Chris Cotonou

The rebellion of wearing a suit

The rebellion of wearing a suit
The Rolling Stones (Getty)
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During my first job at an advertising firm, there was a palpable disdain for suits amongst my colleagues. For a newly appointed copywriter, fresh out of university and hooked on Mad Men, wearing a suit seemed like the sensible thing to do in the office. But to the Generation-X creative director I was now working for – perhaps having been forced to wear a suit for most of his earlier career – it was an unwelcome relic of the past.

He set me straight in my first client meeting. I bought a cheap two-piece from the high street, hoping to make a good impression. Ten minutes before we sat down, he pulled me to the side, wanting to know if I could find anything more ‘relaxed’ for next time: 'the suit is a bit… pompous,' he added. So, at the next meeting, I took his advice. I showed up in the same jumper and chinos I wore clubbing the previous Saturday in the West End. But I felt shabby. 'I look underdressed,' I recall telling him, as the client strolled out in his immaculate navy jacket. And yet that was the point. As a representative of the advertising agency, I was told we couldn't be seen as old-fashioned.

With the news that Marks and Spencer have stopped stocking suits in some of their shops, it seems the post-pandemic world agrees. The brand is adapting their offering to 'be more relevant to customers’ rapidly changing needs.'  Which translates to: 'get with the program, aspiring Don Drapers’, the suit is no longer useful.' The tastemakers at M&S HQ have instead unveiled their new Smartwear range for the office; a sleek and unimaginative line of neutrals, seemingly inspired by the sartorial tastes of Jeff Bezos.

The rejection of the suit is so widespread that it's almost a form of rebellion to don one. In an era where you can wear practically anything and no one blinks an eye, it's not hard to see why some men are reaching for the strict, sartorial rules that govern tailoring. It helps them stand out.

The late Charlie Watts must have known this. Even as the drummer for the biggest rock band on earth, The Rolling Stones, he chose to dress like a St James gentleman, while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards swanned about in leather vests and pink ruffs. For a lot of Stones fans, his passion for tailoring seemed both ironic and defiant, tearing up the rules for what a real rockstar wears.

Charlie Watts was also the only Rolling Stone to look stylish all his life. While fashions come and go, a good selection of suits can carry you through any situation. And I do still believe, even after my creative director’s advice, that wearing one is a great sign of respect. Depending on the accessories, shirts, patterns and the cut you want, you can play as conservative or eccentric as you like. The same suit can be worn a hundred different ways, with t-shirts, with trainers, or waistcoats, and with enough experimentation, you come to learn what works best for you. My favourite thing to do was to pair gorgeous vintage ties I found on eBay. I would mix-and-match them with a glen-check three-piece from Suitsupply (a high street store whose success relies on the suit being relevant) and a navy Hardy Amies two-piece, bought on sale at Moss Bros (which, if you’re looking for affordable tailoring is still quite good.) Whether I looked for them or not, the compliments would roll in. And while my colleagues spent their wages on fast-fashion and expensive trainers, I built the foundations of my wardrobe on a few simple pieces. Each month, they faced the uncertainty of saving up for, or trying to pull off, what was then in vogue. When you wear suits, it is much easier to be creative without trying nearly as hard.

A lot of men are attracted to the idea of great tailoring. They’re just unsure about how to make it work for them. Friends and colleagues frequently ask about waist sizes; jacket lengths; or where the trouser is meant to break above the shoe, despite not donning a suit themselves. Until the suit became associated with drab office armour, their queries would have been common knowledge. But the first experience most men have of suits now is shopping for an oversized cookie-cutter version.

There's still time for the suit to stage a comeback. Instagram is now full of young influencers who are clued up on the difference between Parisian and Milanese styles, who can flout their knowledge of Neapolitan jackets. In England alone, there is a generation of young tailors challenging the suit’s stiff image. Dobrik & Lawton, The Deck, or Anglo-Italian, to name just a few, are revealing contemporary ways the suit can appeal to more people, and at different price-points. And twice a year, thousands of people gather at the Pitti Uomo event in Florence, simply to be among other lapel-minded individuals. The suit may no longer be the corporate uniform of choice but, freed from these shackles, who knows what it will become next?

Written byChris Cotonou

Chris Cotonou writes for Esquire, The Rake and Mr Porter

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