Linen suit or seersucker suit? Dos and don’ts for a slick summer suit

By Rob Garratt

Rob is a freelance arts and culture writer who has regularly slung on a high street blazer to interview sharp-dressed gentlemen including Quincy Jones, Liam Neeson, Mark Ronson, Plácido Domingo, Lee Sharpe and Martin Sheen. And yet, he has never before owned a decent tailored suit…

It is one of the great injustices of life that formal occasions expect women to strip off, while paradoxically demanding men suit up. And seemingly, the grander the ceremony, the more layers men are expected to squeeze into – why not add a waistcoat between that heavy jacket and sweaty shirt? – while simultaneously encouraging the fairer gender to don ever skimpier portions of fabric.

In chilly European nations, where such sexist traditions were no doubt born, it might have made sense for the drooling but ruling masculine class to insist their women bared all while they buckled up. But in the hotter climates which today increasingly call the geopolitical shots, tradition has come back to bite the brute-er gender in its woollen-clad posterior.

Especially in Hong Kong: Because while temperatures typically bust the 30 degree mark throughout a full third of the calendar, a certain (post-colonial?) sense of properness remains at play in the vicinity of our Fragrant Harbour – and unlike younger, more carefree international hubs, the suit is still an HK-dwelling male’s de facto uniform for professional and social occasions alike. And that, let me tell you, can prove a sore, sweaty pill – swallowed with a side of sticky joints, dubious odours and embarrassing unease.

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Enter Empire Tailors

Which is what brought me to Tsim Sha Tsui in search of not just for a suit – which I was pretty sure I could comfortably acquire all on my own – but for a summer suit. For convenience and comfort. For something to keep me trim whatever the weather, at ease and perspiration-free – in short, something I could feel as cool in as I looked.
No high expectations, then.

The problem was, I didn’t really know what made a suit a summer suit. Thankfully, luck and Google led me to Empire Tailors – a family business with nearly four decades experience, whose diligent workforce have doubtless sewn up more breast pockets  than I’ve eaten hot meals. Whose expertise would guide me through the process with diligent care, offering learned advice and a patient ear, willing to indulgent any whim, while politely prodding the rudder back to the waterways of good taste.

Or so I was promised – and so I sincerely hoped.

Prepared for anything

I’ve often imagined a visit to the tailor akin to getting a haircut. The more idea you have of what you want going in, the more likely you are to be disappointed by the result; but a carefree approach and open-ended brief – coupled with an implicit trust in the professional you’re employing – will open possibilities and unleash unbridled creativity, gifting you the look you never knew you wanted, but projecting an image it looks like you were born into.

This was my rational for showing up at Empire Tailors with no brief beyond sheepishly mumbling “summer suit”, anyway. Right, so “linen or seersucker?” proprietor Mark naturally enquired. If this opening gambit was designed to determine what kind of shopper he was sizing up, then my flummoxed face gave an instant answer.

That pained grimace must have become one Mark got nauseatingly used to in the coming days, but his famous patience never wavered – doubtlessly, as they say, a virtue, but a double-bladed one for sure. Because while my gung-ho approach was comprehensively and commendably indulged, I soon realised it was more than a little foolhardy. What works for a haircut shouldn’t be advised for a suit you might wear for years – and not just because hair grows.

What makes a suit a summer suit

“So, you’re thinking a suit made out of linen or seersucker?” asked Mark again, good-naturedly prodding me from my self-conscious reverie.

Sense told me to go for seersucker, but taste held me back.

See, a seersucker suit sounds amazing on paper – it’s lightweight, wrinkle-free, all-cotton and ideal for keeping cool in sweatier climbs. And yet, perennially associated with the flamboyant fashions of the mid-century American south – with the jokey and jovial Colonel Sanders-type – I couldn’t bring myself to seersucker. Pin-stripped suits just ain’t my thing.

Instead, after protracted deliberations, I opted for a wise wool-linen mix suits– a 55/45% split, if you want to really get into it – with a slightly scuffed, patterned feel which brought out the homespun, tailored vibe I was feeling. The deep but bright blue promised versatility of use – jeans, here we come! – while the split fabric base promised an easy breathability without the trashy crumpled look associated with linen – a summer suit with class, I like to think.

To ease my comfort further as the mercury rises, Empire’s craftsmen ensured a light design free from padding, with two breezy side vents to ensure easy movement and maximum airflow. Free from padding in all but one shoulder, that is – which I am painfully reminded slumps lower than the other.

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I’m advised to opt for only half-lining, to further increase breathability, while guided to choose cuffs on the trousers. Not only does this once-fashion faux pas add an element of contemporary cool, but the cuff serves to weigh down the trouser leg – granting a slimmer look and reducing the chance of stickiness and sweatiness when lounging in the heat.

Overcome with the vertiginous adrenaline of the moment, I spontaneously raise the stakes and throw my chips down for a matching shirt, eventually settling on a crisp white subtly striped with a zany purple and conservative navy, which (I like to imagine) beguiling blur to offset the blue suit. I’m advised to go for full cotton – rather than those increasingly popular blends – because the fabric breathes better and absorbs more moisture. I also opt for the less formal, but summer-friendly soft collar and cuffs, which I’m promised will prove easier on the skin in the heat.

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The beauty of a bespoke summer suit - the ability to customise, customise, customise

Over the course of my multiple, leisurely visits to Empire, it quickly became apparent that my barbershop analogy was nothing short of hogwash – with so many perplexing details to consider, ordering a suit might be closer to building an engine from scratch than plonking yourself in a hairdresser’s chair.

This point was hammered home on the day of my second fitting. On the way to a wedding later that evening, I was dressed in the results of my last visit to a tailor – a sloppily big, laughably baggy, cringely generic grey monstrosity, made at a mid-priced (but personally recommended) independent courtier in Dubai.

As I came through the door clad in the offending outfit, Empire’s staff couldn’t withhold their giggles. There could be no greater advert for their services.

But if that was what happened the last time I approached a tailor unprepared and pointed lazily at a catalogue, I quickly realised that in less professional hands, I could easily have made the same mistake again. And again.

So, in the name of better dressed gentlemen the world over, I’m going to share a few tips I learnt the hard way, which can collectively help show off your worldliness, taste – and the fact you went to a tailor in the first place.

Get a peak lapel – in which the lapel points upwards proudly from the collar – while formerly a sign of formality, today’s it’s in vogue, and suggests a cooler, younger, bolder personality. (“The next guy walking by my store is probably wearing a notch [lapel],” quips Mark).

  • Why rely on a belt, when nifty side adjustors exist? Give yourself that extra flexibility by opting for adjustors and belt holes – the choice is yours.

  • Pick slanted pockets to emphasise an exotic “X” silhouette, and add a ticket pocket on the upper right breast to show class and erudition.

  • Don’t just get a flower hole – get a Milanese flower hole, something only a skilful artisan can pull off, and a sign of your sense of sophistication. “It’s not something you can easily notice – but someone who knows a bit about tailoring will always notice a Milanese,” adds Mark. “It’s like a confirmation certificate that this suit is custom made.”

  • It’s an everyday ethical dilemma that those beautifully textured brown horn buttons come from the antlers of buffalos, cattle and deer – but look so very, timelessly cool. I’m a practicing “flexitarian”, so you can guess which way I lent...

  • Mark will insist on furnishing you with a pocket square as part of the package – so you might as well get a garish one to match that outlandish lining you picked out and thought no one would ever see. It’s not like you have to wear it every day.