What’s the point in having your own trumpet if you can’t blow it once in a while? So let’s blast it out loud and clear; when it comes to men’s style, the UK has always led the way. And it’s done this via a timeless, and patented, blend of elegance and eccentricity. As that celebrated iconoclast – and honorary Londoner – Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
Think about it; in other fashion capitals – Milan, Paris, New York – the rule of thumb is to dress like your peers, only better. In Britain, we like nothing more than to take our unrivalled style heritage – from Savile Row tailoring to tweeds, tartans and paisleys – and subvert it.
From the dandies and the gents to the mods and the punks, from Ziggy Stardust to Tinie Tempah, British style has conquered the world by tweaking the classics. Premium menswear specialists Reiss knows more about this than most; the brand started almost half a century ago in the East End and still designs all its lines in London.
“We started off selling suits, and we still have that formal foundation, but we’ve gradually branched out into all areas of the modern man’s wardrobe,” says Alex Field, Reiss’ menswear director. “British style has always been eclectic, but today the lines are even more blurred.” Amid those blurred lines, however, four attributes enduringly define classic British style, and we try each of them on for size below.
The British pretty much invented tailoring; Savile Row’s most venerable houses have been plying their trade for, oh, a quarter of a millennium or so.
What marks the British out from their European or American peers is their more nonchalant attitude to elegance; yes, we’re just as focused on cut, fabric and detail, but we’ll throw a few curveballs by pairing an impeccably crafted double-breasted jacket with, say, a wool roll-neck or a white T-shirt.
Prince Charles is one of Alex Field’s style icons, “because, of course, he’s incredibly elegant and ever the gentleman, but it’s shot through with an individual flair and a hint of eccentricity.”
However, in an age where even the likes of Goldman Sachs have adopted the dreaded “flexible dress code,” and Mark Zuckerberg only forsakes his cashmere hoodie when he’s hauled shame-facedly before Congress, modern ideas of elegance have shifted somewhat.
“A suit is still occasion wear, and there’s still nothing better for feeling and looking your best,” says Field. “But today there are many ways to make the suit less ‘suit-y’ without compromising on style, whether that’s cutting a slimmer silhouette or going for a softer construction. I don’t think British style has ever been about being brash or in-your-face; when I talk about ‘elegance’ with the team at Reiss I think it sums up a level of understated tastefulness that’s a sort of British hallmark.”
Remember the denim onesie or the bondage trouser? British style is certainly not afraid to go a little outre when the occasion demands, but, as with all the best jazzmen, the occasional improvisation always returns to a rock-solid baseline.
As Cary Grant, who knew a thing or two about style (and was born Archie Leach in Bristol, lest we forget) once said: “All it takes are a few simple outfits. And there’s one secret – the simpler the better.”
Simple, however, should never be confused with plain. “For me, practicality is really important,” says Alex Field. “Producing great pieces that stand the test of time in a man’s wardrobe is our primary focus at Reiss. Seasonal and fashion items are great, but guys often want to establish their core pieces first.”
For Field, those pieces would include: “A white T-shirt of course. A merino crew neck is a given. And, naturally, a well-cut navy blazer. For winter, our sales of roll neck knits have been amazing. I mean, every guy looks razor-sharp in a fine-gauge roll neck.”
And today, the British desire to stand out in all the best and subtlest ways happily coincides with the backlash against fast fashion. “With sustainability at the forefront of everyone’s mind, value for money and the lifeline of our product is key,” says Field. “We want people to be able to rely on us for that.”
With dress codes in terminal freefall, the British genius for adaptability is in the ascendant. For a prime example, Alex Field cites a man who puts the “pro” in protean: Mr David Beckham.
“When the rules are more relaxed, you have to follow suit, and he’s always perfectly turned out for the occasion, from the blazer-and-tie combos at Wimbledon (when he’s playing the British gent) to the tattoos with T-shirts, leather biker jackets, and baker boy caps he wears when he’s with friends.
“But he also mixes and matches in really creative ways. The key for most men today is to put together an outfit that works for the office and then out for a date, or with friends to the pub. It has to be considered, but also flexible.”
One solution, according to Field, is something that the British male, facing the vicissitudes of a temperate climate, has always been more than adept at: layering.
“A smart trainer with a slim-fit suit and soft wool overcoat is pretty acceptable in most workplaces these days. Yet the layers can be peeled off after work and you could be standing in a pub in a white T-shirt, slim-fit navy trousers, no socks and trainers, without missing a beat.” That’s one way to bend the rules like Beckham.
As far as British style is concerned, comfort is the new rock ‘n’ roll. Or, at least, comfort done the classy way – that’s Damian Lewis’s soft-power hedge-funder Bobby Axelrod in Billions, with his knitted blazers, chambray shirts and alpaca cardigans, rather than Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke as Wayne and Waynetta Slob.
“You’ve got to do comfort without looking like you’re wearing your Sunday hangover track suit,” says Alex Field. “The benefit for us is that Reiss evolved from a formal tailoring background, so all the research in pattern-making and luxury fabrics had already been done. The emphasis is on keeping the lustrous handle and content, but softening the wash and construction of the pieces to make them more flexible and easy to wear.”
This translates into a wardrobe that meets the very modern, always-on-call needs of those who find that business and leisure have gone into the blender to create a work-life smoothie.
“We’ve put stretch into our fabrics,” says Field, “elasticated the waistbands of formal trousers, softened the colour palettes, and added linings or hybrid pieces that can be zipped out or added into coats to provide that feeling of ease – without compromising on style.” As British style continues to evolve, Reiss evolves along with it: “You have to know the rules in order to break them,” says Field. “That’s what British style is all about, and it’s something that Reiss is particularly attuned to.”