American Tailoring : Redemption Song

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

American Tailoring : Redemption Song

photo credit: Steffen Roth

GAY TALESE: FINE AND DANDY

As a young copy boy in 1953, Gay Talese showed up for work each day at the New York Times office wearing a hand stitched Italian suit.

The following year he would be drafted into the U.S. Army, and not long after after his return from service, would find himself writing feature articles for Esquire Magazine.

Growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey, with an Italian father who worked as a tailor, Talese even wore handmade suits to grade school.

Years later (after practically being born in a suit), he tells us:

I …espouse the importance of investing in quality—if you get something well cut and well made, it not only lasts longer but also withstands the vagaries of the fashion cycle. The drape and fit of a fine bespoke suit will pay for itself many times over after your fashionable high street ones have gone out of fashion. If bespoke is out of your budget, I would recommend buying off-the-rack and then getting them tailored. ~ Gay Talese (1)

But even with these sound words, the consideration of American tailoring feels allusive, especially when compared to British, Italian, and French tailoring. Specifically, the sack suit did America no favors in the eyes of the world as sack suits seemed synonymous with mass-manufactured shapeless jackets where any given gentleman could lose or gain 30 pounds with little consequence in terms of having to change his suit size.

THE SAGA OF THE SACK SUIT

With no offense to math teachers or accountants (as both professions have been of a great personal benefit), Antongiavanni, in The Suit, does not hold back in his scathing review of the Sack Suit:

The Sack, which is….a useless silhouette, is wholly unstructured and unfitted. It has no padding, no darts, no waist suppression but hangs straight from the shoulders. The first mass-produced silhouette, it was designed to fit anyone, with enourmous armholes, because those with slight shoulders can fit into large scyes but not the reverse. The trousers of a Sack suit are always unpleated, uncuffed, sit on the hips, and hang straight, effecting the look of an accountant or math teacher. Originated by Brooks Brothers in its heyday, the Sack first found favor with Ivy Leaguers in the 1920s, when it was considered fine for college kids but inappropriate on grown men, who, when they got to Wall Street, were expected to dress with more rigor. (2)

Since the Industrial Revolution, legions of shapeless sack suits have been produced in the U.S. and sold as ready-to-wear. Of course, mass production adopted the sack suit design precisely because of its blatant lack of shape and ”loose-fit parameters” that made the suit easy to produce in high volume. Possibly without realizing that their preference was being driven by sheer availability, American men soon came to believe that oversized suits looked good and to the delight of mass manufacturers, would wince in disdain at any suit style deviating from the sack suit or at best, the more progressive drape suit. If you asked an American man at this time to try on a suit that gave him an hour glass silhouette, you would likely feel his deep embarrassment from across the room upon the very thought of your request. This post 60s lax attitude that swimming in your suit feels comfortable and feeling comfortable is great, is likely an attitude that marked the beginning of the end of esteem in American suiting.

The sack suit was invented in the 1800s, mimicking the sack coat which was loose-fitted, single breasted, and without a waist seam. This design first revealed itself in American pattern drafting systems in the 1840s.

During the mid-1800s, characteristics of the coat included a small collar, short lapels, fastened top buttons  reaching towards the neck, moderately-rounded front hems with flap or welt pockets on the hips, a welt pocket on the chest, and a moderately baggy appearance. Sack suits from the 1878 suit version have many of the same sack coat features, but with jacket buttons positioned lower with longer lapels.

Fashion illustration of men in checked and plaid sack suits, 1880. Lot 4058, Wisconsin Historical Society

As early as 1878, Tailor & Cutter predicted the future of the sack suit:

We are rapidly degenerating into a slipshod state of things. After a time Frock coats and even Morning coats will be entirely a thing of the past and if things continue on in this way [these coats] will only be seen at museums where they will serve to amuse a wondering and awestricken group of sight-seers.”

Today, American men still wear an updated version of the sack suit. (3) Here, we see an example from last year’s Brooks Brothers collection –a sack suit from their Japanese website with the suit described as “Wool Linen Cambridge Sack in Oxford”…not exactly an Edsel in appearance, but far from a Bentley as well.(4)

Leonardo DeCaprio depicting the Drape suit in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Although DiCaprio looks like a boy trying on his father’s suit, this is an example of how American men are often still perceived as dressing.

The accoutrement of NYC men receives a lot of attention and likely influences the direction of men’s style in America, and fortunately we continue to see fewer baggy suits in the Big Apple.  As trends come and go, we still cannot help but take note of a recent Business Insider report projecting 2014 NYC style trends with all but three trends relating directly to suiting (5) :

Spring 2014 Projected Men’s Fashion Trends

Double-Breasted Blazers

Patterned Suit Jackets

Printed Trousers with Odd Jacket

White Suits

High-Rolled Pants

Block Color Shirts

Bomber Jackets

BEST-DRESSED AMERICAN PRESIDENT WHO WAS ALSO A TAILOR

Possibly one of the rarest examples of American tailoring history…In 1822, a boy destined to become a highly controversial 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, served as an indentured tailor for about one year at the age of 14, alongside his brother William. Years later, Andrew Johnson briefly opened his own tailoring business. Johnson is the only American President who made his own clothes, as well as the suits of several of his cabinet members. Pictured above is President Johnson and U.S. Attorney General at the time—James Speed. Notice the similar shoulder expression on Speed’s and the President’s suits, which could indicate that President Johnson served as Speed’s tailor.(6)

What would an American suit look like today if it were crafted based on the 1865 style elements as defined by the tailoring methods of President Andrew Johnson?

The suit would have:

* Structured/roped shoulders—a straight cut from side of neck to shoulder with no fabric extending past the shoulder.

* Notably long coat sleeves cut past the wrist and narrowed at the lower arm.

* Expressive lapels: peaked with a slit notch cut. Lapels are wide with a deep belly with occasional piped edging. Lapel length is medium to short.

* Natural button stance.

* Frock coat cut just above the knee.

* Shapeless and straight sack-waist-cut.

* Waistcoats are standard fare with expressive rolled lapels on the waistcoat.

* Waistcoats made of contrasting designs and fabric fibers were considered more proper (with suits made of all the same fabric referred to as “ditto” suits).

* Ornamental buttons that differ in shape, size and finish on different areas of the suit ensemble.

* Neck cut is precise with no gapping issues.

* Bow ties, from a simple ribbon to a formal fold.

* Pocket watch accessory with chain attaching at the lowest waistcoat button.

* High trouser waistline.

* Generous trouser leg width with no trouser turn-ups.

SOCIETY…A VARIED BREED

From the NYC set of “Suits”. Patrick Adams and Gabriel Macht demonstrate varied style preferences for suit design. Image by: SUPPLIED

Remember the golden era of Hollywood when the film industry gave us iconic examples of elegant men such as Cooper, Grant, and Astaire, who each gave style inspiration in heaping doses? Enter the 1970s. With film and television images of elegant suits suddenly truncated by mod squad turtle necks and bell bottoms, the casual era arrived with a vengeance, with even suits being described as “leisure”.

After the 60s, we saw only the occasional glimpse of Savile Row as we watched English tailor Anthony Sinclair refine the appearance of James Bond (Sean Connery). And we listened to the famed words of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, which put the financial district tailors on the map, and many of us still recall Gekko’s sage advice to Bud Fox: “Go to Marty Sills. Tell him I sent you.

Yet today is a different story. We are inundated with film productions celebrating well dressed business men, politicians, gangsters, and dandies. Add to this—style blogs and forums, and pictorial postings on Pinterest and Tumblr to name a few…and American men can’t help but absorb by osmosis an intrigue for men’s style. But  when an American male decides to go bespoke or made-to-measure, it can be extraordinarily confusing to know where to begin in terms of finding a good tailor or a quality MTM option.

Thankfully, there is a silver lining surrounding the dark sartorial cloud that has hovered over the U.S. for some time. And after a long wait, we are beginning to see the light.

Starting in New York City, we look for tailors who find themselves in their workshops on Saturday morning because there is no other place they’d rather be. We try to find the craftsman who cannot be satisfied with his own work because he never lost the hunger to improve. We seek those in the tailoring trade that have a hand so natural, that their finished suits feel more like art and history or a second skin, rather than just clothing. We consider outsourcing issues and the work of other in-house tailors, as well as rely on intuition gained from spending time with other international master tailors to serve as a compass, hopefully pointing us in the right direction. And, we look for consistency in work and a strong stylistic signature.

THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

photo credit: Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA)

After wading through style forums, looking at thousands of photos, reading a cornucopia of reviews/biographies, speaking with tailoring houses over the phone, consulting with experts in the field, and uncovering a few mysteries, six tailors have surfaced as a first-look at tailors who are receiving consistent, positive acclaim. And, as PG will be soon be on assignment for one year in New York City beginning in January, 2015, we will continue to grow in familiarity with the talent in the states and report accordingly.

American preferences for suiting can be especially varied. Within the exploding sect of men interested in suiting, we find a lot of preference subsets—Ivy League enthusiasts, American ”Euro-men” who prefer the look of the British, Italians or the French, men who want a more modern aura, others who prefer strong flair and a close silhouette, those who channel historical panache, and the perpetually progressive who play down staunch and severity in suiting while remaining highly style-driven.

If you are a tailor in the U.S., that list contains a lot of style preferences to contend with each day. For certain, American tailoring is so diverse that it is very difficult to describe.

Many American tailors originate from Europe and perhaps this fact alone dilutes the strength of the category “American Tailoring”. Even so, the master tailors who have been in the states for decades have adapted their work to reflect regional demands and so by default have become American tailors.

Credit documentaries, forums and blogs for gradually turning the tide in a field that has felt cryptic in the United States in the past, and for revealing some true American craftsman that otherwise would never have been discovered by many.

More knowledge about style often results in a revival of style. And the current revival of style is much more expressive than the Wall Street comeback of the 1980s, where every man appeared to be wearing the same gray or navy suit with shiny cufflinks, red ties, suspenders and trouser turn-ups with cordovan shoes. Men from the U.S. who care about the aesthetics of clothing, and who want to wear suits that look different than the plethora of men wearing off-the-peg garments are now investing in their wardrobe and have a real concern about finding the right domestic clothier choice for their investment.

As a first attempt to highlight a few good American tailors, we take a careful look at six New York City tailoring houses with consistency in craftsmanship and technical know-how with highly positive client satisfaction.

1. IVY LEAGUE POSTERITY: NINO CORVATO

510 Madison Avenue Rm 600

New York, NY 10022

Midtown East

(212) 980-4980

ninocorvato.com

The tailor to television personality David Letterman, which Antongiavanni describes as wearing “nothing but double-breasted suits of the utmost rakishness and propriety”(8), as well as being the tailor featured in the Vicki Vasilopoulos recent film entitled “Men of the Cloth”, Italian born Nino Corvato has a highly regarded reputation and a devout following among his clients.

Inspired by a cross between Italian and British tailoring, Corvato hails from Sicily and graduated from a Milan design and cutting school at the tender age of 18. He decided to move to New York after a specific encounter with a gentleman who told Corvato that he could really make a name for himself in New York City. Once in New York, he began his work at Brooks Brothers, who crafted handmade suits at the time. After 20 years of tailoring with Brooks Brothers, Corvato hung a shingle bearing his name in the 1980s. Prices for a Corvato suit start around 3,000 US dollars.

Although typically Ivy League in tailoring style, a long front quarter seam and patch pockets channel Neapolitan flair in this particular Corvato odd jacket

There is a sort of quiet excellence in his work, with the Corvato house style being unpretentious and slightly relaxed. It is not unusual for a Corvato man to have another suit in progress at any given time. Nino Corvato’s suits generally have a shorter but somewhat generous lapel area with ample jacket length. The chest is cut in a forward method which helps to slim the torso. Waist suppression is soft compared to a European cut waist, but appears to have become slightly more defined recently with the trend internationally on the rise for a cleaner silhouette. (9) A nice feature to the Corvato suit is Nino’s expertise in constructing an ultra clean shoulder line running from the side of the neck to the tip of the shoulder. The precision and versatility of the Corvato shoulder construction has probably contributed to Nino earning the respect that he receives today.

2. THE INTERNATIONAL PERSONA : WILLIAM FIORAVANTI

45 West 57th Street

Broadway (NoLita district of lower Manhattan)

New York, NY 10019

(212) 355.1540

williamfioravanti.com

As a descendant from a long line of Neapolitan tailors and practicing the craft for almost four decades, Master Tailor William Fioravanti has earned the “Golden Scissors” award from the Academy of Master Tailors in Italy and has served as the President of the Custom Tailors Designers Association of America (CTDA). His style of tailoring appeals to men who have a penchant for European tailoring.

Fioravanti suits are individually designed, cut, and hand sewn with several fittings required with each suit taking approximately 50 hours to make.  Known to favor fine merino and cashmere fabrics, the price for Fioravanti suits are among the highest price range found in New York City, beginning around 5,500 US dollars—but suits have been reported to cost more than double that of the Fioravanti norm based on a significant bump in price as a result of elaborate fabric selections.

Once tailor to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Steve Wynn, most Fioravanti suits have a distinct concave Pagoda shoulders with armholes set high and an open fish mouth notch placement determined by the height of the client, along with Neapolitan features such as a lengthened front seam on the jacket, a bruschetta chest pocket and a gradually suppressed waist. (10) Elongated lapels with moderate width and a slightly low button stance elongates the silhouette and gives a subtle wink to the power suit that Fioravanti innovated in the 1980s.

3. A MODERN LOOK : IN SEARCH OF BRUNO COSENTINO

Address and Phone: TBD

Finely suited Tailor Bruno Cosentino (right). Image: bfanyc.com / Jason Beckley

Just over a year ago, the Dunhill flagship on Madison Avenue could boast bespoke tailor Bruno Cosentino as Dunhill’s resident master tailor whom, since 1986, rose in position over the years to eventually oversee 165 separate operations performed by a group of skilled artisans. Bruno made both floating canvass creations either in the house style “St. James Block” inspired by Savile row suiting, or the slimmer Belgravia option, both with fine lapel hand padding, not as much shoulder, a suppressed waist and a well supported chest with neutral armhole positioning—along with the jacket cut with high side vents kept close to the body by a signature interior strap.

Last year, Cosentino left Dunhill and worked a brief stint just a few stores down on Madison Avenue for Franco Ercole. After speaking with the manager at Ercole’s this week, we learned that Bruno has left the tailoring house.

The silvery haired distinguished tailor hails from San Andrea, Italy and began an apprenticeship at the age of 9 years old as a barber—with the catch being that the barber who taught Cosentino was also a tailor. Thus, Cosentino caught the passion for tailoring at a very early age.

Mr. Porter’s New York city creative director, Marcus Teo lists Bruno Cosentino as creating his “favorite suit”.(11) And, two years ago, Juhn Maing of Sleevehead commended Cosentino for his basted jackets and fine hand padded lapels, as well as work on a superb traditional DB overcoat in progress made in a formidable heavyweight wool.(12)

We are currently trying to pinpoint Mr. Cosentino’s new post and hope that he is still a thriving talent that is accessible to men who prefer a more modern fit. Any information about Mr. Consentino’s current status would be most welcome.

Update: We spoke to Mr. Cosentino recently from his home in New York city, and he told us that although he is semi-retired, he enjoys working on occasion and would consider returning to the profession.

4.  FLAIR WITH A CLOSE SILHOUETTE: MANOLO COSTA

286 Madison Avenue

New York, NY 10017

(212) 889-2625

manolocosta.com

Located on 286 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, Manolo Costa launched his solo bespoke venture as a stylist and advisor to prestigious clients of Paul Stuart/Phineas Cole, and Ralph Lauren. His very current suit designs communicate a look that usually gets noticed for its creativity and uber style. Now reigning at the helm of his own bespoke tailoring salon, he has refined his suit cuts and works with his tailors to make signature pieces with fine fabrics and expert finishing. Handmade suits start at around 1,800 US dollars.

The Monolo jacket has a natural transition from the shoulder to the sleeve, with a clean and soft shoulder expression. Coat pockets are positioned slightly higher than traditional patterns and jacket length covers the seat. Sleeves are flared. The waist is nipped with button stance natural or slightly high. The coat shows ample chest area and lapels are expressive with a high-set gorge and a large belly. Hints of Italian tailoring include kissing cuff buttons and a barchetta chest pocket. Of particular interest is the jacket construction with fronts having good closure around the lower quarters, preserving the overall line of the silhouette by preventing the distraction of belts, shirts and ties peeking out from around the waist area.(13)

5. HISTORICAL PANACHE : PAUL STUART SUITS BY LESSER SAMUELSOHN

Paul Stuart: 45th Street Madison Ave, New York, NY 10017

paulstuart.com

Samuelsohn Showroom: 140 West 57th Street, Suite 3B, New York, NY 10019

(212) 682-0320

samuelsohn.com

Lesser Samuelsohn founded his tailoring company in 1923

Although founder Master Tailor Lesser Samuelsohn immigrated from New York to Canada in 1923, the company was relaunched in Montreal as a luxury brand four years ago, while also making suits for Paul Stuart in NYC. And Paul Stuart suits seem to be on the rise in popularity(12). Channeling the days of Hollywood suiting, trousers fall immaculately from seat to floor with a wider knee. The jacket shoulder is soft with high armholes. The jacket generally has a raised notch with moderately generous lapels and a large lapel roll belly and a pinched waist. Trousers are made with a high set waistline. While reasonably priced beginning at around 1,800 US dollars, machine stitching is used for buttonholes and flap pockets with no pick stitching. A boutonniere button hole is made upon request. Measurements can be taken in Paul Stuart store locations and stylists include eagle-eye Mark Rykken.

Several sources are listed below expounding on the dynamics and talent of the Paul Stuart/Samuelsohn relationship.

As of late last year, there has been a new Samuelsohn development–from this PR Newswire press release, Samuelsohn has recently acquired the American institution Hickey Freeman.

NEW YORK, Oct. 22, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — Samuelsohn, the premium menswear brand based in Montreal, finalized its acquisition of the Hickey Freeman clothing assets, license and Rochester manufacturing facilities today. With the close of this landmark deal, the company becomes the largest manufacturer of luxury tailored clothing that is truly made in North America. Samuelsohn has been growing at an incredible pace over the past three years with its new management team, and by next year, is projected to be four times larger than in 2010.(18)

6. PROGRESSIVE : ALEXANDER NASH

Alexander Sumner, owner of Alexander Nash

From the recent New York Times article entitled “From Wolf to Sheepish Clothing”, men in the financial district of New York City have a different sartorial viewpoint these days (this financial group likely being among the top influencing forces in U.S. suit style trends behind depiction of suiting in television and film, and blogging/online pictorial posting of suits):

In the end, the goal is a look that does not scream “banker,” but whispers it. “The proper tone today is an elegance that doesn’t try too hard,” Mr. Rellie said. “Wall Street doesn’t want to show off anymore, because no one is listening.”

Enter the scene 49 year old Alex Sumner who stands 6-foot-4. Alex has turned crafting bespoke suits from a hobby into a profession at the atelier Alexander Nash, the name of his great-uncle who was killed while working as an ambulance driver in World War I.

Alexander Nash has  a team of five with three full-time tailors. Jacket lapels are generally narrow with a fish mouth notch and soft shoulder expression. Waist suppression is moderate and gradual with progressive trimming. Other stylistic features include double-vents and flared sleeves with jackets cut slightly shorter. Sumner encourages his clients to wear natural flowers as boutonnieres.

The company has built up an exclusive cliental list, including super model Tyson Beckford, and Alexander Nash suits are sought after by men who are interested in playing down the austerity and severity of a suit while at the same time placing a high value on the correct cutting and tailoring of the suit. Stylistic liberty is taken with one example being a pair of tuxedo pants sporting a skull motif, crafted for Beckford to wear to a Video Music Awards after-party.

Late last year Sumner launched his new website alexandernash.com and expanded his shop at West 27th Street. (21,22)

Sonya Glyn Nicholson. Senior Editor.

Article Soundtrack:

Redemption Song, by Bob Marley

Beginning to See the Light, by The Velvet Underground

Society, by Eddie Vedder

The Times, They Are A’Changin’ by Bob Dylan

Bonus Track: Fine and Dandy by Broken Heads

sources:

(1) The Monsieur: Author Gay Talese and what makes a real man, 2013

(2) Antongiavanni, The Suit (2006). p 55

(3) Wisconsin in History, 1878 Men’s Sack Suit

(4) Brooks Brothers, Japan 2013

(5) Business Insider, 2013. 7 Hot Men’s Trends Straight from the Runways of New York Fashion Week

(6) Facts About President Andrew Johnson

(7) Dandy Lion: An Articulation of a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity at MoCADA, 2011.

(8) Angongiavanni, The Suit (2006). p. 14

(9) Film Noir testimonial for Nino Corvato

(10) Style Forum: Source for Fioravanti Suit Image

(11) MR. PORTER: New York Creative Director/Editor Marcus Teo

(12) Sleevehead: Bespoke at Alfred Dunhill, December, 2011

(13) Noble Custom: Manolo Costa, New York

(14) Paul Stuart, 75 Years.com

(15) Ask Andy : Samuelsohn Factory Tour

(16)The Great Sartorial Debate on Samuelsohn : The Battle of the Dinner Jackets

(17) Images of Lesser Samuelsohn suits

(18) PR Newswire: Samuelsohn Finalizes Purchase of Hickey Freeman

(19) Rake review of Paul Stuart Custom

(20)About Hickey Freeman

(21) From Wolf to Sheepish Clothing, New York Times, 2013

(22) The Wall Street Journal on Alexander Nash, 2013