Many of us aspire to one day own a walk-in wardrobe of suits, like Wilson Fisk in Daredevil (Kevlar lining optional). But we’re often in the dark as to how to get there, beyond becoming a shadowy kingpin of the criminal underworld. For others, suits are a necessary evil: an insurance policy for professional and social occasions that you want to spend the bare minimum on.
Whichever camp you fall into, allow us to illuminate you. This is the FashionBeans guide to building a suit wardrobe. Not in the IKEA sense, with the whimsical (read: infuriating) illustrations and missing parts. More along the lines of what to buy first, and in what order, to most economically cover your event bases and get maximum bang for your tailoring buck.
It’s all killer suits, no filler.
1. The Plain Navy Two-Button
Not so much the workhorse of your tailoring wardrobe as the poor, put-upon donkey that moves animal rights charities to launch a nationwide TV appeal. If you buy just one suit, make it a plain navy two-button with a notch lapel. You won’t get more use out of anything else.
Especially if you choose a middleweight fabric – around 11-12oz – so that you can wear it all year round. Don’t be swayed, though, by high Super numbers – a measure of the material’s fineness. ‘Super’ sounds good, right? And the more ‘Super’, the finer, more expensive and therefore better?
Not necessarily. Suits made from high Super fabrics (that’s Super 150s and above) might be light and luxurious – but they’ll also wrinkle more, making them unsuitable for daily use. ‘Fine’ also means ‘delicate’. So if this is your first – or only – suit, then you’re likely to blow through it after a couple of months of continuous wear. Stick instead to around the 100 mark for a sound mix of affordability and durability.
(Related: Everything you need to know about suit farbics)
On a related note, buy two pairs of trousers if you can. Yes, it’s an extra expense. But it’s a relatively small one compared to the overall cost of the suit, not to mention buying another one, and you’ll vastly increase your return on investment: it’s almost always the trousers that wear out first. Either that, or one day you’ll wind up with an odd blazer.
Speaking of which, a textured fabric, like a hopsack, birdseye or even a light flannel, enables you to wear the jacket and trousers as suit separates with the rest of your wardrobe. (This does not, however, work with generic shiny worsted wool, so don’t try it. Ever.) Details like patch pockets and contrast buttons help in this regard, although they’ll also make the suit slightly more casual.
Your other workhorse. The cavalry. Just when your navy was about to give up the ghost, grey rides to the rescue, like Gandalf at Helm’s Deep. (OK, technically he was white by then, but you get the idea.)
All of the above rules still apply when it comes to cut and fabric. However, as you’re doubtless aware, there are a few shades of grey out there. As a general rule of thumb, charcoal skews formal and wintry, while light grey is more casual and summery. A mid-grey will give you the most scope for day-in, day-out, year-round wear. Ideally, you want to choose a shade – and a fabric – with mileage, such that you can wear the trousers with your navy jacket and vice versa.
Until these foundations of your suit wardrobe are in place, avoid patterns like a plague of ravenous cashmere-chomping moths. Nobody will notice that you wore the same navy or grey suit for two or three days out of the week. Whereas nobody will miss you repeating that Prince of Wales check.
3. The Dark DB
It’s at this point that American style guides will recommend a summer-ready khaki (i.e. beige-coloured) suit in lightweight cotton. But as somebody who has bought one of these and literally never, ever worn it, you do not need one. Especially if, like this writer, you’re based in the rainy UK.
You may have also read articles that advocate a pattern: maybe a windowpane check, or a pinstripe. And sure, they’re nice to have. But nobody needs a pinstripe, unless you’re a banker who still eschews lunch breaks. Instead, we’re making a case for the dark double-breasted as your dark horse: specifically, a dark grey or navy that’s close to midnight blue, maybe even with a bit of a sheen, like a mohair, and peak lapels.
Allow us to explain. A dark DB is versatile enough to enter your everyday rotation. But with the shape, sheen and sharp peak lapels, it’s also got a bit of swagger about it for those times you need to wear a suit but don’t want to look like you came straight from the office – e.g. ‘cocktail attire’ invitations and weddings. Just make sure the cut is trim and not too long in the jacket.
(Related: The modern man’s guide to dress codes)
Already got a dark DB? Then feel free to start splurging on patterned suits. Or alternatively…
4. The Dinner Suit
OK, this might be more controversial still. But the sartorial dons at Thom Sweeney once told us that a dinner suit is often what they recommend their bespoke clients to invest in after navy and grey (and maybe a solid overcoat) – and we can see the wisdom in it.
Think about it. Black tie invitations may be few and far between – as infrequent as one a year, even. But they will come, with increasing regularity as you get older. And when they do come, they’re invariably for occasions when you want to look – and feel – your most confident best: a work party, a wedding, a long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor. They’re not times when you want to don an ill-fitting hire suit that reeks of the soaked-in sweat of a hundred other uncomfortable men before you.
If you’re buying off-the-peg, then you could get your money’s worth after as few as two or three wears. And look at it the other way. How often could you wear a dinner suit? Instead of fudging those ‘black tie optional’ invitations, you could boss them. You could don ‘black tie creative’ for parties even when the invitation doesn’t call for it. If the jacket is cut slim and a tad short, you could even wear it with jeans and a T-shirt on a night out.
The point is that if you have a great tux that fits you like a (possibly velvet) glove, then you’ll find excuses to wear it. And you’ll probably get a lot more invitations as a result.
Have we listed all the must-have suits – and in the right order? Or do you think a seersucker two-piece is an essential for any respectable gentleman (not just southern)?
Say what you need to in the comments below.
Formerly online style and grooming editor at GQ, Jamie Millar is a contributing editor to Men’s Health and a correspondent for outlets such as Mr Porter, Amuse and The Gentleman’s Journal. (Follow him on Instagram @mrjamiemillar.)
With a frankly alarming number of years’ experience under his waistband, he’s equally comfortable dispensing advice about classic style or high fashion, Swiss watches or fitness and nutrition – because he’s probably wearing (tailored) sweatpants while he does so.