Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling and the rise of the three-piece suit
Get a shot of inspiration with the FT Weekend bulletin - the best in life, arts and culture. Delivered every Saturday morning.
You can’t get Bradley Cooper out of them. Usher and Justin Timberlake are fans. Model David Gandy would “wear one every day if possible.” What is this wonderful thing? Believe it or not, it’s the three-piece suit. As the silhouette celebrates another birthday tomorrow, the anniversary of the day King Charles II introduced the waistcoat (known stateside as a vest) in 1666, brands from Brooks Brothers to Gieves & Hawkes are reporting a renaissance.
“The three-piece seems fresh, new and dashing,” says Gieves & Hawkes’ creative director Jason Basmajian. The brand currently has eight three-piece suit options (priced from £845 to £2,795) compared with two to three in previous seasons.
Guy Voglino, vice-president of men’s global merchandising at Brooks Brothers, reports that three-piece suit sales are trending 30 per cent higher than last year (at prices from £310 to £1,309). While at Saks Fifth Avenue, Eric Jennings, vice-president and fashion director for menswear, home and gifts, says the store is now buying at least one three-piece suit from each of the tailored clothing brands it carries. “Demand is up,” he says, adding that in the made-to-measure department, where he recently ordered two three-piece suits for himself, clients are requesting either a full three-piece or buying separate waistcoats that can be matched up with a sport coat and denim.
At Tom Ford three-piece suits featured in seven autumn collection looks, including the O’Connor (from £2,344), originally designed for Daniel Craig’s James Bond character in Skyfall but tweaked with a narrower lapel and shown not with a shirt and tie but a turtleneck. This season Alfred Dunhill has introduced a slimmer and more contemporary “Mayfair” three-piece (£2,316). And at Berluti, artistic director Alessandro Sartori designed his autumn collection around the three-piece suit, which comes in four, five and six-ply cashmere, angora, mohair and cheviot wool (from £3,503).
“Today’s modern three-piece suits have a look that says ‘I’ve arrived’ without looking like you stepped out of a 1980s Wall Street movie,” says Jim Moore, American GQ’s creative director. “You can look like you own the company or go to a rock concert in it.”
“I have guys who wear them because they feel like armour, and guys who wear them purely for the visual aspect,” says Miller’s Oath founder Kirk Miller, whose three-piece suits (from £2,649) are worn by bankers and young musicians alike. “They are a bit of a ‘thing’.”
In Hong Kong, three-piece suits are having a moment: they are a favourite of lawyers – in particular, barristers – where they are viewed as “a way to stand apart from the crowd, as the three-piece carries an air of gravity and sophistication that the discerning modern gentleman seeks,” says Jerry Tong, marketing manager with shirtmaker Ascot Chang.
It’s no accident, then, that the October issue of American GQ features British actor and singer Idris Elba clad in a three-piece Gucci suit. However, these classic cuts are not just for stars of the big screen or fashion pages.
According to Moore: “Because the three-piece holds a big place in iconic style history, guys feel a bit intimidated by it. They feel they can’t look like Gary Cooper – which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“What the vest allows you to do, style-wise, is take off your jacket and still look incredibly rakish and dressed, especially in a business environment.” With a waistcoat, dress shirts are less likely to come untucked, creases are hidden, posture is instantly improved, poorly-matched ties or wrong tie length are disguised and any visible stomach flab is all but gone.
“While we have multiple three-piece suits in the fall collection, we’ve also seen an interest in the vest as a [standalone] sportswear piece,” says Kurt & Curwen president Craig Reynolds, who recently opened a London shop at No 2 Savile Row – where three-piece suiting features prominently (from £1,057) – and will open a US flagship store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side early next year. “Men are looking at three-piece suits as an opportunity to use the vest in multiple ways.”
At Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, proprietor Patrick Grant reports such a demand for waistcoats that he has had to bring tailors out of retirement to cope with the orders. “Eight years ago, when I started at Norton & Sons, we made almost no three-piece suits,” he says. “Now, I’d say nearly one in five single-breasted suits is a three-piece.” Prices start at £4,400.
Michael Skinner, chairman of Dege & Skinner, one of the Row’s oldest bespoke tailoring houses, recently remarried wearing a Super 100 wool worsted lightweight Urquhart check and blue overcheck three-piece suit. “I have always liked three-piece suits – worn with braces, of course,” says the elder Skinner (son William is managing director). “The vest adds a style dimension. Plus it can serve as an office for one’s mobile phone, tickets, pens – and in my case, the all-important thimble.”
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published