Archives for September 2009

The Coat Project 4

camel-coat1I had the first fitting last week for my bespoke overcoat – a traditional polo coat in camel hair, with the addition of a full-length pleat in the back that can be adjusted depending on what is worn underneath. (See previous instalment here.)

Earlier in the week I had seen a very similar model in Larusmiani of Milan. But though that had a full-length pleat, it was sewn together underneath the belt, which was not adjustable. Full marks for style, not so much on the practicality.

In an English September still enjoying 23-degree heat, the coat felt like a duvet (even with one arm missing). While the camel hair is very soft and has a lovely handle, it is also spongier than cashmere and can more easily resemble a tough (though luxurious) blanket.

Normally, tailors would make the coat one-and-a-half sizes bigger than a customer’s suit. My tailor Russell at Graham Browne had gone for just one size bigger, yet it was still a little large around the waist even on the smallest setting. I put this down to the extra material of the pleat; we took quite a few tucks in the cloth and it will be ripped down and recut for a second basted fitting.

camel-coat2The coat was also slightly longer than I expected, but I think this was an optical illusion created by the slight flare Russell had included, to make sure it was comfortable to walk in when fastened on the smallest setting. We took that in a bit too.

The split sleeve is a tailoring skill that is nice to show off, with the shoulder seam joining the sleeve seam to form one continuous line. But I think it also complements the style of the coat overall, something that will be particularly shown by the raised seams once the coat reaches its next stage.

I was interested to see that the canvas extends down the whole length of the coat, from chest to bottom seam. Apparently that not only adds shape but is essential for the lining and front seam to affix to. Most ready-to-wear coats will not include a full-length canvas, but rather a fused cotton layer from the bottom of the chest downwards.

Next basted fitting at the beginning of next week, though there is likely to be little to report except our struggles to get the fit right with the pleat. Perhaps just some nice photos.

Review And Launch Party: Sharp Suits

sharp-suits-musgraveTomorrow (Tuesday 29th) is the launch party for Eric Musgrave’s new book, Sharp Suits. It’s being held at Richard James’s premises on Savile Row – the proprietor also lending an introduction to the book.

Sharp Suits itself is a very welcome addition to the literature on classic men’s tailoring. There is precious little of it about.

Alan Flusser dominates the field, with his most recent publication, Dressing the Man, a primer for everyone interested in classic menswear. Indeed, it’s so good that I stole from it for the title of my blog – the book is subtitled Mastering the Art of Permanent Style.

Beyond Flusser, there are idiosyncratic works like Nicholas Antongiavanni’s The Suit and Nicholas Storey’s History of Men’s Fashion. The first is a job pitch that is entertaining but feels the lack of illustrations; the second is an English barrister’s rather particular opinion on clothes, and isn’t really much of a history. There are others, but really Flusser is the only one I would recommend without qualification. Until now.

Musgrave’s book is superb and should really be titled A History of The Suit; it would have been a more accurate title, though perhaps less appealing. Sharp suits takes the reader through several, from different cultural viewpoints. The first is a basic outline, from Charles II’s adoption of the Persian vest (and hence the three-piece suit) through to Armani and Prada. The others look at suit design, royalty, the Italians, the Americans, the French, rock stars and move stars (in that order).

Each chapter is lucidly and sharply written – as you’d expect from an ex-editor. But the personal touches are the brightest aspect of the text. Much of the factual timeline I already knew, but hearing about Musgrave’s commissioning of a brown, double-breasted suit from a rather frustrated tailor at Burton’s, or his recollection of an eighties suit made from cellophane, adds a lot of needed colour.

The other reason to buy this book is the sheer volume and quality of the images. Flusser, as more of a ‘how to’ book, is illustrated by swatches and examples. Other works lack good photos at all. Indeed, Sharp Suits is probably most similar in aim to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s Men of Fashion, a radio show earlier this year that presented a cultural history of menswear. But that sorely lacked pictures. Musgrave’s book makes up for it in spades.

If anyone asked me what primers they should read on classic menswear, I would recommend Dressing the Man and Sharp Suits. One is a guide, the other a history; one definitely American, the other more European.

Sharp Suits is available from Amazon and Waterstone’s now at these links:

The Next Step: The Buttonhole


I recently attended a screening of Oliver Parker’s take on The Picture of Dorian Gray. Parker, having directed two of Wilde’s plays previously, turned his Wilde-loving hand to this notoriously tricky gothic horror with relative ease. Like most of Fitzgerald’s work, Wilde’s only novel is exceedingly difficult to translate to the screen as most of the poetic beauty in the work is only possible with Wilde’s language and observation. What works on the page, and in the mind’s eye of the reader, does not necessarily work on the screen. Nevertheless, it was rather entertaining and artfully conceived – the critics will bay, no doubt, but as Wilde stated in the preface to the novel it matters not: all art is quite useless.

To live for a useless thing would irk most men of a sensible nature. Most people do not like to be told that they have no purpose or that what they do has no value other than decoration. The artist comfortable with the uselessness of his own artistry is a happy fellow, but a rare one. Wilde himself pursued and commented on art and vilified its manifestations as vehemently as he celebrated them; fashion was one of his favourite subjects for attack. While wittily cynical about the artless side of fashion, he was often effusive about its potential for beauty; “A well made buttonhole” he quipped “is the only link between Art and Nature.”

If a well-dressed man is rare, a well-dressed man with a buttonhole is almost unheard of. Men are somewhat terrified of flowers. Even when they procure them for a lady love, they walk with an embarrassed shuffle, horrified that someone would see that they have purchased such extravagant tokens of affection. They hand them over with a puzzled frown as if their gift was possibly radioactive and they gripe with a rueful sneer when the expensive blooms begin to wilt. Men are mercilessly practical; beauty that inevitably dies is scarcely worth the purchase. However, as Dorian Gray teaches us, some beauty is more precious because it fades. “The world is yours; for a Season” spoke Lord Henry.

I rather like that buttonholes, impressively inexpensive from the right florist, are not eternal. I like the fact that they wilt and die. Wilde was right; they are the coming together of Art and Nature. They bloom with the majesty of Michelangelo and wilt with more tragic splendour than the Bard’s finest lines. Their purpose is not at issue; their value is unquantifiable. It’s strange that some men consider they are entirely useless in the context of dress when they themselves adopt silk pocket squares that will almost certainly never be used for the purposes of a cold or even the tears of a shoulder-leaning young lady. There is plenty that is useless about a gentleman’s attire, adding a purely decorative flower will not denigrate the ‘utility’ of the ensemble further. However, if utility is your chief concern in matters of dress these words will mean nothing to you.

Berluti Polishing Events

The shoe polishing events that Berluti holds for its loyal customers are legendary. Started by Olga Berluti and nicknamed the Swann Club, it involves gentlemen taking over their beloved shoes, sitting at a dinner table in their cotton socks and polishing the shoes with the greatest of attention. According to previous attendees, these events have something of the schoolyard atmosphere about them – all of a sudden the men become little boys, eager, earnest and more than a little competitive.

The events are also well known for the champagne that is used in the last stage of polishing. It is the acidity in the champagne that is key, removing the last vestiges of oil from the surface of the shoe to give it that extra shine. This, the firm admits, could be achieved with any wine. But champagne does add a certain romance to the whole enterprise.

These events are something that the new UK retail manager at Berluti in London, Lorenza Cavalli, is keen to build on. They foster loyalty to the brand and help Berluti keep in touch with its clientele. Indeed yesterday and today (September 25 and 26), Berluti is inviting its customers to drop by the shop for a drink (it is open until 7:30), let the staff take a look over their Berlutis to provide advice, and get a new pair of shoelaces for them.

It is amazing how many men are happy with old, frayed laces – even those that spend an inordinate amount of time polishing the shoes.

Berluti is also planning more polishing evenings at the London store, so look out for these in the coming months. Indeed, Permanent Style has already been invited to the first such evening – so watch this space for tales of debauchery, patina and polish.

Cavalli is new to menswear, her previous job being in the bespoke department at stationer Smythson and other jobs including watchmakers Ebel. But she still says she feels right at home with men’s shoes – something about the fascination that men who truly love their clothes bring to luxury houses like Berluti. “The customers are so interested in the products, in the technical side of them, in the history and the ethos of the company. It is a lot less flighty and trendy that womenswear,” she says.

In other Berluti news, the firm has just launched its new luggage. This is in the Venezia line, the same as the famous Un Jour bag (both pictured here). The design is similar in that it is a simple leather without much ornamentation, just a characteristic patina. The wheels, modelled after those of racing cars, also make it very manoeuvrable, while the thin leather makes it extremely light – lighter than a lot of other non-leather luggage.


The Old Favourite: The Duffel Coat


When I was at university I had already begun to grow into the sort of clothing my parents approved of; wearing shoes instead of trainers, sensible overcoats instead of paper thin fashion jackets. It was an instinctive switch. My life had changed course. I felt that I was suddenly more responsible for my own maturation. I decided to grow up. However, I grew up unilaterally. A girl who had been interested in attaining my affections remarked that I had matured too soon. She said that I would eventually suit the clothing style that I had begun to adopt, but when I was a good deal older. “It’s just not sexy” she once commented, rather inanely. Others conformed to the student wardrobe with greater ease than I. I was never happy in a hoodie. As a result I developed, alone, a confidence in wearing clothing that was seen by many as ‘too old’ for my age.

When I recently expressed an interest in purchasing a duffel coat, a friend of mine remarked that I was probably now a little too old for one. A little maturation, a few years and suddenly no longer am I too young for clothing but, in actual fact, too old. The window for wearing such an item must be remarkably small according to this wisdom. A couple of years at the most? Bizarre.

It’s for certain that the duffel coat is a classic, collegiate item of clothing that seems to belong on wooden pews in dusty libraries beneath dreaming spires rather than draped over an Eames chair in an air-conditioned office boardroom. It has a childlike simplicity. It makes no attempt to conceal its origins as a practical garment for Naval officers; the fastenings and toggles often look like reef knots and it is certainly not an item of refinement.

However, although it is not an item to wear with your pinstripe suits it can surely be a perfect friend on chilly, winter days. The duffel material is a heavy wool and, designed to keep sailors warm in freezing Atlantic winds, provides more than adequate protection for cold, metropolitan Sundays. The toggles themselves, ideally horn, were designed to be fastened and unfastened whilst wearing cumbersome gloves and the hood, perhaps the most ‘juvenile’ feature of the entire garment, provides protection against icy winds. Beyond these practical points, the duffel coat has an undeniably youthful aesthetic. It manages to dress down even the dressiest of accessories – bow ties, silk scarves and waistcoats – and yet does not alienate them. It draws from these items a dishevelled elegance that is interesting and distinctly ‘weekend.’

It actually does make gentlemen look younger. Unlike trainers, hoodies, printed t-shirts and other remainders of a varsity wardrobe – which merely make gentlemen look desperate. Wear it with slim trousers or jeans in blue or khaki. Gloverall, the original military surplus suppliers, are the best producers of quality duffel coats.