Archives for April 2008

GQ Style: An Intelligent, But Not Fashionable Magazine

GQ Style is an intelligent magazine. It contains erudite, original writing and is actually what it’s parent publication claims to be: the magazine with an IQ. It does not, however, live up to its own stated ambitions: to be the definitive guide to men’s fashion.

First, the erudition. Many of the articles in Man Alive, the central section of GQ Style, are headlined badly. But they are better than they appear. For example, “Apocalypse Now: Is it just me or is pop music as we’ve known it over” does not bode well (it is too clichés glued together). Yet Simon Reynolds argues convincingly that there is genuinely less innovation in music today, and then proceeds to prove that this doesn’t matter. That it is simply unrealistic to ever expect innovation to be consistent, and that music will benefit from reusing and reviewing old ideas, injecting a little originality every time.

Reynolds points out: “From dubstep to the new folk, a lot of today’s most rewarding music is based around the durability of tradition and the strength of folk memory. Iconoclasm and innovation have been supplanted by veneration and renovation. Interestingly, both ideas of the role of art were active in the sixties.”

Equally, Michael Bracewell’s take on the rise of modern art is both original and lucid. He argues that the attention now lavished on contemporary artists, and the money they generate, has created an “anxiety of influence”, spurring artists on into fresh avenues of enquiry. Rather than corrupt individuals and convince them that just submitting dirty beds will be good enough, “art has seldom been so well read in its own history and cultural lineage.”

So far, so good. But none of the Man Alive articles concern fashion. Or style for that matter. GQ Style begins with a well-written article by Charlie Porter (which inspired my previous blog on enjoying your fashion cycles while they last). But that’s pretty much it. There are several single pages highlighting individual trends – new length knitwear, spring trenchcoats – but the actual writing or insight is lacking. Indeed, each page resorts to random quotes to try an inject some intelligent comment. David Hockney apparently said: “When is the past present? When did the past end and the present occur, and when does the future start?” All very nice cod philosophy, but I’m buggered if I know what it’s go to do with Prada loafers.

There are a few scattered photo shoots, though disturbingly as many of naked men as there are of clothed ones. There is an interview with Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga. But that’s your lot, and you’ll have to wait several months for the next issue. It’s hard to subscribe to the idea that this is the definitive guide to men’s fashion.

One of the most enlightening pieces is actually by Tom Ford. But it’s about nakedness, not fashion. And there’s a decent interview with philosopher John Gray, by Will Self no less. But so little on actual clothes.

When will men’s magazines get over their desire to try and be about life, the universe and everything, and actually put something together about style?

(For those new to this column, this is part of a continuing search for a publication that covers men’s style intelligently and with the breadth of many women’s magazines. And no, for regular readers, I haven’t got to Borders for Fantastic Man yet. I am excited though.)

One Thing: The Lightweight Macintosh

As things warm up here in the nation’s capital and spring weather becomes the norm, I like to put away the cold weather clothes and get ready for the new season. Even though I won’t need the heavy barn jackets and top coats, there is one piece of outerwear that stays in the front hall closet – my lightweight macintosh.

A good raincoat is a wardrobe staple for every man. It keeps the water off your back and, if you chose wisely, will impart a certain film noir-like finesse to your movements. But rain protection in warmer months requires a specific type of raincoat. Lighter and shorter are the code words for a warm weather macintosh. The lightweight mac quickly becomes a fashion accessory on those days when the rain may be spotty but you still have to wear it around town, waiting for the few drops that will justify your wardrobe choice.

As opposed to the typical double breasted trench coat models that anonymously roam the rain soaked streets, a macintosh will give you a bit more of a modern swagger. Named after the inventor of the first waterproof raincoat, Charles Macintosh, this style of rain coat is often single breasted, unbelted and knee length.

This coat’s classic design makes it just right for when you’re dressed up, dressed down or just want a little James Bond appeal. Because of its inherently versatile nature, pretty much anyone can carry off a lightweight macintosh. It also travels well, which is another key criterion for justifying a major wardrobe investment. Traditional khaki colors ranging from light stone to British tan work best. For a more urban feel, try navy and black.

Examining the Fit of a Tailor-Made Suit

Pete, Hong Kong: When I’m standing in front of the mirror for my first fitting, how do I tell whether the suit fits or not? How do I know if the tailor has done a good job, and tell him to change something if he hasn’t?

As with the last post, here is a list of areas to examine. Check these things at the first fitting and the second. In fact, check them every time you put the suit on, as the tailor will probably be willing to change one or two things shortly after the suit is done. And it probably won’t cost much to change them long after the fact.

These tips equally apply to a ready-to-wear suit, and can help you decide which aspects of the suit to have altered.

All of these points are subject to personal taste and fashion. This is a description of the fit of a classic suit worn to today’s tastes. Its closest historical archetype is probably the Drape.

Shoulders: If the shoulders are too narrow for you, you will see the swell of your actual shoulder pushing against the material at the top of the sleeve. There may also be stretch lines running across the material and an indentation at the top of the sleeve. These lines can also be a sign that the sleeve is too narrow for you.

If the suit is too big, its shoulders will extend in a ledge beyond your own. To fit properly, there should be a clean, direct line from the edge of the suit’s shoulder to the edge of yours, just skirting the skin.

Collar: The collar of the suit, at the back of your neck, should sit flush with the collar of your shirt, leaving between one and two inches of shirt above the suit (depending on the height of your collar). If there is too much material across the back, the collar will stand away from your neck. If there is too little, the collar will be flush with your shirt and there will be folds running horizontally below the collar where the cloth is stretched.

(Tip: When being measured, don’t stand up artificially straight and tall. It may impress the tailor, but all your suit collars will stand away from your neck when you stand naturally.)

If you can, get two or three mirrors to look at yourself in. It is particularly useful if you can see your back – it is a roadmap of fit. The folds under the collar are mentioned here, but you will also be able to see unsightly stretch marks across your tummy if it is too tight there; if there are wrinkles underneath your arms this probably means the shoulders are sagging; and one long fold down the middle of your back demonstrates an excess of material there. It’s all pretty intuitive – just look for those wrinkles and wonder what they might mean.

Waist: The fit of the waist is very much a matter of personal taste, but there should definitely 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.

Beyond that, try walking around the fitting room and moving your arms. The jacket should feel comfortable (this will be helped by higher armholes). It should of course be unbuttoned when you sit down – but try doing this and make sure you would be comfortable typing at a desk when seated.

Most other aspects of fit were mentioned in my previous posting – sleeve length, trouser length etc. Add these to the checklist above.

Hopefully, you should be a relatively good judge of whether your trousers fit you around the waist.

Sartorial Ideas for a Wedding

Alright, hands up anyone off to a spring/summer wedding. The chances that a good number of maulers would be lifted on reading this are extremely good indeed. Spring and summer weddings are an inevitability; they are the cliché of clichés. Just as thousands of perspiring tourists descend upon poor Venice every summer, thumping along the preciously perched structures like a herd of Wildebeest marching across a spider’s web, thousands of people will choose to have an ‘in season’ wedding; “Shall we do it in winter darling? It’ll be novel!” “No darling, let’s congest the precious and few summer days…everyone expects us to.” It is true – we do expect, often with bated breath, at least a few invitations for nuptials in the sunny season. For most people in the UK, incapable of flying a couple of hundred people off to the Caribbean or the Maldives in the less clement months of December or February, the marriage can be given no greater head start than the perfect spring or summer wedding; the pleasant church surrounded by blossom, the magnificence of a garden marquee and the utter embarrassment of drunken relatives tripping into the pool.

As the days lengthen across the Northern hemisphere, the gentle sound of gold and silver lettered envelopes tumbling to the floor reaches a crescendo. Should you find the functions mounting up and encounter a clash, fear not. There is a sure-fire way to guarantee your attendance at the most worthy function. Stand in the corner of a large room and throw the clashing invitations, one by one, to the other side. The sturdiest invitation will be that which reaches the other side, or comes closest to it. This is the invitation that should take preference over the other.

Once you have chosen the wedding which, you feel, would most suit your attendance, it is time to give some thought to clothing. Most chaps I know consider a wedding to be ‘someone else’s day’, thus shunning the philosophy of the peacock; they dress arbitrarily and even poorly with the excuse that dressing well would somehow upset the bride and groom, especially if you were better dressed than they. Whilst I can appreciate the sensitivity, this is absolute nonsense. The bride and groom are far more likely to clasp your hands warmly in gratitude that someone took their well planned and painstakingly produced function seriously and dressed up accordingly.

It’s a wedding, not a conference

One of the most awful realities of dressing for weddings is that people believe a suit – no matter what type of suit, as long as the trousers match the jacket – is king. Whilst the average suit is a very practical and certainly inoffensive form of clothing, it can also be rather dull and pedestrian. I attended a wedding in a black short jacket, spongebag trousers and patent Oxford shoes only to find the other men had shuffled along in crumpled four button suits and scruffy loafers.

Ironically, some of the worst formally dressed chaps brushed up well later on when they put on their ‘glad rags’ which was even more saddening as it revealed their interest in clothes was merely superficial. I think a pair of smart trousers and a contrasting jacket are perfectly acceptable and far more interesting; a blue blazer with caramel trousers and burgundy Oxford shoes will look urbane and chic, and yet at the same time appropriate ‘costume’ for a wedding. For to me, weddings are a theatrical event that in the past called for the most theatrically grand items of day wear; the morning suit and top hat.

Knowing when to stop…

That last point about morning suits and top hats brings me neatly around to the issue of limits. Having thrown the licence to dazzle and be individual in the air, I think it only sensible to consider the limitations that exist in deciding upon the wedding wardrobe. Firstly, think theatrically but set barriers – there is a fine line between harmonious wedding habiliments and absurd clownishness. By all means be a little experimental and daring but, if you find yourself treading the path of excess, remember the Coco Chanel motto; “always remove one item before leaving the house.”

‘The only link between Art and Nature’

Weddings are a wonderful excuse to wear a buttonhole. I have been known to dabble in orchids, chrysanthemums and black roses (really a very deep red; alluring and frightfully luxurious, though they sound funereal) but the key thing is to buttonhole honestly and appropriately; my chrysanth’ had to match my ivory and blue striped tie and ivory waistcoat or at least depart from it so completely that it did not clash. Another thing to remember is that rarity of flower is not the ultimate; the highest quality rose or carnation will provide greater flourish than the dank and weeping orchid.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Fair Isle Knitwear

“You’re wearing a rug” shrugged a rather bored acquaintance of mine as I turned in front of the mirrors positioned outside the jute carpeted, well spot-lit changing rooms. He was, naturally, referring to a Fair Isle vest I had decided to try on. I very much liked it but my companion, a man ill disposed towards clothes shopping, viewed it as a fussy and unattractive non-necessity. It is sometimes useful having a polar opinion. Not that it might help you to see the ‘errors’ in your judgment, but simply that it will serve to remind you why you have been right all along and why your own taste towers above that of the uninterested and blasé majority. When recalling this incident, it reminded me how two chaps of the same age, from the same school with the same cavalier attitude towards life could differ so strongly in relation to a garment. It was another dreaded case of sartorial love/hate.

I must admit that the Fair Isle patterns, whilst I find them charming, are certainly not for everyone. For one thing, they don’t suit many people; you have to have a sympathetic personality and more than a little personal flair to carry the look off. Horn-rimmed spectacles help. As does a crop of thick, floppy hair and though I possess neither of these things, I attempted to make up for it with beatific smiles and an attempt at cocky charm.

For a pattern so strongly associated with the unaware and crumbling old gentleman, youth, or at least a youthful demeanour is a requirement. It is a pattern I consider the clothing equivalent of Christmas wrapping paper; it is as important what is added to it as how it might be displayed. I think it is important to prep it up – wearing Bengal striped shirts underneath with crisp club ties and perhaps a slim fitting club blazer over the top. I think it has looked its worse when worn, hobo style, over a white vest with perhaps a long black coat, All Stars and a beanie. This detracts from the innocence of the Fair Isle knitwear as something bright and quirky: something to be worn by a man with sartorial confidence and self-assuredness, not embarrassingly and begrudgingly with mismatched items from J.Lindeberg. This is not grandmother’s knitting, only to be worn in the holiday season; this is a fine design.

I think Fair Isle knitwear looks simply splendid with denim, blazers and driving shoes. I think it looks truly dreadful with Wellington boots and ancient cords, ballooning in the wind. If anything, a Fair Isle item of knitwear should be slim-fitting and sparing in terms of thickness. The ‘fisherman’s weight’ Fair Isle jumper, that knives have trouble in cutting through, should be avoided. This ungainly item belongs in the trunk of last resort; when central heating has failed the human race.

The photographs above, all from Ralph Lauren’s collection of Fair Isle items, suggest the right course for the use of the pattern: a clubby, Depression-era coolness with plenty of character (note the upturned collar and the cuffs).