GANT Rediscovered

When last in New York, I took some time to stroll along Fifth Avenue and wound up stopping at the GANT flagship store. While this may not sound like an overly significant event, for me it was an eye-opening experience.

While an unfair characterization, my gut reaction to the GANT brand has long been something to the effect of, “GANT….don’t they make bland weekend wear I usually find on the discount rack?” At some level, I knew this was unmerited because one of my all time favorite story board catalogs is actually from GANT. It reads like a memoir from Marrakesh – complete with inserted typewritten journal pages. The clothes looked great and the overall feel was very updated and creative.

Still, this was at odds with what I actually knew of GANT – at least (as I came to discover) its American incarnation. Much like IZOD downgrading the storied history of Lacoste, the GANT of my youth was embodied in generic looking windbreakers and uninspiring rugby-like shirts. As a brand, it was completely forgettable.

Then, several years ago, Tom, a friend of mine moved to D.C. from Europe and asked where he could find GANT clothes in the states. I thought about it and told him that I honestly had no idea. Why, I asked, would such a smart dresser seek out the very definition of bland sportswear? Tom pointed out that half of what he had on was, in fact, GANT. I was stunned. I learned that in Europe, GANT was another brand altogether – more Ralph Lauren than Ralph Kramden.

Founded in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, by Bernard Gant, his small shirt making business went on to become a cornerstone in the WASP fashion ethos. Gant manufactured shirts for the likes of Brooks Brothers and fellow New Haven institution, J. Press. In 1949, the family launched their own brand and GANT was born. Focused on the emerging desire for dressy casual clothes, they introduced such innovations as the button down sports shirt to the market. The combination of exacting quality and innovative takes on traditional American styles eventually drove GANT to national prominence.

After the Gant family sold the company in 1967, a series of corporate owners diluted the brand’s WASPy message and it eventually receded to the state of averageness I knew.

In the 1980s a Swedish company acquired the rights to license the brand everywhere except the United States. They infused GANT’s historically traditional East Coast American appeal with a clean and tailored European twist. GANT’s European arm eventually eclipsed the American one; the Swedes had essentially out-Americaned the Americans.

This situation explains why, when my European friend Tom and I were talking about GANT, we were in fact talking about two different worlds.

After finally acquiring the U.S. brand, the now international GANT entered its original home market in 2001. No longer dowdy and generic, America was reintroduced to one of its classic brands. The combination of European design sensibilities and American heritage was a domestic hit and GANT has prospered and grown since.

While the American presence is mostly limited to clothing and some timepieces, GANT’s European portfolio also includes house wares and linens. Bernard Gant’s shirt making business has now grown into a global lifestyle brand. Why it has taken me song to catch on to GANT’s global presence is a mystery, but I suppose some prejudices are hard to shake.

Once in the Fifth Avenue store though, I found myself transported to an urban preppy-ish library cum boarding school space. There was a distinct personality to the store and to the clothes: fresh but traditional, young but classically grown up. American, yet somehow European too. I even felt a little Hackett being channeled in some of the sport coats. It was a wonderful and wholly unexpected experience. That’s what I get for not paying enough attention to such a worthy company.

So, if you find yourself looking for a new and different take on New England Americana, check out GANT. At testament to their new domestic prowess, Scott Schuman (The Sartorialist) recently shot a series based on GANT outfits. The models, amateurs all, got to put together their own GANT looks. Not surprisingly, everyone looked great. Now, that’s pretty cool.

White Nights


On Saturday night, when I attended the grand reception of a wedding, I realised something I have suspected for quite some time: I prefer white tie to black tie. I cannot help it. As I was comparing the lines of the gentlemen dressed in tails to those dressed in shorter jackets I couldn’t help but feel that the shorter jackets, though many were well cut, were no match for the breathtaking elegance of an evening tailcoat. The ‘tuxedos’ were sleek and appropriate but they had not the character; whereas the tailcoat was the dashing aristocrat, leaping around the floor with laughing ladies, bearing a ‘taking-it-all-for-granted’ smirk, the shorter jacket was somehow pedestrian in comparison; a dull civil servant who declined the champagne for reasons pertaining to his health. Although the tuxedo is now kingpin, in part due to the fact that formal functions have ceased to require white tie attire, it was rather like seeing a deposed monarch square up to a feeble revolutionary: there was simply no competition.

The party invitation had stipulated white or black tie and I applaud such acknowledgment heartily. Keeping the option of tails open at regular social functions keeps it in the here and now and prevents its final relegation to the ‘Costumes of Years Past’ exhibition at the Victoria & Albert.

However, although I approve of the ideal of white tie warmly, there are considerations one must have in relation to its use. As there are some stern rules on what to do and not do to in relation to black tie, there are also things to bear in mind when pondering the possibility of black’s patrician cousin.

Jacket length

I saw some wonderful tails on Saturday but I also noticed that some of the wearers had mistaken themselves for someone a good deal taller than they when making their purchase. Not only was the length of their ‘tail’ at the back excessive but also, the jacket panels of the tails finished well below the line of their crisp white Marcella waistcoats. The higher up the waist appears, the better the tails look.

Shoes 

I believe that evening pumps with a grosgrain bow are far more flattering than Oxfords, considering the silhouette of tails. They’re more youthful and match the daring of the ensemble itself. Oxfords do look fine, as long as they’re slender. There is simply no point in getting the beauty of the tails right if the sole you are wearing is like a tire tread. Whatever shoes you wear, wear patent leather. Everything else looks wrong.

Shirt

One gentleman had bought himself a boiled fronted shirt. Everyone else was wearing the pique cotton version. It was embarrassingly clear that boiled fronted shirts married the style and finesse of tails well. The pique, well ironed, still manage to crease and rumple. My advice? Plump for one of the rarer boiled front shirts.

Decoration

Although I advocate pocket squares in nearly every ensemble, I am not so sure about their use in white tie. They can look a little excessive. Buttonholes look wonderful and should preferably be worn.

How to Assess the Quality of a Shirt, Part 2

In the previous posting on this topic, I explained that most ways to assess the quality of a dress shirt revolve around working out how many time-consuming details have been included. Each detail adds a few more precious seconds to the manufacturing time; fewer shirts can be made every day, and each therefore costs a little bit more to make.

The first to consider was whether the side seam has two lines of stitching or one – one line taking twice as long as the sewing machine has to double-back over the same place.

The second detail to watch out for is the direction of the buttonhole on the sleeve’s placket. Most shirts will have a button here connecting up the open sleeve a second time, below the cuff and higher up the arm. A buttonhole that is perpendicular to the arm, across the sleeve, is harder to do as the button has to be in precisely the right place. However, if the buttonhole is parallel to the sleeve, there is much more room for error in the positioning of the button – its centre can be anywhere along the length of the hole.

As with the lines of stitching on the side seam, the direction of the buttonhole here shows that a more time-consuming method has been used. The shirt is therefore more expensive to make and will probably cost you more. But I have yet to hear a reason why a horizontal buttonhole on the placket is actually better.

It is harder, sure, but what practical purpose does it serve? Perhaps it prevents the button from sliding up and down, but only by a matter of millimetres. At least the single-stitched seam has a benefit in being more elegant – if not, as explained in my last post, more reliable. The horizontal buttonhole seems to have little practical purpose.

Fortunately, many other signs of quality do have a purpose. Hand-sewn buttonholes, for example, are revealed by the irregularities of stitching around the hole and the different finishes on either side of the shirt. Although less uniform, hand-sewn holes will be more reliable and stronger (another tell-tale sign is three-hole buttons – which cannot be sewn on by machine).

Other things to watch out for are:
– The fineness of stitching on the collar and cuffs. It should be nearly invisible.
– Whether the stripes on a shirt match exactly where the yoke meets the sleeve, and on either side of the cuff.
– Any other details that take extra effort. Turnbull & Asser and Thomas Pink shirts, for example, have a gusset at the bottom of the side seam. Kilgour and Charvet shirts have a squared-off tail with a vent on either side. The first is intended to strengthen that join; the second to prevent bunching under the trouser. Both take more time.

How to Assess the Quality of a Shirt

Much is made of assessing the quality of a suit – its fineness of wool, cut and construction. But it is far easier to tell the quality of a shirt, largely because all its stitching and manufacture is open for all to see. You could also argue that, given you can buy a shirt for £4 in Primark, the price differential in shirts is greater than that in suits. After all, some designer shirts cost over £300 – 75-times the Primark option. It is therefore worth knowing why some cost so much more than others.

So here are some tips on how to assess the quality of a dress shirt. They are drawn from my own experience, a few conversations with the best sales assistants and a liberal scattering of Alan Flusser books.

The reason a shirt is so easy to assess is its stitching. As all of it is on display, it is both simpler to inspect and more important to the overall look of the garment. It is the only texture and, therefore, the place where clumsy, cheap or expeditious work becomes obvious.

Look at the side seam of the shirt, that which connects the front panel to the back. Here is the longest line of exposed stitching. The first thing to note is whether there are two lines here or one. Single-needle stitching involves sewing in one direction and then doubling back over the same line. It produces just the one line but takes twice as long as double-needle stitching, where the sewing machine is fitted with two needles, both sewing in parallel, simultaneously.

Neither is necessarily stronger than the other, but single-needle stitching is sleeker. Flusser recalls seeing men in their shirt sleeves on his first trip to Italy, and admiring the feint lines of their side seams, which seemed to disappear away into nothing. Italian men have always been obsessive about the cut and line of their shirts, but the same single-needle stitching is found in many upscale shirts in the US and UK. It is one definite sign that more time has been committed to the shirt.

This is, however, all it shows. The Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirts I own have single-needle stitching. But then so does a cheap shirt I had made in a substandard Hong Kong tailor. I suspect that the latter simply did not have machines that could double-stitch. The seams certainly fared badly over time, becoming puckered or loose.

But single-needle stitching is still a good sign of quality in modern retail shirts. This is because the management at Zara, Gap, or Armani will have analysed everything that goes into making a shirt and decided which to spend money on. These signs that time, and therefore money, has been invested reveal the brand’s priorities.

Most signs of quality in a shirt are similar. More of them next time.

Trouser Issues: Cuffs & Rolls

A reader recently posed the following question to me:

I’d like to ask your opinion on something — do rolled-up/cuffed pants make legs look longer, or shorter? I’m 5′ 7″ and started rolling up the bottom of my jeans/pants to look like a cuff, but was told it made my legs look shorter. (All the pants are pretty slim cut.) On the other hand, I’ve heard people say rolling up pants, sometimes even to the point where you can see skin/sock between pants and shoe, makes legs look longer.

I found this to be both an interesting and timely question.  I’ve been seeing more rolled pants out on the street, some done well and others less so.  When it looks good, this style can convey a classic and casual ease.  Rolled khakis, paired with loafers, a washed oxford cloth button down, repp tie and blue blazer is about as Americana as you can get.  Substitute cuffed khakis and the look is more dressed up but looses none of its inherent appeal.

Rolled jeans are a different story, principally because cuffing jeans is just wrong.  I’ve never seen it and hope I never do.  Jeans traditionally have a simple narrow hem and rolling them can create a nice casual effect.  You can quite easily evoke a 1950’s James Dean vibe or a seaside clam digging feel.

When it come to the effect on height, in most cases rolled-up pants can have the same visual impact as cuffed pants.  Cuffed pants have a more defined bottom than un-cuffed and therefore give the trousers a clearer visual start/stop line. On shorter men this can sometimes create the impression of shorter legs, especially with a wide leg or heavy break that leaves the pant leg puddling around one’s ankle.

The same can be said of rolled pants, especially when the pants are already too long.  Once rolled up they look like little life preservers tied around the wearers’ feet.  However, in both cases – cuffs or roll-ups – when the pants are trimmer and the length properly chosen, the look can be nicely neutral regardless of one’s height.

On taller men, the same problem of puddling can hold true, though the impact is less severe.  It is also easier for tall men to accentuate their height by tailoring their pants with no break or even having them cut slightly too short.  As my reader correctly points out the exposure of a little sock or ankle implies height via the leg being longer than the pants.  This is a very tricky thing to pull off though, and can come across as an affectation

The same holds for rolled pants, but whether short or tall, make sure that the roll is only one or two folds deep at the most.  Unless you are specifically trying to capture that walking-along-the-beach-at-the-Cape look, you want the roll to be neat and hold its shape.  Personally, I try and avoid it looking too manicured and perfect; if I really want a cuff, I should go see a tailor.