The Line on Linen

Seeing that everyone in this Buzzfeed generation is addicted to lists, I thought I would generate another easily digestible seasonal tasting menu, this time on the subject of linen suits.

I recently included linen suits as one of my Ten Style Commandments of Summer, as one of the underworn and underappreciated joys of warm climate attire. However, before you prepare yourself for more eulogies on the merits of linen, this will not be some deep, detailed treatise.

In my view, enough has been written about ‘why linen’ to last several years at least.

Instead, I think it is sensible to write about ‘what linen.’

The Business Linen: Navy blue, Double Breasted, Peak Lapel

Navy blue is one of the smartest colours of suit you can wear. Along with dark and mid grey, it is the one colour that is entirely beyond reproach in the context of a boardroom. It’s all very well for those in creative positions to turn up in royal blue and sage green, but for many, the business uniform must comply either with a formal policy, or with an implied expectation that you won’t embarrass yourself, or the company. A shame? Maybe. But it is better to be safe than sorry.

One of the compromises of linen is that it is markedly less formal than wool. One of the consequences of this is that many are unsure of deploying it in a business context – attending meetings, conferences and the like. Double-breasted suits have a more military formality than single breasted variants, which counteracts the informality of the fabric.

The Travel Linen: Khaki, Single Breasted, Notched Lapel

Khaki linen is the classic linen. It is the Hollywood linen. It is the fabric of Somerset Maugham novels, Old Havana gangsters, the British Raj and the Happy Valley Set. The word itself is Urdu and roughly translates as ‘dust coloured’, and it has its roots in 19th century military camouflage.

Not as impractical as white or off white, and not as heat absorbing as darker colours, khaki is one of the most resilient colours for linen, which makes it an excellent choice for a travelling suit in the summer months. I find linen one of the most comfortable things to wear on a plane, being very breathable and very low maintenance compared with wool, which needs to be well pressed in order to be remotely acceptable. A khaki linen allows you to go from gate to guestroom without humiliation.

The Party Linen: Brown, Peaked Lapel, Waistcoat


Picture the scene: a summer terrace party, mojitos are being served; attractively groomed ladies flit back and forth in floral printed dresses. A golden, early evening sun warmly illuminates the scene. This is the perfect occasion for that special rarity: the brown linen suit.

Linen is often seen as a utility fabric: need to keep cool? Wear linen. Need to wear something less precious for travelling? Linen looks good even wrinkled. But it can also be marvellous as a material for contrasting with other fabrics, like cotton and silk. Brown linen has a wonderful lustre in the late sun, like a delectable chocolate truffle. It also contrasts deliciously with light blue, white and pink, and it seems to work very well with silk ties. This makes the brown linen suit the most arresting choice for a party. It has a vintage air to it, lending itself to the kinds of cocktail party environments so popular today, and has a distinctly more formal, evening quality than the aforementioned, utilitarian khaki.

The Ten Style Commandments of Summer

In honour of the fact that summer is upon us, and that I haven’t written a thing since the spring, I thought I would rant vigorously and bitterly about summer attire, in the gloriously contemptuous style of the Old Testament.

Summer is, officially, the worst-dressed season in London as far as men are concerned. Men in the city slop around, slack-jawed, scratching their posteriors, wearing the wardrobe of teenage boys. The crass Americanisation of our summer attire reduces the steely grace of a winter’s John Steed into a theme-park-going cretin.

The time for calm, cautious advice has long passed. The time has come for indignation and commandment.

1. Thou shalt not wear socks

Socks are entirely optional in summer. There is nothing so ridiculous as the sight of a grown man insisting on wearing hosiery in hot weather. The most absurd example of this is clearly the socks-with-sandals aberration, but it also rankles when I see people wearing shorts, penny loafers and socks pulled up over their calves. Socks on their own are unattractive. They look awkward. They are only desirable in winter because they are largely invisible when worn with lace-up shoes and long trousers.

2. Thou shalt not covet flip-flops

Flip flops are the second most anti-social and degenerate footwear you can buy (the leader in this regard are Crocs). I’m not against exposed feet per se; if someone takes care of them properly (no surprise that male pedicures are on the rise in the summer months), then exposing footwear like sandals – a design that harks back to the civilisations of the ancients – is actually the most appropriate in certain conditions. But flip flops are a cheap con; a scruffy, filthy, lazy symbol of humanity’s decline.

3. Honour thy pastels

Grey and navy are the dominant forces in winter. When light levels are lower, and precipitation greater, these sobering colours make sense. But in summer, when the sunlight lasts till a few hours before midnight, it is time to make more use of nature’s desaturated tones. Pastel suits are the ultimate expression – think of Jay Gatsby’s pastel pink suit in which Daisy considered him “wonderfully cool” – but they require daring, with which most men are not blessed. Less of a stretch is a pastel summer jacket in linen, cotton or seersucker that works well with both white and off-white trousers, as well as strongly contrasting deep blues. For the most risk-averse, pastel trousers are the mildest expression of the pastel faith.

4. Thou shalt wear linen suits

I can’t count the number of times someone has worn a wool suit on a hot day and has complained ad nauseum about the heat and torn their jacket off in disgust: “too hot for suits.”

No, it’s not. It’s just too hot for that suit.

Too many men wear the wrong material in the wrong season. Wearing the same midweight wools in winter and summer is nonsensical. There are lighter weight wools that are better suited, but too few men wear linen in the summertime. Lighter coloured linens are more common, but navy and grey linens are more elegant for summer business attire. It should always be remembered that though the wrinkling of linen is to be embraced, it is advisable to press a linen suit for the boardroom.

5. Short-sleeved shirts should never be worn with suits and ties

Short sleeved shirts are never high on my list come the time of the summer sales. Men with biceps the size of beer barrels seem to love them – it’s one of the unofficially acceptable methods of ‘showing your bod’ on Tinder – but I have never got much utility from them. They are especially odious when worn with ties (with the added insult of a pen clipped to a breast pocket) as ‘work attire.’

6. Be ye not afraid of hats

When I wore a panama hat to a polo match on a cloudless day, I could see the ranks of smirking, sunglass-wearing luvvies looking at me as some sort of fragile relic. I had the last laugh come six o clock when the more auburn of the bunch gently tapped their crimson foreheads, their smiles quickly collapsing into a frown. More so than in winter, summer hats have a distinctly protective purpose. Not only do they keep the sun off your face but they are also remarkably good at keeping you cool.

7. Thou shalt stop dressing down

It isn’t a summer holiday. You are at work. Simply because the temperature is three degrees higher than it was four months ago does not mean you shed clothing, wander around the office without shoes, come to the office in polo shirts (it’s not goddamn golf day) and act like it’s all a barbecue. Summer slovenliness is on the rise – and it is risible.

8. Remember anti-perspirant, to keep it wholly pleasant

It is 2016. And yet the amount of wet armpits you see around the city on a summer’s day would make you think we were living in the pre-penicillin era, where quacks dispensed brandy and leeches as cure-alls for our ills. Deodorant is not a new thing, and it should be your constant friend when the sun is out and the Mercury is high. An elegantly assembled ensemble is pointless if you smell of day-old cheese soaked in vinegar.

9. Thou shalt not wear shorts over the knee

Do you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t great. You were insecure, spotty, awkward physically, sexually inexperienced, financially dependent on your parents – so why are you so desperate to be one again? There is nothing more pitiable than a grown man wearing the same long shorts as his sons. In a rash attempt to fit in and ‘be cool’ (whatever the hell that even is), he conveys to the adult world that he is a man-child, lacking interest in full maturity. To women, let alone other men, nothing is more likely to result in a severe recession of respect.

10. Stop wearing jeans

Jeans are an amazing marketing coup. Relatively uncomfortable, not warm enough for winter and too hot for summer, yet they remain a robotic essential choice for most men. For mild days, jeans are fine. But when the temperature soars, jeans are a disagreeable option; wear linen trousers, or cotton chinos instead.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Casentino Coats

“Jesus. His coat has seen better days” a colleague murmured as we were flicking through some of the best captures of the biannual peacock-fest that is PittiUomo. It was somewhat inevitable coming from someone who hadn’t yet managed to stretch their sartorial imagination beyond multi-deal Jermyn Street shirts, Barbour paddock jackets and suits from Marks & Spencer.

Their idea of texture is, understandably, confined to silk twills, smooth Super 100s wools and Oxford-cloth cotton. Whilst harsh to call it pedestrian, it is rather wedded to the conventional. And so the distinctive Casentino fabric, with its curious similarity to pilled wool – which afflicts jumpers, cardigans and other woollen wearas a result of friction – is undoubtedly strange. After all, why would you want a coat that looks like it has been someone’s favourite for one decade too many.

“Some new-fangled trendy thing” the colleague surmised, folding his arms and shaking his head.

Not a bit of it. Casentino is an ancient fabric. Long renowned for being strong and warm, it has been used in making blankets for animals and for clothing cold Franciscan friars since the Middle Ages. It then moved from mere practicality to aesthetic heights when it became desirable for its distinctive ‘curls’ in the 19th century, counting amongst its famous wearers the composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.

One of the more well-known examples of the Casentino coat is Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s wearing a double-breasted Hubert de Givenchyorange version (orange being the signature colour of Casentino). It is this mid-century aesthetic that has endured; with sparkling heels, gleaming sunglasses and a fur hat in supporting roles, lifting the Casentino to the giddy heights of chic Hollywood glamour.

More recently, it has been seen on the many dandies prowling around PittiUomo every January; an appropriate environment given the material’s connection with Florence and Tuscany. After all, Casentino is named after a valley area to the east of that great Renaissance city.

And, like most PittiUomo trends, the skilful execution of such fashion can persuade admirers to action.

“I really want a Casentino coat!” men have been gushing online, with the unlikely gusto normally associated with boyhood dreams like driving a Ferrari or sleeping with a supermodel.

However, others struggle to see any appeal in the fabric, reacting to its distinctive texture in much the same way that the Prince of Wales responds to modernist architecture: why would something be made intentionally ugly and then considered uniquely beautiful? “It looks like my granny’s bath mat!” another colleague exclaimed “There’s no way anyone can pull this off, unless they’re a model.”

I sit on the friendly side of the fence. Yes, it’s another Pitti-led fad and a Casentino coat is hardly the first entry in a capsule collection. However, worn in the right way and the right context, it moves the coat to the forefront of the ensemble, without extravagant patterns or embellishments.

In my view, the key elements are colour and texture contrast – with a dash of playfulness.

Colour

Typically, overcoats worn are in navy, dark grey and black. These overcoats are serious and sensible; funeral fodder. Casentino coats are all about the texture, which is playful and curious, and there is no better way of showing off the distinctive curls than wearing brighter colours; the shadowing created by the curls shows up better in colours with greater contrast ranges. You can go for the distinctive Hermes orange or the similarly classic bright green, but they also look good in royal blue, burgundy, rust and purple. Mustard yellow is an interesting idea, and even a very light grey could work. The key is not to think too sensibly or practically; light grey, for example, is a flexible and not outrageous colour, but is arguably very impractical for outerwear, which means it can work with Casentino.

Texture contrast

As a texture showpiece, Casentino needs an appropriate set. Contrasting textures are required to offset its appearance, so layer over smoother textures such as fine worsted and flannel. It’s quite a casual coat, so is also perfect for combining with weekend cashmere rollnecks. It seems to work best with patterns underneath, emphasising its playful edge.

Massimo Dutti Personal Tailoring Refresh

I first reviewed Massimo Dutti’s Personal Tailoring product three years ago. The made-to-measure ‘tailoring’ concept was a straightforward adjustment of a Massimo Dutti suit block. Once the jacket size with the best fitting shoulders had been selected, the tailors set to work with their pins pulling in the waist, removing excess fabric on the arms and correcting the height of the trousers.

Styling options were limited.  The only choice was a single-breasted suit with standard width notch lapels; a classic no doubt, but very basic. There were different swatch books representing different price points, using fabrics from the likes of Cerruti and Loro Piana, mostly in greys and blues – very sober, very sensible.

There were some great touches; horn buttons for braces, fine finishing and raised stitching on buttonholes. However, there were also some frustrating limitations. Only one pleat was possible, not two, and the standard trousers came with belt loops but were not available with side adjusters. Waistcoats were possible, but only in a single breasted design.

It was good. It just wasn’t great. By comparison with the possibilities for personalization with bespoke tailoring, it was a creative straitjacket.

It’s fair to say now that Massimo Dutti’s improved Personal Tailoring service is a little better.

Firstly, the ‘double’ options have opened up. Double-breasted suits, and double-breasted waistcoats, are both available. And double pleats on the trousers? Absolutely.

Secondly, the fabric selection has been ramped up. There are now three distinct suppliers of fabric, forming three price levels for the service. The first level is Vitale Barberis Canonico; the second level is Loro Piana and the top level is Scabal – a nod to Massimo Dutti’s determination to bring a little Savile Row to their very Italian stable.

Given Massimo Dutti’s high street status, there will likely be a few raised eyebrows that they are using fabrics from such esteemed mills. After all, these names are normally associated with the grand tailors from Savile Row, Paris and Milan.

Personal Tailoring now has three distinct collections: Extreme Lux, Business Lux and Country Lux. Massimo Dutti explains “…each collection has a limited edition range of fabrics and colours.” In other words, each collection ‘design’ has a limited run and is then refreshed with different fabrics – an approach that is very familiar to holding company Inditex, owners of fast-fashion masters, Zara.

At the heart of these changes to Personal Tailoring is a man who holds the title of Duke of Feria. He is the head of an ancient aristocratic family that traces its roots back to the royal family of Aragon. His name, Rafael de Medina, might not be familiar to readers, but he is one of the most celebrated members of the Spanish nobility; a tall, striking man with the looks of a Ralph Lauren male model who once ranked on Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed List.

“When he came along” the tailor said shaking his head “he said everything, the way we were doing the Personal Tailoring, was not good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Massimo Dutti.”

Appointed as Director of the Personal Tailoring offering at Massimo Dutti, after setting up his own clothing venture Scalpers (think of a Spanish J.Crew) Rafael de Medina oversaw some vital changes to the limited and, arguably, half-hearted Personal Tailoring set-up.

In addition to the introduction of the three collections, there is a Personal Tailoring ‘Paper’ (currently in Spanish only), an upcoming Premium Area where customers can access their account, view their orders and even place more orders – much like an online-only tailor – and accompanying shirting and accessories which match the look of each collection.

The Process

As before, you make an appointment with the Personal Tailoring tailors and they hand you a jacket in your rough size (36” for me) to try on. In this case, they had a 34” that fit better in the shoulders. Then, you repeat the process for the waistcoat and trousers.

They pin all over the jacket, waistcoat and trousers to learn how much each item needs to be adjusted from the block when it is made by the company’s tailors in Portugal. The whole process takes about 45 minutes.

Then, the order is placed once you select your fabric and details.

I chose a subtle charcoal Prince of Wales check from the Vitale Barberis range. The stylistic choice was the Extreme Lux collection: wide peak lapels, a double breasted waistcoat and double pleated trousers with turn ups and side adjusters. I selected dark horn buttons and a Burgundy lining to finish it. After the soberness of the previous fabric collections, sensible cloths still prevail but there are now some exciting patterns (thick chalkstripes, Prince of Wales checks) to complement the plain blues and greys.

The price for this was £390 for two-piece suit, and an extra £90 for the waistcoat, making a total of £480. This is the entry level price, so is significantly more than the £380 being charged in 2013.

Waiting time for the suit was a little over a month, which is the standard for Massimo Dutti, however, the trousers that came back were wrong. It turned out the high waisted trousers I had selected were only available flat-fronted. So, the first pair of trousers did not have the requested pleats. It was slightly shocking that the makers in Portugal did not contact the store and tell them this, particularly as I was told I’d have to wait another two weeks.

It was a little over three weeks when I called up to find out that the new trousers were ready, so in total it took nearly two months.

The product

Remembering how I had been impressed with the quality of two previous suits from Massimo Dutti Personal Tailoring, both in fit and finish, I was a little hesitant to get my hopes up that this could be any better.

However, I needn’t have worried. The finish was every bit as good and the fit is arguably better.

The standard construction of Personal Tailoring suits is half-canvas; you pay extra for full-canvas construction. Nevertheless, the body of the jacket drapes beautifully. Admittedly, there is very little sculpting on the waist characteristic of fine bespoke, but then this is made-to-measure and it’s hardly a blocky shape.

Again, Massimo Dutti triumphs on the excellence of the finish. Buttonholes are carefully stitched, buttons are high quality. The use of a good fabric definitely improves the overall suit, and like a ‘bricks and mortar’ tailor, it definitely helps being able to choose the fabric in person.

Fit: 8 out of 10 – A very good fit, given that this is made-to-measure adjustment of an existing block. It’s not perfect, and so anything higher than 8 out of 10 feels a little punchy; armholes not as high as they could be, waist could be more suppressed. However, it’s way better than off the rack suits from high-end retailers that cost 2-3 times more. Would be keen to try the double-breasted suit to see how it compares. 

Fabric: 9 out of 10 – Definitely one of the main reasons to go for Massimo Dutti over similarly priced internet tailors is not only the process of choosing the fabrics (in-store, touching and comparing) but the quality and range too. The fact that they now have collections from three very highly esteemed mills including Scabal and Vitale Barberis is a major selling point.

Quality of finish: 9 out of 10 – Outstanding for this price point. It feels more like a garment from a tailoring house than a mid-market high-street store. It’s not exquisite – no showstoppers like Milanese buttonholes – but it’s very, very competent.

Service: 5 out of 10 – Where Massimo Dutti falls down is service. It’s a shame to say it, but service quality on this outing was poor. It had been excellent on the two previous occasions, so perhaps this was a one-off, but there were a number of issues.

The first issue was the lack of communication between the suit makers in Portugal and Massimo Dutti tailors in London on the trouser issue. Massimo Dutti did apologise for this, but no other dispensation was offered. Given this resulted in a heavy delay, this is disappointing. I had to chase the tailors for updates and my calls were rarely returned. When I paid for the suit, I was initially charged more than I should have been, and had to indicate this to the sales staff.

A lot of this is down the fact that Massimo Dutti is a high-street shop – not a tailor – and their staff are busy with other things. Their level of service training is therefore bound to be somewhat lower and less experienced. It could be that staff are overworked in store; rushing back and forth from stock rooms, dealing with tills, customer enquiries etc. If so, some system needs to be implemented to help them.  These aren’t ‘budget’ MTM suits, and Massimo Dutti’s positioning in the mid-market of menswear needs to accord with a slightly higher service level than the mass-market.

Overall satisfaction: 8 out of 10 – This feels harsh, as I am very happy with the suit. However, I’m not rushing back there just yet. Good things come to those who wait, and I have no problem with the time it took to receive the suit. However, this did not fill me with confidence on the service front. This needs some serious work if Massimo Dutti is going to differentiate itself from ‘other high street’ brands that it considers itself superior to. The product is stronger on this occasion; as it should be for a 25% markup in just 3 years. The service needs a bit of work, and hopefully the introduction of the Premium Area (through the website and app) where “you’ll be able to see all your orders, place new ones, manage your appointments…” will add some degree of access and reassurance that is currently not possible through the existing medium of individual contact with the tailors.

Country Weekends

One of my professional acquaintances recently told me over lunch they had taken my advice and secured a private country house for post-Christmas celebrations and New Year’s fireworks and champagne.

“We’ve taken a place up in Scotland. It’s a massive castle-y thing. Looks spectacular. Probably going to be freezing.”

For anyone curious enough, they had done so through Landmark Trust, which is one of the most splendid and useful causes in the land. With a powerful and unsurprisingly supportive royal patron in Prince Charles, the Trust is a unique blend of heritage preservation and hospitality. Imagine visiting a small stately home and wishing you could have it for the weekend only – without the maintenance, heating bills and crumbling roof – and that you could do so in style, with tasteful furniture of the period and not a flatscreen or wifi router in sight.

Having taking Landmark Trust holidays myself, I enthusiastically told my acquaintance of the gentleness of such an experience; an escape to nature, to an older time, to natural, log-lit warmth, board games and simple pleasures. If holidays are ultimately about escaping everyday life, then Landmarks are the most accurate example.

However, I digress.

My acquaintance had planned to take a few leaves from the book of country gentlemen and actually dress what he termed as ‘the part of squire.’

“I don’t want to be one of those awful Chelsea people who turn up in brand new Range Rovers with Moncler gilets and iPads.”

For him, such a weekend was an escape to the textured, layered, regimented routine of the past. There would be, he insisted, no gilets at the dinner table:

“I want people to wear tweed to breakfast, go on walks through the hills in shooting socks, dress for dinner.”

His guests, he insisted, would surely find the sojourn into a forgotten age fulfilling. It was a world away from BlackBerries, from childcare and the school run; from double-glazing, computers and management-speak.

“It’s like Downton Abbey I suppose!” he spluttered “and that’s why dressing is so important. How would you do it? I’d be fascinated to know…”

An Active Morning

One of the treats of staying in the countryside, particularly in a grand manor house on acres of grounds, is the great plethora of outdoor pursuits that could even be as simple as a “walk to the folly.” However, for such activities, the elements often get in the way. Waterproofing and layering is required when staying out in the cold for extended periods, and a hat is often useful to battle against harsh, cold winds. As such, combining a little formality (a tweed waistcoat) with a practical jacket (a waterproof waxed Barbour), with the addition of a scarlet silk scarf and a tweed flat cap is just the right combination of country elegance and sensible clothing. A pair of Wellington boots would complete the look.

Waxed jacket: Barbour
Tweed waistcoat: Ralph Lauren
Boots: Hunter
Silk scarf: Woods of Shropshire
Tweed cap: Lock & Co

A Gentle Afternoon

Although weekends in the country can be rather outdoorsy affairs with rain, mud, Wellington boots, wet dogs and reddened cheeks, there is always the promise of some refinement; a quiet card game by the fire, some 3pm champagne in the drawing room or reading by the gentle tick of the long-case clock in the hall. Therefore, a tweed jacket (houndstooth is ideal), a crisp white cotton shirt, a pair of grey flannel trousers and brown Oxford brogues would help to keep up the stately atmosphere.

Tweed jacket: Ralph Lauren
Houndstooth trousers: Gieves & Hawkes
Shoes: Meermin

A Refined Evening

Pretending to be the squire of some old castle is enormous fun, particularly when you dress up in evening gear in the accepted ‘code’ of a host. With black tie, whereas guests are expected to don formal evening jackets and shoes, hosts ‘at home’ have often chosen to wear a more relaxed velvet smoking jacket and velvet Albert slippers instead of shoes.

Green velvet jacket: Kingsman
Velvet slippers: Leffot