Going Old School: Manhattan Portage Waxwear Bag

This is the last installment of my Commuter and Dad Bag Test. I have had the chance to examine and test numerous bags from a number of brands spanning a variety of styles. From nylon messenger bags built for urban transport to a classic leather mailbag ready to handle a lifetime of ageing. I have also gained an appreciation for the many companies out there looking for the next big thing in transporting your stuff.

I’ve tried some very cool bags that have so many pockets, flaps and zippers that I almost needed an instruction book to remember where I put my house key. One bag had no outside pockets at all, not one; so every time I needed to access my metro card, up came the giant flap and a panicked search would ensue. That one didn’t last long.

Perhaps because of all the impressive advancements in the bag market, I also have a much greater appreciation for the basics. The J. Peterman Counterfeit Mail Bag is an excellent example of what I consider mastery of common sense. It is simple, sturdy, beautiful and totally functional. Is it perfect for all your needs? Probably not, but that’s not the point. Every time I carry it, I get at least one compliment before I even reach the office.

The last bag I tested was another simple and timeless design by Manhattan Portage, one of the original messenger bag companies. The Waxed Vintage Messenger Bag (model #1605V-WP, $60.00) sounds slightly intimidating, but it’s really a wonderful bag that has real personality outside of its functional role.

The company itself can be described the same way. When it was founded in 1983, Manhattan Portage had a simple philosophy, “a bag for everyone.” 25 years later it still holds true. Across the globe, from Boston to Osaka, Manhattan Portage’s line of bags are indeed everywhere and carried by everyone. I even saw one on a barge trip in Provence, France.

As a company, Manhattan Portage remains loyal to its New York roots. Because their designs are functional and straightforward, the bags always seem to be in style – no mean feat in a city that’s constantly in search of something new and different.

Manhattan Portage has been able to avoid becoming another fleeting fad and withstand the test of time because their bags do. In fact, a fascinating April 2007 Esquire story documents the survival and subsequent examination of the writer’s messenger bag after making it out of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. That’s one tough bag.

The one I tested, under far less strenuous conditions, is nonetheless a robust bag that will be around for a long time. Constructed of waxwear, it is a little heavier than similar nylon-based bags. What is gained though, a natural and durable material, is worth the difference.

The fabric used by Manhattan Portage is from Herbert Rice, one of the top makers of waxed fabrics. Waxwear, a trademarked product, is a cotton-based fabric impregnated with a paraffin formula derived from recipes from the turn of the last century. Proofed against inclement weather, it maintains the breathability of cotton. And, as anyone with an old Barbour jacket can tell you, it ages really well.

Smaller in appearance than I expected, this bag is deceivingly large and its single main compartment comfortably swallowed multiple books, pads and other weighty stuff. There is a small zippered pocket on the rear inside panel well sized for pens, keys and loose change. My bag is lined with a day-glo yellow that makes it easy to find most anything in there – no dark corners.

Closure is achieved by a wide Velcro strip that extends across the front of the bag. The flap’s underside is outfitted with two vertical mating strips that hold the flap snugly in place; easy to open and close. The strap is heavy duty Cordura and sizing is managed by a strong metal buckle.

Overall, this is one of the most useful messenger style bags I have tested. Its size and design are practical and the waxed navy blue material blends well with most outfits short of a suit. It’s definitely a keeper.

Menswear Moving to the Front – Part 2

As we discussed in last week’s column, the New York menswear market is in the midst of renaissance of sorts. But it’s not just luxury brands that are focusing more on the men in their lives; mid market brands are making a statement in the Big Apple too.

J.Crew, a favorite everyday brand of Off The Cuff, is setting up a men’s only shop in the landmark Liquor Store building, at 235 West Broadway at White Street in Tribeca. The men’s store, which will be smaller than a typical J. Crew store, will carry the best of J. Crew’s men’s collection, including their unique collector’s items – upscale, limited-edition pieces like the $800 leather mail bag. According to CEO Micky Drexler, the store is “a very short-term lease,” with “very little investment and risk,” which will allow the company “to fool around and play with a men’s store.”

Additionally, the company has been sending out mini-catalogs that focus only on their men’s clothing and accessories lines. These targeted marketing efforts have been very well received and gives J. Crew the ability to sell its higher end wares directly to their male customers.

This emerging but strong trend toward menswear will likely spread across the retail market. As I have noted before, men are not like women when it comes to shopping, but there has been a distinct shift back toward guys appreciating and seeking out quality clothing and accessories. Though this is most true for “investment” level clothes like suits and other tailored pieces, J. Crew’s men’s store concept is an example of transferring the investment mentality to everyday dressing. It’s sort of a reverse approach to the commoditization trend that has effectively devalued many once exclusive brands. Instead of making their wares more accessible to average consumers, companies like J. Crew are developing limited edition products at very outsized price points and targeted at discerning shoppers.

The company is also taking marketing cues from luxury brands that have long touted things like the prestigious family mills which supply their fabric. J. Crew is busily developing relationships with companies like Baird McNutt, an innovative, family-owned Irish mill in Ballymena known for incredible linens.

What makes this type of strategy successful is that they’re not faking it. J. Crew is seeking out real manufacturers who make really good, exclusive products. It’s authentic and fits very well with their customer base. The real stories and premium price tags are providing the boost that the company wants in menswear. They have also made serious efforts to improve the construction quality of their products, and adding additional practical value to their wares.

“Women’s got turned around, and now it’s time for men’s,” says Todd Snyder, senior vice-president of men’s design for J. Crew. And one way to sell the ongoing J. Crew story of original lifestyle brands is through collaborations with designer-frequented mills. “We say, why spend $1,000 at Bergdorf Goodman for a jacket you can get for $300 here? It’s the same thing.” Customers are recognizing quality fabrics, so Snyder has made it his mission to work with the best in the business. “We’re becoming the biggest customer of mills like Moon and Mallalieus, who work with Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Ralph Lauren,” he says. “We’re after quality.”

This movement to get men in better sartorial shape isn’t limited to the selling floor. In July, the MTV network is premiering it’s version of a male finishing school. Dubbed, “From G’s to Gents”, this reality-format show to be aired on Fox, is being produced by Hollywood heavyweight Jamie Foxx and hosted by uber-gent Fonzsworth Bentley.

The idea is to try and mold 14 players/tough guys from the street into modern day gentlemen; sort of a realty version of My Fair Lady complete with cash prize and a smart new wardrobe. While as a general rule I despise these types of shows, I find this one curiously interesting. If nothing else, it’s getting on the air speaks to a real societal desire for men to be gentlemen again. I have no illusions about top hats and walking sticks, but for an Academy Award winner like Foxx, a pretty sharp gent in his own right, to see the value in this show makes me want to check it out.

By moving the topic and marketing approach of high-end menswear and gentlemanly etiquette to the everyday guy-cum-MTV generation, the message that dressing well and having some class will reach a heretofore untapped market.

It’s a stylistic approach to vertical integration; to try and capture all socioeconomic levels of the men’s lifestyle market – from Gap to Hermes. That’s the holy grail of any retailer or ad executive, but it seems that our culture may now be at this mythical point. We’ll have to wait and see if the trend truly takes hold, but it appears that while doing so more men will be better dressed and know which fork to use.

Menswear Moving to the Front – Part 1

Things are going full steam ahead on the menswear front, particularly when it comes to New York City, the capital of fashion retail. High end labels are making serious investments and seem quite bullish on the future of men’s fashion.

Locals style icons like Ralph Lauren are putting money on the table with major brick-and-mortar expansions – in his case, turning the landmark Rhinelander Mansion into a men’s only store and building a new flagship across the street to house his women’s and home collations.

Other marquee names are expanding their New York footprint as well.  In May, Canali opened its first Manhattan store just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, and not far from Hermès’ 5,000-square-foot Wall Street outlet.  That store, which opened in 2007, has a pronounced emphasis on the luxury firm’s men’s line.  Canali is still in the early stages of executing an ambitious plan to develop a retail network across the United States.  The New York location is the fourth of five Canali outlets in the U.S., including two in California and one in Florida.  A Las Vegas outlet is scheduled to open later this year.

Giorgio Canali, president of Canali’s North American operations points to the financial district’s growing residential population – the store is housed in a former office building currently being converted into luxury condos – and its attraction to tourists as benefits of the location. “It was time to showcase the entire collection the way we want it,” Canali said, adding that the company continues to look at additional locations in the U.S. but has no definite plans. Other luxury brands, such as Tiffany and Thomas Pink, have also opened stores around Wall Street.  These companies are all keenly aware that , when it comes Gotham, many of their better customers work on Wall Street, so these outlets are certainly well placed.

Hermès is making a major bet on its male customers too and is planning to open its first men’s-only store on Madison Avenue this fall. The 6,000-square-foot outlet will be located directly across the street from the company’s existing flagship at 691 Madison. The store will carry the company’s entire assortment of men’s merchandise ranging from ready-to-wear and accessories to lifestyle products. It will also include an entire floor dedicated to custom and made-to-measure merchandise. The store will be the first of its kind in the world.

The Wall Street store, noted above, showcases men’s ties inside the main entrance rather than the women’s accessories and handbags that are generally up front in its other units. That store also offers separate made-to-measure suit and shirt department as well as leather goods, watches, clothing and sportswear.  Once the new men’s only branch is open in mid-town, Hermes will have a solid menswear presence in the city’s two key retail sectors.  The company will launch a men’s ad campaign this fall as well; the brand has a solid men’s business, with menswear accounting for about 45% of sales.
This trend is not only contained to the States; French luxury label Lanvin is expanding its footprint in the men’s department with a refreshed retail presence in London.  The new 1,600-square-foot Savile Row boutique will replace their former New Bond Street location.  The store will showcase the French brand’s runway collection, classic “15 Faubourg” line and made-to-measure, a cornerstone of Lanvin’s menswear business since the 1920s.

“Men’s is showing a great dynamic,” said Lanvin president Paul Deneve to DNR, also outlining plans to renovate its Paris flagship men’s location on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.  The 6,500-square-foot men’s store will house a VIP room for its bespoke clients on the third floor.

With prices starting around $5,000 for a basic bespoke suit, I don’t think I’ll be stopping by anytime soon.

The Elusive In-Between

Some while back, my fellow columnist Simon Crompton and I traded thoughts on the in-between look; that particular style which falls somewhere in the midst of formal and casual.

He commented that Americans probably do this a little better than the English. I retorted that I know more than my share of fellow Americans who can handily prove him wrong – or something to that effect. He probably has a point though; where the English still tilt in favor of more professional work attire, Americans have years of corporate casual under their belts – for better or worse.

Actually defining what constitutes the in-between look is difficult but I eventually settled on Justice Potter Stewart’s criteria of, “I know it when I see it.” But the question still remains; how does one compose an outfit that is neither too dressy nor overly casual? While not exactly the stuff of deep thinking, the truth is it’s harder to pull off than many of us admit. Sure, some actors and celebrities always seem look perfectly in-between but they have access to either well staffed wardrobe departments or a well paid lifestyle consultant.

So, what about the rest of us? How do we find that elusive but stylish place?

The first thing I would say is that the in-between look is more formal than casual; that is, it is an assemblage of clothing and demeanor that shows you have style and taste but are not too fussy. One can look very polished in old jeans, 15-year old brogues, a white oxford and a sport coat. The actor Hugh Grant comes to mind, he perpetually looks like he’s ready for either an evening of bar hopping or an awards gala.

I have heard the in-between look described as informally dressy, or conversely, as casually formal. Whatever you call it, the goal is to be well put together but not really dressed up. At the same time, you do not want to look sloppy or shoddy. The outfit mentioned above would fall apart if the jeans had just been worn while clearing brush or if the jacket was too large and the sleeves had never been hemmed. This is look where details matter a great deal because a fine line is being walked.

I think there is some validity to the argument that American men are more successful at informally dressing well. Another reader, an Italian gentleman, pointed out that European men are often very good at dressing formally but are a bit hesitant when it comes to toning down that level of dress; it’s not a natural move. Where Americans like to match their style of dress to where the want to be – what they aspire to be, if you will – it is still fairly common for Europeans to dress according to social station, even if not deliberately so.

I had never really looked at it that way before. Such a mindset can make the in-between place an awkward and unfamiliar one, even to very accomplished men. A good example of this dilemma was recounted by Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, in his book DC Confidential.

It involves the first meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, which took place at Camp David, the president’s rural Maryland retreat. White House guidelines for the weekend called for a casual dress code but no jeans. Downing Street was stumped; how should Blair dress?

What would have been a ten, maybe 15-minute conversation in the States turned into a major production back in London. After a great deal of debate, he was outfitted in an awkward sweater and dark blue corduroys that were so tight that Blair could barely slip his hands into the pockets.  Bush appeared quite comfortable in khakis, button down shirt and a leather flight jacket.

Negotiating the formal v. casual minefield does not always have to take on such international ramifications, but it sure can feel that way sometimes.

The Woven Leather Belt

Belts are a fact of life and most of us have a closet full of failed attempts at finding just the right combination of style and utility. For even the most sartorially proficient, finding just the right fit can sometimes mean forgoing the style we really wanted – a practical example of form following function.

Even when those two goals are met, many men are, frankly, clueless when it comes to actually pairing a belt with the rest of their outfit. For those who wear a suit every day, it’s a simple drill: match your belt and shoes. Of course that’s not some kind of inviolate law; rather, like so many other fashion rules, it is meant to help you learn the basics before becoming creative.

The rest of the working world is more or less on its own. Without the time-tested conventions of formal dress, the open ended options offered by casual work environments leave some men a bit confused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen elegant, narrow dress belts clumsily paired with slouchy khakis. The coup de gras is when that gent is also sporting shiny dress cap toes; I see it more than I would prefer, it’s not pretty.

I think I can offer up a good solution though; a belt that can span the arc of casual dressing, from jeans and a t-shirt to pressed chinos and a blue blazer. The woven leather belt.

An excellent option that provides long term style and customized functionality, the woven leather belt is a good investment financially and sartorially. In brown or black, this multipurpose workhorse can fit in very well in most casual work environments. With a neutral yet masculine style and the ability to fit you exactly right, this appealing belt hits all the marks.

Though not at all appropriate with a suit, this belt’s style tackles most any corporate casual situation with aplomb. And in addition to being able to size it to your exact needs, this style of belt also has year-round appeal. It is casual enough to be right at home with your jeans, but still possesses a refined quality that pairs well with dressier pants.

Look for one crafted from strong but supple leather, tightly woven and at least 1 ¼ inches wide. Unless you are going for some kind of Southwest cowboy look, avoid decorative patterns and shiny hardware. Stick with a traditional solid brass buckle and leather keeper. Bear in mind that designs will vary and some brands have a polished look while others are clearly meant for your days off.

I’m not claiming that this is an all purpose belt, or that it works for every occasion; but it’s a belt you should have on hand for those many in between situations.