Rare Moment: The Flecked Wool Suit

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When I was trawling through the untidy racks at TopMan during a recent sale, I saw a suit in a fabric I had not seen since I had ventured into the loft at the old homestead many years ago when I was searching through my parents disused clothing for items of curiosity. Among the items of forgotten fashion I found, ransacking the hampers of garments from the last four decades of the twentieth century, was a suit in flecked wool; a dark grey with a textured pattern of white blimps. The suit in TopMan was almost identical in fabric, although rather different in cut; its reappearance was sadly only an accident of the high street store’s manufacture of 1980s nostalgia.

Flecked wool was not a 1980s invention, however its similarity to television static has earned it a closer connection with the era of televisual technology. Although it is difficult to find an exact history of the fabric’s origins, it has been in the swatch books of sartoria for nearly one hundred years as there are significant examples of flecked wool suits from the 20s and 30s that I have previously seen. The most popular period for the first ‘fashion’ flecked wool suits appears to be the 1950s. A recent viewing of Shutter Island, a psychological thriller set in the middle of the twentieth century, affirmed this view; Mark Ruffalo, chewing up the windswept scenery, wandered around in a trilby and a flecked wool suit.

It strikes me as a rather casual fabric, similar to tweed in texture and appearance. Younger people seemed to be rather averse to it, describing it as ‘rough’ and ‘looking like an old sack.’ I remember adopting such a viewpoint myself when all my clothing depended on trend – anything from the recent past was perversely horrible to my eyes; ‘It’s SO 80s!’ was a phrase that I was overly generous in distributing to worldly goods that did not meet my approval. Despite the fact that flecked wool was a fabric popular in the 1980s, I have somehow shaken off my dislike of it as I perceive the rough texture of the wool, and the rather distracting flecking, to be a perfect foil for smooth cotton shirts, rich silk ties and linen pocket squares.

I imagined the turned up flecked trousers flopping onto a pair of richly polished tan shoes, a pair of Wayfarers in the breast pocket of the jacket and a freshly ironed shirt underneath it all. There was something rather cool about it; something rather Gary Cooper.

The tragedy is that it isn’t much available anymore, at least not in ready-to-wear. I don’t imagine a huge amount of it is available at the tailors either as flecked wool is long out of vogue and it wouldn’t make sense to keep books of fabrics that just aren’t going to sell. When available, it is usually in a country colour such as a green or brown or in the more conventional town colour of mid-to dark grey. I think there is space in any gentleman’s wardrobe for this cool, characterful cloth.

The Importance of Being Louche: Serge Gainsbourg

One of the highest compliments one can pay a man of style is to say he wears his clothes well; that is, however tasteful and interesting each individual item he is wearing might be per se, the overall effect is that much greater for his having worn them with such panache.

It is interesting therefore to consider certain men who have attained lofty cultural status and are recognized as style icons despite – or perhaps because of?!? – sloppy sartorial habits.

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Exhibit one:-  French singer-songwriter,  actor, and director and all-round flâneur, Serge Gainsbourg. With long lank hair, shirts unbuttoned almost to the waist, the signature cigarette smoke framing his disreputable-looking face, and his favourite accessory, English model, Jane Birkin, serving as arm candy, Monsieur Gainsbourg always oozes cool.

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He has really mastered the art of looking good without giving the impression that he has made an effort. It is not simply that he makes no effort – for he clearly does. His clothes fit him well, compliment one another, and act as good ambassadors for his persona: any unacquainted observer would be bound to say that he has something of the aesthete and rake about him, whatever else they might pick up upon from his dress sense.

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Most of the time I do not even like what Serge wears: his jacket may be too short or the stripes too loud but this does not detract from my admiration for his style because he always looks like he is having fun with what he is wearing.

It reminds me of a book I read a while ago (Height of Fashion: Lisa Eisner) which was a collection of photographs that people had nominated of themselves to show the moment when they were the brightest spark in the room and felt like they were the height of fashion. The pictures varied hugely in terms of what people were wearing, how old they were, and their location; most of the people looked objectively awful in clothes which mostly served to illustrate the difference between fashion and style i.e. the former does not age well! Yet each of the subjects makes a great impression because they radiate confidence and are having fun with what they are wearing.

Too often stylish men are effete: overly fastidious in choosing what to wear, preening themselves in the mirror or worrying unduly about how a pocket square sits in their jacket et cetera. Far better to throw clothes on and forget about them, confident in the knowledge that you do look great. That is what seeing photos of a guy like Serge Gainsbourg says to me: clothes can only do so much, you have to wear them with attitude, too.

Carréducker Shoes

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You wouldn’t necessarily pick a former English teacher and a former PR executive both with a love of Radio 4 as revolutionaries, but that is the impression I got of Deborah Carré and James Ducker.

Perhaps it would be better to call them small ‘s’ subversives. Other than an obvious dedication to the artistry and craft of English shoe making in its purist form, nothing about Deborah and James is what you’d expect from bespoke shoemakers, and to my mind that is a positive.

A Different Experience

To begin with, Carréducker shoes is based in the Cockpit Arts studios in London’s Holborn, run by the local authority. Not a flash store in an off-Bond St. Arcade, Cockpit is a Creative Arts Incubator and a hive of artistic and creative activity. Carréducker shares its studio space with a jeweller and a musical instrument maker. The first thing that struck me was the wonderful smell of wood, glue and smelted metal, which if they could bottle would put an end to the need for chemical sleeping aids. You soon notice the wooden lasts hanging on the walls and then the small knee high table and stools on which Deborah and James work. Relaxing and down to earth you really get a sense of collaboration between yourself and the people creating your shoes. I imagine this engenders an appealing bond between customer and patron and makes it especially easy to communicate what you want.

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Not that talking to Deborah and James would be difficult. Patient, friendly and down to earth, we had never met before but chatted for some hours over what they did; and they showed the greatest patience in the face of my ignorance on the matter of bespoke shoemaking. Any type of bespoke clothing represents a considerable investment and no one likes to feel intimidated or at the mercy of the people you’re asking for help.

An Unconventional Background

But then I suspect this easy approach is in part down to Deborah and James’ backgrounds. Neither has what you’d think of as a traditional apprenticeship. James started his career as an English teacher in Spain. Having done a few evening classes at the guild of shoemakers in Barcelona, he met a shoemaker who allowed him to use his workshop to make shoes for himself and friends. It was this knowledge base that made him appealing to John Lobb who took him on and sent him on an apprenticeship. Deborah by contrast initially went into Public Relations, but caught the shoe making bug undertaking her degree in fashion. She decided to pursue her interest first via night classes at Cordweiners, and then, as a Quest Scholar, on the same apprenticeship as James. It was here that they met, and having remained friends after their training later decided to establish Carréducker shoes.

Quiet revolutionaries

As to the shoes themselves, they certainly have the feel of an English bespoke shoe. But you only have to look at the mix of textures, colour and the use of shape to see there is something original and refreshing about Carréducker that sets them apart in my view.

Deborah describes shoemaking as “the mixing of hand and head. So much of bespoke shoe making is about problem solving. With women’s footwear anything is possible. There aren’t as many limitations and I liked the idea of working within quite defined rules, and pushing those rules just a little bit –not too far just a little bit”. It’s a philosophy James echoes; “Men’s styles evolve very slowly, which is part of what we like about it, it means you can speed up that evolution just slightly and introduce changes and see how it goes from there. For example, the lizard skin boots, we’ve introduced the piping in another colour. It’s just a subtle detail but it alters the shoe markedly. Those are the kind of things we try and do”.

They‘re certainly not afraid to experiment, and this makes them rather an exciting brand. It certainly contributed to some recent successes. Not only is their trunk show hosted by renowned NY footwear emporium Leffot, but last year they were awarded Selvedge Magazine’s Excellence in Textiles award.

Bespoke service aside, Carréducker offer a range of limited edition off the shelf shoes in two designs know as the half-cut and Extreme Brogue. Made in batches of 100 in each colourway they’re manufactured in Northampton to their own specifications. A little more affordable than the bespoke service they none the less give an insight into the mix of traditional craft and modern design that is, to my mind, the hall mark of Carréducker.

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I’ll confess that at this stage in my life bespoke shoes are only an aspiration, but as soon as the funds allow I’ll be making an appointment with Deborah and James.

Camiceria Mazzarelli

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While most clothing enthusiasts are familiar with the “usual suspects” in the shirt making industry, e.g., Barba, Finamore, Borrelli, the list can go on and on, there are plenty of smaller camicerias all over Italy that have been crafting handmade shirts to rival and even supersede the aforementioned brands. Let’s add Mazzarelli to that list.

Mazzarelli was started by Marino Mazzarelli in 1951 as a cobblery shop. In 1960, Marino made a seamless transition from supple footwear leather to exquisite shirt fabrics. Now, fifty years later, the third generation team led by Domenico Mazzarelli is in charge of the company’s day-to-day operations and set to uphold the family tradition.

Each Mazzarelli shirt is independently manufactured in the Mazzarelli facility in Castellana Grotte in the province of Bari, and each individual component is cut and shaped by hand (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s77o_imcpN8).

domenico-mazzarelli-with-po1Shirt collars, sleeves, plackets, and mother of pearl buttons are all sewn by hand. Even with this degree of attention to detail and production standards, it still came as a surprise when Mazzarelli received an order for three shirts for Pope Benedict XVI.

“Ready to Wear” Mazzarelli shirts fit slim but not tight: high in the armpits, tight around the shoulders, with tapered waist. Shirts are comfortable with minimal neck space to make sure the tie “sits” properly. Sleeves are just right while cuffs are somewhat narrow around the wrist, with enough space, however, to wear a watch. My Mazzarelli shirts are composed from a blend of cotton, nylon, and elastane. The aforementioned combination is sturdy while pliable, and provides the wearer with great comfort. This “marriage” of old-fashioned tailoring and high-tech, progressive concepts is something that Mazzarelli wants to expand on in the future.

While Mazzarelli is not “officially” sold in the United States, the company has a domestic representative, Giacomo, who can be reached by e-mail (giacomo@gtmoda.com).

Suit Mash Ups

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It’s inevitable that a child, quite demonstrably informed by an adult not to do ‘something’, will eventually do ‘something.’ It should also come as no surprise that another adult, demonstrably informed by another adult not to do something, will rekindle that childlike curiosity and reaction to authority by doing the very thing they had been instructed not to do. Temptation wields a mighty force. For centuries, man has always sought to place his hand on Eden’s apple. I was told by my parents not to do many things, some of which I hadn’t even thought of myself. Their introduction, and apparent damnation in the eyes of people who had great authority over me, sparked something; ‘if it’s bad, it must be good for me’ I muttered to myself many a time in my rebellious youth.

I once visited a tailor who looked at me up and down, frowned and asked me where I got my clothing from. After informing him, he said; ‘Oh, so this is actually two suits? You’re wearing one suit’s trousers, with another suit’s jacket?’ Shrugging my shoulders in admittance, he shook his head with knowing disdain; ‘Shouldn’t mess around with your suits. Wear the matching trousers; don’t mess around trying to mix it up.’

I have always remembered his words, although I have never heeded them. I informed him coolly that contrasting trousers with jackets is actually an old phenomenon and that I liked the distinction between a lighter pair of trousers and a dark jacket, and vice versa. He informed me that only blazers should be worn with contrasting trousers, everything else should match.

As claustrophobic and unattractive a viewpoint to me as it was, it did educate me that some people disapprove of suit ‘mash ups’ – mixing trousers with jackets, wearing jackets with odd trousers and vice versa. Such people might look down upon a chap who finds, in the words of an acquaintance, ‘too much utility’ for a single suit. This sartorial sneering doesn’t really bother me as most of the fun in buying a suit is not rejoicing in its possibilities as a predictable one-piece but dreaming of the possibilities for experimentation – with a seersucker jacket in the summer, a velvet jacket in the winter, a cardigan or even a pair of jeans.

My light grey Prince of Wales check suit, for example, offers great possibilities for such mashing; as soon as I had bought it and worn it as a suit, I was considering the trousers and jackets as separates – a pair of white trousers and the Prince of Wales jacket in the spring, or perhaps a light blue linen jacket with the trousers in the summer; a woollen cardigan and the trousers for a simple Astaire-esque casual look, or a dark blazer with the Prince of Wales trousers, a silver tie and buttonhole for a modern ‘stroller’ ensemble. The titillation of the seemingly never-ending possibilities of a new acquisition is the reason why I enjoy clothing. I don’t enjoy the mashing merely because there is something vaguely rebellious about ignoring the established style sages who ward against such experimentation but because I like discovering that two items are worth more than their face value; the human delight in conjuring ‘value’ is utterly intoxicating.

The inherent risk with such mixing and matching is that, sometimes, a man gets it wrong. Ho hum. I find this happens mainly when there are no ‘anchoring’ items in an ensemble that make the ‘mashing’ look intentional; if you’re wearing, for example, different trousers with a suit jacket, I find it’s useful to use the accessories available to pull the trousers into the outfit. A complementary tie or pocket square will help. Secondly, I’d try to avoid pairing colours that are too close in the spectrum. I once saw a gentleman pair a dark grey jacket with a slightly lighter grey trouser that, instead of conveying a look of assuredness actually gave the impression he had either raided a charity store or had got dressed in the dark. If you are wearing garments of the same colour, it is important that the contrast is exaggerated; a dark grey should only be accompanied by a much lighter grey.