The Last Word In Accessorising Goes To The Pen

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The strictures on what constitutes being ‘well dressed’ allow men a few items of apparel. These are:

-A watch;

-Cuff links;

-A tie clip –although that depends on who you talk to;

-Belts and braces; and

-A wallet

I would add a pen to this list.

The advent of chip and pin, e-mail and auto-signing documents have all but removed the requirement for committing pen to paper for most men. But that shouldn’t deter you from investing in a decent bit of writing apparel.

Some of you may spend your days signing off on multi-million pound business deals; a few of you may one day sign treaties of national and international importance. But whether or not your life takes such a path, the fact remains that the most important things a man ever does will still require his signature.

Whether it is penning a rare letter to a loved one or a note of condolence; signing that contract for your first job; the deeds to your first home; your child’s names on their birth certificate or putting your name to a marriage certificate, it becomes the embodiment of your own personal history and your time on this planet. As such it is something to pass on to your heirs and successors.

In my view a man who understands this truly possess style and flair, particularly in a world where cheap convenience makes it easier not to make the effort or indulge the expense. I haven’t worn a watch for years, and I can live without cuff links – although I prefer not to. But owning and writing with a beautifully crafted pen is one of the few old world pleasures left to modern men, we should embrace it.

A Sorry Experience At H&M

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As a blogger, I have developed something of a reputation as a high-street champion. It is not an unfortunate or accidental reputation; I make no disguise of the fact that I look for style pieces in a number of places that would make the hardcore tailoring fraternity blink.

While many save and splurge on grand items from vaunted style emporiums, I drop comparatively smaller sums, more steadily, at retailers such as Zara and H&M. As ubiquitous as they are, these retailers have impressed me with their flair, use of better-than-average materials and, most importantly, their prices: for the quality of design, the price is always palatable. I spend as little as some spend on a night out on several items from one of these stores and, though the delight in the bargain is short lived, I am largely satisfied with the longevity of the items I have bought.

My experience of the customer service, or indeed any of the ‘workings’ behind the scenes of one of these gigantic retailers, has been, until recently, rather small. Never had I needed to throw up the great curtain and un-complicate the mighty gears and levers that keep the machines churning. There had been no need.

The thing I already understood about H&M was that stock was uncertain – they get a batch delivery of a mixture of clothing items every single day. What I did not know was that this ‘batch’ changed not due to the demand of clothes in a particular store, or demand across a number of stores, or even if stock in one item was low – replenishing ‘low’ stock was the most obvious and most memorable reason for deliveries that I remember from working in a clothing store.

No, the ‘batch’ was simply an inexplicably haphazard selection of a variety of H&M’s clothing line. It could be a delivery of fifty jackets and hats that hadn’t sold a single unit; if they couldn’t fit on the racks, they’d be in the stock room until sale time when they were generally chucked for less than half price.

I had enquired about a suit; an all wool chalk stripe with a peak lapel and a matching waistcoat and trousers which I had planned to adjust in my own way – new buttons and turn ups. I was given the explanation about ‘batch’ stock and three five digit numbers with which I could contact stores nearby to see if they had the items in question. Having exhausted the list within an hour, with no success, I decided to write to H&M’s UK office – a postal and email address that was irritatingly difficult to find – in the hope that they, in their lofty position on the confusing ‘gears and levers’ tree, would be able to correct. My written letter received no response (no surprise there) but my email, which enquired about the availability of the item was, to my delight, deemed worthy of a reply.

However, any hopes of a response that began ‘Of course we’d be happy to locate the garments you desire…’ were dashed by the first line which read;

“H&M are not able to source any of our garments as we do not work with a computerised system due to a fast stock turnover therefore we are unable to locate stock within stores.”

Boo! What a great disappointment. Although somewhat expected, it was peculiarly exasperating to see what had been until now an embarrassed mumbling from H&M staff in hard and clear lettering. I was pleased to see that I had been correct in one of my expectations – the items I had enquired after were ‘current’ season and should be available in the stores for the next few weeks. The problem was that there were only 24 pairs of trousers and 85 waistcoats (not necessarily in my size) left in the distribution centre. The big setback was that the crucial element to the suit, the jacket, was ‘not being replenished.’ If I could locate one in a store in another location, by ringing around and quoting the five digit code, I might be able to find a pair of trousers and a waistcoat in one of the central London stores, although this was uncertain. What was certain was the great sense of victory I should feel if it all came together in the end for the search had been long and more than a little distressing.

I wrote back to the Wizard of H&M and asked if it was possible to pay for items over the phone, to then have them sent to me by post or perhaps to have them shipped to another store. Although this request seemed hopeful, on reflection it is actually quite reasonable – surely someone in their mythically massive customer service team should be able to organise this paltry request for such a persistent and faithful patron. To my great disappointment, this is the reply I received;

“Unfortunately this is not services that we provide (sic). However customers are able to place garments on hold for 24 hours to collect the garment in store.”

That was it. My special ‘call centre’ for the project, a spreadsheet of numbers and locations, was to be abandoned. Unless I planned to make an (expensive) train journey to Birmingham or Edinburgh there was not a hope in hell. Predictably, I rued my lack of nationwide friends and associates.

The experience, though remarkably unsatisfactory, has provided me with further elucidation on the issue of mass production and mass consumerism. Though I had expected, behind that great curtain, a crunching machine capable of altering a gear or two, instead I found a brick wall, with only a letterbox.

H&M will churn out the clothes by the million, throw them in the stores littered around the world but they’ll be damned if they know what they’ve produced or what they’ve delivered.

Brand New Dune

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In relation to footwear, dear reader, I have a particular problem. I, in a truly Marcosian manner, have lost all concept of the ‘basic’ shoe and my concept of ‘need’ is as skewed as that of William Randolph Hearst. The issue is this; my shoes are well kept and they last a considerable amount of time. Many of you will raise eyebrows in approval, considering that this achievement deserves credit. Fortunately, I am conscious enough about my appearance to ensure the intended triumph of the former but the triumph of the latter is largely down to the fact that I have a peculiar dislike for wearing the same pair of shoes two days in a row.

It’s a kindergarten comment, but the fact remains – the less you wear a pair of shoes, the longer they will last. I have never encountered a cobbler or shoe salesman who peddles a paradoxical and controversial theory that, in actual fact, shoes last longer the more they are worn. For that word, ‘worn’, is not used without reason. Those creations, so carefully and skilfully illuminated in the boutiques of St James’ and Mayfair, are virginal; untouched, unblemished, unwrinkled, unworn. All the care and love in the world will not return a pair of shoes to their pre-worn state; the great problem with shoes is that we need to wear them. A very good pair of shoes, worn every day, will last a good number of years, but how much longer would they last if they were only worn one day a week? For that reason I spread the burden across an ever-growing collection.

My collection is not to the taste of all. It’s a mish-mash, a mixture of Jermyn Street and the high street. The shoes are not of equal quality; some I foresee lasting a good deal longer than others, but there are some shoes that I am surprisingly pleased with. My three pairs of Dune shoes are among my favourites. Firstly, they are of a pleasing shape. The toe is slightly squared but the profile is rather classic which makes for a stylish design that is a cross between contemporary and traditional. Secondly, it is clear that the creative team at Dune for Men take risks with their shoes. I have a pair of their head-turning peanut-butter leather and black patent co-respondents that consistently receive compliments and enquiries.

The real value in Dune shoes is precisely that – the value. They are priced at £85. While not exactly a bargain-basement price, finding good leather shoes of decent construction and interesting design for less than £100 is notoriously difficult. I bought each pair of mine in the sale, at a 40% discount. For roughly £150 I have three pairs of shoes that I adore. There are certainly better shoes out there, but for that price?

Shoe purists certainly scoff at the ‘high street’ image of the brand, the fact that Dune is chiefly a manufacturer of women’s shoes and that the men’s section is, embarrassingly, a side show. They might even take issue with the quality of the leather (which, in my opinion, is satisfactory for the price), but there is no doubt that achieving this kind of footwear, in that price bracket, is only possible with Dune.

When I paid a visit to George Cleverley’s little boutique in the Royal Arcade, the interesting and kindly store keeper remarked on my canvas and tan co-respondents; “You’ve got a very nice pair of shoes on yourself sir, where are they from?” When I informed him they were from Dune he was understandably nonplussed; “Never heard of them, and I’ve been making shoes for 56 years!” I calmly informed him that it was unsurprising that he had never heard of Dune as they were scarcely in the league of distinguished bespoke shoemakers. The benevolent twinkle in his eye indicated, with that remark, I had been excessively disparaging.

Patrick Grant On Dressing Well

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The proprietor of Norton & Sons gives his thoughts on dressing up and dressing well.

What’s the key to a great men’s outfit?

The great thing about the way men dress is we have so many bits and pieces we can put together. And if you’ve got an eye for it, a little bit of flair, you can lift an ordinary outfit into something quite special just by, you know, picking up the purple overcheck in a dark-grey Prince-of-Wales and accessorising that with your pocket handkerchief. Someone will see it, just catch that item, and they’ll think: ‘huh, I like that.’

Do many people do that these days?

No. I think it’s a real shame that we’ve got to the point where people who want to dress nicely feel embarrassed to do so. That they feel they can’t wear both a tie and a pocket handkerchief because of how it will be perceived. It’s depressing to me.

So few people get any joy out of getting dressed in the morning these days. It’s a shame because it can be a very pleasant, slightly introspective pause in your otherwise hectic schedule: ‘I’m just going to take 10 minutes and find the right tie to go with this shirt.’

I used to spend hours and hours swapping ties and things around. But you tend to find that, the older you get, the easier it is. It’s just experience like anything else. Our shirtmaker and has been on or around Savile Row for 35 years now, here and Jermyn Street, and he just has a good eye. You almost never see him wearing anything that isn’t spot on. And it’s never just a plain dark tie, a pale shirt and a dark suit. It’s always something with a little colour.

We try to express that sometimes in our shop window. There have been ones there recently with grey shirts and purple knit ties, as well as other colours.

Do you like knit ties as an alternative to silk?

Yes, it’s the sort of tie that gives a little more character. A printed silk tie is fairly ordinary, business-like. A woollen tie feels less dressy and makes you feel more comfortable. Like Lanvin’s ties – someone pointed out to me recently – some of which are crumpled and perhaps don’t make you feel like you’re actually wearing a tie. People would often wear a bow tie before they’d wear a silk tie.

I often feel the same way with woollen handkerchiefs. They feel much less dressy than silk.

Absolutely. Though more people are wearing handkerchiefs these days, almost more than are wearing ties, which is really funny. I’m glad they are, because you need a little bit of colour. If I take out my handkerchief, this automatically becomes a less interesting outfit. Without the tie as well, it becomes very dull. It’s something anyone could put together.

[Patrick is wearing a mid-grey herringbone suit, blue and white Bengal-striped shirt, pale blue silk tie printed with a white geometric pattern, and a silk handkerchief that is a mix of blue florals, cream and navy edging]

You can understand why men feel very uninspired by clothes when they see their peers walking around in just a suit and shirt, or most of the time just a shirt and trousers.

Exactly. If the trousers are beautifully cut and the shirt fits very well – as in it isn’t billowing out around your waist and flapping underneath your arm – it can look nice. But it’s rarely going to be that exciting. It needs something different. Wear a tank top or something that adds a little colour.

Something dark, dignified, but still with interest and sophistication – like a dark purple or bottle green.

Sure. My favourite colour combination at the moment is blue and yellow. We’ve got some really nice shirtings at Tautz in blues and yellows. Some nice bright ties too.

[E Tautz is the ready-to-wear label launched, or more accurately relaunched, by Patrick last year. Available in Matches and Harrod’s.]

Orange, too, is something I’m into. For the summer, perhaps pale blues as the base, indigo somewhere and then a very bright, citrus orange. Almost orange peel. Not a lot of it – just a dash of it, in a tie for example.

I saw you say previously that you are very influenced by what you see people wearing that come into the shop.

Yes, absolutely. It’s all the little details you pick up on. A little bit of colour here and there. Even if it’s just the edge of a pocket square that picks out something in the tie – just that little bit of thoughtfulness. And there’s one customer that always, always wears bright red socks. It isn’t going to match with anything, but it’s a statement.

Another wears his watch over his wrist, like Agnelli. He has his shirts specially made so I suppose it’s easy to get them to work with the watch. But then if you are as prominent in his industry as he is, you can get away with it.

Do you make mistakes in what you wear?

Sure, you shouldn’t be embarrassed by experiments. Particularly when I was younger. That’s what your childhood’s for really, making horrendous fashion mistakes. I remember they used to have a menswear section in the back of Elle, perhaps once a quarter, and I picked out outfits in there, copying them all exactly. I’d think, ‘oh I don’t have that blue tie exactly, so I’ll try something else instead.’ And it would end up being a horrendous mistake.

And then you would see yourself coming in the opposite direction the next day?

Well no this was Edinburgh, so the chances of that are pretty slim. But a lot of it is just trial and error.

There are some people, I suspect, that look at their wardrobe, pick three things out and look perfect. Other people pick three, decide against it, try another combination, reject that and finally decide on something. Still others pick out an outfit, walk out the door and look like a dog’s breakfast without knowing it. I think I’m in the second category rather than the first. There aren’t many in the first.

You develop staples over time, that you know work.

Yes, things you revert to. That’s where experience comes to play, because eventually you’ll have enough good outfits that they will all start overlapping. There will be a Venn diagram that over time has more and more things in the intersections as you add circles. Then at some point in your life you will know how to combine everything. I haven’t got to that point yet but some of my customers certainly look like they have, and they’re all in their sixties so I’ve got a couple of decades to carry on learning.

I think some people probably find it quite frustrating that they seem to spend all their time trying and never quite get it right.

Well then they need to walk around Savile Row a little and see what everyone else is doing. There should be no shame in just picking up on what other people do. I write it all down – if someone comes in wearing something really unusual that I like, particularly a combination of lots of different colours and patterns, I write it all down – shirt was this, tie this, suit, handkerchief, socks, shoes, everything. There’s nothing wrong with copying other people.

Grenson’s Artful Archie

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I’m on something of a shoe riff at the moment. This is partly because I’m trying to get back to my fighting weight, and shoes are the only things I’m allowing myself to buy until then.

Suffice to say, every year I draw up a list of items I wish to add to my wardrobe. At the top of that list is the Grenson Archie wingtip punch brogue . Curiously, the shoe appeared last season but happily they’ve reissued it and added some more colours to the mix. Not terribly suited to last season in my view, it is, however, a perfect winter shoe.

Good Year Welted, full grain leather and cut on a wide last its heft gives it a purposeful look, as do the large punch holes. This is added to by the double leather sole, which will provide protection from the winter rain. Certainly not a shoe to be warn with suiting, it is ideal for denim, cord, thick knits and all the other accoutrements of a well set casual winter wardrobe.

My favourites are the chestnut versions above, with that distinctive cream inlay to the stitching. But various websites are carrying them and they’ve been issued in black and dark brown/chocolate.

Until very recently Grenson was eclipsed by the likes of Church’s, Crocket & Jones and Tricker’s. While being sound, Good Year Welted and bench made in Northampton, they never quite achieved the reputation of the latter three. Sound but uninspiring would probably sum it up well.

Since the firm’s take over by City financier James Purslow in 2004, Grenson has enjoyed a real renaissance, and deservedly so. Bringing in London shoe designer Tim Little – who has had some success in his own right – they started pitching a new range of shoes to a slightly younger market. Echoing the company’s traditional designs, subtle tweaks provide a more modern edge.

So complete is the revival that new, young, independent retailers have been engaging Grenson for some interesting collaborations. But the Archie is top of my list for now.