Archives for October 2008

Gieves & Hawkes These Days

“You really should” someone told me “check out Gieves & Hawkes these days. They’ve got some interesting things and they’re trying to appeal to a sort of… younger generation.” Warning sirens started to sound. An ancient, world famous tailor? Clothier of some of the most colourful characters in military history? Having to appeal to a younger generation? “What on earth for?” I pondered. I decided to follow the advice and wander in on one of my regular trips to Regent Street. On entering the large and attractive emporium of Gieves & Hawkes I got the distinct impression that custom was somehow lacking on that particular day. The ratio of staff to customers was something approaching that of a penthouse suite. Evading the usual questions inflicted on unrecognised clientele I asked for the ready-to-wear fashion sections. I was led through glorious columns, ‘neath lanterns and chandeliers to a quiet section of the store that looked rather like Ralph Lauren or a more upmarket Massimo Dutti.

There were a vast number of jackets in particular colour palettes; browns and greens for autumn, some navy blues and reds and there was also some knitwear nearby in a predictable variety of complementary colours. Investigating the jackets, some tweed, some moleskin and some corduroy I decided that I must have been led to the correct part of the store. I slipped on a navy moleskin in my size and wandered over to the cheval mirror. “Too big” I muttered to myself. “It’s a lovely jacket isn’t it?” I heard a voice behind me. Caught. Confound it. “And such a lovely colour too.” I was rather stupefied by this follow up. Had I, in some delusional state, wandered out of Savile Row into one of the emporiums on Bond Street, where such simple and directionless obsequiousness is practically a disease among the sales assistants? It seemed wrong for a Gieves assistant to behave in the same way; it clanged. The mahogany cabinets, creamy columns and wrought iron were all for nothing; I might as well have walked into Armani. I agreed, naturally, that it was an attractive colour but that the jacket was a little on the large side. I knew the response before my last words had left my lips; “We could always adjust it for you” the assistant replied “because, we are tailors as well.” You don’t say.

On the design side, Gieves really need to start bashing their heads together if they’re trying to appeal to a younger generation (although that could easily mean anyone below 50 on Savile Row). There was something Boden-esque about some of the clothing and, though well constructed and substantial, was rather expensive. A lot of it seemed the sort of thing a prematurely aging 35 year old might treat himself to on the occasion of a promotion, wear to the Old New Inn at Bourton-on-the-Water and point to the label eagerly; “Look, Gieves and Hawkes. Savile Row.” A few items are interesting and occasionally wonderful, particularly in terms of fabric or colour choice but there is a great deal lacking. To say that Gieves treads cautiously is tremendous understatement. I cannot quite see how my acquaintance was of the opinion that Gieves was attempting to focus on younger customers. Aside from the young men in the advertising photography, I have seen no gentleman of noticeable youth in any such attire. With their name, heritage and address – all things which innovative men’s designers would kill for as they simply cannot be bought or even earned in less than 200 years – Gieves could be so much more than they are.

Buenos Aires Style

I was fortunate enough to be in Buenos Aires last week for work, and was able to appreciate a city renowned for its style as well as its steak.

Argentine men have much of the casual, easy style of their south European cousins. A photo sent to me of a lawyer I was interviewing showed him leaning against a doorway, a strongly striped suit offset by the classic Italian Background of dark blue tie on pale blue shirt.

The tie was undone, but kept neat by the buttoned jacket – a touch that is all too frequently forgotten by men elsewhere in the world, but was reflected in a recent interview with Tom Ford. “Always keep your jacket buttoned,” he said. “If I have one rule for men, it’s that. It instantly makes your silhouette. It’ll take pounds off you, just in terms of your shape. Especially if you are being photographed, you really should have the jacket buttoned.”

He puts it almost better than I could. If you don’t button your jacket, the tailoring is simply thrown away.

Elsewhere in the city, this simple style was reflected in other south European staples: brown leather shoes, simple white pocket-handkerchiefs and a taste for pale, unusual tie colours (lime green was a favourite). There was also a surprising prevalence of brown suede shoes: almost as much as there was leather.

This seemed like an inspired choice, and one I could emulate, until I considered the weather. It’s either raining or it’s sunny in Buenos Aires. The rain is heavy, even tropical, but it’s certainly not drizzle. And when it’s sunny there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Wearing suede shoes is therefore an easy choice to make. Not so in the UK, where clouds day after day can threaten rain without ever falling, and it’s rarely guaranteed to be a drizzle-free day.

The biggest difference between Buenos Aires and Italy, however, was the consistency of this style. As one local resident confessed to me, Argentina is not yet rich enough to have a large middle class that can afford high-quality or tailored clothes. This means that the threads, many of them of European origin, are limited to a rich, professional class. It is their scarcity, in fact, that contributes to their price – a smaller market means higher margins.

So appreciate the office-bound workers that still require suits on a regular basis. As the suit and other more formal attire become less required and (probably) less popular as a result, the margins and prices on those clothes we love will rise.

The Colours of Autumn: Paul Stuart

Summer was heralded for me in a subtle, sophisticated way by the palate of Paul Stuart, as reported in previous post A Fresher Take on Summer. In that article I compared the subtlty and still unusual colour combinations of Paul Stuart with the bolder, and certainly no less inspiring Ralph Lauren approach.

Fortunately for me and the style world at large, Paul Stuart’s autumnal suggestions are just as sophisticated and ennervating as those for summer.

Take the checked three-piece suit shown as an illuminating illustration on using red consistently. Though no one would say this gentleman is wearing a red outift, that colour pulls the combination together. The shirt has a red tattersall check, that’s obvious; and the red-and-gold handkerchief is also plain to see. But those pieces drag up subtler tones in the tie, suit and even buttons. All have a ruddy feel – the suit has a subtle overcheck of rust and navy, and the tie uses secondary colours linked to red (purple, orange).

The handkerchief, though by far the least subtle item, pulls it all together for me. Because without it the outift could slide into acamedic/hunting costume – lovely, yes, but not necessarily that original. The bold pop of red-and-gold handkerchief, somewhat recalling a club tie, sharpens everything behind it and demands that notice be paid.

So autumn reds and their associates, combined with originality.

The second suit is brigher and busier, yet no less subtle. Pushing together orange, gold, green, red, blue and purple is no easy task and yet it works because each is built off a secondary version of a central trio – green, orange and blue. The gold is a brigher version of orange, red a shadow to that same orange, and purple an accent and partner to blue.

To illustrate how these work in pairs, consider if the purple was used as a pocket handkerchief (or glove in the illustration). It would be lost amidst the red and green of the jacket, and struggle to be an accent to the gold sweater. As an ascot, the purple exists purely as another take on the pattern of the blue shirt. It is too subtle to be anywhere else – unlike the orange and gold, which are strong enough to hold their own surrounded by colours that are unrelated tonally.

A similar option for the pocket handkerchief would be a bright or strong green. This would accent the jacket, rather than picking up the gold as the orange gloves in the illustration do.

Last but certainly not least is the grey, green and olive combination. This is both simpler than the first example and subtler than the second. Yet it draws you in through the handkerchief’s echo of the sweater’s green in its grey tones, and the highlight that the yellow portions of the handkerchief pattern provide.

The same colours are present (and by this time I shouldn’t have to tell you that they are the colours to bring into your wardrobe this autumn) but they are minimised, focused and drawn in to the breast pocket rather than throwing the eye about.

Brideshead Overstated

There was always something a little fishy about the choice of Castle Howard as the setting, once again, for Brideshead; the seat of the aristocratic family, the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. That the film makers of the feature length version simply had to choose this famous baroque pile in Yorkshire for the family home of the Marchmains, to match the 1981 miniseries, made me a little less optimistic about its release. It revealed a lot about the mindset of the adaptors. They were clearly wary of the power and enduring appeal of the Granada masterpiece and yet, instead of choosing to source their own Brideshead, to craft their own mystique, they lazily borrowed from earlier artwork. I had the horrible feeling that I was entering a theatre to watch, not a story and characters I had loved and admired, but a curiously unnecessary revalidation of the thought that one visit to Brideshead was quite sufficient. Were it not for the costumes, I might not have entered or endured.

One of the most fabulous treats of a period drama, no matter how it is massacred by the screenwriters, the juvenility of the green actors or even an overbearing score, is that you are certain to be delighted by onscreen beauty in setting, architecture and above all costume. For the recent film The Duchess, the actors did not have to compete with each other, the director or the composer for the best reviews; they had to compete with the costumes and the sets. Our love for period film has turned us into visual gluttons who love to see the fashions and worlds of yesteryear as an on-command pageant in front of our eyes. This has ensured that accuracy in costume, and budget revision, has been one of the key considerations of period filmmaking. You can even hear them before pen is put to paper on script: “Well, we don’t have a story yet but Steven, this is Victorian London! It’s going to look fabulous!”

The danger with this is that sometimes, budget accords too much time and effort to costume. In a bid to win back the cost of production, the wardrobe departments sometimes veer into the fantastical and improbable; you see costumes and not characters. In Brideshead Revisited, this happened more than once. Some of the costume lacked period accuracy, as did much of the film – one boo-boo was to feature a summertime visit to Venice offering the pleasure of Carnivale which actually takes place far earlier in the year. That mistake summed up the intention of the filmmakers (or financiers – what you will); this was a rearrangement of the story, of the characters and even the cities in which they frolicked. Accuracy in costume would be hardly noticed. There were strange 1950s neckties and 1940s lapels, out of place in pre-war Britain, suspiciously 60s Missoni style scarves and some very modern cuts of suit that paid no heed to the lines or construction of 30’s tailoring. It was attractive, and extravagant but one was frequently wondering; “Would they have worn that?”

Having said that, there were some wonderful ensembles that cleverly displayed the differences between middle class Charles Ryder and aristocratic Lord Sebastian Flyte; their first ‘encounter’, when Charles peered over a bridge to watch Lord Sebastian lolling in a punt as Anthony Blanche entertained those surrounding with his recitation, had Sebastian dressed in blue Henley jacket and waistcoat, white trousers and white shoes. The very picture of patrician progeny. Charles was dressed, due more to budget and social position than taste, in a more bland fashion. His artistic soul appreciated the Decadents but his middle-class awareness prevented him from following them too closely; in clothing, as in life, there was always something holding him back from a world he had dared to suppose he could be a part of.

Ralph Lauren Service: The Tailor’s Tips

As a final instalment to my report on after-sales service at Ralph Lauren, I thought it would be useful to recount some of the tips and lessons that Jaan, the in-house tailor at the flagship store, had to offer.

I had written in a previous posting that shoulders are the hardest thing to alter on the suit. This is partly true, according to Jaan. The shoulders are certainly much harder to alter than the jacket waist, sleeves or chest. This is because those alterations usually just involve opening up the seam, taking in or letting out some material and sewing it up again.

To narrow the shoulders, the tailor must detach both arms, shorten the material across the shoulder, cut back the padding and re-attach. “A bit of a major operation,” in Jaan’s words, and not something to be given to a novice tailor.

[Note: strictly speaking, altering the arm length can require the arms to be detached, but only if the suit has working buttonholes on the cuffs – one good reason not to have this otherwise pointless feature on your jacket.]

However, even harder than altering the shoulders is altering the top of the back – the material around your neck and the collar of the jacket. To do this, the collar of the jacket must be removed, the back re-cut in one delicate slice, and re-sewn. Costly and risky.

So when you’re trying on that ready-made suit in the mirror, make sure the collar fits well first. It should neither stand away from the collar of your shirt nor hug it so tightly that folds of stress form across the top of the jacket’s back. Then worry about the shoulders, and only later consider everything else.

On the subject of the shoulders, Jaan notes that the way to tell whether they fit right is to find the point where your shoulder muscle is at its widest and make sure the suit’s sleeve material just grazes it. There should be a smooth line between that point and the edge of the shoulder itself.

Often, it can be hard to tell whether a shoulder is too big. It’s easy to tell if it’s too small – the shoulder muscle is bulging against the sleeve. But it can be hard to tell if it’s too small as in any case there is always a clean, straight line down from the shoulder of the suit. Jaan’s tip is the answer – find the muscle and make sure it just touches.

Finally, I asked Jaan’s opinion on Kilgour’s cut-price bespoke – where suits are measured in the UK, put together by Kilgour-trained tailors in China and finished off here. Jaan is a Savile Row-trained tailor and I expected him to be conservative about it, but no. “There’s nothing wrong with things made in China, if they’re made well,” he said. “I’m wearing one now – this Black Label suit is made in China but it’s still great quality.”