Mode Rage: Trainers with Suits

In terms of style, I like to believe I am a tolerant, open-minded chap. Individuality and invention are important and splendid; without them, the world would be a dull, uniform place. There are however some curiosities, some bizarre and incongruous trends which I cannot understand and which I cannot help but believe the world would be better off without.

trainers-with-suits

Who on earth first thought of pairing a suit with training shoes? It is an aesthetic so hideous, so irritatingly lazy and childish that I cannot help but lose a sizeable portion of respect for all who indulge in it. I was therefore dismayed, though not entirely surprised, to see Dustin Hoffman photographed in Cannes at the film festival wearing a pinstripe suit with neon-soled running shoes. Whatever possessed Hoffman to display himself in this manner, though he is hardly well-known for any particular sartorial elegance, I do not know. His oddball characters do inspire a kooky aesthetic but there is kooky and there is cuckoo.

And then there is Joshua Jackson, accompanying his elegant, shimmeringly attired girlfriend Diane Kruger to an evening event wearing black tie – and skate-sneakers. An appalling, burger-sauced burp of a choice, Jackson should know it is ungentlemanly to upstage a lady in evening attire but to do it in such a manner is simply pugnacious. Frankly, he doesn’t deserve his invite; his arrogant, idiotic choice of footwear is akin to inappropriate drunkenness, boorish language or talking with your mouth full and is highly embarrassing for his companion who would have been better off pacing the carpet with one of the serving staff instead of her selfish beau. Every time someone attempts to combine the elegant with the never-going-to-be-elegant, it fails; imagine if Kruger had worn Havaianas with such an ensemble, citing the discomfort and impracticality of heels.

Trainers and suits don’t exist in the same universe. Never would it be seemly or sensible to exert oneself in a gymnasium in a wool suit; wearing gym shoes to a premiere is equally mad. My theory is that those who do such things do so because they are pretentious enough to belligerently convey that they ‘just don’t care’ when the unaffected choice would have been to acknowledge the event for what it is; an occasion requiring a certain type of shoe. Some might think this a touch pompous but the real pomposity is to consider your pathetic, non-conformist visual message more important than the person you accompany and the event itself.

How Important is Heritage?

aran-jumper2

The jumper pictured above was hand-knitted on Inis Mor, the largest of the Irish Aran islands. It was made from locally-sourced wool; wool which has been woven by islanders for generations. Each jumper takes approximately one week to make, and in order to receive the Aran Seal must be entirely hand-crafted by the same person.

Spot any problems with the paragraph above? As well as lacking a suitably jolly Gaelic folk backing tune and narration by Liam Neeson, the whole thing is actually total lie – the jumper was made in China, and very likely by machine. But it is a snapshot of the dilemma faced by many traditional western menswear companies who want to keep production in their countries of origin. If it looks good and is cheaper, why should the average consumer spend more on the “real thing”?

Regions and towns throughout Europe often have strong associations with certain types of clothing manufacturing. Vigevano, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, has long been central to the country’s shoemaking industry. As a consequence the city’s shoemakers have amassed generations’ worth of knowledge and expertise. This is reflected in the quality of the shoes they make, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that shoes made in, say, Indonesia, are inferior. There may be some decidedly shoddy Vigevano-based shoemakers who are getting away with producing sub-standard clogs on the back of the city’s reputation, while some great young shoemaking talent in Jakarta might be being unfairly ignored.

High-end menswear manufacturing expertise in emerging economies has improved dramatically over the past two decades, a trend that is likely to continue as long as demand remains high. Traditional Western menswear manufacturers have had a tough time of late, and can no longer rely on domestic consumers to support them. There will always be brands whose mystique allows them withstand pressures to relocate production – Louis Vuitton is a case in point. But in recent years many small British manufacturers have been forced to make some difficult decisions, with redundancies the inevitable end result.

But it’s not all bad news: some British manufacturers whose futures once looked bleak have been fighting against the offshoring tide. Two fine examples are Sunspel and John Smedley, both of whom have managed to rescue themselves from the brink. Their success lies in careful backroom restructuring and, more importantly, in finding a way to successfully cash in on their heritage – something that is especially valued by well-off consumers in the Far East. The importance of Japan, and increasingly China, to the long-term future of these companies cannot be ignored.

Personally, I’m quite fond of learning about a company’s manufacturing history and so on, but there is a danger of heritage overload: reading endless press releases, websites and labels that liberally sprinkle words like ‘finely crafted’, ‘curated’ and ‘authentic’ can reek of pretension, and it’s hard to stick out from the crowd when every other menswear manufacturer is using them. The key to British menswear manufacturers’ survival is to maintain the high quality of their products and remain profitable without relocating production. If John Smedley were to start producing sweaters in China it may very well boost profits in the short term, but it’s highly unlikely that consumers – especially in Asia – will be willing to pay the same price for them once they realise what’s going on: they will perceive the quality as inferior and, crucially, will lose the much-loved “Made in England” label from their cardies. This might benefit other British-based knitwear manufacturers with a similar price point and heritage (like Sunspel), but it would be a loss for the industry as a whole.

So, what should we, the consumers, do? It’s true that buying western-made clothing helps keep textile-related skills and jobs in their countries of origin; but – despite the sweatshop horror stories – buying eastern-made clothing ultimately plays a part in pulling the world’s poorest out of poverty.

It’s a tricky one. Maybe the best thing to do is simply buy whatever suits you best. It might be ethically dubious, but it’s better than being the kind of person who berates people for not supporting local manufacturing while owning a wardrobe full of Chinese-made clothes.

A Few New Season Trends

st-raincoat

Having been to a few collection previews for AW/11 I thought I’d highlight a few trends I’ve picked up on.

st-windowpain

Ironically, just as I’ve ordered a windowpane check suit it seems they’re back in vogue, excellent timing or an irritation depending on your point of view. While the pattern on my suit is a relatively subtle one, it seems big and bold are the dominant trends. This also extends to chalk stripe suits, over pinstripe, which is something I’ve seen a fair amount of.

I have to say bold chalk stripes are one of my favourite suiting options and one I’ve been thinking about recently. A chalk stripe is a London classic that just fits in my view. Indeed, outside of London it can look a bit odd.

pin-city-chalk2
Pin Stripe, City Stripe and Chalk Stripe

Now, I was taught that pin stripes were thin lines –actually a series of small dots- commonly woven into worsted cloths. A City stripe was the thicker more prominent stripe with the fuzzy edge, but again woven on worsted cloths, albeit of a heavier weight. A chalk stripe, however, is a thick fuzzy stripe woven into an open textured cloth, like flannel. The effect is a highly textured one which gives the appearance of the stripe being drawn onto the cloth with tailor’s chalk, which is the origin of the pattern. It is this last category that retailers have picked up, and that brings me neatly onto the next trend, texture.

st-blue-flannel2

It may seem odd to suggest that retailers are finally picking up on texture for seasonal suiting. But for those of us whose wardrobes depend on the whim of off the peg retailers getting something other than heavier weight worsteds hasn’t always been easy. Autumn and winter are the natural backdrops to flannel, and retailers have been picking up on grey flannel the last few winters, but that was all. What I’m most excited by is the prevalence of blue flannel in several collections -not only plain, but chalk stripes and windowpane checks.

But this isn’t the only type of texture you can expect.

st-cashmere-blazer

I’ve seen a lot more jacketing in luxurious cashmere – like the one above from Gieves & Hawkes – and cloths with a cashmere and wool mix. In addition I’ve seen a lot more herringbone and some interesting variations on Donegal Tweed.
st-sherlock-aw

And texture can be found in some unexpected places, such as these boots which go by the name of Sherlock. Available in the autumn from Herring Shoes, these are top of my seasonal wish list. The combining of leather and suede in this fashion has been done by various bespoke shoe makers in recent seasons, but Herring offers a more affordable option.

Just a snap shot of the things we can look forward to in the coming seasons.

The Way You Wear Your Hat: The Messy Bow Tie

messy-bow-tie2

“Thank Doctor Who” a friend said scornfully as we wandered around TopMan, slack-jawed at the mass of teenage bow-tie aficionados strutting around the store with their Bieber-fringes, check shirts and turned-up denim. The only problem was that their ‘I don’t give a damn but I am a dandy’ aesthetic was let down by the uniform neatness of their bows; hardly surprising given that all were clip-ons.

Tying a bow tie is an art, not an exact science; the symmetrical ‘perfection’ sought by many, even when achieved through self-tying, is about as appealing as one of those dire photo-realistic paintings. The idea is to achieve expression, not facsimile; ‘perfect’ pre-tied and self-tie bow ties look stiff, clownish and unnatural. Not only would I oppose wearing a pre-tied bow tie – and not for the crude snobbery advocated by some that it shows you ‘went to the wrong school’ or university but because creation is so much more satisfactory than replication – I would also oppose the ‘craft’ of tying a bow tie too carefully, too symmetrically, too artificially.

The ‘messy’ bow tie may sound like a paradox – for why should a decorative effect be untidy? – but the ‘mess’ is simply a descriptive comparison with the uniformity of pre-tied bows. Mess is usually what you end up with when first attempting to tie a bow tie; uneven, lumpy and wonky. However, the great charm of this educational stage is often clouded with frustration; “Why isn’t it PERFECT?!” we scream into the mirror, knowing the happy end-of-the-rainbow glory of symmetrical bow tie bliss is far away, not realising that the grass is greener on this side of the fence.

Winston Churchill, though seldom feted as a style icon, was famous for his bow ties and in his later years, was rarely seen without one. The most famous photos of Churchill usually involve three crucial props; V-for Victory, a cigar and his favourite navy polka dot bow tie. Well worn indeed, but perfect? Symmetrical? Not a bit of it. Though he wore one every day, every day was different; lop sided on Monday, tiny on Tuesday, bulky on Wednesday, approaching the perpendicular on Thursday.

The water-colouring aesthete’s routine of dressing was the very opposite to that of a man like Brummell, who discarded neckties if they were not perfectly tied the first time. Churchill tied it – possibly with a cigar in his mouth – whilst his head gradually filled with the grave concerns of the day; there was no concern of symmetry, or perfection and because of that, the beauty created was natural.

If you are planning on making the step from pre-tied bows to self-tie you will probably be put off by the idea of a bow that looks like it was tied by a pair of pig’s trotters but think on this: a bow in of itself is a decoration, a fancy. It is not ‘natural’ to wear a bow. However, it has been customary to adorn a buttoned collar for hundreds of years with a splash of what is really creative art. There is nothing creative, nothing pleasing about a glued, stiffened replica and nothing appealing about something that has been touched and tweaked to within an inch of its life. Try it, tie it – and be happy with the result. The best way to achieve the small-winged minimalism? Try tying it with as little length as possible.

A Stylish Movie: Diner

diner-style-dress1

Diner (1982) is a dark and melancholy look into the lives of a group of buddies struggling with the transition to adulthood in 1959 Baltimore. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) threatens to call off the wedding if his fiancee can’t pass his elaborate football quiz. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) fights with his young wife about the organization of his record collection. Billy (Tim Daly) has a pregnant girlfriend who refuses to marry him. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a womanizer with a gambling problem. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is an unemployed drunk. Modell (Paul Reiser) is a passive-aggressive mooch. These friends eat French fries with gravy, discuss their respective problems, and engage in much meaningless conversation in their favorite local diner. The movie is sort of like Seinfeld without the humor. For instance, in one scene Paul Reiser ponders: “You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance. It’s not a real word. Like gesture. Gesture is a good word. At least you know where you stand with gesture. But nuance? I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.” I can totally see that same monologue coming from the mouth of George Costanza.

Although I found the “plot” to be rather tedious and depressing, Diner is at least a stylish movie. By utilizing thrift-store treasures, costume designer Gloria Gresham did an excellent job of recreating the late 1950s Ivy League look. Imagine lots of tweed and loosened repp ties with tie bars. In one scene Tim Daly wears a great navy-blue Duffle coat over his tweed jacket, tan sweater vest and brown pants. Bass Weejuns complete the outfit. Other small touches include the heavy ring that Mickey Rourke wears on a chain around his neck. Steve Guttenberg wears a wonderful thin, square gold watch with a brown leather strap. Kevin Bacon lights his cigarettes with a silver Zippo lighter and blows perfect smoke rings in the diner. He tools around town in very cool red Triumph TR3.

I find it hard to recommend Diner based upon entertainment value alone, but the movie does provide an excellent window into the roots of the American Trad style of dress. It is also fun to watch this group of famous actors in some of their earliest roles.