The importance of a proper suit: It’s the modern equivalent of putting on battle armour

One of my favourite suits

Back in 1999, I was co-founder of a dotcom company. We’d raised a lot of money. We were busy executing on our strategy. We had a brilliant team of people working in our Mayfair office. It was a stressful period, but it was thoroughly exciting too. Through a rather convoluted set of circumstances, at age 23 or 24 (I can’t remember now) I assumed the role of CEO. Up until that point I was the Chief Tech Officer, charged with keeping the site’s technical operations stable and evolving. This required me to turn up to client and investor meetings wearing (and I kid ye not) trainers, jeans and a jumper.

At this point in time, folk liked to see the geek dressed down. It seriously gave those rather new to the ‘internet’ a rather strange amount of assurance. So for a good few years, that was my wardrobe. Indeed I came straight out of University and into this rather relaxed corporate environment. My other co-founder (a lady) was dressed to the nines every morning. Again, that was required. It’s what folk expected. We must have looked rather odd, but it worked.

However when I took over as CEO, I had an immediate problem in the form of a board meeting in New York. If memory serves it Thursday when I got the nod. I had to be in New York on Monday.

I didn’t have an issue with what I was going to do or say. My pressing problem was what to wear.

T-Shirt and trainers wouldn’t cut it now.

I talked to my dad.

“Saville Row,” he advised, “Go there, get yourself a decent suit. You’ll thank me.”

I’d bought a suit once or twice from Marks & Spencers. They never looked good on me. Never. I’d worn a dinner suit a few times. But I’d no cause to own a proper ‘work’ suit up until this point.

My dad had shopped quite often at Ede & Ravenscroft, the city’s oldest tailor. I’d been in a few times but — again — I’d no cause to bother with any of their products.

I arrived into the shop and explained my challenge to the Ede & Ravenscroft team. I mumbled “Board meeting” and “need to look the part” and “some kind of dark suit” before hoping one of the chaps would help me out. They did. They fixed it all for me.

“You’ll be after a pinstripe then, sir?” the chap asked. Or told me.

“Er, no!” I exclaimed, “I don’t want to look … well… like a clown!”

Evidently the chap had heard this all before. He just looked at me for a few moments before saying, “If it’s business, all the real players wear a pinstripe sir.”

“How about just some kind of dark navy suit?” I asked.

The chap politely enquired as to whether I was running the company or applying for a position as an intern.

That settled it. Pinstripe.

I took in the surroundings. I remembered the other business folk I knew who’d also recommended Ede & Ravenscroft (and a few other Saville Row outlets). Every single one of them was a successful executive. It then swiftly dawned on me that every single one of them wore a pinstripe — whether chalk white bold or fine.

I explained I needed something for Monday. Or Sunday, actually, because I was flying out on Monday. We worked out departure times and the chap reckoned that he could give me an off-the-peg suit that they’d adjust to my frame as much as they could — and get the changes done for Monday morning.

Yup.

The chap picked out a nice bold chalk stripe. To begin with I really wasn’t feeling it. I did feel like a bit of a fake. Like I didn’t have the confidence to wear it. It also looked rather silly allied with my T-Shirt and trainers so the chap gave me a shirt, tie and some shoes to wear as he worked. The transformation was astonishing.

As the chap tacked pins in the trousers to get the length perfect I began to inhabit the suit, looking at myself in the mirror. I began to believe that I deserved it, that I had the confidence, the aura, the balls — frankly — to wear it.

I noticed an almost imperceptible change in the way that the other Ede & Ravenscroft shoppers reacted to me. Previously I looked like an arse sitting there with my top-of-the-range £150 Nikes, some funky jeans and a bollocks GAP jumper. But hey, I had a million quid in the company account. That, I felt, excused it. Or … well, you know, I was living the successful dream, able to rise above the prejudices of fashion. Or, perhaps, rebelling against them.

“You have to wear a suit to work? Why?” I used to ask folk.

The other shoppers suddenly seemed to treat me as an equal. If anything, I felt they were looking at me as a successful young business chap, getting yet another suit made before flying off to New York for a board meeting. Yup, my imagination began to run away with itself.

I had a serious stumbling block over belts, though.

“Where does the belt go?” I asked the chap.

“Oh no belts, sir,” came the response.

Only the plebs wear belts, apparently. If you’re wearing a belt on a business suit, you’re a wannabe.

For a moment I thought they intended making the trousers tight enough to just sit around my waist. Then the braces arrived.

I’d never ever worn braces before.

Now I really felt like a clown, putting those on.

Quickly, though, I began to feel like Gordon Gekko as the Ede & Ravenscroft team milled around, explaining how things worked in the real world. They obviously know what they’re doing, given the fact they dress some of the most distinguished and successful gents on the planet.

“It’s an image, sir,” one of the chaps explained, “You’re crafting a specific image that other successful business people will acknowledge and respect.”

And stuff the rest then, I thought.

When the adjusting had finished there was just one more finishing touch. I really did begin to feel a bit Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman when the chap brought over a pocket square. Or a hankie, as you and I might call them.

“You’re kidding?”

No came the response. The chap patiently showed me how to place the pocket square correctly. Either entirely flat or bunched up — and you achieve the bunched up look by doing a bit of Paul Daniels style jiggerypokery with the pocket square then stuff it into your breast pocket. I loved it.

Once we were all done I stood there in the little shop and — I’m not ashamed to admit it — admired the new me. I looked fantastic.

I carefully took the jacket off, minding all the pins and bits of paper showing the tailor where to make his incisions. As I did, I remember thinking that, “Yes, this is the way.”

I wondered how the board would react in New York.

Indeed I was concerned that they’d see right through me. That they’d see I’d only worn the suit because, well, I wanted to look good. I worried that this would somehow make me look worse. Or be some kind of problem. Like I was covering something up. Like I had something to hide. On the morning of the meeting I gave some serious consideration to heading out to GAP to buy some more familiar clothes. I stayed the course.

The last time these chaps had seen me, I was dicking around in a T-Shirt, jeans and the Nikes. How would they react?

I was first to arrive. I took off the jacket, revealing the suspenders (I quickly discovered that’s what the Americans call braces). The first chap came in, dressed similarly. Of course he did. Since I’d done so many conference calls I’d forgotten he tended to wear grey pinstripes. He smiled and said hello.

I was almost expecting him to say, “But where are the Nikes?”

He said nothing. I felt like an equal. For the first time, actually, I felt like I deserved to be there. I also felt that it was stupid to react in such a way to a simple bit of cloth.

The others arrived soon after and I received the same treatment. Nobody said anything. They all took my appearance as normal. If anything, I suppose it demonstrated on some level that I was serious about the new role I’d been appointed to.

After this rather levelling experience (in a positive sense — i.e. I felt on their level, finally) I took to bringing out the suit regularly with client meetings. Before long I bought a few more. I bought some from Ede & Ravenscroft and also from independent tailors I’d met. I began to deck out my wardrobe with all manner of pinstripes — some bold, some calm, some rather over the top. I experimented with three-piece suits — they are phenomenal. They add that extra oomph.

I started to notice a curious thing though. When I walked through Liverpool Street Station (the station of the Square Mile, London’s financial district), crowds would involuntarily part for me. Seriously. People would walk out of my way. Instead of me having to do as normal and negotiate, folk automatically gave me the right of way. I joked with myself that it was because I was looking like such a lemon but I also recognised the reality — I looked sharp, successful, like a Master of the Universe. In the UK particularly, the pinstripe — along with a super-smart suit that hangs on you properly, fitting your frame perfectly — is involuntarily revered. Most of us don’t know that we’re deferring to it, appreciating it and lending control and authority to the wearer.

I really started to enjoy this extra second wind. When I arrived into huge company receptions, I was astonished when the secretaries or security guards ignored other lesser mortals to help me out first. Every secretary worth his or her salt has a third eye for those dressed properly — the underlying concept being that if you ignore me, delay me or otherwise screw up, I could have just bought the company you work for! Because it does happen. Important super-high-powered businessmen do arrive into receptions and ask to see folk during the normal course of the business day. I began to enjoy looking like once of those.

It’s a little bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t want to overplay the power of a proper suit, however I’ve been in business situations where I’ve struggled to command the attention and authority of the room in part because I looked like a chump. Nevermind that I had a million quid from the venture capitalist to spend. Never mind that my Nikes were more expensive than most people’s suits (I really, really liked buying the best Nikes..). I looked like a chump so a lot of the time, senior folk treated me as such. It was worse when the middle management treated me that way too. I’d often have to start meetings rolling out a list of flipping credentials and mention the venture capitalist twice before I felt I had any respect. And that, of course, didn’t confer respect. If anything, it conferred a degree of bubbling hostility. I was on the back foot so often.

Things were totally different once I deployed the pinstripes. Totally different. I felt like I could often utter gibberish and folk would nod away at me. I remember performing pretty poorly during one meeting that I hadn’t prepared at all for (my own stupid fault) but found that the clients and suppliers seemed to overlook this and I got my way.

Even today you can make a boardroom full of executives feel totally small by taking off your jacket and revealing your sharp shirt, tie, cufflinks and braces. It’s the braces that really get folk. On the surface, you’ll see a few chaps think it’s a bit funny. One or two brave chaps will comment. However what most of them are doing is sitting thinking — knowing — they look shitter than me. Even just a small impact can be rather useful.

It’s oft said that putting on a good suit is like putting on your armour as you get ready to do battle. I agree. I really enjoy the ritual.

I also take a huge degree of pleasure from putting on a jacket that fits. My very first Ede & Ravenscroft jacket fitted nicely — but it was off the peg. They’d done their best. It was nice. The first bespoke jacket though… it fitted like a glove. I looked fantastic. My neckline looked great — usually, as my shoulders are quite broad, an off-the-peg jacket tends to ride up and look rubbish. Something I’d never appreciated until I started this journey.

I’m now bespoke all the way. There are, by the way, different classes of suit you can buy. Loosely speaking, you’ve got:

  • Off-the-peg — where the shop will adjust for you
  • Made to measure / “Personal tailoring” — the cloth is cut by machine and usually finished by hand
  • Bespoke — everything is handmade by a human for you

My preference is to avoid off-the-peg nowadays. I popped into Ede & Ravenscroft a few years back and picked up one of their pinstripes off-the-peg as I was in a rush. And one of my wedding suits was off-the-peg from there too, as, again, I was in a bit of a rush.

It’s all relative but generally speaking I expect to pay about 400-500 pounds for a made-to-measure suit and at least double that for bespoke, if not a lot more. It’s all about the cloth you choose though. You might select a really nice lightweight cloth and find it costs £900 made-to-measure. Most hyper-bespoke suits will usually run into 2 or 4 thousand pounds.

With made-to-measure, you get to choose from a list of options. For example, would you like your cuffs this way or that? Would you like a ticket pocket? Pockets slanted or straight? And so on. With bespoke though, you make the rules. You specify what you want precisely.

I normally carry at least one mobile phone so I’ve had my tailor make allowances for this in the build of the suit.

For me I don’t worry too much about bespoke vs made-to-measure. It very much depends on my mood, my requirements or whether the tailor I’m talking with offers the service. I’ve had stunning results from both.

Quite a few of my friends have been surprised by the fairly cheap cost of a made-to-measure suit, given that they often pay £300 or £450 for an off-the-peg number that sort-of-fits from one of the high street brands.

Which brings me to you, dear reader.

Either this territory is familiar to you and perhaps I might be able to suggest another tailor or service that you might like to look at. Or it’s entirely new to you, in which case, hopefully I can help point you in the right direction.

Over the coming months here on The Pursuit of Quality I’m going to outline a number of establishments that you might consider patronising. There’s quite a few that I’ve come across over the years but not yet tried. When I’ve got direct knowledge of the service level, I’ll definitely be able to deliver a firm recommendation (like Ede & Ravenscroft). If not, I’ll aim to highlight companies that you might consider.

Where possible I’ll try and sample the service of as many outlets as I can and then publish a review.

I’d very much welcome all suggestions for tailors (and accessories — I’ll get on to shoes, shirts, cufflinks, all that later on). Please do send me an email (ewan@thepursuitofquality.co.uk) or comment below.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jfenton Jay Fenton

    Enjoyed reading this, Ewan. But now, if I turn up in a pin stripe, they’ll say it’s because I’m copying you! ;) Totally agree on all points. Don’t forget the watch.

    • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

      Ah good to hear from you Jay!

      Have you taken advantage of any of the tailors in Hong Kong?

      And you know what, the watch: You’re right. The watch, the shoes, the pen, the cufflinks, the bag. Anything else I’m forgetting?

      • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jfenton Jay Fenton

        I have – former master tailor to the MoD, no less :) Genius.

        Anything else you’re forgetting? Well, the choice of phone, obviously!

        • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

          A former tailor to the MoD? Very impressive. What’s your favourite suit then?

          The choice of phone is very important!

  • http://twitter.com/davidchow David Chow

    Hmm…having met you I know why you go bespoke. I on the other hand am of more average build, 38R. That said my favourite suit that I own (yes I do wear them) is bespoke, was made for me in 48 hours in Hong Kong at http://www.samstailor.com/ and it fits like a glove and has the best lining ever (well I chose it!)

    But I have a tailored grey flannel Gieves & Hawkes which fits the shoulders well, and I’ve bought off-the-rail suits from Banana Republic which, while single vented, such is the US style of cut, fit me quite well, unaltered. I’ve always favoured solid colours as quite frankly we Orientals look a bit evil in a pinstripe.

    Belts are an accessory for some but a necessity for me as my waist has fluctuated from 32-33 inches form some years. But Jermyn Street consensus is they are superfluous. I do on occasion sport a pocket square, but then I wear glasses or sunglasses, so I normally always have to use my top pocket. But here’s a conundrum for you. Side pockets. Virtually all my jackets have their side pocket still closed up, thus resisting the urge to stuff things in their and mess up the line…Opinion?

    Watches are important. Divers watches of the SUUNTO ilk ruin the effect, but a stainless steel Rolex won’t. You can tell a lot about a man from the watch he wears.

    For many years I’ve favoured loafers, maybe it’s all my time working with and in the US. I only wear Tods.

    The pen? Well it can only be one in my opinion. A Mont Blanc Meisterstück.

    Bag/briefcase. Well these days it’s more sensible to have a backpack – especially for my bad back and years of uneven weight distribution on ones’ shoulders – my former therapist called it ‘laptop bag syndrome’. My next one I want to buy will be a TUMI, but briefcase is from Mulberry.

    • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

      David, I’ve got a lot to write back to you about — but let me ask you this one right-away, what’s your view of a chap (like me) who rarely actually wears a watch? Good or bad? I’ve been considering the strategy with that one.

      • http://twitter.com/davidchow David Chow

        Well I have a couple of issues with tech journalists of late. When I started out in journalism it was de rigueur to attend press conferences and events in business attire and was absolutely a prerequisite at MWC. Nowadays I see people in skinny jeans, plaid shirts and I think to myself. Seriously? Now I know it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but as with a watch, you can tell a lot about a person by the cut of their clothes.

        As I said on Google+ I find it hilarious when I see the suit wearing the man. You know the type, three/four button suits look daft if you’re of average height. Buying a short or a long fit jacket is also a no-no. Leaving the wrist label (god forbid if you even had a suit that had a label like that.) Clearly something bought with no concept or knowledge of the garment. So why bother wearing one as you just look ridiculous and people around you (who appreciate good tailoring) will not take you seriously.

        Watches…well it’s a tricky one. I have a LOT of watches. But today I’m not wearing one. It’s not a deal breaker per se as we men have so little opportunity to wear jewelry. I mean I used to have a real thing about people not wearing cuff links, but more often than not I wear button cuffs, because I find when travelling it’s something to potentially lose. And most of my cufflinks have been gifts, which I would be devastated if I lost, and I have narrowly lost one on occasion when I’ve rolled up my sleeves and thought I had put the cufflinks in either my pocket or a compartment in my bag, only to find it on the desk!

        But I find watches do tell you a lot about a person. Their taste potentially (unless it was handed down by a parent, or alternatively a gift from a partner.) I’ve often used a watch as a conversation icebreaker y’see because if somebody is wearing something more unusual like a Panerai or a Breitling they normally have a story to tell. Rolex wearers, especially those wearing a Sea Dweller (I have one) tend to give each other a knowing nod. That we are part of a club that says we like quality watches but we don’t need to be as obvious as a Submariner wearer. Although once somebody from the GSMA at an event grabbed my wrist excitedly and said we were watch buddies, and therefore sympatico.

        Clearly this is a conversation we should have face-to-face rather than me writing lengthy diatribes…although chances are when we meet I’ll be in a pair of jeans, rather than a suit!

  • Pingback: The suit thing does work, you know | The Pursuit of Quality

  • Martin

    Ewan,

    This post is soo hilarious and very timely. After having spent 7years in SF/silicon valley one loses track of wearing that amazing tailored suit. In a place where Jeans and T-shirt/hoodies rules I remember my first business meeting, the first comment (as couple of VCs rocked up) was “you must be European”. Wearing a suit is a sign you are trying too hard or you must be from NY and trying to understand Entrepreneurs.

    I am now in the midst of moving back to my home country of Europe (yes, fully aware this is not a country) but the entire zone does feel like home after having spent substantial time in US and Asia.

    What was the first thing I did as I arrive in Hamburg? I buy a pair of Church’s shoes and some new shirts (cufflink) and dusted off my suits.

    Hard to beat the weather and business spirit of California and Europe’s economy may be down the tank but when it comes to quality clothing we are still miles (or kilometers) ahead.

    Will come over to London soon and would love the Ewan tour of Saville Row.

  • http://twitter.com/stephenmel Stephen Mellish

    And if you’re going to wear a bespoke suit – learn how to tie a Windsor knot in your tie!! nothing worse than an ill tied tie….

  • http://www.davidmcqueen.co.uk davidmcqueen

    I have two tailored suits. Both measured and fitted by Gemma Johnson. Fit like a glove.

    • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

      Is she still doing them David?

  • http://www.davidmcqueen.co.uk davidmcqueen

    I think her hands are full running her new venture now. Hope you are well :)

    • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

      Ah dear! Likewise David! :D

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