Archives for June 2008

New York Men Shine in the Sun

New York puts London in the shade. The hot weather (it’s been above 30 Celsius all this week) brings out the city’s hidden peacocks.

Walking down Fifth Avenue this morning, almost every block presented a summer delight. Several seersucker suits, a plethora of summer hats, sockless suits with loafers, white linen and white bucks.

You just don’t see that in London. Granted, the consistency of the weather here makes summer clothing a better investment – a sunny day is actually sunny all day, rather than being half cloud in the morning, patchy at midday and just overcast in the afternoon. But I would bet good money that these impeccable gentlemen own four or five summer suits, and their peers in the UK own none. Such a shame.

Some would say that the Americans are not dressed well, in one regard. No matter how well tailored the outfit, or daring the cloth, every one of those summer suits had pleated trousers and no jacket waist to speak of. So while they were striking, I would argue they weren’t very flattering.

The trousers also had cuffs (or turn-ups) which, while I know many people are a fan of, create a very cluttered picture in my eyes. Given that the gentlemen I saw were wearing trousers that were wide, decorated with pleats, worn with a belt, and few of them wear slim, the last thing they needed was another bit of texture to break up the line of the outfit. All the slimming, heightening effects of the suit were removed. (I know cuffs are also meant to help pleats stay straight, but doesn’t tape add just as much weight?)

So the cut was not to my taste. This is the difference between silhouette and fit – something I stressed in a previous posting. The fit was immaculate, but the way they had chosen it to fit (the silhouette, the proportions) were, in my eyes, questionable.

But this is obviously a personal choice. I have to admit that what they did, they did well. In fact, I think many Americans get a bad press in the UK. Too many of them wear chinos that are too wide. Almost a third of them seem to be wearing the same outfit, which pairs these chinos with a shirt (or polo) and deck shoes. [I had the surreal experience yesterday of being in a list with four Goldman Sachs employees, who were all wearing blue button-down shirts, brown belts, chinos and brown deck shoes. It was freaky.] Finally, some Americans wear their chinos with trainers, which is just ugly.

Yet there are none of the classic English howlers – no suit jackets with t-shirts, no shiny tracksuits, no voluminous untucked dress shirts. The rules seem to have stronger roots in New York. Yes, the outfits can be boring (if a third were wearing the deck shoes outfit, about a quarter were wearing blue blazers) but the belts generally matched the shoes, the shirts were generally tucked in, and no one had a matching tie and pocket handkerchief.

So here’s to New York men, for their peacocks and their consistency. Without them English style wouldn’t have got far.

Trouser Length

One of the most vivid memories of my early sartorial confrontations with my father is of his exasperation at the position of my trousers. I was in some ways an awkward teenager, both physically and emotionally, and I was for a period rather influenced by my own age-consciousness. I believed that my youth was best at odds with the traditional way of things; I wore trousers, quite absurd to me now, of more than questionable length and style. When I dig them out on nostalgic sojourns back to the family home, shaking my head and tut-tutting at the ‘way things used to be’, I still cannot quite believe how poor some of my clothing choices had been. And the ghosts of this mistaken attitude towards my wardrobe are everywhere. For there seems to be no commoner mistake, for a suited gentleman, than that of the ill-fitting trouser.

I take the long walk home from Chancery Lane, passing accountants, lawyers, civil servants and the odd banker and it never fails to flummox me how poorly cut many of their trousers are. For on a good number of them, though they shuffle along in acceptable jackets of the correct size and style, my eye is horrified to see, as it moves down the body, the folds, nay waves, of trouser flopping onto the shoe.

‘Look’, the hypothetical reader would begin in response to my bewilderment, ‘these are off the rack suits and these guys probably don’t like wearing them, and they don’t care; it’s that simple.’ Although this is a valid point, I would wager at least 2 in 5 of the ‘overabundant trouser brigade’ would be interested in changing their look were they given visual examples of a better cut of trouser. It might be a want of caring, or it might be a lack of experience; some people are simply more fussy when it comes to shapes, lines and silhouettes. Rather like a man who wanders into an art gallery, not really knowing what he likes, but stating the simple philosophy that he’ll ‘Know what he likes when he sees it.’

My own revulsion is a reaction to the sight of the disruption of the straightness of a leg by the way the trouser concertinas into the shoe. However, there are those who would themselves be rather put out by a leg that was cut too short, that sat too low at the back heel or that made their feet seem awkwardly larger. It all depends on taste, and the world is practically an enormous gallery for men wishing to find ‘what they like.’

The Perfect End

This cut of trouser is my personal favourite. My father favours slightly more length in his trouser but I prefer there to be as little fold at the bottom as possible; the trouser sits just over the laces, leaving nearly the entire shoe exposed. Tailors would disagree and disapprove such a length; they would prefer the trouser to fall down at the back of the shoe to sit just above the heel itself.

The Thom Brown

Mr Thom Brown is often referred to as the ‘saviour’ of men’s fashion, but few men seem to agree with his cut of trouser. It is drastically short, often comic in effect, and though it is indeed very youthful and rather quirky, it’d take a brave banker or an audacious accountant to swank into work on a Monday morning.

The Tailor’s Favourite

Some contemporary tailors would disagree, but the traditional ‘tailors favourite’ cut of trouser (though many will predictably claim to ‘tailor’ to the individual client) is the trouser that, as previously mentioned, sits just above heel and covers the laces. For older gentlemen, this is the most common; Prince Charles’ trousers are perfectly cut in this manner.

A Gem in New York: Leffot

For such a large (and stylish) city, New York is curiously devoid of good men’s shoe shops. Most of the well-known European brands have outlets here – Berluti, JM Weston, Church’s – but there is little variation outside of that. Unlike London, there is no proliferation of great, local shops (Cleverley, Foster & Son). Even Paris, historically the second string to London for menswear, has some wonderful shoemakers such as Aubercy that do not sell anywhere else.

In New York, variation is limited to the high-end department stores. Their lines vary, stopping and starting with little warning (example: Lidfort at Barney’s). And they’re all up town.

For all these reasons, Leffot (pronounced le-fot) is a breath of fresh air. Located on Christopher Street in the west Village, it has only been running for a month. But the stock is impressive. It carries Aubercy (previously only available in Paris), Gaziano & Girling (only Hawaii in the US), Corthay (only Bergdorf Goodman in NY), Artioli (Baldini and Saks in NY), Edward Green (only relabeled at Ralph Lauren) and the more widely available Church’s and JM Weston.

With five to seven styles in each, the range is not vast. Such is the limited volume of some of these lines that as soon as one line sells out, it takes five months to order more in. One Gaziano & Girling order was delayed because the man who did the hand-stitching on one type of shoe was ill, putting back the delivery time by two weeks. But the range is well chosen – I dare anyone to contend there isn’t something for them, from the chunky, storm welted, double-soled Church’s to the ultra-slim and pointy Artiolis.

Being downtown enables Leffot to carry a more eclectic range of shoes styles and colours. Apparently JM Weston’s best-selling colour uptown is black, despite the tans, reds and even greens on offer. Downtown, black sits in dowdy last place. In fact, Steven Taffel, the personable and welcoming owner of Leffot, tells of one man and his wife who wandered in looking for inspiration. Despite being a conservative, office-bound gentleman, he ended up buying the more extreme pointed Artiolis, as “he already had black oxfords and wore them all week. He wanted something different, something exciting.”

It’s certainly hard not to be excited by the Corthay two-tone shoes in tan calf and brown suede, or the tapered, beveled waist of the Gaziano & Girling shoes. A favourite of The Sartorialist as well, it’s hard not to see this store succeeding. But just to be on the safe side, let’s troop down there and support a start-up company.

P.S. If it’s still there when you go, have a look at the copy of Japanese magazine Last that’s on display. It has step-by-step instructions on how to re-heel your shoes, demonstrates the value of polishing a shoe with champagne, and still has room for better photo shoots than you’ll find in any UK or US magazine. They need to launch an international (read English) version. Now.

The Question of Buttoning

Beautiful sunny mornings, warm and long lasting evenings, mild nights and the gentlest of gentle breezes; what does it amount to? It amounts to, dear readers, a real problem as far as clothing is concerned. High pressure and days drenched in sunshine can be problematic for those accustomed to the formality of a suit. It is particularly problematic for gentlemen who have a predilection for wearing double breasted suits.

I happened to be wandering down Chancery Lane on a particularly close afternoon when I felt obligated to stand aside to allow several suited chaps to pass in the awkwardness of the scaffolding, erected for renovation work on one of the twentieth century buildings along that artery of legal London. All of them were wearing double-breasted jackets and all of them had them unbuttoned. They paced with purpose but there was something slightly childish about their silhouette; unbuttoned they looked weary and slipshod.

On a different afternoon I was walking along the same street having taken a pleasant shortcut through the magnificent Lincoln’s Inn when I crossed the path of an elderly man in a beautiful blue cotton suit; single breasted and single buttoned, his jacket was open, allowing whatever fragments of breeze were conjured, on what was a mercilessly hot afternoon, to cool his torso. In contrast to the trio I had encountered before, he looked utterly urbane; the sophistication was evidenced by his turned up sleeves and the excellent shape of the jacket. He was certainly unbuttoned, but still composed.

And is that it? A simple resale of the much flogged notion that double-breasted suits be buttoned up? Well, not quite. You see I do stand by the notion as correct; double-breasted suits do look better buttoned up. But then so in fact do single breasted suits. Chasing down a man in a single breasted suit that looks better ‘unbuttoned’ is a challenge; ask a chap in a two or three button to fasten one of them and his figure is instantly altered, and usually for the better.

Most readers will probably be interested, and experienced, in purchasing ‘off the rack’ suits. And most of these suits purchased will meet the requirement of ‘sufficient formality.’ However I think it is a failure of design that most suits cut for the everyday man look unsatisfactory unless the material is drawn into the waist by the securing of a button. I always feel that ‘unbuttoned glory’ is possible and achievable with a suit – consider the magnificent frock coat and morning coat designs of the recent past – and would always advocate a little adjustment to make the unbuttoned man a good deal more elegant.

Unbuttoning is to be expected; there’ll be the long days at the office, the warm afternoons dragging laptops and luggage to the airport and the relaxation occasions in the local wine bar after the clock has chimed 6. It is important to attempt to retain as much of the ‘pinch’ created by buttoning that maintains the correct positioning of the jacket so it is vital to assess suits as a buttoned and unbuttoned possibility. If there is insufficient ‘pinch’ then the jacket has a tendency to ‘fall away’; too much and the jacket is likely to constrict movement.

After musings on the state of my own wardrobe, I came to the radical conclusion that as I am in possession of a few jackets with insufficient structure to wear unbuttoned, I shall only wear them as buttoned. Structure-free jackets can be charming and rather youthful, but as I have dictated to myself, they do not have the strength to stand on their own without that mighty ally of the jacket; the humble button.

Windows on a Designer’s Mind

Window dressing performs a very different function in men’s and women’s clothing stores. In a women’s shop, its primary purpose is to showcase items that the store contains. It seeks to shows that its pieces are attractive and possibly unique.

This is not the purpose of a display in a men’s store. While there may be one or two items that attract you for their originality, the pieces will generally be too similar to those on offer in other stores to stand out entirely. Rather, it is there to display the creative intelligence of the men who designed the clothes and the brand.

The clothes are being bought for their cloth and their cut; for the subtle things that make one blue blazer infinitely preferable to another. The fact that the clothes inside excel in these areas is best displayed through the colour and texture combinations in the window. It is this that should take you inside.

Inditex, the Spanish group that owns Massimo Dutti, Zara, Pull & Bear and others, understands this all to well. No matter what the quality of Zara clothes may be, the central planners at Inditex HQ make sure that you are lured inside by the combinations, even if they are a pretty stark variation on black suits, white shirts and skinny ties.

Massimo Dutti is even better. Consciously aiming for an older audience, its Mediterranean colours and linen combinations in the summer are almost inspiring. I’ve often felt forced to record some particular detail (green silk with a tan linen suit, a purple handkerchief with a blue blazer) that I would otherwise forget and never remember to use myself.

Ralph Lauren is of course a past master at this, and staff often refer to the detailed descriptions they are given of how to dress mannequins, both inside and outside the store. (It’s all about the pop colout!) By contrast, Armani windows are often startlingly bland. They persist in using almost two-dimensional mannequins, which the suits hang off rather than drape. Anyone who has been forced to put a suit jacket on a wire hanger will be able to imagine the unflattering effect.

Armani mannequins also seem to be uniformly grey, no matter what the season. And as with many other bad window dressers, they consider it needless to keep ties done up, let alone taut.

But let’s concentrate on the good dressers. Hackett is often very good, and this season features ingenious combinations of Safari-themed outfits – a buff, linen, double-breasted waistcoat with a grey suit, for example. In New York, Bergdorf Goodman rarely puts a foot wrong, and it’s worth the trip uptown just to browse the windows. Doriani is also very good – as the double-breasted blazer opposite demonstrates.

In fact, this picture is a perfect example. All the items are plain, basic, classic. But the combination is exciting. It’s not that unusual; you may have seen something similar before, or feel you should have done. But the beautiful sculpture of it ushers you inside, convinced that everything the store sells will be of the best cloth and cut. It is creative intelligence on display.

P.S. Plaudits also for Domenico Vacca in New York, which seems to accentuate the beauty of already lovely shoes by tucking a different coloured sock or tie inside each. How the accent of lime-green sock brings out a chestnut oxford I don’t know, but it works.