Men who count are into jackets with more hardware ON THE BUTTON

October 27, 1994|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

In this season of polls -- on everything from sexual to presidential performance -- it seems appropriate to run a sampling on the state of male button-consciousness.

"How many buttons on your best suit?" we asked a bunch of guys within shouting and coffee pot distance.

With one natty exception, they looked down at their unsuited stomachs and started poking at possible button sites with their index finger. They'll have to do better.

Buttons are important in today's male fashion world, and that means the higher the count the higher the style. The average male, confident in some nice two-button single-breasteds and a snappy double-breasted number or two will have to develop a new awareness beyond noticing a missing brass button on a blazer .

Influential designers such as Armani and Dolce and Gabanna are pushing buttons, as many as six in single-breasted versions. That's for the cutting edge. The mainsteam trend is moving up from two to three, with some four-button versions for the man who's willing to push a little harder.

"We really never had a four-button single-breasted suit in my memory, which is a long one." says Jack Hershlag, executive director of the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers. "The pendulum in single-breasted swings between two and three. Now the mainstream is swinging to three buttons. The fashion segment may even go for as many as six buttons, but they are going for a look," he says.

"The real move from two to three buttons is a move from the '80s to the '90s. The '80s was a decade of the power tie, the power suit, showing off the shirtfront and the chest and muscle area. The focus was on strength, aggressive dealing, and along with that came fuller padding in the shoulder," he says.

It seems that buttons are changing the posture of men in today's society. "The '90s are more sensitive, you don't have to show a lot of muscle," says Mr. Herschlag, "by adding that third or fourth button, and even buttoning it up, men are showing less chest and a slimmer silhouette. They appear more closed, personal and sensitive, more intellectual."

Ralph Lauren has done the sensitive urban intellectual look better than most by styling men in high-buttoned grandfather vests and soft jackets with collar turned up against the freezing La Boheme garret. It's a stylish anti-fashion look for New York's Soho, or local coffee houses where the hip gather.

"The forward-ashion group with higher buttoning, likes to exagggerate and parody fashion as a way of living slightly different lives," says Mr. Hershlag.

"If you are going to button all the top buttons, you not only have a slimmer chest and wider bottom you are sending a message that you are a little cooler, sharper and smarter."

Where does that leave the guy who's not a poseur but wants to be smartly dressed? He can go an extra button.

Harvy Hyatt, owner of Hyatt & Co. stores says men are slowly getting the button message. "Three-buttons are selling. When we first got them in three years ago we had to fight them out of the store, customers were leery. Now they're moving," he says. "The three-button customer is the one coming from the more adventurous double-breasted crowd who wants a slightly different line."

Men who can remember the three-button sack suit of the '50s and whose middle may not be going along with slim thinking will be reassured that today's version has more ease and room to breathe. Those men may even be wondering what all the three-button fuss is about.

Brooks Brothers, makers of the original, is taking a relaxed attitude. Robert Squillaro, senior buyer for Brooks Brothers says their traditional three-button sack suit has a lapel designed to roll to the middle button for fastening. A new group called Soft Classics does address the trend and introduces a three-button model with a higher roll.

"Although we didn't reinvent the original sack suit which Brooks introduced for the Ivy League as a rebellion against the exaggerated fit of the '40s and '50s," he says, "we are still building softer relaxed tailoring."

It's a case of younger thinkers borrowing from the old guard. John Karl, a former Baltimorean who is now chairman of the menswear department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks a closed up look is more adventurous. That may come by way of being responsible for training young designers to look back to the future.

"Tell men to button up and take it like a man," he says. "When it comes to buttons, men should play the game. Fashion is fun. Fashion is change. Buy that five-button and wear it," he says. "If you play the fashion game you have to be willing for clothes to be disposable."

There remains that huge mainstream market, however, where showing too much fashion may be considered a character flaw.

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