Daniel Lewis was his own first customer. The founder of Brooklyn Tailors was, like most recent college graduates, in need of a suit for job interviews when he moved to New York City. But as a photographer and musician, he didn’t want a suit that would make him look like another first-year I-banking analyst. He looked up to guys like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan and wondered, “Why do they look so good in a suit? There was this disconnect between [what they wore] and what I found in department stores. That was the initial spark,” Lewis says.
Frustrated at not being able to find a suit that was modern, but not too trendy, high quality, but not too expensive, Lewis set out to make the suit he saw in his mind’s eye. After teaching himself to sew, Lewis realized he didn’t want to be the guy with the needle and thread, but he knew how to conceptualize a strong design. He worked for a small menswear company during the day, and at night, would come home to focus on his own creations.
Eventually the day job/night job/sleep/repeat cycle got to be too much and his girlfriend-now-wife Brenna, with whome he co-founded Brooklyn Tailor, gave hime the push needed to go out on his own. “A husband and wife going into business together is probably a terrible idea, but let’s give it a try,” Daniel remembers thinking.
With the help of the internet and word of mouth and internet word of mouth, Brooklyn Tailors launched out of the couple’s apartment in 2007. Clients would take fittings in the kitchen. While the accommodations weren’t luxurious, the clothes were excellent. The company eventually expanded into a proper design studio as well as a nearby brick-and-mortar store and was named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in 2014. Brooklyn Tailors has attracted a diverse set of followers, including actor Elijah Wood, college football analyst Jesse Palmer, and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong while also expanding beyond custom suits into a wider line of menswear.
But suits are still what Brooklyn Tailors is best known for, so we asked Daniel and Brenna for some tips on how guys can wear a suit without feeling like “a suit.”
1. YOU CAN BE YOU IN A SUIT
“For guys that grew up in our generation in the 90s and late 80s, suits were very uncool. They were a requirement for certain things, to go to a wedding, to get interviewed for a job,” Daniel says. “It wasn’t something that you wanted to wear.” It doesn’t have to be that way. The key is finding a suit that fits your personality. Think about jeans. You wouldn’t buy the ill-fitting dad jeans or the embroidery-riddled douchebag jeans, why do the equivalent with a suit? Lewis’s first step with a new client isn’t taking their measurements, it’s having a conversation, and then using the information gleaned from that chat to make recommendations.
2. DON’T BE PRECIOUS
When some guys reach for their suit, it’s as if they expect it to be bathed in a golden light while angels sing. It’s on a special hanger. It’s put on with delicate care. “A lot of people consider it like a formal gown, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Brenna. “It can be a part of your identity, but you can also throw in on the floor at the end of the day and dust it off and wear it again.” A well-made suit will last for years and can stand up to just about anything thrown in its way, so stop treating it as though it will disintegrate if you look at it funny.
3. FIND THE RIGHT FABRIC
“The distinction between Suit A and Suit B comes down to the tiny little things,” Daniel says. “When you think of the quintessential business suit that no one wants to wear, you think of a very fine high sheen fabric.” To make a suit that has a more distinct vibe, he uses fabrics that have a little bit more toughness and character to them, such as flannels and tweeds. And even a lightweight summer suit can use a material that has texture and a matte finish.
4. SLIM DOES NOT MEAN TIGHT
A good suit gives you room where you need it and not where you don’t. For guys with a more athletic build, it can be tough to find an off-the-rack suit that fits the bill, because those options scale up all over the place as opposed to only in key areas like the shoulders and thighs. “A lot of bigger guys come in and say ‘I though I needed a bigger suit,’ but if anything that just accentuates the wrong parts of your body,” Brenna says. But trying to squeeze into a tight suit is not the answer either. “As soon as something looks like it’s grabbing the body and is pulling, it doesn’t make you look slimmer. It makes you look bigger, like you’re trying to wear something that doesn’t fit you,” says Daniel. Bespoke and made-to-measure suits do a great job of finding that ideal middle ground that works with your body type but still feels elegant. If that’s outside of your budget, another option is to buy a suit as separates (i.e. the jacket is a different size from the pants).
5. DITCH THE WHITE SHIRT
A lot of times the things that make a suit feel formal have nothing to do with the suit itself: the crisp white shirt, the tie, the polished wingtips. “A suit in many ways is a blank slate,” says Daniel. “You can take the same suit and wear it 10 different ways and it will read so different.” A dark printed shirt or a denim shirt under a suit still feels very put together, but is very cool. A crewneck sweater or plain T-shirt does the same thing, but with a more casual vibe. The right shoes can also go a long way to removing the stuffiness from a suit, whether it’s a pair of clean white tennis shoes or a desert boot.
6. STAND OUT, BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Because of the many different ways you can style a suit, it’s possible to wear the same one multiple times a week without people wondering if you ever change your clothes. So you don’t want a suit that is too memorable, like a green one for example. But a standard black suit can come across as harsh and funereal. “I like to tell people to find something that’s two steps away from what everyone is going to expect,” Daniel says. “One sweet spot that we like, and a lot of our customers enjoy, is a slightly brighter, richer navy blue. It really walk that line that feels special and classic at the same time.”