On the Radar: Otis Batterbee, London

otis-batterbee

As you’ll know the tag line at the bottom of my articles is the slightly pretentious “style is a frame of mind, not just a state of dress”. Pretentious though it may be, I actually believe it and live by it. It’s about the way you dress, behave and treat people; it’s making an effort in all things and never forgetting the devil is in the detail. This week I came across an interesting and relatively new English brand which very much fits this personal philosophy.

Specialising in luxury travel goods and accessories for men, Otis Batterbee first attended Central St Martin’s School of Art & Design, then went on to work for Louis Vuitton before setting up Otis Batterbee two years ago.

Very British styling, coupled to a dash of English eccentricity,  the product line consists of lavender filled eye masks, wash bags, travel candles, smart luggage and clothing refreshers, some nice hankies and sprays for the home and travel, all of which are made in England –box ticked for me. Even the lavender is picked from Norfolk fields, which as you may remember is my home county.

While I don’t have to travel abroad for work, I’ve done more than enough to earn membership of the Travelers Club, and have too often found myself at the wrong end of a long haul flight or time zone. So for me several products stand out, including the Revive Me spray and the Clothes Refreshers. The eye masks contain a hint of lavender which emits a tranquil and sleep inducing aroma. Having previously used those grotty freebies the airlines provide, I like the idea of having to hand something a bit individual, stylish and practical. I just love the version in the Prince of Wales checked cloth – woven in England and inspired by Savile Row. There are plenty of choices available so it should be easy enough to find something to match your traveling attire, provided you’re not part of the travelling tracksuit and trainers brigade.

There are some choice wash bags in distinctive and dandy materials; the travel envelopes also caught my eye. A good idea in this age of heightened airport security; personally I’m not keen on carrying my in cabin wash kit in a clear plastic bag, or leaving items to rattle around in my hand luggage.

Despite being in business for just two years, Otis has already attracted a fair few celebrity clients and boasts some distinguished London stockists, including such stores as Harrods and the Queen’s grocer Fortnum & Mason.

I’m not a little Englander, I enjoy exploring foreign parts it’s just the getting there I loath. Anything that makes that tedious process bearable is welcome as far as I’m concerned.

Online Shirt Experiment and Review [Part Four]

Back in August and September I wrote about my experience ordering dress shirts online from Cottonwork, My Tailor and Modern Tailor. I am writing this follow-up article now that I’ve had a chance to launder and wear the shirts a few times over the past two months.

Starting with Cottonwork, you may recall that I liked their website, was impressed with their customer service, and was satisfied with the fit of the shirt I ordered. However, I was unable to recommend Cottonwork because I felt the fabric was of poor quality. One reader suggested that I should return the shirt to test their customer service/return policy. As it turns out, this effort on my part was unnecessary. After my comments were published on Men’s Flair I received an email from a Cottonwork customer service representative offering me a replacement shirt free of charge. The representative explained that they typically only replace shirts due to workmanship deficiencies, and not simply due to choice of fabric, but that it was understandable that the actual fabric could vary from a customer’s expectation. I found that this unsolicited offer supported my impression that Cottonwork provides excellent customer service; however, I also recognize that being an online author on men’s style may give me an advantage that the average customer may not have. In other words, I am not certain that this replacement offer would be extended to the average customer. I did order a replacement shirt from the Luxury Collection (two ply, 180 thread Sea Island quality fabric), and was quite pleased with the final result. In sum, over the past few months I have found the Cottonwork customer service to be excellent. If anyone decides to order from Cottonwork, I would suggest sticking with fabrics from the Executive or Luxury Collections.

You may recall from my previous article that I had a mild complaint about the fit of the My Tailor shirts; the neck was cut much looser than I expected. The shirts were shipped with a poorly written note indicating that the shirts would require several launderings before shrinking to the correct size. After several launderings I have indeed discovered some shrinkage – in the sleeves. It seems now that the sleeves are slightly too short and the neck is still too big. This result is unfortunate because in my opinion My Tailor has the best selection of fabrics of these three companies.

Since Part Three of this series ran on September 8, I have placed two additional orders with Modern Tailor. Of the three companies reviewed, I have found Modern Tailor to have the fastest turn-around time, to provide the most reliable fit, and to be the most economical. I say most economical because I have discovered that one of the fabric filter options is “on-sale fabrics.” You can find some great deals if you watch those sale fabrics. One of the shirts I ordered was in two ply cotton (avoid the lower quality single ply and cotton/polyester blend fabrics) blue Royal Oxford for a base price of $19.95 (plus the obligatory $5.00 for thick MOP buttons). In addition, you can often find discount codes on some of the online men’s style forums that will further defray the cost of shirts from Modern Tailor. It’s hard to go wrong with a made-to-measure shirt that is cheaper than most off-the-rack dress shirts you will find in your local department store.

Perpendicular And Parallel

Honoré de Balzac once wrote “Carelessness in dressing is moral suicide,” but we know that if carelessness is the number one sin, a bit too much carefulness is not far behind. There are the two ever-present opposite concerns of looking disjointed or ill-conceived and appearing a mannequin with everything matched to a fault. The key, as with all things menswear (and truly all things in life) is balance.

Now, don’t get ahead of me and think I’m advocating another contrived form of sprezzatura or offering up a “how to dress well in a world that generally doesn’t” guide. Those things can be important, but what I’m getting at here is a much more basic aesthetic principle – what you wear at a given time should harmonize, whether through unity or contrast.

A perfect example is colorful accessories. Typically a gentleman has four places for flexible color in daily attire: tie, handkerchief, cufflinks, and socks. Looking like you bought the foursome as a box-set from the discount bin is about the last thing you want. The habit of matching is tempting at times though. I personally have an orange handkerchief that I rarely wear except with a certain orange and navy tie I quite fancy. No one’s perfect. Often though, choosing things that are complementary colors and patterns results in a much better look than choosing things that obviously match. The result has more depth and interest, rather than a single note. Purple tie, burgundy socks. Orange handkerchief, purple silk knots. The combinations keep on going. That is not to say matching can never be done, but at least try to vary tone and texture to keep things interesting.

You also don’t need to make all four of these elements a statement all at the same time. A pair of somber socks can keep a bright tie and handkerchief from looking comical, while a plain navy tie can set off those striped socks you want to wear without distracting like more stripes might. A striped shirt with a spotted tie might look great, but if you throw in a printed handkerchief and some wild socks, the whole thing begins to look a bit overwrought. Balance between fun and foundation is key, and as always, the overall look should be greater than the sum of its parts.

The Story Of The City Tailor

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“We’re just a City tailor” are not words of explanation or excuse but admirable, although unnecessary, humility.  The craft of a good number of City tailors is good enough to rival that of a whole mass of world tailors – many of whom would never cede to such self-deprecation –  but the reality of the Square Mile Sinbads is that they live in the great shadow of a little Mayfair street known as Savile Row. I know several tailoring institutions in the City, none of which court a grandeur or acclaim beyond their status. Tucked away in little side streets, down dark alleys away from the sunlight, there is something delightfully Dickensian about these establishments. Unlike the Row, which you can stumble upon whilst drifting in from Regent or Bond Streets, you have to know where your City tailor is; they are not clustered together on some well-ordered boulevard.

The City of London is the London of the Middle Ages and the White Tower, the London of Dick Whittington and Shakespeare. When the City was burbling with trade in the shadows of great churches and when the Great Fire tore through its thatched roofs and wooden frames in 1666, Mayfair was but a field. It was in these old lanes that the first London tailors were established. And it was in the 14th century that the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors was incorporated under Royal Charter and the Merchant Taylor’s Hall constructed on a site near the aptly named Threadneedle Street. Until the 18th century expansion of London’s commercial boundaries, this was the beating heart of London tailoring; London’s original Savile Row.

There are sadly no survivors of the glory days. The destruction wrought by the Great Fire, the transfer of wealthy society away from the area to the leafy neighbourhoods of the West, as well as the gradual industrialisation and subsequent decline of the East End, all contributed to the decline of the City of London as the tailoring hub of London. New establishments begun elsewhere, particularly in the newly fashionable areas of St James’ and Mayfair, inevitably bagged the custom of the best patrons, most importantly that of the Royals; in such an era, wherever they led, others followed. The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors maintained itself as an association for London tailors until the end of the 17th century and exists now primarily as a philanthropic organisation.

The City, in its current guise of an international finance centre, is now a very natural location for tailors. There are very few areas of London with such a density of professionals in need of good suits. Savile Row, with its higher prices and West End location, is appropriately the choice for lunching board members, Mayfair based hedge-hogs and visiting sartorial pilgrims – but these are few and far between. Savile Row is largely an export these days. Though fewer commercial berths in the Square Mile are occupied by City tailors than ever before, there are still a considerable number of these gems located around the gleaming towers of financial institutions. It’s difficult to imagine, in such an area of glossy, 21st century pretension, that there was a time when those same streets were unpaved rivers of effluent, when St Paul’s had no dome and when little tailoring shops lined the tiny lanes around Cornhill, their proprietors standing in the doorway, eagerly awaiting their next customer.

Beyond London: Bivolino Shirts And Debenhams

bivolino-shirt

When I left rural Norfolk and came to London to attend university my eyes were opened. I remember the first time I realised there were actually entire streets dedicated to tailors and shirts makers. At the time their names were alien to me. Today I can’t imagine not having these retailers at my disposal. But of course the majority of people don’t live in London, and when talking about clothing and tailoring it’s all too easy to fall into a London centric mentality. Not to mention partaking in a little petty snobbery. So what do you do if you live beyond the M25?

The obvious option is to turn to the internet and try your luck with the myriad of online tailors and shirt makers offering made to measure, semi-made to measure or customised off the peg.

I was recently given an opportunity to try out a new online service provided by UK high street department store Debenhams. Billed as made to measure, the service itself is provided by Bivolino.com a Belgium based outfit which I was hitherto unaware of. The company has its own website but the advantage of going through a recognised retailer like a Debenhams is that you have both a point of contact and an element of reassurance -it’s their reputation on the line.

bivolino-collar

Prices are cloth and features dependent. The cloths start at £45 and rise to £59, coming in several grades of pure cotton. However, monograms, certain cuff and collar styles, as well as patterns on the collar stand add extra cost. In fact the range of choices offered is substantial; 50 fabric swatches; 10 different collar types; 5 different cuff choices, contrasting collars and cuffs, coloured buttons and stitching etc. The website is set up in such a way that you can play with designs without having to commit, and you can go backward and forwards at leisure. It’s all easy to operate and six views of your shirt allow you to check the details of each element.

bivolino-plastic
The shirt is posted to you and comes in a protective plastic pouch

The only down side is a poor bit of web design whereby you click on a collar type and the details of size and spread appear in a caption box behind other collar styles. The collar is crucial for me and I want to know the height of the stand and other such details. The fact I had to go onto the Bivolino company’s website to check the details of each collar type was tedious. But that can and so should be fixed.

There are two reasons to spend the extra and invest in tailor made shirts, these are design and fit. With so many options you have plenty of opportunity to express yourself and get what you want. Even if, as in my own case, you just want a simple black shirt with no pocket (although I did opt for cocktail cuffs and high, rounded Lincoln collar). For those with an individual style this alone makes for an affordable and worthwhile option.

In terms of fit they use an uncomplicated and patented system called biometric sizing. First select your cut -classic, tailored or slim- and then as long as you provide an accurate height, weight, collar size and age they compute the rest. This biometric sizing technology apparently results in a return rate of only 3.8%. Having had bad experiences with other online tailoring options –who demanded many more measurements- I was prepared for the worst. However, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the fit of this shirt, including the sleeve length –often a problem.

Normally I’m pretty sceptical of these types of online tailoring options, but then that’s the London mentality coming out. There are a few things I’d change with regards to options available, but I regard this as a reasonably priced hassle free means of acquiring an individually styled shirt.

My trial of this service was free and I accepted the offer because I had nothing to lose. So the proof of the pudding is whether I’d be prepared to put my own money on the line. Well, I’ve just ordered myself another black shirt.