The Fine Art of Taking off a Sweater

Recently, a reader posed to me the following question: My husband likes to remove his crew neck sweaters (and crewneck t-shirts) by grabbing it by the neckline and pulling the sweater up over his head by holding the neckline.  It seems to me this procedure tends to stretch the neckline out of shape.  Please advise me on how a man normally removes their crewneck sweater?

Here, in dizzying heights of style philosophy, we sometimes get lost in the minutiae of abstract detail – dissecting the nuances of pick stitching on a bespoke suit jacket lapel, for example.  In the real world though, it’s often the more mundane and practical issues that dominate one’s daily routine.  The straightforward question above is a wonderful example of this truth.

The question of properly removing a garment such as a sweater is not an insignificant matter.  Particularly if, say, you posses one made of expensive cashmere.  In truth, this question expresses one of those universal concerns that deserve a little attention.

As noble as that may sound however, I am afraid this is a debate with no clear-cut answer. There really is no gentle way to remove a crewneck sweater.

Ultimately the sweater has to come over your head and get yanked off your arms.  Something somewhere along the line is going to get pulled, stretched or twisted.  I tend to pull a sweater over my head from the rear, so that once off, the sweater is in front of me still on the arms. At that point I just slide one arm out and then the next.  I’m sure there no shortage of opinion on my technique.  It’s just how I take of my sweaters, end of story.

I do usually grab at the neckline, but once the bottom hem is in range I pull it off from there.  Like my reader, I prefer to avoid the potential of stretching out the neck more than necessary.  Still, it is going to happen to some extent and I’ve made peace with this inevitability.

Some men pull an arm out of the sweater while still wearing it – sort of like how women can mysteriously change tops without ever removing an outer garment.  Once you have a free arm inside the sweater, you gently work the sweater over the head and then extract the remaining arm. If the material is particularly delicate, I suppose this is the least disruptive way of removing the garment, but I find it a bit tedious.

Others push the front of the jumper up over their face and behind the neck, so that they can sort of pull it off as though removing a coat.  Of all methods, I find that the most overly complicated.

Most of my sweaters are fairly hearty and can stand up to the grab-the-neck-and-pull method, but ultimately the best way to judge one’s technique is to look in a mirror and see how well your sweaters are faring.

Why the Fuss: Thom Browne

First in this series, I made evident my puzzlement as to why Abercrombie & Fitch received so much attention and custom; a piece which attracted more than a few comments, most of which echoed my bemusement of that peculiar reverence – a reverence I have recently been witness to as the velvet roped queue for the precious sales items at the Burlington Gardens store snaked around Savile Row. The subject of this piece is an altogether different kettle of fish, for there are no squeaky-clean-teens clamouring at the emporium’s door; no loud thumping music, soap-smelling oily doormen or poor parents, reluctantly removing credit cards from wallets. For Thom Browne, one of the most unconventional contemporary clothing designers, appeals to an entirely different group, although this ‘appeal’ is something which I intend to analyse thoroughly.

I was browsing the racks of sale and non-sale items at Harvey Nichols, temple of fashion and furnishings, when I came across the Thom Browne concession which was really a small number of racks. I had read a great deal about Mr Browne’s clothing and philosophy; the so-called ‘saviour’ of men’s fashion, revered for offering simpler but eccentric choices. He is applauded for the tailoring and construction of his items, notorious for their ‘overgrown schoolboy’ look; incredibly short trousers and now incredibly short jacket sleeves. Many credit this as brilliance; tasteful and unique. Unique it certainly is, as I am unaware of any other designers who have attempted the short trouser trick before, although whether it is fully tasteful is questionable.

Some see Browne as a fad, a reaction to the lack of invention in menswear over the past 50 years that has led critics of fashion to rally and chorus that our designers have run out of ideas. Browne, superficially, counters this suggestion but an ‘idea’ isn’t necessarily a good one merely because it is new. For one thing, although fashion is highly influential, the mass of choice for the consumer puts a good deal of power in their hands; gentlemen are unlikely to have their heads turned by a minor whim. ‘It’s not for the masses though’ screeches a Browne-ite chum of mine ‘it’s for people who are capable of being different.’ An admirable quality indeed but for me, Browne is a symptom of our artistic modernisation; frustrated at our lack of aesthetic evolution, we reach out for the new in desperation. A recent article in The Times argued that we are entering a century of rapid change; the internet will feed our constant hunger for the new. This, the writer argued, makes us well prepared for the tough years immediately ahead: ‘speed of change’, the mantra for the 21st century.

Browne to me is rather like something that appears in the Tate Modern that luvvies, other artists and critics go absolutely mad for, but that the populace at large considers irrelevant. The other similarity between certain items of modern art and the sartorial products of Thom Browne is that many consider them to be monstrously overpriced. A sleeveless cashmere cardigan in ivory could be found for £250 (£160 in the sale) in Ralph Lauren. At Thom Browne, though the design was no more avant garde, the cashmere not discernibly better, the same item cost £900. I saw a cashmere tailcoat in camel with grosgrain ribbon detailing for £6,225. It seemed to me that purchasing an outfit from Mr Browne could cost as much as a couple of bespoke suits from Henry Poole.

Those arguing for Mr Browne may defend his ‘vision’ – something which Brooks Brothers considered worth using – the fact that he manufactures high quality garments using good materials and that the Thom Browne man can always stand out from the crowd. I accept these advancements of opinion; I myself happen to think that ‘interesting’ and ‘expensive’ do not always need to go hand in hand. I also think that quirky as short trousers are, they will never become a serious alternative. I appreciate that ‘new’ fashions are very rarely well received when the curtain goes up. Virtually all major changes in fashion have been accompanied by responses of ‘it’ll never last’, tut-tuts of despair and in some cases (the top hat) persons fainting on the street. But there is a difference between shock-on-purpose and shock-for-purpose. I have a feeling that Browne’s items, lauded, sought after and highly priced, are not worth the fuss.

OTC Recommends: Drakes Ties

Those of you who are fans of the outstanding magazine Monocle (a global briefing on style/politics/culture/urban planning) are probably familiar with Drakes London. Monocle’s founding editor, Tyler Brule, devoted a recent editor’s page to this remarkable neckwear firm. No mere affectation, the “London” portion of the name is very much a badge of honor. Their ties are, in fact, handmade in London.

Based in Clerkenwell, the Drakes workshop is a wonderful example of “slow fashion.” Outsourcing and high speed production might get ties out the door and on the sales shelf faster and more cheaply, but that will never happen because Drakes takes particular pride in its British heritage and craftsmen quality. It is a matter of principle and that alone makes it worthy of a formal OTC recommendation.

Neckties are an interesting thing; they are functionless beyond adornment yet prized for their ability to convey status ranging from revered gravitas to comical idiocy. Most holiday theme ties fall into the latter category, whether deliberately so or not. And while some men view choosing a necktie as another in a series of forced convention, many others see it as an opportunity to telegraph values, quality, style, personality and craftsmanship. In the case of some brands like Hermes, that message is blunt and crystal clear: “this thing is expensive and the best, and so am I.”

Yet Drakes takes a different approach. A Drakes London tie is a bit anonymous, in the sense that on the surface it is elegant and exceptionally finished but not “known”. It looks good without announcing its maker, and that’s a nice quality because the tie is noticed over the brand. Their ties are substantial yet soft, well proportioned and timeless in design.

Drakes ties can be found in conservative clothing haunts like Knize in Vienna (which, as the Drakes website points out, is known to be more conservative than the Catholic Church) and cutting edge clothiers such as Comme des Garcons. However, I simply hopped on the internet and had one shipped right to me.

My particular Drakes London tie is pictured here; as it arrived from overseas, the well excellent packaging and presentation and as it was recently worn to the office. Though on the narrower side, its shape is classic and works well with a variety of suit styles. Knowing that I was wearing something lovingly crafted by an actual person in an actual workshop is a refreshing feeling. Drakes ties are not fast fashion and they are not meant to have a “season” but rather a lifetime.

On the first day I wore my tie, I received several compliments from both men and women. The men tended to like the tie’s construction and balanced proportions, while the women all loved the quality of the silk and the tie’s color combination.

All of these attributes speak to the effort and thought that go into Drakes ties – and that’s a good thing because they are not inexpensive.  Of course handmade and hand finished quality is going to cost you, but if you are looking to add one good tie to your wardrobe this one is worth the expense. Drakes also makes a variety of other products including pocket squares, scarves and hosiery to name a few.

So add Drakes to your New Year’s to-do list and take a look.

Suited Up

A reader recently contacted me because as a newly graduated attorney, he wanted some specific advice on what to look for in a suit. He also wanted to hear about a few specific brands.

The gentleman indicated that he is based in Chicago and his work environment is a more formal one. That is, he is not asking about those two or three times when he needs to pull out a good suit. Rather, he needs to be dressed for business most of the time if not all of the time.

As this young man is starting out on his career, I have decided to focus on a couple of classic and readily available brands. While bespoke and made-to-measure are the favorite topics of the armchair cognoscenti, in reality, this fellow is looking for practical advice on building a realistic, starter suit wardrobe. So, do I like Oxford? Yes. Will we discuss Oxford right now? No.

Generally speaking, when it comes to tailored clothing like suits, you get what you pay for. I can attest to this through personal experience as I suspect many others can too. A suit for $199 will be serviceable at best, have a lower grade of fabric, fused seams and a boxy fit. For some guys, that’s OK; they don’t need the finer details, they just need a suit for occasional wear. I am certainly not going to pick on these men because for them wearing a suit is a necessity to be suffered through. Who am I to judge? My only comment is the perennial argument that you should treat clothing as an investment and buy the best quality you can afford. Over time, value tends to outlast fast fashion or convenience.

In my reader’s case, he is looking for details and quality within an affordable range. So, my first point is that there are many suit makers who produce very good clothing and a few that are excellent. My second point is that the focus should always be on what makes a good suit more than who makes it. So, right off the bat I’m contradicting myself, but I’m doing so for expediency’s sake.

The Classic Suit Makers

To see what’s out there, let’s now highlight some of the better known traditional American makers and what they bring to the table. For good suits that will carry you through most business or legal situations, you cannot go wrong with Brooks Brothers or J. Press. Of late, Brooks has expanded its styling to reflect a more global aesthetic that is in line with its Italian CEO: tapered darting, leaner lines, higher armholes and double vents. But even with these refined touches, Brooks’ suits are still very much a first line resource.

J. Press on the other hand is about as traditional American classic as you can get. The suits one can pick up at a Press store today basically look like the ones in my father’s closet from 25 years ago – accounting for slight variations for lapel width and button stance.

Joseph A. Bank is a national middle market name that carries good suits. Back when I was a youngster and Banks was an East Coast local (it’s headquartered in Maryland), the company was known as the poor man’s Brooks Brothers. My first suit was a dark grey chalk stripe in a medium weight flannel. I loved that suit – no idea what happened to it. The company’s Signature line uses better fabrics and detailing, but for workday suits, the regular Executive line is quite good.

Polo/Ralph Lauren suits are, as a whole, of excellent quality and some of the nicest off-the-rack suits you’ll find. They are also ridiculously overpriced. Most of Ralph Lauren’s suits are manufactured in Italy by Belvest and will likely last a lifetime. Ralph Lauren is a company that long ago mastered multi-brand niche marketing and emotional retailing. It has product lines that touch all over the pricing spectrum, even with its suiting. The core line of Blue Label suits includes the aforementioned Polo/Ralph Lauren line as well as the Ralph Lauren line. Black Label harkens back to slimmer mod design influences. The bespoke level Purple Label line is something to check out when you make partner.

If your budget is already at the Purple Label level, head directly to Paul Stuart, the very definition of exacting quality at exorbitant prices. Paul Stuart clothing has a certain earthy anglophile feel, but make no mistake, it is unambiguously traditional classic American. Very Manhattan CEO – though right now that isn’t saying much.

Outlet Shopping

Many people, me included have turned outlet shopping into a blood sport, so let me comment on this often fruitful alternative to retail. Both Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren have factory outlet stores all over the place. While outlets used to be the place where overstocked items and factory seconds reigned, today most companies manufacture clothing specifically for their outlets.

So beware; if you are looking for quality than avoid the “Lauren” line at Ralph Lauren outlets and “365” at Brooks outlets. They are not bad clothing per se, but they are of decidedly inferior quality and workmanship. Instead, be on the lookout for retail store clothing that has been moved to the outlet store.

Dedicated outlet stores can harbor good deals, but you need to pounce when they arise. I recently found an exceptional cashmere blend Ralph Lauren odd jacket at a Polo outlet. It was regularly $1,500, and I snagged it for $199. The deals are there if you keep an eye out. I am reminded of a favorite saying of my father: chance favors the prepared mind.

To that point, not too long ago I discovered a $1,700 Canali suit for $399 at Filene’s Basement. Canali is an excellent Italian brand that happens to fit me quite well. There was one 44R and I grabbed it. The suit then went to my own tailor for adjustments.

I cannot stress enough that when you buy a suit, I don’t care where it comes from, take it to a tailor to be properly fitted to your body. This is nonnegotiable. If the store has a good tailor on staff, fine; otherwise find and a good tailor on whom you can rely. The most expensive suit in the world will look bad on you if improperly fitted.

They Make Suits?

Let me comment on fashion brand suits. While companies like J.Crew, Tommy Hilfinger, Banana Republic, or H+M are wonderful resources for casual clothing and sportswear, I do not recommend them for suits.

First, it’s just not their thing. They are not tailors or craftsmen, they are casual wear retailers whose primary goal is to move seasonal inventory. That’s not an admonishment, just a fact.

Second, clothing with a capital “C” requires at the minimum staff who understand the difference between tailored clothing and a stack of pre-sized khakis. Just as I would never send someone to Brooks Brothers for a great pair of jeans, I would not send my readers to J. Crew for a high quality suit. Yes, it may be passable for that first “out of college and I’m too young for J. Press” suit, but for the money you’ll spend it’s not worth the expense.

A Final Thought

Lastly, make sure your suit suits you. It should feel right when you put it on and comfortable throughout the day. You should look and feel natural in your own suit and building that kind of rapport is not always quick. Sometimes it takes a while to find a suit maker whose general shape best fits yours. Not everyone is a suit person and that’s fine by me. I’m not a suit person every day of the week either, but on those days when I am one, my suits feel and look great.

And so should yours.

The Professional Professor

Last year, I wrote about achieving what I broadly referred to as the “college professor” look. Grounded more in beloved stereotype than classroom fact; tweeds, corduroy, tortoise shell glasses and leather dispatch cases rounded out this idealized look. While more inspiration than practical, this style embodies classic Ivy League charm and actually blends quite well with the current trend toward tailored clothing.

Having so dispensed with the hypothetical, I felt suitably up to the challenge when one of my closest friends, a high school teacher, asked me to write a column on how he could upgrade his professorial wardrobe.

His everyday wardrobe is fairly casual; khakis, jeans, polo shirts and sweaters are staples. Though he’s never been a suit and tie kind of guy, Bob (let’s call him Bob) now wants to dress in a more professional manner. He runs the school’s large drama department and wants his wardrobe to reflect this level of responsibility.

He wants to project authority and professionalism without looking overdone, and in this case a daily coat and tie is very overdone. He’s not a banker, he’s a teacher; but does not mean he isn’t a professional. Bob is very good at what he does and wants his appearance to project that ability and experience.

What is needed here is an in-between look; professional but not stuffy, relaxed but still grown up. One of the quickest ways to do this is by focusing on fit and tailoring. You don’t have to give up your personal style to pull on a more polished look because you’re not changing who you are. But you do need to pay attention to how you translate your personal tastes into a more refined look.

In Bob’s case, as with many guys stuck in a dressing-for-college-class mindset, that means making a few key changes. Often, the simplest things make the biggest impact. Ditch shapeless worn out khakis in favor of tailored pants and swap baggy, faded jeans for fitted dark washed ones instead. Rather than rely on sweatshirts, try pima cotton crewneck sweaters. It’s all about reinterpreting your outdated college-era wardrobe for the grown up you.

For many men, navigating the waters of business wardrobes without the benefit of a business suit can be a little scary. Suits are easy and authoritative. But for someone in Bob’s situation, a suit makes no sense.

In his case, odd jackets and blazers are the best solution. An odd jacket, be it corduroy, tweed, flannel or cotton, will provide the formality and authority of a suit coat but do in a comfortable and relaxed fashion.

Odd jackets can also be paired with almost any kind of outfit and give it a polished, finished look. And these days a jacket does not automatically necessitate a tie. I love ties, I personally think they are a wonderful way to express personality and can tie (get it?…tie…) an outfit together. But achieving a complete outfit sans tie is easily done with this kind of dressing. Layering a fine gauge sweater over a patterned shirt, or added a pocket square can provide needed texture, color and detail. As with everything, focus on quality, craftsmanship and material.

I don’t normally focus on a particular brand when discussing overall style goals. However, in this case one brand immediately comes to mind as a great one-stop resource; J. Crew.

J. Crew’s modern take on classic New England preppy style can easily help Bob, or anyone, pull together the “real world” professor look. For example, Bob would look like a new man walking into his classroom dressed in:

– Classic fit “essential chino,” in British khaki
– “Reed” wingtip brogues, in brown
– English leather plaque belt, in chocolate (monogrammed with his initials)
– Button down end-on-end “secret wash” oxford, in waterfall blue
– Half-zip merino wool sweater, in deep blueberry
– Washed wool herringbone jacket

This look was pulled together right out of the pages of J. Crew’s Holiday 2008 catalog. It is polished yet relaxed and also flexible; he can wear the jacket, or not. He can swap the chinos for their Vintage slim-fit black selvedge denim jeans. Either way, he still presents a positive image of style and self-possession without appearing at all stuffy. By focusing on separates that can be mixed and matched, multiple looks can be pulled together from a minimal number of key and classic pieces.

Yes, it does mean investing in a new type of wardrobe, and some of that investing can be pricey – especially if Bob expands his shopping horizons and comes to appreciate the outstanding fit and quality of, say, a Brioni sport coat. Frankly though, that is not the ultimate goal. You do not need to idealize famous clothing brands in an effort to dress well and project a stylish, confident – and confidence inspiring, for that matter – look.

The real point is that Bob will now be buying clothes that can last for life and can be added to over time. He is creating a new kind of wardrobe that can grow and evolve as he and his career grow and evolve. The fact that he wants to do all this is the most important thing of all. We are judged by how we look and how we carry ourselves. These days, now more so than ever, you are in charge of your career and you are your best marketing consultant.