Catching Up With Old Friends and Making New Ones

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Aside from meeting Mr Andrew Brett and Archivist Peter Tilley on my recent visit to Gieves & Hawkes I also caught up with Deborah Carré and James Ducker.

James and Deborah (a regular reader of Mensflair) together form Carréducker Shoes and are old friends of Mensflair. Several MF columnists have met up with Deborah and James and I featured them way back in April 2010.

While all bespoke shoemakers are to a degree governed by their clients’ whims and fancies, you can’t deny that Carréducker is one of the more original bespoke shoemakers out there. There is something rock ‘n’ roll about their shoes, an odd feature considering James and Deborah are devote fans of BBC Radio 4.

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Partnering with Gieves & Hawkes seems to have brought them a great deal of recognition, but it’s no more than is deserved.

The remodelling of No. 1 Savile Row has provided them with a small studio space on the main floor where each day you can see either James or Deborah going about their craft. While they both refer to their space as the fish bowl, Gieves deserves to be congratulated for maintaining the essential connection between the customer and the craft which was a wonderful feature of the Carréducker experience when I first met them. I’ve been racking my brains but I can’t think of any other bespoke shoemaker in London where the patron can actually see his shoes being made.

During our chat Deborah indicated that there were some exciting collaborations in the pipeline. Although they’re for now hush-hush, I’m sure Mensflair will be granted an exclusive when the moments ripe (what do you say Deborah?).

One interesting project we can talk about is a collection of off the shelf classic shoe styles, from which clients will be able to pick and then have made bespoke. While style aficionados might relish the chance to choose each and every detail of a bespoke commission, I know plenty of men for whom this would be a nightmare. Still in development it will be interesting to see these shoes when finished.

Gieves & Hawkes have extended their commitment to footwear still further by allocating shop floor work space to an interesting American chap by the name of Justin FitzPatrick. Creator of the blog ‘The Shoe Snob’,  and a very nice fellow, Justin not only designs and makes his own shoes but is something of an expert at polishing them. It is this last service that he provides for customers of G&H. I’ve been enjoying his blog recently and his hand polishing is most impressive. Personally I don’t much enjoy shinning shoes, but with Justin’s prices starting at as little as £5 he may well become a new best friend.

Sartorial Love/Hate: The Sockless Loafer

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One of the most interesting criticisms I received recently was that my practice of wearing loafers without socks was nothing short of “disgusting.” The most amusing point about the delivery was that it was delivered by a friendly gaggle of females who thought nothing of imparting such a critique whilst slipping their own uncovered heels in and out of their ballet pumps.

“You should wear socks” one of them nodded, patronisingly “otherwise your shoes will stink.” Further remarks of surprise came from male acquaintances; “Ooh, and no socks either. Looks very…” “Continental?” I ventured, hopefully. “Yea, I suppose so” came the uncertain reply.

England is a prudish nation. As many polls as there are stating that we are the ‘naughtiest’ nation, the ‘most fetishistic’ or ‘the most adventurous’, we still have reservations when it comes to the unexpected exposure of flesh. Though the strict Victorian standards no longer apply – hems are higher, necklines are lower – we still find flesh curious and even offensive, particularly in relation to footwear: along with the American race, we must be the only nation who believes that the ideal summer ensemble involves wrapping our feet in thick socks and chunky trainers.

Continental Europeans are far more comfortable lolling around sans-socks when it gets warm. I recently admired a louche duo of Italians having a coffee in the shade at Cecconi’s in Mayfair wearing Ray-Bans, linen jackets, chinos and sockless loafers. The look was easy and comfortable; I wander on a hundred yards and encounter an Englishman in socks and sandals. No doubt the Englishman will scoff at the Italian, decrying the sweaty decay of his footwear; the undignified and un-English exposure of ankles; the unsightly and ungentlemanly act of ‘forcing’ his most inelegant bodily feature on the rest of us, in much the same way as my female acquaintances criticised my sockless state.

The worst trait of the British in this critique is that they deny the self-benefit of forbidding the practice and suggest it is for the benefit of the wearer; “But your shoes will smell” they cry, “think of it – sweaty, salty shoes. So disgusting…” “…and uncomfortable…” When comforting critics with assurances that they will never be forced to smell the shoes, this yields little change in their tolerance. It is not perhaps the decay and odour itself as the thought of it, the idea of such an improper act that they really object to.

Harsher critics might even suggest the problem of Britishness itself is to blame; stiff upper lips, repressed sexuality and a hatred of ankles, although there seems to be little objection from anyone, including myself, on the female practice of wearing shoes with unstockinged feet.

One to Watch: Private White VC

To call Private White V.C. a new British brand would overlook the fact that the company behind it have been manufacturing clothes in England for over a century.

Better known to those in the clothing trade as Cooper & Stollbrand, this Manchester based company already has an enviable reputation for manufacturing hand crafted clothing for the likes of Dubarry and Paul Smith as well as new comers like Albam. With this pedigree on their side the company has embarked in an interesting new direction launching their own clothing label Private White VC.

Designed by the former head of Dunhill menswear, Nick Ashley, and inspired by the everyday wardrobe of Jack White, who not only won a Victoria Cross in the First World War but was the founding father of the factory, it’s an interesting concept with some wonderful pieces -the stylistic simplicity of which belies some clever technical innovations.

I have to say that the back story to Private Jack White V.C. also adds to the charm of the concept, as does the fact that the factory remains in the family’s ownership, currently being run by Jack’s Great-Grandson.

I recently had an opportunity to see the collection at the Cube pop-up shop on Lambs Conduit Street, and I really liked what I saw. Kit that caught my eye included the Tea-Shirt, which features a woven oxford cloth front, with the back and sleeves made up of a soft 100% cotton jersey. The waxed wool Squaddie Jacket pictured below was another stand out garment for me. And yes you did read that right, it’s the waxed wool cloth that provides that wonderful aged look. This cloth is also incorporated into the Combat Blazer, another garment I wouldn’t mind adding to my wardrobe –although in truth there were very few items I wouldn’t like to add to my wardrobe.

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Another factor which cannot be discounted is the quality of the manufacture. Cooper & Stollbrand are the UK’s largest independent clothing manufacturer with a reputation for hand crafted clothing and locally sourced materials.

It would be foolish to deny that elements of the collection are very familiar, particularly to followers of labels like Albam, a favourite of mine. But this is hardly surprising when you look at whom Cooper & Stollbrand manufacture for. However, factor in that many of those same clients have for years taken inspiration from Cooper & Stollbrand’s considerable archive, not to mention the definite militaristic accents inspired by the legend of Jack White, and I really do think this label stands up on its own merits.

Private White V.C., I salute you.