Archives for March 2009

The Pleasures of a Shoe Shine

Walking along the Burlington Arcade last week, I took the opportunity to have a shoe shine. It’s rarely offered in London these days, which is a shame. So it was nice to support someone that’s making the time to set out there and ply his wares.

(Though I wouldn’t be surprised if he is subsidised by the Arcade itself – a shoe shine boy fits with the image of timeless London and luxury the owners doubtlessly like to create.)

It also occurred to me that I have never had one in London before. In New York, in Tokyo, in Singapore. But never in London. Probably just because one is more in the mood for extravagances when one is abroad – I often have a proper cut-throat shave when I’m in New York, and that’s not something I’d even consider in London.

But then the shoe shine wasn’t that much of an extravagance: £3.50 isn’t bad considering how much satisfaction a perfect polish on my Oxfords will give me.

The point to this piece, though, is that the shoe shine boy’s method was interesting (he wasn’t a boy, obviously, but no other word seems quite right after ‘shoe shine’).

I requested cream rather than wax polish, as the shoes in question could do with some nourishment. He insisted on doing both cream and polish, though, as the application of cream does take off a little of the patina created by layers of polish.

First, the laces were tucked away behind the tongue and each shoe was given a good cleaning – rubbed with a damp cloth all over and particularly scrubbed at the edge of the vamp, where it meets the sole.

Once cleaned, cream was quickly brushed on (brushed, please note, not rubbed with a cloth). It was brushed in circular motions, to work the cream into the leather and to make sure it didn’t miss any brogue holes.

Polish was then brushed on (which surprised me, I thought the cream would be buffed first – but apparently there is no need). A spritz of water was sprayed over the mixture – more efficient than the old spit-and-polish tradition – and finally the whole thing was brushed by two large, horsehair brushes, working in opposite directions on either side of the shoe.

To finish off the effect, a buffing with a cotton rag. Though apparently women’s nylon stockings are better.

Ninety per cent of that process I would have done myself, but the method and application of both cream and polish was interesting. Efficient, too. I walked away five minutes later with a smile on my face and my eyes staring admiringly downward.

Beautiful Hangers. But do You Buy Hangers?

Hangers from The Hanger Project ( are nice. Very nice. They are works of art in design and craftsmanship in construction. If I could, all my clothes would hang on these hangers.

But that doesn’t mean I’d spend any money on them.

Kirby Allison, the founder of The Hanger Project, offered to send me a couple to try them out and, if I liked them, review them here. I had seen the project mentioned and was interested to know what could actually be added to the normal suit hanger.

Well, the most important thing is size. The suit hangers come in three shoulder sizes: 17, 18.5 and 20 inches. So by picking one that is closest to your own shoulders, you will ensure that your perfectly tailored jacket has the perfect support.

This is particularly important for larger men, as hangers are normally too narrow for them. The 20-inch size offered here is bigger than anything else on the market and makes sure the padding of a jacket doesn’t sag over the end of the hanger, slowly destroying its construction.

There are other benefits – the sculpting of the line of the hanger to follow the shoulders, the 2.5-inch shoulder flares and the felted trouser bar. But as long as you already hang your trousers from something with a little friction, and never hang a nice jacket on a wire hanger, these benefits are fairly marginal.

For it is true that a wire hanger can lead to collapsed shoulders, which is a real pity. But no man that cares about his clothes would do this. All my jackets currently sit on wide plastic or wooden hangers. They’re not perfectly sized, but they’re not wire either and the shoulders are in no danger of collapsing.

I’ve gathered those hangers by asking for them when I buy a nice suit, or raiding them from new flats I move into. So it’s debateable whether I actually need hangers from The Hanger Project, even if I wanted them.

I am also sceptical that the project’s hangers are have “the widest available” shoulder flares. I have one hanger from Etro that has such wide flares it doesn’t fit any other suit.

And the justification for the premium shirt and trouser hangers is less than that for a jacket. Shirt hangers come in two sizes, again useful for larger men (of which I am not one), and trouser hangers are felted rather than clamping the trouser in place (something I would also avoid anyway).

I reiterate – these are beautiful hangers. They make my closet look better, my clothes hang better and both smell better (solid maple wood). But I’m not sure I will ever pay $25 for one.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Madras

When I was walking around a smart branch of H&M recently, flicking through the deep rows of spring and summer jackets that possessed that particular, dense aroma of newness, my eye caught sight of a little picture of a bow tie; a rather incongruous but interesting little scribble with the clichéd but admirable words ‘Be brave. Be yourself.’ It seems H&M is not content in providing extraordinarily inexpensive clothing to budgeting gentlemen, it also coaches them in matters of confidence and experimentation. Bravery in dressing, and in particular the encouragement of experimentation, is something I plan to address more fully but the true subject of this article is a peculiarity of menswear that usually requires a hefty dose of bravery to attempt; a cloth of old, Indian origin that many see as the definitive pattern of spring and summer.

Madras cloth, named after the south-east coastal settlement in India (now renamed Chennai), has one of those interesting Anglo-Indian histories; like Mulligatawny, the Cummerbund and Pyjamas, it is a marriage of Indian creativity and colonial curiosity. The patchwork madras (the word ‘patch’ originates from the Indian word ‘pach’chadamu’) is perhaps the most interesting as it is an excellent example of thrift; offcuts of fabric were not thrown away but simply sewn together to contrive complete garments. This type of madras garment, now regularly manufactured for luxury brands like Ralph Lauren, is perhaps one of the more potent examples of why this cloth has some sighing in approbation, others sneering and frowning in detestation.

Madras is otherwise known as 60/40 cloth in India, which refers to the thread count; lengthwise 60, crosswise 40. This is apparently the perfect combination for producing cotton fabric of sufficient lightness to wear in heat, but also sufficient strength to endure the years of use. True madras cloth colours also ‘bled’ when washed, which resulted in a blending of the colours, but now, ‘modern’ madras is manufactured using stable dyes which means that the colours no longer run. It is frequently used for summer garments like shorts, short and long sleeved shirts, casual jackets and even hats, but remarkably the grander list is the list of formats the material once took before it fell out of favour; watch-straps, hat-bands, bow ties and waistcoats have all been made in madras, a fact which points more to the aesthetic value of the patterns and dyes than the usefulness of a lightweight fabric.

For many, the dizzying combination of asymmetrical plaid and riotous colour is all too much. The gentleman of minimalism, more interested in black and white linen, is surely likely to be baffled by the use of such a bizarre fabric but I believe the beauty of madras, much like paisley – another great Indian invention – depends on how much you use of it. For example, a madras jacket would in my opinion look very appealing if it was worn with a plain sky blue shirt, navy blue shorts and Sebagos; it would be a rather noisy ensemble if it was worn with garments of a competing pattern, or of too sedate a tone. The garment most men are likely to possess is a madras plaid shirt; I have some, my father and grandfather too – the question is, when and how to wear it? I happen to think that as established as they are, madras shirts are most definitely a sport-casual item and still rather eccentric; to wear them, one must affect complementary eccentricities, but in a controlled and dignified manner. A plain blue cotton tie, or a plain green bow tie with a madras shirt, beneath a blue blazer or a smart linen jacket.

Charvet and Brioni: Mass Producers

The most relied upon measures of luxury today are the materials used in a garment and how much manpower went into it. The second of those measurements might not be as straightforward as you think.

True bespoke is done by one tailor, from scratch, to your precise and individual measurements; a new set of paper patterns is made just for you. Made to measure is individual, an adjustment to a standard pattern; the implication is that there is extra time involved in making those adjustments, and in taking your measurements.

The best ready-to-wear clothes also involve more time – more hand-stitching, fewer stages and fewer tailors. Shoes sell themselves off time – the number of stages in the benchmade process. That quality is one reason some men prefer handmade shoes on standard lasts.
But two of the most famous clothing makers today – Brioni and Charvet – were successful because they automated the tailoring process. They cut the time it took clothes to be made.

Charvet was initially famous because it was the first shirtmaker to set up a shop – so that the customers came to them, not the other way around. And the biggest contribution of Jean-Claude Colban, the current owner, was to create a system of distributing work that organised shirt-making into specific areas of expertise. He created a factory line, essentially, with the same quality of tailors but each doing one stage in the process.

Good old Adam Smith and the division of labour.

Brioni was founded by Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini in 1945. By 1959, their popularity had grown so much that they needed a new way to cope with the demand. So they created the world’s first factory-sized sartorial workshops in Penne, a small town with a long history of tailoring. They faced revolt when they first suggested the idea, with local tailors seeing it as the death of centuries-old hand tailoring.

But 50 years later, both of these brands are seen as bastions of quality workmanship. Salvatore Ferragamo was the same. He converted bespoke shoemaking into a semi-industrial process. So who’s to say that the business models we criticise today won’t become the bedrock of future success?

Kilgour was criticised for offering a cut-price bespoke option that involved manufacture in China. But what’s wrong with that? If they’re the best tailors in China? If they’re better than a lot of the tailors in the UK?

Savile Row tailors pride themselves on having most manufacture within the environs of the Row. Turnbull & Asser prides itself in having all bespoke made on Jermyn Street. But why is it better that something’s made on Savile Row? That it’s handmade? That it’s made in the UK even?

Longevity, not Profit, at Hermes

Ties are not easy to clean.

Those made of silk, at least, are very delicate things. They are carefully folded lengths of volatile material that are sewn together with loose, sparse stitches – to allow room for the silk to flow, to stretch and to play.

They do not take kindly to Bolognese.

However, if cleaned properly, most stains can be removed, provided the soiled tie has not sat for weeks in the back of your wardrobe. The problem is, not many dry cleaners have the requisite machinery to press and roll the tie back into its original shape. The difficulty is not with cleaning the silk; it is with retaining that delicate, flowing handiwork.

There are some cleaners that still have the machinery. One is Tiecrafters Inc in Chelsea, New York City. There are others, though to be honest I don’t know any in London. If anyone knows any, please tell me.

Fortunately, I have rarely had a stain on a tie that could not be dealt with by some quick dabbing with a napkin. One I have had, I took to my local dry cleaner. It was a knitted tie from Hermes, so there was little concern over pressing the tie afterwards. But the cleaner did not do a good job, to be frank. The stain was still there and the area around it looked faded.

I should have gone to Hermes itself.

Hermes will dry clean any house tie for £8 in the UK. That’s one pound less than it cost me to take it to the local dry cleaner. The French silk and leather specialist does it at cost, as part of the service of buying an Hermes product. Silk scarves cost £10.

On the European continent and elsewhere, Hermes often does not deal with cleaning in-house. It recommends a good dry cleaner instead. But otherwise the process is the same – there is no profit taken, it is done by top cleaners and at cost.
If only I’d known that before I took my knitted Hermes tie into the local cleaner; oh well. It’s great to know that some of the biggest brands in the world still offer little services like this that ensure the longevity of their products. They are intended to create loyalty, not profit.