Archives for November 2007

Choosing Scarves

How many scarves does a man need? I have bought scarf upon scarf, never counting the total, never even caring how much I frittered away. Digging through piles of forgotten cotton in my many draws, I have discovered old reserves of scarves, and of varying shapes and sizes. Variety, I have often been taught, is the spice of life, and I have always believed style can take any number of forms. The bonding aspect of all the scarves in my collection has been their incalculable efficacy in keeping my neck warm. And yet that, for many of my scarves, is where the familiarity ends.

I think a gentleman needs to consider what he needs the scarf for, why he is purchasing it and what effect he would like the scarf to have. Though the initial point seems as plain as a pikestaff, there is more to consider in the purpose of a scarf than as an accessory to maintain bodily warmth. When will he wear it? With what will he wear it? At what time of day will he wear it? Only the individual gentleman concerned can answer these questions. However, we can certainly speculate on what the hypothetical gentleman would consider desirable.

The classic cashmere

The cashmere scarf has become a commonplace and everyday item in the gentleman’s winter wardrobe. The age of ‘exclusive’ cashmere is over; affordable luxury is here, and cashmere of fantastic quality is available to all. For a classic cashmere scarf, a gentleman should be looking for a subtle and sober colour that will complement his winter wardrobe. Unlike ‘fashion’ scarves the gentleman may purchase, the classic cashmere should have traditional proportions. Pictured above is a conventional example. The braided fringe is essential for the traditional scarf. ‘Chopped’ scarves, even in fine materials (unless they are striped college scarves) look unfinished.

The college professor

The quintessential college professor has no use for the dainty consumerist luxury of cashmere. A more practical equation, in his mind, is to maximise material length, thus increasing the possibility of insulation from the wretched elements. Though ‘college professor’ is rather a stereotypical name for the garment, the long scarf has unerring connections with academia. I remember my days at university, surrounded by naïve Marxist venerators, their necks encircled with constrictor-like woollen conceptions, carrying off a revolutionary look with astounding self-possession.

Ideally worn with more casual clothing; long coats, cardigans, loose jumpers and substantial or practical footwear, the college professor scarf should be knitted and the braided fringe should be messy and uncommitted.

The flying ace

Silk is a material not often favoured by modern gentlemen; it is effeminate and lacks the rough-hewn appeal of fishermen’s wool. However, brave pilots of the air, in the early days of aviation, often wore silk scarves to keep the oily smoke out of their mouths whilst flying. The versatility of the fabric, means it can be used practically or merely for decorative panache. I use the many silk scarves I own practically in the winter months, tying them securely around my neck for warmth; they are an extremely pleasant alternative, in terms of the sensation on the skin, to almost any material. And they are also very warm.

The desert scarf

The man’s pashmina, the classic desert scarf has become an urban classic. Worn around the neck in a disorderly fashion, it is worthy of mention because of its contemporary style appeal. It’s rather Lawrence of Arabia; explorer and dandy rolled into one, and it will undoubtedly last. It’s best to wear this with more casual, weekend outfits.

Ralph Lauren as Historian

In case you have been living under a rock somewhere, it may come as a surprise that Ralph Lauren, the company, turned 40 this year. What’s really surprising is that at one point in time there was no Ralph Lauren; kind of hard to imagine really. Lauren created the concepts of lifestyle marketing, aspirational customers, and with the opening of the Polo Mansion, total immersion product presentation. No other designer has to his extent, actually become his brand. While many are closely identified with their labels, Ralph quite literally is Polo, Ralph Lauren, Purple Label, RRL, and Rugby to name just a few. That his company has so remade the retailing and luxury lifestyle landscape in only 40 years is the really amazing part. If you think about it, he didn’t really hit his retailing stride until the mid 1980s. That makes it even more impressive.

Lauren has been busy publicly celebrating his anniversary and I for one don’t blame him. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog OffTheCuffDC will recognize my particular affection for Mr. Lauren. For this I do not apologize. People are endlessly fascinated by him and his company. More than any other brand, Polo/Ralph Lauren invites you to live inside its world: wear its clothes, clean up with its soap, splash on its cologne, sleep on its sheets in its bed, decorate your house with its paints, and eat in its restaurant. Now, after decades of relative mystery, Ralph Lauren the man is opening up the doors a bit.

With his new enormous now coffee table book, “Ralph Lauren,” virtually every collection and associated marketing campaign is given the chance to shine alongside a retrospective of his own life. Additionally, the Discovery Channel recently ran a fascinating documentary on Ralph Lauren’s vintage automobile collection: “The Ralph Lauren Car Collection: Speed, Style & Beauty.”

Considered to be one of the finest of its kind in the world, this collection encompasses many marquee names – Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, Bugatti – but the quality and stylistic breadth of the cars is staggering. Restored to a level that in some cases exceeds their original showroom quality, his cars track the development of the automobile not only as transportation, but as art and social elegance.

The hour-long exploration of the collection examines how it came to be, the development of the obligatory companion book, and how his cars have influenced Ralph Lauren the designer. Lauren also graced the covers of recent Men’s Vogue, Fortune, and Town and Country magazines.

Another legendary collection of Lauren’s pulls at my soul: his assemblage of watches which range from vintage Rolexes to a one-of-a-kind collection within a collection of Panerai Italian military watches. Watches in particular are intensely personal items that convey a true sense of individual style. A collection like Lauren’s is in many ways a mirror of his personality and certainly seems to accurately reflect his obsession with quality, purpose, style, detail, and history.

This past March Ralph Lauren and the Richemont Group, owners of such luxury brands as Jaeger-LeCoultre, Mont Blanc, IWC, and Alfred Dunhill, signed a deal to create The Polo Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewelry Company. The 50/50 joint venture will design, manufacture, and distribute products through Polo boutiques and exclusive high-end jewelry stores. It seems that Mr. Lauren is ready to add his own creations to his personal museum.

By assembling these fascinating collections, Lauren is becoming a curator of historic touchstones that define luxury and elegance. While some may see this as a homage to conspicuous consumption or a celebration of indulgent decadence, I look at it very differently. Watches and cars, clothes and shoes, bags and furniture; these are the things that people use to define and identify themselves the world over. They are expressions of personality and elevate functional objects to the level of craftsmanship.

Ralph Lauren is consciously preserving the history of practical elegance. He also uses his collections for personal and professional inspiration; think of them as a database of style from which new Polo creations evolve.

Look around your own life; your home, your closet, your dresser, your briefcase. What daily objects can you say are unique and truly important to you? If for example you have a mug full of pens on your desk but only one or two vintage roller balls actually mean something to you, get rid of the others. Use the things that matter and don’t hold on to stuff just because you have it.

While most of us do not have his financial resources, take a page from Ralph’s playbook and don’t just accept what you can get; don’t keep what happens to be around just because it’s there. Rather, select the things in your life and regularly edit. Create your own personal collections and you will find more value, financial and personal, in fewer but cherished possessions.

3 Dress Shirts You Should Own

For the past one hundred years, the dress shirt has been an easy identifier of the working man. With the proliferation of young Silicone Valley millionaires who prefer jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts, things have become good deal more blurred. Most likely however, you are still wearing a dress shirt to the office daily and see no end in sight. A dress shirt is one of the best ways through which to show your personality. Besides the basics, there are a few other shirts that you should look into adding to your wardrobe.

A solid white shirt is the quintessential and absolute basic in any man’s wardrobe. It was probably the first dress shirt you ever owned and will likely be the last one you ever wear. Not surprisingly, the white shirt comes in more variations than a cup of coffee from Starbucks. A white shirt worn to work is likely not the same one you would wear for a casual Sunday brunch. The white work shirt should be fitted, no breast pocket, and obviously not wrinkled. Since you will almost certainly have (or should have) quite a few in your wardrobe, there is no need to spend frivolously for each one. A moderately priced shirt can be had from Banana Republic, where they have sizes to fit just about any extreme and also now make most of their shirts fitted.

This particular shirt is a good find not only because it is affordable, but also has a close to body fit and French cuffs normally associated with shirts at least double the price. It definitely falls into the dressier category but is great from the office to dinner downtown.
Shirt Pictured: Banana Republic, $55

One increasingly noticeable trend has been the popularity of subtly striped and gingham shirts, both of which provide an opportunity for more creativity when dressing for work. Brooks Brothers carries an ample supply of slim fit options. This particular shirt is more traditional but gives a self-assured appearance, making it the perfect shirt for work.

Shirt pictured: Brooks Brothers, $79.50

This is one of my favorite shirts. If you wear this into a board meeting, it sends one very clear message: I’m the boss or should be. In general, white contrast collar shirts are enjoying a remarkable resurgence, with companies from Gap to Gucci creating their own version. They are always best paired with French cuffs, which add to their refined and sophisticated appearance.

Shirt pictured: Etro, $178
For a less expensive version: Banana Republic, $67

Dressing up Jeans

Jeans. For some people they symbolize lazy weekends; perhaps paired with your favorite old tee shirt and beat up trainers. Perfect for washing the car or walking the dog. For others they connote urban hip; the ultimate counter play to formal office wear. Ralph Lauren made news when he wore jeans with his dinner jacket to receive a major award. Far from being social faux pas though, it was instantly understood to be a very “Ralph Lauren” look and launched a thousand failed imitators. What he made look sharp and fashion most people simply butcher.

Jeans can be dressed up, but never make the mistake of thinking they can replace dress trousers, suit pants or, god forbid, tuxedo pants. People in the fashion business can get away with such things because they are in the fashion business and to their peers this is messing with the vernacular in a creative sort of way. Everyone else, myself included, should tread lightly when it comes to bringing jeans into the office. Still, it is possible to dress up jeans for work, a nice dinner, or cocktail party. Just focus on some key rules.

You should own at least one pair of dark blue jeans; they are timeless and the most versatile type you can own. Dark blue jeans can be dressed up with a collared shirt, sports coat and brogues, or dressed down with a tee shirt, cashmere crewneck sweater and moccasins.

Remember this: your jeans should fit you. I read a very funny article recently about “dad jeans,” which highlighted the sad fact that over the years most guys fail to buy new jeans and instead perpetrate a self-delusional myth that their favorites will always fit. They don’t; and while the jeans may stay in top form, you dear reader will probably not and it will show.

Although there are all sorts of fits and cuts, your best bet is still the basic strait leg version. It should sit at your natural hip and have a nice moderate break over your shoes. Alternately, you can wear them rolled up a bit for a preppy take or tailored to exactly hit the top of your shoe. Whatever your choice, they should look comfortable and trim but not tight; certainly not baggy and low-hanging. As with most things in life, simple is often better.

Dark jeans in particular lend themselves to more dressed-up outfits. They can carry off dressy casual better than their stonewashed or “vintage” brethren because of their inherent sophistication. In most outfits a good pair of dark blue jeans provides great texture and personality. Of course, if you want a laid back casual preppy look, most distressed and faded styles work fine as long as you stick with well-fitting strait leg models.

For autumn, try pairing your jeans with a high quality dress shirt and sport coat – tweed or corduroy look great. Throw a vest in between to add some warmth as well as style. Trim jeans can carry off dress shoes particularly well.  The juxtaposition of elegant leather footwear and rugged denim is very attractive. As noted above, jeans and sweaters are always a great mix.

By approaching a good pair of jeans as a part of your wardrobe and not just something thrown in the corner, you will get more out of this versatile workhorse.

Smart Sweaters for the Season

Autumn is basically synonymous with sweaters. As the temperature continues to fall, they are always the logical and most comfortable choice of cool weather wear. Worn alone or with a shirt, they have moved far along from their dark age of ill fitting, ugly designs.

One of the biggest trends this season for sweaters is a turn away from v-neck sweaters to the timeless appeal of a crewneck sweater. A crewneck sweater provides a more refined look as it is a much more acceptable choice when wearing a tie. This sweater from Dolce and Gabbana is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen and is also a good model to follow when shopping for a similar one. The neck of your sweater should be wide enough so that it will show enough tie without looking loose. A crewneck should also be fitted and end right before your belt in most cases. Personally, I prefer to tuck in a sweater for a clean line, which I think gives for a much more sophisticated look.

Keep in mind that there are many more affordable options for stylish crewneck sweaters. Other good ones include:
J.Crew Cashmere Crewneck, $235

Gap Crewneck, $45

That said, every man also needs a v-neck sweater for more casual occasions, like a dinner out or a round on the golf course. I sometimes wear a v-neck sweater without a collared shirt under it for a minimalist, more European look. A great look this season is to wear lightweight v-necks, which are easier to tuck into your pants without looking nerdy or strange. This Armani sweater is so seamlessly integrated into the outfit and gives a very sophisticated silhouette.

Banana Republic Silk Cashmere V-Neck, $48

Michael Kors V-neck, $195

One last item, to be filed under ‘trendy’ is a chunky, knit sweater which is great both for following the bohemian look as well as lounging around your house to stay warm and comfortable. Unlike crew or v-neck sweaters, they should not be tucked in, but should also not be overflowing and baggy at the same time. This one from J.Crew is a good example of how to wear one: dark straight leg jeans, a worn-in leather belt, and yes, a plaid shirt (if you must).