?The average 15-year-old boy's major fashion decision should be what flesh-toned zit cream and trainers he should pair his jeans with. But in the eighties, at the Trinity School in New York, we dressed sharp. There was a dress code though we were beyond it. Ours was a world of haberdashery one-upmanship: the tie clip, the monogrammed belt buckle, the French cuff, the cordovan tasselled vamp, the three-button double vented soft shouldered jacket, all became part of a mod neurosis displayed only by members of The Who, Elizabethan dandies and Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
Why? Because when you’re 16 years old and living in Manhattan, a suit can be your ticket to a better social life. In school, we wore blazers and flannel slacks. But on the weekends you were expected to wear a suit. Or so I discovered when my friend Andrews was sent home with instructions for me to change out of my jeans and sweater.
"You'll see," he replied.
It was the first time I'd ever walked through the stained oak doors of a real pub. The bartender optimistically named Sis, popped her knuckles and gave my Lanvin Glen Plaid, inherited from a stockbroker and family friend named Eugene, the once over. As her eyes travelled from my white Brooks Brothers button-down to my woven black silk tie, I waited for her to wag her chin at the door. Instead she pushed a beer before me with a sartorial grin, "Nice suit, kid."
Later, it was explained to me that with us dressed in suits, the local cops were less inclined to hassle Sis about underage drinkers, which in turn prevented her from kicking us out on our well-clad asses. It was a win-win situation. At a time when the legal age was the massive gulf of two years away, I felt like I had found the secret back door to an exclusive social club. That I was there under false pretences made it all the more delicious. I felt like Holden Caufield masquerading as James Bond; like a pubescent secret agent, drowning his teen angst with the cheapest beer in the house. Sure, I wasn't that popular, I couldn't get girls to talk to me, but so what? I could get into bars. That alone made me cool.
The entrancepolicy at New York bars was that every guy in sight got carded while any attractive girl was allowed in regardless of age. For girls, their gender and their looks were enough. For boys, we needed fake IDs and decent suits. As I watched the uninitiated spurned from the door like heretics, I realized that to wear a nice suit in New York gave you instant social cache. I had to get more suits. When you're 16 and can't afford Richard James to take your measurements, you have to be inventive. Countless afternoons were spent prowling thrift shops — Trash and Vaudeville in the Village, East Side Story, Alice's Underground — to pick out camel hair, gabardine and mohair numbers, and on occasion, a rare cashmere find.
We became an information network—"Ciao Babes, I just saw a black gabardine in your size that walked out of a Fellini film. Muto Bellissima!" I became best friends with Madame Lao, a Vietnamese tailor on Motts Street who could work magic with shears. Her pedal-driven Singer had transformative powers rivalling Rumplestiltskin's. A 54 extra portly could be proportionally shrunk to a perfect 40 regular.
And the grey suit worked. It allowed me entrance into fancy parties at hotels where we became masters of the surreptitious glide into weddings and bar mitzvahs. At the Waldorf or the Plaza we would load up on free liquor and canapés before a night of immaculately clad carousing. And while others would occasionally be turned away from more exclusive clubs, I always got in. I recall a truly affronted friend screaming. "I'm wearing vicuña, who the hell turns away a man wearing vicuña?" The braces on his teeth — the source of his rejection — flashed incriminatingly in the streetlight.
The grey suit was with me when at 17 years old, I scored the major social coup of my young life by gaining entrance into Studio 54 the night my friends were turned away. The notoriously finicky doorman looked around then let me in with a group of achingly beautiful Germanic girls I had cunningly positioned myself next to. As we marched into the club I could already see the famous half moon descending on the dance floor. I never felt more alive. Then one of the blonde girls, perhaps a Lufthansa airline stewardess, cast a backward glance at the suit. That night it had been paired with a pale blue shirt and the black mesh tie.
She looked like Jean Seberg in Goddard's Breathless when she said, "Nice, very nice." The rest, as they say, is history.