Archives for August 2008

Costa Smeralda Report

On my recent travels to the Costa Smeralda, surrounded by holidaying Italians of varying social position and wealth, I came to the happy conclusion that I was satisfied to be born an Englishman. Not for the dreadful weather, or any of those boisterous and brutal reasons of base patriotism. But I was satisfied that I was in a better position than an unfortunate Italian gentleman who has grown up in the magnificent shadows of Renaissance churches, in the glorious vineyards of Tuscany and by the shores of the ‘Emerald Coast’, merely to woo a woman who considers the vulgar display of ‘designer’ labels (literally labels in some instances) to be the epitome of style. In a sunglasses store in the oddly manicured but pleasant Porto Cervo, a group of Italians walked in. The women, separating from the men, gravitated towards the ‘big brands’; big lenses, big designer name on the arm. The men looked around casually but their interest in glasses was less to do with the conspicuousness of the designer name and more to do with the construction and shape; they held the glasses, folding and refolding the arms, inspecting the profile like a ship’s architect admiring a model of his latest project. For me, this was illustrative of the difference. Names for the girls, design for the men.

The Costa Smeralda is a picturesque place; an unspoilt playground for holidaymakers attracted by the tidy towns, rugged and soaring landscape and the general feeling of ‘quiet safety.’ To call it a stylish destination is perhaps being rather generous; there is certainly a focus on fashion, but there is also as much of a focus on spending money and displaying money – activities which cannot be singled out by a soul as complete evidence of ‘style.’ There is definitely a naïve confusion in towns like Cervo and Rotondo, a confusion which seems to filter down, unfortunately, to the less well off Italians who push their children’s perambulators past 200 foot yachts in silent reverence. This ‘confusion’ is rather best summed up by a line from the song ‘Big Spender’; “The minute you walked in the joint/I could see you were a man of distinction/A real big spender.” The wealthy Russians visiting this coast remain as true to this dogma as anyone; the oligarchs’ massive vessels lurk in the Cala di Volpe and more than a few own properties here.

One of my companions commented that there wasn’t nearly as much style on this particular coast as on Capri and I certainly agreed. When the sun went down, Capri was replete with colourful style; the Costa Smeralda was rather different. Whereas on Capri, an island drenched in ancient decadence and offering glorious beauty, there was less evidence of label gluttony, Costa Smeralda was epitomised by the desperation of many to contrive importance and significance from decorating their bodies in garish and crass designer names. Money plays the best cards on this coast; and attention is courted, sadly, not from eye-catching style but from evidence of a deep wallet. This is a place upon which wealth has been thrown like confetti but there isn’t the same result as a Cap Ferrat or Capri; no old Profumia and few shops selling high quality holiday clothing. The usual suspects; Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and even Billionaire (the brash brand launched by the Costa’s maitre’d for the super rich, Flavio Briatore) are here but it doesn’t feel organic or natural to have them here. The shops are closed throughout most of the day and only open in the evening to the throng of tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of an Italian celebrity or a Hollywood filmstar. The landscape and situation of the towns provides inspiration galore; this is indeed a very attractive part of the world to doze through a summer. However, the fabrication has resulted in predictable smatterings of overpriced leathers and clothing frequently offered at prices greater than those requested in the world’s capital cities. The Costa Smeralda has cash aplenty but, like a number of its visitors and residents, it badly needs style.

Stockholm Style Report

I adore capital cities. As much as I enjoy exploring the rustic magnificence of a nation’s countryside or the quaint villages where few speak English, the colliding and clashing worlds in a capital are what makes them such hubs of importance. Though I had been privy to sceptical mutterings about Warsaw I found it to be a vibrant and engaging city. Not exactly a capital like Paris or London but a city of echoes and opportunity; a strange mixture of a deep and troubled past and a future unknown.

I recently visited the Swedish capital of Stockholm. I had the same sensations of collision; of the internationalism of the city. Stockholm is known as the ‘Venice of the North’; another version of a city that has been built on islands. And, like Venice, a significant proportion of the city’s charm is the water itself; the sound of lapping waves, the glorious sunshine reflecting on ripples. In Stockholm, as in Venice, I went in search of the aesthetics that made the city what it was; the boulevards, the bridges, the Baroque buildings and the blondes.

I had heard, and read, much of the differences between Östermalm and Södermalm some of which were purely sartorial; Öster was traditional and conservative, Söder was youthful and bohemian. It was hardly surprising to me that Östermalm represented the elite, established area of Stockholm with the magnificent Strandvägen, the grand hotels and theatres and that Södermalm represented an old working class area on the rise – directly corresponding to my native London; the West and East ends respectively. Though I did not wish to introduce a seed of argument and contest about the social and sartorial differences of Stockholm, it was with strange and apropos accident that I should favour, out of the entire city, a small area known as ‘Gamla Stan’; the Old Town of Stockholm which lies between these two areas. However, whilst it was full of the most charming alleyways, squares and churches, it was also overloaded with tourists; quite easily, the very worst dressed group in the entire city. About this I am sure the Söders and the Östers can certainly agree.

This young man was walking with a group of friends down Nybrogatan; I saw a flash of blue suede loafers, blonde hair and a swinging cream cable cardigan and leapt at the opportunity. For me, this was a good example of casual Stockholm. It’s not stiff and fabricated, nor is it lazy or sloppy; his belt is an appropriate colour for his shoes and an appropriate style for the casual nature of his dress. The cardigan is splendid as it captures the essence of ‘Fisherman chic’; a style that seems so relevant in maritime Stockholm. The loafers add summertime Mediterranean warmth to what is really the very picture of a casual Baltic ensemble.

This genial chap was encountered in the quaint streets of Gamla Stan. The Dylan-esque hair, sunglasses and moody colourings make him a prime example, I have been informed, of Södermalm style. The trousers are well-cut (a refreshing change from London – most men in Stockholm know how long their trousers are supposed to be), the style may be simple, but it’s the fit of the rollneck, the nonchalance of the ‘mane’ and the belt buckle which make him photographable. Androgyny is not a particular look I favour but in this instance, it works rather well; the delivery is all about subtlety.

This gentleman, who, facially, looks like a combination of Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling – with a smattering of Gordon Gekko – was rather busy on the telephone when I requested his portrait but he acquiesced to my request. He was chosen for his excellent use of the double-breasted suit, but also as an example of how well-fitted the clothes of Swedish men were. Aside from the slick-backed hair, the striped shirts and the pocket squares, the most appealing aspect of Stockholm sartorial style was that the suit wearers appear to have attended some magical ‘Wear a suit that fits you properly’ night classes; from bouncers to bankers, web designers to waiters, no matter if the suit was from H&M or Sulka, their suits fit well. Very well. Some might regard this photo and draw upon the fact that the material pulls slightly across the centre. But is it too small? I think not. I think little ripples of material actually work and make the wearer look fitter and younger; too often, men drown in badly fitting DBs.

Reader Question: Odd Waistcoats

Arctin Pengiun: Do you feel that a vest patterned to match slack or the rest of a suit is too much and that a vest should always contrast the rest of the outfit? Does this fit into your definition of ‘costume’? I am curious about your thoughts.

Tintin: I’m wearing [a waistcoat] now. Lilac with mother mother-of-pearl buttons. The DB vest is sooo British. I’m afraid I’ll be shot for wearing this vest much less a DB.

There appeared to be a slight miscommunication regarding my previous posting on double-breasted waistcoats. I have to confess that the illustration I provided was probably at fault: while I was discussing waistcoats that are part of a three-piece suit, and therefore match both the jacket and trousers, the illustration showed an odd (i.e. non-matching) buff waistcoat.

The illustration was too lovely not to include, but it obviously led some to the wrong conclusions.

All my recommendations in that previous post, and indeed all others relating to The Waistcoat Theory, refer to the third piece of a three-piece suit. This third element is, I maintain, elegant and intensely practical today. When most men in the office don’t wear a jacket, the waistcoat keeps their tie prim and their silhouette long.

Odd waistcoats are hard to wear well unless one is at a formal event. For formal daywear, buff (yellow) and a variety of other pale colours have long been worn to enliven an otherwise grey ensemble. The best days to see such an outfit in days gone by were a church occasion, such as Easter. Today, they are only really seen at weddings and horse racing. On these occasions they can look great, though personally I still prefer a pale-grey three piece. Subtle style wins every time.

And this is the dominant problem with the odd waistcoat. Tintin’s lilac waistcoat sounds lovely, but I find myself hard pressed to think when I would wear it. Certainly never for work, and it seems an odd item to wear casually – a dressier piece of clothing for a less dressy situation. Much of this is personal taste, though, and the wider varieties of casual wear are beyond the scope of this blog.

To answer Mr Penguin’s question, no, I believe the waistcoat should nearly always match the rest of the suit you are wearing.

If you are to wear an odd waistcoat with a suit the two rules to bear in mind are: keep your jacket on whenever you can; and keep the waistcoat dark and plain.

Think of the odd waistcoat in the same way as a sweater. A V-necked sweater underneath a suit can look very stylish. A forest green with a mid-grey suit, for instance, or a dark purple with navy (one of my favourite ever Sartorialist shots featured a purple jumper under a navy blazer. Scott commented that it was looks like that that inspire him in menswear. I couldn’t agree more.)

However, that sweater looks good when it is dark and plain, and when it is peeping out from under the jacket. Without the jacket, the outfit is just a sweater and slacks – the style has gone. Suddenly the sweater is the outfit, rather than being an accent.

So for odd waistcoats, think plain complements. For example, I have a dark-grey three-piece suit. The waistcoat looks good under a lighter grey check suit. I also have a tan herringbone waistcoat that I think works well with a dark brown suit.

How to Buy Luxury: Notebooks

Those familiar with my How to Buy Luxury series will remember that I have a few straightforward guidelines for buying luxury effectively. (Here luxury will be defined as whatever is just beyond the top end of your budget – go on, be a little irresponsible!) Those guidelines are: buy quality, buy classic and buy everyday.

Taking them in reverse order, whenever a man is considering spending a lot of money on an item he should consider how often he will use the item, how likely he is to go off it and how much it will repay the investment over time.

It’s worth buying a really expensive pair of brown leather shoes if you will wear them both casually and formally, if they are a simple, classic design unlikely to be affected by the vagaries of fashion, and if looking after them will make them last years and years.

For a man, this is most satisfying because it makes you feel you’ve got value for money. Not for you the seasonal fripperies of the new hot handbag. You invest; you spend your money wisely.

My most recent acquisition in this category was a good leather notebook. Now, in order to fulfil the luxury tests, this had to be a notebook that could be refilled. Otherwise it was unlikely to last more than a few months. It also had to be a notebook that I would use at work and at home, to ensure I would get maximum use out of it. So it had to be a little conservative, suitable for business.

Not many places do luxury stationary, and most do not offer refillable notebooks. The real top end is ludicrously expensive – Smythson, for example, has some really gorgeous writing folders in chocolate crocodile skin (sounds tasty, doesn’t it?). But they start at £280. That’s a little too irresponsible.

Eventually I found the solution: the Hermes Ulysse notebook. Hermes was not one of my first ports of call. I assumed most would be in the Smythson price range, and indeed the agenda covers start at £195 and go up above £400. But Ulysse notebooks are cheaper because they are simpler – just one length of leather that the refills snap onto. Full price is £125. In the summer sale, £85.

That’s still a lot for a notebook. But it is something I will use everyday at work, every weekend at home and for notes when I am travelling. Indeed, the advantage of the snap-in refills is that you can easily swap around different pads of paper for different uses. It will be blank when I’m travelling, for sketching as well as writing, and lined for notes at work.

Great quality, classic (dark brown, not the green illustrated) and everyday. The pleasure it will give being taken out in meeting after meeting will quickly make it value for money. Just like the fountain pen, just like the briefcase it sits in. That’s how to buy luxury.

On Double-Breasted Waistcoats

It’s always nice when fashion coincides with personal taste. Makes you feel like the whole world is coming around to your way of thinking. Waistcoats are current example.

Patterned waistcoats are an abomination, unless you’re going to the races. And even then you’d be better off in smart three-piece tails. (Perhaps in pale grey, to set oneself apart.)

Waistcoats, equally, need to fit well. If your trousers are worn on the hips, as most are today, the waistcoat must be long-fitting. No shirt material should ever be exposed between waistcoat and trousers. For that reason and because of the unsightly bulge, belts should also be avoided.

Lastly, waistcoats should if possible be made to measure. They are the hardest piece of clothing for a tailor to make and ready-to-wear will rarely fit well. To illustrate: I recently had a suit made by my tailor in Hong Kong, the first I have had from him without a fitting out there first. I was pleased with the result, but he refused to make a waistcoat in this way, remotely, without being able to see it on me and adjust it accordingly. Good for him and his principles. He’ll have to wait until I am out there in November to make the third piece in the three piece.

That waistcoat will be double-breasted. And this is the central point of this posting. Double-breasted waistcoats are not just for weddings, white tie or the whimsical. They are a regular alternative in the three-piece suit, and to my eye always look cleaner and smarter. The long row of buttons up the front of a single-breasted waistcoat can look rather bulky, and lead to a rather high, 1960s-style fastening.

The double-breasted waistcoat, by contrast, has a low, sweeping line that creates a clean V behind the jacket front. There is no cluttering of buttons.

Even though the height of a waistcoat should be no more than an inch (probably a single button) above the top button of the jacket, the prevalence of three-button jackets means that in reality two or three will be exposed – as usually only the jacket’s central, waist button will be fastened.

One or two-button jackets will permit waistcoats with deeper Vs and therefore fewer buttons, but the ratio between jacket and waistcoat buttons is likely to be even more disproportionate (one to three, say, rather than three to five).

Colour and material, of course, are paramount. A double-breasted waistcoat is unusual and should be done in plain (usual) tones and wools. I’d recommend dark grey worsted, navy being a little dressier.

Given the recommendations of The Waistcoat Theory, there is a good chance this waistcoat will end up being worn without its jacket, which is all the more reason why it should be able to shine on its own. And we wouldn’t want to be too fashionable, would we?