Archives for May 2008

Visiting in Horse Country

My wife and I recently took a little vacation to the heart of Virginia horse country. Middleburg, ground zero for the moneyed portion of Virginia’s horsey set, is exactly what you expect an exclusive equestrian hamlet to be. With beautiful rolling green hills, dotted with heart-stopping estates and crisscrossed with white fencing, it easily evokes visions of Ralph Lauren ads.

We stayed at a wonderful country estate named the Goodstone Inn. I say estate because that’s really what it is. Set on 265 acres, the Inn is an award winning collection of residences, barns and stables spread across the property. There are actually five buildings in which to stay, each with its own distinct theme. The original carriage house serves as the Inn’s living room and also houses their exceptional restaurant.

If you happen to be in the DC area, make sure to stop by for a few days; it is a different, more genteel and refreshing world. A warning though; you’ll quickly want to become the landed gentry.

In fact, visiting horse country often inspires one to dream of misty morning walks to the stable and a rambling family house stocked with giant oil paintings, antiques and sterling silver knick knacks. You might also feel a strong desire to ditch your current wardrobe for something more earthy – heavy on the leather and waxed cotton.

The storied anglophiliac horse culture of Maryland and Virginia can easily bring these feelings to the surface in almost anyone. But before you go galloping off after crafty foxes (or, nowadays, pre laid artificial fox scent trails), you’ll need to look the part.

Dressing for this kind of an environment is a balancing act because good horse country style is really a blend of bespoke and stable boy. One of the best suggestions I heard for getting the right mix came from a local: think of Prince Charles, then put him in a pair of jeans. Not 7 For All Mankind or anything like that, just plain old jeans.

And that really is the style guide I would suggest. Most of the Middleburg horsey set is very well off – horses are not really a poor man’s accessory – and they revel in their earthy, down home English/American lifestyle.

When we visited, it was transition weather; warming days and cool evenings. Barbour jackets, sans liners, and leather paddock boots tended to form the core of many folk’s ensembles. Jeans or trim khakis, paired with simple merino or cotton sweaters or well tailored shirts, added to the dressy casual vibe.

Most of the people I saw had on clothing that looked nice but not necessarily new. To me this was very refreshing and appeased my New England aesthetic for worn-in classics over of-the-moment flash. Several of the women I saw around town were wearing jodhpurs and lovely riding boots; just back from an afternoon cantor I guess. The men were more Ralph Lauren-ish, but in a practical way. They often looked as though their clothing was tossed on without thinking, but from a wardrobe that had only great clothes in it. I think we all need a good hacking jacket in the closet.

That’s a good lesson for all of us; if you only choose things that are of high quality, great style and good material, your wardrobe should always yield a great outfit for any occasion. I recall one gentleman who had on a slightly muddy pink hacking jacket, white cotton oxford, old jeans and barn boots.

Stepping out of a dark green Range Rover he looked elegant and natural, not at all contrived. I think that’s a personal goal most of us aspire to.

Favourite Ensembles: S/S 2006 Missoni

Missoni is one of those brands that defies seriousness so strongly, that I cannot help but associate it with a casual Italian summer; a holiday in the Bay of Naples, Campari and orange, sweet scents and glorious flora. There is something about the stripes, the rage of colourful patterns and the chic flop of the material that induces me to associate Missoni with the warmer time of year.

Even in the depths of winter, shivering from exiting the shower, I am transported to carefree days in the shadow of the glory and greatness of Rome and to the rippling sparkle and azure of the Amalfi coast when I wrap the famous striped towels around my body. For to me, I do not feel that I have arrived on holiday, particularly Italy, until I begin to dress in the Missoni way; a mix and match of colours, a relaxed and slightly retro fit.

This is another of my favourite ensembles, from the spring 2006 Missoni collection. The really standout item, as with many Missoni ensembles, is the knitwear. The colour matching and cheerful striping avoids mere preppyness; the different widths and cornucopia of tones are signature Missoni. To some eyes it might seem excessively bright, but the magnificence of it is the somewhat hypnotic effect in the way it draws the eyes down from the broadness of stripe on the chest to the narrowness of the waist.

The orange belt is a clever addition; the trousers are uneventful and though checked, are too subtle to compete with the knitwear. Consequently, the belt draws some of the fruity colour down from the top half into the lower half. And though the lower half is indeed less colourful, it is well matched –  rather like a cocktail that unites something exotic with something plain; making the whole better than the sum of the parts.

The shoes are the one thing that did not initially appeal to me. I considered them a little moody in tone considering the punch of the rest but on further reflection, they finish off the outfit completely. White shoes, which I had considered more appropriate at first, might actually downgrade the outfit from being a healthy stab at retro to being like something from 1970s Monaco; a little cliché and ever so slightly trashy. The blue suede is far more subtle, if a little artisan or geek-chic.

The parts that really add lustre to this appealing outfit are the deep salmon pink shirt and the ever-so-skinny knitted scarf. The cuffs of the shirt are particularly appealing, folded up over the sleeve bottoms of the v-neck, reaffirming the delivery of this ensemble as something for the summer and I do like that only the top button of the shirt is undone; I have begun to find, in some outfits, that doing so retains the structure of a shirt better. The scarf, while most will doubtless consider it rather too decorative and absurdly lacking in function, actually lifts this outfit from being a delightful but practical v-neck, shirt and trouser combination into an outfit that could be excused at the most demanding of summer venue or occasion. It furthers perfectly the uniqueness that Missoni have rightly been credited for promoting.

H&M, a Brand on the Turn?

I recently made an excellent purchase. The item in question is a slate grey linen jacket and the store I purchased the item from was none other than H&M. Forgive if you will the childish abruptness of the preceding sentences, but the simple truth of the matter is, I am still exhibiting signs of surprise. A year ago, even in the mighty sprawl of London, I doubt I could have made such a purchase in that veritable Swedish temple of disposable fashion. Blazers were an occasional option, but even in the vastness of central London branches, H&M seemed to be at odds with my tastes.

The occasional belt or pair of shorts were purchased and I remember a couple of knitwear items, but largely, as I have matured; a maturation that has galvanized my appreciation for a well-cut jacket and smart pair of trousers, I have drifted across the threshold very few times. The ‘direction’ of the store seemed to be youth focused; ghastly printed t-shirts, trucker caps and the like. The sort of thing you might find abandoned in a grisly backstreet in Bangkok. I never expected to find anything of value there and I certainly did not expect a sudden Zara-esque transformation into a store that sartorially curious young bucks in their mid-twenties might be interested in.

There were the occasional signs; a few smart items at the shop on Brompton Road rekindled my interest, but the seminal occasion was the opening of the giant Regent Street flagship: a three storey monster in the old Dickens & Jones building. Airy, fresh and generally uncrowded, the new shop is a bright change from the claustrophobic and frustrating atmosphere of the soon-to-be-redundant ‘corner shop’ branch on the Circus. The womenswear, as one passes through, is recognisable and typically H&M; colourful and occasionally stylish. There is one significant difference though; the space and order. H&M seem to have learned that, though they are a formidable retailer, they can learn from their enemies (read: Inditex Group). Fewer items weighed down the racks, there were more assistants on hand to help and there was less of the clothing carnage I normally associate with an afternoon visit to a high street store.

As I ascended in the shiny escalators I groaned as I saw the content of the floor I was rising to. I saw skirts, blouses and handbags – the men’s section, I rationalised, was likely to be a tiny and pitiful selection of jeans and t-shirts in a dull corner of this vast building. Not so. In fact, the men’s section was much larger than I imagined and in far the better area of the floor, near to the windows overlooking Regent Street. I was shocked at what I saw. A large wooden till dominated the area; oriental carpets were scattered over the appealing stone floor. Carefully positioned spotlights highlighted the best aspects of garments and large, heavy wooden cheval mirrors were perched next to burnished leather bucket chairs and appealingly sparse racks.

However, this was no mere window-dressing, for the clothes had changed too. There was an abundance of stylish jackets, all made from natural materials, with classic finishing. Shirts were simple and stylish and a great wad of silk ties, in conservative and pleasant patterns, were arranged on a central table next to the exciting and blissfully economical pocket squares. Away from the hush of this area, you can find the usual H&M male collection; all denim, t-shirts and flip flops but now, fortunately, this is not all H&M has to offer. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. This London ‘exhibition’ bodes well for the future of the brand in Europe and around the world. Of course, H&M will always have its critics; those who chuckle at the disposability and quality of the garments, although I must admit, I saw little evidence in the new menswear department to evidence the latter. If this creativity and dedication continues, H&M will only gather more admirers and we will be spoilt for choice as the modern ‘high street formula’ in menswear continues to aid the sickened and fashion conscious in times of economic woe.

Summer Footwear

When things start to heat up outside, one’s wardrobe pares down as well. Tweed and flannel gives way to linen and cotton; sweaters go back in the drawer and polo shirts make their seasonal debut.

The same holds true for footwear. Down south where your feet hit the pavement, changes are afoot.

It’s a given of course, that in the great scheme of things men do not have the incredible variation in style, functionality, materials and colors that women do when it comes to shoes. While some bemoan this situation, I find it a blessing. Without the need for a separate shoe closet, men easily have enough choice in their footwear wardrobe to create distinctive, classic and signature warm weather looks for every day of the week.

As I see it, there are four broadly defined categories on which to focus when getting dressed each morning. Each one dictates your overall choice of clothing and corresponding footwear.

Business Wear = traditional suits, formal office wear, important meetings, conservative blazer and dress trousers.
Traditional laced business shoes / slips-ins

Business Casual = general office wear, professional but not necessarily formal, wider range of sport coats paired with dress and casual trousers, finer polo shirts and dress khakis or chinos.
Lighter colored dress shoes / loafers / suede bucks / rubber soled casual shoes

Social = going out, lawn parties, social but not necessarily casual events
Driving moccasins / casual loafers with contrast stitching / boat shoes / canvas tennis shoes

Weekend Wear = casual, relaxing, friends and errands or chores
Boat Shoes / Camp moccasins / Birkenstocks & sandals / canvas tennis shoes

To me footwear is a component of an overall wardrobe; shoes should both stand out as your outfit’s foundation and also work with that outfit to tell a unified story.

Business wear and business casual do not really change much during warm weather. If wearing a business suit, traditional black, brown and cordovan footwear are still your best choices. These cap toes, oxfords, balmorals and slip-ins will also work with brighter shirt and tie combinations you may want to try out.

Some men like to switch to light colored dress shoes in warm months. This can be a difficult trick to pull off because softer colored leathers – creams, pale tans and other earth tones – can look both affected and aesthetically unsettling. It takes a very specific kind of outfit to provide the same level of professionalism and balance that traditional darker colors offer.

Mixed media footwear, cap toes done in leather and linen for example, can be elegant but should be paired with equally stylish tailored clothing and not necessarily a business suit. The mix of summery élan and boardroom sobriety usually don’t work together.

Linen, cotton and seersucker suits are a different story. For these classics, white or tan suede bucks complete the prototypical summer suit. Jaunty and timeless, white bucks in particular are the perfect match for the warm weather dressy/casual appeal of summer suits. Dark brown or cordovan lace ups and slip-ins can dress the outfit up a notch but I think that black is just too formal.

I have also seen white bucks paired with a dark navy linen suit. The effect was wonderful – very Great Gatsby, but not all a costume. The suit was extremely well tailored and the shoes were of a very high quality. What made it work though was the pairing of a linen “business” suit with the equivalent of summer “business” shoes. While still a little adventurous in a traditional office, it’s very natty.

Dressing for a business casual environment brings in a different class of footwear. When pairing your shoes with lightweight chinos, linen or other summer fabrics, penny loafers and boat shoes are traditional options that reduce the formality while still not straying into weekend territory. While loafers are widely accepted as a less formal dress shoe, boat shoes and their outdoorsy brethren are seen by some as an office interloper.

My fellow columnist Simon Crompton devoted a recent article to his distrust of the boat shoe in particular. While I almost always agree with this sartorial viewpoint, here I must dig in my sockless heels and revert to New England roots. Boat shoes, best embodied by the original Sperry Topsiders, are a staple of most East Coast wardrobes. They are, in my humble opinion, a classic all purpose casual shoe.

Where canvas trainers would be inappropriate, the boat shoe, aka “docksider”, strolls in without a second glance. I would never say that they are correct for all business casual environments, especially those with an emphasis on Business, but for most offices with a relaxed dress code they are just fine.

Part of the issue boils down to one’s personal casual style. Clothing-wise are you by nature formal or relaxed? My father, for example, has never owned a pair of jeans in his life. His weekend attire often consists of a button down oxford shirt, neat chinos and deeply polished Brooks Brothers loafers – or in the summer, docksiders. That’s just who he is.

I however, may wear old khakis with frayed cuffs, a faded polo shirt, ribbon belt and well worn canvas tennis shoes (or docksiders; without socks of course). When clothed for business I naturally gravitate toward a formal European sense of style and prefer English made footwear. But when dressing more casually my American genes take over. And truth be told, that is more of who I am when push comes to shove.

For some men the space between formal and casual is much tighter – like Simon or my father. Footwear is a good indicator of this personality trait. There is no wrong or right, it’s just personal taste as far as I’m concerned. For some, warm weather means only slight variations in the shoe department. For others, it is a celebration of the additional, often casual, options that lighter, brighter and less formal attire brings.

Know Your Palette

When I was a younger man, still an undergraduate and still naively optimistic about my future, I used to believe, in that customary fashion of youth, that I was capable of anything and undoubtedly suited to everything. On a brief shopping trip to a Polo Ralph Lauren factory store for ‘essentials’ – crew neck and v-neck sweaters – I grabbed a white crew neck jumper, which my other male companion had also selected for trial, and after pulling it carelessly over my head, marched triumphantly from the changing rooms to be appraised by the third companion, a female. She looked at us and winced in that peculiar way; a warning indication of the discomfort and awkwardness they were about to cause. My companion, she pointed out, was tanned and toned and the brilliant white looked magnificent next to his skin. I was rather pale and slight and, when compared to the sun-kissed specimen standing next to me, looked, as she put it rather indelicately, rather horrible indeed.

As degrading and puzzling it was to a young man who was stubborn in his resistance to defeat, I had to admit on reflection that she was exactly right. It is a glorious folly of youth to believe that we can do anything; limitations are forgotten, mistakes are made, albeit in the most honourable and admirable way. I eventually selected a navy blue jumper which, both of my companions agreed, suited me well. Although, I was still disappointed.

‘Know your palette’ has since been a mantra of mine when gazing upon the racks of the rainbow in countless stores. It is perhaps unfortunate for many people that some of the colours we adore are the most inappropriate and impractical. Like the doomed lovers; hearts aflame for one another, passionate and even devoted – but tragically unsuitable as partners. Such is my relationship with pastel greens, orange and purple: glorious colours that deserve to be worn, but not by me.

1. The Pale Caucasian

If you are, like me, a Caucasian of light brown or blonde hair, light skinned and perhaps a little freckly with green or blue eyes, then you might already be aware that some colours are not as appealing on you as others. Summertime might give way to a little tanned skin and generously highlighted hair, but generally speaking I find that strong ‘fruit’ colours; orange, banana, kiwi and the like, tend to overpower the subtlety of our features. In moderation white looks acceptable but when I use too much of it, my skin looks blotchy; it’s quite incredible how much redder a slight shaving rash can look wearing such quantities of this colour. The best tones to stick with are navy and mid blue, black, dark and moss greens and deep red. Ferrari reds do look delicious on the shelf, but when I see a ‘dark haired olive skinned lothario’ casually considering such a tone, I begin to realise my limitations.

2. The Dark Haired Olive Skinned Lothario

You are a fortunate chap. The appealing depth and patina to your skin tone, coupled with the shock crop of dark hair means you possess the striking qualities to compete with even the hardiest of difficult colours. Violets, purples, bright reds, tangerine yellow…it seems no bright colours can affect your image negatively. Having said that, certain shades don’t do as much for your overall image; weak navy blues flatter the Pale Caucasian and the Exotic tone, but against the dark chic of your visage they are rather something and nothing. Secondly, think ‘saturated’ when choosing unconventional colours such as pink – the just-about-pinks can drag your ensemble down from a fabulous to a mediocre.

3. The Exotic

If you have rich dark skin, you are also very fortunate. There are few colours that pose a challenge to the luxuriant tones of your face. However, it is wise to choose colours like white, bright blue, greys and red over browns, blacks and navy as the contrast is magnificent and much more appealing than wearing colours of the same palette as your skin tone. The fact that you are most likely to possess dark eyes means you can experiment wildly in terms of colour; watermelon, imperial purple and the like are all at your disposal.