Archives for October 2009

Book Review: The Last Shall Be First

last-firstThis famous book is well-named: its sub-title is ‘The colourful story of John Lobb, the bootmakers of St James’s’. That colour comes from tales of the young Lobb, social history of the development of bootmaking and pocket biographies of the shop’s most famous customers.

But fortunately there is also colour about the product – the boots themselves. Just skip the bits on the Lobb family and the lists of customers.

For example, I didn’t know that traditionally the best brown shoes were always made out of Russia calf, the best black ones out of waxed calf. I wasn’t aware that the clicker in men’s shoes was the senior or “aristocratic” role – he was the foreman that handed out the work to the other craftsmen, which makes sense I suppose, as his was the first stage. And I didn’t know that in the middle of the nineteenth century, bootmakers were the most numerous of any trade in London (apart from “general labourers”).

It is also interesting to read about the habits of Lobb customers. The average man bought 2-5 pairs a year, but there were few such men and they were all very rich. One, Frank Harris (“king of Pornographers” in late Victorian England), bought a pair of Russian leather laced boots, some calf toecaps, calf boot toecaps and a pair of patent “no caps” in 1899. Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’ in relation to Oscar Wilde) bought a “pair of Russia”, two pairs of calf button boots, “Russia caps” and patent Oxford no caps in 1902. While both men were at the height of their notoriety at this point, they must nonetheless have ended up with a lot of Lobb boots.

Those boots took one (fast) craftsman about 12 hours to make. And in the late nineteenth century, a man had to make six every week just to feed his family. So the gap between craftsman and customer was rather larger than it is today, even though the price has inflated from £2-something to £2000-something.

And then there’s my favourite story from the book. During the First World War it became very hard to get the hog’s bristles that shoemakers used to guide the waxed thread through the holes punched by the awl. Over a pint in the pub, six bootmakers settled on a plan and set out to Regent’s Park with apples, pears and nuts. They strolled into London Zoo, waited until no keeper was about and then converged on the hog enclosures. They used the fruit to tempt the animals forward, then grabbed two handfuls of hair each and ran. That was enough for six months of bootmaking.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in traditional shoemaking. Just read it selectively. It is now out of print I believe, but it can be bought second-hand on Amazon from $30.

Taking Winston’s Advice

In a bid to avoid repeating the advice of others, I spent this week looking through past Men’s Flair posts. This one, by Winston, advocating patterned trousers chimed with me.

I have a surfeit of jeans and chinos for weekends and casual wear. In many ways I’m comfortable in my uniform of odd jacket and denim. But as I plough on into my thirties I feel my tastes maturing slightly. Time to experiment with trousers.

Previously I’ve found two problems doing this. The first was finding something sufficiently relaxed and informal which didn’t make me feel like a man missing a suit jacket, or a buffer aspirant. The second problem is that most of the available ‘younger’ trousering follows fashion, meaning the accursed skinny fit –low rise, tight bum and microscopic crotch. If you weigh more than a buck-fifty in loose change these trousers are deeply unflattering. I’m no rake, but with a 36 inch waist, a bum and solid thighs neither am I obese.

Fortunately for every problem there is a solution, and mine comes in the form of these Dog Tooth check trousers from Adam of London. They are also available in Prince of Wales Check and Mohair, although I’m not daring enough for that. They’re a tailored fit -not skinny- tapering to a 16.5 inch leg; with side adjusters and belt loops (a little unconventional but I don’t mind that); side/front pockets and no pleats. They provide a trim modern silhouette, but they sit on the waist and provide enough room for men sized men.


The man behind the trousers is Adam Shener, a plain speaking, no nonsense kinda chap whose shop specialises in authentic English 60’s tailoring. Most people don’t appreciate that the sixties had two distinct sartorial parts to it. From 1963  – 1965, which is Adam’s era, sharp suiting was the uniform for that group known as the Mods (which stands for modernists). After this period things went down hill with lapels and trouser legs getting ever wider. Adam’s is no hack retro shop, it’s all about cut and fine tailoring from an era when men predominantly wore bespoke. For the money I think he creates one of the best fitting off the peg suits on the market.

Now there is definitely one man who will be taking Winston’s advice.

Sartorial Alchemy In Practice Part 1


Many moons ago I wrote, somewhat verbosely, of my admiration for style resourcefulness and sartorial alchemy. I am continually impressed by the unpolished gems that some style gurus manage to find in unlikely places; at the bottom of bargain boxes, in a charity shop, on eBay, in their parents attic. Wherever there is value, you will find them. They are extraordinarily patient people who think nothing of spending hours in underground thrift stores with a rather brave hope that they will find something worthwhile. I know a gentleman who trawled through boxes, pushed through crowds and endured hours of disappointed searching in stuffy, poorly kept second-hand emporia only to return to the same search a week later.

Such persistence and tolerance of imperfection deserves praise, but what really amazes me is how a little smattering of imagination can turn the wrinkled garment in the bargain bin into a stand-out piece in an ensemble; one which will prompt continual enquiries of ‘where did you get that?’ I recently took a very cheap, new double-breasted jacket bought on eBay for £5 (including delivery) to Graham Browne in the City to see what they could do with it. I informed the tailor, Russell, of my plans to turn what was an unremarkable and anonymous jacket into an attractive and distinctive item. I would add the creamy white buttons, to create a natty Gatsby-esque number, but his job was to do what he could with the fit.

Armed with pins, Russell asked me to put the jacket on. It was a 34”, as close to my torso measurements as possible, but still depressingly boxy. I had already decided that the jacket waist and shoulders needed to be taken in, and I had pinned the bottom of the jacket up myself in order to give the tailor an idea of how I wanted the item to look. Russell was utterly professional and only assented to chime in with commentary on the very cheaply produced garment in response to my own criticisms of its quality. I informed him of my goal of sartorial alchemy and that it was truly up to his talents as a tailor to make the silhouette of the jacket worthy of gold; “So, I’ve got to make a silk purse…” he began “…out of a sow’s ear!”

The lesson of this will be, hopefully, that despite its rather dull origins, an item should not just be appreciated for what it is, but for what it can be. If you have an unspectacular item that once cost you an insignificant amount of money, you have a choice; with the right imagination and adjustments, you could turn something you might have thrown away into something rather special. The raw materials of even the cheapest, nastiest object of fashion need to be appreciated. For fashion, after all, is merely material that is sewn around the human form. A little patience, and imagination, goes a long way. I hope to see the result of Russell’s alchemy next week when the jacket is ready.

Is Bespoke Always Better?


I spotted this jacket on a recent visit to Nino’s. I liked it straight away. Made in Italy it’s pure linen with a floating canvas, working button holes, satin lined and hand finished. I also like the contrasting dark brown piping on the pockets and stitching around the button holes.

When Nino told me the price of £560 I instantly thought, ‘But it’s not bespoke. Is it worth it?” I suspect my reaction would be a common one.  Perhaps the real question is, am I right to think that way?

I once put this issue to Adrian Holdsworth, the owner of luxury menswear shop Volpe in Pimlico. His core business is off the peg and made to measure suits which range from £450 right up to £2000. Revealingly he says his customers want shape and comfort, minus the fussiness of bespoke. He also made the point that, “the internal construction of a [English] bespoke suit can be too heavy. Many tailors aren’t used to working with fewer layers, lighter interlining and lighter horse hair. As such a traditional solid construction doesn’t always lend itself to lighter weight fabrics”. He makes a good point and one I’ve heard before.

There is another angle to consider. Where I would see possibility in choosing lapel widths and shape, linings, cloth types and weights, padding types and more, others may simply see a mine field. These men aren’t lesser beings for not knowing. They just want to look good and have someone remove the head aches for them.

Does everybody need bespoke? If you have a fairly standard body shape then in terms of fit you’re unlikely to notice the difference between one of Nino’s jackets and one you had made. The jacket above has a beautiful silhouette, high arm holes and narrow sleeves. What more could you ask for?

I suppose the real point is that it doesn’t matter whether you have a wardrobe full of bespoke or none at all. Provided what you do buy is well made, fits properly and suits you, you can class yourself a well dressed man.

A Tour Around Milan

As anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit Milan will tell you, the city is not all fashion. There are several old and new stores worth the visit for those interested in classic menswear.

By reputation, the city’s three stand-out establishments for tradition and quality are Bardelli, Neglia and Tincati. However, each offers something quite different – as I discovered recently.

Neglia is the destination for Milanese men looking to the best in English and American imports. So the shoes are Church’s and Edward Green, the umbrellas and the bags from Brigg, the suits in the window from Ralph Lauren, and half of the ties from Drake’s. So while there are also top-class Italian names like Brioni and Kiton, and Neglia’s new and expanded own-label suits, the shop does not offer much to the international visitor that he can’t get elsewhere. The one exception is probably Incotex trousers – their cords pictured below.



M Bardelli is very different. One of the oldest men’s clothing establishments in Milan, it could safely claim to be the definition of Milanese style – classic, formal, with heavy English influences. Particularly prevalent (this season at least) are sports jackets in grey and brown checks and strongly striped shirts. As well as woollen ties in club stripes, which are ubiquitous for Autumn/Winter in Milan. While not necessarily inspirational, it is the base from which Milan can be understood.




Tincati is smaller, more refined and idiosyncractic. Very lightweight raincoats, woven belts and soft thin knitwear, it also has a dedicated area at the back from bespoke orders. Certainly worth a look.

Of more modern, quirky establishments, Al Bazar is the standout. Located outside the centre (a couple of streets from Bardelli), it is a treasure trove of items collected under the aesthetic of one man – Lino Leluzzi. More on Al Bazar on Permanent Style next week.

The greatest joy, however, is discovering less well-known shops. Like Piombo, just off the Golden Triangle, which had the most lovely unlined, washed cashmere green blazer (and one of their colour combinations is below). Or Rivolta, the old Milanese shoemaker that has recently relaunched with a model for making bespoke shoes purely off an electronic scan of your feet (a longer feature, again, is on Permanent Style). Larusmiani is also worth a look. It is an ultra luxurious menswear store on Via Montenapoleone that reminds me of Kiton before it grew. An old name in Milan, it is surrounded by fashion houses but retains a very particular character.


Anything else worth mentioning? The Etro sale store on Via Spartaco (50% of this season, 75% of the last); absolutely gorgeous and well-cut knits at Red and Blue, which looks more like it is called Fedeli (the brand of clothes sold); and Doriani for similar knitwear reasons. Oh, and go have lunch in the café at Corso Como (below), then wander around the shop inside – a great menagerie of brands.


It was also two days, but it feels like there’s so much more to tell.