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Men'sWeek issue 05/23/2013

Editor’s Note: Think Tank is a periodic column written by industry leaders and other critical thinkers. Today’s column is written by award-winning men’s wear designer Joseph Abboud, chief creative director for Men’s Wearhouse Inc. and former president of HMX Group.

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This story first appeared in the May 23, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Recently, as I strolled up Madison Avenue to get a sense of what the stylish man on the street was wearing these days, a young thirtysomething model-type approached me sporting what appeared to be the latest, and supposedly the most fashionable, trend in men’s clothing: the skinny suit.

What a disaster! A true sartorial nightmare.

The suit, although it appeared to be expensive and well made, fit him terribly. The shoulders were much too small for his muscular frame, the chest bowed dramatically, the jacket length was so short that it looked disproportionate for his physique, and the trousers were so skimpy — barely reaching his ankles — that they gave the appearance of too much shrinkage from a bad dry-cleaning job. It might as well have been his Bar Mitzvah suit.

My point?

When a handsome, six-foot-two, well-built young man can’t wear what we cognoscenti tout as the next “must-have fabulous fashion fad,” then we as an industry can’t see the forest for the trees, or more appropriately, can’t figure out what to do with a beautiful fabric once we get our hands on it.

The good news is that young men are getting dressed up again and they are definitely buying suits. But every young guy isn’t five-foot-eight and 140 pounds, and every guy over 40 isn’t overweight, wanting yesterday’s baggy pleated pants and frumpy jacket. This is not about age at all, it’s about the right fit for the right body type. Men’s style, in general, is much more democratic than that, and any suit, no matter how modern or how current, needs to fit the body regardless of age, size or build.

For most men, a suit is an expensive proposition, an investment of sorts, and we who create them have an obligation to give them great quality, great style and, of course, great fit. The consumer trusts that we will do well by him and meet his needs while showing him new trends and ideas. Clearly, today’s suit is much trimmer and sleeker and should closely trace the body. And now with all the innovative fabric development from around the world, there should be a certain fluidity to a suit of clothes even with all the new contemporary silhouettes. Practically speaking, the beauty of the fabric is lost when a suit is too trim. Besides, one shouldn’t be able to read the numbers off your American Express card because your suit is so tight.

In the past, we have experienced what happens when we take fashion to the extreme. Take, for example, the monstrous shoulders from certain European suit brands of the late Eighties. They continued to grow larger and larger to the point where you had to turn sideways to get through a doorway. They simply couldn’t get any bigger before becoming grotesque, so things obviously had to move in the opposite direction. By pushing things too far, we created a boomerang effect that dramatically changed our view of where men’s fashion would be moving next.

And here’s a few other forgettable moments in our recent fashion history.

Men in skirts. Frankly, we just don’t have the legs for it, and what shoes would we wear? Thank God (or should I say, the Fashion Gods) that concept died more quickly than Mel Gibson in “Braveheart.”

And more recently, the color explosion. And, as we all know, explosions aren’t ever a very good thing. When every article in a man’s outfit is saturated color, right down to his shoelaces and the soles of his shoes, he looks more like an advertisement for some kid’s fruity cereal than a fashion trendsetter.

We could go on and on about our stylistic faux pas in men’s wear, but it proves one thing: Men’s fashion, unlike women’s, is never good in the extreme. In contrast to our female counterparts, we men operate with very specific ideas about our fashion wants and needs. Obviously, we are built differently, both literally and figuratively.

Men’s wear thrives best when good taste and restraint are interwoven with creativity and innovation. And that goes for the new slim suit that we have all been talking about for so long. It’s fantastic that we are creating more awareness and interest in the world of men’s fashion, especially for the newer, younger customer who now wants to buy suits, but it’s perfectly acceptable for us as an industry to give ourselves a reality check once in a while. There is, without a doubt, a very fine line between great personal style and fashion irrelevance, and it is our job as designers to help discern the difference.

For those of us who are old enough to remember, or for those of us who have only read about it in the ancient history of modern men’s fashion, let’s hope this isn’t another Nehru suit moment.

Boston native Joseph Abboud got his start in the fashion industry working for Louis Boston when he was 16. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts and studying at the Sorbonne, he joined Ralph Lauren in 1981, eventually becoming associate director of men’s wear design. He launched his own label in 1987 and was the first designer to win the CFDA award for best men’s wear designer two years in a row. After leaving HMX Group as president and chief creative officer last year, Abboud joined The Men’s Wearhouse Inc. as chief creative officer.

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