Last week John Butcher, a hedge-fund manager in his early 40s, went looking for a blazer for the first time in several years. He was pleasantly surprised: “Every jacket used to be hard, square and formal,” says Butcher. “You couldn’t blame people for working in shirts and chinos in our industry – those blazers were just too uncomfortable. I ended up buying a fantastically soft blazer from Italian brand Boglioli, and a sweater-meets-jacket in cashmere.”
This soft, unstructured tailoring is particularly relevant with spring in the air, as men start looking for lighter, looser styles that combine the smartness of tailoring with the comfort of relaxed cloths and construction. One result of the tailoring trend over the past few years has been the hybrid jackets, shirts and knitwear that bridge the gap between sweaters and suits. Think double-breasted, gold-buttoned navy cardigans, cut like a blazer, and jackets made of thick piqué cottons stripped of all their padding, lining and canvas.
At Ralph Lauren, unstructured, tailored pieces from its Polo and Purple labels are selling like hot cakes. Its Bond Street shop sold out of navy Purple Label jackets in two weeks.
The Italian label Loro Piana has specialised in this soft tailoring since it expanded from being a cloth supplier to a luxury retailer. Its cashmere and vicuna cloths, for which it is the biggest supplier in the world, naturally transformed into supple blazers. Indeed, some of its jackets are made not by the tailoring side of the company but by the knitwear department. They are essentially cashmere cardigans – but cut with lapels and a more waisted silhouette.
Meanwhile, at fellow Italian luxury brand Kiton, it is the shirtmaking department that is developing these hybrid jackets. Sebastiano Borrelli, head of the shirtmaking division at Kiton, says: “Shirtmakers are best suited to make this kind of garment, because it is just like cutting a shirt – simple, unstructured and fitted close to the body.” At its factory outside Naples Kiton is developing shirts in heavy flannel cloth for the autumn/winter collection, and blazers in a jersey material, soft and flexible but smartly finished.
In London, Trunk Clothiers, on Chiltern Street in Marylebone, has specialised in versions of this Italian hybrid jacket since it started 18 months ago. It has stocked brands such as Boglioli, Caruso and Tonello, previously unavailable in the UK, although the Italians have long been wearing these stylish alternatives to structured tailoring.
“At one end you have Boglioli or Caruso [starting from £460 and £550], traditional makers that do both lightly constructed suits and soft blazers, and at the other Barena or Piombo [£300 and £500], who offer essentially glorified cardigans,” says Trunk owner Mats Klingberg.
The drive to make tailoring softer and present new options to older men is typified by Brunello Cucinelli, who launched a new line of tailoring last year. “We wanted to produce a range that would make an older man fall in love with the suit again. Something soft, with little padding in the shoulders and a small overlap in the double-breasted model – what we call a 1½ button,” says Cucinelli.
The desire for all things soft has also been reflected in the performance of bespoke tailors. Neapolitan tailoring has always focused on producing the lightest, most comfortable jackets possible, partly because of the heat in southern Italy and a culture of dressing smartly.
Neapolitan tailoring is seeing something of a resurgence, with brands like Cesare Attolini becoming incredibly popular in Italy and the US. In London, the most obvious example of this trend is the recently opened Rubinacci store on Mount Street (bespoke from £3,900), which is becoming a favourite with the men of Mayfair.
“British men have slowly come to love us, making up a greater proportion of our business in London,” says Luca Rubinacci, son of the current owner Mariano Rubinacci. “When we started, all the customers were Italians or Americans who already knew us from Naples. Now more than 25 per cent are English, and it’s growing every day.”
Luca has his own ready-to-wear line – specialising in, you guessed it, soft unstructured jackets. His reversible cashmere coat (£1,750) is particularly popular.
A few blocks away, the softest of the Savile Row tailors is seeing similar growth. Anderson & Sheppard (bespoke from £3,500) is famed for its draped cut, large sleeve and high armhole, which combine to make its suits the most comfortable around. In the past three years it has seen revenue grow at more than 10 per cent every year, to £3.4m in the year to January 2012.
It is building on its success with the opening of a haberdashery on Clifford Street, which promises luxurious sweaters, scarves and throws. With Cucinelli and Rubinacci also expanding, and Italian group Slowear due to open its first shop in London later this year, it looks like the softly softly approach is here to stay.