Menswear Moving to the Front – Part 1

Things are going full steam ahead on the menswear front, particularly when it comes to New York City, the capital of fashion retail. High end labels are making serious investments and seem quite bullish on the future of men’s fashion.

Locals style icons like Ralph Lauren are putting money on the table with major brick-and-mortar expansions – in his case, turning the landmark Rhinelander Mansion into a men’s only store and building a new flagship across the street to house his women’s and home collations.

Other marquee names are expanding their New York footprint as well.  In May, Canali opened its first Manhattan store just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, and not far from Hermès’ 5,000-square-foot Wall Street outlet.  That store, which opened in 2007, has a pronounced emphasis on the luxury firm’s men’s line.  Canali is still in the early stages of executing an ambitious plan to develop a retail network across the United States.  The New York location is the fourth of five Canali outlets in the U.S., including two in California and one in Florida.  A Las Vegas outlet is scheduled to open later this year.

Giorgio Canali, president of Canali’s North American operations points to the financial district’s growing residential population – the store is housed in a former office building currently being converted into luxury condos – and its attraction to tourists as benefits of the location. “It was time to showcase the entire collection the way we want it,” Canali said, adding that the company continues to look at additional locations in the U.S. but has no definite plans. Other luxury brands, such as Tiffany and Thomas Pink, have also opened stores around Wall Street.  These companies are all keenly aware that , when it comes Gotham, many of their better customers work on Wall Street, so these outlets are certainly well placed.

Hermès is making a major bet on its male customers too and is planning to open its first men’s-only store on Madison Avenue this fall. The 6,000-square-foot outlet will be located directly across the street from the company’s existing flagship at 691 Madison. The store will carry the company’s entire assortment of men’s merchandise ranging from ready-to-wear and accessories to lifestyle products. It will also include an entire floor dedicated to custom and made-to-measure merchandise. The store will be the first of its kind in the world.

The Wall Street store, noted above, showcases men’s ties inside the main entrance rather than the women’s accessories and handbags that are generally up front in its other units. That store also offers separate made-to-measure suit and shirt department as well as leather goods, watches, clothing and sportswear.  Once the new men’s only branch is open in mid-town, Hermes will have a solid menswear presence in the city’s two key retail sectors.  The company will launch a men’s ad campaign this fall as well; the brand has a solid men’s business, with menswear accounting for about 45% of sales.
This trend is not only contained to the States; French luxury label Lanvin is expanding its footprint in the men’s department with a refreshed retail presence in London.  The new 1,600-square-foot Savile Row boutique will replace their former New Bond Street location.  The store will showcase the French brand’s runway collection, classic “15 Faubourg” line and made-to-measure, a cornerstone of Lanvin’s menswear business since the 1920s.

“Men’s is showing a great dynamic,” said Lanvin president Paul Deneve to DNR, also outlining plans to renovate its Paris flagship men’s location on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.  The 6,500-square-foot men’s store will house a VIP room for its bespoke clients on the third floor.

With prices starting around $5,000 for a basic bespoke suit, I don’t think I’ll be stopping by anytime soon.

The Elusive In-Between

Some while back, my fellow columnist Simon Crompton and I traded thoughts on the in-between look; that particular style which falls somewhere in the midst of formal and casual.

He commented that Americans probably do this a little better than the English. I retorted that I know more than my share of fellow Americans who can handily prove him wrong – or something to that effect. He probably has a point though; where the English still tilt in favor of more professional work attire, Americans have years of corporate casual under their belts – for better or worse.

Actually defining what constitutes the in-between look is difficult but I eventually settled on Justice Potter Stewart’s criteria of, “I know it when I see it.” But the question still remains; how does one compose an outfit that is neither too dressy nor overly casual? While not exactly the stuff of deep thinking, the truth is it’s harder to pull off than many of us admit. Sure, some actors and celebrities always seem look perfectly in-between but they have access to either well staffed wardrobe departments or a well paid lifestyle consultant.

So, what about the rest of us? How do we find that elusive but stylish place?

The first thing I would say is that the in-between look is more formal than casual; that is, it is an assemblage of clothing and demeanor that shows you have style and taste but are not too fussy. One can look very polished in old jeans, 15-year old brogues, a white oxford and a sport coat. The actor Hugh Grant comes to mind, he perpetually looks like he’s ready for either an evening of bar hopping or an awards gala.

I have heard the in-between look described as informally dressy, or conversely, as casually formal. Whatever you call it, the goal is to be well put together but not really dressed up. At the same time, you do not want to look sloppy or shoddy. The outfit mentioned above would fall apart if the jeans had just been worn while clearing brush or if the jacket was too large and the sleeves had never been hemmed. This is look where details matter a great deal because a fine line is being walked.

I think there is some validity to the argument that American men are more successful at informally dressing well. Another reader, an Italian gentleman, pointed out that European men are often very good at dressing formally but are a bit hesitant when it comes to toning down that level of dress; it’s not a natural move. Where Americans like to match their style of dress to where the want to be – what they aspire to be, if you will – it is still fairly common for Europeans to dress according to social station, even if not deliberately so.

I had never really looked at it that way before. Such a mindset can make the in-between place an awkward and unfamiliar one, even to very accomplished men. A good example of this dilemma was recounted by Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, in his book DC Confidential.

It involves the first meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, which took place at Camp David, the president’s rural Maryland retreat. White House guidelines for the weekend called for a casual dress code but no jeans. Downing Street was stumped; how should Blair dress?

What would have been a ten, maybe 15-minute conversation in the States turned into a major production back in London. After a great deal of debate, he was outfitted in an awkward sweater and dark blue corduroys that were so tight that Blair could barely slip his hands into the pockets.  Bush appeared quite comfortable in khakis, button down shirt and a leather flight jacket.

Negotiating the formal v. casual minefield does not always have to take on such international ramifications, but it sure can feel that way sometimes.

The Woven Leather Belt

Belts are a fact of life and most of us have a closet full of failed attempts at finding just the right combination of style and utility. For even the most sartorially proficient, finding just the right fit can sometimes mean forgoing the style we really wanted – a practical example of form following function.

Even when those two goals are met, many men are, frankly, clueless when it comes to actually pairing a belt with the rest of their outfit. For those who wear a suit every day, it’s a simple drill: match your belt and shoes. Of course that’s not some kind of inviolate law; rather, like so many other fashion rules, it is meant to help you learn the basics before becoming creative.

The rest of the working world is more or less on its own. Without the time-tested conventions of formal dress, the open ended options offered by casual work environments leave some men a bit confused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen elegant, narrow dress belts clumsily paired with slouchy khakis. The coup de gras is when that gent is also sporting shiny dress cap toes; I see it more than I would prefer, it’s not pretty.

I think I can offer up a good solution though; a belt that can span the arc of casual dressing, from jeans and a t-shirt to pressed chinos and a blue blazer. The woven leather belt.

An excellent option that provides long term style and customized functionality, the woven leather belt is a good investment financially and sartorially. In brown or black, this multipurpose workhorse can fit in very well in most casual work environments. With a neutral yet masculine style and the ability to fit you exactly right, this appealing belt hits all the marks.

Though not at all appropriate with a suit, this belt’s style tackles most any corporate casual situation with aplomb. And in addition to being able to size it to your exact needs, this style of belt also has year-round appeal. It is casual enough to be right at home with your jeans, but still possesses a refined quality that pairs well with dressier pants.

Look for one crafted from strong but supple leather, tightly woven and at least 1 ¼ inches wide. Unless you are going for some kind of Southwest cowboy look, avoid decorative patterns and shiny hardware. Stick with a traditional solid brass buckle and leather keeper. Bear in mind that designs will vary and some brands have a polished look while others are clearly meant for your days off.

I’m not claiming that this is an all purpose belt, or that it works for every occasion; but it’s a belt you should have on hand for those many in between situations.

The Curse of Smart Casual

A few weeks ago, a reader posed what turned out to be a somewhat complicated question; “what do I wear,” he asked, “to a wedding where the dress code is “smart casual”?

In most cases, a wedding is one of those events that are fairly easy to dress for. In the summer, a well tailored poplin or linen suit should fit the bill. Depending on regional preferences, perhaps seersucker or, as was the case for my wedding, white ducks and a blue blazer. For formal events, a morning suit or white dinner jacket is best for daytime and of course a dark colored dinner jacket is always correct for an evening wedding. (Try midnight blue instead of black for some real style)

Personally, I have a rule when inviting others to an event of mine; either I tell my guests in detail what they should wear or I don’t tell them at all. Why, for an occasion as important as a wedding, would the host offer such an ambiguous sartorial instruction as “smart casual” – especially when doing so throws a wrench into an understood social convention? Why do otherwise reasonable people do such frustrating things?

My own theory is that we all want to be creative and different at important moments in our lives. We want to stand out from the pack and be recalled as creative. That’s all well and good, but it only works when everyone is included in the plan.

Several years ago some friend of ours decided to throw a surprise wedding – they wanted to be unconventional, so instead of wedding invitations they sent out invitations to an open house. They had just moved to a lovely mountainside location, so it made sense to those receiving the invitation. The problem was that we live on the other side of the country and flying out for an afternoon open house would have been expensive and difficult, so we declined. This couple was so intent on keeping the true event a surprise that they never let us know what we were really missing – not even a hint. It took a while to get over that one.

My point is that unless everyone is on the same page, you are putting an undue burden on your guests to figure out what’s going on. Had we known the truth, we would have been on the next plane. To a lesser extent, cryptic phrases like “smart casual,” “summer festive” or worse, “beachy fun” leave the wedding guest in a bind. To one person, smart casual may mean tailored chinos and polo shirt while to another it might be an elegant suit with no tie but a nice pocket square. And what the heck is beachy fun – should I wear swim trunks?

In this case my reader knew the groom’s personality and that his likely attire would be a suit and tie. The groom’s only additional direction was that he and his fiancé wanted people to be “comfortable.” Though intended to be helpful, this additional nugget of information only served to make things more confusing.

My approach to this unfortunately vague scenario is to go classically simple. A nice sport coat, open collared shirt, pressed trousers and polished shoes will get you through almost any situation. Blue blazers in particular earn their keep and, because of their inherent versatility, can handle dressy and casual scenarios with aplomb.

All in all, when faced with situations such as these it’s best to sit back and take a deep breath. If you are not able to or comfortable with asking your hosts for some specific direction, take the middle route. Try not to over dress, but for goodness sake do not under dress.

One Thing: The Polo Shirt

Polo shirts are the cornerstone of any classic warm weather wardrobe and have been so for generations. Though when they hear “polo” shirt most people think Polo™ shirt, the first truly branded version was developed in 1929 for tennis legend Rene’ “The Alligator” Lacoste.

Lacoste wanted a comfortable shirt to replace the traditional, but totally impractical dress shirt and tie worn by tennis players at the time. In doing so, he unwittingly produced one of the most versatile warm weather shirts ever. Whether tagged with a little reptile or tiny horseman, the polo shirt belongs in your summer rotation.

I would suggest that the polo shirt is in fact one of the great sartorial innovations of the last few generations. With its unique ability to straddle the elusive line between casual and formal, the classic polo can carry you from the office to the country club with little stress. In today’s corporate casual world, day to day office wear can be a challenge and while I do not suggest that a knit polo shirt is right for every occasion, when paired with a sharp outfit you should be good to go.

Khakis are a traditional choice and usually fine for most situations. Just ensure that you do not pull on the going-to-pick-up-a-can-of-paint pants. Opt for a nice pair of khakis in fine cotton – the ones constructed like dress pants. Keep it less stuffy with clean boat shoes or penny loafers and a woven leather or ribbon belt.

For a more business feel, try a dressy belt with a silver monogrammed buckle, blue blazer and high grade slip-ins from Ben Silver. I’ve even seen a black polo paired with a pinstriped suit; very sharp in a George Clooney sort of way. Be careful with that one, not many men can actually pull it off.

Whatever look you’re trying to achieve, make sure to follow these simple guidelines to always be your best when sporting a polo shirt this summer. First, as always, ensure that the fit is right.

Avoid going too baggy, an annoying sin of the younger set. A trim fit across the shoulders – so the shirt’s shoulder seams actually land on your shoulder – should be your first goal. You don’t want any pulling or bunching, just a natural and comfortable fit.  The body of the shirt should lightly touch yours, but not pull or feel tight.

The sleeve should hit around mid-bicep and be fitted but not constricting. When un-tucked, your shirt should hang no lower than your hips. In no case should it cover your rear like some kind of mini skirt; that never looks good.

Regardless of how well it fits, when in the office, keep your shirt tucked in.

Even when you’re going for a younger look, say with modern jeans and some vintage shoes, a trim fit will keep everything looking fresh. Many designers have come out with slimmer fitting polo shirts, so make sure you try on several brands and see what feels best. And trim does not mean tight – unless you want it tight of course, which is another look altogether.

In my case Ralph Lauren shirts fit very well. The body, arms and length are just right. Still, I pine for a Lacoste polo but the cut is just too way slim for my build. I also have several Brooks Brothers shirts and they fit me well, but not as well as the Polo polos.

One of the best things about these versatile shirts is that they come in almost any color under the sun. Basic white to jet black; solid color or preppy stripe, you can find it.

They also happen to age very well. That really beat up old polo at the bottom of the shirt drawer – the one with the seriously frayed collar? It will look great at the clam bake with some faded khaki shorts and gin & tonic.