Punching Up in Party Season

lapo-velvet-jacket

Hold onto your hats; party season is here once again.

Between the middle of December and the first birdsong of the New Year, the world turns into an alcoholic, tinsel-and-firework merry-go-round, wringing out the remainder of our leftover greed, wantonness and impropriety. I have only one Christmas party to go to but one acquaintance of mine has three work-related functions to attend; “One’s a divisional thing, the other’s a group company party” And what’s the third? “Oh. I’ve got an invite to the girlfriend’s work ball – can’t be bothered to go.”

It’s a shame that we get so used to such things, we never learn to appreciate them sufficiently in the moment. Life, after all, is about contribution and being part of something greater than mere survival. Being invited to balls and parties should excite us; fill us with that keen sense of anticipation.

It should also fill us with inspiration – and not lead us into the temptation of skimping on a black tie ensemble by wearing a dark grey lounge suit with a clip-on poly bow tie.

I received a frantic missive from a chum recently, asking me how to dress for a ‘terrifyingly trendy fashionista party’, set to take place in a glittering ballroom in one of Mayfair’s grand dame palace hotels. He had a grosgrain silk bow tie and Marcella cotton shirt but what could else he possibly wear to cut a dash and avoid looking like the rest of the rent-a-tux crowd?

The Jacket

I would recommend a velvet smoking jacket style.

Ultra-traditionalists would sniff that this is ‘normally only to be worn in your own residence’ and is not appropriate for an ‘out of home’ black tie function, particularly balls.

Well, balls to that.

It’s difficult to cut a head-turning dash as a chap without looking a little unconventional on such occasions. And given that female fashion has long dispensed with the length requirements dictated for ballgowns, to shun a fabric like velvet, that catches the season’s aesthetic so wonderfully, is frankly silly.

I would opt for a colour rather than black velvet, due to the fact that coloured velvet is infinitely better at reflecting light. Burgundy is elegant, if a little old school, bottle green is currently trending, although not for the light hearted, but the ultimate in sleek smoking chic this season is, perhaps unexpectedly, brown.

In certain light it has a warm, chocolate tone that contrasts deliciously with the cool, crisp white of a starched shirt-front. Black bow ties appear more authoritative next to it and it has an old-world, distinguished charm to it, like a fading label on a great Bordeaux. Or Robert Redford.

Suit Supply and Gieves & Hawkes both have excellent shawl-collared, one-button options available, with black silk-faced lapels and jetted pockets. Paul Stuart Phineas Cole has an all-brown option, with brown-grosgrain peak lapels.

The Trousers

Given the slightly outré jacket suggestion, one might expect me to suggest sober, black Barathea trousers.

These would certainly work very well, however, black Barathea has never really made much of a statement. It fades into the background (quite by design) and, on this occasion, is only for the unimaginative.

You could go all brown velvet like Lapo Elkann. However, velvet suits make me think of Austin Powers.

Instead, I would either recommend black silk trousers, the shine contrasting with the lush matte of the velvet pile, or – if you are feeling brave (and Tom Ford circa 2010) enough – some tartan trousers, with a Scandinavian uber-taper at the ankles. Hackett have some options to oblige.

The Shoes

I always favour patent Oxfords or opera pumps, but this is a look that deserves something a little more dangerous, like Paul Stuart Phineas Cole’s houndstooth evening slippers.

If these go too far, perhaps a plain pair of black, Albert velvet slippers from Brooks Brothers would be more approachable.

Anything other than evening slippers or pumps in this ensemble adds unnecessary ‘clump.’

The other essentials

The usual routine; shirt studs, black silk socks, and a black silk cummerbund. Add a pocket square if you feel it is needed, but keep it fairly conservative. Remember, keeping the small things trad lets the big things go mad.

Sharp & Dapper Shirt Stays

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

However, in the modern age I find that the opposite is often true.

There are so many products that create problems in order to sell solutions. Like the myriad bathroom cleaners that profess a singular, unique purpose – when a basic, multi-purpose bleach would often suffice.

There are widgets, bobbits and all manner of tools that purport an essential need; ‘invent today and find the need tomorrow’ seems to be the motto.

However, there are some problems of great irritation that I have wished some mind far greater than mine could attend to.

Ironing has always irked me. It is a chore, the technology for which has barely progressed in half a century. It seems ridiculous in this day and age that we still need to unfold a board, plug in an electronic steam-device and slide it back and forth across a shirt to make it presentable.

In fact, shirts in general are rather annoying.

I like them, of course. But they have a nasty habit of misbehaving.

In the course of a day, I often find even my made to measure shirts not staying where they are meant to be; tucked in my trousers with a smooth front up to my collar. It might sound like Leyendecker idealism, but it always struck me as rather irksome that even a well-starched cotton shirt must crumple so much in an ensemble.

And so when I was presented with the option of ‘shirt stays’ from Sharp & Dapper, I was titillated. Finally, here was a product which sought to govern the ungovernable, twofold. For not only is this product designed to pull on one’s shirt tails to create that smooth-as-a-board effect, it also pulls up one’s socks at the same time.

Of course, theory is all very well but it achieves nothing. Trial is essential to make an idea an invention, and so recently, I set about testing it.

The first step is to attach the elasticated straps to the bottom of your shirt or, if you choose, to the top of your socks.

I chose the socks first and found it rather tricky as I was wearing a thick-ish pair of Uniqlo winter socks rather than a pair of fine merino socks. Essentially, you need to push a bit of rubber inside the top of the sock to create a lump and secure the metal latch over this lump, so that it safely grips the material.

Next, I attached the other end of the strap to the bottom of the shirt front, which was far easier due to the thinness of the shirt material. I repeated the process with the three remaining straps, attaching two to the shirt front and two to the shirt rear.

The sensation is, initially, bizarre. The elastic straps are alarmingly effective and require getting used to. I was very, very aware that I was wearing them, even when I tried on trousers afterwards. However, I have been reliably informed that the unfamiliarity of this sensation passes with regular use.

The best thing is that even a fitted shirt could be improved by its use. It pulled down on the tails, creating a smooth finish across the front that would have been welcome on many formal occasions in memory.

I find it would be particularly useful for black tie, given the use of low waistcoats and the desirability of an entirely smooth front, as well as the proliferation of black silk socks – which have a nasty habit of not remaining on the calves but slinking down to the ankles.

 

Why I Won’t Suit The New iPhone

I’m a big fan of the iPhone.

(And no, Apple haven’t sponsored this post.)

It’s so pretty. So well formed. So smooth. So useful. So reassuringly solid.

I am not, however, a fan of the iPhone 6. And the less said of its gargantuan, plus-sized sibling the better.

The implied philosophy that ‘size matters’ is not incorrect. It does. Unfortunately, it counts in the wrong places as well as the right ones.

For as thin as the objects may be, their surface area still makes a substantial impact.

Though many have long complained about the ‘tiny’ screens on iPhones when compared to other brand’s models, I have been quite satisfied with a mere 4 inches. And so have my inside jacket pockets.

I am not one of those who finds it convenient to keep my phone in my bag, nor do I like keeping it in external pockets – as they too often get doused by one of London’s stranger varieties of rainshower.

The driest, and most convenient place, to keep my precious phone is in the inner chest pocket of the suits and blazers I wear on a daily basis. This allows for easy access in the event of answering and making calls, controlling the music selection when headphones are attached and feeling the phone vibrating with an alert.

So far, the Apple iPhone has been of a size that has a low impact on the line of a gentleman’s jacket. Even those items that are finely tailored don’t show a hint of the famous ‘rectangle with rounded corners.’ For those like me that prefer to wear slim fitting jackets, this design discreteness has been a godsend. And other style-minded chaps seem to agree. It takes no genius perusing Pinterest to see that the iPhone is probably the most used phone at Pitti Uomo.

However, it should come as no surprise that we weren’t really meant to walk around with tiny computers suspended next to our bosoms. And the suit, evergreen as it might be in terms of style, was never designed for this purpose either.

And though the inside chest pocket is less revealing than others of its content (largely due to the canvas), a large object (in length and width) does something rather criminal to the beautiful shape of a jacket’s chest. I tried to put an acquaintance’s 6 Plus into my bespoke chalk stripe: “It won’t fit” I said “Ah. Is the pocket too narrow?” they asked “No. The phone’s too big. The pocket is the correct size for the suit.”

Then, another offered up to try the 6 instead. It slipped inside the pocket easily enough. I buttoned it up and looked in front of the mirror. Though the lump itself was shallow, it made such an impact on the silhouette of the suit that it looked as though I was carrying the Holy Bible.

Unlike gentlemen’s accessories of the past such as the hip flask or cigarette case, these supersized phones have not been designed with a sartorial mind.

The solution that most suggest, particularly the tailors, is to engineer around it. Some have created special smart phone pockets, sized accordingly, and many have relocated these lining pockets to the lower half of the jacket to reduce the effect on the shape of the jacket.

Of course, this has a hefty cost implication for existing clothes – and the results aren’t always flawless. It’s also dashed inconvenient to have the phone flapping about down near the jacket hem rather than in easy reach.

Size does matter. But so does elegance.

Why Copying Can Be The Best Solution

Tailoring isn’t why I started writing about clothes.

I’m well aware that there are countless bloggers, forumers, ‘online personalities’ and seasoned style leaders who are passionate about, even obsessed by, suits.

As a result, there is a consistent and formidable stream of introductions, explanations, examinations and reviews. A torrent of information on all kinds of things; off the rack suits, alterations, buttons, made-to-measure, bespoke, stitchings, linings – almost every tailor, whether Italian, French, Chinese or English has been touched upon.

It is for this reason that I have refrained from focusing on tailoring in this column.

However, I am drawn to comment on a recent commission because my experience is of likely value to readers.

My interaction with Tailor4Less, a European-based internet tailor with operations in China, has been mixed in fortune. I first reviewed one of their made-to-measure suits last year, a navy blue three-piece with a double-breasted waistcoat.

As I recall, my views were mixed. The tailoring was reasonably impressive for the price with the trousers and cut of the jacket more than acceptable. However, the cut of the waistcoat left something to be desired and I regretted not ordering cloth samples before selecting the fabric.

I then designed a collection of Mid-Century inspired blazers, from which I selected the bright blue, brass buttoned single-breasted as the signature piece. To achieve better functionality, I ordered a waistcoat and a pair of trousers in the same fabric.

Unfortunately, though the jacket and trousers fit more than tolerably well, I was again disappointed with the fit of the waistcoat. It was bizarrely full in the chest and the width of the waistcoat mysteriously excessive across the shoulders – especially odd given the same measurements of my body had resulted in a jacket which fit me perfectly well.

I ordered a remake of the waistcoat based on one made for me by Massimo Dutti Personal Tailoring, providing waistcoat length, chest width, waist width and shoulder width measurements to the tailoring staff. The result was a good deal better, but still not perfect. The waistcoat was too wide across the ‘V’ which resulted in it sitting too wide on the shoulders, a problem which was apparent in the first, navy suit waistcoat.

I simply didn’t understand why the block for the waistcoat was so off. Despite good and helpful communication, the result wasn’t entirely satisfactory so for my next order, a Glen check light tweed I provided more than the requested measurements and included the width between the waistcoat shoulders and the length of the waistcoat lapels, including a number of photos, and hoped that the simple science of copying – which has often been recommended to those visiting the tailoring establishments of cities such as Shanghai – could ensure satisfaction through replication.

The result, shown in these pictures, is highly satisfactory for me. I was initially disappointed to have to supply measurements from another garment. However, I have come to realize that replication of a favourite jacket, waistcoat or trouser is not only efficient but also reassuring. It means fewer surprises, less need for alteration and above all, a peace-of-mind that the garment will fit.

Bespoke aficionados would no doubt scoff into their surgeon’s cuffs at this recommendation. I might too if I was regularly commissioning £2000 suits.

The jacket might need a nip at the waist and I think some length could be shaved off. And of course, there’s none of those beautiful ‘because-we-can’ details that you get on the finest suits. However, for £214 for a three-piece suit, I find the value hard to argue with. The waistcoat might simply be a facsimile of one I already own, but why fix it if it ain’t broke?

Remember, when in doubt – copy.

M&S and Gandy: A Brief Story

Missed opportunity. There are few sadder words in the English language. “Too late” is heartbreaking; “gone forever” is, frankly miserable.

I was ruminating on these maudlin notes when viewing the much ballyhooed and heavily marketed underwear collection created by David Gandy for Marks & Spencer. The story of the product is that Gandy, a male model – reputed to be the world’s most successful – has, for a price, lent his name and experience to one of the British high street’s most famous, and sadly troubled, retailers.

In classic Waugh-esque news headline tone; “Desperate retailer clings to the coat tails of its prize clothes horse.”

However, as slight as it sounds, the model’s offering in this trade isn’t insignificant. His experience has its uses; Gandy has often been snapped wearing very little and so his knowledge of lycra cotton underwear is, no doubt, exceptionally useful.

But when all is said and done, it’s his name that M&S are paying for. “But who’s Gandy?” many of you may cry.

Fair question. And one likely to be asked by most of Marks & Spencer’s most loyal customers. For all the bleating M&S can do about Gandy’s leather bound books and his rich mahogany scented home, he means diddly squat to the average John Bull frantically rummaging the underwear racks.

And here we get to the heart of the problem.

The demographic profile of the average Marks & Spencer underwear shopper is not that of the Calvin Klein underwear shopper. He is generally likely to be price sensitive, buy plain underwear in bulk and see celebrity-endorsed knickers as a merry con.

However, the Calvin Klein shopper might be more susceptible to trends and famous people slapping their names on a pair of tighty whiteys. Bjorn Borg, the Swedish former tennis champ, might have tempted him with his hypercoloured retro designs and name stretched across the waistband.

The issue is, he doesn’t really shop at Marks & Spencer. He knows who Gandy is, and might even have bought a pair of Dolce pants on the back of those sweaty-pec D&G adverts. “Oh wow” he might say “Gandy’s done his own underwear. Nice.” He might even entertain the thought of buying a few pairs, uploading on Instagram, telling his followers: “Check it out – Gandy’s pants. Need a few more pairs – and some more gym time!”

However, for all the guff about quality and details, there’s not much that can draw him into a buying frenzy. It would have been quite cool to have a pair of Gandy pants, but they’re just so…ordinary. Nothing. No quirkiness, no outlandish design or statement. Just quiet, white pants with a small, grey, embarrassed logo identifying the namesake.

My first reaction was of incredulity. It’s true that most M&S existing buyers wouldn’t like a pair of tight, D&G-esque pants with ‘GANDY’ stretched across the waistband. After all, they like Rich Tea biscuits, still listen to the cricket on the radio and own picnic chairs. But then they wouldn’t be the target anyway because they wouldn’t pay £20 for two pairs when they could get five pairs for the same amount of money, simply because a male model they’ve never heard of helped design the collection.

M&S could have pushed the boat out, stretched the brief (pun intended) to be targeted at the kind of fashion brigade who aren’t generally seen within 3 miles of M&S menswear. Create a sensation, get the TopMan-cum-Reiss crowd fighting over a pair; have the 20-something girls giggling in excitement as they take off their lover’s shirts to reveal the model hunk’s name emblazoned across the waistband.

The collection is nothing without his name – and yet the retailer has made such little use of it. A missed opportunity indeed.