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13th Jun 2017

If you really want to learn something about yourself, get fitted for a tailored suit

It's not something everyone can afford, but being fitted for a suit is an education and a revelation

Rich Cooper

A man not only looks his best when he wears a well-fitting suit, he feels it too.

I almost never wear a suit; there’s little call for it in my life as a media hipster/scruffy journalist. The only time I wear suits are to weddings, funerals and the rare occasion that I remember I have a suit, put it on to check it still fits, thank the stars that I haven’t gotten too fat for it, then put it back in the wardrobe until someone else dies.

The same will be true for many men. For many others, a suit is as normal as socks and pants. Since we stopped chipping away the coal face to put bread on the table, the working man has migrated to the office, where soot-blackened faces have been usurped by white collars and Windsor knots.

A suit is a necessary, though perhaps not absolutely essential, part of a man’s wardrobe. Unfortunately, they can also be devilishly expensive, and so we hop to the high street, try on a few sizes and styles, find something that does the job and hope it doesn’t come to more than £150 or so.

Getting a suit tailored to your measurements is a luxury, there’s no question about it, so I was thrilled to be asked if I’d like to experience it for myself, thanks to one of the most stylish movie heroes to hit our screens recently, John Wick, who returns in the blistering John Wick: Chapter 2 (out now on DVD and Blu-ray).

The suits are key to the movie’s sleek aesthetic, and Keanu Reeves has never looked cooler than he does when gunning down the bad guys in a three-piece, so by the grace of John Wick’s hand, I was shipped off to London’s Norton & Townsend to get kitted out with some top-end clobber of my own.

At the store I meet Graham, who I will soon discover to be ebullience personified, of boundless cheer and enthusiasm. He’s been in the trade for over 35 years and has clearly loved every minute of it, despite a wool allergy that would set anyone else on a different career path. Not Graham. He was meant to be a tailor. Thread runs in his veins.

I arrive at 8 am; we don’t take any measurements until at least ten past nine. The first hour or so is spent discussing the art of tailoring and fabric – the colours, the patterns, the weaves, the advancements in technology that make modern cloth lighter and more durable, the sturdiness of the British product versus the lightness of the Italian.

There’s a lot to talk about, and it’s all fascinating, in no small part thanks to Graham’s passion for his craft. Tailoring is a noble profession, and talking with a tailor doubles your respect for it.

I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. I haven’t worn a suit in a professional capacity since I worked in the office at Next, and even then it was only because I got a 75% discount on work clothes. Talking to Graham made me appreciate that, sartorially, I could be doing a whole lot better.

He’s no fan of my skinny jeans, promising that my kids will laugh at photos of me one day, providing that the tightness of my trouser hasn’t left me infertile. I had no intention to ask for skinny-leg suit trousers, but he rules them out immediately, on the grounds that they are terrible. The customer is not always right, even though I wasn’t technically wrong either.

I learn that, despite being a gangly freak with a wonky shoulder (which most of us have, Graham assures me) and unsettlingly long arms, I actually have an easy frame to fit a suit for. My natural stance, I’m told, pushes my stomach forward and my shoulders back, creating a kind of S-shape that a smartly-fitted suit will hang rather nicely from.

This, for me, Mr. Tickle in all but name and orange hue, is the best news I’ve heard in ages.

I also learn that there is much more to getting a suit fitted than measuring your inside leg and chest. There are so many little decisions that alone seem unimportant, but matter a great deal as a whole.

Single-breasted? Double-breasted? How many buttons on your cuffs? Three? Four? Evenly spaced or overlapping? Two back pockets? One back pocket? No back pocket? There are three angles that the front pockets can be cut to, but which is the right angle for me?

The most important decision, or so it seems, because Graham insists I think carefully about it, is a secret piece of embroidery, hidden beneath the collar. I can have anything written there that I like, apart from the C word. “The lady who does the stitching simply won’t do it,” Graham says. “As I learned the hard way.”

Quite who is shelling out hundreds of pounds for a suit and having obscenities stitched into it is beyond me, but then I am but a tourist in this land. Must be a cultural thing.

The real joy of this experience, however, was not choosing the cloth or cut, nor fussing over details like the number of buttons on the cuff. It was Graham himself. If you can spend time with an experienced tailor, especially one whose love for the trade is illuminated by every word they speak, do so.

Though Norton & Townsend is a fairly modest store that charges not-completely-unreasonable-when-you-consider-what-you’re-getting prices, Graham has no shortage of celebrity anecdotes. He made me promise not to reveal them – “I keep forgetting you’re a journalist” – but one was so outrageous that I nearly swallowed my tongue.

All I’ll say is that two bottles of vodka on a Tuesday night and a long walk home do not make a happy match.

The stories of glitz and glam are fun, but it’s Graham’s passion for the job that makes him such great company. He’s delighted when I opt for a slightly wilder colour of cloth (not quite the full John Lydon, but Graham could do you a bright purple suit if you wanted) because it’s a chance to do something different. It’s not the same-old same-old. It’s not another grey suit.

It’s a wonderful thing to spend time with someone who has an interesting job, is an expert in their field and absolutely loves what they do. Enthusiasm is infectious and learning is a blessed thing. After just half an hour in Norton and Townsend I learned the scope of my ignorance, while Graham ably filled in the gaps.

My suit won’t be ready for at least a month, and while I will have it for years to come – if you’re in doubt of the value of a tailored suit, a good one will last you five years of daily use, compared to the two years that you might expect from an off-the-peg piece – but it’s the fitting that I’ll remember most fondly.

Thanks to Norton and Townsend

John Wick: Chapter 2 is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.