One of Tony Bennett's earliest memories of "wearing a great suit" was on July 11, 1936, when a teacher arranged for him to sing at the opening of the Triborough Bridge, now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, in New York City.
"I walked hand in hand with Mayor [Fiorello] LaGuardia, who is still one of my heroes, and I remember the beautiful white silk suit I wore that day," said Bennett during a fall interview with The Times. "It was one of the first times that I recall appreciating clothes and knowing how special it made me feel to be well-dressed."
Ever since, suiting up has been a given for Bennett, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. The 19-time Grammy Award winner, who turned 90 in August, recalled staying at an L.A. hotel on Jan. 17, 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m.
As a dresser and TV toppled, Bennett took time to slip into a dapper suit before evacuating with the bathrobe-clad crowd.
And then there was his 1998 performance at the Glastonbury Festival in England: "It was massive rain, so the front of the stage was a mud pile and every single person in the audience was covered in it," said Bennett. "I was the only person in a suit and tie that day. The staff was so lovely that they set up a trail of hay bales for me to [climb onto] stage and there wasn't a speck of mud on my suit!"
So it was almost a relief to see Bennett lounging in a true leisure suit — a sky-blue, triple-stripe Adidas tracksuit — at the Avenue of the Arts hotel in Costa Mesa before his Oct. 23 performance at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The classy crooner sat down in his hotel room, along with his wife, Susan, to discuss his philosophy of style and life amidst his decidedly un-leisurely schedule.
Bennett's fifth book, "Just Getting Started" (Harper: 288 pp., $27.99), featuring people and places that have inspired him, was co-written by Scott Simon and released in November.
A star-studded holiday special, "Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come," featuring Lady Gaga, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, is scheduled to air Dec. 20 on NBC, and an accompanying album will be released Dec. 16.
Bennett is also an accomplished painter (under his given name, Anthony Benedetto) who sketches or paints every day, even while on the road. His nonprofit organization, Exploring the Arts, partners with 33 public high schools nationwide, including six in Los Angeles, to support arts education.
"There was a moment when I was 10 years old [after his father had died], when I didn't know who I was or what I should do," said Bennett. "Some relatives would come over on Sundays to help my mom out because they knew that she was raising three children alone and working so hard. And they said, 'We love the way you sing and we love the way you paint.' They gave me a great gift. Ever since then, that's what I've been doing."
Now when it comes to style, Bennett's buzzword is "quality," something he learned from his mother, Anna, who worked as a seamstress to support the family.
"We were extremely poor, but even the poorest people were well-dressed," Bennett said.
"It's funny how it's changed; everybody's in blue jeans now. It's not as nice," he said. "There are too many things that are successful but forgotten right away. But if you do something with quality, it will always sound good or look good, no matter what year it is, no matter what the trends are. ... Quality lasts."
Bennett says 95% of his tailored suits, shirts and pocket squares are crafted by Italian menswear brand Brioni, although lately he has ordered custom suits from Costa Mesa-based label David August.
Other fashion favorites: a black Aquascutum raincoat with a red lining, sleek leather loafers by Bally and his signature aviator-style glasses with tinted yellow lenses that look hipster but are so old — more than a decade — that Bennett can't make out the label.
Bennett also cherishes two watches given to him by close friends — a Tiffany & Co. ticker from Carol Burnett and a Cartier watch from Lady Gaga — along with a gold signet ring, worn on a long chain around his neck, that was a childhood gift from his mother.
As for style heroes, Bennett has long looked to Fred Astaire — he once wrote down every outfit that Astaire wore in the 1953 film, "The Band Wagon," to study the performer's clothing choices.
"You gravitate toward the things you admire," he said. "If you see Fred Astaire in the movies and you see the way he dances, you say, 'Oh my God, look at that.' And you realize that if you're going to do something well, you're going to have to put that much work into it. He had an awful lot of style in the way he danced and the way he dressed. It doesn't look dated."
It was singer Dean Martin who got Bennett to add a touch of color to his stage uniform.
"Dean told me to always have a red handkerchief in my [breast] pocket," Bennett said. "Now everybody does that, but at that time, it was brand-new. He did it for television."
Clothing aside, what's on Bennett's bucket list? Singing with Beyoncé, who recently received nine Grammy nominations for her visual album "Lemonade."
"She said she has an idea in mind about doing something, so I think it will come about," Bennett said. "And here I am at 90. ... I really feel like I'm just starting out. It's funny how it works. I'm far from finished with what I like to do. So I'm hoping for a very long life. If I can be blessed with that, I would love it."