What’s A Nice Shoe Like You Doing In A Sale Like This

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Trawling through the sales at department stores such as Selfridges and Harrods is no happy experience. Harrods is generally unbearable even out-of-season but smack bang in the middle of the January sales it is a tortuous whirligig that manages to make me feel physically ill. If you sell ‘all things for all people’ then you should certainly expect the latter when you offer the former for a greatly reduced price; expect them to push, expect them to shove, trample and snatch.

As much preparation time as they are afforded (virtually the entire calendar year) it is remarkable how consistently chaotic and zoo-like such establishments become in the weeks after Christmas. What is even more incredible is that the stock which, at any other time, is treated by staff with a reverence and protection causing customers to wonder whether they have stumbled into a museum by mistake, is suddenly no longer worthy of the ‘touché-pas’ pedestals; magnificently overpriced baubles, bags and beads, no longer behind glass, are left to the mercy of bargain-thirsty shoppers who rifle through stock piles and scarf bins like primates dismantling an automobile.

It was amongst this mess that I found some of the most splendid examples of footwear I have ever seen. It was an uncanny setting; dumped alongside some of the most vulgar (D&G flipflops) and absurd (Dior trainers) aberrations of shoemaking, they shone with a peculiar quality that set them apart from all other examples. They reminded me of the bespoke examples that sat in the window of Foster & Son or Cleverley with a patina to the leather reminiscent of antique furniture and a shape, classic yet contemporary, that distinguished them from the winkle-pickers and square toes that surrounded them.

The style of the shoes, though slightly fantastical (imagine Tim Burton conjuring a film about a cobbler) is beautiful to behold; the only thing that prevented me from purchasing a pair was the still-prohibitive sale price of £550 (reduced from £800). A pair of the green (yes, green) crocodile shoes, originally £5,000, were reduced to £3,500.

The Stefano and Mario Limited Edition Line is produced by the well known Italian shoe company, Stemar. It would be a disservice to say they are ‘manufactured.’ Manufacture is a cheap and greasy term that invokes a sense of scale and the Stefano and Mario collection, with only 100 pairs of each style produced each season, can hardly be considered an operation of ‘scale.’ According to Stemar it takes approximately 4 weeks to produce an “unfinished shoe” – “15 days during which the shoe must remain in the last, and at least a couple of days for finishing and polishing.”

And indeed, it is the finishing and polishing that distinguishes these shoes; “painted” Stemar say “like works of art.” Firstly, the skin is massaged with cream and a soft cloth. This is followed by days of patient polishing – a technique corroborated by a gentleman at Cleverley who informed me that the ‘old furniture’ look is about using different tones of polish and takes “a very, very long time” – and then the shoes are ironed by hand and naturally waxed to give them a deep shine. The result, as Stemar states, is a “superb pair of shoes” with deep coloured veins “…intense, artistic, just like an oil painting: hues of chestnut, brandy, walnut, hot orange, forest green and mocha.”

Besides being available at Harrods and Selfridges, they are also offered for sale in Milan, Florence and Rome, Paris, Montreux, Istanbul, New York, San Francisco, Enschede and Laren (Holland) and, interestingly, in Lagos, Nigeria, Tomsk in Russia and, perhaps appropriately, a store in Kiev called ‘Rich Boutique.’

Two Questions About Wedding Attire

It must be the season for planning weddings. Not only did one of my best friends get engaged (congratulations Henry) I had two questions this week about what to wear as a groom.

KL: Mr Crompton, I’m an avid reader of your blog and I’ve loved your posts on what to wear to a wedding. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts though if you were the groom at an informal wedding. I’ve been thinking of a couple of possibilities like a grey 1b peak w/ db vest, navy db, navy 2b peak sb, navy/grey Hunstman-style 1b suits. I have a houndstooth Macclesfield or a champagne tie that I love and may wear for personal significance.

Peter: Dear Simon, I am a long time reader of Permanent Style. Happily, I am getting married this summer – in the middle of August. There is pressure from the bride for this to be a formal wedding, but her definition of formal doesn’t extend much beyond a dinner jacket and black bowtie. I am not certain that that is entirely appropriate for a church wedding and would like to wear something a little more personal. My initial thoughts are: Black, SB, notched, black silk lapel, possibly with an heirloom silver button (instead of a silk-covered button). Black trousers with silk along the seam. Waistcoat in a dark, dark green (Favourbrook has some nice ones). White shirt, black tie (not bowtie), white pocket square.

Now my opinion on wedding attire can be summarised in the following, hopefully logical, points.

First, propriety is king. So if there is an obvious dress code, either stated or implicit, stay within it. Do not upstage anyone, especially the groom. Be smart enough, even a little smarter than the rest of the guests, but do not stand out like a sore thumb. This is not your day. And if the dress code is black tie, much as I hate that American tendency at daytime weddings, wear it.

Second, if there is no obvious dress code other than being smart, feel free to take it down a notch sartorially. I know that, as a formal day event, you should be wearing morning dress, and if not that then the smartest lounge suit you own: navy single-breasted, crisp white shirt, black oxfords, probably a grey or silver tie.

But that’s too near business dress to be any fun these days. Men never get a chance to wear casual suits, linens, cotton and silk, let alone bright colours. So go wild and enjoy it when you can. Otherwise no one would wear checks or spectators.

db-strollerMy general opinions stated, let’s turn to the questions. Both KL and Peter are keen to go down the formal route without wearing black tie or tails. Good for them. KL has the right idea on dressing up the lounge suit, going for peak lapels and a double-breasted waistcoat. These are both great ideas, particularly if you will rarely wear them on any other occasion. Either navy or mid-grey, with either tie.

Peter is seeking more to put a personal spin on black tie. This can be done in a number of ways, including a shawl collar, double-breasted, even a velvet jacket. But if you’re going to do black tie, Peter, eschew coloured waistcoats. The jacket should have peak lapels and you need something to cover your waistband – cummerbund, waistcoat or double-breasted.

Or how about another suggestion Peter? An old-style stroller – black, SB or DB, peaked lapel jacket in serge or cashmere. Pale grey trousers, white shirt, white handkerchief, Macclesfield tie, black shoes. Keep it monotone. It’ll looker smarter than what everyone else is wearing, but individual too.

Thoughts on New Zealand

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New Zealand is a country with so much to offer, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you visit it at least once. Indeed, my recent second visit left just as profound a mark as my first.

However, for all my admiration I think if I lived there I would go off my rocker. Firstly, I didn’t see one attractive woman – other than the one I took with me. Secondly, and most importantly, Kiwi men are utterly unrepentant in their desire to dress badly. Indeed, they almost revel in it.

Any kind of interest in clothing is viewed as effeminate. It was as though the last forty years in male clothing and grooming hadn’t happened. Something as common place in Europe as a pink shirt is viewed with the very greatest suspicion. I was even pilloried for deck shoes. It was considered great sport by my girlfriend’s family to get me to wear a pair of jandals (read flip-flops).

So what do I mean by badly dressed? For the most part I’m talking about a complete a lack of flair, care, quality and above all effort. The antipodean stereotype of stubbies (short short), singlet and work boots was all too common. But even going out to dinner it was not uncommon to see men in flip-flops. At best you’d see an excess of the purely mundane – poorly tailored jeans and uninspiring tops and trainers or work boots.

In some ways this is a factor of the outdoorsy, active lifestyle New Zealand provides. You’re not going to wear a linen suit on the beach, but there are ways to dress well and comfortably. Well tailored shorts and polo provides both comfort and, depending on colour and pattern, a degree of relaxed elegance, if done right. For the most part all I saw were men throwing on cheap, scruffy clothes without effort or care. Harmony of pattern and colour was for the most part absent.

Of course every country has its poorly dressed contingent, even in metropolitan centres. But for all the country’s natural beauty, even in the most cosmopolitan of NZ’s cities, I still couldn’t claim to have seen anyone I regarded as well dressed.

Book Review: Sharp Suits

eric-sharp-suitsWritten by veteran menswear journalist Eric Musgrave and featuring a brief but personal foreword from the beau of Savile Row, Richard James, Sharp Suits is a collection of eight separate essays on the suit; each housing a good number of well curated photos illustrating the different guises the man’s suit has taken over the years.

The essays (more like categories, really) include the double‐breasted and single-breasted suit as well as suits from various geographies (US, France, Italy) and a section on the suit in film. The reason I purchased this book, however, was for its image catalogue and I am pleased to report that I was pleasantly surprised by the variety, quality, and quantity of images within this book.

Images occupy about 60‐65% of the book’s pages and are printed on high‐quality paper in high resolution with fantastic colour reproduction. A good variety of styles and periods are represented with examples ranging from Edward VII’s lounge suit in 1864 to Daniel Craig’s Tom Ford suit in Quantum of Solace 144 years on. Apparently, many of the images were sourced from the archives of the Woolmark company whose image database can be accessed without cost or registration here: http://www.vads.ac.uk/collections/LCFWOOL.html.

Whilst the majority of the photos are good some are truly remarkable. The greyscale photo of lanky Spanish nobleman, Don Jaime de Mesia Figueroa, in an elegant eightbuttoned double‐breasted suit in the late 60s as well as a portrait of an immaculately attired – and young! – Valentino Garavani are good examples thereof. Many of the photos will be new to the reader which is another boon whilst the captions are succinct and unfailingly helpful in drawing the reader’s eye to certain points of interest.

However, despite the generally pleasing choice of photos, there are some omissions and bones of contention. Despite having an entire section dedicated to Italian suits, the accompanying image catalogue felt decidedly lightweight and didn’t do justice to the region’s renowned contributions to menswear: I was astounded not to find a single photo of Gianni Agnelli – the quintessence of the stylish Italian – for example. It is quite understandable that space is limited and not all tastes may be sated but to forgo someone whose style is, even now, so widely appreciated to include gimmicky images of gauchely attired popstars or sportstars – P Diddy and Christiano Ronaldo being cases in point – seems an unhappy decision and one that jars with the otherwise elegant choice of photos.

The text accompanying the images is well‐written and a nice aside. It does good job of sketching a general history of the topic, starting from basics without seeming boring, contrived or patronizing. The style is journalistic rather than academic and one detects a slight overreliance on certain sources e.g. Hardy Amies but, in general, the text reads very well and Musgrave does a good job of engaging the reader by punctuating description with personal anecdotes such as the commissioning of his first ever ‘bespoke’ suit at Burtons; a pleasant digression which helps convey the personal touch in a book that was clearly a labour of love.

Overall this is an excellent book, written by an author who is unquestionably passionate and knowledgeable about the topic. The text is decent and the image catalogue superb. Well presented in hardback form this book represents superb value at under Ł12 including delivery from Amazon and would be an excellent addition to anyone’s bookshelves.

Buy Handmade When It’s Worth It

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The fascination with things being made by hand is odd. If I sew a button on by hand, chances are it will be done worse and not last as long as the best machine doing it. This is firstly because I am not very good at sewing on buttons; but secondly and more importantly, it is because a machine will sew more stitches to the inch, so it will be stronger.

Purchasers of fine clothes should ask themselves, when presented with something made by hand, whether that is necessarily an advantage. Seams that come under a lot of strain usually need to be strong above all else. The advantages of handmade construction are flexibility, movement and life; it adds stretch to the shoulder seam of a jacket and personality to the padding of its chest. But it is not always and necessarily better.

Equally, ask yourself whether the marginal difference made by hand construction is worth the money. I know that my tailor, for example, uses pre-made shoulder pads. Some of the Savile Row tailors make their own, by hand. Personally it’s something I am quite willing to save on. But I want to pay to have the chest made by hand.

I have also never understood people that want something to be flawed to prove that it is handmade – fluctuation in the hand-stitched lapel or a slight skew in the welt. To them imperfection is honesty. To me it is a fault. I want my individuality in the fit, the design and the wear. I don’t want to see evidence of the craft; I just want to benefit from it.

It’s true that no two items made by hand will ever be identical. As a bespoke shoemaker told me once “if I ever punched two medallions exactly the same I wouldn’t be a craftsman, I’d be a robot.” But, contrary to him, I don’t see a virtue in the slight looseness of one seam on a shoe’s counter. It bugs me and I want it changed.

The fact that he has lasted the shoe by hand is not something that can be seen. Its virtue is that he was able to adapt the natural leather and its personality when stretching it over the last. The attention to detail means it will wear better. That’s the kind of hand construction I want.

Buy handmade intelligently.