Cotton Suits and Atelier Fugue

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Wrinkly, hefty, and slouchy cotton is one of my favorite materials of all time.  Having it made up as a suit is a no-brainer.

It’s full of character, it’s easy to wear, and in my opinion, better than linen.

Introduction

Cotton suits are incredibly cool.  There’s just something a suit made from this casual, twilled fabric that is the perfect match of smart and slouchy.  These suits have their basis in workwear, but by the 1920s and 1930s, you could find them along side summer weight suits like linen and Palm Beach or drape-y gabardine.  However, they were mainly relegated to summer sports wear, as hard sartorial rules prevented them from being used during the day to day (aka business).  To further that distinction, you could mainly find cotton suits in shades of white, with much more casual details like swelled seams and patch pockets.

I’ve only seen a few true vintage cotton suits and jackets out an about, because as a rule, summer weight stuff doesn’t really survive.  That’s not because they were delicate or shoddily made, but because of the opposite: cotton can take a beating.  So in most cases, cotton suits either get worn down to the bone or they end up being stained because people love wearing them.  You could really compare it to work wear, but unlike tailoring, workwear has much better charm/character when it’s broken down and stained up.

Cotton sport suit from the 1930’s.

Of course as time went on, they broke out a bit of that summer-only flair and became a great workhorse suit during the ivy days of the 1960’s.  No longer just in the white summer suit, it was during this period that the khaki cotton suit became a bit of a staple within the university look. It makes sense, as people started moving away from the more elegant, draped look of the looks of the decades that preceded it.  Softer, easier fabrics that could take a beating were the name of the game, which easily translated to cotton suits in summer and corduroy in the fall.  It was less about that elegant, white cotton look of 30s warm weather tailoring.

The Appeal of the Fabric

So why is cotton suiting so great? First off, I’m pretty sure the fabric is more affordable compared to other fabrics like wool or linen.  So obtaining one is cheaper because it’s not seen as a luxury (though luxurious cottons can exist as well as blends).   Like I said, cotton was mainly used as a workwear fabric and was only used for casual suits, so it wasn’t seen as a luxury fabric.  Yet, it can look the part if you style it correctly, because to most people, if it has lapels and pleats, it’s a [probably] a suit!

As detailed by Simon Crompton here (and generally on his website) you’ll know some of the drawbacks of cotton tailoring  It’s doesn’t hold shape (like trouser creases) well, it bags over time, wears in visibly, and doesn’t have a lot of stretch.  As such not many tailoring-folk like this cloth.  However, to me, that’s the appeal of the fabric (and I think Simon agrees). Simon even calls it the fabric for guys who don’t like wearing suits.  Our preference lies with twill, but there are different weaves of cotton that you can try that should wear about the same.

The way that cotton softens up over the time is one of the main reasons I love cotton suits; in fact, that’s what makes it superior to linen in my eyes.  I know that linen can soften up, but it (like mohair) can be feel pretty scratchy and when I sweat, it just doesn’t feel good.  Cotton on the other hand, will always feels fine to me and will continually break in and form to your body, especially if you sweat wear it in.  The natural resilience  of cotton will keep it together and comfortable in the heat, despite the fact that it isn’t all that breathable. I usually wear a linen-cotton blend for trousers; I have no qualms about linen jackets.

Lastly, cotton really is a year-round fabric, especially in LA since it never gets extreme.  It’s perfectly wearable in summer and fall, based on what you wear with it. Again, this is where the comfort of broken in cotton comes into play. When it’s hot or cold, I’d rather be comfortable than overly breezy/light or heavy/tweedy.  The pieces (or together as a suit) won’t look out of place no matter what you wear them with.  For example, you can’t wear a flannel jacket with linen trousers.  However, a nice cotton gabardine/twill trouser will match a tweed jacket or a cotton jacket is a natural match for linen pants.  Like wise, a full cotton suit looks at home in any of the seasons and can be styled/layered accordingly.

In other words, a cotton suit is one of the most versatile things you can own, especially if you want a more accessible/natural approach to suiting rather than being formal all the time..  That’s why I wanted I’ve always wanted one (or a few) to wear as my main form of suiting in Los Angeles.  All other pieces, like flannel, linen, or even Crispaire, would be relegated to purely seasonal wear!

Alan See of The Armoury.

With that said, its pretty common to see cotton suits dressed up.  This mainly depends on the person commissioning the piece, but I’ve seen more of a trend to more “classically” styled cotton suits, rather than the ivy/workhorse style that I like. To me, it’s definitely a return updated take on the “dressy” 30s take rather than the 60s/ivy vibe.  It certainly helps to anchor in this cleaner take with the use of a plain shirt (or an overall minimal use of colors) to keep things clean.

So this set of pictures is for all of you guys who say that cotton suit can’t be elegant.  Again, I’m not sure if these are pure cotton, but you get the idea.

PJT’s green cotton.

Arnold Wong in a khaki suit with wide legs.

Mark Cho in Ring Jacket.

Cotton-cashmere, but still slouchy!

Kamoshita-san.

Ciccio cotton suit.

Tailor Caid.

As much as we all love the elegant takes on cotton tailoring, my preference will always be for more of the Ivy/casual ones.  This extends into the actual styling of an outfit, rather than just the swelled/heavy seams and patch pockets on the suit.  I like the use of OCBDS, chunkier shoes, and fun ties. It just makes sense to match a casual fabric to more casual pieces. Also if the result seems a bit more vintage, it’s because ya’ll know I like that shit.

In all honesty though, I do go back and forth in my preference on cotton suits. Deciding to lean into the”rugged vibe” simply depends on mood, which certainly changes based on which menswear icon I see on my feed.  Obviously the Armoury and Drake’s are at the top of my inspirations lists for cotton suit looks, with the latter making it a significant part of the brand.

Two ways of styling cotton suits, and I love both.

Absolutely love Chase here with his dark brown cotton suit.

Swelled edges are great.

If you can’t already tell, Drake’s is a particularly adamant purveyor and supporter of the cotton suit.  The brand really loves to show off the many custom commissions done by their staff and clients.  Seeing how often they wear it and how versatile it is lead me to want to find one on my own, because it truly is a year-round suit.  It really is an amazing piece of menswear. one that has a sense of youth yet is still sharp.

Suit Supply Cotton

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Now like I’ve said many times in the past, I’ve had trouble finding pieces for summer, so it resulted in my warm-weather wardrobe lacking hard.  It’s something that I have since corrected thanks to a couple of pieces from Spier & Mackay as well as a few lucky vintage finds, but at the time, I had nothing.  Hell, the only summer suits I had were a white Palm Beach DB and a tropical wool 60’s suit, both of which aren’t exactly versatile.

Suit Supply was still at the front of my list for most purchases and during their outlet sale, I copped this Havana fit cotton suit in brown (which comes off more as olive).  I had a Havana fit hopsack from the year before, but this one was a bit more updated, being shorter and slimmer. Despite those typical “modern suit issues” (*ahem, mid rise trousers), it rapidly became one of my favorite suits to wear.

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If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll probably remember that I wore this thing a lot. And that resulted in it becoming one of the most comfortable and versatile pieces to wear.  I knew at that moment that I wanted to get more cotton suits.  And because I was being more specific (and ready to invest), I wanted to make sure that I got one that fit everything I wanted and not just purchase a cotton suit for it’s own sake.

Atelier Fugue

So everyone, meet my friend Dave Fugel.  He’s a reader of a blog, fellow saxophonist (like Yamamoto-san), and he operates his own MTM business in NYC, aptly named Atelier Fugue. His pattern was designed completely by him, with the HK made suits taking after Neapolitan tailoring with their wide lapels, soft shoulders, 3-roll-2 closure, la spalla camicia, and a high waist, side tabbed, pleated trouser.

The best part is his price point, which starts at about $750 for cotton suiting and certain worsted wools.  The cotton price is what got me, as it’s not that much more than getting say a Suit Supply or Spier & Mackay suit; the only difference is that this has more details (like a high waisted trouser) and will be made to my measurements.

We’ve been mutuals ever since he heard I went to NYC (but we didn’t get a chance to meet) and I was very interested in getting one of his cotton suits, as these and his flannels were his favorites to wear.  I made the jump during a random sale he did (20% off cotton suits, open to all) and started the process.

Typically he doesn’t do remote clients, but I was happy he made an exception for me.  Like my past experiences with Indochino, I had Spencer measure me at home; the main thing was that I used more of my knowledge to give feedback and preference over fit.  Typically this means that I go against some of the typical patterns/house styles of most people.  The result was that I wanted my jacket a bit longer and my trousers wider (8.5″ diameter) than his typical clients.

My Atelier Fugue Suits

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The first commission was a navy cotton suit, harkening back to my introductory paragraphs.  Navy is a formal color (I prefer it over grey) and obtaining it in cotton is a great juxtaposition in my mind: it will be able to be dressed up but is inherently casual due to the fabric.  I just knew that a navy cotton suit, once broken in, would get more wear out of me than my Ascot Chang Crispaire, just because I know it could take a beating.

The suit came after about 5-6 weeks from the  first payment date in February (total is split in half).  Definitely on the long side compared to other “online MTMs” but I didn’t mind that.  The fit was nearly spot on, as you can see in the above image.  The trousers were especially great, being nice and roomy without being baggy (which is helped by the cotton twill).  The lapels are nicely placed with a high gorge (marking it contemporary) and the patch pockets are nice.  They don’t have the swelled edges of more ivy-leaning cotton suits, but that’s okay. I knew I wanted something that could be versatile.

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A 30’s take, with my Ascot Chang spearpoint and 40’s bowtie.

My main issues were a that the jacket was still a bit too short (just at 29″ from the front length), which can be emphasized by the lovely open quarters.  The first iteration of the trouser also had a short rise, but we confirmed that it was his factory’s issue (as I specifically asked for a 12″ front and measured my U-rise accordingly), so a remake was well on the way.  I do wish the fly length correlated more with the trouser (being longer), but that’s something I’ve only seen on bespoke and is seldom done on MTM.  I also wish that the breast pocket was placed lower, as many makers put this pocket way too high.

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The fly is a bit short, but that’s okay.

The leg is very nice, being quite roomy in the thigh and most of the leg.  It actually tapered down considerably to around an 7.75″ leg opening.  Dave likes a bit more of a modern silhouette than me, so you can see his purview in this taper. Like most things, this isn’t bad, but if I could, I would definitely gotten it made wider. When you look at it from the side, it isn’t as apparent, following my natural leg line well.  In the grand scheme of things, it probably makes the suit a bit more versatile and contemporary, which works with my vintage-meets-contemporary aesthetic.

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Also, while the navy twill cotton felt hefty, I learned that it was part elastine.  Not a deal breaker by any means, but I tend to prefer pure, natural fabrics. It is comfortable and stretchy when you pull at it (and I know Spier also does elastine-cotton), but I do know that the break in/age will be a bit different thanks to the presence of synthetic material.

Despite all this, this navy cotton suit really has become my favorite suits to wear.  You may remember that it’s been worn to the Drake’s Spring Trunk show and to eat Pie N’ Burger. It’s also worth noting that this is probably my only true dark navy SB suit, as my Crispaire is off navy. Again, it’s not a bad thing, as I firmly believe this can be dressed up based on your shirt and tie combinations.  An interviewer or party host (as if I even get invited to parties) will only see that you’re wearing a suit; I doubt they’ll know that you’re secretly wearing one made up of one of the most casual sartorial fabrics!

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Worn with my Kamakura shirt.  Short collar, but its fine!

I loved my navy suit so much that I started a commission on a brown suit a few weeks later.  A tan/khaki cotton suit might have been a more typical choice, but you all know how much I love darker brown tailoring. I took the opportunity to make some changes to the jacket, namely with more room in the chest/waist and increased the length to just over 30.5″.  This time, I paid full price, as he wasn’t going through a sale anymore.

It took another 5-6 weeks, but the suit arrived.  Everything was done as a repeat as before, just with a slightly longer jacket length.  As some of you know, I’m pretty particular about jacket length and this one actually feels a bit too long! Not in a way that messes up the proportions, but I definitely might go down a centimeter on my next one, just to hone it out.  I also may let out the sleeves and extend the shoulders for future commissions as well.  A wider leg may also be done, but to be quite honest, I don’t mind the silhouette of the leg as much as before.

Other than that, the only major difference is the weight of the cloth.  The navy one was heavy, but Dave told me that this brown one is a few grams lighter.  I knew what he meant after receiving it in person, as the elastine feels a bit more apparent in this.  It also results in being more prone to visible wrinkles than the navy suit, especially on the jacket arms and trousers.

Again, these aren’t dealbreakers to me and are to be embraced when wearing a cotton suit.  In the future, I may try a pure cotton suit, but these two suits are absolutely what I needed and wanted for now.  Like I said earlier, summer tends to be a time for separates, and while these are perfectly wearable as such, nothing beats a full suit.

Here’s just a few examples of how often I’ve worn my Atelier Fugue cotton suits, both with a variety of styles, ranging from ivy to contemporary to my vintage-inspired takes.

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Chambray shirt and vintage 50’s tie.

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A great choice as an odd jacket.

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30’s-40’s vibes with my SJC two-tone workvest.

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Some aloha shirt action.

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Full on ivy grampa style, complete with bucket hat.

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More chambray fun.

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A bit of Drake’s styling here.

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Conclusion

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Full ivy Ethan.

Cotton suit are amazing.  More comfortable than linen (at least to me) and wearable with pieces from all seasons, it’s a fabric that breaks in well over time and has an unmatched power of ease.  It’s only obvious that their slouchy, casual nature would be a goal for me to get a suit in.  Yes, it’s possible to have luxurious cotton suits (cotton-cashmere is great), but the best is when you lean into the casualness and style it accordingly, though that is always up to the discretion of the wearer.  As a guy who likes to be versatile, I knew that I needed to get one for my SoCal life. Especially since it’s only “cold” two months out of the year.

As if by fate, I got into contact with Dave from Atelier Fugue and he’s been the source of my two new favorite suits: cotton twill in navy and brown. They have come out nearly spot on and have been worn a lot.  There are a few measurement changes I want to do moving forward, but I do have some others that seem to be limited by Dave’s factory and pattern.  This is mainly in the form of a lower breast pocket (it’s too high and gets covered by the lapel) and a longer fly (for ease of putting on); I’d also love a pure cotton (though admittedly the stretch blend isn’t too bad).

With that said, I still love these suits and everything that Dave is doing.  There have also been a few quality control issues, which is why he’s currently looking for a new factory to use for manufacturing. He’s also looking into changing the pattern to address the breast pocket issue and obtaining new books.  If I can nail down the pattern and my preferences, I may just use him for more suits in the future! The iconic khaki cotton is up next, but maybe I’ll see how a worsted will come out.

Anyway, definitely consider cotton suits if you’re a guy who likes to wear tailoring but wants to be comfortable.  I really do think they can be considered year round wear, not only due to the fabric (which was the point of the article) but because no one else will really notice.  I’d definitely wear my navy cotton suit to a job interview, just done with a plain white OCBD and striped tie. I’d save the full ivy wear and aloha shirts for later.

Always a pleasure,

@ethanmwong 

18 comments

  1. Pingback: On Cotton Suits « Fashion
  2. Evan Everhart · September 13, 2019

    He Ethan,

    Fun article, from one aficionado of cotton suiting to another! I’m surprised that you did not mention the ubiquitous olive green cotton suit. I did see that one of yrs is that sort of nebulous murky brackish green segueing into brown that I am personally exceptionally fond of, but an up and up olive number or even a bright moss or avocado colored cotton suit would be quite fun! Made up in either drill or poplin they are my favorite Summer suiting, and in fact, olive is one of my favorite suit colors, as you may know by now….I’ve still yet to debut my olive pinstriped worsted sack as I’ve not found the time to get the alterations taken care of…..

    But I digress! Great article! You know my predilection for the jackets of the un-darted persuasion, so yr above maker is out of the running for me, but I greatly appreciated the discussion of everything involved, and the process.

    One other color which was not addressed, and which is a personal favorite of mine, is putty, it is not really white, and not really tan, but a pinkish pale off beige, a shade paler than the old desktop computers from the 1980s with warm pink undertones, much like officers’ pinks have. It is a very charming tertiary in the color palette of one’s wardrobe, and I have worn it for years, though it is rather hard to find of late….It does give one a rather tropical look, but not as stark as the typical bone white one sees in the vintage garments and photographs as well as in the Palm Beach suits, typically.

    Have a great day, and a better weekend!

    Like

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  13. Shem · April 16

    Hey ethan. I’ve been thinking about get a casual navy jacket that could work with cotton chinos (army or slim ivy) and denim that could be dressed up or down and have 2 in mind as below. Wondering which you would take personally.
    https://www.drakes.com/navy-cotton-games-blazer-mk-1

    https://thearmoury.com/products/the-armoury-wool-city-hunter-2-jacket?variant=16680025325639

    Like

    • Ethan M. Wong · April 17

      Hello Shem,

      If you want something tailored, I’d do the games blazer. However, if you want something JUST for smart casual (as in you definitely don’t want a blazer), then go with the city hunter. I envision the city hunter as a strictly chore coat replacement.

      Like

      • Shem · April 17

        Thanks ethan! I only own one navy sportscoat in wool hopsack from the Armoury which is quite formal. On the games blazer do you see it being useful or would a more conventional navy blazer in cotton from drakes be more useful?

        Like

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