Every workday, scores of businessmen go through the motion of putting on a dark suit and tie. These men end up looking almost indistinguishable from every other guy—and that’s part of the problem.
For the man who wants to stand out, but not stick out, there are ways both subtle and bold to inject personality into a suit-and-tie look without prompting gawks from the office peanut gallery.
The trick is navigating how much to push the personalization. The look must be comfortable and confident, never forced or affected. Taken too far a man risks being accused of having a mid-life crisis or becoming a slave to fashion.
Popular in the big-shouldered ’80s, the double-breasted suit is mounting a comeback.
“Personalizing your suit demonstrates confidence and creativity,” says David Lisbon, a menswear personal shopper at Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship store.
Men just starting their careers may see the suit-and-tie thing as restrictive, a capitulation to a future of being just another bland man in a gray flannel suit. Older men may want to add some personal flair to their old standard.
Robin Walker, a Chicago-based image strategist, says her average client is 45 to 60 years old: “They are bored wearing the same old stuff,” she says. “It may be stress-free and a no-brainer but they are tired of looking at it.”
At the men’s fashion shows in Europe late last month, some designers showed suits accessorized with gauzy scarves, T-shirts, sandals and even shorts.
Still, a man has to know when to say what’s right and what’s not for him—and avoid being a slave to outré runway looks.
Often, personalizing a suit just involves small tweaks and accessories. That can mean something that isn’t immediately apparent to others, like a barely there pocket square. Or a leather braided or beaded bracelet worn just above the watch, recommends Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “When you’re reaching for your glass of wine or fork, [others] will see a flash of it.” Mr. Jennings says he noticed a number of men wearing such bracelets last month in Italy, where he was attending menswear shows.
Another way to personalize a suit is with a custom belt, suggests Mr. Lisbon. The Trafalgar label, for example, has a program in which shoppers choose belt color, leather type, buckle and monogram style.
When it comes to cufflinks, going whimsical and quirky is acceptable, says Mr. Lisbon, so long as the designs aren’t objectionable or offensive (no pin-up girls). Cufflinks can add a hint of color and humor to a more conservative look and also reflect the wearer’s off-work interests with, say, a golf motif or images of sailboats.
A pocket square is an easy way to distinguish a suit. “It’s a small thing but it does speak volumes,” sending the message you care about the way you present yourself, says Mr. Jennings.
“Don’t get hung up on the proper way to fold it,” he adds. “There is no right or wrong way.” Mr. Jennings notes that the Brunello Cucinelli label showed pocket squares folded in a number of different ways at a recent trade show.
The perfect suit watch is an equal mix of conservative and trendy, says Mr. Lisbon. He recommends a Frederique Constant model that is rose gold, which is popular right now, but is otherwise understated. While it can be worn with many suits, “it just oomphs up the classic khaki suit,” he says.
Ms. Walker says it’s OK to be a bit adventurous with the watch, choosing one that has a bolder face or evokes a certain time period. “It means [others] will have something to talk about when they shake your hand.”
Leather bracelets, called wristlets, can be worn above a watch for a personalized look. Ms. Walker says one of her clients, who is more rock’n’roll when off the clock, wears a skull and crossbones bracelet under his suit to reflect that part of his personality.
She approves. “The outside of the suit is for everybody else, the inside is for you,” she says.
The double-breasted suit, popular in the big-shouldered ’80s, is mounting a comeback. It was all over the runways at the recent spring 2012 men’s shows in Europe and the July issue of GQ featured a double-breasted suit jacket on its cover for the first time since 1998. The look can give off a yacht captain or Masters of the Universe vibe without attention to a man’s accessories. One key to personalizing the double-breasted suit (Z Zegna, $1,275, above), Bloomingdale’s David Lisbon says, is to invest in a newer model that’s slimmed down with four buttons rather than the typical six or more. Since the jacket covers more chest than a single-breasted, adding a lot of color with the tie (Turnbull & Asser, $185) and pocket square (Duchamp, $85) is the crucial play. A briefcase bag (Salvatore Ferragamo, $990), rather than a traditional boxy briefcase, also diffuses the stuffiness.
In some people’s minds, a khaki suit (the Men’s Store Bloomingdale’s, $350) can come off as Dockers-casual. While it’s less formal than a wool suit, there are ways to personalize it to hit a sweet spot between basic-dressy and sporty. One way: Ditch the tie and focus on the shirt color, says Bloomingdale’s David Lisbon. This bold purple-and-white check patterned shirt (Eton, $245), makes for a sophisticated, office-appropriate look. Other company men will wear their khaki suit with a tie, so going without will appear unique in a good way. Add a simple white sneaker (Jack Purcell for Converse, $80), as opposed to an athletic sneaker, to ‘make it a little bit more summery nice,’ Mr. Lisbon says. For the man who’s just not a sneakers-guy, he recommends a slip-on loafer in some shade of brown. Adding a sleek, soft, attaché-style brown leather bag (Jack Spade, $375) ‘dresses up the suit a tad,’ Mr. Lisbon adds.
In the wrong hands, a seersucker suit (Hugo Boss, $795) can look like a costume from the old-timey South—one reason some men find seersucker hard to pull off. The key to owning this look is to make the warm-weather Southern fixture more urbane, starting with the shoes. ‘You’re taking something classic and adding edge to it with a nice brown monkstrap, with or without a sock,’ says Bloomingdale’s David Lisbon. The shoe (Bruno Magli, $570) also helps dress up the seersucker. A simple pocket square—seersucker already makes enough of a statement so no need to go wild—adds a touch of formality, while the slim cotton tie (The Men’s Store Bloomingdale’s, $59.50) keeps the look relaxed and balanced. Another modernizing accessory is a backpack (Prada, $830) with a top handle so it can be carried by hand to a meeting, without wrinkling the jacket shoulder.
The New Navy
For the man who wants to project to the wider world that he is conservative but signal to intimates that he has some style tricks up his sleeves, start with a navy suit (Canali, $1,695). Whimsical light-blue cufflinks (Jenny Knott, $350) stay in the blue family but add a pop of color that mostly will be noticed by people in direct contact with the wearer. Socks (Duchamp, $35) are another opportunity to sneak in some personal style, says Bloomingdale’s David Lisbon. ‘He can be very conservative on top but show personal flair on the bottom.’ Mr. Lisbon recommends a tie bar, ‘which adds that extra layer of sophistication.’ Look for one with some texture or engraving (Burberry, $150). For shoes, Mr. Lisbon prescribes moving away from the expected lace-up with a simple loafer with a modern edge, and less of a rounded toe. A loafer (Salvatore Ferragamo, $570) also tends to be lower in the front, a better way to flash a bit of fun sock color.
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