Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On Affordable Luxury

The only thing I cannot live without… is luxury, an old landlady of mine was fond of proclaiming, proud of her little oxymoron. For luxury, to most of us, is exactly what we can live without. Luxury suggests fripperies and flamboyance and unnecessary comfort. I think about her smug quote when I think about the occasional media attempts to identify items of affordable luxury, and remember her drunkenly staggering down the stairs to take out the garbage in her complicated designer outfits and couture heels, all dressed up and nowhere to go except back to the nicotine-stained walls of her once-palatial apartment…nowhere to go except down.

To me, that is not luxury, affordable or otherwise: the fact that the inexorable grip of despair is lined with velvet (or monkey fur, as I understood one of her coats to be in) is no saving grace. I wish all of us can realize someday that luxury is not things. But what is it? My working definition of luxury, expressed long ago as “to do well that which does not need to be done at all,” may be changing. If luxury can have any positive connotation, and not simply be a branding term for garbage books and money-grubbing luxury conglomerates, it is elusive. Perhaps most broadly, luxury is what we cannot have right now: at some points in our lives, money, security or time. Currently, my principal idea of luxury is peace of mind – the ability to take things for granted without having to second-guess every element of them.

No, luxury is not things, although for many of us, including your correspondent, the experience of ordering, the long period of waiting, and the final receipt of something long-dreamed-of can be a luxury. We can find luxury in experiencing what in some way makes our lives better – easier, more brilliant or more comforting.

I don’t equate affordable luxury with recommending fetish objects whose price tags are in three figures instead of four or five figures, as the fashion magazines and their commercial heirs, the bloggerblaggers, like to do. Nor do I think luxury can be learned, forcing knowledge or received wisdom on yourself to acquire something that might garner the respect of your e-friends, as I learned in the deflationary aftermath of getting, say, cordovan shoes or a fresco cloth suit, items whose wonders had to be learned, rather than directly experienced. And knowledge, too much knowledge, can lead to the overanalysis that bedevils all fetishists, and the occasional realization that a pleasure you took for granted is not what you thought it was.

While I won’t go as far as Tyler Brûlé’s old wallpaper* magazine did long ago and laud the wonders of a simple cold glass of water, I can recognize that there is something elemental in the recognition of true luxury, something that can hit over and over again like the repeated uniqueness of the intensity of the flavor of a piece of fruit or a good cup of coffee. That experience, and the time and ability to appreciate it on an uncomplicated, visceral level, is luxury to me.

After the preceding series of negatives, what are some affordable luxuries? The most basic and perhaps trite answer is time with loved ones, to remember why you love them, or why they drive you up the wall. More to the point of this blog, though, if an experience like a massage (not the Isle kind) is too indulgent, try a good wet shave from a barber, for anything from $15 to more than $50, to get a shave closer than anything you can do on your own, by someone who’s better qualified to handle a straight razor (unless you’re, like, an enforcer for the Union Corse or something). On your own, of course, there’s a pleasantness to shaving with a traditional shaving cream, which in my experience is gentler on the skin than the modern creams and gels I’ve used.

Even if you carefully pretreat and wash them in the prescribed manner, have someone else iron your linen handkerchieves, which feel cool to the touch, sit crisply in the pocket and can actually serve to mop your brow on a hot day. Lastly, sized socks re another suggestion. They’re pretty rare most places outside A Suitable Webstore, but why shouldn’t socks be precisely sized when shoes are? You can certainly do without them, but it’s a mitzvah to avoid the frustration of sock heels that ride up the back of your leg, or sock that are so snug your toes pop them – a small and dispensable mercy to have something that simply fits you and your life.

Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans and photo by Calzificio Bresciani

Monday, September 29, 2014

Some Things Last Longer Than Others

The topic of weight maintenance has been on my mind recently as I have returned to my fighting weight after years of over-indulging. Other than the trousers that have needed to be taken in,  the effect on my clothes has principally been in my shirt collars after I lost a few pounds more than intended. That found me wishing I had kept all those shirts that I acquired in years past and gave away unthinkingly when they became too tight.

It is a rare man who maintains his figure throughout life, despite the not inconsiderable incentives. Weight maintenance and the wardrobe work hand in hand - the larger a man's investment in his wardrobe relative to his resources, the greater his incentive to maintain his weight. The uber-conservative Boston brahmins knew this: it is said that they purchased their wardrobes as young men and wore them for the rest of their lives. If only.

The exceptions to the challenge of weight gain and loss are things like socks of course. Feet tend not to change size very much, which as we point out repeatedly makes an argument for wearing the better stuff and taking care of it.

That said, knitwear is another item that is surprisingly resistant to changes in weight. Shoulder width rarely changes after all, and when that is right the things should be good through, ahem, thick and thin. The shawl collared pullover in the photo, for example, might over time be worn:

-With a pair of wide wale corduroys for a night of studying and searching for new friends at the campus library.
- Some years later, above a pair of moleskins for backgammon at Butch McGuire's Saloon on Chicago's near north side,
- And still later, with waders when heading off to fish for trout.

In the photograph, a man prepared for Eggs Benedict and Bloody Marys. He is fortunate that the occasion calls for an open shirt collar as his is too large to wear buttoned.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Jägermeister of Cloth

As dressers throughout the northern hemisphere eye their Harris tweeds and heavy flannels impatiently, we’ve already entered the long season for one of the most unique, interesting, and underappreciated cool weather fabrics that should be -- and isn’t -- in every man’s wardrobe: loden. It’s not necessarily what you’re thinking. My own favorite loden garment is a buttery soft, unlined zephyr-weight topcoat in a warm dove gray, lighter than any raincoat and almost as good in an early autumn drizzle. But I like the classic, heavy, iconically evergreen Mitteleuropäisch stuff too.    

Traditionally, loden is made from the coarse, oily, virgin wool of Austrian mountain sheep, carded and loosely woven into a twill that’s shrunk, fulled, and sheared to provide a dense, felted texture similar to melton. The slightly hairy nap of the drawn, lanolin-rich fibers makes for a warm, resilient, relatively lightweight, and virtually waterproof cloth that’s been a staple of alpine outdoor clothing for centuries. The eponymous hunter green color which generally characterizes the cloth may have originally been obtained by boiling the wool with pine needles,* but modern loden is anything but prickly. Indeed, as virgin wool is now commonly blended with alpaca, mohair, camelhair, and even cashmere to yield a more supple cloth, “loden” today describes a process as much as a product.  

Germanic loden has often been likened to Scottish tweed -- an ancient cloth steeped in the traditions of the people who weave and wear it, and closely identified with the rugged land they inhabit. Indeed, along with lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, loden garments are an essential element of Tracht  -- the traditional alpine dress which, rather like Scottish tartan and tweed, only fully emerged as an officially codified national costume in the late 19th century after enthusiastic appropriation by lowlanders. As Scottish tweed became the recreational attire of choice in the early 20th century, so did Tracht popularize a rustic pastiche style called Landhausmode -- literally, country house fashion -- certain elements of which (again like tweed) found their way into mid-century middle class wardrobes by way of fashionable young undergraduates -- Teutonic Trads, if you please.  

Despite its modest origins as a hunter’s and farmer’s garment, the most sartorially significant example of Landhausmode is the classic Austrian loden overcoat. While a common sight in Europe and South America, with its sweeping silhouette, deep inverted center pleat, stand-and-fall collar, and vaguely villainous set-in shoulders, the loden overcoat has always been a bit imperious for American tastes, and has had only relatively minor fashion moments, most recently in the 1980s. The many virtues of the cloth itself, however, have made loden sportcoats, duffels, and other jackets perennial offerings from traditional tog floggers.

I’m not sure why we don’t see them more often. The classic, richly mottled green color is flattering and easy to wear, and the comfortably rugged texture of the fabric is easy to pair with casual flannels, chinos, or denim. Fitted with horn, bone, or rough antler buttons, the loden sportcoat is the alpine equivalent of the maritime navy blazer, and less pretentious in modest company. Such a carnivorous garment might be a bit exotic for the boardroom, but so much the better: loden is essentially an outdoors cloth, and wearing it should make you want to be there.

* Another apocryphal menswear origin story too good to debunk.

Words and photo by Andrew Yamato

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Complement Your Shoes

Perhaps the only thing that leather shoes do not do well is cope with the wet, and walking through the sea in the Piazza San Marco last week reminded that it would have been useful to pack a pair of overshoes. Shortly after that came the realization that the rains will be coming any day now, and not just the benignly wet rains of summer in New York but the sleeting, dirty winter stuff known only too well to the inhabitants of Boston, Chicago and points north.

Dress shoes were rather like the original Ford Model T until the 1960's, meaning that they could be any color so long as they were black, and this was no doubt the source of the black overshoe which reigned (rained?) supreme for decades. The makers of those apparently became fat and complacent over those decades though because they inexplicably missed the impact of an Italian clothier (whose name I do not recall) who successfully preached the gospel of brown shoes for most of his lifetime. A growing proportion of shoes were brown - even other colors. Nonetheless, for generations all overshoes were black.

One wonders how specialty businesses can miss obvious changes in their markets. Howard Schultz of Starbucks found he could sell somewhat better coffee for much higher prices, relegating the then market leader, Dunkin' Donuts, to a footnote in the process. Similarly, the founder of a Norwegian company called SWIMS had a Eureka! moment some years ago when he realized that there might be demand for overshoes that complemented the color of the shoes they were protecting. The rest of course is history and the majority of black overshoes today are sold on the same street corners as $5 umbrellas. Useful perhaps but hardly stylish.

Today there is no reason why your overshoes should not complement your shoes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Attention

Fred Astaire did it. So did Cary Grant. And, obviously, Laurence Olivier when he was in the company of Marilyn Monroe. It being the wearing of socks in a lighter color than the day's trousers so as to garner a little attention without going so far as to don one of those over the top Sulka style neckties.

Attention is a multifaceted thing and men of the English tradition are quite conflicted about it. On the one hand, we are not supposed to stand out. On another, any man building a career needs to attract it, as witness the attempts of Those Who Shall Not Be Mentioned at any awards ceremony (despite the example of the three actors in the first paragraph who received quite a bit of attention without resorting to self-parody).

Ignoring men who dress like an imagined visitor from another time and space, the clothing novitiate attempts to attract attention through color and the latest style. The two flaws to this approach are that a) so do all of his peers and b) when fashion changes in six months a significant proportion of that clothing will no longer be wearable. Attention is better garnered with conservatively colored clothing that is well cut and beautifully textured. Being rare, it is inevitably going to be noticed positively. Being conservative, it will last indefinitely. And fortunately given the expense there does not need to be much of it.

Staying with the awards ceremony example for another minute, one of the characteristics of the dress for those occasions is that it is either generally black tie or a suit. Black tie is of course a uniform and a man with one proper mid-weight jacket and trousers (where proper means for example trousers that shiver on the shoe top without four inches of excess cloth, a waist covering and a shirt that fits) will be virtually guaranteed to be on the best dressed list for the event (witness the evolution of Colin Firth). And that is the kind of attention that Mr. Olivier would approve of.