Made in Britain

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Once you’re on the radar of the PR companies you’re apt to get inundated with invites to new season collections, and this is AW11 preview time. I do accept the odd one or two connected to labels that interest me or from whom I buy stuff. That to me seems reasonable, and doesn’t compromise my independence.

Perhaps the most significant trend I’ve spotted, and one I sincerely hope outlasts a mere season, is the prevalence of ‘Made in Britain’.

Once upon a time cloth and clothing was the very foundation of Britain’s wealth. Sadly the post war years were ones of decline, with the trend in the last two decades for UK labels to outsource to China and India merely hastening that decline.

Many of the problems within the industry were self inflicted; a failure to update old fashioned practices, follow customer trends, and a complete inability to market the product properly were hallmarks of Britain’s industrial decline, and the textile industry was no exception. After all, the Italians managed to maintain a healthy manufacturing sector despite cheaper competition from the Far East.

One also shouldn’t discount the fact that we British are a ruthless people, far less inclined towards sentimentality and patriotism than you might suspect. Not only do British businesses plump for cheaper foreign suppliers and manufacturers with little hesitation, most consumers are quite content to abandon a British brand if they think they can get a better deal elsewhere.

Of course outposts of the British textile manufacture did remain, but these were far from the mainstream. The cloth books of bespoke tailors, and the tailors themselves, seemed the only bulwarks. There were other outposts, firms like John Smedley and Cooper & Stollbrand for example, but they dealt in small volumes for the luxury market. As my visit to John Smedley showed these were far from big operations, and the companies whose cloths they made seemed almost reluctant to broadcast their British credentials. Made in Britain was an afterthought, hidden away on an inside care label.

But the resurgent interest in British bespoke tailoring, the rise of headline grabbing independent labels like Albam, and even small, less well known labels like Jack Russell seemed at least to provide some stability and stop the rot. Indeed, for these businesses ‘Made in Britain’ became their Unique Selling Point (USP), something to boast about, a reason to choose them over the high street with justifiably higher price tags to suit.

Of course one cannot discount the affects of a gradual revulsion, or at least disillusionment, with the more unpleasant side of globalisation. When your clothes are made by children and women in Asian sweatshops and come at the price of human dignity, how ‘cheap’ is cheap? And as the world gets smaller the desire for something authentic, a connection to the clothes we buy, has turned ‘Made in Britain’ into a profitable and desirable attribute.

This move took another leap forward, and struck me as significant, this week with a visit to the AW11 press day for British high-street label Jaeger. When I saw last season’s collection a mere 15% was manufactured in Britain, for this season it’s closer to 50% and rising. What is more, ‘Made in Britain’ is writ large with new prominent labels proudly disclosing the country of manufacture. Manufactured in the same factory as Aquascutum clothing, which isn’t surprising given both are owned by Harold Tillman, the fact that one high street retailer is doing it, and making it such a prominent feature of trade, will likely mean the others follow suit.

Speaking as one who is from tip to toe Made in Britain, this is a high street fashion trend I warmly welcome.

A Study in Patience and Craft: Interview with Adam Atkinson of CHERCHBI

A while ago I highlighted Adam Atkinson and his range of British made bags comprising a unique cloth made from the wool of the ancient rare-breed Herdwick sheep. Patented as Herdwyck No.10, the cloth is the product of 3 years trial and error.

While Adam and his business are currently based up in Kendal (home of the mint cake), on his most recent visit to London I caught up with Adam to discuss his bags, business and Herdwyck No.10. It also offered me a chance to see the range of bags in the flesh.

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Adam is a wonderfully approachable and down to earth guy, who two weeks after our meeting eloped with his fiancé to Gretna Green to wed and spent his honeymoon in a camper van driving around Scotland.

Having undertaken a fashion and marketing degree at Newcastle University the first years of Adam’s working life were spent in the marketing, sourcing and design departments of first Nike and then Puma.

It was his time at Nike that set him on his current path, albeit in a round about way. Much of his time was focused on production in China, and increasingly he despaired of inhabiting a world which was focused on making more and more petro-chemical based product faster and cheaper. He quit and returned to Kendal, England, determined to set up his own venture, although he knew not what.

CHERCHBI took some time to come to fruition, but that desire for something better, with an emphasis on nature and craft, has in my view resulted in a range of bags that is truly remarkable. They also have a natural beauty which encapsulates this most beautiful part of England’s green and pleasant land.

Many brands strive for the prefix luxury. Many more through clever marketing successfully bestow it upon themselves. In truth almost none deserve it. CHERCHBI is an exception. Whether we’re talking about the difficulty of producing the cloth, the use of locally sourced materials or the time taken to get the curve of shoulder straps just right, these bags are genuinely crafted and that makes them deserving of the prefix luxury.

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Where does CHERCHBI come from?

Adam Atkinson: CHERCHBI was the name Kendal was recorded as in the Doomsday book, it means “by the church”. I tried to trademark Atkinson and failed because of Atkinson ties.

The thing that interests me is the fact you’ve gone to such trouble to make sure everything is made in Britain. Was that a conscious effort or merely and a feature of locality.

Adam Atkinson: Yes it was intentional. It was one of the first decisions I made that everything would be made in this country. From a point of view of having a particular interest in British manufacturing, my father worked at K Shoes for 40 years, my great-grandfather was a leather worker based in Kendal. Other members of the family from Coniston are sheep farmers, tailors, arts and crafts carpenters etc.  There’s a history of small scale manufacturing and making things within the family. I wanted to learn more about local manufacturing – leather goods, textiles. I wanted to create a simple, high quality back-to-basics product – I love visiting the likes of antiques shops due to the high quality of the products they sell.  I set my stake in the ground, it’s got to be British made and “CHERCHBI, British Made” appears on everything. There’s a lot of products I have available, for example, woven linens from Lancashire, silks from Macclesfield. The toggle on this bag I get made by Abbeyhorn in Lancashire, the same company that supplies Albam and has been running since 1749 through five different families.  I don’t claim to be an environmentally sound brand, it just comes naturally and is ingrained in the business.

Is the environmental aspect quite important to you?

Adam Atkinson: Yeah it is important to me, it’s a complex area really. I’ve come from this background of making more and more products out of plastic. Why are we producing more and more products in a seasonal basis, you know 5 seasons in a year including the holidays for Nike and Puma, and the quality level reducing all the way along. I was just thinking this is all wrong. So I moved back to the Lake District for a bit of a break and started freelance design work. I read an article in the local paper about farmers burning Herdwick fleece.

That was going to be my next question, where exactly did the idea come from?

Adam Atkinson: Part of the reason for me moving back was to be closer to my family and go back to my roots. I was 37 when I moved back and thought this is an import junction in my life, I’ve got an opportunity to quit a job and not start a new one and just have a month or two to look around and see what direction I wanted to take. I read this report that mentioned Herdwick which I’d heard of but didn’t know much about.

Yes, I did wonder whether perhaps you were a disgruntled farmer with a shit load of wool you were trying to get rid of…

AA: (laugh…) No, no I’m not. I spent a lot of time in the Lake District as a kid, my Dad was a member and is the chairman of a local walking and mountaineering club, they have this beautiful old building at the top of the Borrowdale Valley and we used to have family holidays up there.

The name Herdwick comes from old Norse meaning “sheep place”. Going back there’s evidence of sheep farms in the Lake District in the 8th and 9th century, so it’s an ancient breed, one of the oldest British sheep breeds. People were starting to offer it in restaurants on menus. The Queen’s a fan of our meat. Within foodie circles it’s famous and has become more so over recent years, it’s a great meat. But it’s [the wool] got the lowest price on the British Wool Marketing Board price scale. Farmers have burnt it in front of the BWMB just to prove a point.

What is it about the wool that means no one else wants to use it?

AA: Well it’s got a short staple length (the length of the fibre) which is bad for weaving. The best Egyptian cotton has a long staple length which is great for weaving so you can spin it round itself and create a fine thread. This [Herdwick] is the opposite, it’s very wiry and abrasive so you can’t really use it for garments, everything is wrong with it. But it has a great texture and natural colour. You have this white fibre which is dead thread (kemp fibres) and snaps easily. The kemp fibres drop off during any sort of spinning and weaving which makes a mess of the machinery. Spinners and weavers don’t really like to work with the fleece.

So presumably when you tried to weave it into a cloth you had to overcome a huge amount of resistance?

AA: Yeah, I’ve gone through 9 different trials over 3 years. There were three different weaving/spinning companies and then different trials within those three to get the spinning technique, the weaving technique and also to find the right spinning and weaving partners prepared to pursue the project and make a finished cloth. We put extra picks in the looms meaning we have extra warp and weft threads in the yarn so it creates a denser cloth, this slows everything down. The other thing we do is get more twist in the yarn. Because it has a short staple length you have to twist them around each other more to get a stronger yarn and that means slowing the machine down to achieve that. Because the fibre has lots of bits sticking out all over the place they twist on top of each other during weaving which is not a good thing. So we wax them, running every yarn over small tea lights to lubricate it as it’s going into the cloth. And a lot of other tricks as well. This is why at the end of it all I thought “gosh that was three and half years of my life”. I was freelancing at the time but putting a lot of other things on hold, putting my life on hold really. I moved back to the Lakes, into the family home, all my freelance money was being ploughed into the new cloth and developing the product. I was single at the time so living a monk’s existence, but thoroughly enjoying it.

AA: So that’s the finished cloth, we take it and back it with a natural rubber and then the cotton backer, so that’s an impermeable layer which water will not pass through. It will hit the wool but won’t get though to the cotton backer, protecting what’s in the bag, which is a great feature. It also stabilises the cloth, which has been tested for abrasion pulling and it passes for apparel and upholstery.  It’s a tough old cloth and when you put the backing on it, it becomes even tougher and you end up with something really robust.

AA: After the 3 and a half years and 9 weave trials I thought the cloth deserved a name of its own, so I’ve named it Herdwyck No. 10. It’s a licensed cloth and registered brand. There is a bit of interest from other company’s to do something with it. At the moment they see the bags we’ve got in the collection and they want to do something with it but I’m not really prepared to do that right now.

Do you do all the designing yourself?

AA: Yes I do. Essentially, the business is just me right now. My partner is a hair stylist but she’s worked in fashion before, she has a knowledge of design which puts me to shame and has a taste level which suits what I’m doing. I’m very lucky to have her influence and eye to detail.

And design influences? Obviously you’re based in Kendal in the fabulous Lake District, are you going back through old mountaineering catalogues…?

AA: Although I’m inspired by certain pieces in different areas and certain vintage pieces, it’s all new and designed with a contemporary function in mind. For example, this backpack is based on a mountaineering pack. There are elements that are shamelessly old fashioned, the full leather strap without padding, but they mould and give over time and are very comfortable. The stitched strap on top is pretty standard military bag construction, tried and tested, but I designed it with the Gothic arch. It has a full leather base because I made the decision early on not to cut corners.

You’ve been picked up by Mr Porter and you previewed at Pitti Uomo, what’s next?

AA: We’re going to continue doing Pitti, that was a good show for us. It’s been a hard four years with no money, but now I feel I can enjoy the rewards, it’s great. I’m not sure the visitors to Pitti really got the whole story, but the first thing to attract anyone’s attention is the quality, the visual impact, the quality has to shine through. That’s the critical point. The price is an issue for a lot of people, but the prices are what they are. It’s authentic rather than fake and you know where it’s been made.

Summer in Tokyo: Staying Smart While Staying Cool

There’s been a distinct upturn in temperature here in Tokyo over the past week or so, signalling the coming of the (often not so) rainy season and seemingly endless days of 30-degree temperatures and high humidity. Usually summer heat is mitigated by frosty blasts from office air conditioners, but this year is set to be somewhat different. March’s earthquake knocked out a considerable number of power stations that supply the Greater Tokyo area, meaning companies will have to turn off – or at least turn down – their air conditioners. It also means a lot of office workers may have to rethink their work attire.

The kind of sustained summer heat experienced by places like Tokyo came as something of a shock to the system for me. I grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, a place not renowned for its scorching summer weather, and learned the art of dressing seasonally pretty late in life. When people hear the words “summer clothing” it’s hard not to think of shorts, t shirts and sandals, none of which are appropriate for most offices. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even before the planned reduction in air conditioner use I began to build a collection of summer work clothing that was light, cool and breathable. Here is my list of hot weather essentials based on a few years’ experience of summer in Tokyo*:

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Linen suit
Yes they’re easily creased, but that’s all part of the linen suit’s charm. And, personally speaking, I think it’s far better to look cool and composed in a slightly rumpled linen suit than hot and sweaty in a crease-free woollen one. Khaki is the traditional go-to colour for linen suits, but I’m quite fond of a dark (not navy) blue and tobacco-coloured hues. Both look very elegant with a light blue shirt and knitted silk tie.

Cotton chinos
Chinos, khakis… whatever you call them, they’re a damn sight more comfortable in summer than wool-based trousers. Because they’re easily creased it’s important that cotton chinos fit well. Too baggy and they look like potato sacks; too tight and they look like well-filled sausage skins. You might want to have chinos break slightly higher than wool-based trousers, or, if you’re feeling particularly daring, have no break at all. This is because you’ll want to wear them with…

Suede loafers
Suede loafers were made for summer. Their uppers sit quite low on the top of the feet, which gives more freedom for your pegs to breathe. This isn’t something I took particular attention to in my first few years here, but I’ve noticed that my feet are markedly cooler and less sweaty in loafers than in lace ups. As for the socks/sockless debate, I’m tend to opt for lightweight silk socks in the early stages of summer, then switch to invisible socks when the temperatures soar. It’s not exactly conservative office dress, but when you’re walking on baking asphalt there’s nothing nicer than feeling the breeze against your ankles. I’ve heard a lot of people say that invisible socks often pop off the back of their ankles, and indeed they can do. I recommend Falke’s invisible socks, which have a few strips of silicone on the inside of the heel to stop this from happening.

Pique cotton shirts
Pique cotton is, according to Wikipedia at least, part of white tie. Apparently this is because it holds more starch than plain fabric and can therefore produce a stiffer shirt front. Needless to say, this is not the kind of shirt I have in mind here. I recently came across a number of shirts in United Arrows that are made from a similar kind of pique weave as a polo shirts. They’re definitely not for wearing with a tie, but are ideal for casual Fridays or very hot days when the sweat-wicking properties of the pique weave comes into its own.

Cotton/silk blend ties
Cotton or cotton/silk blend ties, to me at least, conjure up images of mint juleps on the veranda, seersucker suits and lazy July afternoons. I also think they’re great for situations where is a tie is required but the occasion isn’t uber-serious. Opt for light, neutral colours and occasional stripes.

*Some of you might be surprised to learn that this kind of attire is okay for corporate Japan, which is often stereotyped as a land of black-suit, black-shoe, white-shirt uniformity. Yes, there are a lot of people who wear this kind of stuff, even in summer, but it’s more to do with a lack of awareness than super-strict dress codes. Barring very traditional industries, such as finance, a lot of Japanese companies are moving towards being as relaxed as western ones when it comes to clothing. The need to conserve electricity this summer has helped to speed up this change. My company, for example, has no dress code that I know of, but most men tend to stick to what they know, ie, dark-coloured suits, because they don’t really want to think about what to wear. They might change their ways once the air con is set to 28 degrees.

Starting Over

Through a much improved diet and increased exercise I have managed to lose about thirty pounds in the last eight weeks.  I am in better shape now at age forty than I was at any time in my thirties.  I plan to lose an additional fifteen pounds in the coming weeks.  That will put me back where I was when I graduated from college fifteen years ago.  While this has been great for my health, my energy level, and my self esteem, it has been brutal to my wardrobe.  So far I’ve lost an inch out of my neck, two through my chest and three from my waist.  At the end of this journey I will be left with shoes, socks and neckties.  Everything else must be replaced.  I will be starting over.

I am in the same quandary as recent college graduates just entering into the workforce.  On the one hand there is a need to quickly fill ones closet with enough garments to make it through the week.  On the other hand is the desire to take sufficient time to find quality items and fit them into the budget.  I intend to resist the temptation to run out and buy a bunch of off-the-rack clothing.  Instead, I have been putting significant thought and research into prioritizing the rebuilding process.

biddle-in-a-suitI recently ran across an article, written by George Francis Frazier, Jr., that has provided some measure of guidance.  The article, “The Art of Wearing Clothes,” was originally published in the September 1960 issue of Esquire.  The text of the full article can be found at The Materialist.  In the article Frazier details the history of male attire and names his list of the best dressed men of his time.

Frazier names A. J. Drexel Biddle, the Adjutant General of Pennsylvania, as one of the best dressed men in America.  He then details Biddle’s “monastic” wardrobe.

It includes seven so-called business suits—two double- and one single-breasted navy-blue  serge; one double- and one single-breasted dark-blue pin-stripe flannel; one single-breasted  charcoal-grey flannel. (They were made by either H. Harris of New York, who charges $225  and up for a two-piece suit, or E. Tautz of London who charges, as to do most topnotch British  tailors, almost a quarter less. All have skeleton alpaca linings and the sleeves have three buttons  and open buttonholes. The single-breasteds have three-button, notched-lapel jackets.) For  formal daytime wear, Biddle has a charcoal-grey cheviot cutaway, a single-breasted white  waistcoat, and black trousers with broad white stripes. (With these, he wears a black silk ascot  and a wide wing collar.) For semiformal daytime occasions, he has a charcoal-grey single- breasted cheviot sack coat and trousers, in either black or Cambridge grey, with broad white  stripes. Besides a ready-made Aquascutum raincoat, Biddle owns three outer coats—a double- breasted blue chinchilla ($175 from Tautz), a single-breasted light drab covert cloth ($225, H.  Harris), and a double-breasted polo coat with white bone buttons ($325, Harris). He has, in  addition to a tweed cap, four hats, all of them purchased at Lock’s in London too many years  ago for him to recall exactly what they cost. One is a high-silk, one an opera hat, and the other  two homburgs—one black and one green. For formal evening wear, Biddle has tails ($175,  Tautz), a double-breasted dinner coat with satin shawl lapels ($150, Tautz), and, for warm  weather, two single-breasted, shawl-collared white gabardine dinner coats ($98 each, Tautz).  His evening shirts, with which he wears a conventionally-shaped bow tie, have pleats, roll  collars, and are made for him by Dudley G. Eldridge of New York at $28 each.

Biddle’s sports clothes include three tweed jackets ($160 each, Harris), three pairs of charcoal- grey flannel slacks, and a half-dozen button-down shirts made by Eldridge out of silk that he,  Biddle, bought in Spain. His shoes, of which he has three pairs of black for daytime wear and  one patent leather and one calfskin for evening wear, were made by Paulsen & Stone of  London, who also made for him, for sports wear, a pair of black moccasins, a pair of black  loafers, and two pairs of white canvas shoes with brown leather toes and rubber soles (which he  wears with either prewar white flannels or an ancient double-breasted light-grey sharkskin suit).  Biddle’s neck-band shirts, which are either starched dickey bosoms (elongated so that the  bosoms extend below the middle button of his jacket) or semi-starched pleated bosoms, have  white cuffs and bodies of either grey or light blue. They cost $26 each and are made by  Eldridge, who also makes his stiff white collars ($3 each) and his ties ($7.50 each), which run to  solid black silks and discreet shepherd checks and are shaped so as to make a knot small enough  to fit neatly into a hard collar. His underwear is ready-made and comes from Jacob Reed’s.

Like all men with innate clothes sense, Biddle eschews such abominations as ankle-length  socks, matching tie-and-handkerchief sets, huge cuff links, conspicuous tie clasps, and, most  hideous of all, cellophane hat covers. Indeed, well-dressed men, almost without exception, are  interested in something novel in clothing, only when it is both as attractive and functional as,  say the duffer coat, which proved its value to the Royal Navy in the Second World War.

Naturally, Biddle’s coat sleeves are not only uncreased, but also of such length as to permit a  fraction-of-an-inch of his shirt cuff to show—as, similarly, the neck of his jacket is cut so that  the back of his shirt collar is exposed. As for the width of his trousers and coat lapels, it is  determined, not by the extreme narrowness that is something of a rage these days, but by,  respectively, the length of his foot and the breadth of his shoulders. He selects, in short, clothes  that become him. For anyone who is not as “clean favored and imperially slim . . . and  admirably schooled in every grace” as Biddle is, the Biddle style of dress would be  preposterous. Few things are more precarious than the indiscriminate aping of another man’s  wardrobe.

Obviously most men today would not require the formal clothes present in Biddle’s wardrobe.  Because I live in the American South, I would need more warm-weather attire and less flannel.  Nevertheless, the article presents a fascinating look into the closet of a well-dressed man and proves that a man can get by on a modest selection of conservative clothing.  If you were to update Biddle’s wardrobe for today, what would you take off the list?  What would you add?  Post your lists in the comments.  I’m fascinated to hear our readers’ opinions.

The Enduring Appeal of Gatsby

When I heard a new screen version of The Great Gatsby was being planned, I rolled my eyes and tutted audibly. As a Fitzgerald flag-waver, I was not only frustrated by the continued avoidance of his other fine works but was also grieved that Baz Luhrmann was at the helm.

As much as I enjoyed his production of Romeo & Juliet and admired his eccentric Moulin Rouge, I loathed Australia and the crucial issue with any production of Fitzgerald’s work is that it requires a subtlety of vision; subtlety is not something I associate with Mr Luhrmann. Add this to the sad fact that the true magic of Fitzgerald’s work – his glorious writing – is impossible to transfer to the screen and the prospect of yet another stab at this seminal work seems to me to be decidedly unwelcome.

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However, there is one element of the production that I am looking forward to which no ham-fisted script, error of casting or inappropriate score can destroy; the costume. The last motion picture Gatsby, featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was famously costumed by Ralph Lauren. While the film itself was relatively weak, it remains a movie of classic style – on more than one occasion, I have enjoyed glimpsing scenes of it in a London bar (muted) behind the bottles of Grey Goose and Laphroaig. As good as Lauren’s costuming was, I expect the work on this version to be even better. Why? For the simple reason that it will be a more accurate representation of the era; it might lack a little of the 1970s pastel palette, but what it loses in floral appeal it will hopefully make up for in authenticity and detail.

Costuming in film has improved so much in the last 30 years; photographic archives are more readily available and more money has been made available, not just for the costumes themselves but for the research and hard work that goes in to developing them. Though many films have a tinge of the eras in which they have been produced, some period dramas are so accurately and beautifully costumed that it is only possible to tell the age of the feature by the age of the lead. Cameras can capture the most subtle texture differences; a silk dupion, a wool flannel, a crisp linen. A well costumed film, now more than ever, promises to be a gorgeous feast for the eyes and the prospect of Gatsby and an ensemble of moneyed, Jazz Age Long Islanders being given the latest touch of the classic ‘Gatsby’ aesthetic is terribly exciting.

So what is this classic ‘Gatsby’ aesthetic? Isn’t it just the preppy way Lauren represented him in the Seventies and continues to plug now? Well, yes and no. Lauren might have made that Gatsby, but that Gatsby also made Lauren. In fact, he always existed; the aloof looking chap in a dusty old photograph with slicked hair, a blue blazer, club stripe tie, white trousers, spectator shoes and horn-rimmed round sunglasses. He was an invention of his era, not of the movie industry. Lauren was simply able to look at the way men used to dress and say; “This is how he should be; this is Gatsby.” As most of it takes place on Long Island sound, I expect some sporty and nautical elements to the costume; plenty of white foundation and red-lipstick for Daisy, plenty of blue and white for Gatsby, some white bucks, spectators, tortoiseshell glasses and a vast array of suits including a loud blue pinstripe with peaked lapels, double breasted waistcoat and turn-ups, pocket watches, fedoras and boaters – they were still very popular in this period – rounded collars and, hopefully, full white-tie.

According to reports, Leonardo DiCaprio is playing the eponymous hero of the piece. There is sufficient precedent (Titanic, The Aviator) to suggest that he will prove to be an excellent Gatsby, if only as a splendid clothes horse.