M&S and Gandy: A Brief Story

Missed opportunity. There are few sadder words in the English language. “Too late” is heartbreaking; “gone forever” is, frankly miserable.

I was ruminating on these maudlin notes when viewing the much ballyhooed and heavily marketed underwear collection created by David Gandy for Marks & Spencer. The story of the product is that Gandy, a male model – reputed to be the world’s most successful – has, for a price, lent his name and experience to one of the British high street’s most famous, and sadly troubled, retailers.

In classic Waugh-esque news headline tone; “Desperate retailer clings to the coat tails of its prize clothes horse.”

However, as slight as it sounds, the model’s offering in this trade isn’t insignificant. His experience has its uses; Gandy has often been snapped wearing very little and so his knowledge of lycra cotton underwear is, no doubt, exceptionally useful.

But when all is said and done, it’s his name that M&S are paying for. “But who’s Gandy?” many of you may cry.

Fair question. And one likely to be asked by most of Marks & Spencer’s most loyal customers. For all the bleating M&S can do about Gandy’s leather bound books and his rich mahogany scented home, he means diddly squat to the average John Bull frantically rummaging the underwear racks.

And here we get to the heart of the problem.

The demographic profile of the average Marks & Spencer underwear shopper is not that of the Calvin Klein underwear shopper. He is generally likely to be price sensitive, buy plain underwear in bulk and see celebrity-endorsed knickers as a merry con.

However, the Calvin Klein shopper might be more susceptible to trends and famous people slapping their names on a pair of tighty whiteys. Bjorn Borg, the Swedish former tennis champ, might have tempted him with his hypercoloured retro designs and name stretched across the waistband.

The issue is, he doesn’t really shop at Marks & Spencer. He knows who Gandy is, and might even have bought a pair of Dolce pants on the back of those sweaty-pec D&G adverts. “Oh wow” he might say “Gandy’s done his own underwear. Nice.” He might even entertain the thought of buying a few pairs, uploading on Instagram, telling his followers: “Check it out – Gandy’s pants. Need a few more pairs – and some more gym time!”

However, for all the guff about quality and details, there’s not much that can draw him into a buying frenzy. It would have been quite cool to have a pair of Gandy pants, but they’re just so…ordinary. Nothing. No quirkiness, no outlandish design or statement. Just quiet, white pants with a small, grey, embarrassed logo identifying the namesake.

My first reaction was of incredulity. It’s true that most M&S existing buyers wouldn’t like a pair of tight, D&G-esque pants with ‘GANDY’ stretched across the waistband. After all, they like Rich Tea biscuits, still listen to the cricket on the radio and own picnic chairs. But then they wouldn’t be the target anyway because they wouldn’t pay £20 for two pairs when they could get five pairs for the same amount of money, simply because a male model they’ve never heard of helped design the collection.

M&S could have pushed the boat out, stretched the brief (pun intended) to be targeted at the kind of fashion brigade who aren’t generally seen within 3 miles of M&S menswear. Create a sensation, get the TopMan-cum-Reiss crowd fighting over a pair; have the 20-something girls giggling in excitement as they take off their lover’s shirts to reveal the model hunk’s name emblazoned across the waistband.

The collection is nothing without his name – and yet the retailer has made such little use of it. A missed opportunity indeed.

 

The RKOI

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

Scott Fitzgerald’s words are never out of date. And there is no better example of this than the notorious Rich Kids of Instagram.

The lives of the wealthy have always fascinated the commonfolk. The cult of celebrity, salacious gossip about tycoons’ scions and the exposure of alcoholic diaries of aristocratic lounge lizards are nothing new. ‘Celebutante’, ‘RKOI’ – they’re just new terms for an old phenomenon.

It used to be called ‘Society’ and it claimed a haughty superiority to everything and everyone else. It led with fashion (the mourning Queen Victoria sparked the Victorians long obsession with wearing black), was instructional on matters of form and conveyed a certain lifestyle that others looked up to and wished to emulate.

Society went to the races at Ascot – so went everyone else. Society ate at Oscar DelMonico’s – so tucked in all who could.

Now, ‘Society’ posts prettily filtered pictures of jets, yachts, Vuitton and AP watches all over a social network. Exposing their gilded, carefree lives to the world with glee and a giddy sense of entitlement, the RKOI are one of the most significant social sensations since the dawn of the internet.

Behaving much like Pinocchio’s chums on Pleasure Island, or the Buchanans in Gatsby they “smash things up and retreat into their vast carelessness” – so careless in fact, that they document their ‘exclusive’ lives for everyone to view online.

The idea behind many of the employed hashtags is inevitably envy.

#youcantsitwithus, #bornrich, #flyprivate – these are not the call signs of open inclusion or balanced upbringings.

The pictures themselves are also stunningly off-putting.

A well-fed late-teen lies in a bathtub half-naked holding a Methuselah of Cristal champagne, blowing his lips in mock-kiss, concealing his eyes from the flash with a pair of sunglasses that cost as much as a television.

Another shows a Bieber-esque twenty-something on his father’s helicopter carrying a Chanel backpack, swearing at the camera as a pretty brunette licks the side of his face.

“The thing is” an intelligent friend recently observed “they don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve so much power and influence because of this wealth but they don’t know what they’re doing with it – they’re literally just kids.”

Kids they are. But kids that could strike fear into the hearts of many a luxury brand.

One of the things I have always found fascinating is when brands ask to be brought ‘to life’ by their own customers.

Fashion design megalodons like Ralph Lauren don’t really do this, and have actually thrived better because of it. Bringing something ‘real’ to the table removes any sense of mystery and fairy tale. It makes it more commonplace, even accessible.

If you take Lauren’s perpetual Gatsby aesthetic for Purple Label, it works because it’s a fantasy and not a reality. I really wish there were young wealthy chaps with white wool suits and spectators dashing about a Hamptons estate in a white 1930s car – but there simply aren’t.

It’s the same effect with Vuitton’s (or practically any watchmaker’s) use of celebrities in their campaigns. Celebrities are so fascinating because they are partially hidden. It makes them more glamorous, which makes them more attractive – which, in turn, makes them want to hide more.

The key word ‘hide’ is lost on the RKOI. They flaunt and flaunt and flaunt. They wear everything and anything because there are no rules and no limits. Though brands have carefully built up balanced images to appeal to a broad cross section of people, their excessive and often tasteless display points more to the vulgarity of the brands than their quality or style.

This is the danger for any brand on the RKOI radar that embraces social media. Your brand, and to an extent your product, ceases to be in your control. They see it, they buy it, they flaunt it.

Free marketing? Be careful what you wish for.

The gluttonous piling of watches; the collages of Ferraris with firearms; the line of cocaine on a Tom Ford suit – these are the things of nightmare for any brand wishing to claim a sense of rarity, craftsmanship, elegance and social responsibility.

Worst of all, they are absolute kryptonite for a brand wishing to carefully maintain an image of style.

Perhaps when they wanted the brand to come to life, they should have read Mary Shelley first.

Down with the Kids

I recently walked past the new Abercrombie & Fitch “Kids” store on Savile Row.

Did you get that?

Abercrombie. Fitch. KIDS.

On SAVILE ROW.

It’s like being told that there’s a Ladbrokes in Belgrave Square.

However, aside from how monumentally disappointing it is to me that this particular berth is now a reality, it did prompt me to think.

Now that the pavement will be clogged with Bugaboos and the air ever more redolent of Abercrombie’s answer to mustard gas, the question for the Row’s ancient tailoring tenants is simple: are they more relevant, for now and the foreseeable future than the new “noisy neighbours” at No.3?

The answer isn’t as simple. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. What I do know is that I am often approached by people who ask me about buying “Savile Row suits”. I am rarely approached by people who ask me about “Savile Row separates”.

And yet the majority of men skipping around the very elegant part of the capital I work in don’t seem to be particularly fussed about suits – particularly on Fridays, when they don’t have to be.

Of course, down the Row, you’ll always see well-dressed suited men going to and fro, wearing big lapels with DB waistcoats, tie clips and slick Gaziano & Girling brogues as if the 1960s had never happened.

But walk out into Old Bond Street or onto Regent Street and the suits vanish. Like something out of Lewis Carroll, you wonder whether they ever existed at all as you note that the majority of men who are self-consciously well dressed are wearing separates – trousers (or jeans) and a blazer.

While it’s easier to sit back, observe and bemoan decay, there’s a more practical – and profitable – way for the Row tailors to deal with the changing tastes of London men.

By marketing the full capabilities of tailoring – not just suits.

There is no getting away from the fact that Savile Row is really “Suit Street.” You don’t go down there if you want a pair of jeans or some cotton t-shirts.

But what about a pair of grey wool trousers, or some cotton chinos cut the way you want them, or a chocolate corduroy jacket? And where does one get that perfect, navy overcoat for winter?

“We make everything really” one of the Row’s tailors recently told me, rather sorrowfully “but I don’t think people really want much else from us besides a suit.”

Really? The same people wandering into Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren and Cucinelli? What are they looking for in these emporiums then? Chicken breasts?

The changing tastes of fashion should hold no fear for the Row. They once helped create fashion, of course, but they are often resistant to its extremes. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t adapted. After all, few were forcing their customers into frock coats after the First World War.

For those with the resources, a bespoke tailor is almost the first and only port of call for those in the know. However, I have often taken friends around to peruse swatch books for them to express incredulity at the possibilities available: “What? Bespoke moleskin trousers? Can they do that? Really?”

A more casual uniform is not necessarily a cheaper uniform. After all, men are spending many hundreds on non-bespoke “designer” alternatives. They have the resources and the will. What they don’t have, unlike women, is much of an imagination.

Generally, men need to be fed information about what is possible – almost exhaustively – otherwise they will never ask. It sounds like I am being uncharitable to my own sex but I cannot conceive of a more flattering manner of expression.

Ironically, Abercrombie do have an imagination.

Which other lifestyle brand could have the breathtakingly arrogant fantasy that their overpriced, mass-produced nappies belong on the same street as Huntsman, Henry Poole & Maurice Sedwell?

NiAlma Shirt Review

For a good long time, I have always believed that I was never going to become a Bespoke Billy. I love my made to measure and bespoke items, but I also see plenty of value, and relative quality, in off-the-rack items.

In most areas, off-the-rack items are increasing in appeal. For instance, Zara’s jacket block is probably the best on the high street and, worryingly, is actually more flattering and better finished than many of the online made-to-measure providers.

Trousers from TopMan and River Island have also amazed – even angered – chums working in tailoring: “River Oyyyland?!” they guffaw in disbelief “They’re pretty damn good actually!”

However, one area of ready-to-wear has begun to disappoint: formal shirts.

There was a time when I couldn’t believe my luck in being a Londoner. Jermyn Street, one of the key parishes of menswear, was local to me.

Shoes, ties, grooming products and, importantly, shirts; tons and tons of shirts.

However, over time, this bounty has lost its shine. Supplier changes, cheapening of finish and a confusing inventory have taken what was once a paradise for those in need of a crisp chemise and laden it with land mines for the uninitiated. It is no longer a clean-sweep value-guarantee.

As a result, when I was contacted by NiAlma to review one of their made-to-measure shirts, I was delighted.

Founded in 2007, the NiAlma brand seeks to offer “a premium shirt, comparable with the best brands in the market, at the lowest price possible.” All their shirts are made to each customer’s measurements and there is a massive, Enigma-machine-number of combinations possible.

Their fabrics are all cotton and a good many are from Thomas Mason who has notably supplied Turnbull & Asser with most of their shirting – a reassuring accreditation, particularly for online-only tailoring. Once you have selected your fabric of choice, you then set about customizing the shirt, firstly choosing collar style (largely a variety of spreads, a button down option and some classic collars) and then choosing the height of the collar, the thickness, the tip size and whether a (contrast) French collar is desired.

Then you choose the cuff style (there are nine options), placket style, pockets, pleats, darts and yokes. Pleasingly, you can also choose buttons – although there are currently only four options – and also the colour of the button stitching. For those who are in the habit of forgetting their name, there is also the option of a monogram, which can be positioned on the right or left cuff, inside the collar or on the pocket.

Undeniably, the shirt is very comfortable. The Thomas Mason fabric is crisp and soft. In these pictures I have been wearing it underneath a waistcoat and jacket to show the stress of wear and wrinkles after a day. Some standard elbow creasing and a little on the upper arms too, but generally, the Black Label Thomas Mason fabric holds up well.

It’s not as snug as I expected – or wanted – and even though it feels so much better than all my recent Jermyn Street bundles, it doesn’t have a wow factor. Additionally, I was surprised to see that the contrast white collar used a plush white twill instead of a plain poplin (which is actually harder wearing).

The key to ordering with NiAlma, like any distance tailoring, is self-measurement: getting it right is the difference between success and failure. At $100-$160 for a made-to-measure shirt using high-grade Italian-made cotton, NiAlma is not bad value if the product’s purpose – a shirt that fits a man’s body – is fulfilled.

http://nialma.com/

Sir Plus’s Stunning Surplus

Sir Plus is what’s known in colloquial terms as ‘a clever one’. Even the name of the company is clever. Its clever because the spelling of said name alludes both to that which is classically British; the honour of knighthood – a concept which brings with it associations of integrity and reliability – and also that which is surplus to requirements. Using that which is surplus to requirements is Sir Plus’s business and damn good they are at it too. The firm was the brainchild of the ever excitable Henry Hales – an ambitious and business savvy graduate with a penchant for the sartorial, who started the process of producing and retailing top quality British boxer shorts from recycled materials a couple of years ago. The firm has since grown to produce luxury British products with both ethical integrity and real quality of manufacture.

Initially however, things looked rather tricky. Hales quickly discovered that the cost of printing high quality cloths for his boxers was prohibitive. Undeterred, Hales used his initiative and began scouting for top-quality surplus off-cuts and individual cut-lengths of cloth, which could be employed in the creation of Sir Plus’s quintessentially British undergarments. Hence the firm’s obsession with ‘cabbage’, this being the industry’s slang for surplus off-cuts of cloth. All Sir Plus’s cloths are ‘cabbage’ – pieces lovingly sourced from heritage rich tailors and fabric dealers in the UK and the tailoring capitals of Europe, a strategy which minimises waste within the luxury menswear industry and which creates truly original and quirky products in the process. The brand currently produces boxer shorts, scarves, pocket squares, waistcoats and some rather splendid Nehru jackets.

All Sir Plus products are made in the UK – an admirable and brave decision given the expense that this often incurs. Rest assured however, the quality of Sir Plus’s products truly does shine through. The sky blue linen double-breasted waistcoat pictured is a Sir Plus piece. The Irish linen ‘cabbage’ from which the waistcoat is fashioned is dense, tightly woven and has real body. The ivory lining compliments the warm, light blue beautifully and likewise feels substantial and crisp, as do the cream buttons and piping. I also very much like the eight by eight closure, and sweeping full-darts not often seen. The waistcoat is unusually long, but this allows for the waistcoat to sit cleanly over the waistbands of even the lowest cut modern trousers – this practicality being something I’m sure many readers will welcome. All in all, its a lovely thing – and its appeal is helped in no small measure by the fact that its been handmade in Britain.

Holly Purchase, Sir Plus’s PR & Marketing Manager makes the point perfectly: ‘Customers can feel a real pride in wearing British garments which contribute to the creation of a uniquely British wardrobe. In addition to the benefits of buying and wearing high quality garments that are made in the UK, customers lessen environmental impact and contribute positively to our economy’.

There can be no doubt then, that behind Sir Plus’s attractive eccentricity, (for anyone doubting this – please do see the rather witty video below) lies an engaging obsession for creating products which are both truly original, luxurious and quintessentially British.

http://www.sirplus.co.uk/