Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Naadam - Cashmere sweaters and ethical fashion

I don't often talk much about the ethical side of fashion. In part that's because my main interest is in clothes made in the UK by experienced craftspeople who, I believe, are generally well-treated and reasonably well-compensated. Nevertheless, I don't think we can ignore the fact that clothing production has an important ethical dimension. It's not just sweatshops either, throughout the production chain there is the opportunity for big western designers and retailers to take advantage of suppliers and manufacturers, and many do. And then there is the questionable behaviour at the other end of things as well - certain large brands have a reputation for simply destroying tonnes of clothes at the end of each season to avoid 'diminishing' their brand by allowing clothes to hit the market on the cheap through thrift stores or charitable donations.

All of this is a rather uncomfortable side-story to our enjoyment of nice clothes, and so it's nice to be able to support brands that take the ethical side of things seriously. I've been talking recently with a company called Naadam Cashmere, a relatively recent start-up based in New York that imports super-fine cashmere from Mongolia and turns it into beautiful cashmere sweaters, hoodies, cardigans and other accessories. What's cool is that they've made the ethical approach part of their business model from the very beginning, and are committed to re-investing part of their revenue in livestock insurance for the nomadic herders from whom they buy the cashmere. It's a nice approach, and it's producing some really lovely products.


They also recently released a great little video of one of the founders giving away samples and products with minor flaws to New York's homeless, prior to a particularly cold snap. It's a nice gesture, and a good antidote to the Abercrombie & Fitch approach...



Declaration of interest: I have a financial interest in a company that has been consulting on Naadam's website.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Back to Cordings

In case it wasn't sufficiently apparent from my post about shooting breeks, I've rather fallen in love with Cordings, the 175 year old country outfitters on Piccadilly, which is half-owned by Eric Clapton. It really is the most amazing environment; wood-panelled walls just visible between the rows of different tweeds, and staff in country ties and v-neck jumpers floating around taking customers under their wing for as long as necessary to help them make a purchase decision, whether it's a five-piece shooting rig or just a new pair of socks.


What I really love about it, though, is that while it sells beautiful and very traditional clothing, it is quite sincerely a practical country and sporting shop with as much of a focus on quality and hard-wearing construction as any modern store selling fleeces and polyamide jackets. That's part of the joy of any really great suit - being fit-for-purpose doesn't preclude being beautiful, and flawless construction contributes to flawless appearance.


There's no better example than my new Cordings jacket in their house check tweed. It's a beautiful, heavy but fairly smooth tweed in a classic olive green with light blue and turquoise stripes. As befits a country jacket, it's three button with a single vent, and has the attractive and traditional Cordings cut: generous but with a nice shape to the waist and an elegant roll to the collar.


It has an extra row of stitching around the whole edge of the jacket; a touch that is commonly appropriated for purely stylistic reasons, and is undeniably very stylish, but which also strengthens the jacket and makes it more resilient to damage when worn in rough countryside.


There are a few other nice features like working cuffs, which are unusual on an off-the-peg jacket (it was something of a disappointment to me that my off-the-peg Gieves and Hawkes blazer doesn't have working cuffs) and, while arguably more symbolic than truly useful, are a sign of the care and attention that is put into each jacket.


It is, of course, available as part of a three-piece suit (and multiple other pieces, like a shooting waistcoat, a field coat, breeks and I think a cap). I don't (yet...) have any of these, but I'm a big fan of a tweed jacket worn with cords or chinos. Blue works well, particularly if the tweed has a blue overcheck, but bottle green works as well, as do the Sloaney standbys of red or mustard. I favour shirts that are casual but not too aggressively 'country'. That's a fine balance that may only make sense in my head, but by which I mean that blue checked is good, green and brown check is probably a step too far. Tie-wise, a subtly country tie like the one pictured above is obviously appropriate, but a club tie or softer paisley could work fine. The main thing is to avoid a city power-tie, but then I'd probably give that advice whatever you were wearing...

An outfit like that is well-suited to smarter weekend events or, for those unfortunates like me who work in a field where suits are almost unheard of, informal client meetings and casual lunches. The full suit might be more of a challenge in the city unless you particularly want to cultivate the impression that you have merely deigned to visit London for a few hours and will shortly be returning to your shooting estate. And that's fine if you do (or actually are).



Note: The jacket in this article was provided by Cordings for review. No payment has been made for this post, and acceptance of items for review does not guarantee positive coverage.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Frederick Lynn

In the Spring, I'm planning to go out to Chicago - a city I've never visited, but one with a thriving fashion industry and one that I associate with a business-like but sharp and stylish dress-sense. I'm excited to visit some tailors there, and particularly excited to already be talking to one. Frederick Lynn is the creation of Aaron Comes, a 'refugee from the corporate world' of big garment manufacturers who started his own business three years ago making handmade suits and accessories and, in December, opened a beautiful new showroom in Chicago.


With a range of cloths including both very traditional English makes like Scabal and the Italian mill, Marzoni, Frederick Lynn is clearly ready to cater to a variety of tastes and styles. This much is clear from the sample photos they sent me of their suits, which include both a beautiful muted soft three-piece business suit and the sort of bright purple checked sports coat that I imagine ex-Ivy-Leaguers wearing to their country club but which, I fear, I could never pull off.


Like many of the modern generation of tailors and, indeed, increasingly of the old-school ones, Frederick Lynn offer their suits at different price points depending on how much of the work is done by hand. Although I'm a big believer in the advantages of a hand-made suit, I'm also a big believer that a suit that fits properly is more important than anything else, so it's nice to be able to go to a decent bespoke tailor and order a suit that will fit right but won't break the bank.


The range also includes a number of elegant-looking leather accessories, and both bespoke and off-the-peg outerwear. As someone who has long been hunting for a properly long trench-coat instead of the thigh-length ones that are all anyone seems to sell these days, the made-to-order outerwear is of particular interest and something I will be certain to look at when I visit.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to a proper look round the shop in May, at which point I will report back with a more detailed post. In the meantime, if you're in the area and have a chance to pop in, or already have any experience of Frederick Lynn, do leave a comment as I'd be very keen to hear what you thought.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Cad and the Dandy three-piece: the finished article

I realise that I never quite did a post on the finished Cad and the Dandy three-piece suit. Despite the fact that it has been complete since late August, and I have worn it on numerous occasions since then, I was lacking in any decent photos of it and this has made me hold off on doing the blog post. Alas I am still lacking in decent photos but I think it's silly to hold off any longer, so here is the finished article as good as I can get it. I apologise for the dreadful quality of the photos!


The suit is, as I fully expected, utterly beautiful. There's nothing quite like a handcrafted suit, totally unique, and made precisely to your own specifications. I love the look of three-piece suits, and this is a perfect combination of a cloth and cut that is conservative enough not to draw undue attention, but unusual enough to be interesting and clearly bespoke. It's seen use at a wedding, at work meetings, and at numerous semi-formal dinners at clubs and smart restaurants. It fits all these tasks perfectly, and always attracts a nice comment along the lines of being smart and well-cut, but not 'dandy', 'dapper' or 'snappy'. None of which, by the way, are bad things if that's what you're after, they're just not quite what I was looking for with this suit.



I think, over the last few posts about this suit, I've covered off almost everything that needs saying, so at this point I'll just finish up with a couple more photos. The lines of the waistcoat are beautiful, and well worth a look - you may recall that the lapels were hand-drawn on the basted cut by Phillipa. That tie, incidentally, is a very purchase from Gieves and Hawkes which I am very pleased with - I have a tendency to almost exclusively wear school, club and society ties, and am lacking in good ordinary ties. This was an attempt to redress that balance, and I think it's turned out rather well.


Monday, 16 December 2013

Winter activities, and Cordings (and What To Wear on a shoot)

My pursuit of country pursuits, and the right clothes in which to pursue them, took me last week to Cordings on Picadilly. While I've often looked longingly in at the window, which has amongst the most elegant displays of tweed you will see anywhere in London, I've never actually ventured inside. However, when I realised I needed some new shooting breeks at the last minute Cordings immediately sprung to mind as the obvious place to go. Farlows on Pall Mall is also an excellent choice, and possibly even a bit cheaper, but it's a little more 'sporting' and a little less traditional than Cordings and, more important, closes earlier in the evening. As I was in a hurry after work, I didn't have much choice.

Cordings, which is now half-owned by Eric Clapton, has a tiny space on the ground floor, but rather more room in the basement, where most of the menswear is. It has a remarkable selection of traditional men's country-wear, with a particular emphasis on shooting. Many of the tweeds come in up to 7 pieces: breeks (sometimes the option of plus-twos or plus-fours, but I'll count that as one), trousers, waistcoat, shooting waistcoat, jacket, field coat, and cap. They have a variety of patterns ranging from the very conservative to the extremely 'bold' as well as all the accessories you could possibly want, including some very lovely and implausibly expensive shooting socks, of the knee-length variety needed for wear with breeks.



I went for plus-twos, which often better suit the taller and slimmer chap, but managed to resist the full 7-piece suit. I did, however, make sure to check that I was buying a check that was kept regularly in stock and not a short-run seasonal piece, so I could return to get other pieces at some later date. 

What to wear on a shoot

And for those who have landed on this page because they're desperate for some advice, here's my view:
On most shoots, there is a 'smart' dress code, but that doesn't necessarily mean full-on three-piece tweeds, nor is that often a particularly practical option for all sorts of reasons (warmth, water-proof-ness, and a decent shoulder surface). So, the standard outfit for all but the very smartest shoots seems to be breeks, a shirt and tie, a jumper (assuming it's cold enough) and a field coat of some variety. I am modelling this popular and broadly-acceptable look in the picture above. The long, warm socks are held up by brightly coloured garters, the tassels of which hang from the folded tops of the socks and add a nice bit of colour and panache. If you have an eye for colour, or the assistance of a very nice man in Cordings, you can coordinate socks, garters and breeks to great effect.

If you are somewhere hugely smart, or simply like dressing up a bit, then you can go considerably more formal than this without raising any eyebrows, though. Adding a waistcoat that matches your breeks is a good alternative to a jumper, while a shooting waistcoat (which has large bellow pockets for cartridges, and suede-covered shoulders) can be particularly useful if it's warm enough to shoot without a coat. Equally, a matching field-coat is a straightforward addition and makes your shooting 'outfit' into more of a shooting 'suit'.

If you do want to wear an old-fashioned tweed suit, you can up the practicality levels a bit by adding suede to one or both of the shoulders, and bellow pockets. That would probably call for a bespoke request, although no doubt there are places that will do these off the peg. Cordings is probably one of them, but my visit was so brief that I didn't see.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Alexander and James - some seriously unusual spirits

I don't talk about alcohol all that much on this blog, although I think I've done one or two posts on cocktails before, and definitely one on whisky which, in my opinion, is the king of spirits. It may not be quite as subtle and elegant as a really good cognac, as drinkable in a beach bar on a warm evening as rum, or as quaffable at all times and in all places as gin, but it has the advantage of both total reliability and endless variety. My old favourites (Balvenie doublewood is high on the list, since you ask) never let me down, but whenever I end up in a decent, specialist, liquor store or in a bar that takes itself seriously (or just about any pub in Scotland) there's the chance to try something different. Whether it's a different expression (that's the industry term apparently. I apologise) of a brand you already enjoy, or something entirely new, there's something exciting about the prospect of exploring a genuinely entirely novel flavour.

Anyway, all of that is by way of an introduction to why I was particularly delighted to end up with a bottle of Caol Ila Distiller's Edition generously provided by Alexander & James. This is, for those who don't know their scotch, an Islay whisky. Islays have arguably the most distinctive regional character, with a smoky, peaty flavour that tends to be a bit of a love it or hate it thing even with whisky-lovers. Personally, I'm not always an enormous fan but I like it occasionally for variety and I particularly like it in Penicillins. Although cocktails probably aren't quite the thing for a Distiller's Edition. 



The reason I chose the DE, in fact, is because Alexander & James recently featured it in an article about pairing wines with cheese - a fairly unusual combination that appeals to me, and not just because it allows one to skip the port and move straight on to hard liquor. The whole article is well worth a read and it suggests there's some real enthusiasm and knowledge of spirits behind the website. Incidentally, they don't only do whisky although that's arguably where their selection is widest. In the rum, gin, vodka and tequila categories they've wisely selected one top brand and offer it in a few different versions at different price points. The whisky selection, on the other hand, is diverse, pleasingly eclectic, and occasionally quite breathtakingly expensive. The collection appears carefully curated and is mixed up an interesting range of gadgets, glassware and other spirits-associated odds and ends. All the bottles come beautifully packaged in custom boxes, which is a nice touch especially if you're buying as a gift.

As far as my own bottle goes, it's not breathtakingly expensive but still definitely better than I would usually buy a whole bottle of for consumption at home, so I was interested to see how it would compare both to my usual favourites and to the Caol Ila 12 year old that is also occupying my drinks cabinet. Distiller's Editions are often (though not always) spectacular, offering something really unusual for only a very slightly higher price. In this case the main difference seems to be an extra couple of years of age to mellow it out slightly (though it's not clear how many years and I suspect it's a blend of different ages, which is no bad thing), and that it is finished in Moscatel casks, which give it a little extra sweetness to further offset the aggressive smokiness that characterises the 12-year old. 



Cask finishings are one of the most interesting factors in whisky selection, and one of the reasons that (as I mentioned) there is so much pleasure to be had from sampling different offerings. In this case, the Moscatel is just about detectable at the finish without being in any way overpowering, or making the drink unpleasantly sweet. The peatiness of the 12-year old is undeniably present, but it takes a slightly more back seat to clean, mild flavours of honey and coffee. Perhaps unusually for a Islay which, as I said, are something of an acquired taste, I'd see this as very much the sort of drink that you could serve to a range of friends not all of whom are enthusiastic whisky drinkers. It's has little fire and, particularly when opened up with a drop of water, is easy-drinking enough to be a crowd-pleaser while interesting enough not to be mistaken for a cheap blend that lesser hosts might fob their uninitiated friends off with. 

Note: The whisky in this article was provided by Alexander & James for review. No payment has been made for this post, and acceptance of items for review does not guarantee positive coverage.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Handmade Advantage

When talking about bespoke suits, it's sometimes complicated to articulate what the advantage is. Partly that's because 'bespoke' is so misused that it can cover a range of options anyway, and partly it's because true bespoke has so many benefits that arise for many different reasons. So in this post I'm going to isolate just one, and look at the benefits of hand-made suits.

Even the term 'hand-made' allows for some variation - there's no harm in doing certain tasks with a sewing machine, but the really key thing is that the padding and canvassing is done by hand. The reason is that this allows them to be not just sewn as 2-dimensional aspects of a 2-dimensional suit, but shaped in three dimensions. Imagine the front-piece of your favourite suit jacket - it's one piece of material which, to all intents and purposes, just hangs from your shoulder. Without canvassing, you're limited to shaping it by roughly manipulating how it attaches to the rest of the suit and, perhaps, by putting in a single seam above the pocket to pinch the cloth in a bit. even with these, it's always going to just 'hang' a little shapelessly. Attaching canvas to the cloth helps add structure and weight but, if it's just attached flat to the cloth, it's not going to help much with shape.

A talented coat-maker, however, sews the canvas to the cloth in such a way as to give it shape as he or she goes. By varying the tension on each individual stitch, they sculpt the exact shape they want, and create the sort of smooth lines around the chest that distinguish a bespoke suit.

Image property of Remodelista.com

The same process is even more important on the lapels and around the collar, where it is almost the only way to create a perfectly shaped collar that clings properly to the back of the wearer's shirt collar. In these areas, even more stitches will be used, and you can often see any of this if you look at the underside of the lapel on a bespoke suit (depending on the fabric used).

The other aspects of a handmade suit are attractive features like beautiful hand-sewn buttonholes, and the sometimes-visible stitching around the lapels and pockets. These, however, are just signs that your suit has been hand-sewn and, especially the lapel-stitching, are increasingly replicated on very poor suits. The hand-stitched canvas, however, directly contributes to the fit and quality of your suit, and is a good and easily-ignored reason to sometimes pay the extra for proper bespoke.

Incidentally, all of the above is easily ruined by thoughtless dry-cleaners who press the suit flat, so it's worth taking your bespoke suits somewhere that knows what they're doing.

Monday, 9 September 2013

ShirtSmart

Last week I was invited to the launch part of ShirtSmart, a new service being launched by Barrington Ayre, a well-respect Cotswolds-based tailor who previously provided me with one of his beautiful pairs of tweed house-shoes. Aside from enjoying the surroundings of the Century Club on Shaftesbury avenue to which, alas, I no longer have access since they fell out with the Rushmore Group, it was fascinating to talk to Tom about his latest project, and what his plans are.


The service, which is now live, neatly appeals to men who wear shirts regularly and need a certain number a year, often ordering the same selection. It allows you to set up your basic order of 5, 12 or 25 shirts per year and then have them repeat for a monthly or annual fee. Perhaps more importantly, though, these will be custom-made, by hand, based on your individual measurements and with a wide array of options over collar, cuffs, fabrics and other options such as the button colour and even the colour of the buttonhole thread.


As Tom says, it's very difficult with a shirt to get a good fit off the shelf, and inevitably you seem to end up compromising on something. The fact that so many retailers size purely by collar-size (which is pretty much non-negotiable - it has to be right) means that it's very easy to end up with sleeves too long or too short, especially if you want just the right amount of cuff to show under a suit, or a body that is big and billowy. Just having the basic measurements added can remove a lot of these issues and result in a far, far better shirt. In addition, it's always nice to be able to choose all the elements, since I seem to spend an unnecessary amount of time debating whether to buy the slim-fit shirt in the lovely fabric but the collar that's not quite as cutaway as I like, or the shirt with a fabric I didn't really want but the collar that I prefer. A service like ShirtSmart means you can get exactly what you want, and then continue getting it at regular intervals for as long as you need.


Of course, the measurements have to be right and it does rely to a large extent on your own measurements, although ShirtSmart do have their travelling 'shirtettes' who can take measurements when they're in your area. Either way, when the first shirt arrives you can make as many adjustments as you need and then have them applied to all future shirts, so in the end it shouldn't be hard to get a perfect fit.

From the samples at the event, the quality seemed excellent although I haven't yet had an opportunity to try it myself, and some of the customers were wearing other Barrington Ayre shirts which looked beautiful so he certainly has the skill and experience to make this work. Of course, it may not appeal to people who like popping into their shirtmaker a couple of times a year to be talked into some new fabric or to be remeasured to take account of any physical changes over the Christmas period, but it's clearly excellent for people who are increasingly used to being able to order online and still get top-quality service. It definitely has the potential to take a lot of the hassle out of maintaining a decent wardrobe of well-fitting shirts for wearing every day. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Three-piece suit: Forward fitting

Generally the final stage in the bespoke process is the 'forward fitting', although (particularly with your first suit with a new tailor) you could actually end up needing more than one appointment to get everything perfect, and any decent bespoke tailor will be happy to accommodate - indeed they will probably want to, rather than let you walk out with a suit that's not quite right. The key thing with the forward fitting is that, at this stage, the suit is complete, with all the canvassing and internal structure in place, buttons on, pockets done - finished basically. This means that you can see everything together properly but are slightly more limited in the kind of changes that you can make. At this point, the sort of adjustments that can be made are the kind of thing that a really good off-the-peg store would offer for its suits: adjustments to trouser length and waist, tweaks to sleeve length (within reason, bearing in mind that the cuff buttons will now be on), and limited adjustments to coat waist and so forth.


I needed a couple of little tweaks, but it's looking fantastic. The trousers are (partly of necessity, so the waistcoat looks right, and partly as a style choice) high-waisted with a fish-tailed back and, because they're designed exclusively to be worn with braces, don't need to be tight-fitting so are looser than many of my trousers (but not in such a way as to be visible). This makes them extraordinarily comfortable.

Suffice it to say it looks smashing - I love the quite traditionally English fit of the trousers with their single pleat, and the bold peaked lapels on the waistcoat, while the cloth is (in my opinion) and absolute masterpiece: lightweight and smart but a lot more interesting than it first appears, it looks almost blue in the right light. Anyway, decent pictures of all this will follow, along with a few more details, and I also plan on doing another post or two on the bespoke process. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Style Icon: Bill Nighy

An exciting landmark for the St James Style blog as we requested our first ever celebrity interview yesterday and were unceremoniously turned down. To be fair, I didn't expect much else but as someone in my life probably once told me "it can't hurt to ask". I thought of asking because I've only ever seen Bill Nighy in person twice and both times were on Savile Row. That made me wonder who his tailor is and led to a bit of Googling which resulted in the discovery that, off-screen, he is a man of considerable personal taste and style with some very interesting opinions on clothes. Famously, he owns dozens of bespoke suits but (equally famously) they are all navy blue, and that is almost exclusively what he wears.

I'd have loved to interview him, of course, but I can't really blame his agents for saying no. Anyway there's more than enough material out there for me to do a Johann Hari and just acquire quotes from elsewhere and pretend he said them to me...

I wouldn't do that though.

This interview with him on Mr Porter (oh, so they can get an interview, can they?) is interesting and I love the Jarvis Crocker quote which I'd not heard before. I wish, though, that I could have asked why he prefers single vented suits. These are less formal, but arguably less fussy and that seems to be what he prefers, with a 'simple' suit - two piece, 'not particularly styled', 'not a waisted jacket' and so forth. I can't say I particularly agree with all of his choices but that's not the point - I admire the fact that he knows what he likes and cares about how he dresses; that's what matters (and what people online so often forget in their search for some kind of objective standard of dress). As he himself points out in the interview, he doesn't compromise and I admire that too. No matter how much you like suits, I think it takes confidence to continue to turn up to Chamonix 'looking like the Blues Brothers' - it's so easy to dress down when you know that that's what everyone else will be doing, and Mr Nighy's unswerving commitment to wearing what he likes and knows he looks good in is a model for all men.


When I have seen him wearing suits of his own they're undeniably very elegant, and clearly bespoke - in one shot that comes pretty high in a Google image search the hand-stitched buttonhole is especially obvious. It goes to show that even with a suit that is 'not too styled' and without a waisted jacket bespoke makes an enormous difference. Actually, given his preference for this sort of thing and the search he mentions for a structured but softer shoulder, going bespoke is arguably more important. And, of course, as he says - it's desperately difficult to get trouser lengths right (and they must be right) without a really good tailor. Even good off-the-peg shops that sell unfinished trousers and pin them for you are going for a rough approximation, that you are then expected to assess and approve, and then hope that it's achieved when the trousers are hemmed. When you consider that with bespoke it can take comprehensive measurements and two or more fittings to get the trousers right, you'll see how inadequate that approach really is.

Anyway, despite all that, I didn't actually ever find out who his tailor is. In the Mr Porter piece he is wearing a Richard James suit but I imagine that was supplied by the stylist. He does mention John Pearse, a 'tailor to the stars' and a Daily Mail article (not linked - I don't link to the Daily Mail) mentions Dunhill, which offers a limited (but serious) bespoke service in a handful of its big stores. The only thing is, neither of those are based on Savile Row so that doesn't get me any closer to who he was visiting there. Or perhaps he just lives nearby, and likes wondering through!