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, signaled 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. When cut with skill, it celebrates the beauty of a well-proportioned physique and camouflages the imperfections of a decidedly human one. A suit announces that a man has grown-up intentions — even if he is wholly immature. It’s an expression of personal aesthetics.
But in the world of men’s tailoring — retailers, designers, shoppers — the suit no longer represents power.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 rulemakers. But what are the rules worth these days?
“Today, the suit of armor 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 sketchpad. Its demise was slow and anguished.
Decades ago, Casual Friday tried to kill the power suit. The effort only frustrated powerful men who didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to figure out a dignified alternative to chalkstripes and peak lapels. 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. They chipped away at the aesthetic template of power. Designer sneakers and sweatshirts gained favor and clout.
Still, when Wall Street demanded discipline and focus from these 21st-century 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 gray 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.
“The suit is in a really interesting place. It’s come off very bad times,” says Mark-Evan Blackman, a menswear specialist at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Suits are no longer thought of as a vehicle for work. Younger people are much more comfortable looking at the individual components [of a suit] and how they fit into their lifestyle.”
Blackman has not completely given up on suits as an expression of power; but he emphasizes that they now represent so much more. Power is overshadowed by a kind of sex appeal that goes far beyond old-fashioned, James Bond allure.
Musicians now wear business suits during performances — not the bedazzled blazers and leather pants expected of rock stars, but Wall Street suits, gloriously tailored Tom Ford suits. In 2013, Justin Timberlake recorded an ode to such tailoring with "Suit & Tie," and he wore Ford's suits on his subsequent world tour. That same year, Jay-Z rapped an homage to Ford. By 2017, Gucci was churning out eccentric suits that blurred the line between business and pleasure, serious tailoring and silly costume.
Today, suits are fashionable. Or they are just a habit. Capitol Hill still loves suits. So do lawyers and TV anchors, whether on MSNBC or Fox. 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 in the American market and on the red carpet, not by touting power and executive elan but by pushing style, panache and flexibility. By celebrating everything but power. Or, in the case of Suitsupply, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, by poking fun at power suits in an advertising campaign titled, "Revenge of the Yuppies."
What motivates a man to purchase a suit? “I think it’s more of a confidence thing,” says Nish de Gruiter, vice president of Suitsupply USA. “Younger customers see [a suit] as a reflection of their personality.” They wear a suit with hiking boots. They choose knit jersey blazers that feel like sweatshirts.
“They don’t have to buy a suit; they just like how they look in a suit,” Kalenderian says. “They like how they feel and what people say about how they look.”
Suits have emerged as a form of vanity, in the peacock tradition, breaking free of the Master of the Universe mold. What they have lost in power, they have gained in style.