British Style is Reasserting Itself

I don’t know about you, but I was simply glued to the presentations for London Collections: Men at the start of the year. As ever, they prove to be the height of sartorial inspiration for the fashionable chap and a true showcase for British fashion talent. Thinking back, this last LC:M just gone was, in my view, particularly fine. It was certainly one of the most exciting shows I’ve seen simply because British fashion seems to be developing a more united aesthetic. Even more excitingly, this reunification of British style across different menswear brands and sectors of the market, all seems to revolve around tailoring.

The reason that I find this development so encouraging is because this indicates a real kind of symbiosis on the part of British designers, and increased appreciation of what British tailoring really stands for. British retailers are coming to all develop and support the kind of aesthetic that one might expect to be truly ‘British’ in tailoring terms.

Permit me to explain. As I’m sure you’ll be aware, British tailoring has its own certain style – British suits, just like American, Parisian or Italian suits are made in a certain way, which conforms to the traditions of our unparalleled tailoring heritage. British suits are made with a very formal, sartorial shape. The jacket is cut long for an elegant line through the body and the trousers have a high rise. Lapels are imposing and broad when at their best, helping to add shape to the chest, which is often cut full and built-up using lots of structure for an impressive aesthetic. Jacket waists present a subtle hourglass silhouette, shoulders present strong lines, armholes are cut high for ease of movement and sleeve-heads are attached using an equally strong, defined ‘roped shoulder’ – whereby the sleeve-head is gathered and rolled into an angular ridge where it is attached to the body of the jacket, as can be seen from the photographs provided.

American suits by contrast feature more gentle lines and often a looser, less angular shape. Parisian and Italian suits are generally considered more relaxed and contemporary, made with the minimum of structure, lighter cloths, slimmer lines and (in the case of Italian tailoring) soft set-in-sleeve ‘Neapolitan’ shoulders. One can see then, why British tailoring presents a clear image on the world stage – British garments present a unique and quintessentially masculine style of structure and shape.

As LC:M made clear, these aesthetic traits are not only re-establishing themselves, but the latest generation of highly talented menswear designers (and tailors) are confidently delivering menswear collections with an attractively modernised, yet tailoring-heavy British aesthetic. In essence, British tailoring is being made more relevant and appropriate for the modern man; it’s starting to pose more of a challenge to the dressed-down, easy to throw on Italian blazer. We Brits are rolling out full-cut flannel double breasted blazers, powerful, highly structured and sculpted three piece suits and impressive overcoats fit to burst. These developments are both refreshing and reassuring and indicate a renewed interest in imposing formalwear, over relaxed and dressed down tailoring in the international menswear market.

Furthermore, the latest wave of British designs, seem to be on message not only in terms of style and structure, but in their use of colour too. Tailoring companies, at all ends of the spectrum, presented a palate of deep forest greens, navies, charcoals, chocolate and taupe tailored pieces at LC:M making strong use of textured and subtly patterned cloths, classic stiff British white shirts and restrained pops of colour in their accessories. The selection of photographs provided come from Chester Barrie, Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row Bespoke showcase, and Marks & Spencer’s latest ‘Best of British collection’. Luxury designer tailoring, high-street style and Savile Row’s bespoke services are all on show here, and all echo one another in terms of colour and texture.

Indeed, similarities in use of colour are so striking, that you might be forgiven for thinking that many of the great British tailoring companies had sat down in a room together and consciously made the decision to design around the same colour schemes, but no. Evidently, the rich, yet restrained use of colour running through so much of this season’s British tailoring, is a further indication that tailoring is once more benefitting from like-minded designers who have taken the time to understand and engage with classic British style.

British tailoring has always had elevated status in the men’s fashion world, but in the modern age where clothing and lifestyle is becoming ever more casual and relaxed – the very antithesis of formal wear and dressing to impress – it is highly reassuring to see the identity of British tailoring finding a more secure and popular place than ever in the luxury menswear market.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Spectator Loafers

Spectators are to footwear what bow ties are to neckwear; eye-catching, theatrical, somewhat inappropriate for work and occasionally associated with clowns.

That’s a bit harsh. Not to mention hypocritical – I’m big fans of both.

However, neither are easy to pair in modern ensembles. Bow ties are jaunty and fun – but they need careful balancing, otherwise they can come off as comical.

And it’s the same with spectator shoes. Wear them with a dark suit and the contrast comes across as theatrical and extravagant, like a fancy dress Twenties gangster. However, wear them in summer with biscuit linen trousers, an open shirt and a hopsack blazer and the effect is much reduced.

However, a spectator loafer – distinct from a laced Wingtip or Oxford – is an entirely different prospect. Most often found in brown and white combinations, the two-tone loafer is, at once, an awkward mixture of twee associations and attractive retro design. In other words, a perfect candidate for sartorial love/hate.

The spectator loafer’s most common design is that of a penny loafer with a tan upper and a white or cream vamp. This makes them far more practical than laced spectators, which utilize a greater expanse of the paler, less dirt-friendly colours throughout the upper.

The other advantage of the spectator loafer in this regard is that it makes the two-tone design less bitty, smoother and simpler. As a loafer, the design is also attractive with formal, semi formal and casual trousers – tapered with no break – although is arguably a little too Rockabilly-swing-dancer with a suit.

However, there is a downside to the design. And it is generally to be found lurking at the back of weekend newspaper supplements, alongside the adverts for stairlifts, picnic blankets and home security blinds.

The problem is that the design has been appropriated by soft-comfort, orthopedic shoe companies selling slipper-like designs to Algarve golfing retirees. Though you might see it on a dapper Leo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, you’re also likely to see a cushion-collar version paired with beige socks tootling along in a mobility vehicle.

The most attractive pairs I have seen recently are from Brooks Brothers (made by Peal & Co – featured as part of the Gatsby collection) and Ferragamo. Ralph Lauren has also often offered a spectator loafer design. However, it’s best to keep it simple and stick with the penny loafer; tasseled multi-tone shoes are somewhat outrageous.

When a Tailor Says No…

I attended a wedding last month, and at the reception was introduced (amongst many delightful people) to a gentleman with whom I predictably began to talk tailoring. We were talking about what makes brands (particularly menswear brands) feel truly special and one of the many interesting points that was made by the other party, was that he likes to be dressed (and I gather have suits made) by some friends of his at Hackett, because the staff there are confident enough to say ‘no’ to his requests when they don’t think he’s right.

We both agreed that, contrary to what you might think, this is a valuable commodity. Every salesman aims to accommodate his customer and ultimately to sell their product, but should a salesman advise against certain things – this often is an indicator of real expertise and integrity – a sure sign that you’ll receive the best service by staff who really understand what works for their customers. This is hugely important with menswear, because, as the gentleman I was chatting too put it ‘it gives you the confidence to walk out in style, knowing what you’re wearing is right’ and you can’t put a price on that.

With the best will in the world, even the most obsessive customers (myself included) can come up with a wealth of ideas and inspirations for how we would like to dress, but barely any customer can claim to be an expert. Finding a service which can offer true expertise and the confidence to say ‘no’ to a customer when something isn’t going to be right, rather than just make an easy sale, is therefore a real boon.

For the gentleman I was chatting with, the latest ‘no’ was a refusal by his tailor at Hackett to slim down his trousers. The tailor did not wish to spoil the line of the trousers by making them too skinny, and the trousers had been slimmed down by him already. I myself find that my tailors politely say ‘no’ and direct me to alternative ideas on a frequent basis, and it has helped me to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

The first time I walked in there, I ordered a three piece, and requested that the waistcoat have full-darts – the answer came back that I didn’t need them, as full-darts are a means to enable waistcoat to sit on fuller figures, and so half darts it was. Similarly, the trouser pleats I asked for would look better as twin pleats, rather than single. On my latest suit (a review is coming soon) I requested 5″ lapels – thankfully I was beaten down to 4.5″. It seems then, that luxury menswear is one of those few remaining industries, where you really can’t put a price on expert advice and it is a real privilege to find an outfitter who is prepared to say ‘no’ in order to offer a service with true integrity and get things right.

An Interview with Christopher Modoo, Creative and Buying Manager at Chester Barrie Savile Row

Let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher Modoo, Creative and Buying Manager at Chester Barrie, who’s work in transforming the brand’s tailoring (and casualwear collections) in recent years, has led to Chester Barrie’s fast becoming one of the most desirable names in luxury British tailoring. Chris was kind enough to invite me to his Savile Row office, which adjoins the company’s flagship store at No. 19, so that we could chat about his style, his influences, and what it is that drives him to create such impeccable British clothing.

After a quick look through some of the exquisite pieces in the Chester Barrie showroom, we settle down with a coffee and Chris begins to enlarge upon the development of his career; it makes for fascinating listening. Despite a passion for tailored clothing from a very young age, his route into fine tailoring was an unusual one: ‘It was never a career option, no one picked it for me – I spent the first few years of my working life as an unhappy, overdressed bank clerk’.

Clearly, something had to be done. After only a few months in the bank, he accepted a job in Selfridges’ accounts department solely for the 40% clothing discount. A few months in, he realised that ‘I could get the same basic salary and clothing discount, plus commission on the sales floor’. Chris went straight into the men’s shirting department, introducing him for the first time to the world of high-and menswear retail, and a year later at the age of 21, he was asked to take on the role of Thomas Pink’s Selfridges Concession Manager – a dream job – ‘I couldn’t believe I got paid for it, ‘it was so refreshing’.

After some years working as a Manager with Thomas Pink, Chris moved to Ede & Ravenscroft, taking on the task of developing the brand’s then brand new ‘Personal Tailoring’ service, no small feat as it turned out. In addition to adding this string to his bow, working in such a formal house has given Chris an expert eye and understanding of British formalwear. ‘I’ve always been passionate about formalwear, I loved learning about its etiquette, conventions, rules and history. I have respect for French tailors, Italian tailors, American tailors – they all have their own strengths and aesthetics, but the British just do formalwear so well’.

Clearly, Modoo knows what he’s talking about: ‘I got to style formalwear for the Royal Household, I used to go to Windsor every year, I’ve dressed most of the Orders of Chivalry in morning dress, I’ve provided clothing for academic awards and OBE ceremonies at Buckingham Palace. When you see formalwear worn in that environment, you see how its done at its best, worn in a comfortable way – you see how it really works’.

Having moved on from his successes at Ede & Ravenscroft, over the last few years at Chester Barrie, Chris has worked in buying and designing the company’s handsome off-the-peg collections, a role in the company which has been highly informed by his extensive, personal experience with bespoke tailoring. Shortly after taking his job at Selfridges, Chris started to have things made, and very quickly gained a comprehensive technical understanding of the art of tailoring, and an eye not only for what worked well and what didn’t, but what worked well with style. ‘I tried everything; over-accessorising, too much use of colour, huge peaked lapels, high gorges, low gorges, double-breasted waistcoats, turn-back cuffs on everything, trouser waists too high, trouser waists too low, trousers without pockets [he pauses]… don’t try that!’

With this in mind, as we talk through the cut and shape of a Chester Barrie jacket, Chris waxes lyrical about his own personal philosophy of designing a tailored garment. ‘Its all about balance. All the garments we design have to balance perfectly; I look at a jacket block and I know that if I want big peaked lapels on it, then the shoulders need to be strong to carry them, and the pocket jets need to be in proportion.’

Indeed, between Chris and his co-designer, the venerable Edward Sexton (who acts as Tailoring Consultant for the brand) everything is meticulously crafted, measured and tested. Lapel gorges, pocket shapes, the fullness of the chest, the strength of the shoulder, the suppression of the waist and the rise and drape of the trouser. This is a philosophy of precision which informs everything Modoo designs. ‘Its all about mixing colours and textures, shirts and ties also need to balance against suits – not just in terms of shape – but also stylistically. Just mixing it up a little bit using pops of colour to add some creativity – always in good taste.’

Talking of good taste, we get onto Chris’s own personal style influences. ‘My father was a huge influence on my dress – he was a Mod. The Mods were truly fastidious. Every element in their dress was considered, it wasn’t just about throwing on an expensive suit. He always cared about his clothes. He taught me to look after my own clothing and value personal pride in appearance. He was so fussy he used to wear starched collars’. In keeping with his young love for tailoring, Chris also thoroughly enjoyed dressing formally for sixth form: ‘Sixth Form was also an important time for me – we had to wear suits – and the most exciting part of the day was deciding what to wear’.

The conversation turns to Savile Row itself and Modoo is filled with nothing but optimism, ‘I’m a huge fan of Savile Row and its a good time to be on the Row right now. Savile Row has become a part of London fashion – the decision for Savile Row to exhibit at ‘London Collections: Men’ was brave, but an excellent move’. He does however, have a word or two to say about the broader London tailoring scene. ‘Savile Row is the pinnacle of English tailoring, and so it should be, but I’d like to see a London tailoring scene that isn’t marginalised by Savile Row. There are so many good city tailors, and presenting a united front to the customer would help make the tailoring market seem less niche.

‘Also, alterations. Department stores should invest more in good alterations tailors and offer a real service. The experience of an alterations tailor shaping and pinning a garment with a customer – not just hemming trousers – increasing interest in tailoring making alterations a natural part of buying a good suit off-the-peg.’

Having sat in conversation with him for over an hour, evidently Chris understands his business, and understands the need for Savile Row to continually develop and evolve. Likewise, dressed in his impeccable royal blue suit, with a crisp white tab-collar shirt, perfectly standing slim checked silk tie, and subtly contrasting paisley pocket-handkerchief, Modoo truly understands fine tailoring and understands British style.

Sartorial Love Hate: Collar Popped Turtle

“Erm, why are those dudes wearing shirts?”

“What dudes?”

“Those dudes. The ones wearing the turtle necks. The ones wearing their turtle necks over their damn shirts and poking the collar out at the neck.”

Ah Pitti. You can always rely on it to start a new fad. There were the slightly peasant like floppy hats (which even ended up in Zara) the tie back-blading (which many found obnoxious to the point of attempted strangulation) and now we have this – the collar popped turtle…thingy.

With persistently low temperatures in Europe’s late winter, there’s no doubting the necessity of wearing cosy knitwear. Sartorial radiators are an essential part of a strong winter wardrobe and, however much the turtle neck divides opinion, it is a solid staple that acts as both jumper and muffler. Unlike the crew or V-neck, it has a complete presence of its own, requiring no shirt as a formal base and looks more at home, particularly in fine, cashmere versions, with the likes of a tweed jacket, flannel blazer or even a barathea dinner jacket.

However, the turtle neck is also perceived to be rather boring, relatively prudish and utilitarian. “Sexiness” a friend observed “is pretty hard to convey through a turtle neck. It’s like wearing a nun’s habit, or a fisherman’s Sou’wester.” I would agree to an extent, but would suggest that’s where the sensuality of a velvet blazer and a paisley silk puff can lend a helping hand.

The question is, can a shirt collar achieve the same effect? After all, it cannot be that warmth is the target for the practice of popping a shirt collar above a turtle neck.

“Contrived” a friend commented “and just pointless. What is that tiny triangle giving them?”

“I like it” grinned a girl after icily admiring a picture of a Pitti regular for a full thirty seconds. “It looks cool, like a naughty school boy or something. He looks like he’s got some formality, but he’s using the jumper to stay warm…and that means he has forgotten what he’s wearing and what he looks like – that’s sexy.”

Has he forgotten? I find that rather hard to believe, particularly as the shirt collar is so prominently proud of the top of the turtle neck. My own theory is that the look is aping that of a Regency buck’s neckwear; where a cotton tie is wrapped around a collar, the tips of which kissed the bottom of the wearer’s chin. It might be marginally warmer, but, like most fads at Pitti, it’s not being done for practical reasons.