Young Wall Street bankers turn to custom suits

Alton Lane CEO Colin Hunter in the company's New York showroom

An Alton Lane employee shows available suit fabrics

Wall Street is not known for bold men’s fashion. Bankers can afford nice clothes, but there’s rarely anything especially daring floating in that sea of blue and grey suits. It’s a tricky business for stylish young men. They want to look good, but can’t stand out. That means they focus on small custom details, something that’s now easier to do thanks to changes in the fashion world. How the young men of Wall Street suit up gives a window into Wall Street’s peculiar clothes culture.

The key rules of Wall Street fashion are simple: don’t stick out and don’t outdress the boss. Young bankers who dare to wear fancier suits and ties than their supervisors (or clients) will be called out at best, and risk wrecking their careers at worst. The same goes for Wall Street women who wear flashy heels or jewelry too soon. New recruits to finance often don’t realize this when they dress for their first day in the office.

“This young guy came into work, the first week of work. He was wearing these suspenders, these loud suspenders. He thought he was Gordon Gekko. He had this belt buckle with the letter F on it. Belt buckles shouldn’t be...you’re not riding a bull,” says Raj Malhotra, a former Bank of America trader who left to do stand-up comedy as Raj Mahal. "You wanna look good but you don’t wanna be over the top."

Wall Street’s fashion hierarchy has long stifled stylish young men. But that’s changing a bit. That doesn't mean guys are straying from the norm of blue and grey wool. They can’t. But they can send little coded messages with custom details, subtle touches that the fashion-conscious will notice, but aren’t too flashy as to make a man stick out in a bad way.

Some of them turn to the custom tailor shop Alton Lane to do this. The New York showroom has the air of a mini-gentlemen’s club, with a young client in mind. There are big leather chairs, sports on a flat screen, and single malt scotch on offer.

Staffers use iPads to walk clients through all the ways they can customize their suits, including touches that most people won’t notice, like adding a colorful lining or changing the thread color of the buttonhole. Some opt to stitch their names or initials above the inside pocket. Finance guys especially love to put other stuff there.

"We’ve had a couple quotes recently from 'The Wolf of Wall Street', which are great,” says Alton Lane operations director Bill Welch. "'Money never sleeps' is one that’s always been on there."

Strokes like these are perfect for Wall Street employees, because they are subtle or even hidden, which means they can be tweaked and customized in the context of an otherwise conservative blue or charcoal suit. The details are barely noticeable, except to the sharp-eyed and style-sensitive. That’s ideal for a young banker who wants to express his style without putting himself at risk of getting ridiculed or sent home for being too flashy.

"Within the finance world, people tend to be pretty direct. They may use some words that are probably not appropriate for the radio," says Alton Lane CEO Colin Hunter. "You won’t be left guessing whether it’s appropriate or not. You’ll know very quickly."

He and a co-founder started the business after careers in private equity and consulting, so they understand the unspoken Wall Street dress code, and its often blunt enforcement.

The company is part of a new breed of suit shops. Custom suits traditionally cost thousands of dollars. Guys can spend that here, but Alton Lane also sells custom suits under $600, a price unheard of among old-school tailors.

The company keeps costs down by running a lean business. Since clothes are made to order, there’s no need to buy a bunch of suits and risk them going unsold. Tailoring is done abroad, where labor is cheaper and smaller showrooms reduce real estate costs. The lower price puts custom suits in easy reach of a lot more young bankers.

Custom clothes are also a draw because of a common problem on Wall Street: exploding elbows. Tailors marvel at how often energetic traders manage to tear holes in their elbows, chalking it up to the high-pressure culture on Wall Street.

"Guys in finance, I guess, for whatever reason are a little bit more aggressive,” explains Brendan O'Donnell, who works in risk management. “If you make, like, a sudden movement, or you get agitated about something, or you lose your temper, or you get excited, a quick movement could mean you’re gonna blow out an elbow."

Frustrated after busting through ten pricey off-the-rack shirts, he started getting clothes made to order at Windsor Custom, another new tailor popular among young Wall Street. He hasn’t shredded an elbow since.

He says the investment in custom suits with a bold lining also pays off at the bar after work.

"If you go in there and there’s ten guys with blue suits on that are off the rack ,and you’re that one guy with a perfectly tailored, funny-lining suit, it’s definitely a talking point with a lot of girls," he says.

And that is next level Wall Street style: blending in enough not to the anger the boss, but adding a secret touch of flair where it matters.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

An Alton Lane employee shows available suit fabrics

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