Archives for July 2008

Make Berluti Your Fifth Pair. Part 1: Construction

Many people a sartorial bent idolise Berluti shoes. And well they may. Olga Berluti designs beautiful footwear that stands out for its sleek lines and subtle patinas. But there are many questions over the quality of its construction.

Let’s start with the certainties. Berluti shoes, like many made in Italy (they are constructed in the Stefano Bi factory outside Ferrara, though designed in France), are Blake constructed. This means that the shoe’s upper is folded underneath itself and sewn directly onto the sole of the shoe, unlike Goodyear welts which involve sewing the upper onto a new ridge of leather, before attaching that to the sole.

Most English shoes and their American heirs (Alden, Allen Edmonds) use Goodyear welts. They make the shoe more water resistant and tougher. They also make it easier and quicker to resole the shoe. So Berluti shoes are less likely to stand up to rain and general dampness.

They can be resoled, but it requires a Blake-specific machine. Cobblers that use these can be hard to find, but then if you’re going to pay Berluti prices for shoes you should really send them back to the manufacturer to get resoled and rebuilt to maximise their longevity.

The advantage of Blake construction is that the sole can be cut a lot closer to the upper, leaving less of a lip and making the design sleeker. The width of a sole around the upper varies hugely among Goodyear-welted shoes, but none are quite as thin as Blake-made models.

Blake shoes are not necessarily of inferior quality. Although the technique was originally created to make it easier to produce shoes in a factory, and some very poorly made Blake shoes are churned out in Italy, the top quality lines are expertly made.

But they are more delicate. Quite how delicate Berluti shoes are is a matter of some debate. Some say they have worn them for years without any major problems. Others report that they wrinkled badly and did not hold up well to continued use.

In an online forum intended to discuss such matters, one Berluti enthusiast said “I have been a customer since 1998. I believe their shoes are very well made, there are a couple of pairs I have worn for a long time and they are holding up beautifully.”

A more critical customer pointed out: “One issue with Berluti ready-to-wear is the use of Venezia leather. According to Berluti PR, this leather allows for the beautiful patina available on Berluti shoes. Unfortunately, it is also quite thin and delicate, which means that they can look very wrinkled after some wear.”

The conclusion to this debate will appear here later in the week…

Anyone Know a Good Cobbler?

I was having a set of keys cut in a local cobbler yesterday and couldn’t take my eyes off the guy resoling shoes. He banged in the nails on the new shoe with abandon, filed off the edges of the leather while barely looking at it and then threw (yes, threw) the completed shoe onto the shelf above him.

It landed on a mound of similarly maltreated shoes, a few ladies’ heels sticking out from between a dozen black brogues. It looked like a mound of stricken corpses. You could almost hear the pain inflicted by his whining machinery.

These high-street cobblers barely deserve the name. (They certainly are nothing close to cordwainers – the old English term for makers of shoes.) But then what should you expect from someone who is equally adept at cutting keys, dry cleaning and resoling?

But there aren’t many other options. If you want a good pair of shoes resoling or reconstructing, your only choice is a high-street butcher or the original manufacturer. And the latter is likely to be prohibitively expensive – possibly involving the shipping of the shoes to France or Italy (it’s even worse for US readers, who might have to send them to Northampton as well).

This service is undoubtedly worth it if you want the shoes reconstructing, with new welts and linings etc. But it’s a little excessive just for a new sole.

I asked Steven Taffel of Leffot in New York for advice on this but without any luck. Apparently the problem is similar in the US – nothing in the middle ground.

Steven suggested I try Dean Girling (of Gaziano & Girling) to ask his advice. Dean’s best suggestion was to send them to his team, one of whom would be happy to reconstruct a shoe. This is useful and more local, but doesn’t really solve the problem.

“The problem is there just aren’t any high-quality cobblers out there any more,” said Dean. “My father still does a lot of that work but he’s in his sixties now and has more work than he can handle. It seems there isn’t the volume of retail demand for high-quality work.”

So this is a request for recommendations from the readership. There must be some good cobblers out there that I can feel confident giving my JM Westons to for a new heel. It doesn’t matter where you live, any recommendations would be gladly received.

[I also need to find somewhere that sells tongue pads that you stick to the bottom of the shoe’s tongue – it helps tighten the top of the shoe when the leather has expanded over time.]

Going Old School: Manhattan Portage Waxwear Bag

This is the last installment of my Commuter and Dad Bag Test. I have had the chance to examine and test numerous bags from a number of brands spanning a variety of styles. From nylon messenger bags built for urban transport to a classic leather mailbag ready to handle a lifetime of ageing. I have also gained an appreciation for the many companies out there looking for the next big thing in transporting your stuff.

I’ve tried some very cool bags that have so many pockets, flaps and zippers that I almost needed an instruction book to remember where I put my house key. One bag had no outside pockets at all, not one; so every time I needed to access my metro card, up came the giant flap and a panicked search would ensue. That one didn’t last long.

Perhaps because of all the impressive advancements in the bag market, I also have a much greater appreciation for the basics. The J. Peterman Counterfeit Mail Bag is an excellent example of what I consider mastery of common sense. It is simple, sturdy, beautiful and totally functional. Is it perfect for all your needs? Probably not, but that’s not the point. Every time I carry it, I get at least one compliment before I even reach the office.

The last bag I tested was another simple and timeless design by Manhattan Portage, one of the original messenger bag companies. The Waxed Vintage Messenger Bag (model #1605V-WP, $60.00) sounds slightly intimidating, but it’s really a wonderful bag that has real personality outside of its functional role.

The company itself can be described the same way. When it was founded in 1983, Manhattan Portage had a simple philosophy, “a bag for everyone.” 25 years later it still holds true. Across the globe, from Boston to Osaka, Manhattan Portage’s line of bags are indeed everywhere and carried by everyone. I even saw one on a barge trip in Provence, France.

As a company, Manhattan Portage remains loyal to its New York roots. Because their designs are functional and straightforward, the bags always seem to be in style – no mean feat in a city that’s constantly in search of something new and different.

Manhattan Portage has been able to avoid becoming another fleeting fad and withstand the test of time because their bags do. In fact, a fascinating April 2007 Esquire story documents the survival and subsequent examination of the writer’s messenger bag after making it out of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. That’s one tough bag.

The one I tested, under far less strenuous conditions, is nonetheless a robust bag that will be around for a long time. Constructed of waxwear, it is a little heavier than similar nylon-based bags. What is gained though, a natural and durable material, is worth the difference.

The fabric used by Manhattan Portage is from Herbert Rice, one of the top makers of waxed fabrics. Waxwear, a trademarked product, is a cotton-based fabric impregnated with a paraffin formula derived from recipes from the turn of the last century. Proofed against inclement weather, it maintains the breathability of cotton. And, as anyone with an old Barbour jacket can tell you, it ages really well.

Smaller in appearance than I expected, this bag is deceivingly large and its single main compartment comfortably swallowed multiple books, pads and other weighty stuff. There is a small zippered pocket on the rear inside panel well sized for pens, keys and loose change. My bag is lined with a day-glo yellow that makes it easy to find most anything in there – no dark corners.

Closure is achieved by a wide Velcro strip that extends across the front of the bag. The flap’s underside is outfitted with two vertical mating strips that hold the flap snugly in place; easy to open and close. The strap is heavy duty Cordura and sizing is managed by a strong metal buckle.

Overall, this is one of the most useful messenger style bags I have tested. Its size and design are practical and the waxed navy blue material blends well with most outfits short of a suit. It’s definitely a keeper.

‘Would I Look Good in This?’

One of the things I am always aware of, being overly concerned with my appearance and wardrobe, is my ability – or indeed, inability as the case may be – to vary personal style. It’s certainly a good thing to have what one might refer to as a ‘uniform’; a safe combination of shirt, jacket, tie, trouser and shoe that you can always rely on but the risk with such uniformity is that you tend to avoid experimentation – as well as risking the affliction of peace of mind with sartorial boredom.

Many people are capable of identifying themselves with a particular mode or style: “It’s nice but it’s just not me…”, “I’d love to be able to wear that, but I have my way of doing things.” They appear content in the knowledge that contentment is illusory; after all, we’d all love to be able to do many things. I wouldn’t mind winning Wimbledon or discovering the cure for a widespread disease but I recognise my own limitations and the fact that those things are not going to happen is something I accept.

And the grass, so they say, is generally greener on the other side of the fence. Whilst the public lavish attention and adoration on the celebrity, the celebrity constantly seeks the shade, the private life; unable to comprehend the desire the anonymous have for a life in the bright lights of fame. A man of considerable style might pace the streets with apparent confidence but a glance in the direction of an alternatively attired chap might set the wheels of his mind whirring for the possibility of change.

In style, confidence and self-security are vital components. Without them the supposed man of style is a poseur and pretender; a charlatan who hasn’t conquered the infuriating tendency of fashionistas to tinker and tamper. However, it must also be recognised that the very essence of personal style is self-discovery. Experimentation and dabbling are important aspects of this discovery – the man of one suit might not lack funds, but imagination.

Maturation also plays a role. Roger Federer admitted he was always the shy teenager, forever in sports clothing, until he grew into his hidden passion for clothing, making friends with the movers and shakers of the New York fashion set, revealing his ‘embarrassing’ joy in shopping for clothes. Many men go through this period, some earlier than others, and some enter it without realising quite what they are letting themselves in for.

I believe in the idea of personal style; I believe it is detectable and identifiable. Or at least it should be. My fear of remaining too ‘uniform’ is a symptom of my interest in fashion. I am confident in the clothes I wear, and the clothes I choose to buy, but I am often afraid that I am only touching a percentage of the ‘style’ that is available to embrace. I fear that the ‘uniform’ has become my identity; someone recently complimented me on my usefulness in emotional situations as I always decorated my jacket pocket with a silk square. I was somewhat nonplussed. The very idea of predictability can either crack sartorial confidence, or it can strengthen and galvanise.

Naturally confident, even arrogant individuals will see this as an acknowledgment of their signature; Lagerfeld for example would have no problem in being identified as the monochrome man. However, this places external recognition and honour at the heart of one’s style and that can never do; if you dress for someone other than yourself, it is strikingly obvious that you are doing so.

I think the fear of wanting something that you do not have and being someone you are not is pointless; no collection, no matter how large, is ever complete or the owner satisfied. Imelda Marcos is an illustration, albeit an extreme one, of the minutiae in differentiation the collector can note. Such a collector never stops wanting what they do not have and acknowledging that weakness is important; ‘travelling’ in all it’s forms is a favourite pastime of the human being and we never seem to tire of it. The evolution of your wardrobe is just as remarkable as the evolution of your personality and at times, one often reflects the other.

The personal desire of variety is natural and, though I have issued rather stiff words on ‘confidence in personal style’ and written on achieving a peace with your own gut-understanding of ‘what style means to you’, the reality is that curiosity, though it has been distributed in different quantities, is in all of us.

The Split Yoke

There is almost no good journalism about men’s style these days. Outside of this and a few other websites, no-one produces objective, informed and above all critical writing about clothes, brands and products.

I flicked through a magazine called Man About Town last week (a recent launch in the high-end fashion sector, only on its second issue) and found 20 pages about the business of fashion. Should be interesting, except that it comprised several double-page spreads on brands including Dunhill and Church’s, merely describing their luscious interiors, history of craftsmanship and key pieces.

Not one critical or substantive word about what differentiated this business, about how it communicates its value for money, or about different times and designers have changed what it does. Nothing on what its detractors say about it; or on how much water those detractions hold.

Each piece read like an advert. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that those companies advertise in the magazine. But this is what journalism is built on – the integrity that allows you to write fairly and objectively, if critically, about those that fund the magazine itself.

Another example this week piled ignorance onto paucity of journalism. The column Brummell in UK newspaper Financial News recommended a bespoke shirt service called Brass Bones, where you can get shirts made to your size by filling in a form online. Nothing wrong with that; it’s a good idea.

But there’s no journalism here. They haven’t tried the service or cast anything like a critical eye over it. There are several online shirt services that have been around for months, even years, yet they don’t get a mention – let alone a comparison. This service is presented as a one-off.

Such is the presentation of the piece, just like the examples in Man About Town, that it could be mistaken for an advert.

But the worst thing is ignorance about the product they are describing. Aside from a rather casual use of the word ‘bespoke’ (see previous post on Sartoriani), the boys at Brummell insightfully point out that the shirts have desirable details such as mother-of-pearl buttons, gussets and split yokes.

Mother-of-pearl is standard. If they didn’t have that you should send them back. The value of gussets is debateable. But split yokes are the worst. They are an anachronism.

Split yokes used to be a sign of quality because it showed that your tailor regularly adjusted his shirts, altering the length of each side of the yoke to fit the individual customer. This is unlikely to be the case today.

In fact, you could argue that having a yoke that is one piece demonstrates quality, as a bespoke shirt by definition doesn’t need to be split and adjusted. Either way, listing it as a feature hardly demonstrates incisive criticism.

I’d bet a decent sum of money the writers of that piece just copied the list from a Brass Bones press release, with little thought for what it meant. Oh well.