The Real Power Tie

Do you remember the Ronald Reagan era; “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…” and his many other quotable quotes? His speeches, excellent examples of wording, timing and the deft use of humor, are still studied by prospective politicians. And as a former actor, Reagan also understood the power of wardrobe and presentation.

Even during his downtime at the ranch, Reagan continued to project the American ideal at its best: the rugged cowboy. Clad in a jean jacket, Stetson and well-worn work gloves, he would pause on his horse just so, allowing the ever present photographer to capture the right image.

There was another, even more fascinating sartorial issue attached to Reagan, the red tie. Reagan himself was not overly devoted to red ties, however when word leaked out that the First Lady’s favorite color was red, guess what happened? Almost overnight, anyone seeking the president’s attention, from journalists to politicians, were sporting red ties. Their female counterparts suddenly discovered red blouses, scarves and jackets in their closets.

It was a fascinating, almost Pavlovian reaction to something never actually confirmed. Still, at a 1985 press conference, Reagan indirectly responded to a Wall Street Journal story that said he often called on reporters wearing red at his news conferences. Reagan, wearing a red tie himself that day, called on 12 reporters wearing red ties or dresses. Six non-red-wearing reporters also were recognized. You be the judge.

I had not thought about presidential ties too much until recently, when I saw the current President Bush and realized that lots of other politicians were wearing his tie. Clearly partial to a particular shade of light blue, Bush’s signature tie, white shirt and dark gray suit have become the presidential look of the moment.

The light blue color, say fashion experts, imbues the wearer with the impression of confidence, decisiveness and trust. It is a color of leadership – but unlike the traditional red power tie – without an overtone of aggression.

In testament to this fact, the candidates vying to replace Bush and even some foreign leaders, frequently sport an almost identical look. Barack Obama regularly wears one on the stump as do John McCain and, occasionally, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It’s interesting that a look so associated with Bush has apparently gained bipartisan presidential status.

Lest you think that all this color coded subliminal messaging is nothing but hot air, consider Vice President Dick Cheney. Never one for elaborate wardrobes, he once wore a ski cap, snow boots and military parka to a formal ceremony observing the liberation of Auschwitz. All the other dignitaries wore suits and topcoats.

When it comes to office wear, Cheney is usually the embodiment of conservativeness, never straying far from red when it comes to ties. But, after a fateful accident in which he accidentally shot a friend while hunting, there he was on TV, explaining himself to a reporter while wearing a pink necktie. Dick Cheney in a pink necktie? It was soft and friendly, it made him seem so, dare I say, vulnerable. Once the issue passed however, so did that tie.

Who knows what will be next. But according to some industry experts, the blue tie has almost run its course. When President Bush leaves the White House, his blue tie will likely lose favor too.

Gentleman on Safari

I have never been on safari. I have often imagined it; I have closed my eyes to a reel of fantastical images. Of me strolling through the dry grass with a pair of binoculars and a pith helmet, of herds of animals sweeping majestically across the plateau and of the glorious evening by the open fire with a neat glass of scotch. Impossibly romantic wishful thinking – and desperately unrealistic. It is rare that we imagine ourselves taking part in something we have never taken part in before and dreaming moderately; our imaginations have an unlimited licence of wonder and luxury. When a virgin traveller imagines the far away places of their reading they are forgiven for dreaming big; a novice climber is exculpated for ambitions of Everest. Therefore, I am sympathetic to my own poor escapist soul.

However, the fact that the modern realities of the world have escaped my attention in certain areas is not merely a product of my imagination. In many ways, I represent the final effects of a culture dripping in materialist nostalgia. Not that I decry materialism, or nostalgia for that matter, but the sense of romance; marketing the dream and not the reality has long been the transmission – from travel agents to airlines to clothing brands. In many ways we are fed the dream of a lifestyle that no longer exists, or one that exists for a tiny few. Naturally, there would be no sense in marketing our own mediocre lives; where is the incentive? We need inspiration, and certainly temptation, to drag us out of bed each morning. However, I am surely not the only one who is frequently struck with disappointment, an embarrassing feeling of being made a fool of and a strong sense of nostalgia when confronted with the modern realities of today.

In examining the range of ‘suggested’ safari clothing I recoiled; it is all absolutely ghastly. Instead of suits for the savannah, the poor purchaser is being marketed something more along the lines of Rambo; combat trousers with a number of pockets that recalls Carrollian ridiculousness, and horrible waistcoats of a thin shapeless material that reminded me a modern safari enthusiast is more likely to dress like the late Steve Irwin than Cecil Rhodes. There was certainly no dream-peddling here – the websites were feeble and basic, there was no sign of a ’prepared shoot’ and the only ’model’ was an overweight bearded man in his late fifties. The dreamer who bases his romantic image of a safari on the gorgeous photography and costuming of Out of Africa had been disturbed from the slumber. However, instead of remaining awake he has turned over and pulled the pillow over his head.

The images above are of the beautiful spring/summer 2008 collection from Hackett, the ever more establishment and esteemed British retailer. A key inspiration for the collection – safari. The chaps loll around an expedition tent in cream cotton suits, linen jackets and panamas, looking every inch the European tourists and colonials of yore. But not everything about the outfits is a costume relic. Bright accessories and Italian looking shirts accompany some of the more traditional items. The overall effect is a melange of the vintage and modern ’gentleman abroad.’ While not everyone is fortunate to do this clothing full justice and take it all on a luxury ten day safari to Kenya, the ’savannah sartorial’ is a popular look for the summer and a further step in fashion’s homage to tailoring of the past. The key, as demonstrated by Hackett, is not to overdo it; wearing shirts unbuttoned and tie-less, accessorising only with a pocket square is very much de rigueur these days. If you simply have to, wear a pith helmet although for many this teeters on the edge of Gilbert & Sullivan-esque costume.

Checked Shirts and What They Say

“Immediately.” That is the answer to Barima’s question which he proffered upon reading my piece on stripe stereotypes. I hadn’t planned to write something on the subject he was suggesting so soon, but I am a firm believer that things are better and far more satisfying in pairs; no one would wish to be the owner of a sadly single and yet singularly splendid patent shoe.  And of course if there will be discussion of shirt patterning, there must be discussion of checks. For it is the case that checks have as much if not more relevance than stripes for the gentleman of today. Why is this? Well, it is simply that checked shirts are far more prevalent than they used to be and dare I say, far more popular.

The irony of a checked shirt is that the wearer might purchase for superficial individuality whereas in reality, the heritage of a check lies with a man’s identification with a group and a purpose. Tartan became a popular fabric with Sir Walter Scott’s clever diplomacy; a fabric forever identified with all Scots, of both High and Lowlands, despite the fact that the peoples of the latter had little to do with the pattern at all. Further Anglicisation of the Celtic fabric led to large numbers of Victorians wearing check trousers with morning coats – something even the Beau cannot have envisaged.

However, to check a trouser is one thing, but to check a shirt is another. Until quite recently, plain white was the monopoly tone in terms of smart clothing. Checked shirts were worn in the country with tweeds, or they were worn by labourers who wore mixed colour shirts to conceal the sweat, dirt and grease. Gentlemen of the metropolis would certainly not choose any checked fabric. The breakaway from this stiff formality of perpetual ivory was to wear white collars with coloured shirts. At first the shirts were modestly coloured – calm blues and subtle stripes – but the licence had been given; experimentation was inevitable. There are now thousands of checked shirts acceptable for wear in a smart and even formal situation. Checked shirts have, in recent years, taken over as the ’trend’ for the City; a banker in 1912 would have worn a bowler, a dark morning coat, spongebag trousers a sober tie and, importantly, a white shirt. In 2008 he is far more likely to wear, though a dark suit and sober tie, a natty checked shirt. And like the stripes, the check he enjoys to wear will say a lot about him.

The Partner

The Partner has been at his Magic Circle firm for 13 years. He was one of the more colourful and interesting of the graduate trainees he joined with and his love of theatrical patterns has not altered over the years. He wears checked shirts almost exclusively; even at the firm’s Christmas function he could be spotted, charming the young female associates in a subtle black and white check evening shirt. Though generally genial, his bad temper, caused by a rivalry with his Gonville & Caius room mate who now works at Goldman Sachs, is down to the fact that said room mate frequently gloats via monthly email on his astronomical financial success. The Partner, though he works equally long hours, gets a mere fraction of the remuneration. On the more gloomy days when such clouds of despair and envy hang over him, he stays away from his characteristically playful colours and wallows conservatively in a blue gingham check.

The Oxford Don

The Oxford Don is a rare beast these days. The faculty has been ‘freshening up’; younger staff, American staff, are all the rage at this venerable seat of learning. The wizened and pale Don stumbles through Radcliffe Square as a point of comfort; the grand buildings are the only faithful companions he has left, the only friends of youth still standing. His checks are conservative and sensible, reflecting his fireside-reading-knowledge of town and country-town standards; tweeds and checks in Oxford are a traditional uniform. Often called into London to lecture, the Don prefers to decline such visits on the basis that London is too far removed from the metropolis he once knew. He prefers Oxford’s beauty and memories and even favours purchasing from the local shirt retailers on High and Turl Streets.

The Architect

The Architect is tremendously busy and far too important to wear a tie. He likes checked shirts for the mathematics and the colour variation; plain shirts are a blank sheet of paper, the result of a designer without a brain. He wears them simply, top button undone with a moleskin jacket and a pair of cords. While hardly considered chic, his mighty range of shirts are certainly well made and economically sensible – rather like his buildings. The majority are buttoned down – “It’s more practical” – and when meeting clients he ‘smartens’ himself up by, curiously, buttoning the top button. A rival architect in Japan had done precisely the same thing and secured the contract – he has never taken such a risk since.

One Thing: The Blue Blazer

Over the past year or so I have occasionally highlighted essential pieces of a man’s wardrobe. The “One Thing” columns have covered a variety of items, but today I want to get back to basics with the blue blazer.

A blue blazer is the backbone of any serious wardrobe. The ever popular Preppy Handbook even dubbed it the male exoskeleton. Preppy or not, a blue blazer is the one article of dress clothing all men should have hanging in the closet. It is universally useful and chameleon-like when it comes to meeting your needs in a sartorial pinch.

When they hear “blue blazer” people tend to think of the classic brass button type found on the bridge of a yacht in a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Of course that version is the most traditional, but blue blazers come in a range of fabrics and styles; from lightweight linens to beefy flannels. As the king of odd jackets, a blue blazer can fill the gap when you need to dress somewhere between a suit and a sweater, regardless of the season.

Styles vary as much as materials. Some blazers have horn or resin buttons instead of shipshape brass ones. They can come with single, double or no vents; notched or peaked lapels. Other design variations can change the overall feel of the garment. A double breasted blazer, with its nipped waist and dramatic massing of buttons can impart formality. A single breasted sack jacket with no darting can give you a more casual “drinks at the club” New England persona.

When it comes to shoulders, there are some cultural variations as well. American blazers often have a soft natural shoulder, while English tailors tend to prefer them padded and more structured. This is particularly true with double breasted jackets. American makers like Brooks Bothers and J. Press are arbiters of the natural shoulder; a style I tend prefer.

When shopping for a blue blazer, approach it as a major investment. This should be a jacket that can carry you for years to come and something that you are happy to reach for in the morning. A well constructed blazer made from good fabric will be as comfortable as your favorite sweatshirt and its classic styling will conquer the vagaries of many fashion cycles.

The core benefit of the blue blazer is its inherent versatility. It can make jeans, Chuck Taylors and an old polo shirt look city cool or give khakis, boat shoes and an oxford some un-stuffy dressiness. The blue blazer works because of its balance between formal and comfortable. It’s one of those rare garments that has both stood the test of time and evolved to meet the needs of each generation.

Banana Republic, Monogram and the Compromise of “Affordable Luxury”

Banana Republic has always filled me with a mix of hope, despair and dread.

Hope because the cool, crisp, modern, and attractive people in their ads work as intended: they attract. Whether engaged in happy plans in sunlit meeting rooms or harmonizing with contemporary artworks in white box museums, they suggest a happy world of productive teamwork in creative professions and culturally sophisticated socializing.

Despair because the clothing itself makes the ads look like more of a Potemkin village than most clothing ads. Plus sized fits are the second thing that bring me down to earth; BR’s mind may be in Soho, but its body is in Omaha. An American ‘medium’ is sized for the largest group of men who may dream that they fit into it, and the BR standard is no different. The ‘slim fit’ is little better. (Disclaimer: a well fitting garment is, of course, one that well-fits me. I’m about a 39R.) Despair, however, begins even before I try anything on because very often, especially with stripes and patterns, patterns are a little too small, colors a little too muted, and stripes signal “don’t look at me too long, or too much.”

Dread comes in when I take all these signals to mean that BR is not about wanting to dress well as much as the fear of dressing badly. “Please, just don’t make me look like an idiot,” says the modern man to BR, which tailors a Soho dream to order. The BR man’s life is not his own. He is not in charge, like the Brioni man confidently striding out of a limousine or private jet, solo. The BR man’s liberty is severely curtailed, a fate he shares with the sad citizens of the fruit-company controlled Central American nations from which the brand drew its name. In other words, Banana Republic is for me, the Republic of Fear. Once men escape from the work situation that requires BR, they cast it off like a shackle, which is why thrift stores are always full of excellent condition pieces from past seasons.

And yet BR has better taste than almost any other large chain in the United States, so when I learned that they had a more expensive line, “Monogram,” that had just been given its own store, I took a visit. The results were mixed but hopeful enough to give the brand a second look.

The store itself is on a triangular lot where Minetta hits Bleecker and Sixth, in New York’s West Village. While the standard BR interior design mixes white walls with dark wood, Monogram has gray walls with banks of floor to ceiling taupe drapes, which hide among other things, the in-house tailor (a first for BR) and the cash registers. In one alcove bordered by folding screens of mirrors, one can browse coffee table books of Richard Serra sculptures or Capri views while one waits for a fitting room. The staff was beaming: just happy to be there, but also genuinely attentive. They knew this was a plum position, and this was the first day.

The clothes themselves go some way to bring the BR dream of “affordable luxury” into focus. Take the shirts for instance: For half again as much as BR 98 USD, compared to 68, one gets a shirt with a textured stripe of red or blue, with white collar and cuffs. The fabric is genuinely superior, but the fit was perplexing: a chest of over 47 inches and a neck of 16.5, for a medium. A blue blazer (325 USD) had smart, almost eccentric touches like hacking pockets and a flapped breast pocket, a shorter length and a more fitted body than any BR coat I had ever encountered. But the would-be 3/2 lapel roll was still akward, my arms swam in the sleeves, and the lightweight worsted twill magically attracted of stray bits of fluff. The cuff buttons were sewn through but not cut through. If you’re going to do the sewing and make the alterations that more difficult in the currently fashionable style, why not just go all the way. This compromise is the BR mantra of ‘affordable luxury’ in a nutshell.

Other signs were more positive. The small and well edited collection had clear and strong colors – lightweight cashmere-silk sweaters of red and blue, for example. Patterned as well as striped shirtings were clear and focused, showing the Zara-like confidence that mainline BR so often lacks. Ties were the same.

Why can’t all of BR be this way? I wish I had asked Simon Kneen, when I saw him in the store and buttonholed him. If the name is familiar, it’s because he was, until BR’s parent company The Gap hired him in January, one of the people responsible for turning around the style of Brooks Brothers. For Monogram, he was wearing a white and black Monogram nailhead coat, a white shirt and gray trousers. Can Monogram shirts be monogrammed in store, was all I thought to say. He said they were working on it. This collection is not his work, of course (collections are designed about a year in advance, and presented half a year after that), but BR’s interest in the one year old Monogram is one reason they took him on. Kneen’s own work will debut in the Spring 09 line that BR debuts in the fall. Can he turn this great ship in a more confident and stylish direction? I’m sure he knows how. But will they let him?