They say a well-made suit can make or break a man, but the foundation of any good piece of clothing is its fabric. While menswear designers experiment with new looks and silhouettes each season, fabric mills are working behind the scenes to develop new and exciting materials that will bring their designs to life.
For most designers, wool remains a classic choice for men's suiting, although the variations on offer are endless thanks to modern technology.
"Merino wool is a natural, versatile material, suitable for all seasons that can be woven in a multitude of ways. There's really nothing better. The most common fabrics are obviously the great classics: lightweight wool textiles are more modern and functional compared with heavier ones; in classic patterns such as Prince of Wales check, twill and houndstooth," says designer Giorgio Armani.
When it comes to choosing the best type of wool, experts prefer the "Super" system - the higher the number, the finer the yarn used to weave the fabric and the softer the fabric is, theoretically. Most men will choose wool ranging from Super 130s to 200s for a traditional business suit, says Justin Chang of Ascot Chang.
Much like buying a designer bag, where you buy your fabric from speaks volumes about your style and taste. According to Kevin Lobo, creative director of Hugo Boss menswear, the finest raw material comes from Australia. Designers, however, need to search out the best suppliers at dedicated trade shows and fairs around the world.
The most popular and renowned mills are owned by luxury brands such as Loro Piana and Ermenegildo Zegna, who are manufacturers and fabric suppliers. Because of its Savile Row heritage, Britain is also known for its established and niche mills, including Holland & Sherry, Fox, which specialises in flannel, and Scabal, which recently created the exclusive diamond chip collection, featuring wool with diamond fragments.
Today men's suiting has gone beyond simple merino wool, thanks to new fabric innovations and technology developed by the mills. Many of the new materials are designed with the modern man's lifestyle in mind and are more versatile than ever. Hugo Boss' Traveller collection, for example, features a nano-protected fabric which is wrinkle resistant.
Ermenegildo Zegna boasts a cool effect wool which has been treated to reflect ultraviolet rays and absorb less heat, making it ideal for warmer climates. The High Performance Micronsphere fabric, also by Ermenegildo Zegna, is a revolutionary finishing process that results in a virtually stain-free fabric. Loro Piana's storm system fabric, which is used by Gieves & Hawkes on its outerwear, has a special membrane that makes it wind and waterproof while still maintaining breathability.
Also popular are fabric blends, including wool/mohair and wool/silk, that are better suited for warmer climates and easier to tailor.
"When you get to Super 150s and higher, the fabric starts to get a little too soft, so they weave in some silk for more body. Silk also adds a nice sheen so it's a popular choice," Chang says.
For the more discerning customer, only the best and most exclusive fabrics will do and there are plenty to choose from. The undisputed king of them all is vicuña, which comes pure or is spun with other luxe fabrics such as chinchilla, offered by Scabal.
"It is the rarest, finest, warmest fibre in the world, and as light as a feather," Armani says.
Often referred to as "the fibre of God", three companies in the world have a stranglehold on vicuña. Found in the Andes at heights exceeding 4,000m above sea level, the vicuña is a rare camelid whose fleece is considered the most precious in the world thanks to its fineness - they have naturally developed a fibre of 12 microns. Only vicuñas with fibres exceeding three centimetres in length can be legally sheared, making it all the more exclusive.
Other posh fabrics include Dunhill's Camdeboo mohair, which is sourced from mohair goats from the Camdeboo region of South Africa. Then there's Escorial which is made from the soft, springy coat of the rare Maghreb sheep, which was originally found in North Africa, but is now bred in New Zealand.
While rare and expensive fabrics are always in demand, fashion also plays a starring role in many designer's collections. Chang says textured fabrics, such as brushed wool, are becoming increasingly popular. Tweed is on trend for winter while two-tone fabrics have been introduced by brands such as Brioni and is used in unlined suits for a modern look. Flannel is heavier but can add texture and colour to men's suiting this season.
A final word of caution when choosing the perfect suit material, always keep in mind the style and the environment in which you are wearing it.
"Cotton, mohair and linen fabrics are mostly spring and summer fabrics. For higher temperatures unlined suits are the best choice. For autumn and winter heavier virgin wool mixtures or flannel are used to provide warmth and comfort," Lobo says.
"However beautiful a cloth might appear to be, it is always important to ensure that it fits the purpose. For example, heavier cloths tend to be more hard wearing and the finer cloths are better suited to special occasion wear. High-twist wools make effective travel suits, as the crease-resistant performance is enhanced by the 'over-spinning' of the yarns," says a spokesman from Dunhill.
"Linens are breathable and cool and offer a more relaxed look. A tweed or winter jacket with a strong design lends itself to a 'hacking' style jacket."
TIPS ON UPKEEP
Whatever fabric you choose, keep it in the best condition possible by following a few simple steps:
CLEANING: Contrary to what you may believe, dry cleaning isn’t always ideal. The chemicals involved in the cleaning process will break down any fibres, so avoid it unless absolutely necessary. Justin Chang recommends dry cleaning two to three times a year.
MAINTENANCE: All is not lost on the hygiene front, however. In between wears, suits can be pressed or brushed to remove any dirt.
STORAGE: This is particularly important in a humid climate. If you don’t wear them more than a few times a year (you can’t be seen in the same suit too often, after all), store them with cedar wood to keep the moisture away.