Friday, October 24, 2014

A Man In A Gray Flanneled Suit

It is a vestige of my years in temperate climates that I think of changing out my summer wardrobe for fall each September, only to find that little of it can be worn before November. Each autumn I stare wistfully at the 14 and 16 ounce (420 and 480 gram) flannels in my closet knowing that they can contribute nothing but heat stroke until the temperature dips below 60 (15C or so). Though those days are coming.

Flannel, as regular readers know from reading similar posts every fall, is a woolen cloth that is technically similar to tweed. It has a nap to the finish, which makes it interesting to look at and traps heat so it wears warm (a good three piece flannel suit, a pair of gloves and a scarf will keep a man warm without an overcoat even when temperatures dip a little below freezing). One of its reputed characteristics, softness, is not necessarily true. Some of it wears a bit, for want of a better word, harsh, though my old solid gray from H. Lesser's Golden Bale of years ago feels like cashmere. The stuff also tends to rumple easier than worsteds of the same weight (Mr. Bogart probably donned his trousers thirty minutes before the photograph was taken), not nearly to the extent of linen but it does look comfortable in every meaning of the word.

In keeping with the cloth, when a man wears flannel he should look relaxed. That can make the stuff less well suited for some boardrooms than a worsted, though I will wear it anywhere. A London Cut jacket is more in keeping with its less formal look than anything with a military heritage, and oxford cloth shirts are a particularly good pairing. Just eschew Mr. Bogart's silk stripes and wear yours with a grenadine or cashmere necktie.

All this is leading up to the impending visit of English Cut's Mr. Thomas Mahon who has a length of Fox Brother's Classic Grey Glen Check with my name on it. This one will be single breasted, three roll two with a ticket pocket and it is intended for wear with an odd vest or a Fair Isle slipover. I shan't be able to wear it in September but he probably won't deliver it before next November anyway.

Words by Will Boehlke

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lounge Life

I suspect there comes a time for many a recreational dresser when he surveys his classically balanced wardrobe of suits, sportcoats, odd trousers, shirts, knits, neckwear, shoes, outerwear, hats, and accessories, and feels a slight pang of existential anxiety. It is at this point that he usually invests in a tuxedo, but this only delays the inevitable reckoning: Is this all there is? Is there nothing more? Here, surely, one should start saving in earnest for the higher education of one’s offspring, but chances are that there remains a final frontier of finery to explore, a last sartorial summit to climb, one more herd of haberdashery to hunt. I speak, of course, of loungewear.

While its female analogue has emerged from the boudoir to find mainstream acceptance in and out of high school classrooms, the past several decades have not been kind to classic men’s loungewear. Where once sumptuous pajamas*, slippers, and dressing gowns were the trinity of tasteful domestic leisure, conjuring the dry martinis and drier wit of Noël Coward and William Powell, they are now largely icons of tastelessly decadent sleaze, infamously associated with Hugh Hefner and his sniftering acolytes. Loungewear. The very word oozes lubricious intent.

It’s high time to rehabilitate this maligned genre. When it’s all but axiomatic that classical dressers dress today for our own pleasure, more or less restrained only by the degraded sartorial standards of our society, what better context than the home in which to indulge one’s inner dandy? Why should a man who (to paraphrase Hardy Amies’ famous description of a well-dressed man) has chosen his clothes with intelligence, and put them on with care, truly forget all about them once he gets home in the evening?

Indeed, the 18th century origins of classic western loungewear reflect the notion of the enlightened domicile as a civilized refuge from the world, an aesthetic sanctuary in which one was free to indulge in comfortable Orientally-inspired clothing considered too exotic for more formal functions. Founding Father, pioneering physician, and dedicated robe-rocker Benjamin Rush observed that “Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so generally known, that we find studious men are always painted in gowns, when they are seated in their libraries.” Such is the case with Rush’s contemporary, Bostonian poobah Ward Nicholas Boylston, portrayed above by John Singleton Copely wearing an “India gown” or “banyan” (a term derived from the Hindu word for trader) along with a dégagé turban of the sort worn at home in lieu of fussier wigs. Particularly in the sartorial backwater of the American colonies and the early republic, this flowing garment would even emerge onto cobblestoned streets as sophisticated undress. With the exception of the fur collar trim seen on winter banyans that would persist on men’s topcoats, however, such louche liberties did not survive Victorian austerity. The dressing gown has endured only as something to be worn in digs among family, close friends, and other intimates -- and therein lies its greatest appeal.

Entertaining in high style at home may be a nearly lost art, but along with cooking, brewing, mixology, and other pleasures being rediscovered by today’s DIY aesthetes, it’s one we’d do well to revive in our tightened times. To greet one’s inner circle wearing a dressing gown is more an extravagance of ego than expense, conferring upon the occasion a delicious decadence when understood to be the endearing eccentricity of the wearer, and why wouldn’t it be? These are your people, after all.

The dressing gown can of course be worn simply over the day’s shirt and tie (once again demonstrated by Mr. Boylston), but for full effect, don’t shy from pyjamas (another comfy legacy of colonial adventure in Asia) or foppish slippers (excepting those embroidered with “RL” or “BB”). If it all seems a bit much on a Saturday night, even for you, remember that it is only in the clear hard light of a Sunday morning -- when various other indulgences may be only regrets -- that loungewear achieves its highest transformative promise, evoking not roguish cad, but rumpled dad. There is no more perfect ensemble for making the coffee, perusing the paper, and piddling the dog.

Thus, truly, is the good life.

* I prefer the alternate spelling, in part in deference to the garment’s exotic provenance, but mostly out of sheer, silky pretension.

Text by Andrew Yamato

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More Than Just Wedding Ties

As with most things, there are two ends to the necktie flamboyance spectrum: conservative solids at the one and those visible-from-10,000-feet extravaganzas so beloved of Réginald-Jérôme de Mans. There is some question as to precisely where on the conservative side solid but textured cashmeres and the like belong, but wherever that is silk wedding ties are but a short distance towards the conservative side of things.

What we think of as a wedding tie dates back to the old Scottish border tartans that became all the rage when the English were buying up Scottish estates in the 19th century (Queen Victoria for example purchased Balmoral Castle for the British Royal Family in 1852). Usually a silk version of one of three of the early woven patterns: houndstooth, shepherd's check or glen check (silver Macclesfield neckties are also appropriate for weddings but are less useful for ordinary day wear), wedding ties are most commonly seen in black and white resolving to gray, or less often in navy and white.

Said ties are so called because they were, and still are, worn with formal morning dress to daytime weddings in Great Britain. As men increasingly began wearing lounge suits to their offices (the lounge suit was originally worn informally, for lounging about), well dressed men such as Gianni Agnelli and Diego Della Valle, founder of Tod's, brought wedding ties to the work day. A groom may wear his shepherd's check with a navy suit to the ceremony but the pictured black and white glen check for example is particularly handsome with navy pinstripes on weekdays between 9 and 5.

Since the groom and his wedding party, whether an individual best man or the best man and 6-12 groomsmen, often wear identical ties, A Suitable Wardrobe offers a 5% discount for the purchase of two or more identical wedding ties and a 10% discount for six or more. After the ceremony, the ties will elicit memories each time they are worn. 

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.