The Suit Is Back in Business

And now, it's sporting more colors and patterns

Business casual had its day, and sure, it was fun. But now, the suit is not only starting to feel right again, it has returned in full force at companies that have reinstituted formal dress codes, among them investment banks Lehman Brothers (LEH ) and Bear Stearns (BSC ).

If you're venturing into the suit department for the first time in years, you'll find some changes. In a market long dominated by black and gray, new colors are coming into vogue, particularly seasonal tones. Plaids and stripes appear with greater frequency. Fabrics often have texture woven in. More choices? Sure. But there is a return to a classic look that is easy to update.

THE SUIT. Both two- and three-button jackets are appropriate; what you select should be more a matter of which looks better on you. They're also somewhat fitted, not boxy. Both single- and double-vented jackets are popular, with perhaps an edge going to double-vented. Lapels remain relatively narrow at 3 1/2 to 4 inches, and in the classic style, the notch will tend to be higher, rather than lower.

The most popular shoulder treatments are "soft" and "semi-rope." On a larger man, a soft shoulder is better, says Fred Derring, CEO of New York-based DLS Outfitters, who consults with independent men's specialty stores. "A thinner guy would look better in semi-rope because it gives him more shoulder," thanks to a little padding in the cap of the sleeve.

Double-breasted may still be the ultimate power suit, and several designers are bringing it back. It has "a dignity, a certain `I've arrived' look," says Clifford Grodd, president and CEO of Paul Stuart in New York. But it loses points on comfort. The jacket must be worn buttoned, he says, or it will look sloppy.

Suit fabrics are the big story. The new ones bow to tradition and then go a step further. A pinstripe will have two colors, not one. Accents of blue are showing up, Derring says. A chalk stripe may have the faintest hint of color, such as pink. Flannels have sophisticated, subtle patterns. Glen plaids, which started showing up for fall, will be a bigger option for spring. Windowpanes--a chalk or pinstripe woven in a 2-inch grid pattern--look classic and new at the same time. Nails-head fabrics are bi-color; the lighter color shows up as a tiny dot. For a basic look, Brooks Brothers uses a 100% wool stretch fabric, made without spandex, in a line of suits in the $600 price range.

You shouldn't buy any suit jacket that doesn't fit you perfectly around the neck, without gaps, and in the shoulders. Otherwise, the suit will require a substantial amount of tailoring and quite likely will still not fit you properly. Problems below the shoulder are easier to correct. Most men wear pleated trousers, which as a rule, should always have cuffs. If you favor flat-front slacks, remember: No pleats means no cuffs, either.

THE SHIRT. You may have the most fun in the shirt department. People will look at your shirt and tie even before they look at your suit. "One of the biggest mistakes is buying cheap shirts to go with an expensive suit," says Andrew Kozinn, president of Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors in New York. You're better off if you focus on great-looking shirts.

Dark colors aren't as popular in shirts as they were several years ago, says Colby McWilliams, vice-president and men's fashion director at Dallas-based Neiman Marcus. And lots of men are buying more white shirts this season.

Blue is still the No. 1 color in solids, Derring says, including the deeper French blue. "We think that will continue, but the new additions will be stripes and tattersalls." To see stripes and checks in their most creative iterations, take a look at shirts by Thomas Pink, Turnbull & Asser, Charvet, and Borrelli--but brace yourself for price tags from $125 to $325. Button-down and English spread collars are still the most popular. French cuffs are great for a dressier look, but button cuffs are fine if you don't like cuff-links. The fabric: 100% cotton, of course.

THE TIE. The lavish $100-plus silk print ties such as those by Hermes and Ferragamo are still hot. But some of the freshest looks are textured fabrics with stripes, woven patterns, and dots. Conservative suits look great with bright ties. For bolder suits, ties in subtle colors with woven patterns can play off the jacket nicely.

In the end, details make the difference between the suit-as-uniform and the suit that shows off your personal style. If you're replenishing your wardrobe, "look at interesting ties and shirts with patterns to set you apart and give you a more updated look," says Robert Burke, vice-president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

You can match checked shirts with plaid or striped suits, for instance, or checked shirts with patterned ties. And brown shoes do make it with gray and navy suits. How do you develop an eye for this? Mainly, it just takes practice. To start, pick combinations that appeal to you and don't hesitate to ask a salesperson for help.

Buying a good suit is an investment, says Paul Stuart's Grodd. "Look at people in your industry, and if you see something you like, ask where they get their stuff," he advises. "Walk around. Shop. Look at other customers. Buying clothing should be unique, exciting, fun."

Clothiers are unanimous on one point: Don't dry clean your suits often. Use a clothes brush instead. The payoff: "There's nothing more dashing than an elegant, sophisticated suit," Grodd says. Can't argue with that.

By Christine Summerson

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