Archives for July 2010

The Cutaway Tuxedo


Recently browsing a collection of vintage sartorial illustrations, I was caught by an interesting and attractive ‘suggestion’; the scene (pictured above) is the deck of some vacation steamer or private yacht, two gentlemen in evening clothes are about to settle down to a pre or post-prandial beverage. One gentleman has already placed himself in a wicker armchair by a laid table, a hound at his side. The other stands in wait as the crew ready his chair; white shoed and trousered, he wears a double-breasted shawl collared dinner jacket with an attractive equestrian-style cutaway. It is an instantly arresting style; partly because it is unusual but also because it is an approach that worked so distractingly well.

Double breasted dinner jackets are appealing to me, but I was always concerned that they looked slightly too conventional – a black version of a day suit – to be something worthy of ‘evening dress.’ Secondly, the single breasted peaked or shawl lapels, though handsome with a waistcoat, are also rather ordinary and too similar to their daywear cousins in shape and style. This jacket design is fabulous; the proportions are perfect and it is completely idiosyncratic. The cutaway is the defining thing; were it merely a two button double-breasted shawl-collared evening jacket it would be simply unusual. As a cutaway jacket it is unique.

Naturally when one salivates over such items of beauty, it is important to be rational. There is no doubt a tailor could, and would, make such an item. They might choke a little in surprise, and shake their head in dismay as you summarily dismiss the house-styles, but it isn’t a pattern offensive to tailoring. However, should they be ballsy and sufficiently opinionated, they might suggest a couple of reasons why it should not be made:

(a) “The only reason it looks good is ‘cause he’s wearing it with white trousers.”

This is a good point. The argument being that the scalloped look works best when a contrasting colour is involved. Most gentlemen will wear trousers of the same colour and the effect of the cutaway jacket will not be quite the same.

(b) “You won’t be able to wear it open, which means you won’t be able to show off your waistcoat.”

The jacket is of such a design that, worn open, it would look floppy and inelegant. It could only be worn buttoned. For some, this is not a problem as they would only seek to present an aesthetic ideal. Others prefer functionality in their clothing, however beautiful it is, and would shirk from spending money on bespoke for something that can only be worn one way.

Despite these protestations of our hypothetical tailor, personally I think it is splendid. I concede that with matching trousers, the jacket would not have quite the effect it has in the picture and that we are talking about a drawing of pen and ink, not a manufactured example. However, though the cutaway is the clincher, it has other qualities which recommend it as an option for a discerning gentleman; double breasted shawl collars are uncommon, particularly with two buttons, and it has a relaxed, smoking-jacket profile. It might not fully replace the three-piece tuxedo but for something different? For a really interesting item of design and individuality that still manages to conform to the regulations of evening dress? It deserves consideration.

Warby Parker Interview


Warby Parker, an upstart eyewear company started by four students who met at the Wharton School of Business, has come up with an interesting new concept in eyewear sales.  They have cut out the middleman and offer vintage-inspired acetate eyeglasses directly to consumers for only $95.

Warby Parker offers twenty-seven classic frame styles in black, tortoise, amber, crystal and a variety of other brighter colors.  They even offer one monocle, “the perfect accessory for budding robber barons, post-colonial tyrants and super villains.”

To see how frames look on your face, you can upload a photograph of yourself to the Warby Parker website and try on frames using their Virtual Try-On service.  When you have narrowed your selection you can take advantage of their Home Try-On service. Warby Parker will ship you up to five pair of frames, free of charge, to try on at home for five days.  GQ Magazine has called Warby Parker “the Netflix of eyewear.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Neil Blumenthal, one of the founders of Warby Parker.

Andrew Hodges:  By offering low-cost boutique-quality glasses directly to consumers, Warby Parker has created a unique niche in the eyewear industry.  What led to this idea for a new kind of eyewear company?

Neil Blumenthal:  Andy, Dave, Jeff and I were tired of paying $400+ for new glasses every time we scratched a lens or misplaced a pair. Andy had the great idea to sell glasses online, which enabled us to bypass the middlemen (the optical shops and large licensing companies) that charge outrageous amounts for frames and lenses. And, I had experience designing and manufacturing frames from my days at VisionSpring, a non-profit social enterprise that distributes eyeglasses to people in need throughout the world. We set out to transform the optical industry by providing the vintage-inspired, boutique-quality frames we love, at a revolutionary price point.

Hodges:  What was the inspiration for the designs in the current Warby Parker eyewear collection?

Blumenthal:  All four of us have been lifelong glasses wearers with an eye toward larger, classic shapes and vintage frames. Our first collection is inspired by our lives as recent students at The Wharton School and our time as New Yorkers. The brand is both classically Ivy League and urban hip. Many of the frames are named after literary figures, including the Huxley (Aldous Leonard Huxley) and the Roark (protagonist in the Fountainhead). The name “Warby Parker” actually comes from two characters found in Jack Kerouac’s unpublished journals, Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker.

Hodges:  Some potential customers have expressed frustration about delays because of the short supply of frames.  Were you surprised by the level of demand, and has the company taken measures to address the supply issue?

Blumenthal:  We thought our idea would resonate with our friends, but we had no idea that it would resonate with so many people so quickly. While it was exciting that so many people from all of the country and world were interested in our eyewear, we felt terrible that we couldn’t provide everyone with glasses right away. The four of us would literally stay up all night writing emails to apologize to customers. Thankfully, we’ve now been able to produce additional frames and we are almost through the waitlist that grew during the weeks that we sold out of frames. We’ve now tripled the team’s size and are working hard to quickly produce as many frames as possible.

Hodges:  Does Warby Parker have any immediate plans to broaden its collection?  Should we expect any new designs or a wider range of sizes?

Blumenthal:  Yes, we’re currently designing some great new frames in different colors and sizes. Our new collection will be available in October.

Hodges:  Many Men’s Flair readers live overseas.  Has the company considered making eyeglasses available for orders and shipping outside the United States?

Blumenthal:  Absolutely! We’re working on it as we speak.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Shoulder Tie


Preppyism, that smart, collegiate and usually colourful attire, is one of the most enduring and yet one of the most vilified forms of dress. For though it finds back slaps, handshakes and approving bonhomie in the boardrooms of the bankers, the bars of the elite and the gin-palaces of the mighty, it is scorned and spited by the proles. Avril Lavigne, that kohl eyed poker-haired teen ‘rocker’, exemplified the ‘popular’ approach to preppyism in her song ‘Complicated’; “Laugh out when you strike a pose/Take off all your preppy clothes.

Other popular culture has been no kinder to this manner of dress. In Igby Goes Down, Cruel Intentions, Wedding Crashers and just about any other film where the wealthy American elite are subjected to being a morally justified punching bag by the towering hypocrisy of Hollywood, preppy clothes are represented as the attire of evil, the SS uniform of today.

It is little surprise then that this hatred of prep has infected British culture too. The popcorn-munchers, nodding along to the subversive drivel onscreen, have clearly had their taste affected; a female friend of a friend asked me rather awkwardly why I dress as though I live on the Upper East Side; “Have you been inspired by Chuck Bass?” she asked pityingly.  Although I informed her rather dismissively that I was wearing bow ties before Bass was even a scribble on a storyboard, I noted a tinge of disapproval too. Preppyism is apparently the act of appearing wealthy; at its baser end it means the donning of labels and logos – particularly Ralph Lauren – and at the more sophisticated end, the sort of styling that belongs at a mid-20th century Ivy League college. Either way, detractors state that it is an affectation to appear wealthier than one is.

One of the flying standards of preppyism is the classic, and often pilloried, jumper-tied-around-the-shoulders. This affectation is one of the trademarks of the preppy look and its deployment causes ridicule as well as raucous WASPish applause. Practically, it makes sense. It may well be too warm for a jumper in the afternoon but by the time twilight sets in, a chill could descend. It is difficult therefore for anyone to begrudge the use of a jumper. However, is a gentleman justified in wearing it tied over his shoulders rather than anywhere else on his body? Couldn’t he just carry it with him, or fold it in a bag?

Firstly, let us consider the other popular options. He could wear it tied around his waist although this is inelegant and impractical; the kilt-ish jumper would get creased and crumpled from being sat on, not to mention the possibility of attracting dirt and grime. Also the associations of this practice (football hooligans, louts) are far worse than anything the shoulder-tie could muster. It could of course be carried, although this would leave only one hand free; not a happy situation when two hands are required. It could be carried in a separate bag although this would only be convenient if the bag was required for some other purpose.

The problem people have is not with the practicality but the image it conveys; if not a ‘detestable’ member of the upper-echelons, a poor parvenu. It looks pretentious in certain contexts and, rather unfortunately, is a habit that has been adopted, at least in my own circles, by some of the more snobbish and vindictive of people. There is certainly an exaggeration and caricature of the practice and it is arguable that Hollywood’s representation of ‘evil snobs’ in the attire would necessarily attract those who consider it a badge of honour to be such a character. However, each man has his own experience of the shoulder-tie – I have no especial dislike of the practice, and have found my own shoulders useful on a changeable summer’s day – but there are those who avoid it, lest they should be associated with the ‘set’ which flaunts the ‘uniform.’

A Shoe That Fits, Part II


A few weeks ago I shared with you a design of shoe I was considering having made up and offered under my own label. I thought this week I would share another design I’m considering.

As explained before, I have broad tastes and while the last offering came from the early 1960s for this one my eye has wonder further back in time to the 1950s.

The 1940’s had utilitarianism and military styling born out of mobilisation for total war, danger and glamour are curious bedfellows but often accompany one another. You can see many of the influences of the period returning in the form of the recent work wear revival. The 1960’s, well we really don’t need to go into any detail there.

Despite the rationing and dull austerity brought about by national bankruptcy, for a certain generation of Britain’s the 1950’s was a golden age, not only was there a sense of optimism about a future in which technology would increasingly revolutionise life, but once the 1960s arrived Britain would never be or seem the same country again.

Too young to have experienced it, looking back the 1950s seem a rather odd period, and perhaps one eminently forgettable. Somewhat different in the US and else where in Europe, when I think of Britain I think rationing, demob suits and the only break in the straight laced conformity coming from that odd sartorial sect known as the ‘Teddy Boys’ with their brothel creepers, frock coats and quiffs. An odd place to find inspiration you might think.

And then one day while surfing vintage clothing websites I came across the shoes above. Having scoured the internet these photo are the best I can come up with for an authentic 1950’s shoe. At heart an Apron Derby, I particularly like that streamlined shape, which smacks of optimism and modernity. Examining the sole gives a better demonstration of the flowing lines which caught my imagination. I particularly like the narrow waist that gracefully blossoms into the ball of the foot before narrowing to the toe. My immediate thoughts are to reproduce these in either brown suede or a combination of tan calf leather and suede to accompany flannel suiting. In the summer I’d quite like to see these in white nubuck.

Sadly I’m yet to be able to lay my hands on anything other than photos.

Brand Review: Viyella


In a little wooded valley in Derbyshire, a neglected building looms over a pond. It’s regimented spacing of small windows, uneventful façade and perfunctory annexes convey the unremarkable; another forgotten mill.

However this old mill is located in one of the most famous valleys of the county, the Via Gellia. A somewhat grandiloquent name for so ordinary a valley, this Latinesque pomposity was nevertheless an inspiration for the name of one of fashion’s most important fabrics and one of it’s latest victims; Viyella.

In the late 19th century, William Hollins & Company created of a blend of cotton and merino wool. The twill weave cotton/wool combination was more resistant to shrinkage than the pure wool alternative. It was lighter than wool, yet somehow as warm and more practical. It was an instant hit and soon after it’s creation the “first branded fabric in the world,” ‘Viyella’ was being shipped around the world.

The fabric’s popularity waxed and waned throughout the 20th century but generally followed a downward trend as the years wore on. Increased interest in the fabric in the 1980s, ignited by demand from brands such as Laura Ashley, led to a mini-Renaissance. However this peak was short lived; the newly built factory in Lancashire was to be demolished less than twenty years later. A little over one hundred years after it’s creation, the Viyella fabric is no longer offered for sale. All that remains is the clothing brand which was built on it’s success.

Sadly, Viyella International is no longer an independent concern. What was once one of the largest textile businesses in the UK was humbled by a series of unremarkable changes of ownership. Brand Viyella was first sold in 2003 as part of the holding company’s restructuring to an entrepreneur as part of a measly £1 deal. It was sold on to a venture capitalist and went into administration six years later when it was ‘rescued’ by the not-exactly-healthy Austin Reed.

A little over a year later, Viyella under Austin Reed’s stewardship is offering an appropriate glimpse of a yesterday world of substantial fabrics, solid craftsmanship and traditional British aesthetics. Tartan ties, tweed jackets, coloured socks accented by the head of a stag (Viyella’s logo), the collection is certainly of heritage style but what it offers in aesthetic it fails in range and marketing. These brands-within-a-brand rarely work and as it comes to the middle of the summer sale, the Viyella racks on Regent Street are still creaking with stock.

Unlike successful retailers of crusty British attire Hackett, Viyella-from-Austin Reed is half done; Hackett woos you with a more complete range, style inspiration points from romantic imagery, classic film and rose-tinted visions of Edwardian England. It grabs you and holds you. You want to be a part of it; it encapsulates an entire lifestyle.

No one knows who the Viyella man is. He has a strong history, stronger than the fledgling Hackett, but he obscures this enviable provenance within a store known more for it’s increasing mediocrity. The fabric is no longer relevant and no longer wanted but the brand needs to be trumpeted; this is our history, this was our mill, we sold fabric to the entire English speaking world. Doubters say that Viyella was merely a mill. Really? Well then, Gucci was merely a saddler.