Mirror, Mirror | Less suitable for Americans

Svelte European styles have made headway with U.S. men, but current slim-cut suits may not fit their bigger bodies.

Posted: August 12, 2007

At 5 feet, 7 inches and 185 pounds, Mark Lee is a normal-sized guy. He has broad shoulders and he runs marathons, so he has a pretty athletic build.

Lee, 33, is an attorney - they're some of the best-dressed men in Philadelphia. He likes to be dapper in the courtroom, so he makes a point of keeping up with the latest trends.

For American men this fall, that's the slightly shrunken, heavily tailored suit a la Thom Browne, Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Samuelsohn, and Hugo Boss. In fact, you could say that this year's all-American look in menswear and sportswear is quite European.

It's just that this European trend has an American-size wrinkle: Many of our guys are simply too big to wear the style.

"I like the slimmer cuts," says Lee, who has three of the suits, each with flat-front pants and a tailored jacket that he hesitantly purchased from Hugo Boss in King of Prussia.

"The problem is that some of the suits I try on that have more of a European cut don't work because they don't fit my shoulders. That's when I have to go a size up and a good tailor comes in."

It took a while for body-skimming men's apparel to become accepted in macho circles, let alone popular. But after two years of "I don't know about that guy" and "That looks kinda, well, uh . . . not masculine," ultra-tailored suits and separates are catching on.

According to NPD Market Research group, the tailored look has momentum behind it.

Sales of tailored clothing at boutiques have peaked, and are already on their way down. However, mass merchants (the Targets and Kmarts of the world) saw a 31 percent jump in units of men's tailored clothing sold, from 8 million to 10.5 million, from June 2006 to May 2007.

Like American women, American men have been getting bigger. On average, the men are 5 feet, 9 inches and 191 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than they were in the 1960s (the last time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a study).

It's no wonder that these bigger guys are having a harder time getting into a slim suit.

"Slim-cut suits are nice," said 30-year-old Marcus Woodson, another Center City attorney, a fan of Hickey Freeman and Joseph Abboud's two- and three-button suits.

"But the problem is their availability in larger sizes. I'm 6 feet, 2 inches and 260 pounds. I'm not going to get into a slim cut."

With American men being so, well, beefy, why do designers continue to make clothes small?

Globalization plays a role, as designers such as Tommy Hilfiger decided they needed to expand their market after years of lagging sales. Another reason is that companies such as LaCoste - which hired French designer Christophe Lemaire - are returning to their European roots.

And fashions overall have become edgier, with sharper silhouettes. Forget oversized shirts and polos; now it's Paul Smith, a London-based menswear line, that's popular in fashion circles. Meanwhile, Italian lines like Etro, Gucci and Emporio Armani continue to dominate the specialty menswear marketplace.

And what's popular in the specialty shops always trickles down to Target and even Men's Wearhouse. Which means that men, most of whom ignore trends far longer than women, will eventually have to try something new.

Many of them like it.

"My most recent suits are slimmer, most definitely," said Justin Fine, another attorney whose specialty is sports management. He just bought a Jos. A. Banks slim suit.

"But I'm a smaller guy. It just works for me."

Others, like Lee, have to be more creative.

"Once I tried the suit on and got the pants altered, I like the way it looks," Lee says. "I feel like an adult, not a kid wearing my father's suits that are just too big."

Salesmen at both Distante and Boyds said they are putting Philadelphia men in the suits. The trick, they say, is the tailoring.

"We make sure the jackets are shaped so they aren't boxy," said Baba T. Renfrow, managing partner at Distante. "A lot of guys are bigger on top and smaller in the bottom, so we put them in a jacket that fits and taper the sides down to a V to show shape."

David Levin, president and chief executive officer of Casual Male, said his company introduced better fabric - with a little more stretch - to make flat-front pants give and to accommodate wider shoulders.

"It's more important for guys to be comfortable, but not strained," Levin said. "We put a lot of technology into our suits. Our pants can expand up to four inches in the waist, and we put stretch underneath the arm."

What's cool about men is that unlike many women, they accept their fashion limitations. All the men I interviewed said that if they can't easily fit into something, they won't try to squeeze into it. So if the trendy slimmer cuts don't work for them, they'll just wait for the fashion pendulum to swing.

"If I can't move in a suit, that's a problem," Woodson said. "The European cut is the man's version of the women's couture. It's great for the Oscars, but other than that. . . ."

Whoa! What self-control!

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.

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