Men who count are into jackets with more hardware ON THE BUTTON

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In this season of polls -- on everything from sexual to presidential performance -- it seems appropriate to run a sampling on the state of male button-consciousness.

"How many buttons on your best suit?" we asked a bunch of guys within shouting and coffee pot distance.

With one natty exception, they looked down at their unsuited stomachs and started poking at possible button sites with their index finger. They'll have to do better.

Buttons are important in today's male fashion world, and that means the higher the count the higher the style. The average male, confident in some nice two-button single-breasteds and a snappy double-breasted number or two will have to develop a new awareness beyond noticing a missing brass button on a blazer .

Influential designers such as Armani and Dolce and Gabanna are pushing buttons, as many as six in single-breasted versions. That's for the cutting edge. The mainsteam trend is moving up from two to three, with some four-button versions for the man who's willing to push a little harder.

"We really never had a four-button single-breasted suit in my memory, which is a long one." says Jack Hershlag, executive director of the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers. "The pendulum in single-breasted swings between two and three. Now the mainstream is swinging to three buttons. The fashion segment may even go for as many as six buttons, but they are going for a look," he says.

"The real move from two to three buttons is a move from the '80s to the '90s. The '80s was a decade of the power tie, the power suit, showing off the shirtfront and the chest and muscle area. The focus was on strength, aggressive dealing, and along with that came fuller padding in the shoulder," he says.

It seems that buttons are changing the posture of men in today's society. "The '90s are more sensitive, you don't have to show a lot of muscle," says Mr. Herschlag, "by adding that third or fourth button, and even buttoning it up, men are showing less chest and a slimmer silhouette. They appear more closed, personal and sensitive, more intellectual."

Ralph Lauren has done the sensitive urban intellectual look better than most by styling men in high-buttoned grandfather vests and soft jackets with collar turned up against the freezing La Boheme garret. It's a stylish anti-fashion look for New York's Soho, or local coffee houses where the hip gather.

"The forward-ashion group with higher buttoning, likes to exagggerate and parody fashion as a way of living slightly different lives," says Mr. Hershlag.

"If you are going to button all the top buttons, you not only have a slimmer chest and wider bottom you are sending a message that you are a little cooler, sharper and smarter."

Where does that leave the guy who's not a poseur but wants to be smartly dressed? He can go an extra button.

Harvy Hyatt, owner of Hyatt & Co. stores says men are slowly getting the button message. "Three-buttons are selling. When we first got them in three years ago we had to fight them out of the store, customers were leery. Now they're moving," he says. "The three-button customer is the one coming from the more adventurous double-breasted crowd who wants a slightly different line."

Men who can remember the three-button sack suit of the '50s and whose middle may not be going along with slim thinking will be reassured that today's version has more ease and room to breathe. Those men may even be wondering what all the three-button fuss is about.

Brooks Brothers, makers of the original, is taking a relaxed attitude. Robert Squillaro, senior buyer for Brooks Brothers says their traditional three-button sack suit has a lapel designed to roll to the middle button for fastening. A new group called Soft Classics does address the trend and introduces a three-button model with a higher roll.

"Although we didn't reinvent the original sack suit which Brooks introduced for the Ivy League as a rebellion against the exaggerated fit of the '40s and '50s," he says, "we are still building softer relaxed tailoring."

It's a case of younger thinkers borrowing from the old guard. John Karl, a former Baltimorean who is now chairman of the menswear department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks a closed up look is more adventurous. That may come by way of being responsible for training young designers to look back to the future.

"Tell men to button up and take it like a man," he says. "When it comes to buttons, men should play the game. Fashion is fun. Fashion is change. Buy that five-button and wear it," he says. "If you play the fashion game you have to be willing for clothes to be disposable."

There remains that huge mainstream market, however, where showing too much fashion may be considered a character flaw.

"I would never recommend lots of buttons to my clients who are upper tier executives, says personal fashion consultant and shopper Lois Fenton. "The new four- and three-button suits are taking the old Brooks sack and doing something fashion-forward with it. Some of my older clients never moved to an updated business suit and stayed with the sack. After all, a few years back anyone wearing a double-breasted suit was thought to be a foreigner or just off the plane from Las Vegas. That's all changed now," she says.

The problem with being a fashion daredevil, she says, is that a man is forced to start at ground zero, he can't mix apples and oranges. A multi-button jacket requires the right underpinnings and he can't go high fashion in the suit and expect it to work with his old button-down shirts and wing-tips."

The four and five button counts are a flashy in the pan as far as tailored business attire is concerned, says Massimo Iacoboni, fashion director for The Fashion Association which includes members as diverse as Levi Strauss and the Falke European collection.

"At the designer level, where buttons make a big showing, suits are starting to look more and more like a sportswear item, to emulate an easy cardigan style," he says. "That is an indication of profound changes in the way we live and dress, it's all about being comfortable."

Comfort and ease may very well be the standard for dressing in the '90s, but men should not count out the possibility of more buttons in their lives. Next spring, Hyatt & Co. has ordered fully tailored trousers with a button fly.

ON THE COVER

Styling by Suzin Boddiford

Modeled by Brice Buell/Nova Models

Blazer, $350; shirt, $60; tie, $36, all from Brooks Brothers.

BUTTON UP

Here are some button ideas and vocabulary to bash around with your haberdasher.

GORGE: The shirt-front triangle that is formed when a jacket is buttoned. This is the year of a higher gorge, which translates to higher buttoning and less shirt showing. A way to achieve the look without reworking the wardrobe may be to invest in a more closed up vest with many buttons to fill in the shirt void where the old two-button jacket stops.

ROLL: The lie of the lapel, which is cut and designed to meet the button high or low on the chest where it fastens. A low roll, for instance, exposes more of the shirt.

STANCE: The way buttons are positioned -- higher, lower, double, or single. All combinations are possible.

DB: That's clothier shorthand for Double Breasted, a cut that is now standard and acceptable in any fashion vocabulary. The button stance on a double-breasted jacket gets arithmetical. The first number indicates the total number of buttons. The second number indicates how many are functional.

A six-on-two stance adds up to six buttons, three on each side, with the roll of the lapel leading to the middle button on the opposite side. That leaves four buttons with no function.

A six-on-three button stance means all three buttons on the fastening side are designed to work -- a very continental and narrow style.

Button count and stance can climb as high as eight-on-eight, but men shopping that kind of look know their own minds and need no guidance.

SLEEVES: There is no formula or correlation for the number of sleeve buttons to the jacket front, because they serve no function. As clothing gets softer, some designers are coming around to functional buttons which can be undone to push the sleeve up.

OTHERS: With the banded collar and casual Friday dressing gaining in importance, so do the shirt buttons, which are no longer hidden by a tie. Designers are now trimming shirts with bone, tortoise or designs.

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