Fashion

Emily Ramshaw: Finding the Power of the Suit

Fighting long-held prejudice, Emily Ramshaw discovers the individuality of a made-to-measure suit.

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Emily Ramshaw strolling in Toronto’s Distillery District in the final product.

I’ve been averse to uniform dressing ever since my mother forced me into a kilt to attend an all-girls prep school. The idea of wearing the same thing every day remains frightening, and getting dressed in the morning is my first daily act of creative self- expression: Who do I want to be today? So, for me, the suit— black or grey and somewhat ill-fitting—is the stifling uniform of the corporate zombie. The notion of the “power suit” seemed to me an oxymoron; I claim my power by dressing like myself, not like a cookie- cutter boardroom superwoman.

But something funny happened on the way to the cubicle. It started with Prada’s fall 2012 show, which turned the basic suit on its head with ’70s-inspired prints that looked more clownish than corporate. Suits with attitude carried through to this fall, with twisted takes on haberdashery that made my menswear-obsessed heart swoon. The runways of Yohji Yamamoto (pinstriped three-piece), Rag & Bone (oversized brown tweed), Hermès (soft structure, shawl lapel) and Dior (bar jacket, baggy trousers) pulsed with luxurious feminine suits that didn’t feel at all like workwear armour. By the time fashion month wrapped, all I wanted was a radical suit that let my sartorial freak flag fly.

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As I became more fixated, I realized the suit could be something other than the oppressive uniform I had always believed it to be. Extraordinary women have long been subverting matching trousers and jackets as a form of rebellion. On Hollywood legends like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich and avant-garde icons such as Tilda Swinton and Rihanna, the suit is pure statement. But it’s also just another piece of clothing in their fashion arsenal.

As luck would have it, women’s suiting was turning someone else on. GotStyle, a Toronto-based shop that offers its male clients made-to-measure suits, is opening a women’s service at its Distillery District outpost this fall. I surrendered myself as guinea pig, with visions of herringbone tweeds and sharp trousers strutting through my head.

I meet with GotStyle creative director Kendra Francis (her resumé includes a star turn on Project Runway Canada) for my first consultation and fitting. I come armed with inspiration—a notebook filled with everyone from Katharine Hepburn dragging on a cigarette in an oversized camel to Eddie Redmayne in forest-green velvet to Rachel Zoe in a checked ’70s three-piece and a subtle plaid slim-cut from Tommy Hilfiger’s fall collection.

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Left: I chose leather-covered buttons for the cuffs and waist closure. Right: There are endless fabric choices for suits, shirts and lining.

Francis, prepared for my overzealousness, presents me with fabric swatches that grow proportionally with my ever-expanding references. A traditional menswear fabric (another major trend I’ve fallen for; see page 176) is a must, I pronounce, scanning the tweeds, plaids and pinstripes in deep fall shades such as Douglas-fir green, navy and charcoal. I’m imagining my suit as a flamboyant, high-fashion riff on English-country tweed. I narrow my selection down to an oversized baby-blue and taupe check, a brown and navy plaid, and a grey check with purple threading.

Francis has designed three standard jackets and three trousers, as well as two shirt styles that can be mixed, matched and then customized. And while it sounds easy, the choices to be made are daunting, from lining to cuff to pocket positioning, all things I take for granted in my store-bought clothes. The first look I try is the standard corporate suit—straight slacks, medium-short rise and with a longish, double-vented blazer—which, for me, is a no-go. Too serious. In the rock-’n’-roller suit I’m dreaming of I look sophisticated with a healthy dose of swagger.

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Francis takes measurements first using the sample suit.

The alternatives are much more appealing. The tuxedo is in the same ’70s vein as Rachel Zoe’s, with wide-leg pants best worn over man-eater heels. The jacket is a sleek shawl collar with a single button and a cinched waist, and reminiscent of Dior’s suiting for fall. The final look is a cropped jacket that, while youthful, doesn’t possess the classicism that a suit should. (Something that takes this much work should be timeless.) The pants are of the tailored cigarette variety—and more than a little sexy in their snugness. With a few adjustments, I settle on the tux jacket—with bracelet- length sleeves and sharper shoulders— with the skinny pants. Instead of having the long, zipped hems, I decide to crop them to the anklebone in tribute to Tommy Hilfiger’s design (the shorter length also means I can pair the pants with heels, flats or ankle boots). I also lower the waistline to sit on my hips and add belt loops and back pockets to create a boyish slouch. Slick and slight, with slim arms and legs—the priority is statement, not comfort.

With the cut finalized, I decide on the grey and purple check. While the fabric is menswear inspired, the traditionally feminine accent subtly jettisons it into high-fashion territory.

My next fitting isn’t for another six weeks, and when I return, the suitexists—kind of. It’s missing an arm and held up by pins. Francis gets to work ripping leg seams (the calf is too tight) and adjusting the jacket darting (too loose). I’ve been able to defer the lining colour decision, and thankfully it now seems obvious: deep, textured purple to match the accent in the check. It’s coming together! By the third fitting, it will be complete save for buttons and pressed seams.

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GotStyle’s Kendra Francis makes some final adjustments

By the time I arrive with the FLARE team to shoot the suit, my anticipation is almost as great as when I moved into my boyfriend’s apartment a few months before—all excitement and unexpected nervousness. Francis recommends a leather-covered button that goes perfectly with the grey check. And the suit is spot-on. It’s sexy and cool, and it makes me feel like a grown-up, but one who keeps in touch with healthy childhood impulses—I’m pulled together, but eccentric, unique. I suddenly understand dandies. In a one-of-a-kind suit’s matchiness, in its propriety, there’s no other way to stand but straight, no other way to walk but stride.

I have visions of myself doing the fashion week circuit not as a harried, overworked girl climbing the media ladder, but as a femme fatale gangster slicing through the street-style circus like a hot knife through butter. This isn’t the uniform suit, it’s custom: my fabric, my lining, my idiosyncratic adjustments and measurements. It’s me. And suddenly the suit is the most expressive fashion statement I’ve ever worn. I finally feel the power.

Rebel Yell

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