Quentin Newark: Following the black suit

Designers’ clothes set them apart from other professionals, but when grouped together they lose all sense of self-expression

Designers are unlike other people. You can tell by the way they dress. The typographer Phil Baines is a good example; no matter how weighty the meeting, he clatters in with his cleated bike shoes, Lycra shorts and shirt festooned with sponsors’ logos. Alan Fletcher is another, he’s always refused to wear a suit. There is an apocryphal story about a special lunch at the Institute of Directors, the faux gentlemens’ club in Pall Mall, hosted for him by a client. Fletcher turned up and refused to wear the tie offered him – it would have clashed with his safari jacket – he couldn’t be admitted and the lunch was cancelled. I heard another story about dress code at the IoD. Wayne Hemingway, who knew entry required a suit, wore a red woman’s suit with knee-length skirt and red shoes.

There are a few designers who set out to be dapper. I visited Massimo Vignelli’s office in New York, the empty, austere, aircraft hangar-sized floor of a skyscraper. It’s full of furniture, lights and ashtrays designed by him, and he proudly opened a door behind which lay a workshop full of Italian women making Vignelli shirts, suits and raincoats. Vignelli’s suit is a crisp, Manhattan version of the sort worn by the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru – a long, flat-fronted jacket with a stand-up collar and straight trousers, but black, of course. He wears it with a kind of dog-collared white shirt, making him look like a priest. (But with his height, white hair and thick, black eyebrows, he actually looks like God.)

Examples of smart designers aren’t common, as wearing informal apparel is the way designers have separated themselves from other kinds of workers; those unfortunate drones who wear suits. Anyone regularly wearing one in design or advertising is still rare enough to be called a ‘suit’. But although the difference is a source of pride, the origin of informal clothing lies in the nature of what designers do; messing about with ink, cutting implements, sheets of misbehaving paper, glue and the dreaded spray-booth. We are still, in essence, manual workers.

There is a terrible new trend in business generally: ‘dress-down Friday’. At the crux is the informality endemic in Silicon Valley, the idea that being relaxed frees the imagination, a lack of uniform equals un-uniform thinking. But this comes at a cost (if it comes at all). A recent survey in American Corporate Trends Magazine suggested that informally attired staff are up to 50 per cent more likely to ‘behave inappropriately’. This consists largely of lateness, rudeness and an ‘increase in flirtation’.

So, as in so many things in the corporate world, after an early creative, florid, experimental period, it has fallen under control of the memorandum. One of the global accountancy firms has a code that decrees: ‘no trainers, no denim, shirts must have collars, shoes must have laces, and underwear is obligatory.’ This terrible demi-world is sometimes referred to as ‘smart casual’. The world catered to by Burtons, Gap and Banana Republic. The world epitomised by Alan Partridge. Surely, given the choice, anyone would rather wear a suit.

In fact, the sartorial self-expressiveness of designers is probably more imagined than real. While there is more latitude for the women, get any number of the male ones together, and they are of a type: black-clad, portly, tired, with shaved heads. They look like trainee gangsters, and hope to evince all that a gangster stands for: an uncompromising, successful braggadocio. Any young designer aspiring to become fully fledged finds he has to operate within a code as strict as any accountant. There is a new pressure to conform, to comply with an ideal appearance, with black its emblematic, predictable colour. I visited Number 10 Downing Street with two of my partners, all of us in ‘presentation black’. While waiting, uncomfortably, in a corridor, Alastair Campbell passed us grinning, ‘designers?’.

Why black? Because in clothing it is the colour of privilege and power. The colour of asceticism, piety and seriousness; all attributes designers dream of possessing. It is about renouncing ostentation (having the taste and restraint not to need anything more flamboyant). And luxury (a clean, rich black means you can afford to keep it clean and you don’t wear it every day). Times have changed, design is a big business in a big world, it can’t be eccentric any more with cycle shorts and panama hats. That may seem like a shame, but isn’t it more satisfying to see what you do as weighty and important. Imagine going into work tomorrow in a safari jacket.

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