Archives for February 2008

Spring Trends

When you move to New York, your wardrobe slowly but surely morphs into gradations of black and gray. Something about the city and its business orientation dictates that everyone looks like they’ve just come back from a funeral. This spring, however, is all about bright colors.

At Mercedez-Benz fashion week in New York, designers showed their Fall 2008 collections and the message was unmistakable: color and lightness is back in style. As it always seems to go, women’s trends end up seeping into men’s fashion and the two are never truly far apart. In a similar vein, the fact that fashion is always two seasons ahead has at least a subconscious impact on what we end up wearing now. Though we are still technically in Fall/Winter 2007, the trends of Fall/Winter 2008 are already going to begin changing the paradigm of what we think is stylish and current.

One of my favorite looks for this spring that is both young and ironic is wearing a bright, almost neon anorak under a blazer with the sleeves pushed up. It is reminiscent of Prada spring/summer 2007, indicating that it might have taken until now to catch on.

Another great trend this spring is tech-fabric, light puffer vests over shirts or even contemporary sweaters. Vests in general are versatile items, perfect for the fifty to sixty degrees “in-between” weather, but this season really amps up the style with bold and bright monochromatic tones that add vivacity to a drab wardrobe.

Other ways of bringing back color into the wardrobe are as simple as going out and buying a few pairs of inexpensive oxford shirts. Uniqlo, as always, has stylish shirts that fit the bill without leaving you unable to pay yours at the end of the month. Also if you are in New York, the highly reputed shirt retailer Seize sur Vingt is having a sample sale this week with great markdowns. Like it or not, button-down colors are back in style and don’t even look bad when combined with other colorful elements. They provide a Hamptons-style preppyness that is always popular during the summer.

Also still trendy this spring is white jeans, which can go from sophisticated with a pair of black dress boots and shirt to beach casual with a pair of flip-flops and t-shirt.

If at last though you are absolutely beholden to the old black and gray, it appears that stripes are in for spring and so injecting a little irony into your outfit might just do you good.

Gatsby Style

It ranks as one of the great works of American literature; one of the first ‘Great American Novels’ and the absolute dernier cris on the documentation of the Jazz Age. Though in my opinion it is not his finest work, it is still a wonderful yarn and it is the 180 pages for which Scott Fitzgerald is best known. In fact, it is so American a tale; the birth, life and death of the famous ‘American dream’, the tragedy of money and the fragility of frank and honest love, that I feel, as an Englishman, my ‘across-the-pond’ perspective is unwelcome. However, I take solace in the fact that Gatsby was indeed, ‘an Oxford man’; in the same way that Fitzgerald had intended when he was young. Poor Scott, he had to ‘settle’ for Princeton.

Although he had a great love for his country, Scott was somewhat European in taste. Moving to California caused him distress – he loathed Hollywood and found little inspiration there, preferring the quiet of the Deep South or the buzz and gentility of New York. He made frequent visits to Europe, holidaying with the Mark Cross-owning Murphys at Cap d’Antibes and propping up the Ritz bar with Ernest Hemingway in Paris – he was a literary boulevardier content with being an American export.

In much the same way, Ralph Lauren, who designed the men’s costumes for the 1974 film production of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford, though also an ‘all-American’, shares an affinity with F.Scott Fitzgerald for certain things which qualify as classically English. The sport of polo, despite its undeniably Indian past, has strong associations with the British elite who colonised the country and, appropriate to the heritage of the clothing, Ralph decided his brand should be marketed as such. And though Scott may have adored American football, he was fascinated with European systems and traditions; perhaps a reason why characters such as Amory Blaine and Jay Gatsby, received, or were intended to receive in the case of Amory, English educations and perhaps why the marvellous Jay Gatsby has clothing sent to his West Egg mansion all the way from the distant metropolis of London at the start of every season.

As far as costuming goes, there was surely no one more appropriate than Ralph Lauren, who himself dreamed Gatsby dreams, once writing in his school yearbook of his simple desire to be ‘a millionaire.’ What I liked particularly about his clothing in the Redford film was his use of colour, and the way in which Gatsby was differentiated from the rest; he wore the clothing of the period, but he wore it in his way consistent with his uniqueness. Tom and Nick were more honestly American in their delivery but Gatsby seemed to belong to one of the typically Fitzgeraldian fantasies detailed in the short story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz: white and pink suits, daring candy colours and a mirror-like brilliance.

In the still of the three of them, standing next to the two motor cars, there is heavy symbolism in the costume. Gatsby, in his pale pink linen three-piece suit, is being regarded with a sneer by the scion of old Chicago money, Tom, whilst the poor and rather disapproving Nick seems to exhibit mounting pains with his own neutrality. There is no doubt that Tom regards Gatsby as vulgar, “Mr Nobody from Nowhere”, and yet we empathise more with Gatsby’s charming naivety than Buchanan’s dissatisfying breeding. Lauren captures this sentiment brilliantly by clothing him in a beautifully cut pink suit – such audacity is consistent with his cavalier derring-do and combat heroism, and his swashbuckling attempt to prize his true love from the arms of another man. On other occasions, Lauren stylishly captures Jay’s vulnerability by wrapping him in a silk scarf and blazer; cold and wintry in colour and style, in strong contrast to the brazen ‘candification’ of some of his splendid suits.

What is also impressive about Lauren’s clothing is that he manages to remain true to the period but still capture the Gatsby of our imaginations. Although, indubitably, there is a slight fattening of the tie, lengthening of the collar, widening of the trouser and polish of the bow tie, historically, the combinations are accurate. I myself am no scholar, but the seemingly inescapable 1970s touches are there for all to see, as is the wonderful attention to detail such as the mother of pearl cuff buttons or the double breasting of the waistcoat. For me, the real master touch is actually the product of the combination of Redford’s acting and Lauren’s tailoring; in all his splendour, the appropriate irony is that Gatsby, though he, in the words of Daisy, “always looks cool”, is ever so slightly uncomfortable in his clothes. When he is alone with Daisy, or visiting Nick in the pouring rain, he is unbuttoned and frank; more in common with the penniless bond trader than the extraordinarily rich polo playing Tom.

The only sadness of the whole affair was that Ralph did not receive the credit he fully deserved for his vision. The lion’s share of the applause was directed at Theoni V.Aldredge, a veteran of the costume design industry, nigh on aristocratic as far as the Academy was concerned. Symbolic to the end, this mirrored Gatsby’s own vain hopes of recognition and even his tragic death at the hands of a careless and frightened establishment.

What’s In Your Pocket?

Most men are superstitious to some extent. We have our lucky shirt or favorite pair of shoes, a certain tie; maybe even a particular driving route to the office. Likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain has a host of lucky objects that travel with him on the campaign trail, one of which is a favorite coin.

This, I can relate to. I have a lucky coin as well – or, to be more precise, some lucky coins. I carry at least one of them wherever I go. It’s not like I must have it with me to leave the house, it’s just that I’m used to carrying one. Usually, it’s a large 50 Franc piece; a memento brought back by my brother from a trip across Europe in the 1970s.

Apart from the coin, I may carry some cash in a lovely sterling silver money clip that was a gift from my wife; otherwise I like to keep my pockets fairly empty. It’s a personal thing – I just don’t like the bulk of having keys or a cell phone jammed into my pockets. If I actually have to take stuff out to comfortably sit down, it’s too much.

What a man carries around in his pockets everyday is definitely telling. Is he a hoarder or a minimalist? What does he consider the necessities of life? This ties in of course with my own penchant for bags, a more logical way of carrying things around.

With dress pants in particular having more than a few small items in your pockets just looks bad. The line of the trousers is thrown off and an odd bulkiness of stretched fabric ensues. Key chains are a big offender. Why on earth someone would feel the need to lug around a ring of sharp, heavy keys in their front pocket escapes me. How is that comfortable?

Some men like to carry a small pocketknife, which can be very handy as long as you’re not rushing to catch a plane. A nice little monogrammed pen knife is a wonderful accessory and a nice heirloom to boot.

A pocket full of change is to me one of those annoying things – as are the people who feel the need to jingle said coins incessantly. Here’s a better idea: get a nice handmade English change case and throw it in your bag.

When it comes to pants pockets, wallets are a major issue. I have no problem carrying mine in a back pocket when it makes more sense than lugging a bag around. Sturdier pants like jeans, khakis and cords are best suited for wallets.

Some men like to keep their wallet in a front pocket. Whether for security or comfort – sitting with a wallet in your back pocket can cause all sorts of spinal issues – just make sure it is a small, thin one. Card cases can be a good alternative to the bulk of a traditional wallet. Dress and suit pants are often not constructed for overstuffed or bulky wallets – let alone a heavy key ring. So give your pants a break.

When getting dressed up, pare down your pocket accessories to a minimum. For example, I have a very nice slim calfskin wallet that I use for formal events. I’ll take my license, credit and bank cards and some business cards; leaving everything else in the main wallet. The lucky coin goes up front and that’s pretty much it. If I’m wearing a jacket, the cell phone goes in an inside pocket. So does the wallet.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Tone on Tone

I find it incredible how small and insignificant things can produce polar and often extreme responses. A jar of Marmite or a liquorice log might have one person salivating whilst another begins to retch; there is, very often, little middle ground. For these two famous comestibles, most people will stake their allegiance to one side of the battlefield; they are classic examples of things to love or loathe.

I have discovered, in my social circle, there is a similar response to various items of clothing that I have worn. One friend points in revulsion whilst another states their admiration – neutrality in relation to a few of these items or styles is not often expressed. The first ‘style’ of discussion which I find has provoked such strong sentiment from those of my acquaintance is the style of ‘tone on tone.’

Tone on tone is perceived as quite a modern style: eschewing the classicism of contrast in ties and shirts, jackets and waistcoats. In fact, the truth is that tone on tone has been done many times before and centuries before this one. White tie and tails, the evening formal wear of yesteryear, is a fine example. Though the chap wears a black tailcoat and trousers, his waistcoat, shirt and bow tie are all white. And, in turn, this all-white ‘bib’ echoes the evening dress of the late 18th and early 19th century when men wore white neckties with white shirts and white, or perhaps even ivory, waistcoats; the fun to be had was through the use of different materials of different textures or patterns. Since the mid 20th century, when black tie replaced white tie as ‘formal’ evening wear, wearing contrasting colours has been favoured and it became the classic standard.

When tone on tone became popular again in the late 1990s, it looked mightily refreshing. Shirts and ties looked youthful once more; the ‘smart’ look became heliotrope shirts and ties, together in harmony. However, whilst it was certainly done well in a few cases, it was also done very badly indeed. I remember the early programming of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ when Chris Tarrant wore ghastly combinations of silver on silver and bright blue on bright blue – it was a look that became synonymous with tacky game show hosts. ‘Chavs’ began to wear the tone on tone look to weddings and evening functions; both shirt and tie exhibiting a terrible glossiness. This was the final nail in the proverbial coffin. To tone on tone they had ‘done a Burberry’ and this is perhaps why many of my friends do not like the style.

However, for my other acquaintances, capable of seeing the merits of tonally identical layering, there have been high points. In the 1998 film ‘A Perfect Murder’, Michael Douglas wore numerous combinations of tone on tone and this is a perfect showcase to illustrate the importance of texture when combining colours from the same hue pool. The evening waistcoat is of patterned silk in contrast to the plain tie and shirt, echoing the fashion of the mid to late Victorian period when men tended to allow their waistcoats to be the most extravagant and elegant part of their dress. Some suede was used in the manufacture of the waistcoats for Douglas which, texture wise, contrasts dramatically against the shine of the woven ties and silk shirts. The other important thing to note is that this particular exhibition of the look concentrates on piling together tones from the same stretch of hues rather than putting exactly the same colour on top of each other. This makes tone on tone much more fun, and also, more aesthetically pleasing.

Managing Your Message: Execution of Personal Style

You’ve heard it many times before, “details matter.” It’s true; details are the finishing touches of personal expression. They are often what separate average guys from truly interesting men. Whether big or small, exuberant or subtle, details drive the messages we use to define ourselves to others.

My fellow MensFlair contributor, Winston Chesterfield, recently posted an excellent essay on the core of personal style. His argument that style is akin to art, that an artist must paint or that a sculptor must liberate the form inside a block of granite, is particularly insightful. This is the kind of drive and attention to detail that marks a truly stylish man.

The execution of personal style, not surprisingly, varies from person to person and involves more than just clothes. You can manage this message if you want; building up a personal presence that reflects who you are, what you want and what you’re all about.

There are many examples of people who consciously developed their style around specific details. Tom Wolfe is one; with his trademark white suit and hat, the writer is instantly recognizable. Whether you like or loath his persona, Wolfe is a very smart man who understands the benefit of being unique and standing out in a crowded field.

Of course he backs up the stylish eccentricity with darn good writing. Details won’t get you too far if there is no substance behind the flash. There is one guy though, a big guy with a lot of substance who has fascinated me for quite a while.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a virtual tactician when it comes to designing and executing his own personal marketing plan. From the custom suits which both highlight his well known bulk – and by extension make his polished executive appearance all the more pronounced – to the custom cowboy boots emblazoned with his adopted home state’s seal. Schwarzenegger has always been meticulous about packaging himself for the task at hand.

By capitalizing on his early niche “Pumping Iron” fame, he launched himself into action hero celebrity and then made an even more remarkable transition to political powerhouse. Schwarzenegger always takes the time to manage his public persona and adjust his presentation when needed. Running through it though has been a consistent core image: a cigar smoking, Hummer driving, independent thinking, business minded big man with a toothy smile.

His sense of style alternates between refined outdoor rugged and polished corner office political leader. Mud smeared, machine gun toting on-screen persona aside, Schwarzenegger is in fact a connoisseur with excellent taste in design, clothes, watches and of course hand rolled cigars. He is well read and a virtual policy wonk when it comes to such complex issues as climate change and trade – both key issues in California. Although legally barred from running for president, he still oversees 12% of the American population. Not bad for a kid from a little town in Austria.

Using Arnold Schwarzenegger as example of how to manage your image through attention to detail and focus may seem a little outsized, but the governator is a brand and he knows it. You and I are no different. What is your brand? Who is your audience? What is your plan? What are the details that define you?