The Return Of The Grey Flannel Suit

The Ultimate Matte Suit

Fashion often swings like a pendulum: what was once hot or in vogue will, inevitably, swing back out again. Let’s take the shiny suit for example. You know the type: the style a foreign footballer may wear to collect an award. Often grey, possibly with some contrast piping, it catches the light like a Quality Street wrapper and looks just as cheap. Anyway, throw it out. The menswear pendulum has swung back over to the non-shiny side – the matte suit, if you will – and the ultimate version has to be one in grey flannel.

The History Of Flannel

Made from wool, flannel is a soft woven material brushed to create extra softness. The brushing process uses a fine metal brush, which rubs the fabric to create fine fibres from the loosely spun yarns. The word flannel is thought to have a Welsh origin. The French term ‘flanelle’ began to be used in the late 17th century, and the German ‘flanell’ was first seen in the early 18th century. In the 19th century, flannel was made in the Welsh towns of Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Hay on Wye and Llanidloes. The expansion of its production is closely associated with the spread of carding mills, which prepared the wool for spinning. At one point, Welsh, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Irish flannels differed slightly in character due largely to the grade of raw wool used in each area: some being softer and finer than others. Originally developed as a military cloth to avoid snagging, flannel developed into a luxury fabric as milling became more refined over the last one hundred years. Nowadays, the colour of flannel is produced by dyes – originally this was achieved through mixing different coloured wools in varying quantities.

Industry Leader: Fox Brothers

One of the most famous producers of flannel, today, is the Fox Brothers mill in Somerset. Founded in 1772, Fox Brothers is credited as the original creator of flannel. Knowledge, craftsmanship and heritage are at the heart of the company’s fabric making process, with many of the workforce having followed their fathers and grandfathers into the business. “Our flannel is very special and something that I’m very proud of, it’s all woven in-house in Somerset by a team of twenty-eight artisan weavers. We use very slow – old – looms which allows us to use the very finest of woollen spun yarns,” says Douglas Cordeaux, managing director of Fox Brothers.

Fox Brothers' Flannel

“The formula we use for the colour is something unique to Fox, it’s a blend of over ten separate colours which gives the flannel that wonderful mélange,” he adds. “We use the same formula as Fox did in the 1920s, making our classic mid-grey very rich and warm. “Many flannels are very cold and dull and tend to be far too blue. A lot of the properties of flannel come out at the milling stage, when the cloth is essentially bashed against wood, for, in some occasions, eight hours. The milling allows the woollen fibres to burst.” “We have a very skilled miller and finisher by the name of Stuart, who will oversee every piece of our ‘West Of England’ flannel, with our mid-grey being our most well-known and Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant being amongst the most famous wearers,” says Cordeaux.

Fox Brothers' Flannel

Fox Brothers' Flannel

Fox Brothers' Flannel

Key Industry Advocate: Hackett

One of the biggest champions of grey flannel within the industry is Jeremy Hackett, founder of British menswear company Hackett. “With the rise in popularity of all things British, it comes as no surprise that grey flannel is enjoying a resurgence. Perhaps it’s a reaction against all the sharp, shiny and brittle suits so popular with TV presenters. Grey flannel, with its soft finish, exudes a feeling of subtle sophistication and refinement – and nobody looked better than Gregory Peck in the movie The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” says Hackett. FYI – Gregory Peck was wearing a Huntsman grey flannel suit made using Fox Brothers’ fabric in the film. “Without doubt, Fox Bros., the Somerset-based mill, make the best flannel in the world and their reputation spans almost two hundred and fifty years. Famous for their West of England flannel made from 100 per cent lambswool, it’s not only soft but firm,” he adds. “Unlike worsted cloth where stripes and checks can be hard looking, when produced from flannel the effect is more subtle, no matter how bold the design. For the last twenty five years, I have purchased cloth from this illustrious mill and it featured strongly in our autumn/winter 2014 men’s fashion show. So you see, it’s not just a load of old flannel!”

Grey Flannel Suits On AW14 Hackett Runway

How To Wear

Surprisingly contemporary, the grey flannel suit looks great on all ages. Like tweed and cord, it’s also an extremely practical option for the colder months of the year, keeping you warm and insulated, so you won’t need to pair much else with it. Dress it up with a classic shirt and tie combination or down with a piece of merino knitwear (consider an on-trend roll neck). A nice textured mohair/cashmere jumper or knitted polo shirt would also look great underneath the suit, playing on its tactile nature. Remember, you can split it into separates and wear the jacket and trousers individually. For a couple of fail-safe pairings, try combining your grey flannel separates with navy or black jackets/trousers.

Lookbook Inspiration: Flannel Suit

Men's Grey Flannel Suit Outfit Inspiration Lookbook

ovadia & sons aw13j crew aw14duchamp aw13Gieves & Hawkes aw13de fursac aw12h&m aw11primark aw14de fursac aw13he by mango aw12
Lookbook Inspiration: Flannel Separates

Note: As some of the lookbooks below are AW14 previews, with stock not yet released, we have not been able to confirm that all of the pieces showcased are indeed made from flannel. However, it should still provide some welcome inspiration on how to combine textured grey separates with other key pieces in your wardrobe:

Men's Grey Flannel Separates Outfit Inspiration Lookbook

burton aw14suitsupply aw13suitsupply aw13paul wellerami aw13primark aw14M&S Savile Row Inspired aw12reiss aw14Gieves & Hawkes aw13
Key Styles

While these fabrics are expensive, high street and mid-priced brands such as Jigsaw, Marks & Spencer, J.Crew and Primark are producing superb versions of the grey flannel suit at a fraction of the price this year. Primark’s, in particular, costs a ridiculously cheap £40! In terms of style, stick to a simple two-button, slim-fitting version – although bear in mind this suit will be quite thick, so you may need to opt for a slightly more generous size than you’re currently used to. Look for a nice graphite or silver grey colour way and always buy the best you can afford. After all, it’s a menswear classic.

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Final Word

Just like our previous article on British-made shoes, it’s important to remember that while flannel is a time-consuming and labour-intensive material to produce, hence the traditionally high price tag, the end product is noticeably different – in feel, texture and quality – when compared to other low cost alternatives. Much more than just a fleeting trend, the mid-grey flannel suit is a timeless piece of menswear and a worthwhile investment for any modern professional. Oozing understated luxury and gentlemanly sophistication, it makes a versatile and practical addition to any cold-weather tailoring collection. But what do you think – will you be investing in a flannel suit for AW14? Perhaps you already have one in your arsenal? Are you eager to see and feel the quality of Primark’s ridiculously affordable version? We have a feeling it will be flying off shelves this season. Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below…

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