There's an old cliche that says that fashion goes out of fashion, but style never does.
If you're a man ready to embark on an autumn search for a new business suit or sport jacket, that nugget of wisdom can guide you toward fall clothes that are both timeless and sophisticated.
The quest for sartorial perfection, however, goes beyond choosing style over this season's fashion. Yet many men shopping for a new suit get flustered by a blur of color, shape and fabric -- and a crucial element often gets neglected.
It's the subtle art of acquiring the proper fit.
"Fit very often can make or break the way you appear," says Glenn Christenson, director of advertising for Jos. A. Bank. "Quality clothing that doesn't fit looks no better than poor-quality clothing that does fit."
Because the suit is the uniform of business, fit is even more important for managers and professionals, adds Gordon Ashby, manager of Brooks Brothers. "The better the suit fits, the more respect you get from people," he says. "It gives you a neater, crisper appearance. A good-fitting suit makes you look like you take your job seriously."
Men who attend to the nuances of drape, length and proportion reap another reward: A suit that fits well not only looks better, it feels better, too.
"When you're in business and going to an important meeting, you want to feel especially good," says Howard Shapiro, owner of George Howard Ltd. in Cross Keys. "People should look at you in a suit and say, 'You look terrific.' Then you don't have to make any excuses about yourself."
While it's true that a man looks assured and feels sensational in a perfectly fitted suit, locating one isn't as easy as grabbing a size-40 regular off the rack. If it were that simple, everyone in a business suit would look suave, poised and comfortable. The human body, however, just won't cooperate.
"A stock suit is made to fit everybody in that size, but not everyone has the same build," says Elio Casalena, a tailor with 28 years' experience. "Because everybody must fall into a short, regular or long length, the seat on a stock suit often can be baggy or the thighs too large."
The solution? A custom suit made to your exact measurements, suggests Mr. Casalena, fashion consultant for the English American Tailoring Co. in Westminster. With 340 employees, the firm is one of the largest custom-suit manufacturers in the United States.
"When we make a custom suit, we coordinate everything to your measurements," Mr. Casalena says. "We don't adjust a suit made for someone else. That's because every little imperfection in a man's build shows if it's a stock suit -- or a custom suit that's not fitted properly."
Yet for reasons of cost and convenience, most men purchase suits that are pre-manufactured. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred -- men buy off-the-rack suits and have them tailored," says Leonard Kronsberg, manager of the Rothschild's Clothing store in Pikesville.
The purchase of a stock suit, however, doesn't necessarily condemn the wearer to a sloppy, ill-fitting garment. While the flawless fit of a custom suit usually isn't possible with an off-the-rack version, you can get close: With a little knowledge, the right attention to detail and some expert alterations, a stock suit can mimic the flow, drape and proportion of a custom model.
Let some Baltimore-area clothing experts tell you how it's done. First things first: When shopping for an off-the-rack suit, it's important to know what a tailor can't alter. "When trying on a suit, first look at the fit across the shoulders and chest," Mr. Shapiro says. "That's something that can't be changed in a jacket -- the top has to fit right. If it doesn't fit there, the jacket is the wrong size."
Here's a test to determine if the jacket fits: The shoulder should be smooth and not show any bumps, says Tom Jackson, director of retail training at Jos. A. Bank. "And the front of a coat should lay smoothly across the chest, with no pulls or wrinkles showing when it's buttoned," he adds. "From the back, the collar should fit snugly without bunching. A slight gap can be fixed, but if the collar is standing away from the neck, the jacket is the wrong size."
For proper sleeve length on a jacket, make sure a quarter-inch of shirt sleeve shows at the cuff, says Brooks Brothers' Mr. Ashby. And to assure the jacket is the correct length? "Stand with your arms at your side and your fingers bent, creating a groove," he recommends. "That's where you want the edge of the coat to fall."
Here's another rule for determining proper jacket length: "Have the salesman measure from the bottom of the collar to the bottom of the coat," Mr. Ashby says. "It should be the same as the bottom of the coat to the floor. A variation of a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch is OK, so long as the coat covers your butt."