The Colors of Summer

When it comes to summer dressing, most men like the idea of adding a little shot of color to their ensemble.  At the same time there is normally trepidation when it comes to modulating that extra splash of liveliness.  When does a little become too much?  How can I show some personality without looking like a caricature?

I am reminded of a fellow I saw on the street last year on a steamy summer day.  He was wearing the loudest pants I’d ever seen.  They looked remarkably like sofa cushions from a 1950s Florida vacation house; bright orange with giant palm fronds and parrots printed all over them.  These pants actually hurt my eyes.  But the guy wearing them looked cool as a cucumber; relaxed and suave in sockless loafers and a crisp white oxford.

Though most of us would run the other way when presented with such an outfit, it worked on this gentleman because it fit his particular personality.  For the rest of us, spicing up the warm weather wardrobe will likely include less extravagant exercises in color.  Though we still need to dress professionally for the work week– or at least wear long pants – there is still room for personal style in manageable increments.

As a general rule, please do not make the mistake of thinking that dressing for summer weather means wearing togs better suited to the beach or a weekend cookout.  Always assume that someone important will need to see you during the day and dress accordingly.  How then do you “responsibly” add that bit of personal color?  A favorite option of mine is to use accessories as a way to tone down the formality of office attire while still offering the world a little flash of style.

Ribbon watch straps a great option, especially for the summer.  You’ll be amazed at how a preppy grosgrain or NATO strap can change the whole feel of your favorite wrist watch.  Additionally, these straps give your timepiece a breezy, vintage feel.  People will think that your dad wore it back when he was studying archaeology at Yale.

Smart Turnout makes some of the best ribbon straps; from British military unit colors to England’s venerable colleges – even American Ivy’s – you can find something that fits your personal style.  They are easy to swap around, so keep a drawer full and match your watch your watch to your mood.  If needed, invest in the little tool that allows you to remove the pins which hold most watch bands in place – it makes life easier.

Belts are another simple way to add color to your look while falling well within the bounds of great practical style.  Tucker Blair needlepoint belts are a unique and thoroughly preppy way to add some fun and color to your summer wardrobe.  Though a new company, Tucker Blair’s signature needlepoint belts are a classic in a New Englandy sort of way.  They are an instant classic as well; each one is a little work of art and an instant heirloom.  They truly are unique and speak to both New England clambakes and Low Country boils.

Ribbon belts are a popular and less expensive way to give your style a little punch.  Great companies like J. Crew, J. Press, and Gap offer stripes, critters, solids and plaid versions that make choosing one an easy exercise in personal messaging.

Another summer staple of the past that’s getting a new shot of life is patchwork madras.  In the states at least, it seemed like back in the day everyone’s father had a shirt like this.  Each year it was debuted at the family Memorial Day picnic and was kept busy all summer long.

Each washing left the cloth a little softer and a little more faded – the sign of true madras.  Cape Madras, founded in 2004, has resurrected the real thing and built a unique company that is both dyed in the wool American and dyed in Madras, Indian. While the Cape Madras collection is designed by the creative team in the US, the company weaves all its own fabric designs in rural villages in India.

Unlike the traditional muted colors one associated with madras, they use colors not usually seen in traditional madras like bright pinks, greens and oranges.  With offerings of shirts, shorts, jackets, pants, you can find a classic summery look for any occasion.

To add an extra layer of individuality, choose a signature, something that people will associate with you alone.  A relative of mine wears round tortoise shell glasses. Since I can remember he has always worn them and by now anything else just wouldn’t look right.  Since he is particularly Ivy League in his style of dress, the glasses give him a living Ralph Lauren ad persona.  It’s just right on him.  So, what’s your summer signature of personal style?

The Khaki Suit

I recently acquired a khaki suit. I’ve always wanted one and, being originally from New England, saw it as a happy inevitability. When warm weather hits, khaki suits – often in cotton poplin or chino – are to Connecticut what seersucker is to South Carolina. Crisp, cool style that, as the day wears on, evolves into a slightly rumpled personal signature. Perfect.

This new suit is not cotton however; it’s a lovely Ralph Lauren extra fine worsted wool job. I wasn’t expecting to get a wool suit – certainly not in the midst of a particularly sweltering summer here in the nation’s capital. I had wanted to get a nice traditional lightweight summer suit, but as things turned out it was an opportunity I could not pass up. It’s a lovely suit and one that will get a lot of wear. So, I am still on the hunt for a good warm weather version in cotton.

The khaki colored summer suit can get sidelined by its flashier, more formal brethren, but it’s an important part of a well rounded wardrobe. Sometimes constructed of a cotton blend to better fend off the wrinkles, this style of suit is a nice in-between option for the steamy days of summer. It’s light and comfortable and can be worn with casual panache.

In fact khaki suits are wonderfully versatile articles of clothing. They can easily pull double duty when required; paired with a French cuffed dress shirt, Hermes tie and handmade shoes or polo shirt, ribbon belt and docksiders. Either way, the khaki suit provides a formal backdrop that accommodates your needs. It is neither formally stiff nor scruffy and inappropriate.

And while it has been interpreted the world over, the true cotton khaki summer suit is undeniably American preppy at its core. Think about it – this suit is the ultimate pair of khakis taken to the extreme. To be sure, most designer’s takes on the khaki suit do not attempt to duplicate old money New England; I’ve seen HRH the Prince of Wales sporting a lovely double breasted version and no one would mistake him for a Bloody Mary toting beachcomber. Still, for the rest of us, it is a nice way to inject a little stylish fun into our wardrobes.

There are some potential pitfalls to this outfit, the most common of which is easy enough to see on the street. Put simply, if you are not careful the khaki suit can quickly take on a sweltering and bedraggled appearance. When it comes to cotton suits, there is fine line between having rumpled personality and being sloppily disheveled. In D.C. the latter is a common sight – overstuffed knapsack dragging down one shoulder, a sweaty shirt billowing out from under an un-pressed jacket and pants hemmed too long dragging on the pavement. Appalling but unfortunately not unusual.

So extra care of your cotton khaki suit, it will make a world of difference. That means treating it like any other suit; have it properly tailored and regularly cleaned. You’ll be glad it’s in the rotation.

J. Press: As Classic as You Can Get

This is a true story: Back when he was running for president in 1980, George H.W. Bush (that’s George senior) was giving a speech at his alma mater, Yale University, and being heckled by some students. Someone yelled out that Bush was just another out of touch “Brooks Brothers Republican.” The president, apparently offended by that particular remark, promptly opened his suit coat to reveal its J. Press label.

I’ve always liked that story because it shows the deep dedication that some cultures naturally create. J. Press has that kind of culture. It is the quintessential New England prep-Yale Man-old money-Ivy League brand that the J. Crews and Ralph Laurens of the world want you to think they are. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those brands, I’m a fan of both. But J. Press is special because that’s where it all started. It’s the real deal.

Though not as well known commercially as Brooks Brothers – there are four brick and mortar J. Press stores to Brooks’ nearly 200 – J. Press is as classically preppy as you can get. In fact it quite literally invented the look. From the 1930s through the’50s, Press helped to cement the image of American preppy in the minds of college students everywhere. Known as the “Yale” or “Ivy League” look, it came to define the stylish New England intellectual or at least moneyed, layer of society that was the ruling class of the time. A hybrid of English prep school uniform and traditional American wear, the preppy look is timeless.

Founded in 1902 by Jacobi Press, in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, his namesake company has always adhered to a traditional some would say conservative, design philosophy. Much of their clothing is still American made. Mr. Press would probably feel right at home were he to walk into one of his stores today. In fact, the store has never moved location.

Sartorial innovations like the sack suit and natural shoulder were invented here. The trademark three-button suit coat with the rolled lapel that visually converts it to a two-button is also a Press innovation. The sack suit itself, given global branding by Jack Kennedy as the American suit, is also credited to J. Press.

Another of their signatures is the lack of pleated trousers. All Press suits have flat front pants and always have; it’s the kind of consistency and tradition that make the company such an icon among its customers, generation after generation. Where Brooks Brothers’ shirts are famously voluminous, Press shirts are more trim and discreet. Their shirts also have, should you choose the option, a distinctive flapped pocket.

But don’t mistake that tradition and adherence to New England stylistic values for old fashion stodginess. Though smaller compared to Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart or Joseph A. Bank, J. Press is a global player and major style influencer on the Trad front. To see just how popular and relevant J. Press is to the fashion world – at least for the true preppy market – you need to go a little ways past New Haven, all the way to Japan.

J. Press is huge in Japan. In 1974, the Press family sold the rights to license J. Press in Japan; becoming the first American brand to be licensed in Japan. To many a Japanese professional, the sartorial standard by which business and traditional dress is measured is J. Press. In fact, the company is today a wholly owned subsidiary of Onward Kashiyama Co., Ltd. Onward Kashiyama realized almost immediately that to preserve J. Press’ Ivy League cachet, it needed to stay out of the way. And that they have done.

J. Press has maintained its preppy core values and remains the truest expression of traditional New England Style. What else would you expect?

Going Old School: Manhattan Portage Waxwear Bag

This is the last installment of my Commuter and Dad Bag Test. I have had the chance to examine and test numerous bags from a number of brands spanning a variety of styles. From nylon messenger bags built for urban transport to a classic leather mailbag ready to handle a lifetime of ageing. I have also gained an appreciation for the many companies out there looking for the next big thing in transporting your stuff.

I’ve tried some very cool bags that have so many pockets, flaps and zippers that I almost needed an instruction book to remember where I put my house key. One bag had no outside pockets at all, not one; so every time I needed to access my metro card, up came the giant flap and a panicked search would ensue. That one didn’t last long.

Perhaps because of all the impressive advancements in the bag market, I also have a much greater appreciation for the basics. The J. Peterman Counterfeit Mail Bag is an excellent example of what I consider mastery of common sense. It is simple, sturdy, beautiful and totally functional. Is it perfect for all your needs? Probably not, but that’s not the point. Every time I carry it, I get at least one compliment before I even reach the office.

The last bag I tested was another simple and timeless design by Manhattan Portage, one of the original messenger bag companies. The Waxed Vintage Messenger Bag (model #1605V-WP, $60.00) sounds slightly intimidating, but it’s really a wonderful bag that has real personality outside of its functional role.

The company itself can be described the same way. When it was founded in 1983, Manhattan Portage had a simple philosophy, “a bag for everyone.” 25 years later it still holds true. Across the globe, from Boston to Osaka, Manhattan Portage’s line of bags are indeed everywhere and carried by everyone. I even saw one on a barge trip in Provence, France.

As a company, Manhattan Portage remains loyal to its New York roots. Because their designs are functional and straightforward, the bags always seem to be in style – no mean feat in a city that’s constantly in search of something new and different.

Manhattan Portage has been able to avoid becoming another fleeting fad and withstand the test of time because their bags do. In fact, a fascinating April 2007 Esquire story documents the survival and subsequent examination of the writer’s messenger bag after making it out of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. That’s one tough bag.

The one I tested, under far less strenuous conditions, is nonetheless a robust bag that will be around for a long time. Constructed of waxwear, it is a little heavier than similar nylon-based bags. What is gained though, a natural and durable material, is worth the difference.

The fabric used by Manhattan Portage is from Herbert Rice, one of the top makers of waxed fabrics. Waxwear, a trademarked product, is a cotton-based fabric impregnated with a paraffin formula derived from recipes from the turn of the last century. Proofed against inclement weather, it maintains the breathability of cotton. And, as anyone with an old Barbour jacket can tell you, it ages really well.

Smaller in appearance than I expected, this bag is deceivingly large and its single main compartment comfortably swallowed multiple books, pads and other weighty stuff. There is a small zippered pocket on the rear inside panel well sized for pens, keys and loose change. My bag is lined with a day-glo yellow that makes it easy to find most anything in there – no dark corners.

Closure is achieved by a wide Velcro strip that extends across the front of the bag. The flap’s underside is outfitted with two vertical mating strips that hold the flap snugly in place; easy to open and close. The strap is heavy duty Cordura and sizing is managed by a strong metal buckle.

Overall, this is one of the most useful messenger style bags I have tested. Its size and design are practical and the waxed navy blue material blends well with most outfits short of a suit. It’s definitely a keeper.

Menswear Moving to the Front – Part 2

As we discussed in last week’s column, the New York menswear market is in the midst of renaissance of sorts. But it’s not just luxury brands that are focusing more on the men in their lives; mid market brands are making a statement in the Big Apple too.

J.Crew, a favorite everyday brand of Off The Cuff, is setting up a men’s only shop in the landmark Liquor Store building, at 235 West Broadway at White Street in Tribeca. The men’s store, which will be smaller than a typical J. Crew store, will carry the best of J. Crew’s men’s collection, including their unique collector’s items – upscale, limited-edition pieces like the $800 leather mail bag. According to CEO Micky Drexler, the store is “a very short-term lease,” with “very little investment and risk,” which will allow the company “to fool around and play with a men’s store.”

Additionally, the company has been sending out mini-catalogs that focus only on their men’s clothing and accessories lines. These targeted marketing efforts have been very well received and gives J. Crew the ability to sell its higher end wares directly to their male customers.

This emerging but strong trend toward menswear will likely spread across the retail market. As I have noted before, men are not like women when it comes to shopping, but there has been a distinct shift back toward guys appreciating and seeking out quality clothing and accessories. Though this is most true for “investment” level clothes like suits and other tailored pieces, J. Crew’s men’s store concept is an example of transferring the investment mentality to everyday dressing. It’s sort of a reverse approach to the commoditization trend that has effectively devalued many once exclusive brands. Instead of making their wares more accessible to average consumers, companies like J. Crew are developing limited edition products at very outsized price points and targeted at discerning shoppers.

The company is also taking marketing cues from luxury brands that have long touted things like the prestigious family mills which supply their fabric. J. Crew is busily developing relationships with companies like Baird McNutt, an innovative, family-owned Irish mill in Ballymena known for incredible linens.

What makes this type of strategy successful is that they’re not faking it. J. Crew is seeking out real manufacturers who make really good, exclusive products. It’s authentic and fits very well with their customer base. The real stories and premium price tags are providing the boost that the company wants in menswear. They have also made serious efforts to improve the construction quality of their products, and adding additional practical value to their wares.

“Women’s got turned around, and now it’s time for men’s,” says Todd Snyder, senior vice-president of men’s design for J. Crew. And one way to sell the ongoing J. Crew story of original lifestyle brands is through collaborations with designer-frequented mills. “We say, why spend $1,000 at Bergdorf Goodman for a jacket you can get for $300 here? It’s the same thing.” Customers are recognizing quality fabrics, so Snyder has made it his mission to work with the best in the business. “We’re becoming the biggest customer of mills like Moon and Mallalieus, who work with Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Ralph Lauren,” he says. “We’re after quality.”

This movement to get men in better sartorial shape isn’t limited to the selling floor. In July, the MTV network is premiering it’s version of a male finishing school. Dubbed, “From G’s to Gents”, this reality-format show to be aired on Fox, is being produced by Hollywood heavyweight Jamie Foxx and hosted by uber-gent Fonzsworth Bentley.

The idea is to try and mold 14 players/tough guys from the street into modern day gentlemen; sort of a realty version of My Fair Lady complete with cash prize and a smart new wardrobe. While as a general rule I despise these types of shows, I find this one curiously interesting. If nothing else, it’s getting on the air speaks to a real societal desire for men to be gentlemen again. I have no illusions about top hats and walking sticks, but for an Academy Award winner like Foxx, a pretty sharp gent in his own right, to see the value in this show makes me want to check it out.

By moving the topic and marketing approach of high-end menswear and gentlemanly etiquette to the everyday guy-cum-MTV generation, the message that dressing well and having some class will reach a heretofore untapped market.

It’s a stylistic approach to vertical integration; to try and capture all socioeconomic levels of the men’s lifestyle market – from Gap to Hermes. That’s the holy grail of any retailer or ad executive, but it seems that our culture may now be at this mythical point. We’ll have to wait and see if the trend truly takes hold, but it appears that while doing so more men will be better dressed and know which fork to use.