Archives for September 2009

GAP Losing The Battle With Inditex


It was fitting that the new Pull and Bear and Massimo Dutti stores, both part of the gigantic Zara-powered Inditex group, should have moved into the same relatively pretty, white-façade building on London’s Oxford Street that GAP used to occupy. Although GAP now occupy, and have done for some time, a rather glassy flagship a little way down the road, the polishing of this West London gem of a building – a rarity on mostly modern Oxford Street – by the company that overtook the GAP group as the world’s largest clothing retailer is so suitable that it reminded me of those stories of conquest and colony; when triumphant soldiers marched through the palaces of the conquered.

When I had last entered the building, the GAP store had occupied two rather dingy levels. Light wooden floors, hopelessly outdated, rarely creaked with the tread of constant custom – the newer, larger and lighter GAP store on the street was attracting more business. I only really ventured in for the sale stock, which was usually plentiful; racks and carousels of shirts in my rather unpopular XS size and the odd jumper and jacket. Aside from that it was a rather depressing affair; hoodies, masses of socks and jersey gym wear. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before this GAP is sacrificed. The irony of the sacrifice is that in giving up their lease, GAP handed the prime property, and therefore greater presence in the English capital, to their fiercest rivals.

Inditex have splashed on this retail space in characteristic fashion; Pull and Bear, a trashy, unappealing-but-bound-to-be-successful retailer of denim, printed t-shirts and other flotsam, occupy one half of the building. Inside there is a dark, industrial atmosphere – something between a factory and a theme park ride. It’s well laid out, spacious, offers seating (shock, horror) and, from my time lurking around the entrance, was drawing a good deal of interest from passing shoppers.

The same was true of the gleaming Massimo Dutti store; staff were conspicuously obsequious, racks were not unattractively loaded with stock and overall there was the sense you were entering a store of grander pretensions. In addition to the improved interior, the white façade has been well maintained and the promotional stickers and signage have been kept to a tasteful minimum.

Inditex, far from playing catch up with the older and more established GAP group, are consistently one step ahead. Although as behemoth retailers they are constantly compared, aesthetically, there is little comparison. GAP offers rather simple, functional clothing; chinos, jeans, knitwear, functional shirts, gym wear and the occasional belt. Inditex, through all of their outlets, do their damndest to offer ‘design’ at a lower price; they take more risks with their stock.

Why has Inditex come out on top? Analysts often point to their quick and aggressive expansion (which contrasts to GAP’s absurdly ponderous methods), their strategy for locating stores on the best streets in town and, in Zara, their rapid stock turnaround. Others also cite the improved store experience, the appeal of a European brand and the successful, internal manufacture-to-distribution process.

The thing that doesn’t get mentioned as often in reference to this retailer war is that Inditex has managed to capture the imagination of the GAP-weary shopper. We’ll always need chinos but once we have them, is there anything else in the store that draws us in? The lifestyle sold in GAP is, and has been for a long time, far too ‘young’ for the way we live now. I have a friend who told me he shopped once at GAP last year for ‘bumming around clothes’ – Zara he looks in almost every other week. The reason? ‘Bumming around clothes’ hardly require constant replenishment. Another friend, who boasts he hasn’t crossed the threshold for five years, quipped ‘Don’t mind the GAP.’ The shopping public have fallen out of love. And it shows.

GAP menswear, now relegated to the top floor of the Oxford Street flagship, is very often rather empty on a Saturday afternoon. It looks tired, worn and, like an old heavyweight title holder, rather slow and deliberate. GAP fans of my acquaintance champion the fact that their clothes last. Inditex, by comparison, have said, rather unblinkingly, that Zara clothes are really meant to be worn ‘a few times.’ Both of these assertions are somewhat inaccurate as I have Zara clothes that are well-used and in excellent condition and some GAP clothing that has, in my opinion, had to be placed prematurely on the scrap heap.

There is no doubt that as Inditex’s tentacles have spread far and wide, and its grip on the high street clothing market has strengthened, it has moved into the Primark/H&M realm of increasing supply, reducing price and declining quality but GAP has lost the laurels it once rested on. It needs to rethink its flagship brand. While it still has the muscle, and the greatness of its name, it should try to recapture the great portion of the market it has lost.

Turn Back Your (Cotton) Cuffs

OK, so this is how I came to the earth-shattering style insight alluded to in the title:

•most of my ready-to-wear jackets have sleeves that are slightly too long;

•most of those jackets are casual as my suit jackets are mostly bespoke;

•because they are casual they tend to be of rougher material (cotton, linen);

•they are also cheaper jackets for that reason;

•so I’ve never paid to have the sleeves shortened (because they are casual and because they are cheaper);

•so I end up turning back the ends of the sleeves by an inch or so.

Do you like the quasi-logical approach to this style analysis? Essentially, I realised that I like turning over the end of my sleeves on casual jackets. I like it as a small style quirk, as a little casual but personal touch. But I think it only works with casual jackets because the roughness of the material matches the casual nature of the gesture.

A business suit is usually made of smooth worsted wool because smoother, sleeker clothes are smarter. Smooth cloth goes with crisp creases, high-shine shoes and sharply angled handkerchiefs. Can you feel the aesthetic?

By contrast, linen is rough and ready, goes with crumpled lines and soft woollen ties, faded madder dyes and heavy, seamed shoes (Derbys, brogues, double soles). So turning back your cuffs can work.

If you wanted turned back cuffs on a smoother cloth, they would have to be precisely turned and stitched down – like the cuffs you get on velvet jackets and some overcoats. That is the only turned back cuff that will work because it is exacting, fine and firm.


Of course, you need to be able to physically turn back the cuffs for this theory of mine to apply. So a tweed or heavy wool jacket will not work. This is the exception to the rule, though the rule remains – casual touches will work best with these heavy, rougher jackets. So if you need to do some more manual labour (and the cuffs unfasten) roll back those sleeves and get down to it. It’s what working cuffs were designed for, after all. Makes it easier to clean your hands afterwards as well.

(Interesting how times have changed though. John Hitchcock, managing director at Anderson & Sheppard, confirmed to me recently that the firm used to refuse to make working cuffs. They were the sign of a labouring man. And today they are a sign of quality that even A&S is happy to provide. As John put it, “we’ve always liked to be a little bit different.”)

But The British Are No Better…


At the beginning of June I wrote an across-the-pond view of North American wedding wear customs. I wrote of the ‘contradiction’ of the wedding couple’s attire, and how ‘inappropriate’ it was to wear evening clothing to morning and afternoon ceremonies.

My thoughts appeared to resonate with some of the readers: one remarked that the clothing choice was partly to do with the ‘utilitarian’ theory; that a wedding requires a ‘dressed up’ choice and black tie = dressed up. Another commented that the origins of the American nation (“We are almost all descended from the European lower class”) are partly to blame.

I have thought that, on reflection, I have been a little bit rough on this point. I do not retract my view that black tie at daytime weddings looks wrong to me but I do feel that one who resides in a glass house should not throw such stones. As immaculate and appropriate as some are attired in the UK for a wedding, a huge number of the ceremonies and receptions that take place in churches and marquees, between Land’s End and John o’Groats, are a far cry from the image of sartorial perfection that this nation often likes to portray.

The average British wedding is utterly depressing. The people are generally wonderful but the ghastly clothing that the seemingly uncaring grooms’ parties choose to don is astonishingly awful. Why is this? For what possible reason could a nation of such history in cut and cloth be clothed in such cardboard-waistcoats, synthetic tailcoats, vomit-inducing matching cravats and, usually, inappropriate accessories and footwear? Wedding hire. The sad fact of the matter is, most people rent their wedding clothing and while this is perfectly acceptable, and by no means a modern practice, it does mean that for one of the most formal occasions in your life, a major turning point and a new beginning, you’ll be wearing the most generic of the generic; a suit made for a market, not for a man.

How many times has the wedding-going Brit seen that lilac, burgundy or golden cravat? That matching brocade waistcoat or those overly long trousers with one too many breaks? I for one have seen these things too often. It’s hardly surprising, given Moss Bros. market dominance, that on wedding days churchyards and chapels up and down the country are littered with their coats, trousers, waistcoats and accessories.

However it is not just ubiquity which I find rather distasteful. My biggest gripe with this practice is that the aesthetics are entirely off. The jackets are not only made for someone in your chest size category but usually for men of varying heights, arm sizes and shoulder width. Even on the photogenic models in the catalogue, on whom a mankini would look partially flattering, they look utterly rigid and shapeless.

The ‘cardboard’ waistcoats are exactly that; as stiff as a board. The pattern is almost always a woven paisley or brocade – something akin to grandmother’s bedroom curtains – and the sheen is breathtakingly vulgar. The cravat, now so hackneyed, is no daub of elegance but a blob of tack that looks more like a used napkin. A pocket square that matches the cravat and the waistcoat in colour and texture sits in a contrived, starched fashion in the breast pocket. The worst thing about such a common combination? Better options are available at the renters. Although there is great variety available, it seems that most wedding parties in Great Britain end up choosing the same damn thing.

If I were advising a groom and his party on attire I would instruct him to hire one of the classic (non-Edwardian) cutaway morning coats, if he does not wish to purchase his own, and nothing else. He should always purchase his own trousers (cut to his length), his own waistcoat – single or double breasted – and his own tie or Ascot (which doesn’t have to be plain) and pocket square.

The waistcoat should not be of a high break or have any woven pattern. Dove grey is the most classic and masculine choice. The groom should also differ slightly from others in his party; a different tie, pocket square or colour of waistcoat would make him stand out from the rest. Finally, it is likely that he and his party possess better shirts in their own wardrobes than the wing-collared things they try and foist at the renters; always a turn down collar for ties and always a wing collar for Ascots.