Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Complementing Refinement

There is sprezzatura. There is refinement. And though the two are at odds, the well dressed man needs both.

The masculine version of dressing well as you know means giving the appearance of not trying too hard, something that is in conflict with a good suit let alone an obviously dandyish touch like a brown homburg hat. Nonetheless, better dressers emulate the Italians by, for example, mixing a knit tie and chambray shirt with their worsteds to simulate nonchalance.

Refinement on the other hand is the progressive polishing of a man's look over time. He acquires better shoes, begins having his shirts made, and may even dare the occasional statement by wearing a silk square instead of his usual white linen. And polishing pays off when the positive impression that it leaves is notable.

Just remember to leave your double breasted unbuttoned so your critics focus on the flaw rather than the perfection.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Curation

Of late the term “curation” has been bandied about on numerous websites that appear to promote fanciful verbiage over actual content. We have thus seen various webstores and physical stores praised for the exceptional curation of their merchandise. Heritage brands, another painful malapropism, sometimes announce the appointment of brand curators in order, I guess, to gently extract all that backed-up heritage they have yet to share with the world.

This is preciosity of the worst sort, a sort of term inflation that flatters the work of a fashion buyer, the person whose job it is to select the items that a shop sells. (In the case of a brand curator, the work often includes that of secondhand buyer of vintage pieces from a brand’s history that support the image it is trying to sell today.) For whatever its original roots (and curation etymologically derives from the concept of simply caring for something, medically or otherwise), the popular association of curation is that of the curator of a museum, the person tasked with the collection, interpretation and preservation of cultural heritage. It is no accident that heritage is another buzzword in fashion today. Heritage is usually applied to a brand which has found a way of selling out what made it distinctive in the first place. Curation implies that items in a store have been selected as worthy of collection – worthy of conservation beyond their time, appealing to today’s contemporary values of supposedly timeless style or enduring quality. In the end, used in this sense, curation is a fashionable euphemism for someone telling you what to buy, similar to how mixologist is a euphemism for tending bar.

The concept of a brand curator is something more bizarre still. Beginning a decade or so ago, a couple of brands decided to ape the example of Hermès, which has maintained a museum of sorts of some old designs and their inspirations on one of the floors of its flagship (by appointment only). Because the qualification to be a heritage brand is simply to have been in business for several years while referring to history and quality in one’s advertising, all kinds of brands were eligible to collect old merchandise and paraphernalia (ads, clothing and accessories made by other people but worn by style icons or which the brand would like to associate with itself and its image), and to task a brand curator whose responsibilities include that of ambassadorship, another new function that is a euphemism for marketing outreach, marketing with an aim to convey the historical image the brand wants to claim. Ideally, a brand curator will choose items from the past, made by the brand or not, that suggest the brand’s supposed image. Those items will then go into brand homes around the world, sophisticated window-dressing for expensive shopping.

While curation can thus be a retail concept or bugaboo, it’s also a seductive siren song for the enthusiast, a fig leaf for obsession and collecting. As suggested above, curation today suggests museums, rarity, enduring esthetic or artisanal value and conservation. A few of us sometimes embark on one-man missions to preserve items reflecting our obsessions. In the end, it is another foolishly fanciful fantasy, as may have been the case with the tie pictured, brilliant red silk woven with East Asian imagery, probably of midcentury vintage, made by Sulka during its heyday.

I’ve written earlier about the overthinking that accompanies our deep obsessions, along with the delusion that anyone else would care to hear us rationalize them. Collection is another pathology we rationalize, an observation inspired when I recently read this quote from the magician and performer Ricky Jay about his decades-long collection of illusionist memorabilia: "I think the only form of a rationalized greed is when you’re collecting something you are supposedly serious about."

Jay admits to rationalizing his obsessive collection with the pretext of centralizing and conserving old, rare and obscure items on the topic. As a professional magician (OK, “illusionist” – what were we saying about mixology?), he possesses the knowledge and experience to recognize their rarity and their value as part of the heritage of illusionism (I hesitate each time I have to type that word in any of its forms).

I am no professional conservator, nor even a professional iGent or bloggerblagger. But over the years, I pulled together items like this tie out of a desire to save things from the fire, as I melodramatically put it to some of my e-friends: items that feature craftsmanship, patterns, quality or materials that may not be available again. Such was the case with my dragon jacquard shirt or the enameled coral branch cufflinks Will won’t let me forget. As the reader may imagine, sometimes these items veer into questionable taste, or at least questionable wearability, as with the Hilditch & Key Paris cashmere-silk neckerchiefs I picked up for Will and myself, or Fred. And for the last several years I’ve mulled over whether to buy a double-faced silk evening scarf from Charvet that features an extraordinary amount of braiding (passementerie) in the tassels, similarly to their most complicated dressing gown belts. While it’s the last scarf they have left or can make with this feature, it’s black on one side and traffic-warning yellow on the other, so I know I’d never wear it.

So does this tie fall under that sort of overreaching, collecting for the sake of obsession, adding to a deluded museum of some personal idea of elegance that no one else will ever visit? The rationalizations rise up: It’s unlikely it would find a better home, as did some true ancient madder ties that another enthusiast far more obsessed with the old silks (an obsession I can respect!) managed to get me to sell him. The pattern is highly unusual, extremely precise, and very vivid. Another tie like this may never be made again: even if someone had a similar pattern woven up, who could tell if the silk, the colors and the weave were of the same quality as this? And there will never be another Sulka, as Mr Porter’s recent attempt to sell incredibly bland, incredibly expensive ties under that brand name has proved. The commercial motivation to combine the most creative and the highest quality just isn’t there. The path to redemption ‑ the cure for curation syndrome ‑ is clear: can I wear it unself-consciously (disregarding all the rationalizations above) and enjoy it?

My night at the museum is over, at least for today.

Text and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Monday, August 18, 2014


Accessories make the man doncha know. A great suit with ordinary accessories looks ordinary. An ordinary suit with great accessories looks great. Just sayin'.

Slang aside, the classically well dressed French woman will wear her one great ensemble day after day if that is what the occasions call for and men would do well to emulate her. After all, the point of those frequently recommended toned down colors and patterns is that they can be worn often without drawing "didn't he wear that yesterday?" thoughts.

Not every accessory in a wardrobe needs to be of the highest quality but when choices have to be made there should be one or two of each type for important occasions.  A couple perfect neckties and a linen handkerchief are obvious. A pocket watch like the one Mr. McQueen wears in the original Thomas Crown is an example of an item that puts the day's clothing on a higher plane, but a good metal watch and a pair of basic gold or enameled silver cufflinks ought to be acquired as early in life as is practical. Similarly, a tailored man ought to have at least one pair of high quality oxfords with a complementary belt or braces, a couple of perfectly fitted shirts, and for cooler weather a cashmere scarf and a good pair of gloves in a color other than black.

Returning to that pocket watch, no more than one accessory in the day's clothing should stand out if a little strutting is appropriate (unless a man is visiting a gathering of dandys, more may create the impression that he is trying too hard). Watch, cufflinks, crocodile belt or patterned braces and perhaps a silk pocket square are the usual ways to express oneself, but when the weather calls for it a hat or umbrella are others.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Buy A Guayabera

Commonly worn by men in Latin America, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Hispanic communities in the United States, and the politicians pandering to them, the humble guayabera is a global staple of hot weather attire. Complete with an apocryphal origin story (Peasants’ pockets for guava portage? Please.) and tempered by decades of ossified styling, it has earned its unique place in the menswear canon.

Guayaberas vary in design, but generally feature vertical rows of decorative embroidery and/or fine pintuck pleats called alforzas, descending from a western style yoke in back, and running over buttoning pockets on the front. Better quality guayaberas tend to feature more numerous and narrow alforzas which can approximate (for what it’s worth) the ribbed texture of seersucker. The collar is worn open, and the straight hem leaves inveterate tuckers like me no choice but to enjoy the breeze.

More formal versions -- long-sleeved, occasionally french-cuffed, with two hip pockets -- have been deemed sufficiently formal for diplomatic meetings between heads of state. I myself favor the more informal short-sleeved, four-pocketed model. Being less exotic, it’s more wearable, and more in keeping with the guayabera’s modest country roots. It also fills a more useful sartorial niche as a hot weather shirt-jacket, comfortably and securely distributing the accoutrements usually carried in the load-bearing man-purse that is a coat.

Along the same quasi-utilitarian lines, I personally think guayaberas tend to look best when made from somewhat coarser fabrics, conjuring the heavier but closely-related safari shirt. If you prefer to have a finer one made up (a relatively affordable bespoke option), select a shirting with some opacity to avoid having the pockets and pleats contrast too much against the sheer fabric (or prevent the boorish outline of an undershirt).

Guayaberas are now available in a wide spectrum of colors and fabrics. You can’t go wrong with traditional white or natural cotton or linen, but don’t restrict yourself to them if you enjoy the style. It’s the contrasting details that can over-egg the pudding, pushing the shirt’s casual charm into the realm of ethnic costume; all those pockets, pleats, buttons, and embroidery provide enough texture without the need to highlight them.

The guayabera will always be a bit florid for men for men tightly tethered to NATO-centric notions of sartorial propriety, but more cosmopolitan dressers embrace it in the same cavalier spirit of cultural appropriation that gave us Hawaiian shirts, Gurkha shorts, Panama hats, and Indian madras.

Text and photo by Andrew Yamato

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Enchanted Naples

In 1925, her native America half-drunk on jazz, hooch, and easy money, half-suffocated by Prohibition and Hoovers of both the digging up dirt and the sucking it away varieties, Margaret Mead went to the island of Samoa with the intention of studying female adolescence among the native people. She came back to report that young women there lived free from the repressions that weighed on her fellow flappers felt, and that life there was good. Island girls were free to engage in shameless casual sex, were raised unprotected from the birds and the bees, yet achieved happy transitions into adulthood, and eventual marriage and motherhood. The resulting book, Coming of Age in Samoa, became the most widely read book in anthropology.

Six decades later, and after Mead's death, Derek Freeman claimed that Mead had been duped by the local girls she interviewed. That they had put over a practical joke on this silly white woman, and that Samoan taboos surrounding sex were little different from our own.

I think of Mead's rendering of Samoa every time I read travel journalism pieces on "sartorial Naples," a genre that grows fractally, with the number of articles increasing exponentially but each a miniature replication of the ones that came before it. Like Mead's Samoa, sartorial Naples offers a utopian vision to a segment of Western society that sees itself as hopelessly anachronistic, too thirsty for pleasure in a world of dry counties. The typical Nea-paean describes a place where every dunce is a dandy, where there's an artisan behind every corner, where even the Internet is held together by hand-stitching, likely performed by someone whose family has been serving in that same capacity for four generations now.

Thus we are told by Conde' Nast that "No Italian in his right mind would wear a shirt with a buttonhole that wasn't hand done." Travel and Leisure reports that "the town is filled with ateliers catering to the supreme stylishness of the local male population and a vanity born of the sense that, as the writer Raffaele La Capria once said, " Naples appearing is fundamental, while substance is negligible."

Anyone skeptical of that tradition's vitality would do well to observe the waiters at sidewalk restaurants along the waterfront, like Gusto & Gusto, where the staff wears smart orange aprons, crisply ironed and nipped to improve the fit. Sitting there one afternoon over lunch, I got the impression I had wandered right out of contemporary Europe and into another era.

Even Time Out is enthralled with silk-canopied Talaricos and 1,000 euro Matuozzo shirts.

Those of us who feel safe in tradition will feel committed by the long history of seeing only the charisma and ingenuity of hand-made goods any time this spun yarn frays. No less sentient an observer than Goethe writes in his Italian Journey of a group of "ragged boys" who on a cold day huddled around a bit of pavement left warm by a recently departed blacksmith's iron. He marvels not at their abject poverty, but at their ingenuity. "Similar instances of contentedness," Goethe records, "and sharp-witted profiting by what otherwise would be wasted, occur here in great number. I notice in this people the most shrewd and active industry, not to get rich, but to live free from care." If only we were all so carefree as to scoop a fleeting moment of warmth from a dirty cobblestone.

More literal-minded readers might be shocked, upon arriving in Italy, to find locals pushing buttons through machine-made button holes without being committed, Talarico umbrellas with polyester canopies, and young people more desperate for opportunity than free of care. I was even once petitioned by my revered tailor's spawn and heir to bring him some Brooks Brothers shirts from America on my next trip. It's enough to make you wonder if the whole thing isn't just a hoax made up to sell ties to Americans.

And yet. Walking along Chiaia and passing an old man with a bespoke jacket draped cape-like on his shoulders, watching the gesticulations of the over-monied at Cafe' Gambrinus, hearing the satisfying friction of thread slurping through cloth in back room workshops, inception enters a susceptible imagination. We have visions the dandiacal society we wish we could join, until an orange apron appears to us the very pinnacle of elegance.

Whether Mead or Freeman was right about Samoa in the 1920s has become unknowable, although the larger truth that the stress associated with adolescence depends on the pubescent's environment has survived. Surely there has never been a Naples entirely populated by dandies living together in harmony. But in the city's modern staging, and its libretto sung by nth-generation craftsmen, are just genuine enough to make us believe that it's all real. We come to Naples to be enchanted, and there we cannot ourselves disappoint.

Words by David Isle