Updated: Sep 16, 2022
One of the things that baffle me substantially is how great designs are lost through the river of time. This may be due to a societal change in perceptions and preferences, especially in relation to pieces that are trend-driven or those which tie themselves to a particular era, a bygone past. This may also be induced by the increasing concerns over cultural appropriation, which arguably limits the creative freedom around a certain symbol; thus, ultimately leading to a decline and demise of a whole genre of art, clothing, and beyond.
From the get-go, it has always been clear to me that sustainability — despite my education and training in the environmental sector— encompasses more than just environmental considerations. Often, what is overlooked are social, and even more so, cultural sustainability. This is because one can, at least, quantify the former. Say, set a fair hourly wage so that artisans can go on to create marvelous and jaw-dropping pieces, without worrying about their livelihoods. On the contrary, we can’t — or society is not ready to — put a tag on culture.
In the meantime, then, it would only seem sensible that cultures and icons are being studied and enjoyed after. It is through this reinvention and evolution that we can continue to preserve the fabric that shaped the backbone of history and our common identity as organically as possible.
This is why today, The Suitstainable Man is launching a new initiative — a new, ongoing collection of garments, accessories, and other goods — focusing on rejuvenating pieces that have immense historical relevance but have faded from the public’s view for reasons mentioned above, as well as due to other reasons.
It is worth emphasizing that we are not attempting to replicate historical pieces. Nay, you probably don’t need me to throw you the ‘they don’t make things like that anymore’ line. Rather, our focus is to study the functionality and purpose of historical pieces, and make them relevant and compatible with our contemporary lifestyles; all the while employing traditional tailoring and crafting techniques. It is, for this reason, that we will be naming this collection, New Meanings.
For our first entry to the collection, we are introducing the Plexippus Cape; named after the binomial name of the Monarch butterfly (D. plexippus) for its silhouette.
As per usual, we begin with some historical insights.
The cape, in its most primitive form, is nothing more than a flat piece of fabric draped over the human form. It is, for this reason, that some would argue it is the oldest piece of clothing — second only to Adam’s leaf.
Due to its simplicity, many cultures arrive at a cape-like garment. Most notably, ancient history buffs may be the most familiar with the long, draped cloaks worn by the Athenians, the smaller-sized lacerna and tebenna capes worn by the Etruscans, or the pallium worn by Roman citizens. Outside Europe, several notable early capes also include the Mexican poncho and the Aztec tilmàtli.
By extension, one can even consider that early robes were simply capes with the excess underarm volume removed to form a sleeve. Notably, the Japanese kimono and the Chinese pao are made in such a manner.
It would be an oversimplification to say the cape has undergone countless transformations throughout the centuries, taking many shapes and forms during the process. Just to exemplify, it can be worn over the shoulders or wrapped around the body tightly; it can come in full-length like an Inverness cape or short like a capelet; can feature in-form sleeves or not, etc.
Ultimately, the lines and the lengths of the capes or cloaks largely depend on the purpose of the cape, the customs of a given country, and the aesthetics of the time, among other considerations. The logical takeaway, then, is that there isn't a correct way to engineer a cape.
On that note, one of the best-selling features of the Plexippus is its shape. If we had no choice but to compartmentalize as to which sub-genre the Plexippus falls under, then the Plexippus would resemble a 3/4 circle cape the closest.
The most straightforward way to tell the difference between a 3/4 circle, full-circle, and a half-circle cape is that the former is conventionally made by joining the shoulder point of the armscye (otherwise, known as the armhole for sleeved coats) of the front to that of the back, by positioning it at a 135 degrees angle. These two 135 degrees angle panels will then be joined together at the back, thus forming a half-circle.
We have opted for this configuration over the more commonly-observed full and half-circle cousins as it helps reduce much of the unnecessary bulk that adds substantial weight to the cape while allowing the maximum amount of ways for styling — a point I will return to later. Rest assured the traditional draped aesthetic that most people considered intrinsic to the nature of a cape is maintained and not compromised.
Notice how we didn't call this the 'Pac-Man' or the 'Semi-devoured Pizza' cape. This is because the edge of the cape (or the bottom opening of the cape) isn't completely round. Instead, it features a concave shape where the wearer's hand can pass through.
Much attention has been paid to finding the right balance in creating a window where the wearer's hand can reach out from the sides of the cape with ease while retaining sufficient length to prevent wind from sneaking in.
Elsewhere, the shoulder seams also deserve particular attention. The shifted shoulder seam also removes much of the underarm volume found in other capes, hence leading to a considerably cleaner and contemporary cut.
Last but not least, an additional benefit of this particular shoulder treatment is that it can accommodate a wide variation in shoulder widths, making the Plexippus an excellent layering item. So far, I've been able to wear this as a standalone piece, over a chunky knit and/ or a tailored jacket, depending on weather conditions.
Both the outer shell and inner fabrics are from Holland & Sherry, which tailoring enthusiasts would know as one of the best British textile merchants.
We have selected a rather heavyweight, deep navy wool overcoating cloth — 840gsm (27oz) — for the outer fabric. Close attention has been paid to ensure the cloth is neither too spongy nor stiff; as the former would lead to the cloth collapsing on itself (without the support of an internal lining), while the latter would restrain the wearer's ease of movement.
Although the 840gsm may seem like a deterring number for contemporary outerwear, you can rest assured that the Plexippus does not weigh as heavy as you would have imagined in practice. This is because, unlike regular tailoring, our cape does not feature any forms of internal structure and canvassing. Moreover, the heavier weight also enables the Plexippus to stay put on your shoulders.
As for the inner fabric, we have employed the same material dinner jackets are often made out of — velvets. Now, cotton velvets may be commonly known for their tendency to absorb lights, thus making them an ideal choice of cloth for eveningwear. What is less commonly recognized is the extraordinary grip their texture offers. This considerably reduces the likelihood of slippage, with the Plexippus cape firmly fastened to the garment underneath.
One final note on the velvet. While it may appear more like a cherry red in our pictures, our chosen velvet, which weighs about 380gsm (12oz), sits closer to a more sophisticated burgundy/ wine color, in real life.
The Plexippus is made by the same pair of hands who also makes our TSM Silk Dupion Jacket.
It should come as no surprise that we have worked hard to feature the highest possible amount of handwork in the cape per our ethos. This results in an approximate 24 hours of handwork, despite not featuring any chest and shoulder canvasses.
Most notably, the velvet facing is rolled and attached by hand, similar to how a lapel on a jacket would be attached. This provides a natural drape and roll to the front of the garment, thus allowing the velvet to be displayed easily. On top of that, the collar is interlined and connected with the bodice by hand. This ensures the weight from the fabric doesn't distort or pull on the collar.
Perhaps what is more impressive is the fact that all of the hems and seams are hand-bound. This is crucial, if not essential, due to the heavy weight of the outer shell fabric. Executing by hand is the safest way to guarantee the leather piping is attached properly.
As the Plexippus is draped rather than fitted, we are left with a variety of options to wear the piece. The following are some combinations I have found particularly pleasing:
One of the most impeccable ways to wear the cape is to have the contrasting velvet facing naturally drape open. Not only does this emphasize vertical height on the wearer, but it also adds depth and texture to any layering underneath.
An additional option is to double back from the center seam and place your hands in the trouser pockets. I find that this shifts much of the volume to the upper half of the body, creating a relaxed and flattering silhouette that emphasizes the torso.
Elsewhere, the reduced hem length on the sides makes the cape a much more practical garment for daily use, whether it be opening doors, scrolling on your phone, holding onto coffee, or walking your dog.
When the mercury drops and the wind becomes stronger, I often throw one side of the cape across my opposite shoulder for extra warmth, as shown in the pictures above. When closed, the front hemline of this particular design lends itself to a rather tasteful asymmetric intersection of lines and texture.
From the back, the side of the hem which is draped over the shoulder creates a smaller yet clean drape similar to the silhouette of a capelet. (See the following pictures.) As menswear pieces are worn fitted to the body, this type of asymmetrical elegance is rarely seen — it is something I encourage you to experiment with.
Currently, the Plexippus comes in three different sizes — Small, Medium, and Large. I am 175cm tall with a standard physique and usually wear an EU size 46/8 in tailoring. I wear a Medium.
For more information on the sizing, please see our size guide on the product page.
Photography: William Wong, VRoma, Mallory Atkins, and The Suitstainable Man team