Archives for September 2008

The Undone Tie

A loose tie knot is much derided by style aficionados and those of a traditional bent to menswear. But it can work well. As with all these style quirks, it depends on using traditions of menswear as a weapon, understanding them and then subverting them.

The dark suit, white shirt and dark tie is often used as an archetypal ‘cool’ outfit worn by movie stars and rock stars. While it becomes very formulaic if everyone wears it, and plain dull if it is the only thing to appear on a red carpet, it is striking. The stark lack of colour and high-contrast silhouette suggest aggression, while a loose black tie gives the impression of laid-back nonchalance. Danger and indifference – two time-worn elements of cool.

However, a loose tie only works when it is contained. The image included in this post, of two men posing for a shot on The Sartorialist, shows how a loose tie knot can work well. It is a world apart from the portly gentleman with jacket unbuttoned, letting a wide, loose tie flap around on his gut. That undermines every flattering and stylish aspect of a tie.

To wear a loose tie well, you should bear in mind width, colour and boundaries. The tie should be narrow if possible, as shown on this gentleman in the Sartorialist photo. A loose tie knot risks dragging the whole silhouette of a man southwards, as the wide bottom loses the harmonious balance it holds with the taut knot at the neck. Suddenly both ends of the tie are pointing downwards. A narrow tie avoids this problem by removing the breadth of the tie at its bottom end. You have a vertical line rather than a downward-pointing arrow.

The tie should also be dark if possible, or plain at the least. This is because the tie is there to draw attraction to its louche silhouette, not to its pattern or colour. The outfit is about line and contrast, not tonal harmonisation.

But the most important aspect of wearing a loose tie well is boundaries. A loose tie looks bad when it flops, flaps and ruins silhouette. If the jacket (or waistcoat) is buttoned, that tie is contained and will not flap or flop. Equally, a collar that suggests it is containing the tie works well. You will notice that in the picture the gentleman both has his jacket buttoned and wears a button-down collar. That combination makes the tie an effective part of the whole rather than a distraction.

It kind of looks cool as well.

Ralph Lauren Service Part 2: The Alterations

My after-sales experience at Ralph Lauren didn’t end with the description in the previous post. It got better, again through a mixture of good service and luck.

As with the previous suit, this one would need altering in one or two places. In the waist of the jacket, as I am slim compared to my chest breadth, and in the length of the sleeves, as jacket sleeves are always an inch too long for me (again, see recent post).

RL does all these alterations very reasonably in-house, and I would recommend anyone who buys a suit there to have it altered in one or two places (indeed, do this anywhere if it is economical enough).

As this was a Black Label suit, I was recommended to go for a 42-inch chest rather than a 40 – the Black Label suits are cut slimmer generally and therefore the size above is recommended. This would mean that the trousers would also need taking in a little (Black Label suits have a seven-inch drop rather than the standard six, but they would still be too big).

I was resigned to paying for one more alteration than previously. But as I was going to be measured, Gregor (the aforementioned senior assistant) said RL would “swallow the costs of the alterations” as I had already paid for alterations on the first suit. So that £50 earned through finding a suit at a greater discount was all mine.

But as with the first episode, there was one more kick of good luck. Rather than a sales assistant measure me for the alterations, as had happened previously, it would be done this time by the in-house tailor, Jaan. Just because he happened to be there.

Jaan insisted in taking half an inch off each shoulder. That would mean taking the sleeves off, adjusting the width of the wool and its padding, and reattaching the sleeves. A better fit, more expensive, but then Ralph was paying. So now I need a second fitting, once the shoulders have been done, to adjust the sleeves, waist and trousers. It’s a week more of suit-related excitement and anticipation, in total, all for the princely sum of minus £50.

Unfortunate footnote: The jacket of my old suit will be destroyed as part of the exchange. Apparently they “put a knife right through the back of it”. This is a real shame, given there is nothing wrong with the jacket, and it has been altered to my specifications. No one else will want it, but I do.

But it seems it is unavoidable. The store needs something to put against the cost of the new suit. Yet I can’t help feeling that if this were a local tailor rather than a worldwide conglomerate, I would be able to buy the jacket back for some small sum. With this policy, everybody loses.  It’s a waste to stab the thing in the back.

Bedside Reading: The Official Filthy Rich Handbook

It would appear that I’ve finally made it to the big leagues of blogdom.  Workman Publishing recently contacted me to ask that I review The Official Filthy Rich Handbook, by Christopher Tennet. This pretender to The Official Preppy Handbook throne has been making the reviewer’s rounds and I have secretly hoped to be among the chosen few to peer critically though this (satirical?) homage to the world of the super-rich and super-vain.

For starters, it’s hilarious and very well written.  It looks like a handbook and looks quite at home next to my dog eared copy of The Official Preppy Handbook.  One of the enduring charms of the OPH is the fine line it treads between satire and real-world guide.  If you so chose, you could very well live your life according to the TOPH.  The same can be said of The Official Filthy Rich Handbook – assuming you have several hundred million dollars.  Make that a billion.

The book is romp through the many aspects of living the life of the super rich; from where to live to the nuances of owning your own Boeing 767.  Where to vacation (Ibiza and Formentera), how many polo ponies should you own (at least eight), and which hangers on are most important to have in your retinue (therapist and life coach top that list.  The insightful commentary is clever and witty as it is biting.

While not a realistic guide, per se – if you can afford to do half of what’s discussed inside the last thing I suspect you’d be doing is reading this book – it offers a wonderful primer on living well and what, exactly, constitutes “well.”  To wit, the chapter “Buying a Better You” covers the ridiculous, a clip-and-save Non Disclosure Agreement for your staff; and the truly interesting, which once Blue Chip luxury names are now too pedestrian (think Burberry and Tiffany & Co.).

A la Preppy Handbook, there is a tongue-in-cheek schematic of the typical billionaire closet on which one might wish to model their own.  From the rack of Kiton “K-50” custom suits which start at about $50,000 each, to the custom stingray John Lobb lace ups, it is a tour de force in over the top branding.  Caring for one’s clothing is also touched upon: drop everything on the floor.  The domestic help will eventually pick it up and put it where it needs to be..

The sections on heirs and child-rearing are a hoot and it is here that the book is closest to its Official Preppy Handbook muse.  Updating readers on the proper prep schools and which colleges are acceptable back-ups for your less than brilliant offspring.

All in all, The Filthy Rich Handbook is a worthy and guffaw-inducing successor to that paragon of parody, The Official Preppy Handbook.  Buy up some extras and give them to your household staff for Christmas.

Good After-Sales Service at Ralph Lauren

The crotch on these trousers seems to be wearing through. That’s not good – I’ve only had them for nine months and worn them 15 times or so.

Grey flannel, too. You wouldn’t expect thicker material like that to wear through so fast. Indeed, I remember the Ralph Lauren salesperson telling me that the thickness of the material meant they should last, and consequently the trousers could be worn on their own occasionally. I’ve got to be in the West End anyway tomorrow; I’ll take them in to the store and see what they say.

I was pleasantly surprised. The after-sales service I received in the Ralph Lauren flagship store on Bond Street was impressive. So impressive, indeed, that I thought it was worth writing about. After all, if anything is going to distinguish a designer boutique from RL, which consciously tries to emulate the best traditions of British menswear, it should be its service.

The first sales assistant directed me to the manager, Adam. That entailed a five-minute wait while Adam was located, but then I’ve never objected to five minutes browsing in RL on Bond Street – did you know they now make that cable-knit cashmere into throws and cushions? Lovely stuff.

Adam was considerate, understanding, and said I had two choices. Either I could try and have it repaired by a tailor (mine own or theirs) or I could have a credit note for the whole suit. As the suit was sold as one item, it would have to be returned as a whole.

The problem with a credit note was that it would be for the price I paid in the sales (around £600), whereas the full-priced suit would be more like £900. But a new suit in January is better than a holey suit now, so I took the credit note. Adam was conciliatory, friendly and helpful again, suggesting I should ask the menswear sales assistants what they could do.

Which was where it got exciting. Upstairs, there were still some of the summer suits on sale – on one rack, at the back on the left, rather less prominent than the new stock. The ever-helpful assistant Gregor proceeded to dig around in this rack and produced a better suit for less money. Now that’s service. It was a Black Label suit that had been reduced from £1100 to £550 by this point in the sale. Given that the suit being replaced was Polo, this was an upgrade. Fortune smiles on the blogger.

The £50 saved will probably go on alterations, but the result was still very satisfactory. Good after-sales service and a little luck produced a great day of shopping, for free.

The Rules and How to Break Them. No.2

Rule 2. Do not wear brown in town

It’s worth repeating my maxim from the first instalment in this series: “Rules are there for a reason, but there is nothing wrong with breaking them. These statements are not contradictory. Once you understand the rules, you can work out how to break them effectively.”

So, why does the rule ‘no brown in town’ exist? Because brown was the colour that a gentleman working in the city wore when he returned home, or on the weekend. During the week he wore black, blue or grey, all in suitably dark tones. Brown was the colour of the country, of tweed and felt hats; of shoes more than anything.

The colours of hats and shoes demonstrate this rule most effectively.

Shoes show how English the rule is. For decades other countries have worn shoes other than black for business without any implied lack of decency or formality. The Italians wore little other than brown, the French (though fairly conservative themselves) strayed into other colours, and the Americans developed a fondness for oxblood – as well as a love of brown in some areas.

But for the English, business meant black. They were therefore free to characterise anyone in brown shoes as off-duty, casual, and come up with a rhyming code like ‘no brown in town’ to remind anyone who was tempted to stray.

Hats show how practical the rule still is. Even today, most lovers of hats would say they do not wear a brown hat for business, sticking to blue and grey. In this slightly antiquated item of dress, therefore, the rule continues to be relevant, reminding people that they should treat business with the dignity it deserves (as the Austin Reed maxim goes).

However, the most important thing to realise about this rule is that it is out of date. Brown shoes, suits or jackets are no longer forbidden for business in England, or anywhere else. It is the spirit of the rule that is still relevant – wear business attire for business. In any office there will be items that would be considered unprofessional to wear. For some, that would be trainers, or jeans. In my office, unfortunately, the only thing that would probably be unacceptable would be shorts.

That is what the rule means, and understanding it allows you to break it intelligently. Wear brown, but make sure your attire is always and everywhere appropriate to the work you are doing.