Hrothgar Stibbon Briefcase Review

I have long needed a new briefcase. My old, tanned leather case “Brian” (so named because of my incorrigible fetish for alliteration) had put in a good shift, but long shown signs of serious fatigue.

A Frenchman by birth, he was no doubt shocked by the appalling English weather. His soft sides were tearing at the seams; his supple and all-too-delicate skin was deteriorating. To look at him had become distressing.

Much like a woman ceases to be fulfilled by the gifts of a ‘boy’ and goes off in search of a ‘man’, I realized it was time to invest in a sturdy, bridle leather briefcase. No offence, Brian.

The choices for such requirements are, even in London, rather limited. The one name that dominates in this regard is the house of Swaine Adeney Brigg, supplier of fine leather goods and official supplier to the umbrella stands of Clarence House. Their briefcases are very handsome and very sturdy – but they are not inexpensive.

Of course, they are not cheaply made. And the grade of leather used is of excellent quality. But for a substantial case you are looking at a price point of £1000-£1,500. This is not so bad in the grand scheme of things. Women’s handbags often change hands for double this price using leather of half the quality.

And when you look around at the alternatives such as Glenroyal or Marcellino, you would be forgiven for resigning to such an investment.

However, I was determined to continue searching.

In my search I came across a leather craft brand called Hrothgar Stibbon, who have been making leather goods in Bristol for over 20 years. Visiting the website, I was immediately taken by the description of their values:

“…pride is taken by us in using English bridle leather from Britain’s last remaining oak bark tanner. It takes over a year to transform raw hide into finished bridle leather.”

They have a large range of shoulder bags, most of which appear eminently appropriate for the shooting fraternity and, given that it is “heavily oiled and waxed for water resistance and strength”, imply a leather product that is designed to withstand the great outdoors – not just the cloakroom of a cocktail lounge or the backseat of a London taxi.

There is a satchel, called the Bristol, and two briefcases: the Salisbury and the Winchester. Both of these are made in traditional English (Devonshire) vegetable tanned bridle leather with pig skin interiors and solid brass fittings and rivets of brass plated steel.

I favoured the Winchester for it’s handsome closure straps with brass buckles – a little more interesting and youthful than the Salisbury. The Winchester is also more appealing as it has twin compartments (Salisbury has one). The designs are available in three colours: Black, Havana (a mushroom brown) and Chestnut (a reddish-brown).

I have always had brown briefcases. There is a great deal more to a brown case’s patina and character than black, which I find too severe and morbidly Victorian. A bright brown is also more versatile, as it is more adaptable to wear with various suit and shoe colours.

Therefore, I made an enquiry about the Chestnut Winchester. Unfortunately, Hrothgar (Roth) had to break it to me that he was phasing out this particular colour as it arrives from the Baker tannery a different tone each time, making it hard to maintain consistency. Instead, he offered me two colours from J&E Sedgwick’s tannery; a dark brown called Conker and and warm, fiery brown called Hazel, of which I chose the latter.

I also asked Roth to put my initials on the front of the case to personalize the commission (all bags are made to order) which required the Hrothgar Stibbon logo to move to the bottom of the back of the briefcase.

The result is extremely pleasing. It is one of the finest briefcases I have ever seen. The earthy reek of the tanned leather is intoxicating, the thick bridle handle feels as substantial as a knocker on a castle gate and the brass Cheney lock is of the standard you would expect on models three or four times the price. It is a Rolls Royce of a briefcase, the sort of thing you imagine gleaming in the windows of the emporiums of the grand arcades in Mayfair.

There is so much to admire in the craft and simple material beauty of the product. I love the subtle tooling on the tabs keeping the handle attached to the case, the thickness of the canvas strap, the soft pigskin interior, the stitching around the lock and the little lozenge of leather with my initials.

The most wonderful thing is that this fine piece of leathercraft, made in England by a master craftsman using his own bare hands (and some hefty tools), is also fair value. The price for this case, without the initials on the front, comes in at a gentle but reassuring £299, which is but a fraction of the cost of some cases made by the more vaunted and celebrated names – but which show little to no superiority in craftsman standards or quality of material.

The one downside for potential customers is that Hrothgar Stibbon is an online-only business. This is, admittedly, a double-edged sword; the overheads are minimized which enables the prices to remain highly competitive, but on the other hand, potential customers have no way of seeing (and touching) the product before they buy. Instead they will have to take Roth (and me) at our word. I for one am very glad I took the plunge.

 

Punching Up in Party Season

lapo-velvet-jacket

Hold onto your hats; party season is here once again.

Between the middle of December and the first birdsong of the New Year, the world turns into an alcoholic, tinsel-and-firework merry-go-round, wringing out the remainder of our leftover greed, wantonness and impropriety. I have only one Christmas party to go to but one acquaintance of mine has three work-related functions to attend; “One’s a divisional thing, the other’s a group company party” And what’s the third? “Oh. I’ve got an invite to the girlfriend’s work ball – can’t be bothered to go.”

It’s a shame that we get so used to such things, we never learn to appreciate them sufficiently in the moment. Life, after all, is about contribution and being part of something greater than mere survival. Being invited to balls and parties should excite us; fill us with that keen sense of anticipation.

It should also fill us with inspiration – and not lead us into the temptation of skimping on a black tie ensemble by wearing a dark grey lounge suit with a clip-on poly bow tie.

I received a frantic missive from a chum recently, asking me how to dress for a ‘terrifyingly trendy fashionista party’, set to take place in a glittering ballroom in one of Mayfair’s grand dame palace hotels. He had a grosgrain silk bow tie and Marcella cotton shirt but what could else he possibly wear to cut a dash and avoid looking like the rest of the rent-a-tux crowd?

The Jacket

I would recommend a velvet smoking jacket style.

Ultra-traditionalists would sniff that this is ‘normally only to be worn in your own residence’ and is not appropriate for an ‘out of home’ black tie function, particularly balls.

Well, balls to that.

It’s difficult to cut a head-turning dash as a chap without looking a little unconventional on such occasions. And given that female fashion has long dispensed with the length requirements dictated for ballgowns, to shun a fabric like velvet, that catches the season’s aesthetic so wonderfully, is frankly silly.

I would opt for a colour rather than black velvet, due to the fact that coloured velvet is infinitely better at reflecting light. Burgundy is elegant, if a little old school, bottle green is currently trending, although not for the light hearted, but the ultimate in sleek smoking chic this season is, perhaps unexpectedly, brown.

In certain light it has a warm, chocolate tone that contrasts deliciously with the cool, crisp white of a starched shirt-front. Black bow ties appear more authoritative next to it and it has an old-world, distinguished charm to it, like a fading label on a great Bordeaux. Or Robert Redford.

Suit Supply and Gieves & Hawkes both have excellent shawl-collared, one-button options available, with black silk-faced lapels and jetted pockets. Paul Stuart Phineas Cole has an all-brown option, with brown-grosgrain peak lapels.

The Trousers

Given the slightly outré jacket suggestion, one might expect me to suggest sober, black Barathea trousers.

These would certainly work very well, however, black Barathea has never really made much of a statement. It fades into the background (quite by design) and, on this occasion, is only for the unimaginative.

You could go all brown velvet like Lapo Elkann. However, velvet suits make me think of Austin Powers.

Instead, I would either recommend black silk trousers, the shine contrasting with the lush matte of the velvet pile, or – if you are feeling brave (and Tom Ford circa 2010) enough – some tartan trousers, with a Scandinavian uber-taper at the ankles. Hackett have some options to oblige.

The Shoes

I always favour patent Oxfords or opera pumps, but this is a look that deserves something a little more dangerous, like Paul Stuart Phineas Cole’s houndstooth evening slippers.

If these go too far, perhaps a plain pair of black, Albert velvet slippers from Brooks Brothers would be more approachable.

Anything other than evening slippers or pumps in this ensemble adds unnecessary ‘clump.’

The other essentials

The usual routine; shirt studs, black silk socks, and a black silk cummerbund. Add a pocket square if you feel it is needed, but keep it fairly conservative. Remember, keeping the small things trad lets the big things go mad.

Sharp & Dapper Shirt Stays

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

However, in the modern age I find that the opposite is often true.

There are so many products that create problems in order to sell solutions. Like the myriad bathroom cleaners that profess a singular, unique purpose – when a basic, multi-purpose bleach would often suffice.

There are widgets, bobbits and all manner of tools that purport an essential need; ‘invent today and find the need tomorrow’ seems to be the motto.

However, there are some problems of great irritation that I have wished some mind far greater than mine could attend to.

Ironing has always irked me. It is a chore, the technology for which has barely progressed in half a century. It seems ridiculous in this day and age that we still need to unfold a board, plug in an electronic steam-device and slide it back and forth across a shirt to make it presentable.

In fact, shirts in general are rather annoying.

I like them, of course. But they have a nasty habit of misbehaving.

In the course of a day, I often find even my made to measure shirts not staying where they are meant to be; tucked in my trousers with a smooth front up to my collar. It might sound like Leyendecker idealism, but it always struck me as rather irksome that even a well-starched cotton shirt must crumple so much in an ensemble.

And so when I was presented with the option of ‘shirt stays’ from Sharp & Dapper, I was titillated. Finally, here was a product which sought to govern the ungovernable, twofold. For not only is this product designed to pull on one’s shirt tails to create that smooth-as-a-board effect, it also pulls up one’s socks at the same time.

Of course, theory is all very well but it achieves nothing. Trial is essential to make an idea an invention, and so recently, I set about testing it.

The first step is to attach the elasticated straps to the bottom of your shirt or, if you choose, to the top of your socks.

I chose the socks first and found it rather tricky as I was wearing a thick-ish pair of Uniqlo winter socks rather than a pair of fine merino socks. Essentially, you need to push a bit of rubber inside the top of the sock to create a lump and secure the metal latch over this lump, so that it safely grips the material.

Next, I attached the other end of the strap to the bottom of the shirt front, which was far easier due to the thinness of the shirt material. I repeated the process with the three remaining straps, attaching two to the shirt front and two to the shirt rear.

The sensation is, initially, bizarre. The elastic straps are alarmingly effective and require getting used to. I was very, very aware that I was wearing them, even when I tried on trousers afterwards. However, I have been reliably informed that the unfamiliarity of this sensation passes with regular use.

The best thing is that even a fitted shirt could be improved by its use. It pulled down on the tails, creating a smooth finish across the front that would have been welcome on many formal occasions in memory.

I find it would be particularly useful for black tie, given the use of low waistcoats and the desirability of an entirely smooth front, as well as the proliferation of black silk socks – which have a nasty habit of not remaining on the calves but slinking down to the ankles.

 

MTailor: Getting Tailor-Measured By Your iPhone

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’

I like science a lot; I even subscribe to a Facebook page titled: ‘I f**king love science.’ But I’m not entirely sure how the technology I’m reviewing today works – I’m content to think of it as magic.

Mtailor

I received an email some weeks ago from Miles Penn of MTailor asking if I’d like to review a MTM shirt made by them. The online MTM shirtmaker market is fairly saturated, but I was immediately taken by two things:

1. MTailor operates not via a website but an iPhone app, and
2. You use that app to measure yourself for your shirt.

The app uses the iPhone’s camera to measure you up. You need only follow some basic instructions while posing for the camera in your underpants (or tights if you’re concerned about internet security).

Never one to miss an opportunity to whip my shirt off, I happily obliged and gave the service a go.

Vital stats

What I bought: A dress shirt in a check pattern
How much does it cost: $79 but my shirt was complimentary
How long did it take: 24 days
Where I got it: www.mtailor.com

The measuring process

The measuring process is surprisingly straight-forward. You tilt your phone against a wall, stand approximately 10 feet away (that’s approximately 3m for those of us not in the USA) and then line yourself up with an outline on your camera and spin.

See the pictures below:




Fit

The fit of the shirt came out very well – you might even say magical. I suppose using mathematics (by approximating the angle of the phone and using the distance of 10 feet and the size of the phone) it is possible to work out my height to some degree of confidence and pixel recognition could do the rest for my other measurements. Nevertheless it is both impressive and confounding how a simple app could do such a good job of measuring me up for a shirt.

I do note that I picked the ‘untucked’ shirt length and therefore the shirt is kicking out a little bit at the waist in my pictures.

Quality

Workmanship

The workmanship used for the shirt is quite good. The stitching is clean and tight and the shirt feels like it will last. However, it must be noted that the shirt does not come with a split yoke and the buttons aren’t sewn with a shank. Having said that, at $79 these shirts are very affordable and I know some sites charge more for a split yoke.

Fabric

The fabric is really soft and has a silky look to it. However, as with a lot of delicate fabrics it tends to wrinkle quite easily. Overall it is a solid fabric though for the price that you pay.

I do note that I had intended this to be a casual shirt with the check pattern, but the sheen of the fabric makes it a little more business/formal looking.

Conclusion

MTailor offers a good range of fabrics at a very cost-effective price. Their measurement system works well and the app might be a way to engage with customers who may otherwise not be bothered ordering made-to-measure. After all, not everyone knows what their ‘correct’ measurements should be and this app makes it relatively easy.

One caveat though: shirts are relatively easy to measure up and I would be a little more hesitant to recommend a similar measurement system for suits which are much more complicated to measure for and make.

 

Steve Skippen of Shoeshine UK

I hate cleaning shoes. Some men I know derive therapeutic benefit from it, though I scarcely know why.

That said, I do like my shoes to be well kept and last. So I’ve read the innumerable articles littered around the internet on the art of shoe shining, methods of achieving a high shine and reviews of various potions.

Having read so many of these forensic expositions even now I’m buggered if I could tell you which the right way is. In fact every shoemaker and purveyor of footwear I’ve encountered or interviewed seems to have a differing method.

So while I may not be able to advise on the right way to clean your shoes I can enlighten as to the most pleasurable and for my money the most satisfying in its results.

The artist in question is a man named Steve Skippen of Shoe Shine UK. You’ll find him working out of the Hilton on Park Lane, London – which is as good a place as any to spend a comfortable hour.

Steve’s art of shoe shining is in his fingers, literally caressing the leather back to life with the tips of his fingers.  This is not a practice you’d want to try at home.

A full shoe shine takes between an hour and 45 minutes. He starts by brushing your shoes to get rid of dirt and dust. This is followed by a cleaning and moisturising preparation. A recipe comprising several ingredients and mixed by Steve himself – which he understandably wouldn’t share. This application is applied by cloth. This is the last such conventional piece of kit used.

Now comes the interesting bit. Using his thumb and fingers he rubs the tips on the surface of the coloured wax polish – from a French firm he regards as the best, but again wouldn’t share. Steve then rubs the polish into the leather with the tips of his fingers and thumbs. It takes literally hundreds of darting flicks of the fingers across the leather, back and forth onto the leather and then back into the polish.

While this is happening you sit shoes on and in a conventional shoe shiners leather chair. The sensation itself of having someone run their fingers over your shoes while unusual is extremely becalming, far more so than a normal shoe shine.

Using this method he applies several coats of polish, including lacquers around the outside ridges of the soles.

To explain this method seems quite odd, if not mad – or at least a foolish gimmick – but far from it. Using this method he applies multiple light layers of polish which are slowly built up. The heat, moisture and oils within the skin of his fingers helps the wax penetrate the leather better, with thin layers building up one on top of the other much more efficiently.

The experience is rounded off by a vigorous buffing with Steve applying some serious elbow grease via folded pairs of ladies stockings – which Steve swears provide a higher shine than any cloth or brush.

Finally, Steve lacquers the welts and edges of the soles and you’re done. The finest and certainly the most unusual shoe shine I’ve yet found.

Should you find yourself in London I whole heartily recommend a visit. Your money and your time cannot be better spent.