Archives for October 2008

OTC Recommends: Smart Turnout

Every now and then I come across a company that is truly unique and catches my eye.  It could be the products or marketing approach.  Sometimes it’s their buzz factor or ability to hit the market with the right thing at the right time.  In the case of Smart Turnout, it started with a watch band.

Page 195 of the 2007 Esquire Big Black Book showed a picture of a sharp looking Fortis chronograph on a red and blue ribbon watch strap.  The strap was unlike any other I had seen.  It was a standard looking preppy nylon strap but the band itself was constructed like a NATO watch strap with a decidedly military feel to it.  The combination of watch and strap was perfectly ironic:  gin and tonic meets Top Gun.  According to the copy, the strap was manufactured by Smart Turnout, an English company.  I was intrigued.

I tracked down that strap at J. Press and when paired with my Tutima chronograph gave me the same look.  I wanted to learn more about Smart Turnout and did a little digging.  At about the same time, Smart Turnout found me.  It seems in doing a web search they ran across an OTC article in which I referenced their company.

In the ensuing exchanges, I wound up learning that Smart Turnout makes a lot more than just watch straps.

The idea for the company came when Philip Turner was nearing the end of his 10 year period in the Scots Guards.  Philip was participating in a horse race at Sandown Park in 1992, and had a sweater knitted for the occasion in his regimental colors.

It drew many compliments back at the regiment and gave rise to the idea of developing more clothes in club colors and Smart Turnout was conceived.   The company has grown into one which is dedicated to producing a variety of unique products, all fashioned in the colors of the British and U.S. military, schools, and British and American Universities.

Smart Turnout sells a wide range of goods, including ties, cufflinks, cummerbunds, belts and braces, scarves and socks.  Starting this season, you can pick up smart webbing belts in the colors of the British Royal Marines and the Black Watch.  They are even getting into the sleepwear business with dressing gowns and pajamas in regimental colors.

As a relatively small company, Smart Turnout is looking to expand its reach and broaden its market.  In addition to a full service website, its American operation consists of haberdasheries like the aforementioned J. Press stocking a limited selection of items.  Personally I want more; I’d like to walk into a Smart Turnout store in, say, Boston.  I think that the brand could carry a nice little brick-and-mortar outlet in Bean Town.

I am especially fond of my Smart Turnout Yale cufflinks; the kind with the chain.  When I opened the small blue leather box, I was impressed with their quality and construction.  The detail alone in the school’s seal is quite remarkable.  In addition to acquiring a couple of additional watch straps, I also have an Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders regimental tie which is pretty sharp too.

If you are looking for that old school, old money look, this is the place to start.  In many ways it’s a preppy version of the candy store. I don’t often write this extensively about specific brands, but Smart Turnout has really caught my attention because of both the depth and breadth of its offerings.  It’s created a real niche for itself and I have not found anything quite like it.

The Struggle to Innovate in Menswear

It’s rare that traditional menswear retailers are genuinely innovative. A few designers have their odd quirks, and many fluctuate with the (fashion) seasons. But a precious small number actually change the way people look at jackets, shirts and trousers.

Paul Smith has original quirks. His suit linings were the first thing that made him popular in the UK, or at least the first that made him stand out. Bright colours, bright stripes and images of old-time footballs attracted men to suits for the first time in a while. Differently coloured buttons came next, as did one coloured buttonhole on the sleeves. Having fifties pin-ups on the reverse of belts and the inside of wallets was eye-catching.

Some of Smith’s innovations went deeper than that. I was a big fan, for example, of his dip-dye shoes – the technique produced truly deep hues of red and green in the leather that I’d never seen anywhere else. But they were surface changes. Little about design or construction changed in either suits or shoes. A harsher man than me might call them gimmicks.

Equally, many other menswear designers innovate in the seasonal variations of their outfits. Every six months, the usual suspects of Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabbana and others will have their hot style to tout. This fall/winter, D&G was obsessed with Sicily and the style of its local inhabitants, whether hunters, mariners or just butch-looking guards with dogs. There was shearling in abundance, bulk in the trousers and especially around the neckline, and bulky bags, hats and pets as accessories.

But is this innovative? It may be different to everyone else on the catwalk this year, but has no one had a similar idea previously? Will they not have the same idea again?

More importantly, much of this innovation is merely the accumulation of certain types or shapes of garment into a ‘look’. It is this look that is important, rather than much innovation in the garments themselves. It is innovation in aesthetic idea – the concept of sticking certain things together – but not in tailoring or structure.

The art needed to create an aesthetic vision should not be underestimated. It is, after all, one of the prime aspects that we admire in great artists in any field – whether architecture, painting or sculpture. But it is not what excites someone about picking up a jacket in a shop and discovering a genuinely new idea. That inspiration is very different to just a well-adorned mannequin.

Is the Suit on Borrowed Time?

A lot is written about suits on men’s style pages. A heck of a lot in fact. And it is hardly surprising that it should be so; many of us require, for professional, occasional or aesthetic purposes, a suit at some point in our lives. My first suit came before I was seven. I looked rather ridiculous of course; an improbable character from a fairy tale – with blonde ringlets, a little waistcoat and tiny turn-ups – but it was the beginning of what I project to be a lifelong relationship. As with all relationships, there are ups and downs; our vain flirtations with casual dress are corrected by inevitable reconciliation with one of the most essential items in a gentleman’s wardrobe and one of the most splendid inventions in the history of fashion.

Of course, there are those who cry that suits have lost their relevance; “I only wear trousers and a jumper to work – suits are a pain”/ “It’s a day at the office, not a wedding.” The de-formalising of everyday wear, and the ranking of suits among the archives of ‘customs past’, led initially to fashion’s secret swag: the suit has been one of the most important items in high fashion for the last 5 years. Consequently, the high street chimed in with cheap and cheerful representations; smart became different, cool and respected. Now, the ‘smart man’s’ wardrobe is everywhere: personally, I never thought I’d live to see three piece suits at Next but there they are for all to see.

Many of those who follow fashion rather more religiously might predict a decline in the suit as a channel for contemporary expression; over-production and over-popularity might lead to the classic fashion knee jerk – “Right no more of zees soots!” Of course, there’ll always be suits as a small staple in the gentleman’s outfitter but will they weigh down 40% of the racks in some major high street retailers as they have done for periods in the last half decade? Possibly not. Will they recede in the consciousness of the masses as something to wear on a rather ordinary Saturday night? Probably. The result is not something which I am sensitive to; I don’t care to dress as the majority dresses. And, I might suggest, that particular thinking might go for a good number of readers.

The question is; how much will a repudiation of the suit affect its position for the future? Is the recent rally, helped significantly by fashion and mass market retailing, the beginning of the end? There are arguments to hush the sceptics. We will of course, always require something to wear; but questions about the appropriateness of our suits’ current designs, designs which are certainly old and very, very established, might materialise. I have always looked on the suit as something solid; so much so that one takes it for granted. “It’s too big to fail” said a pal of mine at dinner “tell me, what would make us switch?” I had no answer for I, like him, am a faithful buyer and a firm believer. “Although there are many” I wagged my finger “who are not.”

Lobb and Berluti. How Different Can You Get?

“Good afternoon, sir, can I help you?”

“I hope so. You see I’m trying to find a last that fits the shape of my feet and I have to say I haven’t had much luck so far.

“They’re quite wide across the ball of my feet, and also quite shallow – I have rather fallen arches. As a result I end up getting shoes that are a little too long to compensate for the width, and my heels move around in them because they are all too deep.”

My conversation with the assistant in Berluti and in John Lobb began in exactly the same way. But it couldn’t have finished more differently.

The man from Berluti pulled out a bright-green cushion, sat his knee upon it and took off my shoes with a flourish. He lined my feet up, side by side, and stroked the outside of them. Hmm, he said, scratching his chin.

A moment later he returned with a pair of black lace-ups (I had already mentioned that I was after the last rather than anything else, so colour and design were irrelevant). They were a little pointier than I would have picked, but looked lovely nonetheless. After another flourish with the shoe horn, and a rapid Berluti knot, he sat back to survey his work.

Unfortunately, when I stood up, they were too long. You could see the shoe breaking at the end of my toes.

Over at John Lobb, things had progressed in a slightly different way. The staff were rather manic, with one customer rushing in and asking for another pair of shoes before he left for the airport. When an assistant was finally free, he was very apologetic and sat me down, taking my measurements with an old beaten-up metre rule and listening closely to my description of previous problems.

The last he picked out, the 3000, fit only slightly better than the first offering at Berluti. A low-slung monk-strap shoe, it fit well around the width of my foot but had to be set on the tightest hope in the strap to keep my heel in place. Not really ideal, given that the shoe will expand over time with my foot.

The biggest difference between the two leading (perhaps even best) shoe retailers was what happened next. The Berluti assistant, frustrated with his first attempt, came back with a smaller shoe on a different last – this had the opposite problem, fitting well on the heel but pinching in my little toe on the width. And with that, he was done.

He swore the shoe would expand over time to take care of the width. I was sceptical. He shrugged his shoulders. What could he do? How could he deal with someone that disagreed with him?

My assistant in John Lobb tried the 4000 last. Then he tried the 3000 as a lace-up. Then he tried the shoe a size down. Then his colleague came over and (after a short discussion about the history of Peal & Co – those were the shoes I was wearing at the time) he began to offer his own suggestions.

What I needed was a narrower shoe that would hold the heel in place. Or a full leather insole. I tried the latter – better, but still not right. A tongue pad would work. They could take apart the tongue and slip a pad in for £15. But then you would have to buy the shoes. Perhaps it would be better for sir to try with a stick-on tongue pad first, on another pair of shoes? That way you’ll know if it helps. I believe the cobbler across the road stocks them.

There followed five more minutes of pleasant discussion on shoemaking and English brands, and why a pair of Lobbs with a hand-bevelled waist costs £200 more. When I left I did not have a certain solution to my problem. But it was a damned interesting and pleasant 20 minutes.

Over at Berluti, the assistant was putting on my own shoes for me with evident disgust. “Look, these shoes are far too big. They’ve given you at least three sizes too big. You can see them collapsing at the end.” I thought I had explained why I often had shoes that were too big, but he seemed to have forgotten. With the same flourish, my own shoes were tied and he wiped his hands, looking at me rather expectantly.

I left, feeling like the shoes I was wearing were the biggest, ugliest things I had seen. And I certainly didn’t want to replace them with Berluti.

In both cases, there was only one other customer in the shop; the assistants had time to give me if they wanted to. None of them had met me before. My query to both was the same. Yet the way their attitude to me could not have been more different.

I’d like to say I have a sweeping conclusion about the reasons for this disparity, but I don’t. There have been complaints from several quarters about Berluti since it was set on an expansion kick by its owners. But then Lobb is owned by Hermes – hardly a small, parochial company. I think, rather, that the experience reflects something about the attitude each presses upon its staff, and the impression it wishes to portray.

Black Notes

Although I am a man who would scarcely converse on an encounter made in a department store men’s room, a recent experience in a toilet at Selfridges made me reconsider. A brief moment, passing through the swing doors into the department store’s rather basic and disappointing facilities, provided the light bulb; I passed a gentleman who was dressed in black, quite literally, from head to foot. There was not a scrap of colour, even a square centimetre of white poking out from the layers of darkness; he was a cat burglar, a Navy seal, so utterly devoid of colour or variation that it was quite remarkable. This attempt went further than ‘tone on tone’; it was nigh on Gothic, and yet the gentleman in question seemed an unlikely member of that particular subculture. He was elderly, rather distinguished looking. I was a little shocked.

The entirely black look is to some, including a number of my friends, a rather lazy attempt at smartness which actually attracts unwanted attention. One particular acquaintance scoffs and dismisses it as a “cop out”; something safe and lacking in personality that masquerades as formality, albeit rather severe formality. When I wear black, I often throw in a little grey and white; a practice which, itself, is rather safe and unchallenging, but I have never been sufficiently persuaded by the modernist trend towards black to pile the colour together, in any number of layers, and present it as an acceptable ensemble. Women have no problems in this matter; quite happily they will pair a black blouse with a black cardigan, skirt and overcoat – sometimes with rather pleasing results. Men who attempt the same colour layering with black only end up looking sinister or woefully unimaginative: “Who died?” someone is likely to jibe.

The solution for men who prefer to keep things simple – and very, very dark – is to learn how to break up the blackness with tones of grey and white. Different grades of grey, matched with black, add depth to ensembles. One’s overall look is altogether more composed and less slapdash; the pieces react strongly. The necklace on the lady in the picture would be lost on a black dress; the slate grey is effective, without offering too much of a contrast. White shirts help break up the monotony of black but beware that black suits with white shirts are frighteningly common and overdone; try to mix and match grey, white and black to avoid the ‘poppy’ clichés. Texture is also very important in outfits that offer little in colour variation; knitted waistcoats look fantastic next to fine suit cloths and, if you insist on wearing a black tie, add a grey vest – to minimise the ‘mourning’ connotations.