Style Event: Smirnoff Black Promotion

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I don’t pretend to know an awful lot about vodka, but I long believed I had an elementary understanding of the types available, a basic appreciation of the varying quality and a rough idea of the different brands; the Russian, the Polish, Swedish, French and Finnish. Though I am yet to Wiki for an insight into the types, number and reasons for distillations, I never suspected I was devoid of useful vodka-intelligence. To my considerable surprise, I was invited to a communications event for Smirnoff Black, a sub-brand of the mightily ubiquitous (and ubiquitously mighty) vodka manufacturer owned by the BWS (beer, wine, and spirits) giant Diageo. The purpose of this event was to promote the Black brand; the small-batch premium vodka of the Smirnoff family that aims to compete with the famous (Grey Goose) the lauded (Snow Queen) and the ridiculous (Roberto Cavalli).

It was not so much the promotion of the product as the method of promotion that caught my attention. The Smirnoff Black Modern Gentleman Masterclasses were designed to acquaint those unaware of the product with the product itself and in an arena of refinement and finery – a ploy that ensures all who attend will in future associate this black labelled spirit with tailored suits, soothing barbers towels and tips from the pages of Debrett’s. For at this event were representatives from A Suit That Fits, Sharps Barbers, expert cocktail mixologist Tristan Stephenson and delightful hosts and hostesses that ensured canapé, cocktail and conversation continuity.

The package of the evening had the effect, from the conversations I engaged in, of promoting well the idea of elegance and discernment for gentlemen – a promotion I applaud heartily. There were conversational currents of etiquette and rules, but there was also discussion of individuality and eccentricity. Mr Bennett from A Suit That Fits embodying the indulgence of the former and the latter in a striking suit that I noted should be named the ‘Wolverine’ for the quite intentional triple ‘slash’ marks beneath the armpits; such thoughtful marketing, as Mr Bennett concurred, introduces sartorial excellence to men more interested in Marvel comics than Chap magazine – the style marketing of the Google generation.

Perhaps because the age of austerity looms, or perhaps because we are bored and now repulsed by excess, but it quickly became clear that the mood of the evening was a balance of taste between luxury and sustained value. A Suit That Fits promoted well the idea of affordable tailoring and were keen to champion the return of the ordinary man to the made-to-measure suit; Sharps had some interesting and practical advice on redness from shaving that did not, interestingly, involve large orders from their product inventory and even the mixologist avoided the fantastical in favour of the sensible; “To be honest, this cocktail is too complicated, and too expensive, to make at home…this one is definitely better for you.” It wasn’t advertised as ‘elegance for the crunched’ but it was remarkably restrained considering the premise; to promote by association. I would have been keen to see another sartorial retailer there – perhaps a famous and affordable shoe manufacturer – to really push the clichéd but effective ‘James Bond’ notion of the event but branding was the last thing to take away from this soiree. This was an occasion to confirm that brands are merely the necessary evil of successful enterprise; that the real value is in creation, experimentation and longevity.

Images credit ‘Courtesy of Splendid Communications.’

Permanent Style: What Took You So Long?

plaidjdetailHow fashion writers do love a theme. Every time the shows roll around, there they are – in the front row (if they’re lucky), pens at the ready, all desperately searching for a theme that will tie all the different collections together.

They all have exactly the same brief after all: write an article reviewing the shows, telling readers what to expect this season. One article means one theme. With a few other observations tacked on the end. The complexity of designers’ thoughts is lost, the intricate suggestions boiled down to one idea.

This season, journalists are desperate to tie the fashion shows to the economy. What is ‘recession chic’? How have designers reacted to lower budgets? Is the rigour of big business dragging back the extravagance of design?

Everyone has reached the same conclusion. Depressed times mean conservative, worn-in investment pieces. The colour palette must be dark, the silhouettes simple and the items are classic.

They didn’t really need the shows to come up with that result; it was always going to be the same, no matter what came down the catwalks. Ignore the fact that Comme des Garçons showed pointy lime-green hats and leopard-print slippers; act with surprise when the winter collections are darker than summer. We need a theme and we need one now – a recession collection must be sombre and it must be conservative.

The only advantage of this avalanche of identical articles is that people are now talking about permanent style.

Permanent style is about investing in quality that will last – buying something that is actually cheaper per use, over its lifetime. Brogues, for example, that can be effectively remade every 10 years, resoled and relined for less than half the cost of the original. With the advantage of an upper that is moulded to your foot; with a patina that has been hand-painted by you through hundreds of polishes.

It is about knowledge of manufacturing processes and profit margins, so you know how to get value for money. Buying clothes that are rebranded, for example, by big chains that have the scale to offer bigger discounts in the sales.

It is about studying traditions, conventions and rules, so that your clothes are part of a cycle that goes around every 50 years, not every five. It is about knowing why those rules exist, so you can break them when their rationale no longer exists – like wearing white on a sunny winter’s day.

Permanent style is about longevity, taste and relishing the clothes you wear. To all those who, apparently, needed a recession to awake them to the virtues of this philosophy I say: welcome to the club. What took you so long?

Style Event: Prohibition Party

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Not everyone likes costume parties. For some, they mean hours of unwanted searching in thrift and discount stores, endless peer consultation and extraordinary preparation rites that defy the purpose of such an occasion: to have fun. Others, like myself, relish the sartorial opportunity to ‘measure up.’ For such souls, the research is half the joy, the preparation exciting and rewarding and the result an astonishingly convincing subject for conversational introductions.

I was recently invited by a friend to attend the Prohibition Party that was taking place at ‘a secret venue in West London.’ Gin cocktails were to be served in porcelain tea cups; poker tables would surround the dancefloor and live swing music would be performed. Rather than the badly lit, greasy speakeasy of legend, this ‘secret venue’ offered glamour. A Dionysian occasion of whimsy and frolic in the shadow of grand, established households.  It reminded me not of Harlem bootlegging, but of a soiree organised by The Bright Young People.

The sartorial effort was considerable. Very few had neglected to dress up for the occasion and some efforts were so remarkably convincing, so authentic and subtle, that I remarked to my friend on the ‘ghosts’ in our midst. One girl, looking remarkably like Mary Pickford, wearing a headscarf on her bobbed hair, toyed with her pearls as she shared confidences with a companion on the dancefloor; one of the DJs, who appeared to be wearing a vintage 1930s three button suit, skipped around the dance floor like Fred Astaire; a fashionably late arrival, dressed in an eclectic combination of skinny emerald jeans, tailcoat, wing collar and spectator shoes was the evening’s Stephen Tennant and a photographer, the very wraith of Elizabeth Ponsonby, teetered around in full length lace. It was not so much that these results evidenced intricate research, it was that it was so gloriously clear that such exquisite encapsulation of a period and style was simply part of who they were; there was no mockery with such people, no ‘that’s-how-I’ve-seen-them-do-it.’ They were young, unafraid and extraordinarily connected with the Jazz Age aesthetic.

One of the most baffling issues of the evening for me was the preponderance of black shirts with white ties. Few photographs from the period exhibit this slightly alarming coordination (although as Barima correctly pointed out, a search for “1920s gangster” on Google images results in thousands of such ‘examples’) and it is not, from my point of view, a style that actually favours or flatters any wearer. The tie is invariably inordinately fat and this has the effect, in the dim of the dancefloor, of making the wearer look like a chap with a daub of double cream on his torso. There were a good number of Twenties clothing clichés – feather boas, pinstripes, spats and drawn-on moustaches – but generally speaking, for the available resources, all who attended did remarkably well. Trilbies may well have been more trend than tradition and were of the pork pie variety – more popular later on in the twentieth century – but at least they were worn, and in considerable numbers. However, as valiant as some efforts were the results were decidedly mixed. As I remarked to my friend Barima, there is a challenge levelled at dandies that many of them are simply playing ‘dressing up’ – the implication being that with a fashion history book open, anyone can match such a style. Fancy dress parties of this ilk are the presentation ground for such arguments, to see the results you would have to attend one yourself.

Photos by Barima Nyantekyi at Style Time (http://barimavox.blogspot.com)

Final Review: A Suit That Fits

simon-long-astfWhen you collect your new suit from A Suit That Fits, five to six weeks after the fitting, the staff suggests a thorough examination of the fit. But I have always found that impossible to know until it has been worn on three or four different occasions.

Yes, you can immediately if the jacket is tight across the chest, the trousers feel uncomfortably snug or there is an alarming amount of air circulating about your ankles. But it is hard to remember everything else to check.

The staff itself can help a little here – suggesting sitting down in the trousers, for example, to make sure there is enough give in the crotch and thighs. But I always forget something that won’t come up until the third time I wear the suit: how secure the side-tabs on the trousers are or the narrowness of the ends of the sleeves.

So, I waited until now to give a decent review of my new suit. Broadly, the experience was positive. So many of my old suits are a little roomy in the waist (as I have lost weight in the past year) or never had their sleeves altered and are therefore a little long. Getting a new suit, therefore, that fits perfectly on the sleeves, the waist of the jacket and of the trousers is a pleasure.

The neck and shoulders fit well, as does the waistcoat – which is the hardest item to tailor. Unfortunately, the picture does not illustrate any of this particularly well as it is a stock image for the ASTF website. But one point is shown here: the collar of the jacket is forced away from the neck slightly by the collar of the waistcoat. Fared well

I enquired about this and was told that it is very tough to avoid when there is a collar on both the jacket and waistcoat. But then, my other waistcoats have a collar that stops short of the silk back, avoiding this problem. Perhaps a suggestion for collared waistcoats at ASTF in the future.

As mentioned previously, the material for ASTF suits is not amazing – roughly equivalent to a £250 or £300 suit on the high street. But then ASTF is great value that way, fitting much better for around the same price. And the company has started to introduce some more luxurious fabrics and one-offs.

I’m pretty satisfied with my suit, and I have two colleagues that are pretty happy with theirs – indeed, who are returning for second orders. If you’re looking to spend around that amount of money on the high street, don’t – go here instead.

Why Does No One Understand Lodger?

Footwear manufacturer Lodger has got a lot of good press recently. It has featured in The Sunday Telegraph, Observer, Men’s Health, Shortlist, Live Magazine, International Life, Smartlife, Esquire, Fashion, Finch’s Quarterly and GQ. All that since the beginning of February. Not bad.

Unfortunately, most of these magazines don’t understand Lodger at all. They refer to its shoes variously as ‘bespoke’, ‘semi-bespoke’ and ‘made-to-measure’. They are none of these things.
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A bespoke shoe involves a craftsman creating a wooden last that is the shape of your foot. A shoe is then made that is the shape of this last – the shape of your foot. I’m not sure what semi-bespoke is meant to mean, but it’s not a word Lodger would use to describe its shoes – they recognise, as I have said on this blog before, that the word bespoke is already too misused. The shoes are not really made to measure either.

The confusion is partly created by the electronic scanner that Lodger uses to create a computer model of a customer’s foot. That model is used to find the best last, length and width of shoe for you. But the selection is of one of three lasts (shapes of shoe essentially) and the normal sizes and widths you get for a shoe.

The advantage of the scanning system is that it is easier to find the best shoe and size for you. As founder Nathan Brown says: “If you’re one of the top bespoke shoemakers in this country, the scanner will tell you nothing. But we’re not competing with them – for everyone else, the scan is a really useful way to find the right size.”

It is understandable that coverage of Lodger concentrates on this scanning machine. It is unique in men’s formal shoewear and an obvious hook into a feature. (As regular readers will I’m sure point out, it was the focus of my first article on Lodger as well.) But no one really explains the point of it. If I didn’t do so well enough in my first piece, hopefully I will do so here.

The second reason behind the confusion is that Lodger custom orders some of its shoes. Every month there is a Shoe of the Month that can only be ordered then – if you want it, an order is sent to the factory and you have one made for you in the right size. With your name inside, which is nice.
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So it can seem as if the scanner creates a bespoke picture of your foot and then a shoe made to that bespoke picture is made as a one-off in a factory. No: it is just custom ordered in a particular size. Even experienced writer Tom Stubbs, on his video on Finch’s Quarterly Review, says about Lodger that “the idea is they scan your feet and build an entirely bespoke last”. No.

All of this is a shame because Lodger is unique and great value in other ways.

First, the scanner means that a lot more effort is put into finding the right size of shoe for you. The time and effort spent on this is often underrated. Men don’t necessarily wear the right size (length) of shoe; they are unlikely to have any idea what width they wear (or should wear); and they are unlikely to realise the point of different lasts and therefore shapes.

Most shoe stores in my experience, luxury and high street, do little more than put shoes on your feet and ask how they feel. Lodger is different.

Second, there is value in having a unique pair of shoes. Many men love owning limited editions and Lodger’s Shoe of the Month is very limited. Once the month has passed, you know no one will ever be able to copy your shoe. And the fact that a custom-ordered shoe is the same price as ready-to-wear is very impressive.

Third, the fact that shoes are custom-ordered means men of odd or outlandish sizes can be guaranteed a shoe for them – whatever the size and the width, it can be custom-ordered. In the English last, for example, you can order anything from a narrow E to an extra-wide J – six different widths in total. On the Italian last, there are two widths (2 and 3) but that’s pretty revolutionary for Italy, where they haven’t really heard of widths. You can even have two shoes of different sizes (though that isn’t necessarily a good idea – see previous post on Lodger).
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Fourth, and probably most importantly, Lodger just makes great quality shoes. There is a very high level of handcrafting – the leather is all hand-cut, the lasting is done by hand, the Italian shoes are painted by hand, the wheeling is done by hand. That puts Lodger on a par with pretty much every ready-to-wear shoe in London. From Brown’s point of view, every hand-made step that adds quality has been included. Only those, such as hand-sewing the sole, that adds almost nothing to the quality, are left out.

Add to that the shoe bags actually shaped like shoes, the boxes that are also draws and the pictures on the outside of both, and you have a pretty good deal.