28 June, 2009

Career Wear on a Budget (Part I: Men)

It's tough times for money right now, all around. Both businesses and consumers are feeling the crunch of the recession that we're (not for long) in. Of particularly devastating news to me personally is the difficulty that Coppley Apparel Group finds itself in currently. The American

division of Coppley has already filed for bankruptcy, and the Canadian arm of the operation may not be far behind. I had a conversation with a tailor that I've done some work with in the past, and the high-end clothier that she works for is not sure whether they'll actually receive their fall order from Coppley.

Never heard of Coppley? Take a look at their website- Coppley Apparel Group. Coppley is older than Canada itself- they began manufacturing garments circa the mid-1850s in Hamilton's commercial block (also one of the oldest pre-Confederation stone buildings in the country, and certainly one of the nicest). And yes, there is a reason that they've been around for so long. Coppley manufactures high-end goods of exceptional quality for prices that are comparatively cheap. And no, they're not outsourced (though I have nothing against overseas tailors and seamstresses, I prefer to keep the Canadians of considerable talent in this field employed). I realize that it sounds like I'm writing a plug for Coppley, but believe me when I tell you that's not really my intent. I'm simply venting on something that saddens me deeply. Coppley has tailored several made to measure garments for me, and simply put- I feel like a million bucks whenever I wear them. Speaking from personal experience, the security of knowing you look great translates into improved confidence in your professional dealings.

Of course this doesn't mean that you can throw on an expensive suit and sign the six-figure deal, or land your dream job. You do have to know your stuff. BUT if you know your stuff and you're nervous because you feel self-conscious or off your game... well, you might blow an important presentation/sales pitch or bollocks a meeting with a potential client. This has happened to me once or twice (thankfully, only once or twice) and trust me when I say that the feeling you get afterward really isn't a great one.

So, keep your fingers crossed for Coppley. If for no other reason, do it because I love their garments.

With that vent session complete, let's talk about how to look great on a budget. This blurb refers to buying an off-the-rack garment (also called a 'stock' garment because it is 'in stock'- not specifically made for you).

Always (and I do mean always) spend the extra money for proper tailoring of the top pieces for your professional-oriented outfit. For most people, this means pants and suit jacket (or sports coat, or blazer). A properly tailored jacket is not a box, but has a distinct shape. There are some specific gender differences in tailoring, so I've chosen to break it down by gender (why, you may ask? A. Because it makes sense and B. Because it's my blog. I own it. nyah-nah-nyah-nah-nyah-nyah)

For the Gentleman

  • Cuffed or plain bottom hem- either is acceptable, although a cuffed hem is becoming less common. Typically, you see cuffed hems with pleated-front pants. If you are short and stocky, avoid a cuffed hem (they break the clean, flowing line of a pant that provides the illusion of length in the leg)
  • Legs- if they billow out noticeably or seam (get it? Slap your knees, everyone) to move independently of your legs as you walk, request that the tailor taper the legs. Play this one by ear though, and ask your (hopefully knowledgable) sales associate for their opinion. FYI- If you're shopping for a suit in (shudder) Wal-Mart or Sears, you're on your own. Unless you hire me to come along for the ride, of course.
  • Waist- should sit comfortably around your midsection at the point where you prefer to wear your pants. If you can fit two fingers under the waistband (side-by-side, knuckles touching the small of your back), the waist of the pant should be comfortable. If you can fit two fingers under the waist band at the small of your back, and the pant falls down because you're not holding it.... well, then the pants are too big. The waistband CAN be altered independently from the seat of the pant- but not much. Ask your sales associate or the tailor for their opinion on what can and cannot be done with your particular garment.
  • Seat- Look at your posterior in a three-way or 360 degree mirror (while wearing the pants, of course). If you notice any unusual wrinkling or ANY puckering along your rear, something needs to be adjusted. The seat can be altered independently of the waist, but not by much. Again, ask a sales associate or the tailor for their opinion. Typically the waist and seat on a pant are altered together.
  • Rise (aka, the crotch)- pants tend to come in low-rise, regular-rise (sometimes called mid-rise), and long-rise (sometimes called high-rise). The rise is the distance between the lowest point in the crotch and the top of the waist band. The determining factor of the rise has little to do with the proportions of the body itself, and is almost solely determined by where the individual prefers to wear their pants. The 'true' waist on the male body is the point slightly below the navel where the midsection is at its slimmest (unless you're like me and enjoy steaks and imported draft). Generally speaking, younger men tend to wear their pants below the true waist, with the waistband sitting over the hips. This is fine if you're more comfortable with your pants sitting here, but it can create problems for proper fit in a stock pant. Stand about fifteen feet away from a mirror, and walk towards it at your normal pace. Observe your crotch area in the mirror as you walk (you can tell yourself that this isn't pure narcissism later). If the fabric bunches in an unnatural manner, or if you feel the fabric catching on your mid-thigh, the rise may be too long. Typically a rise can be shortened an inch without ruining the proper shape of the pant. If you're in doubt, ask the sales associate or tailor for their opinion. Also note that this alteration can ONLY be done on a tailored dress pant. Pants with thicker fabrics (denim, thick cotton khakis/Dockers) typically cannot be altered along the rise without ruining the shape and fit of the pant (and driving the tailor to drink).
  • The shirt cuff should rest comfortably at the breaking point of your wrist (where the wrist gets thicker as it becomes your hand). There should be minimal bunching of fabric along the arm- if there's noticeable bunching, have the tailor shorten the sleeves of the shirt (this can usually only be done a couple of inches or so- if its still too long, try a shorter size. Dress shirts are sized independently by the neck and sleeve length). FYI, when you raise your arms up over your head, the shirt cuff will ride up your arm. That's normal (I know, it seems silly to mention... but if I had a nickel for every person who raised their arms up in front of me and said 'SEE, it rides up!'...). The obvious exception to this is if you were playing a zombie in a movie, and walked around with your arms in the air all the time. Which begs the question, if you were a zombie.... why would you be wearing a suit? Far be it for me to question the infinite wisdom of Hollywood, mind you.
  • If the shirt billows out noticeably at the waistband when you tuck it in, the shirt is either too big for you (ask the friendly-looking person with the nametag to fetch you the proper size) or the cut is very boxy, and you are not. If the latter is the case, there are a couple of remedies- have the tailor take in the side seams (giving the shirt some shape and removing excess fabric while maintaining the original look) or have the tailor dart the shirt (this also removes some of the excess fabric, but two seam lines are added at the lower back which will be visible. This is not necessarily unappealing, however. With matching or colour-complementary thread, these seam lines can become an interesting detail to the shirt).
  • If a shirt looks and feels great but the collar is too tight on your neck when you do up the top button, ask the tailor to move the button for you. This can typically be done up to one half an inch. If its very hot outside and you've just come into an air conditioned space, browse the store for five or ten minutes before trying anything on. Heat tends to make blood vessels relax, which causes slight swelling in the extremities: most noticeably the neck and fingers.
  • Barrel-chested or broad-shouldered men should typically look for shirts without back or shoulder pleats, as they tend to pull to the sides while you move. This is noticeably pronounced on men who are 'top-heavy.'
  • The length and the girth actually do matter.
  • A man who is very tall (over 6'1) will generally require a long-length necktie (usually carried only by specialty stores or "Big & Tall" retailers. Men in the 5'10-6'1 range may also require a long-length tie if they have a long torso, or wear their pants lower than true waist. How to tell? If you can't tie a proper knot and have the point of the necktie touching the top of your belt buckle, try a long-length necktie.
  • Here's an interesting problem: you can tie a proper knot, the point of the tie touches the top of the belt buckle, but the small end of the tie is too short to be tucked into the tie loop, and begins to peek out from behind your necktie at the most inopportune of moments. There are three solutions to this conundrum. First, tuck it into your shirt between two buttons (but be aware that there will be a slight bulge, and it still may not be completely hidden). Second, buy a tie clip or tie tack (which will leave a hole in the necktie, VERY noticeable on light-coloured or solid-patterned neckties). Third, have the tailor move the tie loop up four to six inches (every single necktie I own has been altered in this fashion).
  • There are a variety of necktie widths on the market right now, as we seem to be in a fashion transition back towards 'skinny' neckties. The advantage of this is that you can purchase a width that suits your body composition. Generally speaking, men who have a wide torso should look for the wider neckties, while men who are slender should look for the slimmer neckties. Skinny ties tend to look a bit off on larger men, as they only serve to highlight your midsection. The inverse is true for slender men- wider neckties look a bit off because they accentuate your slim stature.
  • A last note on neckties: NEVER purchase what is known as a "footballer's" necktie. These neckties can be as thick as six inches at the widest point and, simply put, make most men look foolish.
Suit Jacket (or Sport Coat, or Blazer, or Unconstructed Sport Coat....)
  • Don the jacket, and do up the button(s) (EXCEPT the bottom button. NEVER do up the bottom button. Why? Because it looks silly to people who know the rule. And you, dear reader, now know the rule. Oh, and the real reason why you never do up the bottom button is because it distorts the drape of the jacket- changing the shape and making it look funny. But I bet that you'll remember my first explanation and forget the second one).
  • First, examine the bottom of the jacket and your proportions in the mirror. Stock jackets generally come in three different lengths- short, regular, and tall (specialty shops carry extended size ranges such as extra short or extra tall/long). A jacket (with the exception of some tuxedo styles) should typically be no longer than the upper-half of your thigh. This is subjective though, so ask the sales associate or tailor for their opinion. The jacket body can be shortened, but usually no more than an inch or two. And it is quite costly- this is one of the most expensive alterations that can be made to a stock garment (for men, anyway).
  • Next, examine the the sleeves of the jacket. They should fall between that knobby bone and the breaking point of the wrist- the rest is personal preference. On the subject of preference, I prefer to have the jacket sleeves tailored so that the shirt cuff shows (1/4 to 1/2 an inch for a regular cuff, and to 1/4 inch above the top of the link for a french/double cuff).
  • Now examine the body of the jacket. With your arms resting comfortably at your sides, there should be some space visible between the sleeves and the jacket body at the midsection. If the inside of the jacket sleeve and the body of the jacket blend together, have the tailor taper the jacket body. This can be done a few different ways (two seams, three seams, "V" or straight taper), and the sales associate or tailor will be best-equipped to make this determination.
  • Finally, turn around in a three-way or 360 degree mirror and examine the shoulders and back of the jacket. Don't look over your shoulder, this will distort the shape of the jacket- instead, use the sides of the mirror like you would use the side-view mirror in your car. If there is any puckering or bunching at the shoulders below the neck, the jacket will require a collar roll, lower and square, or 'bananas' (a collar roll on steroids). The sales associate or tailor will make the determination on the best method to follow (personally, because it is such a finicky alteration, I would request that the tailor examine the jacket. Unless your sales associate is grey-haired and VERY knowledgeable).
  • A last note on the suit jacket- if anything looks a little 'off' in the way the jacket fits, simply ask about it. Most experienced salespeople and any tailor worth their salt will be able to suggest a remedy to fix the problem (they may not always be right on the first try, however. Sometimes unusual alterations require a little trial and error- this does not mean that the person you deal with is poor at their job).
  • Another last note on the suit jacket- a jacket which costs $150 will not fit as well or be as comfortable as a jacket which costs $1500. When purchasing, recognize that there are some limitations on fit set by the cost of the jacket. In other words, don't nitpick every little detail of an inexpensive jacket to death. Settle for the basic alterations which improve the overall appearance of the outfit and go home happy.
And those, dear reader, were the basics of alterations and the fit of a suit- I could go into much more detail on the subject. Several years experience working in a menswear store have taught me that there is nothing simple about as simple a thing as fit.

So, how else to we purchase career wear on a budget? Look for deals. Most retailers tend to discount garments in the off-season of the collection they were part of. For instance, spring/summer collections tend to be discounted in the fall (August/September). You can normally find great deals by shopping to the off-season, but be aware that you won't necessarily find a great selection of sizes. For the best selection, you should shop for current season goods. One upside of the current recession for you is that retailers have been stuck with a glut of inventory because people are shopping less frequently, and spending less money per visit. Profit margins in retail tend to evaporate if an item is stuck on a shelf (or table) in a store for too long. Thus, right now you should be able to find great deals on both off-season and current season garments anywhere you go.

When purchasing an outfit on a budget, NEVER cheap out on the eye-catching accessory item (necktie, bow tie, ascot, or even necklace if acceptable within your work environment). This item will draw the most attention from your colleagues and supervisors (not to mention the cute receptionist at the front desk/foyer/boss' office- which reminds me... SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS BAD. Avoid at all costs. If necessary, run away screaming with your arms flailing in the air above your head. But if you do this, make sure your boss is on lunch).

Expect to pay at least $40 (regular price) for a decent-quality necktie that won't make your outfit look cheap. For any American readers, that's currently about.... well, $40. Treat this $40 benchmark as a bare minimum. A good portion of my neckties fall in the $80-$150 range (regular price). And that represents about the market midrange. Neckties can go for $300, $400, even $500 (though this price point is somewhat rare). Seems like a lot of money for not a lot of fabric, right? That makes sense, if you look at a necktie as a commodity based only on its size. The best neckties are hand tailored from high quality silk, imported from Asia or the Mediterranean. Silk is an expensive-sounding fabric, we all associate the word 'silk' with the sound 'cha-ching.'

But what makes silk so expensive? Well, to start- silk comes from worms. Not just any worms either- a very specific variety indigenous to parts of Asia. In commercial production of silk, the moths lay eggs on a specially prepared paper. These eggs then hatch, and the caterpillars (silkworms) are fed fresh mulberry leaves. After thirty-five days and four moltings, the caterpillars are significantly heavier than when they first hatched, and are ready to begin spinning a cocoon. A straw frame is placed over the tray of caterpillars, and each caterpillar begins spinning a cocoon by moving its head in a figure-eight pattern. The silkworm produces liquid silk, which solidifies on contact with the air. After a few days, the caterpillar has spun about 1600 metres of filament, and is completely encased in a cocoon. From here, the filaments are unravelled and woven into a textile to be dyed and textured. Silk doesn't exactly grow on trees, as you can see- it's far more expensive to produce than the majority of fabrics.

PS- silkworms are not pretty creatures (look right and up). Kind of ironic that such luxurious, beautiful fabric comes from such unappealing creatures. Such is the work of man, I suppose (or woman- I'm not a rabid sexist. Honest).

If you have a $100 budget to spend on a shirt and tie, spend sixty on the tie and forty on the shirt (shift that ratio up or down as you wish). The shirt is covered by your jacket a lot of the time anyway, and doesn't draw nearly as much attention as your necktie will (most people would tend to spend more on the shirt than the necktie, without realizing the devastating effect this can have on your outfit as a whole).

So, how do you decide exactly how much to spend on purchasing an outfit? Step one is look at your bank account (hopefully not empty) and your credit account (hopefully not maxed out). If you have some money to play with, follow the one percent rule.

Every outfit that you wear on a workday should be worth around 1% of your annual pre-tax salary (or your desired annual pre-tax salary, for the up and comer). You can save money by purchasing items that work with multiple outfits. For example, a light blue dress shirt that will work with a navy suit and a black suit. Or, a camel-coloured pair of dress shoes that will look sharp with an espresso-coloured or light grey suit. Or, a necktie with a few complementary colours that tie in with a few different dress shirts. You get my drift, right?

Tomorrow comes part two of career wear- just for women (or maybe the next day- I'm out pitching a documentary to television production companies most of the day; yes I'm a man who wears many hats. Literally and figuratively speaking).

1 comment:

  1. Did you know that you ranted about silkworms for several paragraphs? :)