Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On The Spread Of Custom Part I: High

Over the past several years, the concept of custom has exploded across the clothing world, and even beyond: I recently saw a sign for “Custom Pizza.” On reflection, it fits: the customer’s pizza is made to his or her order, with the toppings and size specified. And on further reflection, the fact that some pizzeria thought “custom” is a marketing point, instead of the normal way most of us have been ordering pizza for decades, shows the extent to which the concept of custom has become a marketing novelty at both low end and high. We have custom window blinds and “custom-ordered shoes” and bespoke software solutions, for as we creep towards the higher end custom gets associated with other pretty words like bespoke (British English for custom), handmade, artisanal and heritage. This phenomenon appeared interesting enough that I devote the verbal incontinence of this post and its following to the recent spread of custom, both high and low, and what it appears to mean. I begin here with high, and will end low, as is the case in most of my moods, especially those around clothing.

I suggest that, fundamentally, custom be understood with its lay definition, something made to the customer's order. The same should be true for the word bespoke as well, noting that culturally we’ve come to understand custom (clothing) to mean a whole lot more – because the concept had become so abstract (good custom clothing being generally hard to find and expensive). Until the last several decades, however, the terms custom, made to order, bespoke, tailored and made to measure were often used interchangeably to describe clothing made specifically to fit an individual customer. In recent decades, the spread of various alternative or shortcut forms of customization has meant that true custom or bespoke tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers have, in defending their unique crafts, asserted that custom/bespoke involves various other steps, in particular the creation of an individual pattern (or last, in the case of a shoe) for a customer. That is the appropriate definition of custom/bespoke in current #menswear usage, although there’s no binding standard definition or legal definition, so that a recent arrival on Savile Row that sold suits made from altered stock patterns successfully defended its use of the term “bespoke” from challenges from real Savile Row tailors. (For completeness, I note that “made to measure” today is often used to mean customized clothing made by altering a stock pattern to a customer’s measurements, while “made to order” typically denotes clothing made to a particular stock size at the customer’s order, although many still use the terms “custom” or “bespoke” interchangeably with them, whether in bad faith or not.)

What makes a Savile Row tailor “real”? Glad you asked. After centuries of internecine sniping, the traditional tailors of Savile Row finally founded a couple of associations several years ago dedicated to increasing their profile and public awareness of what sets them apart. Qualifying as “Savile Row bespoke” requires not only the use of individual paper patterns, but a minimum number of 50 hours of handwork, a minimum offer of 2,000 fabrics to the customer and the employment of at least one apprentice. All of these are nice attributes, and should feature at a good luxury tailor’s. However, what distinguishes good bespoke tailoring from off-the-rack, made to measure, or indeed bad bespoke is a good cutter and patternmaker cutting and customizing an individual pattern (as well as good assemblers and pieceworkers supporting him or, occasionally, her). It’s worth noting that not all of the traditional tailors on Savile Row are members of this association, while certain members principally sell branded ready-to-wear, with bespoke a relatively small portion of their turnover.

Custom is now cool. Some of the so-called “new Savile Row tailors,” ready-to-wear designers who opened shops in Savile Row in the 1990s, were ahead of this trend, and used their address and the small amount of bespoke they also sold to give their other wares cachet. Other Savile Row custom tailors of long standing are finding they need to expand into ready-to-wear and accessories to get their names out in international markets and survive. For real bespoke, which is what should be providing when you offer high end custom clothing, is expensive to make, impossible to scale and often unprofitable, assuming you even are able to find the experienced and talented cutters and tailors you need. Decades ago the tailors and bootmakers of London opened foreign outposts not to sell brand-building ready-to-wear, but to expand their offer of custom clothing using transplants from the home office who would build up local talent. World War II and the decline of the British Empire caused most of those outposts to disappear, but a few local outposts still remain, offering homegrown bespoke that sometimes surpasses that of their London antecedents.

Why are luxury ready-to-wear brands expanding into custom? It is not for the profitability of custom clothing itself. Years ago Xavier Aubercy of Aubercy Shoes memorably explained to me that Aubercy had decided to offer true bespoke shoes for the pleasure and love of the craft, because it was not a very profitable venture: few customers can afford it and margins, even at the top end of prices, are too low. In the ensuing period (including the financial crisis), Aubercy stopped and recently again started offering bespoke. I would have been inclined to dismiss the congenial and passionate Xavier’s romantic explanation as marketing worthy of Olga Berluti, except that I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Aubercy is run with any regard to commercial or marketing reality, for better or for worse. Berluti itself, or course, is another story.

An e-friend of many years’ standing whom I’ll call Pierre (because that’s his name) once pointed out that luxury houses that decide to offer bespoke need to address the expectations set by their pricing. I submit that because so few customers actually know what to expect or what matters in quality bespoke, most customers’ expectations are easily set by a brand’s marketers and met with product of varying integrity. Hermès is one of the last luxury brands to have tried to maintain some integrity in expanding into men’s custom clothing. Still, luxury brands like Hermès may as well be using the exceptionally high prices of their bespoke as its main marketing point: the shockingly high price of Hermès’ John Lobb Paris bespoke shoes are what stands out in a recent New York Times article, as is the case in a Wall Street Journal piece on Hermès’ bespoke suits, which notes that they start at $10,000 but that the customer gets three fittings (as if that makes all the difference). As is increasingly the case in the WSJ, the writer clearly had no actual knowledge of his subject. For $10,000 I’d want as many fittings as I damn well pleased, accompanied by a few magnums of pink champagne and God knows what else (Eva Green?) at each visit. Up until about a decade ago Hermès offered bespoke services through Cifonelli and more recently (and no longer) Camps de Luca, two of the best tailors in Paris. Of course, their own prices (while steep) are less than those Hermès charges, although Hermès supposedly offered some exclusive cloths and the eminently forgettable designs of its menswear designer Véronique Nichanian. While Hermès’ bespoke tailoring and shirtmaking no longer uses marquee makers like Camps, several years ago Hermès held a travelling “Festival des métiers” to showcase its various artisans, including those making its bespoke shirts. For even if its bespoke prices are deterrent, that showcase added tone to the ties and scarves that are Hermès’ main sellers.

Berluti, a shoe brand recently turned into a luxury clothing label by Antoine Arnault of the LVMH Arnaults, illustrates a more modern approach to luxury custom clothing, ersatz appropriation: buy a name and invent heritage. To be fair, Berluti has long featured good bespoke shoemakers like Patrice Rock and Anthony Delos, although they enjoy a very low profile against that of the very expensive ready-to-wear shoes that until recently made Berluti’s reputation. However, in order to establish Berluti’s luxury clothing bona fides, the Arnaults acquired another expensive clothing brand, Arnys, and sent out press releases decreeing that Arnys was a bespoke tailor and shirtmaker whose services would henceforth be part of Berluti’s. While Arnys did offer extremely expensive bespoke tailoring and shirtmaking, it was far better known for its interesting ready-to-wear designs, courtesy of a stylist whom Berluti replaced with a more commercially mainstream designer from a Zegna diffusion line. And by the time Berluti bought it, Arnys’ senior bespoke tailor had left for Lanvin. He is now retired, as is the fellow who had passed for a shirtmaker (he wasn’t) at Arnys. Even infamous old Olga Berluti, responsible for Berluti’s more interesting and poetic shoe designs, is no longer with the company. However, through the magic of PR and a credulous, LVMH-beholden media, the myth has been created that Berluti is now a French tailoring powerhouse. Almost no one can afford to test Berluti’s bespoke clothing offer to verify or be disappointed by it. Instead, what Berluti has created with its supposed custom offer is instant ethos: Antoine Arnault has said he wants Berluti to be “the most haute couture menswear brand in the world,” with the possibility of everything from jeans to suits being made custom. That infinitesimal possibility is the touchstone for marketers and uninspired reporters to state that everything being sold in the rapidly multiplying number of Berluti boutiques is inspired by its custom work. Every hackneyed black suit and banal brown sweater and overpriced pair of jeans, every cloddishly heavy pair of boots and plasticky leather accessory will benefit from the halo effect of the supposed bespoke artisans laboring on a minuscule percentage of the brand’s output.

This is the most shameless example of a phenomenon that is not new: before Berluti bought another brand and claimed it was a bespoke tailor, other luxury clothing brands advertised new custom lines in order to follow the fashion for custom. Armani launched something called “Hand Made to Measure” some years ago, while Dior Homme now has a made-to-measure line. (A few decades ago Dior actually had its own men’s bespoke tailors at its men’s flagship on avenue Montaigne – tested by the late Marlene Dietrich! - but those days are long over now.) Burberry even advertised a custom “Art of Trench” with 12 million possible configurations, it boasted – none of which involved the trench actually being made to anything other than standard even sizes and a single length. Today, even at the top of the market, what matters is not the actual possibilities of a custom offer. Brands know that too few customers will ever try it out, or in the case of Arnys’ hapless bespoke customers, ever actually care how well their clothing fits. Arnault had it right in trying to create a haute couture menswear brand, for today most haute couture, the elaborate custom designs shown on the runway collections of a few women’s designers, exists mainly to sell status accessories like purses and licensed items like perfume, and may never actually be made for a customer. Some years ago one Savile Row tailor tried to justify the rising prices of his quality bespoke by suggesting that a bespoke suit was like haute couture for men. He may have been right, but not in the way he intended. Canny marketers have appropriated the idea of luxury custom clothing to sell expensive ready-to-wear. Whatever high-end custom is actually available may as well be a chimera like haute couture, since these brands are now using it as a loss leader, like their flagships on luxury shopping streets, possibly unprofitable endeavors mainly intended to add prestige to other, more pedestrian lines.

Moral: if you are shopping for luxury custom clothing, know what to expect from custom clothing (well-made clothing that fits), how to assess it, and seek out dependable makers who can live up to their own mythos, for at the high end you are necessarily buying into the myths a maker has created and betting on the fulfillment of your own personal dreams.

Words and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Monday, October 20, 2014

Music And Martinis

More so than the ballet and much more so than the symphony, the San Francisco Opera is civilized entertainment. Order martinis in advance by telephone and they are delivered to the alcove of your box at intermission so they can be consumed during the performance (just try that at the symphony). Adding to the ambience, the opera crowd has a higher proportion of well dressed men than you will see elsewhere around town. Granted, even at the opera there is only one occasion when you will see much black tie and that is opening night, when full dress is in occasional evidence as well. But the rest of the season you do see suits. And this is San Francisco, where you do not see suits all that often day or night.

One of the reasons for the near disappearance of black tie among the men that might wear it otherwise is that it is rarely practical to use the workplace for changing clothing before a 7:30 performance. More often, there is no time to eat and barely time to meet a companion before the curtain.

When it is going to be one of those no chance to change evenings, a reasonably time effective way to look appropriate is to start the day wearing a dark gray suit, black oxfords and a white dress shirt. After 6:00, find a mirror and replace the day's four in hand with an evening bow to transform work clothes into a facsimile of a black and white ensemble. For example, Handel's Partenope provided the opportunity for music and martinis last week. A pair of Charleston braces were the finishing touch.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pop Socks

A few years ago, The New York Times observed that resolutely unstyled Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their acolytes were indulging in fancy novelty socks. These mildly transgressive flashes of bright color and bold pattern appeared to suggest a bat-squeak of sartorial awareness among the be-hoodied without compromising their geek-cred with the slightest whiff of fashion victimhood. While some of these men could indeed purchase Savile Row outright, their garish hose were tokens not of oligarchical bombast, but rather of hip whimsy. Enabled by a proliferation of savvy online retailers and sock-of-the-month clubs (certain of which remove the hassle of actual selection), it was a perfect storm of a mass trend.

Like the contemporaneously ascendant pocket square, a good pair of eye-catching socks could easily and inexpensively add a dash of derring-do to one’s otherwise drab attire. Steez for straight dudes in straightened times, if you please. Fair enough. As streetwear, I have no problem with hose as Hot or Happy as they wanna be. Nor should they be necessarily excluded from more classical wardrobes; I have a few myself. But some discretion is called for here. Not for pretension alone do dressers refer to their outfits as ensembles; whatever one’s specific tones, harmony is the key, and “popped” notes should generally be shunned as the showboats they are. It was once understood that socks, like ties, should be team players, contributing to an overall effect without drawing particular attention to themselves. Indeed, given widespread prognostication that bold socks are the new power ties, the rise and fall of brash neckwear provides a useful cautionary tale:

As tailored clothing lost ground during the twentieth century to the rising tide of bluejeans and casual sportswear, it shed its more playful elements (e.g. the rough textures, rich colors, and bold patterns so beloved by Apparel Arts connoisseurs) and circled its wagons around the market bastion of businesswear. Such bland worsteds allowed little personal flair, with the shiny exception of neckties, increasingly extolled as discrete canvasses upon which white-collared men were encouraged to Go Crazy and Express Themselves. Thus the Jerry Garcia Collection, hand-painted with the crushed hopes of a fallen generation, surely among the many makes of “wearable art" condemned by Tom Wolf as “Pizza Grenade neckties.” Thus also the unfortunate rise of the novelty tie, which, even in the rarefied incarnations embodied by lawyerly Hermès, tended to begin and end the sartorial conversation at: “You like golf? Me too!” (Or perhaps more to the point and desired effect: “I like golf. F*ck you.” Whimsical little icons, after all, whether printed on slick silk or embroidered on salty cotton, generally tend to be totems of wealth or class; when the aesthetic is power, the effect is not elegance, but attitude.)

Tailored clothing and its accessories are increasingly rare and recreational -- less a uniform to callowly subvert than a pleasure to be maturely enjoyed, a pastime to be mastered. Whatever resurgence in popularity neckwear has recently enjoyed owes much to a renewed appreciation for classic patterns and simple solids as elements of elegance rather than expressions of personality. Similarly, socks should serve the whole. This doesn’t require that they be boring. On the contrary, although matching solid hose to one’s trousers is perfectly acceptable, doing so misses an opportunity to play with patterns and colors all the more effective for being unexpected. Think of socks as the knitwear they are, and look for the same qualities you would in sweaters: complementary colorways, pleasing patterns, and quality construction. By all means avail yourself of the more singularly bold options available if they work with the rest of your wardrobe, but leave the Mona Lisa socks on the shelf, beside the Fred Astaire sweater. A good dresser doesn’t aspire to wear art so much as to wear clothes artfully.

Text by Andrew Yamato

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just Add A Raincoat

What with climate change and all, rainy season is upon us a month early again. For years it started here in the bay area with a downpour on my foursome each Thanksgiving but no more. Fortunately, in response to the changed conditions, we now have a good looking new way to deal with the moderately cool wet. There have been winter scarves and there have been summer scarves and now we have mid-weight in between season scarves like the modal (cellulose) and cashmere Birds of Paradise specimen in the photo.

In New Guinea, where it rains a lot, Bird of Paradise feathers are used in ornamental dress. That may be why Drake's London elected the B of P motif in something that will keep a neck comfortable when pure wool or pure cashmere are too warm and the otherwise perfect silk is easily susceptible to water spots.

The next time rain is on your horizon, wrap the Birds of Paradise around your neck and throw it into an overhand knot. Just add a raincoat.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Royal Warrants

Recently in an act of what those around me might term humanitarian mercy Will sent me some of my favorite deodorant, cause for a reflection on the widely misunderstood phenomenon of royal warrants, those enigmatic little badges of posh purveyance. D R Harris, whose warrant is shown here, hold two, including that of Chemists to HRH the Prince of Wales. So, like the old song about dancing with a boy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales, does that mean that, by extension, I performed my matinal ablutions with the stick that anointed the armpit of Prince Charles?

As in most cases, the truth is both more mundane and odder. Royal warrants have been a phenomenon for several centuries, and have included rat-catchers, linen drapers and suppliers of HP Sauce, among others. While the British royal family are the most well-known grantors of such warrants, various royalty do and have done so: a couple of Italian outfitters still display warrants from the exiled House of Savoy and some of the older tailors of Savile Row and the jewelers of Place Vendôme feature historical warrants from deposed, deceased or diminished titleholders like Kabakas and Erzherzogs. Most infamously, Henry Poole enjoyed the official custom of Emperor Napoleon III, to whom the house had lent money before he left exile in England. Poole’s original Savile Row premises (which it had to vacate in the 1960s) featured Napoléon le Petit’s imperial eagle as well as his warrant as official supplier to his court. More currently, the Royal Danish Court has bestowed its warrants not only on stereo maker Bang & Olufsen, but also the less rarefied beer Carling, duty-free liqueur chocolate maker Anthon Berg, and a supplier of canned cocktail wienies, which must make for some royal cases of indigestion.

In most cases royal warrants are tiny print on a package or a label. I try to amplify below what their significance is. The specifics of the discussion below are based on the rules for the royal warrants of appointment to the British royal family, as those are the ones most often encountered or celebrated in menswear, in part due to Anglophilia as well as the comparatively high profile of the British royals compared to other royal families. The British appear to be the most active grantors of such warrants as well as the most rigorous at policing them: warrants are reviewed for renewal or discontinuation every five years, while warrants from deceased grantors (such as the late Queen Mother) must be retired within five years of the grantor’s death. In comparison, Vienna abounds in merchants whose signage a century on displays the old qualification of K.u.K. Hoflieferant (Purveyor to the Royal and Imperial Households), while in Paris chocolates from Debauve et Gallais still quaintly sport their warrants to the Bourbons, who have not ruled France since 1848 (wear a fleur-de-lys tie to certain bars in Paris and you’ll meet fellow royalists, though).

The myth of exclusivity. Currently three members of the British royal family may grant royal warrants: the Queen, in her personal capacity (generally through the Privy Purse) and as sovereign; the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Phillip, her consort; and the Prince of Wales Prince Charles, the heir-apparent. While many warrantholders are London-based, the royal family also grants them to suppliers local to the other principal royal residences, so that grocers in Windsor or hunting tailors elsewhere in England may hold a royal warrant, and may avail themselves of it in marketing to us foreigners, who are more easily impressed by that. For within Britain I suspect that it’s mainly real-life Hyacinth Buckets who are impressed by a royal warrant. After all, the Queen, through the Master of the Household, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and the Royal Mews, issues many royal warrants to suppliers of food, equipment and outfitting to, respectively, the staff of the various royal residences, the teams and participants in ceremonial and official functions, and the horses, carriages and vehicles used in official appearances. So containers of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Heinz Ketchup and Dettol floor cleaner sold in Britain all bear the warrant, as do products from Unilever UK. The grant of a royal warrant simply recognizes a particular company is a favored supplier to the royal family or to its ceremonial support functions. It does not mean that a company is the best at what it does or even particularly good. There was some chatter on the internet when Loake shoes, one of the also-rans of British shoemaking (assuming it still makes in Britain) received a royal warrant. However, its warrant is as supplier of footwear to the Queen’s Master of the Household. In other words, Loake is a supplier of shoes to household staff at royal residences, although certainly not an exclusive supplier. Similarly close reading reveals that various tailors around Savile Row hold warrants as robe makers to the royal family (Ede & Ravenscroft), or tailors making ceremonial uniforms for staff (Henry Poole), or the military (Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes). A few others have warrants as tailors to the Prince of Wales or the Duke of Edinburgh as naval or military tailors (Gieves & Hawkes among them), which means that they (officially, at least) only provide uniforms to Prince Charles or Prince Philip, rather than serve as their normal tailors. The Royal Warrant Holders Association has a website listing its members, but, confusingly, not all royal warrant holders belong to the association, which exists to promote its members, not to list all British warrantholders.

The myth of absolute quality. While (with the exception of a few champagne houses) almost all of the warrantholders are British (or British subsidiaries of multinationals), there is no requirement that the products supplied be made in Britain, or that the supplier actually make the items supplied. Pringle, for instance, still holds a royal warrant to the Queen as “Manufacturer of Knitted Garments,” even though for years it has had no manufacturing facilities and is simply a brand owned by a Chinese businessman: some of Pringle’s product is knitted in Italy, while any Scottish-made Pringle is, according to my spies, made by Johnstons. In any event, make in Britain does not mean an item is better quality than another. As suggested above, companies holding warrants as suppliers of a particular product can use that warrant in their advertising, on their signage, and on labelling for unrelated products. So a tailor like Benson & Clegg can use its royal warrant as suppliers to the Prince of Wales of buttons and regimental ties (neither of which it makes) on its bespoke suits’ labels and publicity, for example. Lack of a warrant as tailors doesn’t mean its tailoring is inferior to that of tailors who do hold such warrants; Benson & Clegg actually does or did until recently publicize its warrant as tailors by appointment to the “late” King George VI, despite that sovereign having passed on more than a half century.

One interesting factoid that I have learned is that warrants to bespoke tailors and shirtmakers are personal to a particular cutter. That of the Prince of Wales at the shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser, for example, was specific for many years to the cutter Paul Cuss, while one of the prince’s warrants as military tailors followed the cutter Malcolm Plews from Savile Row tailors Welsh & Jefferies to Plews’ own tailoring house. This makes sense, of course, as the cutter at a bespoke tailor’s is responsible for drafting the customer’s pattern. (And until his retirement this year, the notorious John Hitchcock was the addressee of the Prince’s warrant at Anderson & Sheppard.) As mentioned, none of this means that a warranted supplier is the sole supplier to the grantor: a decade ago stories abounded of the Prince having dallied with made-to-measure tailoring from Turnbull & Asser (made at the time by the Cheshire Clothing factory) instead of A&S’s infamous drape.

Quid pro quo? Grantors of royal warrants are not supposed to receive any reductions or freebies in exchange for their patronage [insert lazy potshot at bloggerblaggers here]. Nonetheless, a scandal involving members of the Prince’s staff some years ago revealed that certain of them had supposedly requested or received kickbacks in the form of free merchandise from some of the Prince’s suppliers. And it’s reasonable to expect that the members of the royal family receive special treatment from their suppliers in the form of house calls, expedited service and so on. So while it’s amusing to picture the Queen pouring royally-sanctioned Heinz ketchup on her fries curling up on her GTC couch with the latest thriller from royal booksellers Hatchards, where does that leave my deodorant? Only my armpit knows for sure.
Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans