Getting the Bold Shoulder

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For many years now, fashion designers and clothiers have sold the soft shoulder as a way to make tailoring look more natural and unassuming in today’s dressed down world. By removing the padding in suits and sport coats, it’s said that you can combine the smartness of traditional English dress with the comfort of modern casualwear. Plus, deconstructed jackets supposedly give the wearer a natural sense of ease – and who doesn’t want to look more comfortable in their clothing? 

I’ve thought the same for years. That a softer shoulder can be a good way to take out the literal and metaphorical stuffiness in tailoring, while a structured shoulder can make a suit look more formal and authoritative. This past Monday, however, I stopped by Edward Sexton’s trunk show in San Francisco. And the visit has given me a better appreciation for how structured shoulders can be cut and worn. 

Edward Sexton, as many know, was the technical genius behind Nutters of Savile Row, a tailoring house that revolutionized men’s fashion in the 1960s and ‘70s with its audacious style. Their jackets featured padded shoulders, nipped waists, and flared skirts. The pockets were cut on a bias so they’d contrast with the rest of the coat, while the edges were taped for decorative effect. The lapels – often single-breasted and peaked – were so wide they jutted out like condor wings. Nutters combined the forward sensibility of fashion design with the traditional craft of bespoke tailoring. And in doing so, they brought a younger clientele to the then-stodgy precincts of Savile Row. 

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Today, Sexton runs his own tailoring house, where he cuts a slightly more toned down version of that same silhouette – still a bit Art Deco-ish, but more discrete in terms of detailing. And while I’ve always admired his work, I’ve often thought his shoulder construction lends itself more to formal suits, not unlike the tailoring you’d find at Huntsman, Richard Anderson, and Gieves & Hawkes. Wonderful in terms of style, but probably not for me since I rarely wear business suits.

When I stopped by their trunk show this past Monday, however, their Creative Director and cutter, Dominic Sebag-Montefiore, let me try on a bespoke jacket they had hanging along with their fitting samples. The client who commissioned the coat had just finished writing a book on Tommy Nutter, so he ordered a slightly modern take on that old Nutter style – heavily structured with an hourglass silhouette, but cut from a Caccioppoli woolen flannel and made without taped edges. 

At first, the coat felt … strange. Not in a bad way, just alien. Somehow, the wideness of the lapels made the lines around the facings disappear into the exploded glen check and armscye. The chest was soft; the shoulders heavily padded. The straightness of the shoulder line and closed quarters gave the coat a slight T-shape. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was this … good? 

It took a while for my eyes to adjust, but once they did, I found the coat to be wonderful. And, surprisingly, it was casual not despite its shoulder construction, but because of it. The sharp, angular lines felt glamorous, sexy, and even slightly sleazy in that decadent 1970s way. This was the shoulder style worn by Beatles members John, Paul, and Ringo, along with Mick and Bianca Jagger, Diana Ross, and Elton John. The coat felt distinctly casual in the way that all fashionable garments are casual – something you’d wear to parties, rather than boardrooms. 

The idea that a coat’s formality is more than its shoulder padding is so obvious, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to come around. Designers such as Tom Ford and Maison Margiela have used structured shoulders on casual suits and sport coats for years; Gieves and Hawkes cutter Davide Taub’s pagoda shoulders are what separate his navy suits from conservative business dress. Demna Gvasalia even designed a parody of the structured suit for this season’s Balenciaga (OK, that one is ugly). 

I left Sexton’s trunk show without having ordered anything. The style is so different from what I’m used to wearing that I wanted to give myself time to think about it. At the moment, however, I’m considering a single breasted, peak lapel, navy sport coat designed to be worn at night to bars. So long as you’re willing to embrace a slightly more daring look, I think a padded shoulder can be every bit as casual as an unpadded one. See below for some examples of people getting the bold shoulder. 

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