Sartorial Love/Hate: Casentino Coats

“Jesus. His coat has seen better days” a colleague murmured as we were flicking through some of the best captures of the biannual peacock-fest that is PittiUomo. It was somewhat inevitable coming from someone who hadn’t yet managed to stretch their sartorial imagination beyond multi-deal Jermyn Street shirts, Barbour paddock jackets and suits from Marks & Spencer.

Their idea of texture is, understandably, confined to silk twills, smooth Super 100s wools and Oxford-cloth cotton. Whilst harsh to call it pedestrian, it is rather wedded to the conventional. And so the distinctive Casentino fabric, with its curious similarity to pilled wool – which afflicts jumpers, cardigans and other woollen wearas a result of friction – is undoubtedly strange. After all, why would you want a coat that looks like it has been someone’s favourite for one decade too many.

“Some new-fangled trendy thing” the colleague surmised, folding his arms and shaking his head.

Not a bit of it. Casentino is an ancient fabric. Long renowned for being strong and warm, it has been used in making blankets for animals and for clothing cold Franciscan friars since the Middle Ages. It then moved from mere practicality to aesthetic heights when it became desirable for its distinctive ‘curls’ in the 19th century, counting amongst its famous wearers the composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.

One of the more well-known examples of the Casentino coat is Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s wearing a double-breasted Hubert de Givenchyorange version (orange being the signature colour of Casentino). It is this mid-century aesthetic that has endured; with sparkling heels, gleaming sunglasses and a fur hat in supporting roles, lifting the Casentino to the giddy heights of chic Hollywood glamour.

More recently, it has been seen on the many dandies prowling around PittiUomo every January; an appropriate environment given the material’s connection with Florence and Tuscany. After all, Casentino is named after a valley area to the east of that great Renaissance city.

And, like most PittiUomo trends, the skilful execution of such fashion can persuade admirers to action.

“I really want a Casentino coat!” men have been gushing online, with the unlikely gusto normally associated with boyhood dreams like driving a Ferrari or sleeping with a supermodel.

However, others struggle to see any appeal in the fabric, reacting to its distinctive texture in much the same way that the Prince of Wales responds to modernist architecture: why would something be made intentionally ugly and then considered uniquely beautiful? “It looks like my granny’s bath mat!” another colleague exclaimed “There’s no way anyone can pull this off, unless they’re a model.”

I sit on the friendly side of the fence. Yes, it’s another Pitti-led fad and a Casentino coat is hardly the first entry in a capsule collection. However, worn in the right way and the right context, it moves the coat to the forefront of the ensemble, without extravagant patterns or embellishments.

In my view, the key elements are colour and texture contrast – with a dash of playfulness.

Colour

Typically, overcoats worn are in navy, dark grey and black. These overcoats are serious and sensible; funeral fodder. Casentino coats are all about the texture, which is playful and curious, and there is no better way of showing off the distinctive curls than wearing brighter colours; the shadowing created by the curls shows up better in colours with greater contrast ranges. You can go for the distinctive Hermes orange or the similarly classic bright green, but they also look good in royal blue, burgundy, rust and purple. Mustard yellow is an interesting idea, and even a very light grey could work. The key is not to think too sensibly or practically; light grey, for example, is a flexible and not outrageous colour, but is arguably very impractical for outerwear, which means it can work with Casentino.

Texture contrast

As a texture showpiece, Casentino needs an appropriate set. Contrasting textures are required to offset its appearance, so layer over smoother textures such as fine worsted and flannel. It’s quite a casual coat, so is also perfect for combining with weekend cashmere rollnecks. It seems to work best with patterns underneath, emphasising its playful edge.

Modern Bertie

“Pip pip” he would say as he skipped out of his Mayfair club ‘Drones’, tipping his fur felt trilby (probably from Bates) at his bemused chums.

He would advance into the London sunshine wearing a daring chalkstripe flannel suit, undoubtedly from a Savile Row tailor, a foulard silk necktie bought in the Burlington Arcade would adorn a fashionable bar-collar, and the merest hint of a cream silk puff would poke from his chest pocket.

Turned-up trousers would flop onto dark brown, hand-made English Oxfords. And, after a charming word and an extravagant tip to a passing flower girl, a fresh rose or carnation would adorn his lapel.

The year is 1924. Bertram (Bertie) Wilberforce Wooster is in his mid-twenties. A privileged, pleasure-seeking clubman.

This is the Bertie that everyone knows. From today’s vantage point he seems, aside from the charmingly aimless existence and complete avoidance of seriousness, to be the picture of elegance, tradition and maturity. This is the way aged peers dress in the House of Lords. This is the inter-war aesthetic so beloved by The Chap magazine. This is the commonly-called ‘classic menswear.’

And yet, Bertie was really at the height of fashion.

In fact, some of the gentlemen who were still wearing black and grey Victorian and Edwardian frock coats, striped trousers and top hats would have thought him something of a rebel. Some of the more traditional members of London’s clubland, those from White’s or Brook’s, might even have considered him inappropriately attired – the equivalent of wearing a black necktie to a black tie event.

However, it is clear that it is the influence of his invaluable valet Jeeves that prevents Bertie from ever being considered ‘badly’ dressed. Ensuring Bertie is correctly attired is a daily task; clothes must be kept clean, pressed and mended at all times. Also, Jeeves often has to battle with his employer over items that only Bertie considers to be of value; white mess jackets, alpine trilby hats and extravagant plus-six golfing trousers.

But this is the harmless, cloud-cushioned world of Wodehouse, and so clothing is bound to be amongst the more serious matters.

The question is, if Bertie were around today, how would he dress?

One valid argument would point to his youth and state that Bertie’s conformity is only ever to his class and his age group. Therefore, the attire of the male Sloane Ranger is likely to be the major influence on his wardrobe. It’s a hideous thought, but it’s perfectly possible that were a 24 year old Bertie around today he would wear Sebago deck shoes with Abercrombie & Fitch chinos, an Oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt and a Moncler gilet.

However, some might say it would be unlikely that Jeeves – who is far more of a snob and a conformist than Bertie – would stand for such disregard of standards of elegance. We mustn’t forget it is Jeeves who maintains Bertie’s sartorial principles and removes unnecessary experimentation from his employer’s reach.

Therefore, some would suggest that Bertie may not dress that differently to the way in which he dresses in the books’ original setting. Jeeves, scrolling through the pages of Styleforum and The Rake, may see that the menswear of the 1920s-30s has, by and large, remained the ideal and is the clothing of taste for the gentleman about London. And, rather than let Bertie be influenced by the recklessness of current fashion or corrupted by his friends’ poor taste, he may cocoon him in an aesthetic closer to that of a city gent; pinstripes, waistcoats and double-breasted suits.

My own thoughts are that Bertie’s social conformity would play a great role. Yes, Jeeves would prevent him from becoming a hoody-wearing Mockney Old Etonian whose style icons are Stanford-educated tech billionaires, but I think that he would stop short of being preserved in a former era, no matter how evergreen the aesthetic. Modernity was evidently fascinating to Bertie. He lived in a fashionable area, in a fashionably decorated – and very modern – flat.

My own views are that he would wear a blend of English and European styles that would ape the prevailing aesthetic in both high-fashion and avant-garde tailoring. He would never embarrass himself in dress – he is too high-born for that – so would always be a subtle version of a trend. He might shop in Massimo Dutti, Paul Smith and Berluti.

He would, unfortunately, probably lose his taste for neckties, instead wearing elegant open shirts with soft-shouldered cord jackets, woven blazers and soft flannel and moleskin trousers. Both he and Jeeves would seek to mark him out as a man of leisure, albeit a smart one, by avoiding suits. His daily attire would appear as something an elegant hedge-fund manager might wear on the weekend. Plain and possibly tasseled brown and black loafers would be on his feet. He might wear cashmere from Loro Piana at home. His pocket watch would be replaced by a Panerai.

Home for modern Bertie is unlikely to be Berkeley Square. He is most likely to settle in Chelsea, where his old school and university friends might be. Although, with many of them not as wealthy as he, Battersea might be more realistic. A modern pied a terre overlooking the river, packed with technology and expensive, modern furniture.

Bertie’s club ‘Drones’ would not be of the Pall Mall type. It would likely be similar to the Dover Street Arts Club, although less commercial. The ranks of tweedy, English public school members in their 20s and 30s will have been reduced greatly, replaced by scions of Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes wearing Tom Ford.

However, there is one very likely consistency: Bertie’s avoidance of matrimony would remain true. And even the modern Drones would be unlikely to admit female members.

Tailoring Fads I’ll Be Avoiding

“You can only be brought up with taste” a professional acquaintance of mine opined “despite what people think, you can’t buy it and you can’t learn it quickly. It takes so long.”

His opinion is worth respecting. He is mature of year and very well thought of in luxury circles.

“You see so many people copying something, but they always make a mistake, or they focus on the wrong thing.”

It was these words that stayed with me when thinking about how easy, to some degree, copying something is.

Arguments can be had till the cows come home about the differing quality of tailors, whether off-the-rack is better than cheap made-to-measure and which bespoke tailor produces the finest Milanese buttonholes.

The reality is, for the vast majority of those who aren’t Tumblr-addicted forumites that the co-creative process in menswear has experienced a renaissance. Not since before the turn of the 20th century have we seen such a capability to add our own touches, accents and identity to the pieces we buy.

Personalisation is now all the rage.

Of course, for some, personalisation is, and always has been, the name of the game. Tailors have long traded on it; something made for you, with your preferred cut, in your preferred cloth, with your preferred details. It has always been the great ego-rub, the only solution for a man who has conquered everything else. Chiefs, Kings and Sultans would only ever have something made to their specifications. Tailors are there to do their bidding.

However, personalisation is, ultimately, rather dangerous.

Which Chief, King or Sultan could be accused of being a ‘perfect ruler’?

For personalisation to be ‘perfect’ it assumes perfection in those making the command. Of course, a fawning tailoring brand, desperate for public exposure, would say that the pink stitching on your lapel is daring, inventive and brilliant on social media; secretly they think it’s hideous, and they kind of resent you associating their brand with your appalling taste.

“You can have thinner lapels” says the tailor to the client with square-toed shoes and an earring, but under his breath he is fuming that his far superior sense of design and taste is being ignored. An angry tailor is not a happy sight. And you’d wish to goodness they’d just send the non-conforming clients away with a flea in their ear, but they can only do this when they can do without the business. Otherwise the flattery must continue.

In order to provide clarity on my own views of ‘taste’, I have listed out some fads of personalisation that I have seen but will be avoiding.

Coloured buttonhole stitching

One of the laziest customization options from e-tailors is that of coloured buttonhole stitching.

It’s ‘personalisation’ for the sake of it. It doesn’t work and it looks cheap and, arguably, like the tailor ran out of thread of the correct tone.

How is having yellow buttonhole stitching on a charcoal suit ‘showing your identity and personality’?

Skinny lapels

One of the fads that came about through fashion’s adoption of 1960s tailoring (think Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme) is the demand for skinny lapels.

This rarely works. You usually have to be skinny and tall. It’s somewhat androgynous, and therefore won’t work with classic menswear, which is structured and masculine.

Double buttonhole on the lapel

This is one of those ‘just to be different’ BS ‘personalisations’ that has no heritage and no purpose. Like coloured buttonhole stitching, it’s distracting and looks like a blind tailor made a mistake.

Piping on the lining

This has long been controversial. The lining of a suit has been sold to those new to tailoring as the one place in which their taste and personality can be really expressed.

The problem is that vast multitudes seem to have absolutely no taste and a personality that suggests an aging portrait in the attic.

Most tailors that offered you the chance to choose your lining colour and piping to match – “Allowing you amazing colour combinations!” – have now retreated and only offer a select number of linings, due to the repeated horrors of aligning vomit yellow with toilet cleaner pink.

Grumbles: Luggage for Suits

This is a series of unhappy musings on the unfairness, unpleasantness and unsavoury aspects of menswear. The author is in a tender state when he creates these. Please have sympathy.

International travel isn’t a friend to classic clothing addicts.

The people it favours are style minimalists; light packers, anti-accessory activists. They waltz along to security, bypassing the bag drop, with tiny Rimowa cases containing what is probably three to four days clothing. Their insouciance and lack of ceremony is both enviable and fascinatingly irritating.

Carry-on luggage was built for these robots.

It was not built for the likes of yours truly, who even on a recent one night stay for business checked an entire garment bag (with a suit) as it was too big for carry-on.

Absurd? Maybe. But with one meeting to attend and one very well made suit to pack, the kind of cigar boxes they peddle as ‘carry-on size’ nowadays were entirely inappropriate.

In advance of travel, I attempted to find a suitable model of carry-on to alleviate this need for such excesses. So intent was I on discovering the potential of IATA-compliant cases,that I even went to the lengths of asking the salespeople to demonstrate whether a suit and pair of smart shoes could be packed into such cases.

The answer was; they can, but ‘good luck with packing and unpacking.’

“If you want to take a suit, you’re better off with a wheeled garment bag that is IATA-compliant” the Rimowa rep in Selfridges said. “Rimowa don’t make them, but Samsonite do.”

Unfortunately, Samsonite is one of the very few brands who do. Why unfortunate? Well, have you seen a Samsonite bag recently?

Luggage should be attractive. One only has to look at the rise of the now well-backed Globe Trotter to see that ‘pretty’ luggage has an important place on the carousel. Rimowa, with its retro aluminium grooved Classic Flight range has, particularly over the last few years, become a bit of a sensation. Consequently, Rimowa has raised prices and regularly re-Grammed posts from world-famous bloggers and celebrities wheeling their iconic luggage.

And, arguably, attractive luggage is most important to the sartorially conscious gentleman about town. Unfortunately, the only brands that make attractive cabin-compliant hand-luggage seem to have forgotten the man who wears suits every day; particularly those who wear them with pride rather than begrudging duty.

The way cabin luggage is made is to maximise internal volume whilst remaining compliant. The problem with that criteria is that the cases end up being perfect for stuffing sweaters, dresses, socks, underwear and casual trousers – and entirely impractical for finely made suits with hand-crafted shoulders and finely rolled lapels. “You’d need to get hotel housekeeping to press [a suit] as soon as you arrive” said the salesperson peddling a $900 carry-on.

But why can’t Rimowa, Globe Trotter et al make a wheeled garment carrier that fits (non-budget) airlines’ carry on restrictions? Why are the most suitable cases for the most beautiful suits the ugliest cases known to man? Where are the fine leather straps, elegant aluminium grooves and brass clasps for the man looking to make an impression with his fully handmade suit?

As Yoda might say: Methinks in the market a gap there might be.

Berluti: Treading a New Path

When it comes to tailoring or ready to wear, Berluti isn’t exactly the first brand that comes to mind.

“Shoes, isn’t it?” someone vaguely acquainted with the name correctly guessed.

Yes, indeed. Shoes. Very beautiful shoes. Very colourful and expensive shoes.

Very, very special shoes.

Special because Berluti is a special brand. The founder Alessandro Berluti was an Italian perfectionist who made last-making an art, crafting beautiful shoes for the beau monde of Belle Epoque Paris, but it was Olga Berluti who turned the brand into the icon, introducing hand-finished patinas in an alarming array of colours.

Indeed, Berluti’s unconventional, almost fantastical footwear (rose accented toes, green and yellow patinas) shines in the undeniably traditional array of, rather staid, brown and black Northampton shoes. In that, they have become the household name for exotic, formal men’s shoes; “men’s Manolos.”

Owned for 22 years by LVMH, the world’s most formidable luxury group, has both blessings and curses. Chief amongst the former is the financial muscle to supercharge product development and marketing spend; most significant amongst the latter is the incontrovertible and relentless expectation for growth and profitability.

The big problem is, artisanal shoemaking, on it’s own, isn’t exactly a massive moneyspinner. For one thing, it is a craft which takes time; hours and hours of fine handwork goes into making each pair of shoes.

Secondly, as this time-consuming and very human process isn’t scalable, the costs associated with producing one pair are very high, resulting in a low volume business where the only profitability is in a hefty margin – far more difficult in an increasingly competitive environment.

The vision for Berluti since the acquisition has remained focused on its specialism of working with fine leather. Briefcases, wallets and belts joined the fabulous shoes on the shelves; a logical extension – and a less costly one.

However, the appointment of the fortunately named Alessandro Sartori as Artistic Director in 2011 spelled big changes for the brand. A former creative doyenne of Ermenegildo Zegna’s successful “Z Zegna”, his pedigree as a designer is undeniable. Since the launch of its ready to wear collections three years ago, Berluti has been quietly infiltrating the world of fine menswear, buying Arnys tailoring business (who made jackets for Le Corbusier) and turning heads with some spectacularly colourful ready-to-wear collections.

Though always punctuated by shoes – typical of LVMH who never forget the power that heritage can bring to a collection – they are looks that have suggested Sartori shares Olga Berluti’s talent for working with colour, and an appreciation for structure and form that underlines the tailoring credibility of the brand.

The 2016 Spring Summer Collection, shown in an elegant courtyard, emphasized both the playfulness and seriousness of the brand. Playful for its irreverent use of bright colours; serious for its unswerving adherence to sensible proportions and lack of unnecessary, tasteless experimentation. There is nothing bizarre or unwearable in Berluti. It isn’t pretentious or self-consciously ‘artistic.’ The Berluti man may be more European than a Purple Label man, probably more creative too, but he’s no fashionista.

Sartori’s “looks” for Berluti aren’t entirely conservative either. They combine the formal with the casual. There is a suede leather blazer with sweatpants but, unlike previous experimentation in ‘high fashion’, these looks actually work very well and are entirely street-ready.

The other thing is, genuine customers of luxury fashion brands tend to be a little older and a little less gaunt than the ‘boys’ who parade the oversized jumpers, skinny black denim and clumpy shoes of your garden variety Paris-based men’s fashion designer. So much so that the idea of anyone older than 23 wearing any of the creations seems preposterous.

And this is where Berluti really shines; you can actually imagine your father, even your grandfather, wearing most of these looks.  And that’s a big compliment. The tailoring is sensible, harsher critics might even say formulaic, but it is this seriousness that is worthy of respect.

It takes a long time, a lot of money and a sartorial realist with the imagination of a child to turn a Parisian cobbler into a global lifestyle brand but, by the looks of it, Sartori (and Berluti) might be halfway there.