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.

Pheobes & Dee Review

I must admit, I’m not really into modern ties.

I watch movies set in the current day and physically cringe at the fish-skin-shine concoctions that represent what tie and costume designers consider ‘taste’ and ‘fashion’ in the year 2014.

Firstly, it’s satin-silk. Everywhere. Notorious for its reflective capabilities – doubling up as a vanity mirror – it cheapens any ensemble.

Secondly, the patterns leave a lot to be desired. Particularly the stripes, which have more variations in colours and widths than a 1970s living room.

The amazing fact is these ties are rarely as cheap as they look. So-called ‘designer’ ties can cost more than a pair of trousers or a waistcoat, their only validation for such an expense being “It’s Dior, so…”

Now, anyone of suitable tie intelligence will tell you that it is actually hard to make a proper tie very cheaply. The kind of dross they churn out at bargain basement tie-discounters will be scoffed at as utterly inferior. Firstly, the quality of the silk will be seriously questioned. Secondly, the way the tie is constructed will be scrutinized – and will be found wanting.

In much the same way that suit snobs go on about hand-stitching, horse-hair and floating canvasses, tie snobs focus on ‘folds’; the simple point being that more is generally better.

Most ties are folded three to six times and have a wool or faux wool interlining in order for the tie to keep its structure and not flap about in the wind like a toddler’s hair ribbon.

Special ties are those folded seven or more times, where sometimes – depending on the weight of the fabric – no interlining is used. Essentially, more of the tie fabric has been used and is simply folded in on itself seven times to form its own structure.

It also takes more artisanal skill to fold a tie seven times or more, which is the main reason it has cache. In much the same way that hand-stitching has cache over machine stitching, largely because of the fact it requires human sweat and toil. The real question with this folding, as with the stitching, is whether this skill actually adds anything of actual value.

I recently received a tie from Pheobes & Dee, a new brand of Italian hand-made neckwear that focuses on seven fold and knitted ties.

Now, I have to admit, I don’t have much of a fetish for gazillion folded ties. I really don’t mind having a cheaper lining used. I also don’t mind if it’s only been folded three times. I have ties from Tie Rack that have been folded and lined in the same way as ties from Savile Row tailors, and so I never really developed the ‘seven-fold itch.’

However, in much the same way that Rolls-Royce owners never use the umbrellas in the suicide doors or that guests of Four Seasons hotels never use ‘complimentary shuttle buses’, it’s actually jolly nice to know it’s there.

The tie, named ‘The Carrick’, is a beautiful burgundy colour with a white pin-dot pattern and an interlining. When I first opened it I couldn’t quite believe how heavy and thick the thing was. Most ties in my collection flutter in the first gust of wind and feel almost feather-like. This tie has a robustness that reminded me of weighty, damask curtains in grand Paris hotels, as though it would embarrass my suits with it’s, ahem, unflappability.

The reality is, it does. And this is no bad thing. The last seven-fold tie I received was a beautiful thing – but give it a strong breeze by the River Thames and it bobbed about like a windsock. This tie feels elegant, and is comfortable to wear, but it barely moves.

Retailing at $140, it is certainly not a cheap option – but then it hasn’t been made cheaply.

Combatant Gentlemen Shirt & Tie Review

They say that all good things must come to an end.

And so, sadly, ends my patronage of TM Lewin, the Jermyn Street shirtmaker. Once a consistent and aggressive promoter of their poplin, I have been so disappointed with the quality of their product recently that I haven’t been inclined to even browse idly in their stores.

“What can you expect for £20-30 a shirt?” the Pinkers, Turnbullers and Hilditchers chuckle in smug satisfaction.

Quite a lot, actually – a few years ago, at least.

It’s fair to say that the golden era of bargain Jermyn Street shirts is on the wane. Only Charles Tyrwhitt (and to a lesser extent Hawes & Curtis) still regularly offer beautifully soft cotton formal shirts with well-constructed collars for under £30. Lewin, once the king of value, now sell poplin shirts that feel like greaseproof kitchen paper.

Feeling generally dismayed with the decline of this bonanza, I was intrigued by the offer to try a shirt and tie from a company called Combatant Gentlemen, a US based enterprise that seemed to offer a variety of inexpensive sartorial solutions from shirts and ties to knitwear and suits.

With most of their shirts priced between $30 and $45, I was convinced that there must be some kind of catch; the cotton must be inferior or the shirts must be off in terms of fit.

Similarly the Combatant Gentlemen ties, which go for around $14 to $16 and are apparently constructed of 100% silk, seemed to undermine all I had been given to understand about the sub-$20 necktie.

The reality is that both products exceed expectations.

The shirt has a classic, non-cutaway collar and a soft, brushed feel. Having been concerned by the artificial touch of English shirts at a similar price point I was delighted by it’s smoothness. Apparently, the fabrics for Combatant Gentlemen shirts are sourced in Italy and are then shipped to China to be made.

The fit was also of a higher standard than anticipated; fitting snugly around the shoulders and arms and cutting tightly in the waist, the Slim Fit of the shirt is even slimmer than English shirts. And, given the soft feel of the fabric, it is a pleasure to have close to the skin. “Finally!” I thought,  “Here is something that tops the declining Jermyn Street bazaar!”

The tie, playfully called ‘Let’s Polka!’ I chose for its wide-spaced Deco charm; such ties are marvellously wearable with almost any suit or shirt pattern and colour and I have been particularly excited recently by the potential efficiency of accessories.  Though listed as ‘black’ it is in fact a midnight blue, which I actually prefer as it pairs better with navy and grey suits. The feel in the hand is of a tie three times the price; the dots are woven into a smart, matte silk and it has a hard, craft-like feel. The dot spacing isn’t absolutely perfect but then I don’t mind this. I had expected something which felt like a Tie Rack bottom-of-the-bin but it has such a crisp quality, I still can’t believe it retails, non-promotionally, at $16.

There are also some silk knit ties that reminded me of the selection at Uniqlo.

But then I remembered that Uniqlo’s ties are Polyester. And more expensive.

Combatant Gentlemen
was only founded a couple of years ago; as a darn good thing, it has, rather fortunately, a hell of a long way to go till the end.

The Real Collection of Essential Shoes

Esquire magazine recently came up with a list of 8 pairs of shoes that “every man should own.” Intrigued by the insistence of this article’s headline, I was nevertheless disappointed with some of the, rather obviously, ‘advertorial’ choices.

The first selection was inevitable; black Oxfords (which Esquire felt the need to classify as ‘lace up’ – what else is an Oxford?) However, it’s hard to dispute the primacy of this shoe.

The second selection was also not entirely mad – tan derbies – although they had incorrectly pictured tan Oxfords. The third was also passable (brown brogues) although the pair they suggested from Ted Baker were rather too trendy to be an ‘essential’ shoe that ‘every man must own.’

The choices start to disintegrate at four, which is unhelpfully broad: ‘a proper pair of winter boots’ – which sounds more like a grandmother’s commandment than a model of footwear. Firstly, the suggested boots were about as ‘proper’ as Miley Cyrus. Though the copy boasted that they’d be appropriate for both walking the dog and ‘scaling the great outdoors’ (whatever that means) the Redwing boots pictured were more appropriate for hipster nights in Soho than crawling up the Eiger.

It gets more hipster at choice 5 with suede desert boots – really ‘every man should own’? – recovers a bit at 6 with deck shoes but then declines rather seriously at 7 and 8 with the weakest suggestions of all: trainers. The first suggestion are barely acceptable – timeless trainers in plain white. Yes, these are useful for sport – casual tennis matches with friends – but it’s frankly irresponsible to encourage the saddening decline of male elegance by recommending trainers.

The last choice is a laughable add on, an afterthought of a tacked-on advertising brief; ANOTHER pair of timeless trainers. This time, instead of white, they recommend a Navy and Grey pair from New Balance. Why? ‘Because they’ll look great with everything.’ Everything? Really? How lazy.

I was so disappointed with this list that I thought it best to provide my own recommendations. In addition to the black Oxfords which are a safe choice, I would advocate the following:

Burgundy loafer

Every ‘essential’ shoe collection should include at least one pair of loafers. Ideally, these should be something other than black. I have always had a pair of brown or burgundy loafers in my wardrobe, using them for both office wear and weekend casual. The key is to wear tapered trousers or jeans with no break; wide legs, breaks and loafers do not mix.

Dark brown punchcaps  

Dark brown shoes are undervalued. There are so many colours of suit that work better with browns than blacks. Chestnut and tan are the most common choices of brown shoes, and they are also indisputably ‘essential’ colours for any proper collection, but dark brown are smarter and arguably more formal and boardroom-appropriate.

Brown Chelsea boots

Chelsea boots are the best style of gentlemen’s boots for winter warmth and comfort. They’re entirely inappropriate for climbing the Alps, so don’t think these are multi-purpose. They’re good enough for a dry-ish country walk but anything else is unsuitable. Save for cosy, casual weekends.

Chestnut or cognac semi-brogues

Chestnut Oxfords are entirely acceptable but I have always thought they seem rather half-hearted. Semi-brogues, however, have a little more ‘punch’ to them and are a little less formal, a little more country. They work really well with both navy and mid-blue suits and tweed, as well as grey flannel trousers and blazers.

The Sartorial Season: Introduction to the Series – Ascot

The traditional ‘London Season’, which ran from the month of April throughout the summer till August, is widely perceived to be a dead social calendar. For generations, wealthy families would decamp from their remote country piles and relocate to the capital for its duration. For the long, warm nights of the summer months it was an endless whirl of dinners, parties, races, games, balls and breakfasts. However, its raison d’etre was for a particular form of social maintenance that has ceased to be relevant. Gone is the importance of a debutante’s court presentation; vanished are the hordes of chaperoned, well-born teenagers descending on late night balls. The social necessity of the “right” people being thrown together in order that their dynasties combine through the premature and often unwanted matchmaking of their broods has evaporated.

What remains, however, are the traditional ‘events’ of the Season, the pillars of the calendar that have survived the social revolutions and cultural changes since the decay of the society ‘Season.’ Though most of these events are no longer as important as they once were, they have retained their traditions and have become curiosities of form and taste.

What is particularly interesting about many of these events is that they maintain expectations of social decorum and sartorial expectation. They are still events that, for the most part, enforce dress codes on attendees. With the Royal Opera now accepting of an audience that wears chinos and trainers, smart restaurants waving in t-shirts and jeans, events like Henley and Ascot are places of remarkable sartorial strictness.

The Sartorial Season: Royal Ascot

Out of all the traditional Season events, Royal Ascot is probably the most famous. So called for the regular attendance of the highest members of the British royal family, Ascot was the grandest event of all in the Season’s halcyon days and attended by Dukes, Marquesses, Earls and Viscounts. However, it has latterly acquired a reputation as something of a contradiction with a variety of racegoers complaining of loutish behaviour and provocatively attired young women flashing their ‘bits’ in the Berkshire sun.

Though such a decline is nothing new in Blighty, Ascot is fairly unique. Along with traditional weddings, it is the main reason for the delayed death of the morning tailcoat and top hat, as both are required to enter the Royal Enclosure (although they are optional elsewhere at the event). As such, a huge number of men choose to hire morning dress – even if they do not have access to the Royal Enclosure. While admirable and promising of an excellent spectacle – to see a sea of toppers bobbing around in the English sun – the result is somewhat varied. Many men take the event seriously and are well turned out; others treat it as something of a Monty Python comedic circus and dress as if they were an extra at the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

I have long thought that wearing morning dress properly is actually fairly easy, and can be achieved relatively inexpensively. There are simply a few things which require some serious thought – and strict control.

To avoid looking like the slovenliest racegoer at the course, focus on three things; your trousers, your waistcoat and your accessories.

All the other major elements – tailcoat, shoes and shirt – practically sort themselves out. The only thing to mention about the shoes is not to wear anything (and I mean anything) other than black Oxfords. No cheap winkle pickers, no loafers and no brown.

The trousers are a cause for concern because they seem to be worn so spectacularly badly at Ascot, even by men with access to the finest tailors money can buy. They are often absurdly long, with unsightly folds encasing the ankles and usually worn criminally low, on the hips of the gentleman rather than the waist.

Let’s get one thing straight. It’s not ‘cool’ to wear morning dress trousers like jeans. It doesn’t look James Dean ‘rebellious’, nor is it more comfortable. If you can see your trouser waistband under your waistcoat, it is very simple: you have failed to wear morning dress properly. You don’t look chic, elegant or smart. You look like a naughty schoolboy who has sneaked outside to the bikeshed to have a cigarette and swap sports stickers – but, instead, gets caught fiddling himself outside the girls toilets.

You should wear your trousers as high as is comfortable and there should be virtually no break at the bottom (nor should there be turn ups). To do this, it is best to buy a pair of trousers a couple of inches bigger at the waist than normal to provide a bigger seat for, ahem, undercarriage comfort. This is because, sadly, most trousers now are cut to be worn on the hips rather than the waist. I always buy morning dress trousers a size or two larger and wear them with braces. You can get them adjusted too, but I haven’t bothered so far. With such a high rise trouser, your waistcoat is guaranteed to cover your waistband and spare your blushes. Advice: buy your trousers and spend time making sure they fit. You can always rent the tailcoat.

Secondly, your waistcoat should be short.

I’ll say that again; your waistcoat should be short.

The elongated double or single-breasted waistcoat pattern is simply a bastardisation that is, once more, caused by men wearing trousers on their hips and not their waist. The waistcoat should be worn around the waist – not the hips; the clue is in the name. If you make your trousers sit at the correct height, you should be able to get a short waistcoat (a maximum of one third of your overall height) to cover your waistband. Unfortunately, to do this properly with a double breasted waistcoat you might need a tailor but there are plenty of places that offer single breasted waistcoats in light cottons or linens, suitable for race day.

Lastly, your accessories. Once you have the trouser rise, the short waistcoat and the basic bits and bobs like polished black Oxfords and a white or French collared shirt, you can focus on the fun stuff; the hat, the tie, tie pin, pocket square, boutonniere (go small and subtle) and – potentially – pocket watch.

The top hat is a bit special, so you should spend some time looking for a decent one but even though the black silk ones are still very much the ‘dizzle’, grey felts are actually quite elegant and a hell of a lot cheaper second hand. To make sure it fits, when you put it on you should feel it sit ¾ of the way up your forehead; any lower and you’re the Artful Dodger.

The tie is often recommended to be a silver or grey colour foulard but you can get away with a lot at Ascot. I think a nice stripe goes a long way and provides a slightly sportier edge to the ensemble than a fusty pattern. Buy on eBay (where great ties never die) for great bargains.

The pocket square should be easy to find, but don’t only listen to those who say you simply have to wear white silk or linen. Match it to your shirt block colour, or a stripe in the tie. Silk, linen or cotton are acceptable.

The tie pin can be anything you want but stay away from novelty golf club, tennis racket or Yogi Bear pins. You’ll either look like a provincial or a paedophile. It can be jewelled (costume or real) or using an attractive, semi-precious stone like malachite. Again, eBay (or Etsy for the connoisseurs) is a great resource. Make sure you fasten it to the shirt placket so that the tie has plenty of arch. There’s nothing sadder than a flat tie at Ascot.

Lastly, the timepiece – the question of the pocket watch.

I have one, so would definitely wear one, but I would strongly advise against it if it is an eBay/Alibaba ‘brand new’ £5 pocket watch with a cheap chain. People will fiddle and it will ruin the entire effect of your ensemble if your watch is, to all intents and purposes, a cheap ‘replica.’ The chain is the thing, though; make sure it’s heavy, with interesting links. Buy a fob, too.