Thursday, July 29, 2010

Freddy Vandecasteele: The cool, unsung virtues of voile

I spent a few days in Los Angeles recently, which was well-timed given the recent heat wave on the East Coast and much of the eastern US. My intent was to visit my shirtmaker Freddy Vandecasteele and order a few more cool, lightweight summer casual shirts. In particular, my purpose was to look at his stock of voile shirtings (not to be confused with toile or tulle!).

In Freddy's view, voile is the coolest, lightest cotton shirting around. It used to be a very popular fabric and Freddy made quite a few voile shirts in years past. At first, I thought the shirting seemed a bit delicate for men's shirts. But as a test run I ordered a couple of voile short sleeve shirts last year. Freddy probably has about 15-20 different voiles from solids to stripes in stock in his workshop.

Having put the voiles to good use this steamy summer in NYC, I would have to agree with Freddy about their coolness factor. In terms of durability, I haven't had any issues. The only disadvantage to voile is that, depending on the color and pattern, the cloth can be somewhat translucent.

Looking ahead, I'm thinking voile will be my choice for a summer evening formal shirt for black tie.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mad Men style: Brooks Bros, Finchley or J. Press?

Season four of the award-winning AMC series Mad Men picks up again tonight. As part of the ramp-up to the season premiere, the New York Times has assembled a 1964 menswear report and asked Ed McCabe, a former advertising exec, to answer reader questions about being an ad man in the heyday. Enjoy the episode and the photos.

Notably, one reader inquired, "Did you dress in Brooks Brothers suits, wear Hamilton wristwatches, write with Parker 51’s?" McCabe's responded that the 1950s were very traditional and buttoned down and back then "I was trying to one-up the Brooks Brothers look by buying my suits from Finchley or J Press."

Additional links
- New York Times review of season four

Hamilton Shirts 1883: Spring/summer 2011 line

American heritage is continuing to steamroll into the hearts and minds of American men after a long hiatus. The folks at Hamilton Shirts, founded in 1883, kindly sent me an invite to the launch of the S/S 2011 line last week in NYC but I was unable to attend.

[Photo no longer available]

The photo above of a lightweight summer madras shirt caught my eye because I used to have a vintage Brooks Bros shirt in almost exactly the same pattern and color palette.

Additional links
- More photos of the S/S 1883 line

Take Ivy: An American style bible reissued

As I noted in my piece on Japanese repro-authenticity, the Japanese are experts in spotting a good thing and refining it again and again.

And they've done it again. Take Ivy, the 1965 photo essay of Ivy League style, is being republished again after years of being out of print. But this time the book is riding on a tidal wave of mainstream interest in American heritage and style.

The new reissued edition will cost just $24.95. I'm glad I held off on purchasing an original edition on eBay!

Additional links
- New York Times Take Ivy slide show
- New York Times article on the Ivy League look

Saturday, July 24, 2010

MRketNY 2010: The business of menswear

MRketNY is a US menswear tradeshow featuring leading makers and suppliers of men's clothing selling to independent stores and larger accounts. From my perspective it was a very well-organized show and bustling with appointments and foot traffic the day I visited.  I enjoyed visiting many of the booths and chatting with owners, sales reps and other staff.  It's certainly a must-attend for higher end retailers and clothing manufacturers. Many thanks to Maggie and her colleagues for organizing access to the show.

The show can be grouped in several primary categories: American makers (including "heritage brands" and American trad), Italian suppliers, UK makers and men's accessories. Below is a snapshot of some of my conversations.

American trad / heritage: Rufus, Alden, Allen-Edmonds

At the show I thought some of the busiest booths were found in the American trad and heritage brands such as Vineyard Vines and Bill's Khakis.

Rufus is an American brand whose shirts are supplied by the New England Shirt Company (aka the Fall River Shirt Company and before that the Shelburne Shirt Company). The shirt factory is located in Fall River, MA. In a sense, Rufus was offering heritage before the current swell of heritage brands. Their target audience is an "updated traditionalist" who is interested in versatile sports shirts that can transition into dress shirts. Sizings run from S-XXXL.

At the Alden booth, I had a friendly chat with one of the regional sales reps. Alden has held up extremely well despite the economic downturn in the past couple of years.  In particular, customers are still snapping up their Indiana Jones boots. In aggregate, demand is exceeding supply - witness the six month backlog at the Alden factory.  Incidentally, during my visit, I spotted the owner of Leffot examining his special make-up models for his store. On the table were six or seven bluchers and oxfords in a natural finish.

Allen-Edmonds had a large booth centrally situated on the floor, befitting their prominence in American men's shoes. They were displaying their Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 lineups. The Spring 2011 collection features 19 new models including the combination linen (or mesh) and leather Strawfut, the Winnetka loafer and the Montecito classic penny loafer. Interesting factoid: Their recrafting business is on track to process 60,000 pairs of shoes this year.

UK : Drakes of London

The Brits have long played a standard bearer role in menswear and men's style. Think Savile Row, the Duke of Windsor, mods, Carnaby Street, etc.  So it is not surprising at all that the Brits were well represented at MRketNY: Corgi (socks), Dents (gloves), Drakes (ties), Edward Green (shoes), Hilditch & Key (shirts) and leaders in the high-end knitwear market (Johnstons of Elgin).

UKFT MRketNY ad July 2010

Drakes of London, the English tiemaker, was in attendance and I enjoyed having an excellent chat with the owner Michael Drake. Shedding modesty for a second, I'm happy to report that he is a regular reader of Sleevehead. Mr. Drake works with the leading retailers and tailors around the world, some of whom I have written about in my blog.

Don't miss his excellent, miniature essay on the details of style at Permanent Style. He provides informed "advice" hewing closely to the original Latin sense of the word, that is, providing a certain way of looking at something. With style, it does matter who is doing the looking and in this case Michael Drake knows of what he speaks. What I like best is that he allows some permeability around his rules, making room for a modicum of personal eccentricity in style.

The other reason why you ought to read the essay is his ability to draw from the dual history of menswear. Women's fashion has largely had a singular historical path grounded in Parisian haute couture. In contrast, men's clothing branched off in the early 20th century when Savile Row tailoring traditions and the British high society look were "ripped and smoothed" (to borrow a tailoring phrase from Richard Anderson's autobiography) by Italian consumers and tailors up and down the peninsula.  Perhaps more ripped than smoothed actually (esp. in the south). The best dressers today are well aware of this dual history and generally proceed to pitch their tent in one of these two traditions. Even rarer, there are a handful who comfortably traverse between the traditions of Savile Row and the inventiveness and experimentation of the Italians in equal measure. Drake is one of the few who are uniquely steeped in the stylistic forces at play in Italy and the UK.

Italy: Giudice, Perofil

Along with the Brits, the Italians came as an organized group under the auspices of the Italian Trade Commission. Impressively, an entire aisle of the tradeshow floor was taken up by RTW and MTM Italian manufacturers and suppliers, including Borsalino (hats), Allegri (outerwear), Valstar (outerwear), Lorenzini (shirts), Luciano Moresco (shirts), Maremma and Marcoliani (socks).

I was walking by the Marcello Tarantino booth when I saw two lovely Neapolitan style jackets with manica camicia (shirt style) shoulders, as well as more traditional set-in shoulder models. Tarantino is the brand name for the suits and jackets on display and Giuduce is the trade name for the manufacturing operations in Sicily where the suits are made. I chatted with Giovanni, the gentleman who apparently runs the factory in Sicily, and learned the factory employs 200 workers and tailors. They can also work with retailers to offer MTM and RTW. Interestingly enough, they have very active accounts in Japan and South Korea.

However, I was very surprised to hear that Tarantino / Giuduce do not have retail representation in New York City. None! In my opinion, there is an excellent, greenfield retail opportunity for affordable, RTW Neapolitan style jackets and suits in NYC. If I were in retail, I would probably explore this opportunity myself. After having virtually zero presence in the American market, bespoke tailors from Naples have begun to travel to the US in the past couple of years to meet growing demand for this distinctive and soft silhouette. But no one seems to have cracked the RTW market. Granted, there are some who think Neapolitan RTW is not an easy sell, perhaps due to higher construction and fitting requirements.  However, I think the creation of block patterns for RTW is eminently feasible. We need only to look at the success of Japanese RTW labels that offer trim cuts and shirt shoulder construction (e.g. Engineered Garments). Indeed, I saw other booths featuring shirt-style shoulder jackets that were certainly designed for the RTW market (such as Daniel Hechter).

For gents seeking fitted crewneck or V-neck t-shirts, you may want to ask your local retailer to stock Perofil, an Italian maker of undergarments since 1910. I prefer to wear t-shirts under my dress and sports shirts to absorb any perspiration. The dilemma then becomes trying to fit a loosely cut RTW t-shirt under a fitted, bespoke dress shirt. Oftentimes I find the armhole and chest of the t-shirt is larger than that of the dress shirt. However, Perofil's display shirts looked quite trim with higher armholes than I've seen in the US market and a potential solution for the slim, athletic or lean gent. They appear to use quality materials (long staple cotton that is combed, twisted and mercerized) and modern RTW production processes.

Accessories: Baade II, Dorfman-Pacific, Blick, Jack Georges

Baade II is an American men's jewelry and accessories maker. I chatted with Traci, one of the owners, simply because I noticed three shorter-length tie bars in the display case as I walked by. They were shorter than the standard 2.5 or 3+ inch length of most tie bars. As I learned, magazine editors often call her requesting shorter tie bars for use in photo shoots because they are difficult to find. I agree. Until recently, you could only find shorter length tie bars (i.e. 2 inches or less) in vintage shops. But now they've become the natural companion to slim ties. Baade II uses single specialized workers in Providence, RI for specific tasks in the jewelry and metalworking process such as finishing. Providence used to be the center for such work in the US. They also work with the leading enamelers in Birmingham, England, for cloisonne enamel work. Traci started the business by making double-paneled cuff links but today there is not much interest in them (except for the occasional account like NYC retailer Barney's).

At Dorfman-Pacific, I spoke with John Callanan about the booming business of hats these days, right in in the middle of a slow men's retail market. In his view, the hat resurgence seemed to start a couple of years ago.  I caught a whiff of this fedora frenzy in my travels and wrote about the 4 reasons to wear a hat last year.  For trendspotters, John thinks stingy brim is on the wane (i.e. less than one inch brim) with fuller brims (circa two inch) taking their stead. Among the Williamsburg and Lower East Side hipster set, straw boater hats are catching on. John received his first request for a boater two years ago from a Gen Y Williamsburg hipster. A couple of other interesting factoids. The majority of fedora wearers today seem to be women. Anyone walking around the streets of Manhattan in the past few months would agree. In addition, John mentioned that four new hat shops in NYC have opened up in Nolita just in the past few months.

I also spent a few minutes at Blick, which sells slim and narrow ties from widths of 7 cm (2.75 inches) and a standard length of 146 cm (58 inches).  The blade linings are purposefully irreverent and colorful. The ties are manufactured in Vietnam and the materials sourced from Liberty of London and Italian mills. They are selling well in Europe and looking to expand into the US market. With brands like Band of Outsiders filling in a niche for younger customers buying slimmer ties to match trimmer jackets with narrower lapels, I suspect (and hope) slimmer ties are here to stay. I think the look works very well for certain men.

Blick slim ties_flickr

For readers interested in leather accessories, I dropped by New Jersey-based leather accessories maker Jack Georges and chatted with the owner about exotic leathers and pricing of accessories like alligator briefcases (about $7,000). The price is high due in large part to the additional challenges of procuring larger skins. A 7 year old alligator produces skins barely a foot wide - not large enough for a briefcase. A briefcase needs the hide of a larger and older (15 year old) alligator with all the requisite costs of raising a farmed alligator for that length of time. But very few suppliers are willing to do that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Portraits of and by an artist: Otto Dix and artistic license

The Neue Galerie, a museum in New York specializing in modern German and Austrian fine arts, is currently showing an exhibition on the 20th century German artist Otto Dix. Dix is associated with the Secessionist as well as the Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity) movement.

When one thinks of art one thinks of artistic license, the freedom to embellish, simplify or remove what is seen or perceived. But in the case of Dix his portraits of individuals capture closely the clothing they actually wore.

For example, below the 1923 painting entitled "To Beauty" features a self-portrait of Otto Dix himself. Notice the close positioning of the jacket buttons on this two button peak lapel suit with slanted pockets. The closeness of the buttons on the jacket front is a bit unusual. But if you go to the exhibition, you will see a black and white photo of Otto Dix at the exhibition entryway wearing a similar jacket with compressed button spacing but in notch lapels and flapped pockets.

Below is another example of a sitter (c. 1922) wearing a jacket with closely spaced buttons. Perhaps it was a sartorial regionalism in Germany at the time or a carryover from formal frock coats.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

American & feeling patriotic? Wear a pair

A Continuous Lean's "American List" has a list of American-made clothing and footwear brands that still manufacture in the US. ACL's list includes Alden, Allen Edmonds, Arrow Moccasin, Quoddy, Red Wing, Wesco, White's Boots, Wesco and Wolverine. It's a very good list but not exhaustive. Here's another list of shoes made in the USA.

If country of make is important to you, perhaps an Allegiance Footwear work boot might fit the bill.

This may not be traditionally welted construction but it does look comfortable and durable.

Or a US military grade chukka boot by Capps?

Patriotic dressing: Who's the most patriotic?

Happy Fourth of July to my readers! One might think Americans are the most unswervingly patriotic of dressers. But according to a 2009 survey by luxury market analysts Ledbury Research, you might be surprised.

Below is a list of consumers, ranked by percentage who prefer to buy goods from their own country:

French: 92%
Americans: 64%
Germans: 61%
British: 50%

The research firm dubs this sartorial nationalism "fashionalism". Given the historical byproducts of excessive nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, one hopes the energy and tenor of so-called fashionalism will be light and none too serious.

I think behind the numbers is a closely coupled relationship between a particular notion of "quality" and certain, historically prominent crafts and industries that happened to develop in specific countries. In France, think women's fashion, leather goods and silk (Lyon was a major center of production). In Germany, think automobiles, precision tools and machinery, photographic equipment and watchmaking.