Sprezzatura Revisited

There is always much talk of sprezzatura and affected nonchalance in men’s dressing and style, and has been for at least some 500 odd years or so. Too often though, all that is said is “looking nonchalant is important,” “try hard, but don’t look like you are,” or “here are ways a few distinguished gentlemen did things differently,” and when more is added, it is often secondary to these common assertions. That said, I am certainly not suggesting that these are bad bits of advice (or more personally, that I do not read them, absorb them, write them, and employ them on a daily basis), but I do think they require some reflection.

First off, yes, looking like you spent an hour adjusting your necktie is no way to go about, and if you are spending an hour adjusting your necktie, I have some lovely hobby and book recommendations you should take a look at. On the other hand, I think it is even worse to look like you spent that hour trying to look like you spent 5 minutes. Affected nonchalance is the goal, not falsely-nonchalant affectation.

And, while I know the temptation is great, just because Agnelli or the Duke of Windsor did it doesn’t mean you should too. We have many things to learn from these ever-elegant men, but neither of them became as elegant as they did by mimicking others exactly. Now I hate to sound like I am telling anyone what they can and cannot wear, and believe me I wouldn’t dare do so, but I will say that one should proceed with caution when looking to copy “nonchalant” quirks. While unbuttoned shirt cuffs look a bit jaunty and unfussy, putting your watch on over your cuff can quickly make you seem like you think you’re The Rake himself; developing your own peccadilloes is far more enjoyable anyway.

the-rake-agnelli

All of this though is futile if the most important factor is missing: you must actually look comfortable and nonchalant. Whether your tie is straight or swaying doesn’t matter if it looks like you would rather not be wearing one, and no matter how precisely your coat is cut, if you wear it like a straight-jacket, forget looking elegant.

To risk shameless public admiration, Lino of Al Bazar is a perfect example of looking at home in one’s clothes. I am convinced that he was born in double breasted suits and half-undone monkstraps…and this is exactly what I think is meant by sprezzatura. Even though I hesitate to say whether he does or does not have to think very much when he gets dressed in the morning, as soon as he leaves the house, no single quirk or item stands out, but rather, I get an overall impression of ease, comfort, and confidence that I think we can all aspire to (whether you like his particular taste or not).

lino-sprezzatura
Image credit: TheSartorialist.com

Lastly, I just want to say that I make no claims at being the authority on this matter – far from it. Each day is a new adventure, and style takes a lifetime to cultivate; if it didn’t, things would get quite boring. Inspiration should come from all around us, and our clothes should reflect who we are, what we want to say to the world, and what we aspire to. The question isn’t “How do I look effortless and comfortable like the greats?” but rather “How do I look comfortable and elegant as myself?”

Taking The Plunge

taking-the-plunge

Currently the UK is in the grip of a general election. I say grip, it’s more of a weak handshake.

You may know that I am a part-time scribbler and hobby-ist on matters clothing and dress. My day job is a researcher to an MP, and whoever wins the election the time is fast approaching when I shall have to seek a new career path. As my last post made clear I’m more interested in product than dispensing advice, so I doubt scribbling full time is really an option. However, this week I’ve been arguing with my girlfriend about setting up my own label. Do I take the plunge or not?

The question I’m asking myself is does my idea have appeal and is it practical? Every year there are items I’m after, and more often than not existing retailers just don’t provide it. Experience – and you only have my word for this – tells me that I’m often ahead of the curve. Whatever I want normally comes out about 12-18 months later.

My basic idea is that every season I’d produce just one or two items in limited runs. Once they’re gone they’re gone. They will be core items around which you can add other items from other sources and build a look with. But the products will change from season to season; a shoe one season, a particular style of shirt the next. Manufacture will predominantly be in England, and if I can’t manage that then from a reputable source – no low rent, low wage sweat shops. Prices will be fair and reasonable, no big mark-ups for its own sake. Limited runs will be the determinate of exclusivity not mere price. For these reasons it obviously makes sense to sell online rather than from a retail outlet.

There isn’t much to prove this type of business model has legs, but then just because a thing hasn’t been done before is no reason to assume it won’t work.

So, do I follow the lead of so many of the people I’ve been writing about the last few years and take the plunge?

Brand Review: Herring Shoes

helpful-herring

Buying ‘blind’ is not a pursuit for the faint of heart. In online shopping terms, there are degrees of ‘blindness’ – varying levels of knowledge about the product to be purchased that assure the purchaser. The best situation to be in is to be purchasing a product, say a pair of shoes, that you have already seen ‘in the flesh’ as it were; you know what the product looks like to the naked eye, so the pictures online need not be pored over or the description re-read with any degree of concern – if you were happy with what you saw, you probably will be when the shoes are delivered.

If however you haven’t seen the product in the flesh, and are not particularly trusting of marketing photography, you are buying with a degree of blindness; I have experienced this horror and have ended up paying a hefty postage for the return of unwanted items that did not live up to expectations. Ever since, I have been rather uneasy with buying ‘blind.’ However, a recent experience with Herring Shoes provided me with a rather different ‘blind’ experience.

Herring have two retail stores, one down in Devon and one in Herefordshire; both are too far away from London to merit a visit from myself. Herring also have an online boutique that retails shoes from the likes of Church’s, Barker, Loake, Cheaney, Trickers and Sebago, in addition to their own lines. However, whereas I can toddle down both Bond and Jermyn Street and see many of the other brands that Herring offers for sale online, I cannot see any Herring shoes; London does not know Herring.

While pleased that such shoes are clearly lacking in mass market appeal, I was considerably disgruntled that I could only view a photographic representation and not touch one of their shoes before purchasing – a purchase which might lead to disappointment and the loss of a small sum on returns. Despite this disappointment, I simply could not be deterred from the appeals of the product; Herring shoes are classically designed, Goodyear welted and honestly priced. They might not be as grand as some of the bespoke names often mentioned on this site, but they cater for men on a certain budget very well indeed.

Herring Shoes are helpfully divided into six main categories; the Classic Collection, the Premier Collection, the Graduate Collection, the Country Collection and the Italian Collection. The other helpful point about this categorisation is that it makes sense; the names signify the standard and style of the shoes therein. Hence, in the Graduate Collection one finds classic ‘straight out of University’ shoes priced for young, loan-repaying graduates; the Country Collection has a lot of brown brogues and substantial soles and the Premier Collection offers shoes of a higher category of design and material for a little extra. The pair I selected, some tan tassel loafers, were selected from the Classic Collection. Payment is simple and delivery (within the UK only) is free.

The packaging, as you can see from the photos above, was faultless. The shoes were boxed inside a cardboard box and hand delivered. Inside the shoe box, aside from the shoes, you could find a travel size shoe horn, tin of polish and travel bags for each shoe. For a delivery that did not cost me a penny, it was highly satisfactory. The most worrying thing about the purchase was the fit as it has been my experience that some shoe manufacturers have very different ideas about what a correct size 8 actually is. Relieved with the fit, I examined the shoes and the leather carefully, checking for flaws. My beady eye satisfied, I settled down to polish the shoes for the first time, happy in the knowledge that my next Herring purchase will not be one so affected by concern; this ‘blind buy’ had been a lesson.

A Question Of Taste

carreducker-shoes

Last week on my post about Carreducker shoes someone left a comment asking if I actually liked the half-cuts I’d pictured. One of the interesting things about writing articles for Mensflair is how it forces you to bet on your own head, by putting your own sartorial assumptions on the line. Often you’re only ever able to offer a part explanation.

With regards to the question posed, my answer was an unequivocal yes. While grounded in British shoe making tradition, Carreducker’s half-cuts have a quality I often look for, namely a touch of the individual. I am by nature a conservative ‘rules’ dresser but I seek out flashes of difference to distinguish myself and my look. This need for individuality is especially important given that I can’t afford a wardrobe full of bespoke clothing.

Of course this does raise the question, when is something stylish individuality, and when is it merely difference for the sake of difference?  My view is always what constitutes style is a matter of personal taste, and it is easy to tie yourself up in knots trying to explain it. Most books fail dismally, as do all the blogs and websites. But then in many ways you’re trying to define the indefinable.

Most start with ‘the rules’ – which we men love (that and top ten lists) – and then go on to tell you how to break them. In most cases they are merely repeating everything that’s already been written in other books and as for their ‘how to break the rules’ those are themselves tired and tested rules. The next stage is to come up with a list of men who are recognised as being stylish and then explain how they did it. Of course the thing that often gets ignored is that these people achieved their renown by outraging their piers and defying convention; Fred Astaire put button down shirts with three piece suits; Agnelli did it with monochrome shirt, tie and suiting choices, ties over the top of pullovers and a watch worn over the shirt cuff. One thing is for certain though, none of them read books on style.

So, in my view the only way to judge whether something is stylish and individual is to play the game with an open mind and having learned a rule or two go with what your gut says – after all your minds eye often perceives a thing before you see it.

Cutting it Close

Men have been shaving for thousands of years, using everything from seashells, to sharpened rocks, and eventually metal tools. These metal tools changed many times over, but the modern Double Edge (DE or Safety) Razor was developed and introduced to the market by King Camp Gillette in 1901. Before this, there had been various attempts at alternatives to the straight razor, but they were largely unsuccessful. Until the cartridge razors of the 1970s, Gillette’s razor was the gold standard, and while most men now use either a cartridge razor (Mach 3, Fusion, etc.) or dare I say it…an electric shaver, a man by the name of Charles Roberts is trying to take us back to a golden age of shaving, but with quite a few improvements.

method-shaving

Over the last few years, I personally have used most of the major brands of shaving cremes, various pre and post shave treatments, and have been a Fusion, Mach 3 and DE shaver at times, but nothing comes close to Mr. Roberts’ “Method Shaving.” Now, it is a bit daunting to get in to, but I have been Method shaving for over a month now, and can safely say I can’t imagine ever going back. Bear with me, there are quite a few concepts involve (yes, I’m still talking about shaving here):

First, and foremost, is the idea of “cutting forms.” Instead of cutting with, across, or against the grain of one’s beard, there is a standard set of three forms one cuts with their DE razor, regardless of the direction the hairs are growing in. The first is essentially top to bottom, the second cutting on a downward diagonal to the center of the face, and the final form cuts from the outside diagonal up to the center line. Try this with a traditional creme and you will end up in ribbons.

That brings us to the method shaving products, bottled by Mr. Roberts’ under the “Hydrolast” label. There are quite a few steps involved in the process, and you can find all of the information on Mr. Roberts’ website www.enchanteonline.com, but I will give you a brief overview here. Essentially, you use a combination of proprietary blends of oils and emollients to create a “shaving mix” (the term shaving creme is anathema to Mr. Roberts’) that is 90% water, which allows you to hyper-hydrate the face and cut repeatedly with little to no resistance. The result is a shave so close and comfortable that it is called “Gloss” in Method Shaving terminology. You finish up with a two step series of aftershave balm and a spray tonic that cools the face down and leaves it feeling like a clean, lightly fragrant sheet of glass. The advantages are obvious: products that are carefully hand blended, with all natural pure fragrance oils personally added at your request, you get a closer shave, and escape with no irritation.

That said, there are a few sticking points. For me, the biggest problem was the idea of giving up my shave brush. I love the aesthetic joys of the badger brush, as well as the feeling of it on my face, but it just doesn’t build shave mix nearly as well as the cloth. Also, it is a bit more messy, involves using your hands to mix and spread the creme, and doesn’t feel quite as elegant as a shave with a scuttle, brush, and creme. That said, I quite enjoy my daily shave, and have quickly found that I am not missing my brush nearly as much as I expected to. Also, to me, getting my hands a bit messy is worth having as close to a perfect mug as I can get. Lastly, getting started is a bit pricy, but not drastically more so than using any high quality shaving products, and if you think of it as an investment in the future of your face, it hardly seems disproportionate at all.

Ok, ok, I’ll stop proselytizing. If you have questions, I recommend either contacting Mr. Roberts, who is always happy to talk to excited shavers, or consulting one of the many shaving forums out there. I am still an amateur as far as Method Shaving is concerned, but trust me on this, your face will thank you.