch apart. “If the stripes are too heavy, or too wide,” he says, “it can look gangster. Or costumy.” While plaids can be lovely, especially in a winter suit, they add pounds. “In any plaid, half the lines are horizontal,” Johnson says. “They invariably make a big guy bigger.”

BUTTONED UP

      Tailors call it “the Vee.” It’s the triangle of shirt and neckwear displayed when a suit is buttoned up. The more buttons marching toward the chin, the higher and smaller the Vee. Fewer buttons mean a deeper Vee. The most recent and enduring trend is for a two-button suit that has been modified by moving the buttons slightly higher for a deep, but not gut-gapping, triangle. “The higher two-button suit is good for most body types,” says Johnson. “It’s an optical effect, with the longer, leaner shirt opening.’’ Younger men who embrace steampunk design – a mix of Victorian and industrial elements – should seek out four-button jackets. Double-breasted jackets are a more formal option, but they have pros and cons. “A double-breasted jacket covers up a lot of good eating,” says Sonny Legum, of Stark & Legum menswear in Norfolk, patting his own midsection. “But I never saw one that looked good open. Too much flap hanging there. You have to keep it buttoned up.”

PLEATING INNOCENT

     Yes, you’ll see any number of Virginia gentlemen sporting pants with front pleats. But that tailoring touch is firmly on the way out. “My plain-front pants sales five years ago was 10 percent,” Beecroft says. “Now, I’d estimate 60 percent buy plain fronts.” One reason: Pleats on pants, much like pleats in women’s skirts, truly flatter only the leanest physiques. On stouter souls, the extra fabric adds bulk. However, a well-fitting pleated pant can be a larger man’s best bud, says Johnson. “The pleats give you more fabric and more looseness, which gives more room in the thigh,” he says. “For a man with athletic thighs, it might be the solution. But what’s more important is the fit. They might need to go a size up in the waist.” He advises larger men to seek pleats that fold toward the front; the optical illusion is slimming.

     Again, remember to take a seat when trying on pants to ensure that pleats aren’t creating a slightly suspicious fullness or puff above the lap. It’s always better to see it in the fitting room than at a swank weekend brunch.

GROUNDED


All this attention to fabric, fit and detail can be derailed at the very bottom of the suit, where trousers meet shoes. Here we have the break – the horizontal line on the ankle that interrupts the front crease from hip line to hem.

     Pants must break – if they are short enough to hang above the shoe, they will display an ungainly amount of sock, or even bare shin, when the man walks or sits. A break is highly personal: Men will go down fighting to defend their favorite. Some favor a shallow break (from the back, the hem falls just below the top of the heel of a loafer), which gives a more tailored line. This cut requires narrow trousers and over-the-calf socks. A deep break (from the back, the hem is at the top of the sole) gives a suit a more casual look, perhaps slightly “street.” But it can also look sloppy, and make a short man look like he’s wearing Daddy’s pants. The best course of action is to aim for the middle ground (back hem falls midway between shoe top and sole) – a medium break. Shins stay covered and the effect is professional.

     And what about cuffs? The general rule is that cuffs, delivering a horizontal line at the hem, make a man look shorter. They also look best on fuller trousers, not on the more fitted pants now in vogue.

LET’S VENT

     Turning to the back of the jacket, the major style choice will be the vents, those flaps at the bottom. Three options: One center vent, two side vents, or no vents at all. A vented jacket offers more freedom of movement (one wonders how those boys of “Miami Vice” vaulted into speedboats in their ’80s ventless jackets). The center vent is traditional American and perfectly acceptable. The trend is toward the double side vents – considered a British or European style – which look more custom-made. The double vents give more ease to the jacket; when a man turns or twists on one side, the entire jacket doesn’t have to move with him. But if a man has large hips or a rounded rear, side vents tend to splay out, creating a sort of doggie door effect.

A STITCH IN TIME

     A new suit usually bears strange stitching, large white threads holding vents and pocket flaps closed. The tailor has basted these closed to preserve the line of the garment while working on it. The threads are left on during shipping to keep the fabric smooth and crease-free. The store’s tailor will snip these away. The pockets are often stitched closed for the same reason. Sure, they can be snipped open, but some canny men leave them. The reason:  Shoving hands, handkerchiefs, phones and – heaven forfend – hefty key rings into pockets can ruin your sleek silhouette and stretch the pockets. A good suit will have inside pockets to use, and there’s always a briefcase or whatever passes for a man-bag in your life.

SHOW IT SOME LOVE

     A well-made suit should visit the dry cleaners only once a year, or before being stored for the season. Cleaning chemicals break down fibers and strip away natural oils. So when the suit becomes rumpled from wear, ask the cleaners to simply steam press, and it will be returned rejuvenated. Of course, if it’s seriously stained, by all means let the dry cleaning pros take care of it. But for smaller (and fresher) spots, try blotting with a damp washcloth and gentle detergent meant for hand-washing clothes.

     After each wearing, hang the suit outside your closet to allow it to air. That will go a long way to controlling perspiration odors. If that is a recurring problem, take a tip from stage costumers (who couldn’t possibly dry clean each garment every night) and occasionally hang it outside for some breeze and sunshine (the heat kills odor-causing bacteria).

THE RIGHT FIT


From shoulder to break, wrist to cuff, check that man in the mirror for gaps, puffs and puckers.

     So you’ve found the perfect suit.

     At least you think it’s the perfect suit. Love the fabric, adore the lining, ditto on the buttons, vents, pleats.

     But how’s the fit?

     Too tight here, too loose there.  All those cool details can still create a hot mess if the fit is off.

    Taking time with the final check can finesse the fit, according to the gents at Dan Ryan’s for Men in Virginia Beach. We culled advice from the venerable Dan Ryan, who founded the business more than 35 years ago; his son, Dan Ryan Jr., 47; and Mike Phillips, who at 30 is the youngster of the store with nine years under his belt but says, “I’ve got lint in my veins.”

     The point of having a three-man fit fraternity? Each man wears an equally high-quality suit, but with a sharply different fit.

     Ryan Senior is wearing a fairly conservative herringbone pattern suit. The jacket is loose (“I lost a lot of weight recently,” he says) but slightly fitted in the waist, and the trousers are pleated, moderately wide and cuffed.

     Phillips’ suit is black, narrow, and fitted to a T through his torso – “I can only pull my arms forward this far,” he says, reaching out about 6 inches. “I can’t even drive in it. I know, it’s ridiculous.” He’s learned an expensive lesson about leaning over in his snug, flat-front trousers, and now bends into a squat to pick up boxes from under the cabinets. The men call this the “Young Man’s Cut.” “Young guys in business don’t want to look like their fathers,” Phillips says. “This means that they’ll use traditional materials and colors, but have a different silhouette driving it.”

     And what about Ryan Junior? His suit has flat-front pants, and a trim jacket and shirt, but it’s a fit that allows him to reach his arms around his body. “I’m in between,” he says. “I’m a tweener.” A tweener, he says, has “the mindset of a 25-year-old but wants his suit to be functional.’’

Some of the fit issues are the same for all styles:
• To start, stand tall at the mirror and tug on the lapels until the notches or peaks are level. “If one is higher than the other, the jacket is askew and you really won’t be able to see the fit,” Ryan Senior says. Now, button just the top button (of a two-button suit) or the top two buttons (of a three-button jacket).

• First, check the shoulders. Stand straight with your arms to your sides. Ask your fitting pal (or store associate) to hold a palm flat against shoulder and upper arm. That hand should be absolutely vertical, with no dipping in from shoulder to arm.

• Gaze upon your manly chest. The suit material should lie flat, and the lapels should not puff outward or even pucker.  There should be no pulling at the waist or under the arms.

• Eye your wrists. On a traditional jacket, the edge of the sleeves should fall at the point where the thumb hinges to the wrist. Ryan Senior calls it “the top of the hand.” On the narrow version, the sleeve can fall anywhere from the top of the hand to the first joint of the thumb.

• Moving down the jacket, turn for a rear view with the mirror. Whether your suit has a single vent or double vent, it should not gap open.

• Don’t turn yet. Check the length of the jacket. On a traditional suit, the hem should fall below the base of the seat. Ryan Senior’s jacket falls nearly 2 inches lower than his seat. Phillips, in his Young Man suit, has a shorter jacket, just covering his seat.

• Traveling on to the trousers, pleats must not gap open. If they tug even slightly at the bottom, that throws off the entire line.

• At the bottom of the leg there may be cuffs, found most often on pleated pants. In general, the wider the leg, the better it looks with cuffs – Ryan Senior has cuffs, the two younger men do not.

• Check your break. This is the spot about ankle high where the front crease is interrupted. It is determined by the length of the trousers; longer trousers have more fabric falling onto the shoe, creating a deeper break.  Shorter trousers equal a more shallow break. For the Young Man style, Phillips has his trousers hemmed an inch higher than the top of the heel. Ryan Senior, with his looser, cuffed pants, has a hem falling almost at the top of the heel.

     The suit guys’ final advice: Each style works only when all the elements are in harmony. “If your suit is wider and looser,” Ryan Senior says, “it has to be teamed with wider lapels, wider pants, wider ties, collars, even pocket flaps.’’ Same thing for the Young Man’s Cut: Narrow jacket, narrow lapels, and so on. “It must be,” Ryan says, “in total balance.”

THE CUSTOM SUIT


When custom is called for, the tailor – like Ibo –  brings together the man and his dream.

     A custom-made suit is stitched together from fabric, thread and a man’s deepest sartorial desires.

      “It is everything you want,” says Ibo Kesici, owner of Ibo’s Tailor Shop in downtown Norfolk. “Custom making suits is always psychology. People always dream about custom-made. ‘I’ve always wanted this color. I’ve always wanted a ticket pocket, or a particular inside pocket.’ ”

     The tailor’s mission, Ibo says, is to conjure those ideas into a jacket and pants.

   The English refer to clothing created to a client’s specifications as “bespoke,” but Ibo (universally known by his first name, pronounced Ee-bo) doesn’t seem to use that term, perhaps because of his Turkish heritage. His apprenticeship came in his family’s tailoring shop in Istanbul, where he began sweeping at about age 11. That was in the early ’70s. He came to America in 1988 and worked in custom tailoring in shops in New York City for two years before finding his way to Norfolk, where he worked for Beecroft & Bull and, briefly, a department store before opening his immaculate Plume Street shop in 2003.

     His clientele ranges from longshoremen to mayors. The suits typically cost between $750 and $800. If he were to work solely on one suit at a time, he figures it would take four to five days from contact to closet. But his hours are busy; racks of items awaiting alteration or pickup loom above his workspace.

     The tailor’s pattern is to start with the fabric, most imported from Hong Kong and a few from Italy. The customer narrows down his choices, talking with Ibo about weight, durability and, especially, color.
“If you want the custom make, you pick a different color,” he says. “Not black, or whatever color you have. Maybe olive, gray. Something different.”

     Tailor and client choose a color or print for the lining, then move on to general style. The cut of the suit is most important. They consider whether the jacket should be fitted or loose, and whether the trousers will be pleated or more body-skimming. They consider single- or double-breasted. They consider the buttons – how many and even what they should be made of – shell, leather, wood, metal. The customer decides whether he wants a casual patch pocket (sewn onto the outside of the jacket) or a set-in pocket, whether he wants flaps over those pockets. And vents on the back of the jacket? “Always, always, I tell them the side vents,” Ibo says. “So much more expensive look.” The smallest details are often those that make men happiest, like the “ticket pocket” tucked on the right side of a jacket, big enough for, well, a ticket.

    For all this, Ibo takes 36 measurements. If it’s hard to imagine 36 places to measure – after chest, neck, waist and inseam, what’s left, anyway? – consider that on the arm alone, the tailor measures around the bicep, elbow, forearm and wrist, and measures the distance between each pair of spots.

     He sews in the back of his shop, about half on the machine and half by hand. Hand-stitching, he says, is better for areas that bend, like armholes and collar.

     On this day, one of his regular clients has arrived to check on the suit and overcoat he’s ordered. Curtis Lee Jr., a retired longshoreman, has had several suits, a half-dozen shirts and an equal number of trousers custom-made by Ibo. So there’s a give and take.

     Lee is not keen on the current style of suit found in stores, the fitted European cut. He likes the Italian designs with roomier jackets and fuller pants. “Two buttons, side vent, ticket pocket,” he says, rattling off his choices. “Pick stitching” – a technique with matching thread hand-sewn on the edges of the jacket – “and I like a pleat in my pants. It compensates for your gut.”

     By working with Ibo, he can have all those custom variations, plus other bonuses, like the trousers the tailor constructed to match a beloved sports jacket.

     “I need to trust a customer first,” Ibo says. “I tell them my mind, what I think. But I do what they say. In my shop, the customer is always right.”

     But the customer might not get his way immediately.

    “Sometimes, they come in and say, ‘I need two suits.’ I tell them, ‘No. You want one. We make one. Then we see if we make another one.’ We need to see if he likes it, if I like it.”

    “Sometimes, they come try it on and immediately order another one,” Ibo says. He waves a small packet of samples from his desk, three of the styles tied up separately. “This man, he came in and ordered three more.”

     And so continues another collaboration of client, tailor and dream.

    “A tailor must have the hands and the fingers,” Ibo says, holding up narrow hands delicately pinching an imaginary needle, “and the eyes and also the mind.”

     Plus, an attribute that’s in short supply in this 4G-download-a-dictionary-in-six-seconds world.

     “Everybody wants it yesterday,” Ibo says. “Patience. All tailors need the patience.”