Archives for April 2009

In Defence Of Blake Construction

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Blake-construction shoes (the method used on all traditional Italian models). They are just more delicate and will not last as long as Goodyear-welted shoes.

The same could be said about suits made from super-180s wool or even super-150s. They are lighter, more delicate and possibly more elegant. But they will not last as long as an English tweed suit.

I have explained in depth previously what Blake construction is (see posting here). But in brief, the shoe’s upper is folded over at the edge and sewn directly onto the sole. With Goodyear-welted shoes the upper is sewn onto a new ridge of leather, before attaching that to the sole. Most English shoes and their American heirs use Goodyear welts. They make the shoe harder wearing and tougher. They also make it easier and quicker to resole.

The advantage of Blake construction is that the sole can be cut a lot closer to the upper, leaving less of a lip and making the shoe sleeker. The width of a sole around the upper varies among Goodyear-welted shoes, but none are quite as thin as Blake models.

Blake shoes get a lot of stick on style forums. The biggest reason is that they are not as long-lasting as Goodyear – but this is the case for lots of different types of clothing, from silk socks to summer suits. As Nathan Brown at London shoemaker Lodger comments:

“If you go and buy a lightweight suit from Kiton it’s not going to last as long as a Huntsman shooting jacket – those things last for centuries. But that doesn’t mean the Italian suit isn’t beautiful and it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the money.”

In my opinion, the problem is that style forums can really only discuss practical matters. They are great for recommendations on tailors, news about discounts and explorations of sartorial history. But you can’t discuss taste. It is subjective. A full English brogue on the Tricker’s model is very ugly to some; to others, a pointy Italian slip-on is the height of crass. Neither is right or wrong.

So forum discussions of shoes tend to focus on the quality of construction. They swap experiences on longevity and value for money. On those grounds, Goodyear-welted shoes will usually win. In fact, what you want is a cordovan boot with a triple sole – it’ll last a lifetime.

Briefcase Worry

Oh dear. Poor Bob Quick. The former ‘terror chief’, a title that has a grim, Orwellian ring to it, was so hand-on-face embarrassed by his blunder (for those unaware, Quick climbed out of a car to attend a meeting in Downing Street, brandishing classified documents in front of many-megapixeled press photographers) that his resignation offer was instantaneous and, though speedy resignation was criticised by some, the magnitude of that single gaffe was too great to ignore. As The Sun wrote; “You can’t quit quicker than a thick Quick quitter.” His career is far from over though. He might go on, as some predict, to become a security consultant with a foreign police force, advising them on matters in which he has proven expertise; anti-terror strategies, organisation and, er, maintenance of confidentiality. The question that remains is; what on earth was that document doing out of a secure, locked case?

It is widely acknowledged that times are tough, but surely a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police can afford a simple and functional briefcase? Even in the days before PIN codes, electronic lock systems and ultra-focus cameras, those in command of sensitive information took the use of portable containment of such information seriously. After all, even the budget – a collection of dull, factual documents and a speech that challenges the meaning of verbosity – is contained within a bright red, locked briefcase. Quite simply, government documents should always be concealed in the interests of security.

However, Quick’s slack is no isolated incident. A colleague I encountered in the elevator gripped work papers in his hands as his rucksack, he chuckled, was ‘too small’; one gentleman I saw on Fleet Street carried their papers, lunch and mobile phone (all evidently visible) in a disposable carrier bag. What is the matter? Are people not interested in carrying documents in secure cases any longer? Are the briefcase, the folio and folder simply without appeal? For they are hardly without function or merit.

I actually like the feeling of carrying my briefcase around. I see it not as a burden, but as a reminder, a conscience if you will; as long as I know it is there, I know all the constituent parts of my existence that I have come to rely on, are safe and secure. I know the alien feeling when it is not in my hand, I know the strange, unfamiliar lightness when an item has been removed. It might begin as an awkward, unwanted nuisance but it rapidly becomes a part of you; documents come and go, the only certainty is the case they are carried in.

Smart leather cases are not high priced luxuries either – a case of high quality can be had for a very reasonable sum. Barbour, a brand which might appeal to the country-connected, hardy readers, manufactures an honest briefcase of an attractively simple design in brown leather, currently on sale for £122 at John Lewis. If conference portfolios are more attractive a prospect, Aspinal manufacture wonderful leather A4 folios in a number of colours, one of the most fetching is the Amazon Brown Croc, and retail at £175. Suede lined, with pockets for pens and mobiles, it’s perfect for the man who requires privacy without the superfluous capacity offered in a traditional briefcase. Their leather document envelopes offer the perfect solution for occasions on which carrying a briefcase is unnecessary, and are very reasonable at £125. Perhaps the new ‘terror chief’ will be pondering a purchase.

Reader Question: Starting A New Job

Zenith: I need to expand my wardrobe for a new job in London. I own a light charcoal, faintly blue-pinstriped French Connection suit, and a solid beige Ted Baker suit, but need:

– A traditional navy-blue single-breasted suit
– A trusted location to take my existing suits, to be examined and adjusted
– A pair of brown shoes to accompany my beige suit
– An entire selection of shirts/ties/cufflinks to match my current suits and the third I intend to buy

Is Jermyn Street way above my station? Are the likes of TM Lewin or Hawes & Curtis ‘high street’ by tailoring standards? I am not sure whether £25 buys me a half-decent shirt, or £200-£300 a half-decent suit? Whether I should be getting traditional leather as opposed to suede for the brown shoes if to be worn for business? I’d be perfectly happy spending from £1000-£1500 to outfit myself with a new suit, have the existing ones altered if needed, six shirts, some cufflinks, perhaps a new belt and the new shoes as well. Am I being naive in thinking I can get all that, at good quality, for that sort of money?

This was a remarkably detailed question from Zenith. The entire thing can be seen as a comment here. The advice, hopefully, should be quite succinct, especially as several previous blogs deal with related areas (see the various links throughout this piece).

Broadly Zenith, I don’t think you are being too ambitious in expecting half-decent quality with that amount of money to spend. Let’s start with the suit. Your choice of a navy blue for your third suit is wise – that way you will have the two staples (grey and blue) and one more unusual, summery colour.

I would recommend two places to go: Suit Supply and A Suit That Fits. Prices start at £399 at the former and around £280 at the latter. Both offer a made-to-measure service where a suit is factory-made but to your measurements. It will therefore always fit better than off-the-peg and not need adjustment afterwards (though this is often free if you did want it).

As I have mentioned previously in reviews of these services, the quality of the material and workmanship is not as good as a top-end suit from the high street. But it is as good as you will get in a £250 suit, plus it will fit perfectly. And fit is more important than anything else. (Reviews here)

As to alterations, I use Atelier Colpani on Avery Row – just off Bond Street in London. Adjustments to the waist of a suit will be around £30, to trouser length around £15. But personal experience is key and there quite a few good tailors of this sort in London. Perhaps ask around your office when you start work for someone nearby?

On shoes, it looks like you are looking to spend £200-£300. For that there’s quite a lot available and you should be able to take a step up from Barker’s, good as they are. I would recommend Cheaney, which is a step down from Church’s but owned by the same brand (slightly fewer hand-worked stages). Alfred Sargent is also good, though they make little of their own product these days and have been in financial trouble.

Either way, a great source for this stuff is John Rushton shoes, just off Oxford Street. There’s a fairly consistent supply of good benchmade shoes there. I wrote about it here. The Paul Smith sale shop is also worth a look, as those shoes come into your price range on sale – try and get the high-end range as well (post here).

And yes, you should definitely get brown leather, not suede. Brown suede shoes are great and very versatile, but brown leather is even more so and if you have one pair, they should be leather. Will go wonderfully with your beige suit and a white shirt.

On to shirts. It is odd that you should mention TM Lewin and Hawes & Curtis as high-street shops, yet ask whether Jermyn Street is beyond you. Both retailers are old Jermyn Street firms that began to expand rapidly a few years ago, around London and around the country. I don’t think the marketing directors of either would be pleased to learn from you that they have both lost their West-End aura in the process.

A TM Lewin shirt is now definitely not worth the £79 it is theoretically priced at. But for the lowest price in the sale (and there are always sales, always) it is good value. Get four for £100 or whatever the offer is and you’ll get value for money. However, the key to shirts is fit – it is worth the time traipsing around each of these Jermyn Street names in turn, trying on their regular, semi-fitted and fitted ranges and deciding which one is for you. Good made-to-measure shirts are a little too expensive (around £80 minimum) to make them worth the money when you are starting out.

With belts and cufflinks, these Jermyn Street stores are also pretty good value at the low end. Get a handful of silk knots to start with (dark colours, similar to your suit or your favourite ties) and one pair of silver if you can afford it.

I hope this was helpful – any further questions feel free to ask.

Style Paradigms: Ignore Your Peers

“God, you look like a …”

Insert the appropriate style paradigm here. Sailor, English huntsman, City banker, Italian lothario, geography teacher, preppy Ivy Leaguer. This is the reaction you normally get when an outfit has particular connotations for those around you.

But it is important to realise that everyone’s connotations are different. You can’t let your dress be driven by the subjective and very local associations of your peers. Instead, recognise the intrinsic qualities that have given these style paradigms longevity.

Let’s have some examples. If I wear a blue blazer with white trousers or chinos, I might be ridiculed in the UK for looking like a sailor. But in the US it is a staple of everyday dress, one step down from a suit and perfectly acceptable for business meetings.

It is also rather elegant – a smart, crisp combination that gives a lot of potential for great tan shoes, even spectators. Although it’s not to my personal taste, I would like to think I wouldn’t be put off by local connotations if I chose to wear it.

If I wear brightly-coloured driving shoes without socks, under narrow, short white trousers, someone might mock me for pretending I lived on the Italian Riviera. But in Genoa there would be no such remarks – everyone would be wearing it, at least in the summer.

It is also a rather chic option for casual wear. Both colourful and practical, it is a great way to remain stylish in the heat. On bright day in July, therefore, I wouldn’t worry about any associations of wearing it in Hyde Park.

Two quick caveats here. First, make sure you consider the practical background to a particular paradigm. Don’t wear white trousers and driving shoes on a wet, grey day; don’t wear a huntsman’s tweeds in the height of summer. An Italian wouldn’t do the former and an Englishman the latter. Second, make sure no paradigm ever slips into costume, as warned against in my posting here.

Red socks have connotations for some of arrogant City bankers, as do pinstriped suits, waistcoats, elegant umbrellas, braces, contrast collars and bowler hats. Don’t let that put you off – with the exception of the bowler hat I would recommend all of them, in moderation.

Brightly coloured trousers, checked suits, knitted ties, waxed jackets and tweed all have connotations of in-bred, grouse-stalking country folk. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t stylish, on their own or in occasional combination.

With each, consider what has made it a style paradigm. Think about why it is still worn and revered decades after it was first worn. Then take what you like and ignore your peers.

King Of The Dock: Sebago Docksides

Of all the things said about the classic Sebago Dockside deck shoe, frequently casually referred to as ‘Docksiders’, very rarely is it said what a wonderful aesthetic they have. The glowing reports of owners of Docksides are full of meaty, practical words like ‘reliable’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘comfortable’; the sort of words you associate with a disingenuous advertisement for retail banking. Naturally, they are one of the most favoured shoes of genuine ‘docksiders’ – the sort of men who can tie forty-six kinds of knot, chew tobacco and have rough faces, etched by the salt winds of the ocean. But to me, they have an appealing profile, a modest but pleasant ‘decoration’ – coloured laces – and come in an attractive range of colours. I also love the white sole.

On a recent visit to Sweden, to the west coast city of Gothenburg a friend there informed me as I handled a navy blue pair in the emporium NK, ‘These are typically Swedish, everyone here has these.’ Although this did not appear to be true – in fact I saw very few Docksides on my visit (perhaps it was the temperature as Scandinavia is still quite chilly) – many Swedes would have cause to wear them, for come spring and summer, boating plays a significant part in the lives of those on the west and east coasts. Small, medium and large vessels make their way to the islands in and around the two major cities manned by knot-knowledged Scandinavians, dutifully wearing white soled welted deck shoes.

For as pretty as the white sole is, it is also practical; no one wants a dark, grubby mark left by a sliding rubber shoe on the otherwise pristine deck. Sebago Docksides are also famed for being highly resistant to water and having a sole tread that provides sufficient grip, without compromising on weight and manoeuvrability – or on design. They also look fantastic when miles away from sloshing water, shining teak and salty air. They are currently having something of a ‘moment’ in the fashion world, inspiring imagination-fuelled designers to conjure patent leather models, unusual colour combinations and contrast stitching. Vane of New York City has produced some interesting models in cooperation with Sebago, the most interesting being the dark, red-laced ‘Olympian’, the most dowdy being the grey and white ‘Clubhouse’ and the most tongue-in-cheek being the black, patent ‘Tuxedo.’ The success of the experimentation is mixed, but I think the variations offered by Sebago themselves should satisfy most.

In fact, I would go so far as to say you can forego all other models for the Navy, or Blue Nite; the deep blue, the contrast white laces and stitching – and the classic white sole. It is rare that I am so inclined to advocate simplicity, especially when some of the charming combinations offered by Sebago are slightly more recherché, more discerning, but rather like the selection of plain Wayfarers over newer, brasher variations, this is a case when, for me personally, unfussiness wins overall. Match them with some slim fitting deep blue jeans – swinging at a height above the top of the shoe, exposing a very little ankle – a sky blue shirt, cream heavy knit cardigan and perhaps even an in-trend polka dot bow tie.