Friday, November 21, 2014

Slim Suits Loosen Up- news from the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal posted an article this week on the loosening up of the slim suit.

One of the suit lines they mention is Todd Snyder White Label, something new to Nordstrom. I developed that fit for Todd (it's being made in Chicago by Hart Schaffner Marx, the company of which I was VP Design until recently) and long-time readers of this blog (and StyleForum) may find this interesting since it involves a personal journey that started online several years ago. (Hint- it involves DRAPE!)

Like many of my colleagues, I had been trained in the clean-lines school of tailoring, that a well-cut suit should look like polished marble, without rumples or wrinkles or fullness of any sort. The coat should be cut close to the body and be reinforced by canvas and interlining to maintain that cleanliness. I encountered a group of people online who challenged that notion by their adherence to a diametrically-opposed school of tailoring, known by its early-twentieth-century moniker The Drape Cut. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, but the reader's digest version of that story is that tailored clothing at the turn of the century was rather close-fitting and followed the natural contours of the male body, the downside to that being that the less ideally-proportioned among us would have those proportions revealed by their clothing. A dutchman named Frederick Scholte who was working on Savile Row at the time was inspired by military greatcoats whose broad shoulders and cinched, belted waists gave the illusion of a more athletic body so he gently extended the shoulder of the suits he cut, increased the fullness in the chest and the top of the sleeve and slimmed down the hip. The resulting sihouette became known os the Drape Cut, the London Drape, or the Blade Cut, and was widely copied around the world, perhaps most visibly by the tailors dressing 1930's Hollywood. Like any trend it became exaggerated to the ugly extremes of the zoot suit and fell out of fashion. Certain houses, such as Savile Row's Anderson and Sheppard, as well as a handful of other tailors like Rubinacci and Alan Flusser have kept the drape alive to a certain extent and we see influences in some of Ralph Lauren's clothing (certainly his own, broad-shouldered suits) and Tom Ford. Most of the examples of it that I had seen on people, however, just looked like sloppy, ill-fitting messes to me so I dismissed it.

Online discussions about the cut revealed a certain amount of passion on both side of the fence, and Nicholas Antongiavanni's riff on Machiavalli, a book titled simply "The Suit" but which extolled the superiority of the drape cut made me a little bit crazy.

Back then I was in the habit of tearing apart interesting clothing so see what I could learn about how they were cut and made (and which partially prompted this blog) and I came across a vintage drape-cut suit from Anderson and Sheppard. It was a pivotal moment for me because once I got past some of the glaring deficiencies in the sewing (a dark period in the history of clothing from which they seem to have recovered), I saw something interesting in the cut. From my post at the time-

"A&S has a possibly unwarranted reputation for cutting shapeless sacks. Certainly the ones I have seen were ugly things. But not this one; instead of wide, droopy shoulders, it has a moderately wide, softly padded shoulder which is in balance with the rest of the garment. And there is a shape. The most shapely garment I have ever examined. A huge drape allowance on the back, and bizarre sleeves. But shape- good shape. So, curious, I tried it on. It’s not my size, but I know about putting garments on my body which are not my size.

And then I paused again.

I think I stood looking in the mirror for a full fifteen minutes. Looking past the awful sewing, and some of the stylistic things that bug me, this silhouette did not look bad at all. I even caught myself thinking that if the cloth were not in such rough shape I could cut it down and wear it myself. Then I started moving around, and thought, damn, this thing IS comfortable. Then I had another look at the chest and the drape there. It was not the lumpy chest I was used to seeing, but a nicer fold, a real drape, not just bulk, and I can honestly say that at that moment I got it. I understood it."

I started rethinking my opposition to the principles behind the drape cut and started to do some more research.

Once I had located as much as had been written in tailoring journals dating to the period of the original Drape, I started to synthesize man of the ideas in my head and created an experiment. I would cut myself a draped coat using my own modern drafting style but the vintage pattern manipulations, and wrote about it. The result was far from perfect but I learned a lot if things in the process.

Shortly after that I took over at Hart Schaffner Marx, an old American clothing company, and got to work redoing all the silhouettes and patterns. The company had some boxy silhouettes and had attempted a slim-fit which was poorly received because people felt it was just too tight. I studied all the other garments on the market and found that the slim-cut clothing in general was tight all over. Fine for Hedi Slimane-esque skinny people, but certainly not fine for those with some extra meat on their bones. The other thing I found common in these suits was that the drop was wacky. The drop is the difference between chest size and pant size and the standard is about six inches. A seven inch drop is considered "athletic" so most slim suits carried a 7-inch drop. A size 40 suit would have a size 33 pant instead of a 34, assuming that these slim suit-wearing people had small waists. The thing is, though, that meant that the pant was smaller ALL OVER instead of just in the waist. I had other ideas about that, too.

Whereas slim coats would have a slim waist, but also a narrow shoulder, a small armhole, and a narrow sleeve, I created something with a slim waist, but a slightly extended shoulder, an armhole that was high but wide front to back to allow for a bigger bicep and added a little bit of the dreaded drape to the chest, both front and back. The sleeve was much fuller around the cap to allow for a fuller deltoid, but then slimmed it down at the wrist. In many respects, the description of those first drape models. My first iterations had a trim seat in the coat, but I realized that athletic figures generally had a more prominent seat and thighs, so I needed to give more room for that. And as for the trouser, instead of cutting the smaller size 33 instead of 34, I made a pant that had a smallish waist but had the room to allow for a full seat and thighs, inspired by alterations I was having to do to my jeans. The moderately slim cut we called the New York, and the slimmer, much shorter version we called the Los Angeles.

The Spring 2013 Los Angeles coat looked like this

compared to Dior's slim cut which was one of the biggest influences on slim tailoring-

So when Todd Snyder, who at J. Crew had created the Ludlow suit, came to us at HSM to create his White Label garments, I showed him what I had been doing with these silhouettes and he liked it. I softened up the shoulder of the LA model, he created a lapel shape for it and we developed a cool trim package for the line, and it's now in Norsdtrom stores. I'm now working on a new project and a few new lines of clothing that will appear in stores in Fall 2015 where I will continue to develop ideas about a modern drape cut. So I guess I have to thank Antongiavanni and the Drapists at StyleForum for pushing me in a direction I never would have taken without them. Somewhere, Réjinald Jérome deMans is yelling "I TOLD YOU SO!" at his computer screen.


BrianW said...

I'm definitely heading to Nordstrom to see the fruits of your labors. This is such a great story. Been wondering what you've been up to, now we know. Thanks, as always, for sharing. And to think I just pulled my sewing machine and tools out of storage yesterday. More motivation to tailor up some new wool trousers!

poppykettle said...

A fascinating progression! As always, I do thoroughly enjoy reading about your thought process - thanks for sharing :)

Brian S said...

Outstanding post! I do love your writing!

Unknown said...

I had the "pleasure" of examining and putting on a fairly recent drape coat (not A&S, but until recently literally "related"), and I'm afraid the ages of poor sewing is not yet over.
Interestingly, the front shoulder (sewn, of course, by hand) was secured with a straight strip of silesia.

I'm not exactly small, but the shoulders were cut for a wrestler, while the sleeves became insanely narrow at and below the elbow.

I'm kind of looking forward to finally see suits that don't show pulling buttons, gaping lapels and collars off the neck. Not a pleasant sight to see.

frieda said...

Brilliant posting!

emilyrobin said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I too, love reading your posts.

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