Archives for February 2008

If You Own One Suit

Maybe you are about to graduate college and you need the one suit that will get you through all your job interviews or perhaps you just want to clear out your closet full of boxy, outdated suits, the solution for either case is a modern, versatile suit that will fulfill all your needs.

The current trend in suits has been towards a mélange of 90’s era minimalism and the modern-day obsession with slim.  This present infusion has reached the pinnacle of style in achieving a timelessness and wearability that means it will look as attractive in ten years as it does the day you buy it.

The two most versatile colors for suits are either gray or navy, with gray being the more fashionable choice.  A light-wool, gray suit is the best option because it’s like a blank canvas—anything can be paired with it, allowing more outfit variations with less investment.  Black is also permissible, though it is sometimes considered too ‘flashy’ for certain job interviews.

The trousers should fit snugly around your waist and should be tapered to your leg.  When buying an off the rack suit, it is imperative that you bring it to a good tailor to have it fixed for your body.  A flat front pant will make you look slimmer and is the most modern choice.  If you want a slim leg, which is currently in style, do not hesitate to be explicit in your desires.  Sometimes in more conservative establishments, a tailor may be apprehensive about bringing in the leg too much.  The break and cuff of your pants is highly personal and dependent on your tastes, but if you own only one suit, it’s best to leave the bottoms uncuffed with the trousers ending just above where the heel of the shoe begins.

The jacket, like the pants should outline your body without restricting movement.  The waist should be darted, meaning that it hugs and gives shape to your torso.  Opting for a two-button is a good way to subtly distinguish yourself among a sea of banal three-buttoned suits.  While peak lapels are currently fashionable, a safer bet is a traditional, but slim notched-lapel.

A reasonable range for a first suit is between $500 and $1,000, though it is not impossible to find something for less.  A smashing suit can potentially be a deciding factor of whether you get the job or the girl—or a job from the girl, so investing in a good one is key.

“Designer” vs. “High Street”, Worth Wise

One of the worries of dispensing advice is that someone might actually follow it. It’s all very well to talk airily of this and that; to send people off to the battlefield of the high street with a convincing but perhaps unproven battle plan. I often wonder of the times when people might have followed my advice, only to discover, to their chagrin, it was the wrong advice; for those collective moments in my imagination, moments which might or might not have happened, I have a deep and unrelenting shame.

It’s dashed difficult to get it right all the time. Only in fiction do they seem to manage perfection – we unfortunate beings make mistakes. A remedy for our imperfections might be to temper our convictions; a ready knowledge of the subject followed by ‘…but it’s up to you really’ might help to satisfy that advice has been dispensed, even though that advice was retracted, unnoticed at the last moment, by the qualification.

One piece of advice about men’s clothing for which people frequently ask, especially in relation to expensive items is; ‘is it worth it?’ The problem with this question is that it is usually subjective. One man might spend a month’s salary on a suit, whereas another would prefer to spend it on a season’s collection of luxury denim – even arbiters of style find it hard to objectively rationalise such purchases.

Having said that, there is one thing that assists in analysis of worth: comparison. Comparison is a fantastically useful economic tool that shapes not only our monetary success but also our eventual satisfaction. If a man goes into a shop and finds exactly what he has been looking for, he is likely to be prepared for considerable purse-string loosening. The truth is very few men shop by the same book as women. Men like to think of themselves as rather practical beings. They do not like to be taken for a ride and are more likely to find thrill with an exposing swoop than having what all the others have. So, in the interests of obtaining this ‘swoop’, let us examine the market for three common items of clothing or accessories that a man might purchase.

The ‘designer’ overcoat vs. the ‘high street’ overcoat

Given the ubiquity of opinion that the high street has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, many men who were perhaps sceptical of the quality and/or the aesthetic value of high street clothing, will now embrace the possibility of a high street overcoat. Having said that, whilst I acknowledge the greatness of certain high street brands, with large and important items like overcoats I recommend that one should proceed with caution.

One thing I noticed about my Cordings Covert coat was the weight of material used and the level of fine finishing. While there is no doubt that standards in ‘basic’ high street fashion stores are rising, there have been frequent complaints of weakly sewed buttons, linings coming loose within a month and unattractive ‘bobbling’ of material. Some chaps are content with this level of craftsmanship – willing to forego quality for a temporary fashion, but if you really do want a decent overcoat, you’d be better off paying more.

The ‘designer’ jeans vs. the ‘high street’ jeans

Considering the humble beginnings of denim, it is somewhat out of product character to be contemplating ‘high style’ jeans. However, there are such jeans out there and, with so much variety, how does a man choose? Your basic GAP denim will ‘do a job’, but frankly, I doubt anyone reading these columns is necessarily interested in the most fundamental and practical parts of clothing – a lot of it is, unfortunately, flat and lacking in style.

Desired fit of denim is very important and if you are particularly finicky on this score, you are much more likely to see the value in a pair of ‘designer’ jeans. For my money however, denim styles come and go far too quickly to invest too heavily. And no matter how much one might splash on designer jeans, they rarely look as expensive as they are.

The ‘designer’ sunglasses vs. the ‘high street’ sunglasses

The modern market for sunglasses is, for me, rather ridiculous. Despite the fact that more and more designs are utterly hideous and actually detract from the individual appeal of the wearer, they actually use the poor person as an advertising board; and the amazing thing is, more and more people stump up more and more cash for ever bigger logos; ever bigger writing. It is the bizarre reverse of the world of advertising space; where larger fonts and space cost the manufacturer the premium. Huge sunglasses, emblazoned with the gilt interlocking initials of a designer are usually massively overpriced. They are made using the same plastic as high street glasses and have the same levels of protection from the sun.

However, I have experienced ‘quality’ problems with high street sun-specs. Screws have come loose too easily, nose rests have mysteriously been lost and, due to the lack of a complementary proper protective case, lenses have become scratched. In comparison, as an example, my mother has a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers, still going strong after 25 years. With sunglasses, you are likely to get better value for money with a ‘designer’ pair, despite what people might scoff about ‘losing them’ – personally, when I pay more for something I generally take better care of it. Choose a brand like Oliver Peoples, Persol or Ray-Ban to avoid turning your head into a billboard.

Zip Front Sweaters

Everyone should have a good selection of sweaters in their closet. Though they are popular and useful articles of clothing, sweaters are not often considered fashion accessories. What I mean by this is that they tend to be more function than form. Crew necks and v-necks are the workhorses of many a closet and polo collars add a jazzy punch to the lineup.

And this is just fine; not every piece of clothing you own is supposed to take center stage. Often with items like sweaters, the focus is more on material and construction than fashion. A navy handmade cashmere v-neck is a wonderful investment, but, in the end looks like most other blue v-neck sweaters.

You should still get it, of course, but chances are you want to have that in the wardrobe because it raises the quality of such a standard item to a new level. Others may not appreciate the attention to detail and exceptional pedigree, but you will. That is the approach many men take when adding to and editing their wardrobes.

The zip front sweater is another issue altogether. It is neither anonymous nor a functional workhorse. With its stand-up collar and decidedly urban cut, this versatile piece of clothing has a nice sense of modern-cum-classic style.

Europe has long had an affinity with this style of sweater; in fact a friend of mine has always called the full zip cardigan a “Euro sweater.” The style also has a slight resemblance to old military sweaters with a small shawl collar that could be turned up in cold weather. Either way, the heritage of the zip front sweater is grounded in a solid and timeless style.

When choosing this kind of sweater, either the full zip cardigan or the half-zip pullover is a good choice. With a crisp gingham button down and flat front khakis, a grey or navy cardigan can easily substitute for a sport coat in many circumstances. When zipped up, the split double zipper often found on these sweaters allows for the bottom zipper to be pulled up two or three inches to create a pleasing open-coat effect.

You can find zip sweaters in fabrics and weights from thick heavy cottons to fine luxurious cashmeres; letting you pair them with a range of outfits. Both cardigans and half-zips can easily move between tailored flannels for the office or jeans for hanging out.

Patterns like argyle look especially nice because the traditional designs are tempered by the sweater’s more modern style. Solid colors, either muted heathers or vibrant reds and oranges are equally attractive and versatile.

It Could Have Been So Much Better

Among my peers, Savile Row, its suits and tailors, is a thing of aspiration. It makes the best suits, has dressed the best people and justly carries an air of arrogance. One day, when we have enough money to sensibly spend a lot of it on a very nice suit, that is where we will go, with a certain amount of trepidation. There is a readymade market among British youth there, all with accelerating income and aspirations to luxury that include Huntsman, Poole and the rest.

The tragedy is that the BBC series on Savile Row may have popped this bubble, by trying to lure exactly that youth market.

Monday’s final episode in this series was entitled New Blood, and focused on the need for Savile Row to hire talented young tailors that are willing to stay in one unglamorous career their whole lives, for the love of the job and without much pay (at least to begin with).

Unfortunately, all it did was highlight once again Savile Row Bespoke’s mistaken efforts to brand the street as a whole, to bring together disparate individuals into one marketing exercise. The SRB association is planning to set up an academy to train young tailors. Unfortunately, one tailor further down the Row that is not a member of SRB has the same idea. Or, rather, a slightly different idea: he wants his own academy because he feels the work done on the rest of the Row is not up to scratch.

The two meet, have a reasonably gentlemanly discussion and depart, each refusing the other’s offer. So now any young man (or, increasingly, woman) wanting to be trained by the best has to choose between the Savile Row Academy and Savile Row Bespoke training. Both claim to be superior and to be aiming for the same thing, and will likely offer nothing to the potential tailor that clarifies the situation.

It reminds me of the many language schools that set up in Oxford so they can call themselves The Oxford School of Languages, trying to lure in foreign students who think they are somehow being admitted to Oxford University. Some even set up on Oxford Street with the same intention.

This view of the Row – as confused and unwieldy, amateurish in the extreme – is bemoaned even more by those closely associated with it. As Thomas Mahon says on his excellent blog English Cut, “I never thought I’d see the day that a programme about the business I’ve been involved with all my life could possibly make me cringe so much. It was all very sad and tragic.”

“It appears that Savile Row Bespoke is doing a better job than all the high rents, bad exchange rates and global fashion brands could ever do at eating away at the core of what makes Savile Row a wonderful and unique place.”

It will never puncture the image of Savile Row sufficiently for me. But for others it may well have done. It is a real shame that SRB (credited by this programme and therefore presumably involved) thought a documentary would help spread the Savile Row word, when it has undone anything positive that professional, targeted advertising would have achieved.

Beau Ideal: Berluti Shoes

A friend of mine informed me that they dream of riches, but that those dreams are tempered to the extent that they dreamed of limited wealth; of having to have limits, of having to say no. Considering the mighty elasticity of dreams, it may seem unusual. To wish finitely of boundless freedom and impossible luxury – surely the ultimate is to have seemingly infinite resources to match the infinite possibilities of our imaginations. However, consider if you will the psychological consequence of possessing limitless wealth; what would there be left to buy? What would be pictured in glossy magazines for us to dream of? Where would our childlike expectation of material fulfilment go? Knowing you can have everything and anything could actually be rather depressing; all the money in the world has no remedy for such feeling. As Oscar said, there are in fact two tragedies in life: not getting what one wants and getting what one wants. “The last”, he commented “is much the worst.”

The wonderful thing about dreams, I have often observed, is that generally speaking they do not come true. They remain, in limbo, in our minds eye, never coming into fruition; they are part of the only perfect landscape we know and we are rarely given an opportunity to be disappointed by them. This is why I am currently satisfied I do not own a pair of Berluti shoes. As much as I adore them, I desire to remain desirous of them. Bizarre as it seems, I am actually thankful for their reassuring expense.

Looking at a pair of Berlutis, as I found out when I ankled round to the Conduit Street store, is actually rather like looking at something that hangs in the National Gallery; it’s an event, a special occasion. There is a wonderful depth to the leather, a fabulous patina; they have the lustre of a perfect piece of antique furniture. Whereas ordinary leather, while serviceable, is the flat-pack copy, Berluti is the real thing. They are like the walnut Gainsborough chair or the Queen Anne chest.

It should be no surprise that such magnificence comes at a price. Shoes, when well made, shouldn’t be alarmingly cheap. The process of hand made shoes, with the use of high quality material, requires expertise and skill. Indeed, considering Berluti as merely a ‘shoemaker’ is akin to considering Michelangelo rather decent at sketching. Even in comparison to established shoe tailors such as John Lobb, the artistry of a Berluti shoe stands out as something worthy of praise. The shapes are more avant garde than Jermyn Street cobblers; Berluti is not afraid of the square toe, and yet the beautiful patination is utterly classic. Some shoes, to look at, have very little depth in the material itself. Berluti understands that some demand art from footwear; that there should be a sense of the exceptional about the shoe.

It’s a relief to me that I can still regard Berluti with such awe: that I am not given the opportunity to tire of them or have reason to disparage their construction. When I was on Conduit Street, I had a lot of fun trying a pair or two in Mayfair and I was sufficiently smitten. However, it would surely eventually tire me if I was given the wherewithal to instruct Berluti to make me fabulous tailored shoes; I would have reached the apogee, the very summit of footwear – everything below it, which means all other footwear, would become lacklustre and unacceptable for wear and that is a snobbery I cannot afford and do not want. Having said that, if I did own a pair, I’d be awfully proud of them.