Down with the Kids

I recently walked past the new Abercrombie & Fitch “Kids” store on Savile Row.

Did you get that?

Abercrombie. Fitch. KIDS.

On SAVILE ROW.

It’s like being told that there’s a Ladbrokes in Belgrave Square.

However, aside from how monumentally disappointing it is to me that this particular berth is now a reality, it did prompt me to think.

Now that the pavement will be clogged with Bugaboos and the air ever more redolent of Abercrombie’s answer to mustard gas, the question for the Row’s ancient tailoring tenants is simple: are they more relevant, for now and the foreseeable future than the new “noisy neighbours” at No.3?

The answer isn’t as simple. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. What I do know is that I am often approached by people who ask me about buying “Savile Row suits”. I am rarely approached by people who ask me about “Savile Row separates”.

And yet the majority of men skipping around the very elegant part of the capital I work in don’t seem to be particularly fussed about suits – particularly on Fridays, when they don’t have to be.

Of course, down the Row, you’ll always see well-dressed suited men going to and fro, wearing big lapels with DB waistcoats, tie clips and slick Gaziano & Girling brogues as if the 1960s had never happened.

But walk out into Old Bond Street or onto Regent Street and the suits vanish. Like something out of Lewis Carroll, you wonder whether they ever existed at all as you note that the majority of men who are self-consciously well dressed are wearing separates – trousers (or jeans) and a blazer.

While it’s easier to sit back, observe and bemoan decay, there’s a more practical – and profitable – way for the Row tailors to deal with the changing tastes of London men.

By marketing the full capabilities of tailoring – not just suits.

There is no getting away from the fact that Savile Row is really “Suit Street.” You don’t go down there if you want a pair of jeans or some cotton t-shirts.

But what about a pair of grey wool trousers, or some cotton chinos cut the way you want them, or a chocolate corduroy jacket? And where does one get that perfect, navy overcoat for winter?

“We make everything really” one of the Row’s tailors recently told me, rather sorrowfully “but I don’t think people really want much else from us besides a suit.”

Really? The same people wandering into Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren and Cucinelli? What are they looking for in these emporiums then? Chicken breasts?

The changing tastes of fashion should hold no fear for the Row. They once helped create fashion, of course, but they are often resistant to its extremes. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t adapted. After all, few were forcing their customers into frock coats after the First World War.

For those with the resources, a bespoke tailor is almost the first and only port of call for those in the know. However, I have often taken friends around to peruse swatch books for them to express incredulity at the possibilities available: “What? Bespoke moleskin trousers? Can they do that? Really?”

A more casual uniform is not necessarily a cheaper uniform. After all, men are spending many hundreds on non-bespoke “designer” alternatives. They have the resources and the will. What they don’t have, unlike women, is much of an imagination.

Generally, men need to be fed information about what is possible – almost exhaustively – otherwise they will never ask. It sounds like I am being uncharitable to my own sex but I cannot conceive of a more flattering manner of expression.

Ironically, Abercrombie do have an imagination.

Which other lifestyle brand could have the breathtakingly arrogant fantasy that their overpriced, mass-produced nappies belong on the same street as Huntsman, Henry Poole & Maurice Sedwell?

NiAlma Shirt Review

For a good long time, I have always believed that I was never going to become a Bespoke Billy. I love my made to measure and bespoke items, but I also see plenty of value, and relative quality, in off-the-rack items.

In most areas, off-the-rack items are increasing in appeal. For instance, Zara’s jacket block is probably the best on the high street and, worryingly, is actually more flattering and better finished than many of the online made-to-measure providers.

Trousers from TopMan and River Island have also amazed – even angered – chums working in tailoring: “River Oyyyland?!” they guffaw in disbelief “They’re pretty damn good actually!”

However, one area of ready-to-wear has begun to disappoint: formal shirts.

There was a time when I couldn’t believe my luck in being a Londoner. Jermyn Street, one of the key parishes of menswear, was local to me.

Shoes, ties, grooming products and, importantly, shirts; tons and tons of shirts.

However, over time, this bounty has lost its shine. Supplier changes, cheapening of finish and a confusing inventory have taken what was once a paradise for those in need of a crisp chemise and laden it with land mines for the uninitiated. It is no longer a clean-sweep value-guarantee.

As a result, when I was contacted by NiAlma to review one of their made-to-measure shirts, I was delighted.

Founded in 2007, the NiAlma brand seeks to offer “a premium shirt, comparable with the best brands in the market, at the lowest price possible.” All their shirts are made to each customer’s measurements and there is a massive, Enigma-machine-number of combinations possible.

Their fabrics are all cotton and a good many are from Thomas Mason who has notably supplied Turnbull & Asser with most of their shirting – a reassuring accreditation, particularly for online-only tailoring. Once you have selected your fabric of choice, you then set about customizing the shirt, firstly choosing collar style (largely a variety of spreads, a button down option and some classic collars) and then choosing the height of the collar, the thickness, the tip size and whether a (contrast) French collar is desired.

Then you choose the cuff style (there are nine options), placket style, pockets, pleats, darts and yokes. Pleasingly, you can also choose buttons – although there are currently only four options – and also the colour of the button stitching. For those who are in the habit of forgetting their name, there is also the option of a monogram, which can be positioned on the right or left cuff, inside the collar or on the pocket.

Undeniably, the shirt is very comfortable. The Thomas Mason fabric is crisp and soft. In these pictures I have been wearing it underneath a waistcoat and jacket to show the stress of wear and wrinkles after a day. Some standard elbow creasing and a little on the upper arms too, but generally, the Black Label Thomas Mason fabric holds up well.

It’s not as snug as I expected – or wanted – and even though it feels so much better than all my recent Jermyn Street bundles, it doesn’t have a wow factor. Additionally, I was surprised to see that the contrast white collar used a plush white twill instead of a plain poplin (which is actually harder wearing).

The key to ordering with NiAlma, like any distance tailoring, is self-measurement: getting it right is the difference between success and failure. At $100-$160 for a made-to-measure shirt using high-grade Italian-made cotton, NiAlma is not bad value if the product’s purpose – a shirt that fits a man’s body – is fulfilled.

http://nialma.com/

Mensflair Collection for Tailor4Less

“A man in a suit!” she said “Give me a man in a suit – any day.”

The girl who made this remark was twizzling the straw in her drink, in lip-biting admiration of a group of sartorially well-clad men.

“What about blazers?” I asked, cheekily.

“Huh?” she admonished, realizing that I was clad in what could only be described as a blazer. “Wait. Aren’t they like suits? I thought they were for old men…”

The blazer name gets a bit of a raw deal. So much so that few stores actually call their blazer collections by their true name: “Casual jackets”, “Sports jackets” and, inevitably, the simple “Jackets” seem to be preferred by many retailers.

The ‘blazer’ connotes something a little different, a little retro – perhaps even something more dowdily formal.

When I was asked by Tailor4Less to design a collection of blazers, I was therefore determined that the collection should counter these misperceptions.

There would be a staple navy blazer with brass buttons – in full Brooks Brothers style – but the rest of the collection would be focused on variations around the blazer theme.

The collection was partly inspired by Mid-Century fashion, when men’s sartorial separates began to break away from the Inter-War conservatism of navy and grey.

My first visual was of a bright blue summer blazer with brass buttons, worn with light grey or white trousers and a pair of tan penny loafers, the brightness of the blue countering the stiff formality of an equivalent design in navy.

Similarly, a night blue linen blazer with gunmetal buttons, a double-breasted sand brown cotton blazer – perfect with a white shirt and blue jeans – and a one-button black linen jacket also acted as summer adaptations of the theme.

There were also some Mid-Century classics. A light brown corduroy jacket – partly inspired by the jacket worn by Matt Damon’s character Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley is the perfect cosy friend for long, sleepy journeys.

A double-breasted light grey blazer in a light, Italian wool is perfect for pairing with blue and dark grey trousers – to contrast with the typical pairing which reverses this colour combination – and a light green blazer is a fun nod to golf club retro that can be worn with a blue shirt, a pair of grey flannel trousers and chocolate brown shoes.

Finally, a double breasted blazer combines a design classic with modern updates; a subtle mid-blue instead of navy, silver-tone metal buttons and patch pockets ensure that it looks and feels contemporary.

The key to wearing blazers is not to take them seriously. The colours and embellishments are there to be enjoyed, not revered. Unless you happen to be a genuine seaman, no one is going to reprimand you for slouching in your blazer.

As always with Tailor4Less clothing, the blazers in this collection are cut to your measurements. They are not ‘off-the-rack’ and as you can see, they fit admirably well.

Prices for this collection start at just under £125 and go up to £190.

Pheobes & Dee Review

I must admit, I’m not really into modern ties.

I watch movies set in the current day and physically cringe at the fish-skin-shine concoctions that represent what tie and costume designers consider ‘taste’ and ‘fashion’ in the year 2014.

Firstly, it’s satin-silk. Everywhere. Notorious for its reflective capabilities – doubling up as a vanity mirror – it cheapens any ensemble.

Secondly, the patterns leave a lot to be desired. Particularly the stripes, which have more variations in colours and widths than a 1970s living room.

The amazing fact is these ties are rarely as cheap as they look. So-called ‘designer’ ties can cost more than a pair of trousers or a waistcoat, their only validation for such an expense being “It’s Dior, so…”

Now, anyone of suitable tie intelligence will tell you that it is actually hard to make a proper tie very cheaply. The kind of dross they churn out at bargain basement tie-discounters will be scoffed at as utterly inferior. Firstly, the quality of the silk will be seriously questioned. Secondly, the way the tie is constructed will be scrutinized – and will be found wanting.

In much the same way that suit snobs go on about hand-stitching, horse-hair and floating canvasses, tie snobs focus on ‘folds’; the simple point being that more is generally better.

Most ties are folded three to six times and have a wool or faux wool interlining in order for the tie to keep its structure and not flap about in the wind like a toddler’s hair ribbon.

Special ties are those folded seven or more times, where sometimes – depending on the weight of the fabric – no interlining is used. Essentially, more of the tie fabric has been used and is simply folded in on itself seven times to form its own structure.

It also takes more artisanal skill to fold a tie seven times or more, which is the main reason it has cache. In much the same way that hand-stitching has cache over machine stitching, largely because of the fact it requires human sweat and toil. The real question with this folding, as with the stitching, is whether this skill actually adds anything of actual value.

I recently received a tie from Pheobes & Dee, a new brand of Italian hand-made neckwear that focuses on seven fold and knitted ties.

Now, I have to admit, I don’t have much of a fetish for gazillion folded ties. I really don’t mind having a cheaper lining used. I also don’t mind if it’s only been folded three times. I have ties from Tie Rack that have been folded and lined in the same way as ties from Savile Row tailors, and so I never really developed the ‘seven-fold itch.’

However, in much the same way that Rolls-Royce owners never use the umbrellas in the suicide doors or that guests of Four Seasons hotels never use ‘complimentary shuttle buses’, it’s actually jolly nice to know it’s there.

The tie, named ‘The Carrick’, is a beautiful burgundy colour with a white pin-dot pattern and an interlining. When I first opened it I couldn’t quite believe how heavy and thick the thing was. Most ties in my collection flutter in the first gust of wind and feel almost feather-like. This tie has a robustness that reminded me of weighty, damask curtains in grand Paris hotels, as though it would embarrass my suits with it’s, ahem, unflappability.

The reality is, it does. And this is no bad thing. The last seven-fold tie I received was a beautiful thing – but give it a strong breeze by the River Thames and it bobbed about like a windsock. This tie feels elegant, and is comfortable to wear, but it barely moves.

Retailing at $140, it is certainly not a cheap option – but then it hasn’t been made cheaply.

Combatant Gentlemen Shirt & Tie Review

They say that all good things must come to an end.

And so, sadly, ends my patronage of TM Lewin, the Jermyn Street shirtmaker. Once a consistent and aggressive promoter of their poplin, I have been so disappointed with the quality of their product recently that I haven’t been inclined to even browse idly in their stores.

“What can you expect for £20-30 a shirt?” the Pinkers, Turnbullers and Hilditchers chuckle in smug satisfaction.

Quite a lot, actually – a few years ago, at least.

It’s fair to say that the golden era of bargain Jermyn Street shirts is on the wane. Only Charles Tyrwhitt (and to a lesser extent Hawes & Curtis) still regularly offer beautifully soft cotton formal shirts with well-constructed collars for under £30. Lewin, once the king of value, now sell poplin shirts that feel like greaseproof kitchen paper.

Feeling generally dismayed with the decline of this bonanza, I was intrigued by the offer to try a shirt and tie from a company called Combatant Gentlemen, a US based enterprise that seemed to offer a variety of inexpensive sartorial solutions from shirts and ties to knitwear and suits.

With most of their shirts priced between $30 and $45, I was convinced that there must be some kind of catch; the cotton must be inferior or the shirts must be off in terms of fit.

Similarly the Combatant Gentlemen ties, which go for around $14 to $16 and are apparently constructed of 100% silk, seemed to undermine all I had been given to understand about the sub-$20 necktie.

The reality is that both products exceed expectations.

The shirt has a classic, non-cutaway collar and a soft, brushed feel. Having been concerned by the artificial touch of English shirts at a similar price point I was delighted by it’s smoothness. Apparently, the fabrics for Combatant Gentlemen shirts are sourced in Italy and are then shipped to China to be made.

The fit was also of a higher standard than anticipated; fitting snugly around the shoulders and arms and cutting tightly in the waist, the Slim Fit of the shirt is even slimmer than English shirts. And, given the soft feel of the fabric, it is a pleasure to have close to the skin. “Finally!” I thought,  “Here is something that tops the declining Jermyn Street bazaar!”

The tie, playfully called ‘Let’s Polka!’ I chose for its wide-spaced Deco charm; such ties are marvellously wearable with almost any suit or shirt pattern and colour and I have been particularly excited recently by the potential efficiency of accessories.  Though listed as ‘black’ it is in fact a midnight blue, which I actually prefer as it pairs better with navy and grey suits. The feel in the hand is of a tie three times the price; the dots are woven into a smart, matte silk and it has a hard, craft-like feel. The dot spacing isn’t absolutely perfect but then I don’t mind this. I had expected something which felt like a Tie Rack bottom-of-the-bin but it has such a crisp quality, I still can’t believe it retails, non-promotionally, at $16.

There are also some silk knit ties that reminded me of the selection at Uniqlo.

But then I remembered that Uniqlo’s ties are Polyester. And more expensive.

Combatant Gentlemen
was only founded a couple of years ago; as a darn good thing, it has, rather fortunately, a hell of a long way to go till the end.