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

Instant Upgrades

“How do you make cheap clothing look expensive?” is one of the most common questions I am asked.

The belief is that there is some trick afoot, some skill through which you can conceal ‘cheapness.’ The truth is that cheapness can never be concealed; it can only be removed.

Similarly, expensive items can often look cheaper than they are when worn poorly, with little style or coordination.

The incorrect assumption in both situations is that all expensive things fit properly and look good and that all cheap things don’t fit and look bad.

I can’t count the number of times I have wandered down Savile Row from my office to get my lunch, bump into friends who work there and then watch them admire my inexpensive jackets from Zara or Massimo Dutti; “This is nice!” they say “Which tailor is this from?”

I believe that what people really mean by ‘cheapness’ and ‘expensiveness’ is actually tastelessness and tastefulness; the standards by which all anthropogenic things are judged.

‘Good taste’ is a nebulous concept, prized for its incorporation and representation of the quality of human thought. It has therefore no consistent relationship with expense. Tangerine silk suits and garish gold taps may be extremely expensive but look cheaper than materials available at a fraction of the price.

Suit fabrics

Texture and pattern are the most important considerations beyond the cut of the suit. Quality of finish is, of course, highly desirable but the best of it (Milanese buttonholes, hand sewn linings etc) come at a very high price.

Texture

Matte, flat texures are best; flannels and birdseyes. Weaved patterns are also good – think herringbone tweed and cavalry twill. Flannel is the easiest to find (Massimo Dutti, Uniqlo). Herringbone tweed is also widely available (J.Crew, Hackett).

Pattern

Subtle patterns are often better than plain colours, particularly in lighter shades; a Glen Urquhart (Prince of Wales) check is, I find, a more tasteful option than a plain light grey worsted or twill suit, which can look rather like a pair of Farah trousers. Similarly, a subtle stripe or check often works better than plain fabrics in darker charcoals, which can look too funereal.

Tweaks     

Tweaking RTW garments to make them unique is one of the best ways to improve them and eliminate any cheapness.

Buttons

Plastic buttons are easily replaced with shell or horn buttons. Though brands like J. Crew and Massimo Dutti now offer decent quality buttons, many high street brands still use poor quality stock. Natural is always better than man-made when it comes to button material.

Trousers

I think one of the best tweaks I have employed is with trousers; giving long trousers a healthy-sized turn-up and tapering them to the ankle whilst retaining the size in the thigh down to the knee. Even discount trousers from brands such as River Island and H&M.

Accessorize

It sounds so simple but accessorizing properly makes a huge difference to inexpensive garments.

Pocket squares

The nasty ‘pocket lining’ decorations they stuff into high-street blazer pockets should be discarded upon purchase. Instead, venture into the seasonal sales on Jermyn Street (e.g. TM Lewin, Fortnum & Mason) to pick up some fine silk twills. Alternatively, though a little more expensive, Augustus Hare and Drakes offer artistic pocket decorations that will liven up the most basic of garments.

Ties

Ties should not be ignored. Too many men spend large sums on suits and shoes and ignore the aesthetic of the tie. They buy shiny twills, not insignificant in price, but entirely lacking in artistry. Instead of splashing on garish, gilded neckwear in uncomfortably thick silk, go vintage and get on eBay. It requires patience but you can end up with some beautiful, and sadly neglected, neckwear.

Modern Bertie

“Pip pip” he would say as he skipped out of his Mayfair club ‘Drones’, tipping his fur felt trilby (probably from Bates) at his bemused chums.

He would advance into the London sunshine wearing a daring chalkstripe flannel suit, undoubtedly from a Savile Row tailor, a foulard silk necktie bought in the Burlington Arcade would adorn a fashionable bar-collar, and the merest hint of a cream silk puff would poke from his chest pocket.

Turned-up trousers would flop onto dark brown, hand-made English Oxfords. And, after a charming word and an extravagant tip to a passing flower girl, a fresh rose or carnation would adorn his lapel.

The year is 1924. Bertram (Bertie) Wilberforce Wooster is in his mid-twenties. A privileged, pleasure-seeking clubman.

This is the Bertie that everyone knows. From today’s vantage point he seems, aside from the charmingly aimless existence and complete avoidance of seriousness, to be the picture of elegance, tradition and maturity. This is the way aged peers dress in the House of Lords. This is the inter-war aesthetic so beloved by The Chap magazine. This is the commonly-called ‘classic menswear.’

And yet, Bertie was really at the height of fashion.

In fact, some of the gentlemen who were still wearing black and grey Victorian and Edwardian frock coats, striped trousers and top hats would have thought him something of a rebel. Some of the more traditional members of London’s clubland, those from White’s or Brook’s, might even have considered him inappropriately attired – the equivalent of wearing a black necktie to a black tie event.

However, it is clear that it is the influence of his invaluable valet Jeeves that prevents Bertie from ever being considered ‘badly’ dressed. Ensuring Bertie is correctly attired is a daily task; clothes must be kept clean, pressed and mended at all times. Also, Jeeves often has to battle with his employer over items that only Bertie considers to be of value; white mess jackets, alpine trilby hats and extravagant plus-six golfing trousers.

But this is the harmless, cloud-cushioned world of Wodehouse, and so clothing is bound to be amongst the more serious matters.

The question is, if Bertie were around today, how would he dress?

One valid argument would point to his youth and state that Bertie’s conformity is only ever to his class and his age group. Therefore, the attire of the male Sloane Ranger is likely to be the major influence on his wardrobe. It’s a hideous thought, but it’s perfectly possible that were a 24 year old Bertie around today he would wear Sebago deck shoes with Abercrombie & Fitch chinos, an Oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt and a Moncler gilet.

However, some might say it would be unlikely that Jeeves – who is far more of a snob and a conformist than Bertie – would stand for such disregard of standards of elegance. We mustn’t forget it is Jeeves who maintains Bertie’s sartorial principles and removes unnecessary experimentation from his employer’s reach.

Therefore, some would suggest that Bertie may not dress that differently to the way in which he dresses in the books’ original setting. Jeeves, scrolling through the pages of Styleforum and The Rake, may see that the menswear of the 1920s-30s has, by and large, remained the ideal and is the clothing of taste for the gentleman about London. And, rather than let Bertie be influenced by the recklessness of current fashion or corrupted by his friends’ poor taste, he may cocoon him in an aesthetic closer to that of a city gent; pinstripes, waistcoats and double-breasted suits.

My own thoughts are that Bertie’s social conformity would play a great role. Yes, Jeeves would prevent him from becoming a hoody-wearing Mockney Old Etonian whose style icons are Stanford-educated tech billionaires, but I think that he would stop short of being preserved in a former era, no matter how evergreen the aesthetic. Modernity was evidently fascinating to Bertie. He lived in a fashionable area, in a fashionably decorated – and very modern – flat.

My own views are that he would wear a blend of English and European styles that would ape the prevailing aesthetic in both high-fashion and avant-garde tailoring. He would never embarrass himself in dress – he is too high-born for that – so would always be a subtle version of a trend. He might shop in Massimo Dutti, Paul Smith and Berluti.

He would, unfortunately, probably lose his taste for neckties, instead wearing elegant open shirts with soft-shouldered cord jackets, woven blazers and soft flannel and moleskin trousers. Both he and Jeeves would seek to mark him out as a man of leisure, albeit a smart one, by avoiding suits. His daily attire would appear as something an elegant hedge-fund manager might wear on the weekend. Plain and possibly tasseled brown and black loafers would be on his feet. He might wear cashmere from Loro Piana at home. His pocket watch would be replaced by a Panerai.

Home for modern Bertie is unlikely to be Berkeley Square. He is most likely to settle in Chelsea, where his old school and university friends might be. Although, with many of them not as wealthy as he, Battersea might be more realistic. A modern pied a terre overlooking the river, packed with technology and expensive, modern furniture.

Bertie’s club ‘Drones’ would not be of the Pall Mall type. It would likely be similar to the Dover Street Arts Club, although less commercial. The ranks of tweedy, English public school members in their 20s and 30s will have been reduced greatly, replaced by scions of Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes wearing Tom Ford.

However, there is one very likely consistency: Bertie’s avoidance of matrimony would remain true. And even the modern Drones would be unlikely to admit female members.