Style Movie: A Room With A View

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Merchant Ivory productions were some of the few films that were marketed, formally and by word of mouth, by the mere fact that they were ‘Merchant Ivory productions.’ Whereas other films would be related to as ‘the new Spielberg’, ‘that Tom Cruise picture’ or as the vehicle of some other individual of sufficient wattage, those of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, in a similar manner to the Coen brothers, were accorded the grand respect of being referred to as a product of the producer and director – all else in the production, no matter how starry their name, were of lower billing. For it is a mark of respect, and admiration, that the creative force, and not the marketing force, should be so highly perceived; in much the same way that an eager public would flock to see ‘the new Picasso’ rather than ‘a painting featuring Picasso’s mistress.’

Artistic, brimming with beauty and unashamedly nostalgic, these productions, invariably period dramas, have offered the movie aesthete an escape from the humdrum of Hollywood. The San Francisco Chronicle once wrote that the Merchant Ivory partnership connoted a genre in itself; “stuffy, worthy, well-acted entertainment, sumptuous in its sets.” ‘A Room with a View’ is without doubt one of the most famous, and most admired, of these productions. Set in Edwardian England, boasting Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day Lewis, a Puccini soundtrack, a fistful of Oscars and fabulous costumes, it is a paean to the triumph of beauty over social convention.

Costume plays a particularly important part in the story. The heroine, Lucy, finds herself drawn between the cultural snob and dandy, Cecil Vyse and the somewhat less refined and brooding George Emerson. However, despite the efforts of representation in the film, to convey Vyse as a cold, mirror-gazing fop and Emerson as a less decorated, more wholesome individual, it is difficult to regard all the ensembles as anything but perfect examples of Edwardian refinement. These bows and boaters mingle, as I have written before, perfectly with nature and the architecture that surrounds them. And, more than that, they illustrate so very well that, while certainly far more ornamental than gentlemen of today deign to be, that the ornament is not exaggerated, nor is the variety of ensembles without purpose or consideration of practicality or situation.

Take Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliantly insipid Cecil Vyse; though high starched collared, silk cravatted and pearl pinned, Vyse cannot possibly be ridiculed for ‘impracticalities’ of dress or ‘inappropriate elegance’ in simple surroundings. While always waistcoated, he adopts a jacket correct for the circumstance. Vyse in the Surrey summertime wears a lightweight linen jacket of casual structure when reading aloud during a game of tennis, wears a smarter white jacket to receive engagement well-wishers and when returning to town, the more formal Edwardian frock coat and bowler hat – reflecting his departure from the informality of the country. When in Italy, the gentlemen adopt lighter colours and lighter weights of fabric but never allow the temperature to alter their ensemble entirely. Even the younger gentlemen, enjoying a summer away from school, wear shirts, ties, striped jackets and cotton waistcoats.

Though invariably white shirted, the gentlemen exhibited great variety of neckwear, waistcoats, hats and footwear – is there anything more divine than a creamy white lower half in summertime? – and offered excellent reasons, both practical and aesthetic, for adopting lighter colours in the warmer months. There were also numerous reminders that wearing trousers properly, on the waist, is far more flattering than wearing them halfway down one’s legs.

Brand Review: Drakes Of London

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It is always unnerving when you encounter a brand that sounds plausibly antiquated but is in fact still in its first generation. I once wrote of Aspinal of London, a company that borrowed seven of the eight letters of a famous Mayfair gambling club, perhaps in a bid to sound credibly ‘upper-crust’; a remarkably young company, considering the heritage design and appeal of its products. I was equally surprised to learn that Drakes of London, a brand that could easily have been around since the time of Queen Anne, was actually the same vintage as my parents’ marriage.

Unlike Aspinal, Drakes is not a name plucked from the top shelf of ‘England’s Most English Appellations.’ It happens to be, rather simply, the surname of the founder, Michael Drake. I hadn’t heard anything of Drakes before buzz in the style forums, and in various glossy magazines, focused on their apparently excellent online store. Famous for their ties, scarves and silk handkerchiefs, I needed little encouragement to pay a visit.

Aesthetically, Drakes is resolutely conservative. Not that this is any bad thing. I didn’t see a single tie in their collection that I wouldn’t like to own. The designs are in perfect taste, the colouring is subtle; paisleys, polka dots, stripes, foulards and Prince of Wales checks. Approving of the entire collection of neckwear, including the wonderful tartan bow ties, I moved on to scarves.

Drakes scarves ought to be their flagship items for it was the early success of their scarf sales that led the company to explore the manufacture of other gentlemen’s accessories. I liked the vast majority of the scarf stock on offer, although there were one or two that I considered a little ‘trendy’ and passé – the sort of thing you might see in a Boden catalogue.

The handkerchiefs, casually labelled ‘Pocket Hanks’ on the website (not the Forrest Gump iPhone app), are truly spectacular. The Moghul Knights and Bird of Paradise designs, “inspired by paintings from the Moghul period in design and colour” are a gorgeous example of tasteful pattern, colour and texture; 70% silk, 30% wool, they are pure pocket tapestry.

I was also considerably impressed with both the aesthetics and apparent quality of the other items in Drakes online store; beautiful cashmere shawl collar cardigans, Fair Isle sleeveless jumpers, a rainbow of socks, delicate little cuff links. Nearly every item was to my particular taste.

There was, however, one thing which irked me; a nagging irritation that dogged the pleasant tour I was making. Drakes is still slightly too expensive. I made an examination of some Drakes items at Dover Street Market and, like everything else at Dover Street Market, I considered the items overpriced.

I admire the brand for not selling out. I admire the brand for manufacturing the items in the British Isles and I am in no doubt that the items are of a rare quality, but some of the items offered, such as the £125 cotton shirt, the £125 wool scarf and even some of the £85 wool ties, are rather unrealistic in terms of price. I can also detect that Drakes realises this; “Learn why our shirts are so special”, “entirely made by hand in England”, “woven in the Scottish Borders”, “hand rolled”, “hand printed”, and various other details of manufacture that bring a tear to the eyes of every nostalgic patriot, all smack of a company trying to justify itself.

Having said that, my perspective is that of a man who has matured in the era of unsustainable disposable fashion. Drakes naked statement, which stands proud as you like against the winds of cheaply produced, disposable, ethically dubious wares, says it all; “Every day at Drakes we ask ourselves not how can we make it for less, but how can we make it better.”

One For The Albam

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These beautiful loafers are my latest purchase. While highlighting them a while ago, and having lusted after them since, I’d only just got the spares together to buy them.

They’re a beautifully crafted collaboration between Northampton’s Grenson and British independent clothier Albam. Sadly, the photos don’t do them justice.

I’ve often found it difficult to qualify what Albam’s style is. The clothes come under the category of casual, but as to the aesthetic, that’s a little harder. But, if Savile Row is Cary Grant then Albam is surely Steve McQueen.

A store I mentioned briefly in my first Mensflair post, founders James Shaw and Alistair Rae are what I class as enthusiasts/designers.  Started just three years ago, these guys really do encompass the best of modern Britain; taking history and heritage as their cue, they subtly reinterpret designs for a new audience, thereby producing garments that manage to be both classic and contemporary. Aside from the painstaking attention to detail, they are sticklers for quality going to inordinate lengths to track down small British manufacturers – which you can read about on their blog.

I haven’t yet met either James Shaw or Alistair Rae, although if I could think of some original questions to ask I would. However, if you want a flavour of the men behind the company then this interview should suffice.

I have a few of their bits now and there is nothing not to like about this retailer.  And while they’ve attracted quite a bit of attention from the mainstream media recently, success hasn’t gone to their heads. The service is excellent, the chap who served me, Jude, is certainly worth a mention. They appear to have a genuine desire to work in the shop possessing an obvious enthusiasm for what they do, and for whom they do it. This translates into friendly, helpful service without attitude or pushiness. For example, when I got home I realised I’d been overcharged for the loafers. But I called the shop, they realised they made a mistake just after I’d left and were in the process of trying to contact my bank to get hold of me. Now that’s service.

London based they have just two shops (the second recently opening in Shoreditch), but for the billion or more of you who don’t live in London they do have an online store.

Hand Sewing At Edward Green

I was fortunate enough to be able to tour the Edward Green factory in Northampton last week. A new building (as they’ve moved around a few times since leaving what is now the John Lobb factory in the centre of town) it nonetheless has a lot of atmosphere and personality. This is due in no small part to the personality of the staff, who delighted in teasing each other about which job best showed off their talents, or indeed which angle was best to photograph them from.

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One aspect that particularly caught my eye was the hand sewing of the apron on a Norwegian split-toe. This is the Sandhurst, a pattern revived from the 1930s archives that was the precursor to Edward Green’s famous Dover. It has been updated in two different styles to celebrate EG’s 120-year anniversary: a grain leather version in tan, with a round toe and external welt to give it a country feel (202 last), and a dark-brown calf version with a severely squared toe that would look well in the city (888 last). Two very different looks with the same model.

The apron has to be sewn by hand because the two parts of the upper are at right angles to each other. A machine can stitch two parallel pieces of leather in any arrangement, but it can’t do angles.

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The sewing is done by pig’s bristle that is bound to the thread, which it draws through a small cut made by an awl. The bristle is narrower than a metal needle and can move through the leather at angles a needle cannot.

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The hand sewer prepares the pig’s bristle by cutting off its root, sanding the broken end to ensure it’s sharp and then splitting the other end to allow it to be bound with the thread. Several strands of yarn are then twisted together with the split bristle and rubbed down with beeswax. The thread is then rubbed hard with leather to melt the wax, ensuring that thread and bristle are bound together. The beeswax also helps seal the stitching on the shoe.

Doing the operation here is Gary Finedon, who joined Edward Green when it split from Lobb and has been hand sewing for 20 years. He makes around 20 such uppers a week, as does Green’s other hand sewer, Andrew Peach.

It’s important to develop a rhythm and not stop halfway, as that usually ensures the stitches are evenly spaced. So of course I interrupted Gary with about four stitches to go. He tactfully finished the last few while listening to my questions, then put the apron down to give me his full attention.

I never realised that the reason the split-toe seam has that distinctive finish is that this same hand sewing technique is used on the inside of the toe, to join the front two pieces of the upper. It’s that hand sewing underneath that creates the dimpled effect on top, which is so often highlighted by the polish.

I was also fascinated by the refurbishment process at Edward Green. There seemed to be a lot of old shoes around waiting for this treatment, and the picture here shows the sock of one pair that had been worn away pretty badly inside.

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The two main reasons shoes are brought in is that the sock has worn away or the collar on the top of the heel has split. The latter is usually due to men not using shoe horns, stamping down on the collar and gradually destroying its structure. The thread that runs around the inside of the collar will often split as well.

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Edward Green replaces the sock and insole, resoles the shoe and repairs anything like the broken collar. Everything but the upper, which retains its personalised contours, looks just like new. Not bad for £180.

My thanks to Euan, John, Hilary and everyone at Edward Green for making me feel so welcome.

What Would You Like To See? (Answers In The Comments Section)

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Suppose a retailer, whose clothing and philosophy you rather liked, asked you if there was any garments you’d like to see them produce. What would you say? I’ll let you think about it for a moment.

But that is what happened to me last week. It turns out that the guys at Smart Turnout are fans of both MensFlair and BespokeMe and having read my post on military watches decided to get in touch.

An e-mail conversation ensued with Louis, their PR guy, during which he told me that ST have a new range/collection coming out this year, and it sounded rather interesting. Apparently, it will feature high end garments and accessories which tread the fine line between traditional and contemporary style, while at the same time incorporating the colours and patterns derived from famous British regiments and institutions. If they pull it off, and I have no reason to doubt they will, it should turn Smart Turnout into a full British heritage brand with a younger edge. Louis also let on that the garments will be largely British made, which strikes a cord with me.

It was after this that he asked me what I’d like to see them produce. It was evident from our conversation that they were looking for elements of originality. Typically, at this point my mind went temporarily blank (A.Williams. You are the weakest link; goodbye!).

My brain finally fired and my suggestion was a sand coloured, buggy lined, light weight, double breasted, cotton blazer/jacket with patch pockets for spring/summer. An odd choice I know but I’ve got it in my head and can’t find one anywhere. The company that makes one gets my money.

But, and this is the point of today’s post, I thought I’d throw the question out to MensFlair’s readers. Given all I’ve said, what would you like to see produced? Answers in the comments section. The guys at SM read it so who knows.