Men in finance may not care for 'fashion,' but mastering the finer points of their own wardrobes is a game they love to play—and win
THE LAST THING any guy who works in finance wants to talk about is fashion. Except, perhaps, to wryly mock it. "What was all that stuff on the runway in Milan?" one high-ranking New York investment banker asked me after he inadvertently caught a glimpse of the fall trends from Europe in a newspaper. "No banker in the world would ever wear any of that."
Still, however much they lampoon the unrealism of menswear on the runways, the Alpha males of finance can't help but harbor certain obsessions—not surprisingly, often number-related—when it comes to their own wardrobes. While one gentleman secretly dotes on the inner pocket of a bespoke suit that has been measured to fit the exact dimensions of his smartphone, another is consumed with the three-sided crow's foot stitch anchoring the buttons on his Kiton shirt. One businessman recounted to me his fascination at seeing a Loro Piana salesman dump a bucket of water over a jacket to verify its waterproof claim. (It worked.)
The finer points of sartorialism, it turns out, prove to be catnip to the most serious professionals, who convert the insider knowledge into a flawless look. Despite their protests, don't be fooled: These men are deeply invested in the way they dress and in the aura of power that a well-made suit can create—and increasingly so. Sales at Neapolitan tailor Mariano Rubinacci, a finance favorite where suits start at around $6,000, are up 20% from last year.
"Finance people are very detail-oriented and that doesn't translate into trendy labels," said Matthew Shelton, a director of equity derivatives at Credit Suisse International in London. "They're obsessed with the tailor they're using, whether there's horsehair in the shoulder and how many man-hours it took, but they don't get the same thrill looking at the new cut on a Jil Sander suit."
It should be noted that Mr. Shelton does, in fact, own a Jil Sander suit (and a Lanvin one), but thanks to a girlfriend who works in fashion he is both open to and conversant on the subject. The shorter jackets of designer suits, he explained, are more appropriate for drinks at the Connaught Hotel than on the trading floor in London. His lace-up shoes with double hand-sewn top stitching from Berluti, an Italian footwear company founded in 1895, however, work both circuits effortlessly.
In New York, the scene is even more strait-laced. "Bankers should not be too fashionable," said Stefan Selig, executive vice chairman of global corporate and investment banking at Bank of America BAC +1.25% Merrill Lynch. "You can have a great tailor make you a great suit. But it will be gray or navy blue."
At Anderson & Sheppard, one of the most acclaimed tailors on London's Savile Row, the New York clientele comes almost exclusively from Wall Street. The tailor offers more than 25,000 fabric options, 800 of which are in business-appropriate navy and gray. An added bonus: Once you've ordered a suit, your measurements are faithfully logged by hand into the company's ledgers, which date back to 1912. "Our customers love that," said Colin Heywood, Anderson & Sheppard's sales manager in London. "It makes them feel like part of a private club."
In Naples, another center of bespoke tailoring, Mariano Rubinacci makes only 1,000 jackets per year. (Existing clients get priority.) There are no labels on Mr. Rubinacci's suits—only the customer's name handwritten in permanent marker on a cream-colored patch inside the breast pocket. And no request is deemed excessive or impossible. One client in Los Angeles demanded a tuxedo for New Year's Eve on Dec. 27. "He spent 20,000 euro on travel and 6,000 euro on the suit just because he wanted to see if my father was able to do it," recalled Luca Rubinacci, son of owner Mariano. "And, I think he wanted to tell his friends about it."
In an industry of fierce one-upmanship, it's not surprising that these men are prone to competition when it comes to what's in their closets. "When you see a friend who's looking good and feeling very good in his clothes and he says he has a tailor who is flying in from Naples and meeting him at [Manhattan hotel] the Carlyle for an appointment," says the younger Mr. Rubinacci. "You think, 'Wow!' I want that too.' It's a contest."
Forgetting for a moment his avowed contempt for fashion, a guy-in-the-know can easily be convinced to trade stats on scoring the super 150s or the super duper 200s in his wool yarns (and knowing what that means), spending more than $2,600 on a rare fragrance by Abdul Samad al Qurashi in Paris, or picking a seven-fold tie instead of basic three. There is plenty of numerical data to run after. After all, why would anyone insist on a Rolex Submariner watch that can go 1,000 feet underwater when the farthest he goes below sea level is the 30 feet down to the Wall Street subway station?
Of course, the number on the price tag is one of the most important. No man in today's financial climate wants to go on the record about how many $6,000 suits he orders, but Anderson & Sheppard's Mr. Heywood reported that his best customers order 10 a year. "When I look at a $500 shirt, versus a $250 shirt, I'll take the $500 one every time," said one busy broker. "It's got to be better, right?"
Alpha dressing isn't just about flexing one's competitive muscles, but about connoisseurship. Fashion is another aspect of fine living, along with wine, cars and homes. "It's about becoming an evolved, discerning customer," says Pier Guerci, an Italian businessman living in New York. "These customers are experts. They can differentiate one fabric from another, they know how these things are constructed, they recognize the best when they see it."
Mr. Guerci sends his own Riva shirts and Irish linen handkerchiefs to Milan to be embroidered with his initials by the nimble hands of Bambina Zinelli. "She has been doing it for 50 years, she's the best. They look like little pieces of art," he said.
The focus on stats and competition might feel cold, but like Mr. Guerci's beloved embroiderer, there's an element of warmth attached to the pursuit of highly personalized luxury clothing. Great service is prized, from a salesman who emails clients photos of new styles to a tailor who makes office calls. It also helps men, particularly Americans, overcome their aversion to shopping. "I don't want to drive to Brioni on Rodeo Drive where the parking sucks when a guy will come to my office," explained a financial adviser in Los Angeles.
Ultimately, even if the effort made and money spent isn't readily apparent, the handmade suit still telegraphs its superiority, a potent visual cue that a man has brought his A-game. Astute men know that looking good can pay off.
When that L.A financial adviser first met with a major Hollywood producer as a potential client, he was told he looked just like a banker. "He said, 'If I could cast you I would,' " recalled the adviser, who at the meeting was wearing a custom-made navy blue Brioni. He never got a movie part, but he did get hired for the role of great-looking finance guy.