The Little Luxuries – A Dressing Gown

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” – Oscar Wilde

While many things one enjoys may seem like frivolous luxuries, sometimes they are much more indispensable than we give them credit for. In an age of increased efficiency and constant connectivity, things which are truly personal and indulgent sometimes become what we really need to stay sane. And this doesn’t mean they need be expensive – just important to us and a little bit special.

This is the first of a series I am planning on doing entitled The Little Luxuries, in which I will discuss those things which make life a little bit more luxurious, indulgent, and enjoyable on a daily basis. This isn’t about the trip on the Orient Express I pined for in last week’s column, but the things we can do everyday to enrich our lives.

dressing-gown-lingwoodNow, with the introductory nonsense out of the way, this week I want to discuss the dressing gown. At the end of a long day, having left the trappings of the outside world in the coat closet, something new and special for home is a welcome addition: A dressing gown is the perfect indulgence once one’s daytime ensemble is dismantled, and an easy way to step out of the ordinary. Once required for a man as he was “dressing” (in shirtsleeves or less), modern social protocol makes it technically the anachronistic brother of the bathrobe. Wrapping oneself in a dressing gown now takes on a different meaning, allowing a man to both feel comfortable and look dashing while lounging around his home. Cozying up with a book and a tipple while wrapped in a cashmere or silk gown is a plan hard to beat on a cold winter night. With the broad sweeping shawl collar reminiscent of a smoking jacket, and the long skirt redolent of royal and court dress, the dressing gown adds an air of dignity, civility, and occasion to an ordinary night at home. Suddenly things as typical as reading the paper and preparing dinner become elevated moments in one’s routine – that is, if you can prepare dinner whilst keeping it off your gown…I certainly could not.

Some of the finest examples of modern dressing gowns can be found at the end of the Piccadilly Arcade, facing Jermyn Street, at New and Lingwood; often they are hanging in the windows, with the Beau lovingly gazing at the myriad colors and patterns available. And, since it is altogether too hot for a cashmere gown right now, they also offer lightweight cotton gowns with a soft, airy hand. Then the quite wonderful, and middleweight option, of sumptuous silk examples available from makers such as Tom Ford, in patterns and colors that make it impossible not to feel a sense of romance upon donning one.

dressing-gown-tom-fordNow if you don’t feel like mortgaging your home for one of Mr. Ford’s silk or cashmere cocoons, you can find more affordable examples at many department stores and occasionally on sale in the West End. Mine is a simple cotton number from M&S, and while I can’t say I wouldn’t love to eventually upgrade to something a bit more luxe, it continues to serve me well.

What matters in the end is not the specific gown one chooses, or the extravagance with which a gentleman dresses and prepares for his evening. It is about realizing that while much of modern life is dedicated to efficiency, practicality, and necessity, something as simple as loosening one’s tie or draping oneself in a garment specifically for elegant lounging is a lovely and splendidly unnecessary way to wrap up one’s day.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Leather Sandals

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Completing a summer holiday booking is a great relief. Despite the damage to the bank account, the troublesome process of coordinating flights and hotel availability is so vexing that when it ends, a weight is lifted and a face once contorted with anxiety becomes a visage of contented peace. That is until the holiday approaches and then a new apprehension takes hold; “Do I have everything I need?” It is the fear of being ‘caught out’ of being ‘found wanting’ that drives this concern. Despite years of enjoying European holidays very similar in character (history+culture+relaxation+cuisine+cocktails) I am always concerned that I am going to turn up at my destination feeling ill prepared.

Footwear is one of the major worries. If you plan on spending your days curled up on the beach with an iPod and a Stieg Larsson, you might feel that shoes are your last concern. However, for the more active gentleman, the prospect of a summer holiday traipsing around temples and churches in inappropriate footwear provokes serious thought. I have always been a wearer of espadrilles. Long before they were stocked in TopMan, long before they were worn by the Shoreditch cocked-trilby-skinny-jeans brigade, I ventured into a little cobbler on the Amalfi coast and picked up a white pair for a few quid to see me through the week.

While no miracle of design, espadrilles are charming, cheap and a darn sight more appealing than the Velcro sandals or trainers that most people seem to wear on the continent. Appropriate with shorts or rolled up trousers; in the sweltering day or the cool, cool evening; by the turquoise pool or in the heat and dust of a UNESCO protected area – espadrilles are my faithful summer friends.

The alternatives, as far as I am concerned, are few and far between. However, I have often been recommended to try leather sandals. One friend remarked “For a lover of original clothing like you, I thought you’d be all over leather sandals – they’re as old as the hills.” Sandals are indeed old. Far older as a style of shoe than anything I wear, and yet I cannot imagine myself pacing around a smart overwatered resort with overfed guests wearing anything that exposes my feet.

I think sandals are perfect for women. A feminine foot looks respectable in sandals. Male feet, in my opinion, do not. I am not at all comfortable with the concept. However, I can see how they are appealing to others. Fans tell me that they are comfortably cool, although it seems strap-chafing is a common complaint, and that they are flexible. One even suggested they are ideal for wearing by the pool although I can’t imagine pacing around in swim shorts and a pair of the more gladiatorial sandals without feeling slightly ridiculous. Perhaps it is simply my peculiar personality, or even my nationality, that prevents me from converting to sandals.

‘Luxury’ Luggage

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Andrew’s recent article on branding awakened a frustration within me that I had long concealed. As a successfully detoxed label-hunter I know full well the apparent attractions of wearing other’s brands; my previous naïveté in this regard is somewhat embarrassing and consistently mystifying. When I rifle through old collections of sweaters at home I cannot comprehend why I purchased so many with emblazoned brands. I remember my mother accompanying me on shopping trips, encouraging me, sometimes imploring me, to purchase alternative items of equal quality but comparative plainness; bizarrely, I went for the billboard.

Ever since I realised my folly, I have been a strong critic of shameless branding, mainly from the point of view of an aesthete. As each year passes I seek greater distance from the brands which I purchase. Not because I am ashamed of my patronage but because the whole point about purchasing something someone else has made is that you are buying an item of quality and/or design that you alone do not have the resources or invention to create. Any quality or design is denigrated by the presence of overt branding. Branding symbolises ownership and alarmingly, it is not that of the wearer but the brander; ranch rules still apply.

Branded luggage has become a nauseating vulgarity. For much of the supposed ‘luxury’ luggage market, little design or quality is exhibited. Antique Vuitton trunks are certainly things of beauty but their modern replacements are purchased for the canvas with its cluster of golden interlocking ‘LVs.’ A particularly tasteless relation of mine stated that they were disinclined to purchase the anti-logo (and anti-theft) versions as ‘No one could see it was Vuitton.’ I stated this was desired as nearly everyone would think Vuitton luggage not being carted around the world by private jet was counterfeit. The worst thing about the mass-market lusting of Vuitton was that any designer with half a brain saw their own marketing opportunity to manufacture cheaply made luggage with their own logoed ‘canvas.’ Although not as wildly popular as Vuitton, these dubious wares were lapped up by a credulous brand-obsessed public.

Valextra are an altogether different proposition. An old Milanese brand, though not as ancient as Goyard or Vuitton, Valextra was rescued from the unloving clutches of Samsonite by Emanuele Carminati Molina in 2000. Although it sounds more like a patented lab-tested material than a luxury leather goods brand, Valextra has, in the past 10 years, returned to doing to what it does best; simple elegance. The bags are blissfully logo free, beautifully made and extraordinarily exclusive – even the sales assistant at Harrods, their only point of sale in the UK, spoke about the products with a hushed reverence that mirrored the subtlety of the bags’ designs. The leather is stiff, plain and of outstanding quality. Unlike the neo-Edwardian aesthetic of Goyard and Vuitton, the appeal of Valextra is firmly mid-twentieth century; a nod to the birth of air travel. Available in a range of colours including black, bright blue, Hermes orange and an incredibly impractical white, Valextra is almost perfect – until you look inside the pocket for the well-concealed price tag.

Unfortunately, as beautiful as a Valextra is, it isn’t worth the money being charged. I examined the lovely briefcases, laptop cases and overnight bags with care but struggled to see how the breathtaking prices were justified. Leather is by no means a cheap material but nigh on £4,000 for a non-croc leather briefcase is a hefty price; I don’t care how many ‘Italian artisans’ were involved. “Valextra”, as the man in Harrods keenly informed me, “will last longer than Vuitton.” A brave assertion but what, I wonder, could he be referring to? The product itself or the brand? As a brand it is earning itself a reputation as ‘celebrity endorsed’ with Victoria and David Beckham, Katie Holmes, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie as admirers. Whether such associations advance or hinder the brand, in the long run, is unknown.

In Search Of A Buck

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The English summer has finally arrived and that means it is safe to bring out the white nubucks – or rather it would be if I could get hold of a pair.

The white buck is a classic item of Americana in my view, with a versatility in direct contrast to it’s relative impracticality – for those of us whose summers are often rain filled. But weather aside, they provide an alternative to loafers when dressing down a linen jacket and a more structured and elegant option to deck shoes when paired with jeans or a light weight chino.

Last season I was far from alone in my appreciation of this timeless classic. With the rediscovery of the Ivy League style and the World’s reengagement with America – which coincided with the election of Obama – US culture and history once again provided inspiration for designers. Both white bucks and saddle shoes were available in abundance from British designers and retailers.

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However, inspired by the above picture which I came across on Ivy-Style I made life far harder on myself by desiring a variant on the round toe buck, the more retro apron derby.

I did eventually track down a source for this shoe in the form of US retailer On-The-Fly. An Aladdin’s Cave of Americana they’re a source worth keeping in your back pocket. Those of us living outside the US can pay by Paypal, and although you have to factor in import tax and postage prices are still very reasonable.

Foolishly – and for whatever reason – having done all the hard work I put off my purchase and now it seems this shoe is unavailable, indeed discontinued. My theory is that the manufacturer was a victim of the recession and may sadly have gone out of business. I’ve e-mailed On-The-Fly but have so far had no reply.

So, given the spread of the Mensflair audience, I’m seeking your help. If you know who might have made this shoe, or whether anybody retailing something similar would be prepared to sell and ship to the UK I would be pleased to hear from you.

If I’m lucky I won’t be the only man in search of a buck.

This Summer I Won’t Be Wearing…Printed T-Shirts

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The chilly start to the spring has passed. As fleeting, and as irritating and inconvenient, as an Icelandic ash cloud, the complaints of an overcoat April seem a long time ago in the familiar warmth of mid May. Suddenly, the trenches, hefty cardigans and scarves have all gone; in the bright sunshine and gentle breeze, women flit around in blouses, slub silk Capri pants and pastel skirts. Men, feeling the heat at last, walk to and from work in khaki cotton suits and navy driving shoes, dabbing the sweat from their shining Clubmasters. Such a scene is all but a fantasy on the majority of London’s pavements. There are few areas where such chic wildlife has habitat although loitering between Old Bond Street and Savile Row, ideally taking a coffee or Campari at Cecconi’s, is a good bet.

The rest of central London is subject to the prowling of an altogether different animal. Trainers are on his feet, jeans, cargo pants or oversized shorts cover his legs and for his torso, his version of a pièce de résistance; a printed t-shirt. He possesses quite a few of these. Some of which have a small amount of artistic merit – employing an attractive graphic or pattern which, although striking, lends itself to a certain cheapness of aesthetic (isn’t it better to purchase a shirt with an appealing pattern rather than a t-shirt with a print of that pattern?) but the majority of his t-shirts are covered in slogans. A few of these are simply advertising the brand; ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’, ‘Boxfresh’ etc, for which he pays a premium for the ‘privilege.’ However there are a huge number which point to no particular manufacturer. Nor do they offer some kind of interesting design which would render them even vaguely imaginative.

The majority of these t-shirts in his collection relate to viewpoints and lifestyle opinions that, ironically, the man is unlikely to hold at all if he was entirely honest with himself. Alcohol is a popular reference point, as is copulation and, interestingly, anti-establishmentarianism. Brazen, tacky, childish and utterly lacking in wit these t-shirts are growing in popularity and extremity of message. They range from the moronic, insulting and seemingly pointless; ‘iPooed’, ‘F**k You’ to the… even more moronic and patently pointless; ‘Beer…not just a breakfast drink’, ‘I Came on Eileen’, ‘My Wife Really Sucks.’

What really bothers me about these t-shirts is not just that the wearer is using some dubious one-liner as a disingenuous introduction to their wannabe personality but that this is accepted as legitimate clothing. Wearing clothing with writing on it, outside of a professional or sporting context, is pitiful. Let alone that the majority of these statements exhibit a lack of respect for countless groups in society, let alone that they are aesthetically vomitous and let alone that they are an extraordinary waste of good money, it is preposterous and laughable for a man to circulate his stupidity amongst such a wide audience when he could simply confine it to those within his social circle.