The man in the no-iron suit

With wrinkle-free fabric now de rigueur in the men's department, can Fortune's bespoke curmudgeon find sartorial happiness in Space Age style?

By Geoff Colvin, Fortune senior editor-at-large

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Writer Colvin models a wrinkle-free Brookscool suit, Eagle shirt, and Brooks Brothers tie.
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(Fortune Magazine) -- Walk into the Brooks Brothers store at 346 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, the former Mother Church of conservative dressing in America and Shirt Central to generations of New York businessmen, and you'll see thousands of square feet devoted to dress shirts. It was ever thus - but look closer. By my survey, 90% of those shirts are non-iron.

Upstairs you'll see rows and rows of non-iron khakis, and on the fourth floor racks of wrinkle-resistant suits. Your age determines whether you find this state of affairs shocking (you're old) or a big duh! (you're young). But I'm telling you: It's the future.

The editors thought it would be amusing to have me evaluate the new generation of non-iron clothes because they figured I was - as indeed I am - the last person who would ever wear them. It's not that I love wrinkles. But I remember the early days of non-iron clothes, when they were made partly or entirely of evil petroleum-based fibers that gave shirts the texture of army blankets and caused you to sweat like a racehorse. No one forced the manufacturers to style those clothes in incredibly poor taste, but many did that also. Those duds were in the same category as black raincoats and holographic ties.

I should probably mention that my own clothes tend to be custom-made in London and New York, placing me a bit outside the mainstream of how most guys get dressed in the morning. I don't have to wear suits to work, but I do, and I don't mind paying a laundry to take care of my shirts. So I have not been keeping abreast of wrinkle-free developments.

To see what has changed, I had several retailers send over examples of non-iron shirts, non-iron cotton pants, wrinkle-free suits, and, while they were at it, some stain-resistant ties. I then put the garments through the Colvinizer. If an item said non-iron, I washed it, dried it, and hung it up. Anything stain-resistant got salad dressing poured on it. Wrinkle-resistant suits got stuffed - not folded, stuffed - into a suitcase for a while and then hung up. And to see how these clothes held up in use, I wore them. Strictly around the house, of course.

These clothes are high-tech products. Chemical treatments lock the woven threads in place at the intersections, the key to preventing wrinkles. The manufacturer then presses in the desirable creases and pleats, bakes the clothes in an oven, cools them, and steams them to give a soft feel.

Consider a pair of Smartcare cotton khakis from Nordstrom. You wash and dry them, hang them up, and the slacks retain a decently sharp crease where you want it and otherwise lie flat and smooth. Wear them all day, and they still look that way. They're promoted as stain-resistant, so they got the salad-dressing treatment; the stain came out completely with one washing. A pair of cotton khakis from Brooks Brothers performed similarly.

Purely as a matter of cloth doing what it's supposed to do, I'm not sure what more you could ask. The one big caveat is how long the non-iron properties will last. The industry's rating system says anything labeled non-iron must hold its performance traits through five washings. That's nice, but I'd like to know how well they do after 50 washings, and I confess I didn't find out.

Most of the shirts performed well also. The blue Eagle shirt I'm wearing in the photo came out of the dryer smooth, though it benefited from a very brief touch-up with a warm iron, as did all the solid-color shirts I tested; patterns tend to hide wrinkles. I tried two suits, a $598 gray one from Brooks Brothers (pictured) and a $349 Prince of Wales check by Nautica, available through Men's Wearhouse. Both fabrics did their job: Badly wrinkled though they were after hours in a suitcase, they hung out smooth overnight, which is impressive because they're extremely lightweight.

Which brings us to how the clothes feel. All these clothes except the suits are noteworthy because they're 100% cotton - no evil synthetic fibers. Nothing else feels like cotton, and the textile industry has finally achieved its decades-long dream of non-iron cotton that really works. I can't say it all feels like traditional cotton, though. The trousers were fine, but some of the shirts lacked the wonderful softness of old-school cotton. I didn't notice it at first, but then I changed that shirt in the photo for one of my own, and the difference was pronounced.

As for the suits: They're intended to be cool, and they are, at least in the literal sense. On that criterion also, they do their job.

Now to the critical question of how the clothes look. The answer turns on the fact that they're marketed mainly to younger men, the under-35 set. Why? They're prejudice-free, not remembering the bad old days of non-iron clothes. This group hates ironing even more than most people do, which is saying something. And their incomes aren't terribly high, so they're delighted to avoid the cost of taking clothing to the cleaners. All that remains is to give them clothing that looks the way they want.

The result is several styles that I think range from unfortunate to appalling, but then, I won't see 35 again. Why do all these makers put reverse pleats on the pants? The wisdom of the ages is that forward pleats look elegant, while reverse pleats make you look like you're wearing diapers. In the suit from Brooks Brothers the shoulders are padded to NFL dimensions, and the high-closing three-button front is unflattering to pretty much everybody.

The deeper issue, however, is this: How perfect do you want to be? One can go too far, the ultimate sin being the matching tie and pocket square; it's too fussy, too studied. Designer Alan Flusser, who has as fine an eye for elegance as anyone I know of, says there's always an element of imperfection in the well-dressed man. It's what the Italians call sprezzatura, casualness that is in fact deliberate, an impression that you're fully at ease. Do you want to look perfectly wrinkle-free at 5 P.M.? I actually don't.

Yet if I take a few deep breaths, I'm prepared to endorse the coming wrinkle-free revolution. Here's the reality I have to face: I have my ideal of elegance. It was widely held around 1935. It isn't coming back. A nation dressed in eerily smooth natural-fiber clothes, styled as they are, may not be precisely what I want to look at. But the fact is, it could be a lot worse.  To top of page

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