Suit yourself: really, it's only fitting

RUSSEL Howcroft is known for his good-humoured take on advertising as a panellist on The Gruen Transfer. He's also recognised for his suits, worn not only for his day job as chief executive of Y&R Brands but every day, including weekends.

''It's not because of an over-the-top desire to be stylish,'' he says. ''I wear them because I was taught to wear a suit as a nine-year-old and I don't know any different.

''It's how you're supposed to dress. I don't think it's particularly interesting. But it's comfortable. Terribly comfortable.''

Therein lies the secret shared by the suited, the professionals who want to look like professionals. Suits can be so flattering, so easy to wear and versatile, why would you wear anything else?

Fashion designer Arthur Galan says that even as the workplace becomes more casual, more men and women are discovering that ''a suit can be a joy''.

''Whether you're big, small, tall or short, a suit improves your overall appearance, it's about feeling good,'' says Galan. ''Comfort is all.''

Executive headhunter Rene Johnson says that for him it's a suit or boardshorts. ''I don't have a 'middle wardrobe','' he says. ''Suits are fantastic. I've been wearing them for 30 years and they're like a uniform - but unlike a uniform, you can still have individuality.''

Howcroft favours any fine-quality suit, as long as it's grey, but Johnson, who is the principal of Pacific Search Partners, is very particular about his suits (and his 40-plus shirts and 120 ties). They must have double vents, a long-line jacket and be pin-striped - either navy and white or grey and white.

''I'm tall and I've got long arms,'' he says. ''The department stores are for the 'average person' and for 'fashion', so I've had quite a few made. You don't have to spend a gazillion dollars - cashmere or a wool blend, they all wear out, but it does have to fit properly.''

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Fit is the crucial element, says Galan. ''The fit and construction, the way it is engineered, and the quality of fabric determines the way it looks and how it moulds to the body,'' he says. ''A top-end quality wool gives a basic black suit a certain luxury, a little bit of polish.''

Galan's suits sell for about $800, the benchmark for a decent-quality suit at Vogue and Jackson, a gentlemen's outfitter in Melbourne's Flinders Lane. Says Rick Miolo, the store's co-owner: ''Ignore the label, focus on the right colour, the right construction and the durability.''

A ''no-brainer'' wardrobe for the discerning professional is three dark suits - a classic black, charcoal and navy - with no predominant check or line running through them. It should include two trousers per suit, plus five to seven shirts. Ties are optional, but ties should be matched to shirts not shirts to suits.

''Don't look at a suit as just a suit,'' he says. ''Depending on the texture and fabric, it can be a blazer for jeans, and it can be trousers with a shirt.'' This is something female professionals are good at. They will buy the suit but wear the skirt with a tailored shirt or the jacket with pants and a soft top.

Mark Daynes knows all about suit splitting. Since becoming the chief executive of Jeanswest nine months ago, the closest he gets to wearing a suit is teaming a suit jacket with ''smart-looking jeans'' (dark blue, for the record) for formal business meetings.

''The environment helps drive the choice of clothing,'' he says. ''You've got to represent the face of the brand. I'm the smartest person in the office because I wear a shirt.'' His 300 ties might have been made redundant in his new job, but he counsels erring on the side of formal in business: ''You can't go wrong with a good suit.''

Russel Howcroft says he was taught this from an early age with his maternal grandmother, a Nunn of the venerable Buckley & Nunn department store, which until the early 1980s outfitted Melbourne's finest families for 130 years.

It was here that Howcroft was taken to be fitted for his first suit for school.

This article Suit yourself: really, it's only fitting was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.