The Style of The Talented Mr Ripley

One of the greatest sources of sartorial inspiration is, and probably always will be, the silver screen. Who can forget the impeccable suits of Sean Connery’s Bond, or the preppy-meets-cop style of Steve McQueen in Bullitt? Modern technology has made the ferreting out and dissemination of stylish films much easier than it was when I was a nipper. Which is just as well for you, dear reader, as I can share with you a supremely stylish film, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

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The setting is largely 1950s Italy, where Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), the son of an east-coat WASP millionaire, has taken to frittering away his allowance. Needless to say, Dickie’s father isn’t too happy about this and recruits the outwardly charming but inwardly sinister Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) to bring him back. As time goes by Ripley develops a very unhealthy obsession with Dickie and, inevitably, the excrement hits the fan in chilling fashion.

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Aside from being a fine thriller in the mould of the best post-war mystery novels, The Talented Mr Ripley is an absolute gem in terms of men’s style. The locations – Sanremo, Rome, the Bay of Naples – lend themselves to a fine Mediterranean summer wardrobe that has, sadly, all but vanished from 21st century beach resorts. Jude Law steals the show in this regard, with a selection of summer-weight odd jackets, cotton chinos, loafers, ties and hats that will make most Men’s Flairers green with envy.

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Of course, I’m not suggesting that you copy the looks wholesale unless you happen to have a time-travelling DeLorean at hand, but it certainly offers some inspiration. The combination of navy linen shirt and off-white chinos/shorts is always a winner in my book, and it doesn’t take much to reimage some of the more formal outfits seen on screen with some modern tailoring.

Reviving Seersucker

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Seersucker. Now, I always assumed that it was an America-born-and-bred kind of fabric, but in fact seersucker’s history in the Western world began – as a lot of men’s fashion did – with the British Empire’s pasty colonists, who were taken by the fabric’s ability to keep them cool in far-flung tropical locations. When seersucker eventually arrived in the United States it found a natural home in the South. Gents there who were looking for a lighter, more breathable material for their suits loved it, and it soon became a summer wardrobe staple.

The introduction and widespread use of air conditioning in the South changed seersucker from an everyday cloth to an eccentricity, which was a great shame. Men not only lost a great sartorial tradition, they also lost touch with the seasons. Admittedly there have been attempts to resurrect it, but many have been half arsed at best. In the mid-nineties Trent Lott initiated Seersucker Thursday in the US Senate to show that it wasn’t “just a bunch of dour folks wearing dark suits and … red or blue ties”. This, I imagine, proved about as successful in convincing the public that politicians were “fun” as the King Herod Daycare Centre was at attracting parents. And just one Thursday a year? It’s hardly pushing the notion of seersucker as a practical alternative to wool suits, is it?

Outside North America seersucker is an even rarer beast. This is understandable in Britain, where summer is often biennial and fleeting, but it’s a shame that it’s not more prevalent on the streets of Tokyo, Singapore or Sydney. In these places it’s all too common to see dark-suited gents traversing the scorching landscape between air-conditioned buildings like vast earthworms crossing a patio.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Seersucker suits these days are often tailored to contemporary lines and, in my opinion, look far more appropriate in hot climates than dark wool-based suits do. Off-the-rack seersucker suits may not always be readily available in your neck of the woods, but local tailors should be able to source some fabric and make one for you. You’ll find that, thanks to their barely-lined structure and lower material costs, they’ll be a fair bit cheaper to make than most bespoke wool suits.

If you can’t find a tailor in your area who can make a seersucker suit you should give one of the many online Hong Kong-based tailors – like Indochino or MyTailor – a whirl. Results may vary, so you’ll probably want to consult the oracles at StyleForum.net before deciding. (For the record, I ordered a bespoke shirt from MyTailor and was happy with the results, but have yet to try ordering a suit from either it or Indochino.)

Umbrellas in the City

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Umbrellas, from left to right: black leather crocodile print handle by Fox Umbrellas, £118; stripped cherry handle by Swaine Adeney Brigg, £245; navy with white spots and chocolate leather handle by Drake’s London, £225

The past few weeks have seen a few days of quite heavy rain. They are gloomy in the extreme, and made considerably worse by the insidious use of umbrellas as a kind of evil, eight-spoked pavement clearing tool. If you want to avoid serious retinal damage you need to be on constant lookout for stray umbrella rods at eye level. The only safe option is to join the umbrella brigade yourself. But not just any old umbrella will do – here is my selection of three of the best brolly makers around.

Fox Umbrellas
Fox Umbrellas have been keeping Londoners dry since 1868, and are credited with having made the first nylon-covered umbrella in 1947. I’m particularly taken with the leather crocodile print handle model that’s currently available from their online shop. Would be great with a dark navy or green canopy.

Swaine Adeney Brigg
Swaine Adeney Brigg are perhaps most famous for supplying felt ‘poet’ hats to Harrison Ford for the Indiana Jones films. However, their range of Brigg umbrellas features a sublime collection of wooden-handled beauties that will last you a lifetime. A stripped cherry handle with black canopy is a timeless choice.

Drake’s London
Though better known for their ties and sumptuous cashmere knits, Drake’s accessories range has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Out of the three umbrellas currently available my eye was most taken by the Italian-made one shown above (far right). The chocolate brown leather handle, light wooden stem, and white-on-navy spots canopy make it stand out from the crowd.

Umbrella etiquette

Of course, Men’s Flair readers are far more considerate than your average brolly-wielding pleb, and are well aware that umbrella use on crowded streets demands acute spatial awareness. Try to abide by the following unwritten rules (sadly, you’ll be shocked at the number of people who don’t):

Open with care
Before opening your umbrella check your surroundings. A normal-sized brolly takes up a fair amount of space around you: make sure that nobody is occupying it.

The taller man goes over, the smaller man goes under
Picture the scene: the pavement is narrow. To your left you have a brick wall, to your right a railing that separates the pavement from the road. Coming directly towards you is a rather large, umbrella-using gent. You both have to get past without spoking each other’s eyes out. The solution? The over-under rule: if you are taller than the oncoming pedestrian, raise your umbrella high over their head; if you a smaller, lower and tilt your umbrella to one side.

Don’t stop to close your umbrella
When entering a building you’ll obviously need to close your umbrella, but in busy locations, such as a train station entrance at rush hour, unaware umbrella-closers can cause problems. Stopping to close your umbrella will cause a jam that’s as annoying as getting your rail pass ready right in front of, rather than before, the ticket barriers. Instead, bring your brolly down in front of you and close it as you walk in.

Don’t swing your closed umbrella
If you walk with a closed umbrella don’t hold it down by your side like a machete, especially when ascending a busy flight of stairs. The tip will lurch backwards at every step, and can give those walking behind you a nasty poking.

Don’t leave your umbrella to dry in the middle of the office floor

This one is plain common sense. If you’ve got a hundred people working in an office and they all decide to dry off their umbrellas in the hallway, the place will look like a vast experimental mushroom-growing facility. A good umbrella won’t be permanently buggered by being furled up wet for a few hours. If you want to dry it off, unhook the fastener and hang it somewhere inconspicuous or, better still, wait till you get home and unfurl it in the garage.

Don’t drip water over other people’s feet
A closed umbrella that’s wet is going to drip water for several minutes. Take care not to dangle it over other people’s feet during this time, especially when you’re on a busy train or bus.

Leave the golf umbrella at the golf club
People will hate you with a passion for using a golf umbrella in the city. They’re way too big.

How Important is Heritage?

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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.

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.