Archives for March 2008

How Not to Relaunch a Product: Belstaff Jacket

Belstaff famously makes motorcycle jackets. The brand has been reinvigorated in the past few years. This is good for awareness, but not necessarily good for integrity.

Steve McQueen famously stayed home one night rather than go out with his movie-star girlfriend in order to wax his Belstaff. This is not a euphemism. He was such a fan of the motorcycle jacket, traditionally constructed from waxed cotton, that he wore the Trialmaster series throughout his life, including at the Enduro off-road motorbike race in Europe, where he represented the US.

I knew part of this from reading of McQueen’s passion for the jacket in a magazine. I was also aware of seeing people wearing the occasional beaten up Belstaff jacket, its Union Jack proudly displayed under a front pocket. But I hadn’t really been aware of where these jackets were bought or what was so good about them.

Advertising changed that. More money pumped into marketing meant adverts in all the usual magazines, an upgrade of the London store on Conduit Street and the accompanying editorial that employing a good PR agency gets you.

So last month, with a little money to spare and searching for inspiration, I visited the Conduit Street store. It was slick – minimalist white decoration, industrial-chic storage at the back, smiling employees. But it was empty, and the staff showed an alarming ignorance of their product.

The men’s department is downstairs, which seems odd, given that I have yet to see a woman wearing a Belstaff jacket and nearly all the advertising features men. I’m aware that brands often put the women’s section on the ground floor, as they tend to be less prepared to walk flights and tend to spend more. But here it’s odd given the clientele.

More disturbing were the sales staff. Looking at two jackets, the Redford and the Belford, I asked one (female) member of staff what the difference was between the two. All I could see was one extra pocket on the Redford, for £50 more. When I asked, she picked up the jacket and had a look at it. This is never a good sign. Then she told me, that, as far as she could work out, the difference was one extra pocket and £50.

This ignorance, the distinct lack of stock, the refusal to do any refunds and the fact that so much money had obviously been spent on marketing (which is warning to anyone looking to get value for money – oh, and they obviously paid Ewan McGregor to wear one while he rode around Africa, which is not money well spent) did not stop me buying one – the Belford.

It didn’t stop me because the quality of the jacket was fantastic. From the suede lining that almost made you want to wear nothing underneath, to the durable and high quality fastenings; from the instructions on how to look after it over decades, to the odd-school paisley sleeve lining; it was impossible to resist.

The product is faultless and will find a great audience, if only they learnt a little more about pitching this to the right market with the right people. This is an old-fashioned, high quality British product. It should be sold to older, slightly style-conscious men who will appreciate it. And it should be sold by people who know what they’re selling.

Elegant Loafing

Laces: who needs them? When I was a young lad at school, purchasing shoes was a regular activity. My feet grew rather quickly in my early teens and I was taken to Russell & Bromley sometimes three or four times a year. From the comparatively small selection available in their woefully decorated stores (Eighties kitsch), I nearly always pointed to slip-on shoes. As a wide eyed and naive child, I had no tolerance for acknowledging timeless style or the hoarder’s instinct to collect ‘essential’ shoes. Slip-on loafers appealed to me because they were ‘cool’; they were untucked shirts and ink-stained trousers, the knowing grin of the worst behaved boy in the year and the loud, battered jalopies screeching from the school gates at a quarter to four. Buying them represented access to the world of the scruffy and popular; not buying them meant relegation to the ranks of the laced-up lab crew – the sort of people who now possess houses, careers and a Mercedes Benz. Oh, the utter stupidity of youth.

Now, loafers mean far less to me. I am certainly taken by a dashing design and interesting colours but I now prefer the structure and the drama of a lace-up. Having said that, loafers have always been important shoes when spring gives way to summer; especially my Tod’s driving shoes. Try as I might to find discomfort with my penny loafers, they have been faithful and extraordinarily practical; a duo of burgundy and black shoes from Bass Weejun they have retained their classic shape well throughout years of service. Indeed, to me it is clear that it is the loafer that is the Bordeaux of shoes. When spanking new, they look a little stiff, if a little dull. Once they get accustomed to the foot inside, they relax; they age beautifully and gracefully and even in old age, when they have ceased to be suitable for metropolitan rendezvous’, they make fabulous garden shoes.

There is still a healthy public demand for loafers. Pennys are rare, and for many less nostalgic than myself, a little dated. Longer shapes, unconventional colours and retro styling are becoming the commonalities in modern slip on shoes. Fashion houses such as Gucci have continued their love affair with laceless shoes; indeed Italian feet-chic in general is epitomised by the naked ankle and classic loafer. Shoe giants like Tod’s and Moreschi, famous for their production of casual and yet noticeably smart slip-ons are popular as ever, despite the fact that their customer base, at least on the streets, seems to be aging. A knowledgeable pal informs me it’s a peculiarity of culture. The English are not nearly so smart when it comes to dressing down – a statement pungent of paradox but vitally true. Chaps see the opportunity of discarding their office lace-ups, generally speaking, as a chance to put their feet into a pair of snug trainers whereas Italians and other continentals prefer driving shoes and supple leathered loafers. And they are remarkably comfortable, even more so than trainers.

With our less than clement summers it is perhaps understandable that we do not turn to Mediterranean chic on the change of the seasons, but when the weather does favour those in colder climes it is a great opportunity to give a pair of elegant slip-ons a runabout; a swinging slim trouser, some exposed ankle and of course, some of that schoolboy nonchalance.

How to Dress in the Foreign Office

Continuing the theme of dressing as costume, the constraints of one’s job can often make one into a stereotype, especially if one works in the more traditional industries or political offices of older institutions.

A lovely example is found in the autobiography by Donald Hawley, a long-standing member of the British Foreign Office who was Head of Chancery in Cairo during the Nasser epoch and in Lagos when Nigeria fell apart following the coup in 1966.

While discussing the messengers that channelled information from one department to another, (one character called Archie was “not only a wholesale purveyor of unsolicited information on when Chelsea would play at home but also apt to reduce girls momentarily to tears by a bizarre proposal of marriage”) he lays out the requirements of dress in the Foreign Office:

“Dress was formal and the majority of men wore pinstripe trousers and black jackets rather than dark suits, though both were permissible. Everyone wore a stiff collar and outdoors a bowler or Homburg hat and rolled umbrella were de rigueur.” It’s easy to see how the foreigner’s stereotype of the smart, conservative Englishman was built up isn’t it? In fact, the impact of that stereotype is explained in the next sentence:

“I always wore a bowler until 1975 when an American in St James’s Park asked me as a ‘real Englishman’ [as if there were lots of impostors walking around trying to fool tourists!] to pose for a photograph. Balking at becoming a tourist attraction I gave it up.”

The same paragraph gives some correction to the style historians that claim differing parts of the same outfit would never be worn together:

“Half the staff of every department worked on Saturday mornings but everyone wore a country suit on that day of the week. Wearing this and a bowler hat we looked like Army officers and were often saluted smartly by confused sentries if we happened to walk through the Horse Guards Arch [being the entrance to the Horse Guards building close to Buckingham Palace, where the Household Cavalry amongst other are housed].”

So while you might be mistaken for an officer by parading around in your tweed suit and bowler hat, it certainly wasn’t considered bad form to accompany it with a bowler hat, even in the tradition-riddled Foreign Office. Style isn’t ever as constricted as students of it believe. The rules are never quite as simple as one thinks.

Online Shopping & Men

Last year, I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that discussed how luxury makers who traditionally target women are taking aim at the men in their lives. While this is not a particularly new trend, the intensity and focus surrounding the effort is definitely growing.

I also read about Longchamp reviving its line of men’s bags, and it turns out that was only the opening salvo. Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Lanvin, and even Dolce & Gabbana have all ramped up their menswear related offerings.

While men are beginning to actually shop more like women, achieving the same level of brand loyalty is still an elusive goal. Generally speaking men are still more comfortable switching brands if one maker does not carry a desired product.

Men also appear to be taking that hunter/gatherer shopping approach to the mall. In 1995 52% of men bought their own clothes, compared to 75% in 2006. In addition, the menswear segment of the retail landscape has become quite profitable as guys across the board ease into the role of acquisitive spender. After observing this growing trend, retailers are taking action.

For example, in 2007, Tiffany & Co. and Hermes both opened new stores in the Wall Street district of New York City. Each of these locations specifically target male shoppers. The Hermes store even has a separate salon dedicated to its custom tailored clothing; the first of its kind in any Hermes outlet.

In this past week’s Wall Street Journal, another layer was added to the mix: Internet shopping.

According to Forrester Research, men are also the alpha species when it comes to shopping online. We spend more, make fast decisions and as a group, tend not to return the stuff we don’t really want. As to the spending, another market research group found that in the previous three months, men dropped an average of US$2,400 online compared to women who spent closer to US$1,500. And men spent most of that money almost exclusively on luxury goods.

Retailers are responding to men’s web based demands as well. With this new insight into how men shop online, Brooks Brothers has cut in half the time it takes for images to pop up on its website’s pages – now literally a fraction of a second. This way, guys can quickly pull up what they want to see and decide on a purchase without losing interest because of loading delays. Brooks has also introduced a new tool that lets customers shop magazine and newspaper ads. Pull up the ad on the Brooks Brothers site and just roll your curser over any item you want to buy.

Many companies have expanded existing or created brand new men’s departments on their websites. Others are tweaking their sites to be more men-friendly. Neiman Marcus has revamped how it presents ties on your computer screen; where once you could only view nine at a time, now a whopping 52 instantly pop up.

This is handy because, just like in the bricks and mortar world, men don’t like to waste time shopping online. On average, a guy will take a third of the time a woman does to make a purchase. And once a sale is made, should the reality not match up with the dream, men return less than 10% of their apparel purchases while women return more than 20%.

Men are not yet the next women when it comes to shopping – online or otherwise – but maybe it doesn’t even matter. Men are now interested in shopping for themselves. They care about the experience and are more knowledgeable than ever before. If you are a retailer, that’s what you should really be focusing on.

The English Suit

Many moons ago in the late autumn glow of October, I wrote, at length, of suits. Readers that recall my musings might have noticed that, though I paid small reference to the English suit, my focus was on the alternatives; the Continental, the Gangster and the Italian. Any at-length discussion of the English style was intentionally avoided as I believed, and still do, that the English rather overdo it when it comes to blowing their own sartorial trumpets.

Therefore, I conspicuously avoided ‘the English style’; it was the moment for xenophilia, for diplomatic acknowledgment and cultural appreciation. However, I had always intended to celebrate both the English style and the very Englishness of wearing a suit in the first place. And this celebration had to occur separate from the appreciation of other suiting styles to avoid implicative competition and what might have been seen as sartorial jingoism. For though I believe that too few Englishmen dress to the standard of our boasts, the daring and the individuality of an Englishman in an English suit can intimidating.

In contemporary London, the English suit is rarely seen. This may sound bizarre and paradoxical but it is purely a reflection of how the suit itself has evolved and how the English tastes have changed.

For when I refer to the English suit, I do not mean merely a suit purchased at a gent’s outfitter; nor do I necessarily refer to grand threads from Savile Row. A suit’s ‘Englishness’ to me has a great, great deal to do with choice of material, colour and pattern and character.

The typical lawyer will march down Chancery Lane in an Italo-English bastardization; for many of the suits I see are the product of an ill considered pairing of these two great ‘schools’ of suit; Italian weights of cloth dazzle uncomfortably in pinstripes. However, for the most part, this is as English as you will see in central London. Aside from the habitats of St James’ and Mayfair where you are very likely to see, if you wait long enough, the true English suit in all its glory, London is sartorially breathtakingly cosmopolitan. However, to celebrate is not to wallow in demise and dilution. And as an Englishman, I am too awfully fond of purity; the ‘pure breed’ English suit, though rare, is as heart-warming as a gill of gin.

A chequered past  

Perhaps it is the timeless and charming Georgian sash window, or the tartan traditions of our Scottish cousins that has inspired, but checking a suit has long appealed to the English.

Author Nick Foulkes, pictured above (bottom, left) sports an unusual but very English check suit. The strength and the size of the check are particularly distinctive and this is sometimes referred to as ‘a window check.’ Edward VIII, or the Duke of Windsor as he came to be called after his abdication, is also wearing this check (top, left) although he was more famous for wearing the Prince of Wales check of which the current incumbent of that title, Charles, is so fond.

Checked suits, though often worn in the country, are rarely seen in town. The colour matched socks, shirt and pocket square, demonstrated by Foulkes, are the only accessorising required. Choosing as subtle a shirt and tie as possible is recommended; the suit itself will always be the talking point.

The little bit of England

The story of England is proof in itself that something small need not necessarily be insignificant or ineffective. Though I greatly admire Charles’ suit (bottom, right); again, a very English affectation of wearing double breasted suits, it is the small things about his ensemble that make me think of green hills, dreaming spires, Cornish cream and the sound of leather ‘gainst wood.

The Bengal stripe shirt, with the spread collar, the sober tie with the small knot and the casually inserted and, (please note) patterned pocket square are rarely seen on the continent. Italians generally prefer ironed linen for pocket squares and, unless they are conspicuously Anglophilic, usually wear plain white. Similarly, large knots are popular with gentleman who dress in the Italian mode – completely at odds with the Lilliputian creations of Charles and other men who pace along Pall Mall.

The buttonhole is particularly English. When I have worn them on the continent I receive either knowing nods of sympathy or furtive untrusting stares; sadly they are seen infrequently although a well made one, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘is the only link between Art and nature.’ Overall the additions are not excessive or cluttered. Though buttonholes and pocket squares are considered to be the clothing equivalent of Victoriana, they actually create a gentle balance – something breaking the monotony of the suit fabric.

With Charles there is a subtly muted starchiness; the hard collar and ruthlessly secured tie are the modern equivalent of Beerbohm’s high winged collar and pinned tie. Though it might be unfairly referred to as a ‘stiffness’ by contemporary society, in my opinion it retains the correct level of formality and finish. This particular ‘Englishness’ is as old as the hills. Never frightened of, or strangers to progress, the English, generally speaking, still like to maintain a level of dignity that, ironically, actually makes them feel more comfortable.