This Season I Shall Mostly Be Wearing…

One of the great differences between men and women when it comes to clothing selections is that whilst women remain keen to keep ‘up to date’; reading fashion bibles, flicking through blogs, gazing at the ensembles of celebrities, fewer and fewer men are at all interested with what the fashion houses are pushing out and more and more seem to be taken with what works; something that has impact. When the seasons change, it is extraordinarily rare for any males of my acquaintance to ask me what is ‘in fashion’ for the coming months. They talk rather of things they’ve ‘always wanted to own’; a particular style of coat or shoe perhaps. Most acquisitions are not in pursuit of a fashionable aesthetic but part of a slow maturation that lifts them from being mere boys into manhood.

Knitted waistcoats

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Knitted waistcoats did feature in a few collections for the coming season but they’re hardly a recent invention. Less formal than some other styles of waistcoat, the knitted waistcoat is warm and comfortable to wear – essentially it is a sleeveless cardigan – and offers a textural difference in suit ensembles. It is also smarter than the V-neck jumper which can look rather bulky underneath suit jackets and blazers and due to it being available in a number of colours, offers good colour matching/contrasting opportunities. This is an ideal garment of comfort and elegance for the colder seasons.

Burgundy

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Although a colour associated with autumn, burgundy is not considered ‘the’ colour of the season. Nevertheless, it is a perfect time of the year to experiment with this attractive tone. It is certainly masculine but has a refined, quietly aristocratic quality that softens greys and blues which can often look harsh in autumns golden light. Burgundy cords look particularly fine with brown brogues and a burgundy waistcoat with a grey flannel suit sounds daring but is actually rather a classic combination. Smaller additions such as a burgundy paisley pocket square or a clubby tie add that touch of the regal. Burgundy is also a wonderful partner for other autumnal colours like forest green, tan and chocolate brown.

Patterned trousers

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Showing flair is easy in autumn; until winter overcoats cover the resplendent ensembles, there is ample opportunity to enjoy, and experiment with, combinations and accessories. I personally think that autumn is the perfect time of the year to wear odd patterned trousers; hounds-tooth, checks and stripes. Whereas summertime seems to call for lower leg simplicity – cooler, paler colours – the introduction of autumnal winds and the natural ‘fuss’ that comes with dressing for the season seems to call for some variation on pant pattern. A classic Prince of Wales check trouser with a blue blazer or perhaps a blue chalk stripe with a brown hounds-tooth jacket.

Go On, Try American Apparel

I tried to get a friend recently to go into American Apparel. He looked at me askance. “That place?” he asked incredulously. “It’s full of leotards, Lycra and hideous colours.” I knew what he meant. But I made him go in anyway. Because if I hadn’t been driven in by recommendations, hype and word-of-mouth, I still wouldn’t have anywhere to buy my t-shirts.

If you walk into American Apparel (now seven stores just in London, and counting) it’s easy to be put off by the body suits, printed leggings and high-waisted shorts. Indeed, the caption to the image above the list of London stores on AA’s website says it all: Cotton Spandex Jersey Tank Thong. I can see the picture and I still don’t know what it is. But it doesn’t sound good.

You have to get past that, ok? Find the menswear section and look at the basics – the t-shirts, the sweatshirts, the hoodies. They’re all well-made, high-grade cotton, fitted and very simple. No gimmicks, no logos. And best of all with the t-shirts, they are long enough to tuck into trousers.

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I don’t wear t-shirts very much any more. Gone are the Iron Maiden, Pearl Jam and No Fear t-shirts of my youth (each of those a teenage phase, around two years apart). I still wear t-shirts when it’s hot, in the summer and often at the weekend. But most of all what I need in a t-shirt is something simple that will go under a V-necked sweater. Ideally it should be soft, lightweight and (most of all) have a long enough body that, like a shirt, it will not become untucked.

American Apparel’s The Summer Shirt is all of those things. And not expensive either at just £16. It is a basic item of clothing, like underwear, that I just don’t notice anymore. And as someone once said about bespoke suits, that is one of the greatest hallmarks of good clothes.

I also recommend the hooded sweatshirts. Simple and well-fitted, not ballooning around your mid-riff like American college sweaters. Just like the t-shirts, they are fitted without being tight. In a t-shirt especially, that is pretty hard to find.

Just steer clear of the Shiny Bat Wing Hoody, Velour Raglan Sweater and See Thru T-Shirt.

Rare Moment: Double-Breasted Waistcoat

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It is always wise, I find, to revisit and reassess our convictions from time to time. The words ‘never’ and ‘always’ are a little overused and misrepresentative as they are impossible to qualify. Recently, I wandered into Gieves & Hawkes with a friend of mine. The last time I had gone in, the store was intimidatingly empty, the stock overpriced and dull. The glorious window display belied a remarkably uninspiring interior; never again, I thought, will I judge a book by its cover. My recent trip could not have been more different.

To begin with, I was not drawn in by a deceptively grand window display but from a general curiosity and a desire to gather ideas. I had expected the same ‘store in decline’ offerings and was, instead, very pleasantly surprised; jumping from rack to rack I repeated continuously ‘Now, this is a lovely fabric’ to my companion who became rather bored with my monotone and wandered off to the high priced, high end racks of suit ‘sets’ – jackets, waistcoats and trousers. Flicking through a selection of classic blues and greys we chanced upon a peak-lapelled grey window check suit in a soft but substantial English wool. My companion was unmoved and, after I had shown my approval, remarked that he was not a fan of checked suits. Despite this, I pulled the item from the rack and suggested that we have a look at the waistcoat.

‘And I think we’ll find that it is…double-breasted!’ I exclaimed euphorically. My friend had not even allowed me to finish before he had interjected; ‘Wow’ he said ‘you really…didn’t expect that. It’s…really nice.’ It was indeed. A shawl collared double-breasted waistcoat, it was completely unexpected but entirely fitting; it was a rare moment of unforeseen perfection. There was something in the way the jolly checked wool contrasted with the formality of the double breasted option; I immediately imagined it with a cornflower blue shirt, a paisley tie and a gold-chained pocket watch. It was merely an attractive suit before the jacket was opened and the waistcoat revealed; now it was the suit.

Other suits caught my eye; a pleasant grey on blue chalk stripe with brown buttons and a Prince of Wales checked double-breasted, again with brown buttons but not even the classic beauty of these items could divert from the distracting and charming incident that had affected us both. On leaving the shop my friend remarked that the double breasted waistcoat was, from now on, the choice for him as I considered the suit in its entirety; the lapels had to be peaked, otherwise it would not have worked and it was not merely the ‘double-breasting’ that was ‘arresting’ but the humour of the check and the waistcoat together. As rare as this style of waistcoat is, it was the combination that made it rarer still.

The Coat Project 3

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Yes, that’s right. It’s a picture of me cutting the cloth for my polo coat. Russell at Graham Browne realised that I just have a natural tailor’s touch and decided I would cut the whole thing better than him. Also, he fancied a cup of tea and a nice sit-down.

Not really. Russell was kind enough to let me cut just a few inches of the back piece for my coat. And even that I managed to mess up slightly, losing the second, lower piece of camel hair half way. It was a very satisfying feeling though. The shears have a reassuring weight and the cloth provides just enough resistance to feel you are working at it. Apparently the most satisfying materials to cut are light coatings and flannels for suits. The texture suits the work. The most irritating are cottons and corduroys, which “are gritty and feel like you’re cutting cardboard”.

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The first decision to make when drawing up the pattern was whether to have the pile running down or up. You get a pile on heavier cloths that are woven a certain way, and it has a feeling just like fur – smooth in one direction, rough in the other. It’s the same effect as you see on velvet, just much subtler.

Most coats are cut with the pile going down, so it is smooth if you run your hand down the sleeve. But other tailors prefer to cut it going up, as there is less friction when you sit down and the coat won’t ride up as much. Favourbrook, for example, cuts its velvet jackets this way.

Having decided to cut the cloth with the pile going down, the same pattern pieces as for my double-breasted suit were used to draw onto the camel hair. A range of extra margins were allowed at various parts of the pattern – an extra 3/8 of an inch on the side seam (from shoulders down to the hem), 3/16 on the back of the neck, 3/8 around the sides of the sleeves and around ½ an inch at the shoulder. The waist is ½ an inch bigger across the front, as well as the “buttons apart” being bigger (this is the distance between the buttons; an alternative way to measure is “buttons stand”, which is distance from the side seam.)

Drawing the shoulder seam involves a bit of free hand, as the extra ½ inch is smoothed out at the sides. More free hand is also needed where the jacket pattern ends, drawing a smooth curve down to the hem. That in particular is a lovely long line, and demonstrates the artistry at the heart of tailoring, no matter how many rulers and patterns are used.

The split seam on the sleeves also requires a bit of extra work. Taking the normal sleeve pattern, the half-way point is measured at the cuff and at the bicep and then the other sleeve is used to mimic the curve from one point to the other. The curved ruler (which looks like an abomination to me, but apparently is one of the most useful things a tailor has) also comes in helpful to smooth the curve.

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I was a little puzzled as to why Russell asked Dan to cut him three sleeve patterns. I only have two arms, after all. But as the sleeves have split seams, two of these patterns need to be cut in half, so each sleeve has four panels of material. The remaining pattern is kept with my others as the standard coat sleeve.

Russell also suggested putting in a permanent seam down the sides of my full-length pleat in the back. This is done using Clantex Supercrease, a resin that goes down the seam and prevents it ever flattening out. It is often used in the military to retain creases in coats and trousers (both Dan and Russell, now at Graham Browne, used to be military tailors).

Indeed, Dan was the first person to use the Clantex Supercrease when it arrived at their old employers. Having set up the machine and mastered its workings, he was nicknamed Clantex Superman.

So the cloth is all cut – first fitting (importantly, over my most bulky jacket) in two weeks.

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One side note: it was interesting talking to Dan about the costs of tailoring. Even those that cut suits for themselves end up paying upwards of £350 for the finished article, assuming the cloth is around £50 a metre (you need three), the jacket maker charges £100 if he’s feeling generous and the trouser maker costs at least £40; plus the cost of linings, buttons and canvassing. Considering the cutter’s work itself, suddenly the sale price of £650 seems like very good value indeed.

Fin’s: A Solution To A Bugbear

I have a bugbear about driving shoes. I hate the ridge, bobbles or gommini that all brands put on the back of their shoes, as well as the sole. Originally, I presume this was to retain grip on the floor of the car, seeing as your foot would be pivoting on its heel as it caressed the accelerator.

But no one wears driving shoes to drive today, and the rubber bits on the back mean that one’s trousers bunch up at the back, sitting on the rubber rather than flowing smoothly down to the heel. This is a particular issue with bankers that wear driving shoes with suits. The way the trousers bunch up makes them look like pyjamas.

So the first thing I noticed about Fin’s shoes is that they don’t have any bobbles on the back. Just smooth suede or leather.

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Fin’s is a young shoe company run by a friend of a friend, Alexandra Finlay. Always interested in entrepreneurs of any type, and shoes in particular, I gave her “simple, fuss-free and fun” shoes a try. And bearing in mind my rather slight bias and connection to the company, I have to say they are remarkably comfortable.

I only owned one pair of driving shoes previously, from Massimo Dutti, and Fin’s are a big improvement on those. At first blush they also seem more comfortable than Tod’s or Bally, though having only tried on those brands I can make no direct comparison.

The shoes are made by a family-run factory in Portugal and are partly hand-stitched (the long moccasin stitch joining the vamp to the upper). Says Fin: “Portugal is renowned for providing fantastic quality at great value. In creating a brand that centred around the ethos of affordable luxury I knew that the balance Portugal offered would be ideal for Fin’s.

“The factory is entirely dedicated to making shoes; their set up is amazing, a cavernous room with the shoe-making process operating from start to finish in an anti-clockwise arrangement. The process starts with a man cutting the patterns, and works its way around to another man wrapping the finished shoes in tissue paper and boxing them up. Visiting the factory at production time is one of my favourite things to do. It makes you appreciate the finished product so much better when you see the work and craftsmanship.”

The construction and padded insole is remarkably comfy, although I must admit that part of that insole cover is coming away in my pair, which I have been wearing daily for two weeks. The insoles are removable though, which should aid any repairs and also helps air out sweaty feet a bit better.

It’s hard to argue with Fin’s philosophy of comfortable, simple shoes, easily ordered (next-day delivery) and in more colours than you could possibly want. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend wearing them with suits though.