It’s All in the Fabric

Apparently, this Easter is colder than it normally is by 8 degrees Celsius and the British, as is their wont, have found the unseasonal cold snap utterly fascinating. It is, after all, the privilege of a nation with unquestionably appalling weather to vex about it ad nauseum.

I must admit, I too have indulged in this easy and self-pitying sport. However, my reflections on the weather have been somewhat different. Why, for instance, do we not wear thicker fabrics throughout the year? Why is it that men layer up to cartoonish levels to keep out a freezing wind?

The big answer is that the high street, of which I am a supporter and a happy advocate, is missing the kind of retailer sympathetic to style-inclined gentlemen who do not wish to don their down-filled ski gear merely to battle a harsh winter commute.

There was a time when heavy wool fabrics were available to all and sundry. You only have to feel the weight of some old OTR suits and jackets from the 1930s and 40s to realise that a winter wardrobe meant more than a woolly hat, scarf and a buttoned-up overcoat.

“The key advantage to those old suits” a tailor recently imparted to me “is that you can still be warm and keep an elegant silhouette. If you layer, you look like a fattened goose.” This is exactly right. With the right fabric selection, it is possible to look as svelte in a heavy wool flannel three-piece suit and double-breasted overcoat as it is in the late spring wearing a mid-blue Super 100s two piece.

However, nearly all of the men who adopt such practical clothing are able to use to services of a tailor. Heavy weight, and even some mid-weight, cloths are now only available when purchasing made-to-measure or bespoke suiting. I have an old mid-weight flannel suit bought from Marks & Spencer when I was at school. “You’d struggle to get this cloth on the high street now” another tailor said when I showed it to him. “Never mind natty patterns and all that – it’s the weight you can’t find anymore.”

Why is this? “Cost. It’s all about money” the tailor said, grinding his teeth and throwing me a knowing glance. This is not news of course. The titans of the high street have long been struggling with the increased cost of wool and, given that their business models require such a high profit margin, material is often the first thing to be downgraded in the manufacturing process. The other issue is that making thick suits is only practical for a small proportion of the globe. If you have a worldwide clothing empire, focusing on the peculiar needs of the chilly north – but a fraction of your global customer base – makes no sense. The best thing is to cheapen the material and ‘go neutral’ – choose the weight of fabrics that are going to appeal to the large ‘middle ground.’

What all this tells me is that the ‘chilly north’ is crying out for a high street business that, operating on a lower margin, makes smart OTR clothing for gentlemen who are not in a position to visit a tailor. Places like Massimo Dutti and Zara are all very well, but you could shoot peas through a lot of their fabrics – hardly surprising, given the southern European origins of these brands. If there was a northern European equivalent that made thick wool suits and smart double breasted overcoats, utilising the skills and unique fabrics made in the north of England – at scale – it would suggest that it would not only serve to engineer greater elegance and less shapeless layering but also the re-energisation of a region that once clothed the world.