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By John Helmer, Moscow

The lapels on a man’s coat do what a brassiere does for a woman; they display the urge to overwhelm  others.  A pointed, exaggerated urge.    

So when President Vladimir Putin wore peaked lapels in public for the first time on February 9, 2017, he meant to signal he was intending to keep the power of the presidency for at least another term, long before he actually declared his intention.  And when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wore the same lapels at Putin’s inauguration on May 7, 2018, he was saying he would keep his prime minister’s power,  hours before that was announced;   and he is hoping for more in due course. In Russia, Putin and Medvedev have been seen publicly wearing peaked lapels on their suits only once. If Putin notices Medvedev wearing them again, Medvedev will stop. The only men who wear peaked lapels continuously in Moscow are the generals of the General Staff and the Defence Minister, when he’s in uniform.

In Europe and the United States peaked lapels on power suits mean regime change has been postponed because the wearers are confident their power is secure.  In Russia, because power holders don’t feel confident for long, peaked lapels are rare. No oligarch has worn them, at least not inside the Russian frontier.  Not long after Vladimir Gusinsky started wearing them, he was arrested, stripped of his assets, and expelled.

There is much more to lapels in a newly published history of Tommy Nutter, London’s greatest tailor of the 20th century.

Most of the power in the suiting of Nutter’s story is erotic, not political.

The difference between the sex and the tailoring was Edward Sexton, Nutter’s partner when together they opened their bespoke establishment at the start of 1969. Lance Richardson’s history makes clear Nutter (below left) was the designer and promoter, Sexton the cutter and manufacturer. Richardson also reports several versions (character, money, sex) of what pulled them apart, ending in Nutter’s premature death in 1992. The book was published on May 1; read it here.    Sexton (below right) continues in business in London and on the internet.      

The author can’t help his affectations – for example, he spells champagne with a capital C, and is verbose on the characteristics of pop music celebrities, notably the rise in Mick Jagger’s trousers and Elton John’s hysteric streak.  He doesn’t help the reader understand why the Nutters design of men’s costumes was revolutionary (as distinct from fashionable) because he appears never to have been fitted himself for a Nutters suit or coat.   “Russian luminaries “ are reported once, and then only in passing, along with American magnates, maharajas and the Duke of Windsor,  as the clientele which kept the tailors of Savile Row in demand after 1860 and before the opening of Nutters on the Row in 1969. The business, however, was as valuable to British export revenue as women’s couture was to the French tailoring industry in Paris. Roughly half of Nutters’ suits were sold to the US.

Men who think highly of themselves and have the money to express it usually do. So why do Russian oligarchs dress in drab? Gusinsky is the answer. Nutter was dead by the time the Communist era ended, and powerful Russians were free and wealthy enough to return to London to order tailors to fit them out. Before that, Kim Philby was the only resident of Moscow who bought his suits on Savile Row; shoes from John Lobb; shirts from Budd.

Left: The last Russian oligarch to wear peaked lapels in Moscow -- Vladimir Gusinsky in 1996. Owner of the Most (“Bridge”) Group including Most Bank and Media Most, Gusinsky was arrested in Moscow in June 2000, charged with misappropriation of corporate funds, then released to live abroad. His assets were sold up. For a summary, click to read.  Right: Mikhail Fridman in pinstripes with peaked lapels and unpadded  shoulder line,  London in 2004. Fridman has kept his Russian assets but lives in London, where his asset holding LetterOne is based.

Left: Fridman in pinstripes, notched lapels and shoulder pads, November 2008, with then-President Medvedev, following the Kremlin’s decision to give Fridman’s Vimpelcom a $2 billion rescue from Deutsche Bank foreclosure.   Right: Sergei Pugachev in pinstripes and peaked lapels in London in 2011, where he was on the run from Russian charges of stealing $1 billion from the Central Bank. He then fled to France to avoid a British jail sentence. Click for this story.

Between them, Nutter and Sexton  introduced many innovations in shape, cut and pattern which had not been worn together before. The curved lapels extending almost to the sleeve seam were the novelty which other tailor designers immediately acknowledged as extraordinary. In costume museums they continue to distinguish the Nutter style; for more on  the politics of Russian lapels, read this. These lapels also dictated sharp tapering at the waist, and frocking below the waist.  It was still possible to work wearing such a Nutters coat, although in winter the overcoat in this design was too open at the chest unless the sun was shining. Impossible in Moscow; equally impossible as a man’s body aged.   

In the early Nutters suits, the trousers were too tight to allow side pockets, and if sat in for desk work, even the best woollen cloth quickly became threadbare;  the silks and corduroys started to shine like an Italian gangster. In the later Nutters style, pleats and creases were added for bankers and lawyers to work in, if not sit at desks.  

Unmatched, contrasting patterns of cloth (right) were another Nutters innovation. Braiding around the coat edges and pocket flaps was a revival from 19th century military costumes; the thigh or knee-length frock coat a revival of that century’s civilian dress.

These were costumes to show off the wearer, which is why they appealed to performers on the stage. The only Russian who came close was also a stage performer, the Soviet-era poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The stage protected his taste in contrastive display from proletarian envy; then he departed to live in Oklahoma.  

Left, Yevgeny Yevtushenko arriving in London, April 1962; right, Yevtushenko, in the US, 2016.  

Russian winter, the snow in the air and slush on the ground, have also defeated the adoption of Nutters style in Moscow. His overcoats were too close-fitting to allow fur linings. His trouser cuffs were cut to the heel of the shoe, not to the throat line, and so were bound to become unwearably dirty if trod through the streets. Suitable galoshes were not invented for Russians by London shoemakers until 2015. 

Power projection in Russia doesn’t permit the expensively shod foot to touch the ground unless it’s been swept clean first. For the time being galoshes are for workers.

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