A Shoe That Fits

When it comes to my taste in clothes I’m a bit of a pirate. No, I haven’t just fessed-up to some nautical fetish. What I mean is that I tend not to swallow whole any one look. Instead I merely pick off the choicest pieces.

As such I have a broad appreciation of many eras and styles, all of which provide inspiration. As you may remember I’m thinking of setting up my own label, and that’s how these shoes fit into the mix.

suede-loafers

They’re a pair of 1960s suede loafers with leather soles and elasticated sides. I actually picked them up on EBay for £22 not so long ago. Their original owner bought them sometime in the early 1960s, and having got them home from the shop decided they were a bit small. From that moment they sat in the bottom of his wardrobe unused.

A hybrid of the Chelsea Boot and Beatle Boot (named after famous the band for which they were created) the vamp falls just under the ankle. The toe is just slightly chiselled, so they are not a winklepicker; and nor are they the ill-proportioned and exaggerated shoes offered by so many high street retailers, which serve only to make a mockery of the era.

suede-loafers2

The slim last and close fit, coupled to the close sole make them a sympathetic pairing to the long slim silhouettes of today – just as they were in the 60’s. They work as well with chinos, jeans Harringtons and Pea Coats as they do tailored suits.

While there is more research to be done, I have at least stumbled upon the original manufacturer who happens still to be in business. I imagine having once been in their inventory it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility to have them re-made from the old plans – with a few tweaks.

While I haven’t entirely made up my mind whether to commission these yet, I think they would make an interesting first offering.

Nantucket Reds

nantucket-reds

When I skimmed through a comment on my blog, asking me my knowledge of ‘Nantucket Reds’, I initially thought I was being asked a question about an American sports team. Realising that this regular reader could not have mistaken me for a baseball pundit, I read more closely and saw that Nantucket Reds are actually a style of trouser, worn in the summer, predominantly by residents of the affluent, picture-perfect islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, on America’s eastern seaboard. I know little of this part of America, to my great shame, and so I endeavoured to understand more about this tradition.

Like many peculiar items of clothing, the history is far more interesting than the product itself. The trousers are simply a light red in colour, which fades to a light pink with age; a fact which I consider scarcely revolutionary. According to Murray’s Toggery, apparently the original and official retailer of ‘Nantucket Reds’, “It all began when the store started selling distinctively brick-red sailcloth slacks in the 1940s. The pants became so popular, Philip C. Murray named and trademarked them ‘Nantucket Reds.’

Other information suggests that the style was borrowed from the uniform of the New York Yacht Club and that the original retailer found some cheap red sail cloth in Boston to sell to nautically minded residents and, more importantly, visitors to the island, although this seems to produce a chicken and egg argument that is founded on the basis that the New York Yacht Club actually adopted this as the uniform of Nantucket  because the yachting elite that swanned around in Manhattan wanted to show everyone else that they “summered on Nantucket.”

The material is apparently like sailcloth, tough and stiff, and it takes some time to wear it down to the soft pink that says “I’ve been wearing Nantucket Reds for years.” In order to combat this, new owners apparently resort to bizarre and excessive washing methods; putting items in the dishwasher, hosing them down and leaving them out to dry in the summer sunshine, soaking them for great lengths of time – all attempts to fast-forward to the exclusivity of pink, to give all the impression of a Cape Cod aristocrat. As one person commented on Ivy Style; “The Nantucket Red pants give me the confidance [sic] I need to go in public and look like a million bucks!

Now seen as a souvenir item of the island, they are still considered a preppy classic and still convey an “Oh ya, I’ve been there” nonchalance which seems to delight, and irritate, in equal measure. Am I taken with them? Aesthetically yes, they are appealing. I envisage, quite happily, a faded pair of tough pink trousers with an immaculate navy blazer and a pair of tassel loafers – contrasts in texture – and I have no objection to wearing pink like many of the envious detractors of the fashion. However, I do get the feeling that someone who knows a great deal more than me about the American elite, the yachting social scene and the fascinating credence of ‘summering’ in a particular place in America, will ask me by what right I have to wear something of which I know so little.

Lazy In Linen

linen-trousers-whiteOne of the problems I face with summer dressing is finding a suitable drapey replacement for flannel and worsted trousers. I personally like my trousers with a nice drape, especially since because I have a more prominent posterior, trousers that hang rather than hug are both more flattering and more comfortable. Enter the linen trouser.

Chinos, while suitable to my being American, and great for just kicking around, lack that smooth line I so enjoy. By allowing the trouser to drape naturally off your backside, you get a clean, long line with no lumps or bumps, elongating your legs and giving you a streamlined silhouette. Contrary to popular belief, tighter trousers are not always slimming trousers.

To get technical for a moment, real linen is made from flax which is anywhere from two to four times as strong as cotton fibers, as well as being much better at conducting heat (and thus cooler to wear). It’s also extremely absorbent and acts almost like one of those high-tech wicking materials, pulling moisture and sweat away from your skin, cooling the wet fabric as you move, and in turn cooling you as the cool fabric touches your skin again.

reimers-flax-flower

Irish and Flemish linen are usually considered to be the best quality, but flax is being grown now all over the world, and some companies are even trying to weave cotton similarly to linen in order to achieve the same results. Linen is also one of the world’s oldest cloths, and this is yet another case where I’ll stand on the side of tradition.

Well, technical details aside, the thing that really sets linen apart is its wrinkles. Back in the States, ironing would be necessary between most wears, whether trousers, a shirt, or a jacket. And don’t get me wrong, I love a crisp crease in my trousers most of the time, although with linen this can be all but hopeless after the first hour of the day. But here in the UK, I think they’ve got it right. The lightly rumpled, imperfect, and pleasantly lived in look of non-freshly ironed linen seems much more summery to me, not to mention that it cuts my ironing time in half.

Sartorial Love/Hate Rolled Up Sleeves

rolled-up-sleeve

They were sniggering as I strolled up. The sort of mischievous, playground sniggering that does not befit men of the age of twenty seven. The darting glances as I approached, the little whispers; they looked me up and down, somewhat perturbed by my appearance. These were chaps (and chapettes) I knew well and yet they were reacting in a very particular way. After an embarrassing handshake or two, one of them blurted out; “Why are your jacket sleeves rolled up?” At this release of tension, the others exhaled with their comments; “Yea, isn’t that really eighties?”; “I thought you liked to wear smart things?”; “Rolled up sleeves looks a bit gay”; “If you’re hot, why do you wear a jacket at all?”

To be honest, I rarely roll up my jacket sleeves. I do so when I feel my look is edging towards a contradiction – formality with informality – to blur the lines and only, I hasten to add, when the weather is so decidedly undecided as it was when I encountered my friends; I do not go without a jacket because a sudden solar retreat and a chilly wind would make it very welcome. The other condition is that the jacket itself is not of too great a formality; a casual seersucker, linen or cotton. I would never, for example, roll up the sleeves of a brass buttoned blazer. For me, there is no issue with the aesthetic. Rolling up sleeves can add a functional charm to a jacket and it smoothes the hard edge of formality.

There are those however who consider rolled up jacket sleeves to be the worst example of affected Eurotrash and would like nothing better than to instruct every man who experiments thus to pull down or throw down. One of my friends hit upon one of the reasons for objection when he said that it reminded him of an Eighties visual. Hardly surprising considering that one of the greatest smash hits of that particular decade was the television series Miami Vice in which Don Johnson, a peerless icon of Eighties trash, wandered around the streets wearing sunglasses, an excruciating grin and the sleeves of his jacket pushed back to the elbows. Consequently, any rolling up of sleeves carries this association although we are fortunate in that the younger generation appear less interested in the product of the twentieth century’s eighth decade than we were.

The other objection, little to do with a seedy Floridan television character, is that rolling up sleeves on a jacket is bad for the jacket and an annoying contradiction; why ruin the jacket to create a look that doesn’t appear to make sense? Well, as I stated previously, when it comes to dressing correctly, weather is a (forgive me) grey area; on-off days can confuse the gentleman. Rolling up sleeves feels better than removing the jacket entirely and, particularly if you are layering, exposing a bit of skin to the air in the warm season is refreshing. I also happen to think that rolled up sleeves gives an artisanal, practical edge to a look that might otherwise appear too staid for a summer’s day.

The John Smedley Factory

smedley-1

John Smedley have been producing ‘Made in England’ luxury knitwear for over 8 generations, and count Her Majesty the Queen amongst their illustrious but discrete cliental. As I pointed out recently, I’m something of a late convert to John Smedley’s beautiful knitwear. So when last week I was invited to tour the factory it seemed an opportunity too good to pass up.

smedley-2

Far from the dark satanic mills of which William Blake wrote, enveloped by the rolling hills of the Derbyshire countryside there is something almost picturesque about this factory. Dating back to 1784 it’s actually classed as an historic monument, putting it in a class with Stonehenge.

smedley-3

Many brands trade on ‘heritage’ and ‘craftsmanship’ but those things often only exist in the lines of some clever PR copy.

I could recite a list of impressive facts about Smedley knits; 35 individual hand operations per garment; rigorous standards of animal welfare for farms that supply its Merino Wool; the fact that all the garments are washed in fresh natural spring water etc. etc. But none of that gets to the essence of Smedley, and why I’ve concluded it’s a very special company.

smedley-4

What struck me most was the attitude of the people behind Smedley. Some members of staff have been working for Smedley for 40 years. Our guide for the afternoon was a lovely man by the name of John Mumby, who had himself worked for the firm for 30 years, before his recent retirement. Now he returns to provide guided tours for visitors; everybody knew John and there was nothing John didn’t know about Smedley.

It was difficult to put my finger on any single thing which induces amongst the men and women working at Smedley a genuine affection for the brand and all it stands for. But walk around the factory, talk to employees and it’s palpable. Creative Director Dawne Stubbs joined Smedley in 1992 and as she put it to us, “we are caretakers of a legacy and no one wants to be the caretaker that stuffs it up”.

According to Stubbs, retaining the authenticity of the ‘Made in England’ label has often proved a big headache. The decline of the UK textile industry meant the company struggled to find even the smallest items, like a supply of British made buttons. Personally, I find it interesting that they should even care about such things. I suspect in most cases ‘margin’ would have determined the outcome of that problem.

smedley-5

One of the keys to Smedley’s quality and finish is the type of equipment used, much of which can’t be bought any more, and which modern replacements can’t match. According to Stubbs, the replacement of an old machine causes great anxiety, lest continuity of product suffers. A refreshing view in a world that equates ‘new’ with better.

smedley-6

That doesn’t mean there is no place for modernity. Having been given a preview of things to come in the autumn and winter collection there is plenty of interesting colour and textural play to be found. And there is one room in the factory full of the latest £100,000 a piece weaving machines, but it was clear from the visit and talking to workers that there is no compromising the quality of output. If the old ways work best then old ways it is.

It’s not until you tour the factory and meet many of the workers that you really understand what the brand is all about. While I cannot transport you there, I hope these pictures at least provide an impression of what I felt and saw; and just what a remarkable company this is.