Saturday, 31 January 2009
Friday, 30 January 2009
Rejoice and give praise: the world is a beautiful place. High art is not dead; aesthetic creativity lives on untarnished. This is a great time to be.
Pulse-racing inspiration is merely a click away, on the mannequins of designers such as Domenico Vacca, Cesare Attolini and Michael Bastian.
The three examples above are all from the collection of Domenico Vacca. He has a reputation for rather extravagant designs, particularly shoes and luggage in branded alligator leather. But Vacca has a sense of colour and pattern combination to rival anyone.
(It may be fundamental to note that Vacca himself dresses with simplicity in the portrait on www.domenicovacca.com. Although the shirt is undone one button, possibly two, too far, his navy suit and simple white handkerchief betray a different aesthetic to the one he is known for.)
To the images selected. The first demonstrates one of my favourite colour combinations – bright orange, blue and brown.
Orange is not an easy colour to wear well, given that it is most attractive when rich and bright. It requires a blue background (more understated, more stable than any other shirt colour) to sit easily. Here, Vacca’s blue shirt has a mid-size check, which works nicely with the plain tie.
The jacket, in a brown/grey, is again a mid-tone background that supports the tie. Navy would make the tie appear brighter, plain grey would have little in common with the earthy orange. Brown works best.
The orange check to the jacket is a nice touch but not required. The important aspects of it are that it adds visual interest (along with the handkerchief) to draw attention away from the tie, and that the check is on a different scale to the shirt.
The central image shows a great way to add variation to a background shirt/tie combination. Normally with a jacket that pale, I would go for a blue tie on blue-striped shirt. The jacket is everything about the outfit; the other elements should pull back. But a close red stripe works well and gives me inspiration to wear my own red-striped shirt with navy.
Image number three is a great combination of colours – brown, orange, blue, navy, white and red. But its greatest asset is the combination of patterns. That didn’t even occur to you did it? The blend is so subtle as to dissolve completely.
The density of stripe in the shirt and tie aren’t that dissimilar. But the tie kicks away from its partner in the contrast between navy, red and white. There is no chance of clashing there. The jacket, meanwhile, has a different pattern, in a different colour, on a different scale. No clash there either. And if you count the bordered handkerchief as another pattern, that’s four together without anyone noticing it was happening.
Clothing combinations like these inspire me. If someone can put their clothes together in such a beautiful way, it connects me to their brand more than the workmanship or advertising. Ralph Lauren and Hackett are also past masters – check out their shop windows.
Being able to do something so uplifting with the same elements of jacket, shirt and tie is the genius of menswear.
Monday, 26 January 2009
Smart ties are dark ties. That is a rule of thumb not hard to understand: a dark tie is less showy, more discreet, more serious.
It is also easier to wear a dark tie with an outfit. The Lawyer Background that I have described elsewhere on this site exists as it does because it is one of the few outfits with which one can effectively wear a bright tie.
Dark ties have had a particular popularity in the UK as a result of the club and military ties that predominated after the Second World War (and led to the growth of Jermyn Street as a source of colourful shirts to lie behind those ties).
But I would say that the dark tie is a staple in two situations. First, when the aim of your outfit is to be sober, simple and classic in your look (as many of Italian gentlemen featured on this column have been). And second, when you require a simple background that will not clash with an otherwise adventurous shirt/suit/coat. This is The Italian Background also mentioned previously on this site.
All this is by way of introduction to one suggestion: try purple or green as an alternative dark tie.
Navy blue would be the standard, followed by black and dark grey. I wear all three often. But I also have a particular penchant for (very dark) purple and (very dark) green as alternatives for a dark, smart tie.
Consider the illustrations. The Versace advert is an example of the first use of a dark tie – to complete a simple, classic outfit (a white shirt is essential here). Blue or grey would be the standard choice with that suit, but purple adds a subtle, whispered excitement.
The second illustration, this time a Paul Smith advert, shows someone wearing a simple tie and shirt in order to balance what is indisputably a loud suit. Again, the default setting would be navy, possibly grey or brown. But the purple tie adds a frisson of sophistication.
I would prefer a slightly darker shade, but that’s just me.
Dark green works just as well, and the first illustration shows a green tie providing an Italian-style background to a loudly striped suit. In fact, the green is so similar to navy you can hardly tell the difference. Almost silent excitement.
Finally, I recommend looking at these colours in woven ties, either wool or silk. Given that you are looking for darkness and depth of colour, a woven tie can be perfect.
Sunday, 25 January 2009
Fit is the most important thing about a suit. It can be cheap, it can be threadbare and it can be hideously patterned. But the man wearing it will always look better than his contemporary if it fits him well– and his contemporary’s does not. Knowing how to get a suit altered is a must for every man, be he a casual suit wearer or every day formal dresser. Continue reading to learn about how to get a stylish, ready-to-wear suit altered to fit you and no one else…
You don’t need to go bespoke, or even made-to-measure, to get a suit that fits well. Most quality stores that sell suits will offer alterations at a decent price. At Ralph Lauren, for example, the policy is to do alterations at cost; the store makes no money off it. This service won’t necessarily be advertised, so ask.
The key to getting a well-fitting suit off the peg, therefore, has two elements: buying the right size, and getting it altered. To buy the right size– look at the suit’s collar and its shoulders.
Pretty much everything can be altered in a suit except the shoulders. Obviously the jacket cannot be lengthened; but the sleeves can be lengthened or shortened, the waist taken in or let out (both trouser and jacket), the crotch taken out/in and the trouser legs lengthened/shortened.
So when you try on a ready-to-wear suit, look at the back of your neck (in a mirror) and the shoulders. The back of the suit should neither stand away from your neck, nor wrinkle up and create a little ridge behind the collar. The first shows the cloth has too much slack, the second that it has too little.
Equally, the shoulder of the jacket should go straight out and not dip; and your shoulder should not be visible pushing at the cloth of the sleeve. These are signs that the suit is too big and too small, respectively.
Then take the suit to the in-house tailor (or an external one if you have had it recommended). The trousers will be relatively simple to alter – you’ll know what feels comfortable around the waist, as is pinned or examined by the tailor, and what you prefer on the length. The safest option on length is one break in the front crease of the trouser, none in the back.
The first things to have altered on the jacket are the waist and the arms. The fit of the waist is very much a matter of personal taste, but there should be an obvious suppression in the line of suit at your side, going in where your waist button fastens (middle button on a three-button suit, top one on a two-button). There should be no folds radiating from the waist button, which again show the cloth being stretched. And when you pull the waist button away from you, it should pull out easily an inch or two, but no more.
If the chest or hips of the jacket are also a little big, make sure the suppression the tailor makes at the waist has a long tail, finishing high up around the chest and low down the vents.
Lastly, sleeves. Suits are generally manufactured with longer arms than average because few men notice that their sleeves are too long. They’d notice if they were too short, as there would be a startling excess of cuff. But an inch or two too long goes unnoticed.
That’s how to have a ready-to-wear suit altered. It’s unlikely to cost more than 10% of the suit’s price, and will always be worth it.
Saturday, 24 January 2009
A coincidence of two events and thoughts spurred my most recent accessory purchase.
The first was the posts of Scott Schuman on the Sartorialist that picked out gloves as a bright accessory to an otherwise conservative outfit. Like most stand-out accessories, this can easily be overdone, but a little touch here or there can make an outfit.
In this particular case it was yellow gloves, but I have equally seen cream, green and even purple work very well in this role. It also pays to bear in mind the other, duller items in the outfit – here the yellow gloves are given a harmonious backdrop by the tan suede boots this gentleman is wearing.
The second event and thought was the blog written by Winston Chesterfield on this site back in December. He bemoaned the lack of well-fitting glove options available to him. Driven by the descriptions of gloves in that blog, I popped into Pickett on the Burlington Arcade soon after (in case it helps, Winston, they told me that they still do reasonable bespoke gloves).
There, cream kid-leather gloves caught my eye. Indeed, Winston’s reference to dove grey gloves for morning dress in another post may also have been floating around my subconscious.
These cream gloves would, of course, be for evening wear. But such is the robustness of kid leather that they would not look out of place as an unusual accessory to a conservative outfit like that described above.
Kid leather today has associations with both weddings and driving. Traditionally, unlined and untreated gloves made from the skin of a kid goat were worn for formal evening occasions. Their smooth suede texture is fine enough to complement other evening accessories such as silk scarves and cummerbunds.
The Pickett options were unfortunately too rich for my budget. But while in York visiting family I chanced into a great vintage shop up there – Priestleys on Grape Lane, near the Mulberry factory store. All vintage shops should be like this, with such obvious care and investment in all the items carried.
They had kid-leather gloves. Unlined, handmade and apparently over 50 years old. But only £24 and as clean as the day they were made.
Interestingly, it is easy to tell they are handmade because the ridges that box in each finger (when the stitches are made on the outside rather than the inside of the glove) were much finer than any machine-made gloves I own. That also made the ridges much finer, something Winston seemed to be talking about when he referred to the “delicacy lacking on most of the glove models available to men.”
I thank my luck and I highly recommend a visit.
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
This is a wonderful time of year. Yes, last Monday was meant to be the most depressing day of 2009 (cold, short days, post-Christmas and the middle of the month). But the runway show season has started.
Not that I get to go to the shows. Nor that I find the shows themselves that inspiring – not consistently anyway. But I love Scott Schuman’s photograph’s of ‘the off-runway scene’: what all the people attending the shows are actually wearing.
This year’s selection started on Saturday in Milan. I recommend going here and starting at the beginning.My personal favourite from this collection so far is Gianpaolo Alliata, striding across the paving stones in a double-breasted blue blazer, brown tie and white handkerchief. Below, he wears dark-grey trousers, ever-so-slightly short, and chocolate monk straps.
A masterclass in simple yet effective dressing. There is zero pattern on display, which you’d think would make the outfit appear dull, uniform and without highlight. But the cut is precise – cut above all, fit above all, the Italian maxim – that it all seems supremely balanced and packaged.
I also love the portrait of Lino Ieluzzi. Posing next to a picture of himself in bandana and navel-exposing shirt, Scott rightly points out that Ieluzzi doesn’t take himself too seriously. Which is wonderful attribute to have in a stylish man, akin to someone who always seems perfectly attired yet never adjusts his pocket handkerchief.
Select them with care and then forget all about them, as Amies would say.
Particularly fascinating about Ieluzzi is that his style is still identifiable several decades later. Even without the super-tight trousers or big collar that very specifically date the photograph, there is consistency in the approach to clothes.
The simple colours. The open-necked blue shirt. The cocksure pose and the wispish hair. Little has really changed – he’s just grown into a style that is more mature and less of its era.
As always, it is interesting to see how particular people dress at particular shows. The monotone man going to Costume National. The Burberry couple that look like they are actually in a Burberry advert.
I can’t wait for the Ralph Lauren show – the people Scott shoots there actually seem more RL than the models on the catwalk. As if the dream that Lauren tells everyone he is selling has been filtered down through a dozen different personalities.
I also recommend subscribing to the RSS feed available on the same page. It’s a little drop of inspiration every day.
Monday, 19 January 2009
How do I know that the Blucher shoe was developed by a German general who wanted to create a boot his troops could easily remove and still be sturdy on the march? How do I know that UK menswear outfit Daks is a compression of ‘Dad’s slacks’?
I know only because other people have told me. Several people, and I’ve read it in books. But I’ve never done anything to verify either of these facts independently.
In fact, I go one step further and actually repeat these facts in my blog and other features, purely because several sources say the same thing. Given that my blog and features are now one of those sources, this is a self-fulfilling exercise. It is circular perpetuation.
This reliance on scant evidence is highlighted when you are told two contradictory facts.
For example, the Windsor knot is named after the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII. The fact sometimes related is that the Windsor knot is named after Edward because he tied his ties that way.
This, I’m pretty sure, is false. He actually just liked a thicker knot so had his ties made thicker and tied them with a normal four-in-hand. It is called a Windsor knot because it looks like the knots he often tied, which did fit into Windsor collars (a wide spread collar), also named after him and more suited to the thicker tie knot.
Only one or two fairly trite sources will give you the first version. But there are more opaque myths. The four-in-hand knot, for example. In three separate books I have read that the name originates from: the tie knot worn by drivers of coaches with four horses, referring to the four reins they held; the tie knot worn by the four-in-hand club, which was connected to such coach drivers; and the knot itself, which looks rather like reins when hanging loosely from such a small, tight knot.
Now any or all of these may be true. It may be that coach drivers that used four horses formed a club called the four-in-hand club and thought their ties looked a bit like their reins. But then, only one of them may be true.
How do I know? What method do I have other than looking up lots of sources and relying on mathematics?
In one of these books I also read that the stripes on an American club tie go in the opposite direction to a British tie (a man’s right shoulder to his left hip in America) because those making ties in the US forgot to take account of the direction of the stripe when they turned the silk over to cut it.
This contradicts the story I am usually told, that Brooks Brothers launched ties with an opposite stripe to deliberately be different to British ties.
That second one is probably right. But how do I know?
My point is this: online journalism is an easy way to perpetuate urban myths through sheer repetition. It is something we have a responsibility to monitor, just like those volunteers at Wikipedia.
Saturday, 17 January 2009
Is that a knitted tie he’s wearing? It’s so hard to tell in black and white.
“Lancey’s got the jack!” “Nah, the Kid’s got the jack.” “Don’t be stupid, no one’s got it.” The crowd argues in whispers as Lancey leans forward, mockingly.
Look at how Steve McQueen’s grey shirt contrasts with the prim attire of Edward G Robinson and the rest.
The card is turned. Lancey has the jack; it’s all over. Fast cut from the Kid to Lancey to Christian to Shooter. End scene.
Lancey really has all the trappings of a establishment man – from the tie pin to the waistcoat.
As long-time readers of this blog will know, I often have trouble concentrating on old films for all the wonderful tailoring on display. Brighton Rock was the first described here. The Cincinnati Kid is the latest - another victim of my wandering attentions.
The Kid is a lesson in the virtues of standing out, and in how to do it well.
Steve McQueen is the outsider in a group of high-rolling gamblers. The gamblers have money, and silently, implicitly try to outdo each other in displays of riches. The kingpin, Lancey Howard, declares that money is merely a means in gambling, not an end; just like breathing is a means to debate. Money has to be seen to be unimportant, and so it is lavished on embroidered waistcoats, silk gowns worn over their suits around the house and tie pins that glitter around the poker table.
McQueen’s clothes reflect his status. They the epitome of downbeat cool. For much of the film he wears a shawl-collared sweater with his shirt, instead of a jacket. When he goes out to a cockfight he wears a charcoal, round-neck sweater underneath his grey suit. At the table, in the culminating game of the film, he wears a grey shirt and black knitted tie with the suit.
As the picture of the cock fight here illustrates, everyone else is in white shirts (often with pinned collars), silk ties and either waistcoats or double-breasted suits. He is the exception. The eye immediately goes to him (though Melba’s legs help).
To enjoy men’s clothing as much as we do, there has to be a willingness to stand out. You will be wearing something different to most men in the room. Better, in our opinion, but different. The Kid is the best example I know of how to stand out in style while actually being more casual. Well dressed, well fitted but casual.
Friday, 16 January 2009
The full article can be seen at this link. It is also copied below
The Hat and the Modern Man
Editor’s Note– We’re men. Our style is portrayed less through flash and “glamour” than it is through simplicity and functionality. The hat isn’t a tool for us– a cop-out, a cover up, it is a form of expression equivalent to the most front-facing features of our wardrobes. We wear our hats proud on our heads because they symbolize quite deeply something about who we are– they are our calling card, our best foot forward, our Sunday Best when a fashionable push comes to shove. To celebrate the Hat and the Modern Man, we introduce StyleCrave’s weekly style feature by our latest addition– Mr. Simon Crompton.
I started to lose my hair early, from a young age. Therefore, I needed something to cover my head in cold weather. As a teenager the default choice was a beanie. The black, cheap variety I wore may have had Metallica, Pantera or the name of a similar metal band emblazoned across the front.
In university, the beanie remained but was usually in the rowing club colours or something similarly collegiate. Headwear had not really evolved; it just switched allegiances. There was a brief fling with peaked beanies, which seemed a little more cutting edge somehow. But it was a shallow revolution and short lived.
The real problem came when I joined the working masses and began commuting to an office every day. A beanie was passable on the train, with an overcoat and gloves. But it looked rather ridiculous with a suit and would often be removed a few blocks before I got to the office. Professional it was not.
If the beanie (or probably baseball cap in the US) is the archetypal head gear of youth, it’s adult equivalent is the brimmed hat – the Fedora, Homburg, or trilby, depending on your preference. But you can’t wear a Fedora seriously until you are at least into your forties. Along with braces, cravats and pipe-smoking, it is one of those accessories that has so many associations with an older generation it is almost impossible for a younger not to look ridiculous in.
(As an entirely subjective aside, I would suggest that the appropriate decades for begin to wear each of these items is your thirties (braces), forties (cravats) and fifties (pipes).)
Between a beanie and a trilby
So if you’re too old for a beanie (or baseball cap) and too young for a Fedora (or trilby) what do you wear? This is not an idle question. It is one that has frequently left me stuck between ridicule and a cold place. A very cold place: the hair on my head has run away at ever-greater speed since those Metallica days.
The answer, I believe is the flat cap. But not just any flat cap.
Let me explain. The flat cap in England is normally made of tweed or a rough wool. It was traditionally the default headgear of the working class and still has associations with northerners, grounds men and those who breed whippets. A few years ago, though, it enjoyed a brief renaissance and was, however briefly and haltingly, cool.
As a result I see young men regularly wearing them as an alternative to a beanie, and even wearing them with a suit to the office. Several of the best online commentators and bloggers on men’s style have also endorsed the flat cap as the bridge between the beanie and the brim.
I agree, up to point. As with everything associated with dress wear for men, there is much to learn from traditions and how they were established. A hat was considered more formal the darker, smoother and stiffer the material. Hats worn in the city were usually black or a dark grey, with brown suggesting the country. Rougher materials like thick felt were also more casual, as was a brim that was unbound (so floppier, bendier).
The same guidelines apply to a suit: worsted navy is smarter than grey flannel, which is smarter than brown tweed. Each is paler, rougher and spongier than the last.
This principle need only be applied to the flat cap to produce the working hat for the modern man. Make it dark (black or grey), make it smooth (felt not tweed) and make it stiff (again, a felt cap fits nicely). A cap of this sort is completely removed from any associations with labourers or whippets. It is the hat of the modern, office-bound man.
Thursday, 15 January 2009
I've had a couple of requests for the full version of the Kilgour article I wrote for Spice magazine. So here it is:
In the past five years, Kilgour has been one of the few designers in London that has demonstrated genuine and consistent innovation in menswear. Or more specifically, Carlo Brandelli has been – he is the creative director for the Savile Row brand and is responsible for its direction as well as most of its ideas.
With Kilgour (pronounced Kilg-hour), the colours and patterns stay conservative, but behind the scenes things change. Indeed, they revolve, turning many traditional ideas upside down. It is a structural revolution.
Brandelli’s best-known innovation was the unstructured jacket. Using mostly heavy fabrics with only half a lining, his jackets are soft and comfortable while still retaining their shape as they drape from the shoulders. They generally have less padding as well, making them easier to wear around the office all day.
This is particularly important for the modern office worker, given that air conditioning and central heating mean he rarely wears his suit jacket around the office – which is how the suit was meant to worn (the shirt is, after all, underwear). It is also easier to wear if sitting at a computer all day – something the modern office worker also does more and more in the modern age.
When asked, Brandelli describes his inspiration for the unstructured jackets as: “To produce modern, relevant design. In this era that means that it has to be multi-functional and lightweight.”
This season, Kilgour has taken this thought a step further, producing the jersey stretch jacket. Made out of cotton and a little elastane, this jacket is completely unstructured, with no lining whatever and no padding. Where the other jackets minimised these structural elements, the jersey jacket does away with them entirely. The result is a smart blazer that feels like a tracksuit top. You can wear it all day and never feel restricted.
They’ve been popular, too. They come in grey, black and navy, but a few weeks into the season and the 38-inch chest in grey has already sold out. I know because it’s the size I would have worn and so the one I asked for. Apparently no more can be ordered in time for this season, so grab them while you can. It’s your only chance.
A second piece this season that deserves mention is the wolf quilted jacket. Again, this takes a simple idea like the structuring or lining of a conventional blazer and applies it to an unusual object – here, the padded country jacket. Long a staple of hunting and farming communities across England, and most commonly known under the Barbour brand, this kind of quilted jacket is perennially popular as piece of outerwear.
Brandelli turns that image on its head, creating a quilted jacket with the same lean, soft silhouette as Kilgour suits (and the standard one-button Kilgour fastening). The result is a light casual jacket that is elegant yet easy to bundle up and stuff into your luggage. It has a suede collar and trim, concealed zipped pockets and ribbed wool cuffs. There are a few more of these left, though they are selling fast – last time I looked in the stock room there were about a dozen in navy left, and it’s already sold out at online boutique Matches.
While these two items have received a lot of attention, many of Brandelli’s smaller innovations go relatively unheralded, sitting around the contemporary outlet at No. 5 Savile Row (No. 8 being reserved for the more traditional lines) waiting to be discovered by the casual browser. The odd waistcoats in black and blue wool, for example. These have silver piping, one button hidden in a fly fastening and drop lower so as to fit with trousers worn on the hip.
This last point seems like a small one, but is the kind of crucial detail Kilgour picks up on. The vast majority of men today wear their suit trousers on their hips, not their natural waste (as was traditional). Yet few waistcoats sold today drop onto the hips, leaving a strip of shirt material waiting to balloon out.
Also noteworthy were the loose-weave navy blazers in last season’s collection – so loose-weave they were more flexible that some sweaters – and the high-waisted, very dark blue jeans.
Brandelli is modest but admits that “everyone has been ‘inspired’” by his unlined jackets. And he agrees that few if any menswear brands today are innovating in the way that suits are made and put together. In his words, “designers just stopped thinking”. No brands, certainly in London, produce new ideas in this way for retail, though Brandelli does say that “Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garcons used to”.
What influences and inspires him? “I never look at clothes, vintage or otherwise. Usually my references are from my interests, which are primarily art, sculpture and architecture.” It’s certainly easy to see that wandering around No.8 Savile Row, the clean design and bare marble of which was designed by Brandelli himself.
But again you are struck by how little the items are marketed, by the absence of branding, advertising or description of the article you are holding. It’s all there to be discovered, and it rather urges style writers around the world to tell everyone about it. Otherwise you might just miss it. There’s only a dozen of those navy wolf jackets left, after all.
Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Those with a passion for shoes often develop a love of browns in various hues – tan, chocolate, chestnut, oak. They also search for unusual colours and textures – red (oxblood) and green (olive), cordovan and crocodile.
Black calf can just seem so dull. Particularly if this lover of shoes works in an office, or has done in the past. Black leather Oxfords may well be associated with the dull, conservative middle management of such offices (men who probably have one pair of shoes they beat into the ground every day of the year, and then complain when they fall apart).
The shoe lovers are, of course, wrong. Black calf can be very exciting, as hopefully illustrated by my recent post on George Cleverley bespoke (my ‘dead man’s shoes’, as one colleague wittily calls them).
But there’s nothing to be done about associations. Only so much of style and taste is rational.
So for those who find black leather shoes boring, but probably need at least one pair for formal work occasions, not to mention funerals and black tie, I recommend a black suede/calf galosh shoe.
From the turn of the century until the 1940s, much of man’s formal footwear was of this type. A fairly normal looking black oxford or slip-on in the bottom half, but a grey suede or cloth boot in the upper half. The suede, often buttoned across the foot, would make a shoe generally more flexible and instantly comfortable. The higher rise would also protect the foot and ankle from fairly muddy streets.
The illustration from John Lobb bespoke above shows variations on this boot. These are lace-ups rather than buttons. In the early days, the top halves would actually be separate spats in linen or boxcloth.
Will over at A Suitable Wardrobe commissioned Gaziano & Girling to make a modern equivalent, dropping the boot height of the shoes and just making the upper half of a normal Oxford in grey suede. While I like this look, it is a little too showy for what I had in mind. Instead, I would recommend to you the Gaziano & Girling Kent design itself, as seen on the firm’s website and shown here.
The black suede is unusual but not instantly obvious. It is subtle yet sophisticated, a throw-back to traditional menswear with a modern application.
Most bespoke shoemakers will make you something of this type, with the top of the galosh either contrasting calf or suede. But the best ready-to-wear options are probably G&G or Pierre Corthay – any eagle-eyed readers will notice that my Corthays are of this type (the Wilfrid) but in tan. They also come in black.
That’s the traditional, modern, city shoe.
Sunday, 11 January 2009
“You know I’ve never been in Brooks Brothers. I always see it there but I’ve never had quite enough curiosity to venture in.”
So said a colleague of mine as we were walking down Regent Street earlier this week. We ended up walking in, browsing through the rather sparse sale and walking out again, a little bit disappointed at the selection and the small discounts.
It reminds me of the sale that Marks & Spencer made of Brooks Brothers, for $225 million back in 2001, at a significant loss to its original purchase price of $750 million. Apparently the chain made a loss in the first half of that year to September of $3.7 million.
It’s a sad history for the icon of American apparel from then to its relative obscurity in the UK now. But then, most of the references that people make to Brooks Brothers are to do with its iconic status, rather than anything particularly inspiring or interesting they have seen there.
The brand certainly represents good value, at least in the UK, as you can buy better quality goods for far below the prices of trendy high-street chains like Reiss or French Connection. And it isn’t as embarrassing as M&S itself.
Their socks, in my personal opinion, are particularly great value. In the sale they are £6 each yet definitively luxurious in the cotton and handiwork employed.
Yet in the UK I think my colleague’s reaction to Brooks Brothers is prescient. He was vaguely interested in a large, American brand that he had heard of somewhere, somehow. But never enough to bother to go in. No advertising, campaign or recommendation had given him that last push he needed to walk through the doors.
The employment of Thom Browne as the designer of a new line in Black Fleece was brave, and ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to have done it many favours, at least outside the US.
The contrast with Abercrombie & Fitch is stark – although I can and will say many awful things about the quality of A&F merchandise, you can’t fault their marketing. The first store opened in the UK, on Savile Row, to much fanfare and had queues around the block during most of these sales. You get very irritated at tourists on Bond Street asking you where Abercrombie is; but there is sneaking respect for such a runaway business success.
So I hope very much that the new owners of Brooks Brothers revitalise it here and bring us bigger and better things in American prep. But I can’t say I’m surprised at its fall from grace.
Friday, 9 January 2009
In previous postings, I have explained why different aspects of a suit make it more formal. Broadly speaking, a material that is smoother, darker and plainer will be more formal. A dark navy worsted is smarter in all three ways than a mid-grey checked flannel.
This is an easy way to assess the propriety of a particular suit to an occasion. If your suits were to sit in the wardrobe in order of formality – from smart to sporty – it would be simple to pick the one that best suits that day’s activities.
What is often forgotten, however, is that the same guidelines apply to shirts.
It’s fairly obvious that a checked shirt is more casual (plainness), as is an Oxford-weave cloth (smoothness). But colour is often ignored – yet it is probably the most important of these three variables. White shirts are still more commonly worn for business in the US, because they are always and everywhere smarter than blue. In the UK, blue shirts are more accepted but then we have a tradition of sportier shirts against a background of simple ties and suits (hence Jermyn Street).
This is why coloured shirts traditionally had white collars and cuffs – nothing else would show off the very smartness of being able to keep material clean, crisp and laundered. It is also why pink, despite its reputation in the US, is more formal than blue as a shirt colour. Pink is paler (usually) than blue: a lighter and a smarter colour.
Even a yellow or cream shirt is smarter than blue (I was converted to the idea of a pale yellow shirt by the purchase of a Ralph Lauren Purple Label example in the sales last year). Essentially, the lighter the colour smarter it is.
And cream shirts bring me on to my next point. When shirts are worn casually, they need to be taken down a formality point or two. White is too smart to go well with jeans and trainers, particularly if it has other dress shirt attributes (French cuff, lack of placket on the buttons, stiff collar, cutaway collar, lack of chest pocket). A cream or khaki shirt is the first option to consider.
Let’s take an example – I often wear the jacket to a checked, woollen suit as a separate piece with jeans. The shirt to go with this ensemble needs to be casual; it cannot be white. Yet blue, to my particular taste, doesn’t suit the check of the jacket. I therefore nearly always go with a pale khaki or cream – it suits the check yet is one notch down from a formal white. It doesn’t have the high contrast of white; it doesn’t pop but recedes.
So always consider the colour of your shirt choice first. If worn casually, blue is the default but khaki, cream or even grey work very well.
Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Dmytro, London: As a young professional who just started working here in the UK I find your advice really helpful, especially about basic wardrobe items: like shoes, suits etc. I have a question on sales in London shops – many of the more expensive ones (like Ralph Lauren, Reiss, Hackett) have 30% sales on their items maximum. Do you think the price can still go down, or should I accept the one they offer me today? Because I have already found some nice, but still quite expensive pieces.
Hi Dmytro, glad you find the blog helpful. As to your question, the short answer is no – it’s worth waiting. But it’s worth explaining why in a longer answer.
I don’t know where in the UK you live, or which branches of the various stores you mention you have been to, but my experience is that the shops have often already discounted more heavily than that. And they will do so more.
Let’s start with Ralph Lauren. In previous years, the standard discount in the RL sale was 30% off Polo and Black Label, 50% off Purple Label. That was certainly the first offer in the past two years in London.
There would be a ‘private’ sale just before the full sale – done by sending everyone on the RL mailing list an email and a flyer in the post, inviting them. You get to the stock a few days early, but essentially this is just a way for a brand to stagger the sales rush and encourage customers to give them their contact details.
The fact that this sale is no secret, or poorly organised, is evident from the fact that you can just turn up and ask about what’s on sale. No voucher required. And, as previously reported here (search for Ralph Lauren to find it) staff are frequently off message as to when there was or wasn’t a sale.
So. The RL sale proper this year started on December 27. It has now been running for just over a week and will run until almost the end of January. But around a week before then there will be additional discounts, pushing the total up to 50% to 75%.
These final reductions are also normally announced to customers by email. If you search for Ralph Lauren on my posts, you will also find reports of my favourite ever sale – the further discounts on Purple Label/Edward Green shoes, which bring a £550 shoe down to £230 normally.
The only risk you face in waiting this long is that the stock runs out. Given that discounts have generally been higher and quicker to appear this year (all RL stock was put on around 50% straight away) stocks will be running low. I asked about a particular black Purple Label shoe last week, for example, and they had already run out of my size.
Reiss also does a round of further reductions, normally just by putting a new set of prices in red pen on those little green labels. I’m not sure this is announced. In fact, a friend of mine who used to work at Reiss tells me they always discount by around 70% in the last week or so of the sale. But then, as she worked there she could reserve items and didn’t have to worry about them going out of stock.
The question of whether to wait for the further reductions, and risk stock running out, is really a question of how much you need or want a particular item. Once you have a reasonably complete wardrobe, it is easy to shop around late in the sales – because there’s nothing you really need. I don’t know whether you have that luxury.
I hope this helps. Good luck.
Sunday, 4 January 2009
My philosophy has always been to buy classic items that will last me a long time, in the best quality I can afford. Over time, I will upgrade the clothes I have and give away the old ones, rather than merely accumulate. There’s nothing wrong with variety, but I want my clothes to be worn regularly. Buying something cheap that will rarely be used is not value for money.
Buying extremely high-quality clothes that won’t go out of style, and looking after them well, is almost a form of miserliness. Though I do seem to spend more and more money on clothes over time. Hmm.
I was pleased to prove loyal to this theory in the January sales. Having saved up a few hundred pounds in the preceding months, I was on the lookout for one of two classic items: a navy, double-breasted overcoat or a pair of black Oxfords. My only overcoat is not that suitable for business and I really need more than one pair of black shoes.
My luck struck at George Cleverley, one of England’s oldest and arguably best bespoke shoemakers.
It’s not the easiest place to find, or even to get into. Tucked half way down the Royal Arcade off Bond Street, it’s a small shop that requires a doorbell summons. I had been in once out of curiosity, but was lured in this time by the ready-to-wear shoes that were going for £225 down from £400.
Something much better was in store for me, though. (No pun intended.)
The sales assistant Andy pointed out to me that Cleverley was selling off a few bespoke and semi-bespoke shoes that had either not been picked up by clients or were ex-display. In the case of the bespoke shoes, that meant a reduction in price from £2000-£2500 to £300-£500.
The shoes are made by hand; the difference between the bespoke and semi-bespoke being that, with bespoke, the sole is also sewn on by hand. Apparently this adds up to £1000 to the price.
Of course, they were made specifically for someone else’s feet, not mine. But then any pair of ready-to-wear shoes is made for another pair of feet as well – the mythical average or standard proportions that no one actually conforms to.
Of the three pairs on offer, two were too wide and had too much arch support. The third fit very well. A little big across the bridge perhaps, but only a little.
Interestingly, I didn’t have my normal problem with any of the bespoke or semi-bespoke shoes. For those who haven’t read all about my feet and their oddities on this blog, the “normal problem” is that a narrow shoe crunches my little toe while a broad shoe, or a bigger shoe, leaves too much room at the back – there isn’t enough purchase to stop my heel from lifting out.
Bespoke shoes are generally made with narrower heels and higher backs. The heel can afford to be narrower because there is no risk of preventing some men from actually getting their foot in (a similar dynamic to suit sleeves always being a little too long – few people notice if they’re long but everyone notices if they’re short).
The back can afford to be higher for a similar reason – it can curve more to the shape of the client’s heel and not risk being too tight on anyone else.
This is one reason shoe horns have fallen out of use – it is almost impossible to get into a bespoke shoe without one, even if you’re in a hurry and don’t care about ruining the heel’s structure.
(In the book “Spies” by Michael Frayn, he describes life during the Second World War in England – a time he lived through. The hat stands in the hall are remembered as being “littered with shoe horns, clothes brushes and the like”. How many houses are like that today?)
Of course, the most noticeable thing about a bespoke shoe is the shape of its sole – particularly the waist. As the picture shows, the waist is far narrower than on a ready-to-wear shoe. The sole also does not mirror itself as it curves around the rest of the foot, turning outwards earlier and much more sharply on the instep. This reflects the actual shape of the foot more accurately.
Bespoke shoes are also a lot lighter (I don’t know the reason for this, if anyone does please tell me) and are rounded or “bevelled” across the whole sole. Sit them on the ground and they can rock slightly from side to side.
The reason ready-to-wear shoes have wider waists, flat soles and symmetric sides is economics – just like everything else in the manufacture of clothes. It takes longer to do it, so it costs more, so they don’t do it.
(As a side note, it does not do to follow this rule absolutely. Things that take more time and are therefore more expensive are not necessarily better. A seven-fold tie, for instance, is harder to construct but is arguably of no greater quality – different types of tie construction are largely a matter of taste and personal preference.)
Anyway, back to the shoes. I bought that third bespoke pair, as you have probably guessed. On the way out, one of the craftsmen (there is still work done on the premises) congratulated me on the purchase, mentioning that the shoes were originally made for a hedge fund manager whose fund went bust. Apparently he lost £80 million.
The craftsman also mentioned that the shoe trees alone normally cost £200, yet they were thrown in with the price. A pretty good bargain, and true to my philosophy of upgrading rather than merely adding to a collection. I may never be able to afford real bespoke, but having shoes made with that quality of craftsmanship is a significant step up.
The only problem now is I only get to buy one thing in the sales. No more browsing for the rest of January.
Friday, 2 January 2009
In the first part of this exercise in density, I was only able to cover the main points about combining patterns in your shirt, suit and tie. The lessons there can be summarised as:
• Patterns next to each other should be of different sizes and densities, to avoid clashing
• Changing the type of pattern also helps (e.g. check, stripe, spot)
• The shirt’s proximity to tie and suit makes it the most vulnerable to clashing, but do not forget the tie and suit – they also meet at the jacket’s close
These should hopefully be quite intuitive. The secondary points are also intuitive but less obvious, and deserve to be stated in full.
First, pattern combinations will be far easier if the tie is the largest, boldest or least dense pattern. It needs to stand out. As the most prominent and central element to the outfit, its pattern will look best when thrusting itself forward, against the background of the shirt.
A strongly striped shirt and micro-patterned tie may be ok in theory (they certainly won’t clash), but the tie could easily get lost. Best in that situation to go for a plain tie, or one that benefits from both a bold and different pattern, such as a large polka dot.
The image from the previous post, reproduced here, demonstrates this amply. Not only is the tie a sufficiently different pattern from its neighbours, its strength also naturally lets the tie fulfil its central role.
The same principle applies to a pocket handkerchief, if worn. If the hankie is patterned, it needs to be a large, strong pattern to stand out from a patterned jacket. A subtle woollen hankie against a bold city pinstripe is unlikely to work.
Two more quick points on hankies. If the suit is plain, don’t worry about the size of the pattern, just as you wouldn’t with a tie. But, if you are wearing both a hankie and tie, best to let the hankie play a minor role. Only a plain tie would be a sufficiently neutral partner to a bold handkerchief.
The only other advice worth giving is: if in doubt, go for a plain shirt. Mixing patterns is great when it goes well but, as mentioned last time, it is also one of the first ways men go wrong.
If you are unsure about the patterns’ suitability next to each other on your chest, pick a plain blue or white shirt. Then the tie and suit can go wild.