Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Suit That Fits - Second Fitting

Second fitting of the new suit yesterday, and time for a further review of A Suit That Fits (see my first post for my initial impressions).

One of my biggest problems with A Suit That fits has been the lack of personal service. The person who measured me, the person who gave me my first fitting, and the person who gave me my second fitting were all different, so there's little continuity going through the process. None of them, of course, has any involvement in the actual manufacture of the suit. The lack of personal connection is compounded by the fact that you don't see the suit until it's complete, which means it essentially dissapears for 8 weeks and there's no news as to what stage it is at, or whether it might be ready early.

As a result, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that the second fitting was a dissapointment. In all fairness, I was ten minutes late, but I still don't think this excuses the way I was rushed out of the door with my suit, having been told to 'just try on the jacket' (the only part that had been adjusted) and without any assessment, comment or advice from the supposed 'tailor' who was helping me.

However; the fact is, the suit does fit beautifully, especially with the changes I made last time, and it looks fantastic, as only a perfectly fitting suit can. The material is nice, though not outstanding, and the suit has a lot of features that distinguish it from an off-the peg suit, such as reinforcement in areas prone to wear, working cuffs, and a loop behind the lapel to hold a buttonhole stem.

On the other hand, there are some areas where the finish is frankly dissapointing on further inspection - the suit cuffs, for example, show particularly poor craftsmanship where the lining is attached, and I will almost certainly take the suit back to have this remedied at some point. It's not that the quality of work is poor throughout - it's not. By and large, I would equate the construction of this suit to an off-the peg one from somewhere like TM Lewin or Hackett. However, this just draws attention to the areas where it seems to fall substantially short.

I haven't yet had an opportunity to wear the suit 'for real' but I shall do so a couple of times over Christmas and the New Year and, when  I do so, I shall finally get a picture of me in it. I may also write a more detailed review of A Suit That Fits at some point, but this will probably wait until they have also made my tweed jacket at the end of January. Until then, my feeling is that ASuitThatFits is a really good option for anyone who wants a bit more control over the details of his suit, and to have a suit that really does fit. On the other hand, for someone who values beautiful construction and a close relationship with a craftsman, ASuitThatFits is only going to dissapoint. For the price, though, perhaps that's not surprising; and I still feel that I would rather spend the same amount on a perfectly fitting suit made exactly to my design from ASTF as I would on a mass-produced off-the-peg suit from Hackett, Paul Smith or Gieves and Hawkes.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Dress Codes

It's the season when everyone ends up going to a whole string of Christmas and New Year parties. Casual team lunches, client dinners, business drinks, family parties, New Year cocktails; we're faced with a bewildering array of different dress codes, many of which won't be made entirely clear, leaving us no option but to make a few educated guesses.

Dress codes used to be easier, and there was a time when the only two options for an evening event were Black Tie or White Tie. The code was clearly stated on an invitation, and no room for confusion remained. This is certainly no longer the case, and a modern list of dress codes includes a bewildering range of possibilities.

I don't have space in this post to try and explain all the options out there, and there are many places that do this better (I reccomend a good men's style book from Debrett's or Esquire). Instead, what I would like to do is to provide a few tips to people who might find themselves needing to set a dress code, in the hope that by they can avoid some of the pitfalls that make dressing for an event more difficult than it really needs to be.

Be Bold
It's your party, you get to set the dress code. If you want people to wear Black Tie then make that the dress code, but don't qualify it with 'Black Tie Optional' or 'Black Tie Preferred'. This just creates confusion and guaruntees that at least a few people at your party will feel incorrectly dressed. Have the confidence to set a dress code and stick to it.

Be Specific
The classic dress codes of White Tie, Black Tie, Morning Dress and Lounge Suit are clear and unambiguous, everyone knows (or ought to know) what is expected of them.
Things get more complicated, however, with dress codes like 'smart-casual', 'business informal' or just 'smart'. I recently received an invitation with a dress code of 'smart' and this means nothing to me, since I consider both White Tie and a blazer and chinos to be pretty smart in different contexts. Instead of going down this route, say something specific like 'Jacket and tie'. This makes it clear what is expected, and also gives people clues as to the rest of the outfit. Faced with a 'jacket and tie' dress code, most men will know without being told that jeans are out, but a suit is not neccesary.

Consider the time of day
There's a move in some quarters towards seeing black tie as a catch-all formal outfit, which may explain why it is sometimes seen at day-time weddings. Unfortunately, black tie does not look its best in daytime, which is why it has traditionally been worn only after 6pm.
When setting your dress code it is best to bear this in mind and pick a dress code appropriate to the time of day. The daytime equivalent of Black Tie is generally a lounge suit, while the daytime equivalent of White Tie is Morning Dress.
 
Enjoy the Christmas parties.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Why real professionals wear suits


Photo Property of Gieves and Hawkes

I recently read about a study where two groups of FBI agents were given the task of rescuing some hostages from a building. They were unaware of the other group, all they knew was that they had a certain amount of time to come up with a plan. The only difference between the two groups was that one was issued combat trousers, polo shirts, body armour and baseball caps. The other group was told to wear a suit and tie. The first group came back with a plan that involved arming up and quickly storming the hostages location, with a view to taking out the hostile targets as rapidly as possible. The second group, on the other hand, returned with a plan for careful negotiations to determine the demands of the hostage-takers, along with key facts such as how many hostiles there were, how many hostages, the exact locations of them, and so on.

I don't know exactly what this tells you about FBI agents, and I certainly don't intend to pass judgement on which approach is better. I think what it does tell us though, is that what you're wearing plays a bigger role in how you act than you might neccesarily be aware of. One of my arguments for maintaining the 'outdated' uniform of my old school is that being forced to dress that formally contributes in some way to the behaviour and work ethic of pupils. It's by no means the only factor, but I am convinced it plays a part, and it is why I am dubious of schools that increasingly go down the polo-shirts and sweatshirts route.

In the grown-up world, the argument can equally be applied. Many businesses, indeed probably most outside of the city, have moved away from the strict dress code of suits and ties five days a week. In my own industry, most people in the office dress no more smartly than they would at home and, even when visiting clients, a suit is rare and a tie unheard-of.

Does this matter? Do our clothes influence how we are seen and how we act? It's hard to say, of course, and there's little evidence either way. Many in my office might argue that as a creative company, we are better off in casual clothes, but it's hard to see how wearing the same thing we would wear in front of the TV, or to the pub, can possibly make anyone more creative. On the other hand, it does seems much more possible that wearing a suit makes people look more professional and hardworking, feel more professional and hardworking and (hopefully) act more professional and hardworking.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Why specialists still rule

I love Aspinal of London. They do a great range of leather goods at prices generally somewhat cheaper than Smythesons, and also carry a good selection of reasonably priced clothing accessories such as pocket squares, ties, and cufflinks. I was also attracted to their small selection of pens, as I have been looking for a new fountain pen, and so I arranged to see a few in their Selfridges concession on Saturday.

After a bit of a struggle to find the pens (although that's largely my fault - I'd neglected to keep a note of the order number) the lady dumped them on the table in front of me and went to deal with another customer. Left to my own devices, I examined the pens and, as I had suspected, they are attractive and beautifully made. In particular I was very keen on a fairly large sterling silver fountain pen, and had pretty much resolved to buy this. However, if I had already been slightly put off by the lack of any help or interest from the shop assistant, things got worse once I started enquiring about nibs.

Choosing a pen without consideration for the size of the nib is unwise if you intend to write with it regularly. Unfortunately, the assistant knew nothing about nibs, although she 'guessed' the pens had medium nibs. I asked if I could try writing with it but, to my surprise, was told I couldn't. Apparantly I was the first person to ever ask to try one of their pens before buying it. I expect she's right, but it does make me wonder what kind of people spend £150 on something as personal as a fountain pen without trying it out.

At this point, I gave up on Aspinal, and perhaps I was unfair to expect them to really be of much use anyway. If they specialise in anything, it is leather goods, and there is no reason why they should have any particular expertise in pens. Except that they have chosen to sell them, of course. Still, I should have known better than to try and buy a pen from a non-specialist, and so I made my way to the spiritual home of the specialist boutique - the Burlington Arcade, one of a small number of similar arcades in the Piccadilly and Regent Street area. Although generally crowded with tourists, it nevertheless remains a unique and exclusive shopping experience. More importantly, each of the shops in it are true experts in their areas.

I visited Penfriend, a store too cramped to allow any chance at browsing, but an absolutely ideal place to get some real assistance in choosing a pen. After discretely establishing my price range, the assistant began to enthusiastically pass pens to me to try; different brands, different models and different nibs, they all began to pile up on the glass counter, and I was free to write with any of them. Eventually, after a bit of back-and-forth between different nibs, I selected a Parker Duofold International in black with gold trim and a gold and platinum nib. The whole experience of being helped to find the perfect pen was far more satisfying than simply picking it up in Selfridges, and reminded me of how important it is to shop at real specialists when possible, rather than being lured by the convenience and glamour of department stores like Selfridges, or retailers foolishly expanding into unfamiliar territory, like Aspinal of London.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Book Review: Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman

There seems to be a surprisingly large market in guides to being 'a gentleman'. Search on Amazon and you'll see a reasonable selection, or alternatively go in to Brooks Brothers and you'll almost certainly find the headache-inducingly smug 'How to be a Gentleman' series by John Bridges, reprinted specifically for Brooks Brothers. Bridges begins every sentence with 'A Gentleman...', as in 'A Gentleman waits his turn before using the weights machine'. In this way, he manages to make what is essentially a book on very, very basic manners seem like a profound guide to a life of casual James Bond-esque sophistication. Not that Bond would wait his turn before using the weights machines, he'd probably just kill you with a dumbbell.

Anyway, my point is that it's hardly surprising that a guide to being a gentleman ended up relegated first to my loo and then to the bottom of a cupboard. The title gives it away - the book is not for gentlemen, it is for people who wish to be gentlemen, and I suppose they might benefit from the supremely trite advice that Bridges dishes out. Of course, it's unlikely such a person would ever buy the book, which certainly raises the question of who it is aimed at. Enough of Bridges, though, as this is all a preamble to the real subject of this review - Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman

Note the difference in title? This is a guide for a gentleman, and so it manages to take as granted that the average reader was probably already taught basic table-manners and common courtesy by his prep-school housemaster, and so these sorts of topics can be skipped. Instead, Debrett's Guide covers a surprisingly wide range of more difficult topics from buying a bespoke suit to going on a first date.

The advice given is bang up-to-date, while retaining classic values and style, and it's sheer breadth means that even the best-educated and most socially adept gentleman is likely to find one chapter or other useful. The pages on how to be a good country guest might be superfluous for those readers who spend their life flitting from country estate to country estate, but even they may still find the surprisingly detailed section on interior design useful. And even the most cosmopolitan of us can hardly fail to benefit from the handy table of how much to tip, and how to say thank you, in 22 different countries.

The book is laid out in an attractive and user-friendly manner, eschewing lengthy prose in favour of pages broken up in to tables, bullet points, 'top tens', trivia boxes, and so on. All accompanied by appropriate illustrations. Above all, the guidance given is useful and clear. Avoiding generalities, each section gives you exactly what you need to know, neither more nor less, and is so on-the-money in determining what will be useful to its readership that I find myself referring to it on a number of matters, be it a suggestion for a good classic movie to watch or album to listen to, or to remind myself of the pecking order of poker hands.

Perhaps more importantly than any of this, the book is an entertaining read, written with wit and style and not too much sense of its own self-importance. I highly, highly recommend it as something you should have on your bookshelf, or which would make an excellent present for any man in your life, this christmas.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Thoughts on Black Tie

I was at an industry awards event a couple of weeks ago. These are some of the few remaining types of events in my line of work where a black tie dress code is still standard and, generally, adhered to. That is to say... it's adhered to, but with a lack of effort or respect for the rules that a lover of formal dress codes such as myself finds disappointing.

Clothing aficionados generally fall in to one of two broad categories (albeit with almost infinite slight variations) when it comes to black tie. Many adhere rigidly to a set of rules laid down some time in the 1930s and '40s and by and large unchanged since then. They might argue that a dress code implies rules and that failing to respect the rules is failing to respect the dress code and, by extension, the host who has set it. Perhaps more importantly, many people in this camp would point out that the rules are there for a reason, and that following them gives you the best chance of looking smart, elegant and at-home in your outfit.

The other view is that clothing conventions do, and must, alter, and that getting overly hung up on 'rules' that are sixty years old is self-defeating. As long as one is dressed well, and appropriately for the occasion, details of collar, shirt, tie, lapel and waist-covering are of small importance.

My own view has always fallen much more in to the first category, and I take some effort to make sure that my own black tie outfit obeys the 'rules'. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if I am unfair to be as judgmental as I am of people like those at the awards who were breaking quite a number of the black tie rules. I have come to the conclusion that what I really object to is not so much that the rules are broken, but that people break them without any awareness that they are doing so, or caring very much. A wing-collared shirt with black tie is not the worst crime in the world, and indeed there was a period when it was perfectly acceptable, as white-tie accessories such as a wing collar were frequently worn with black tie. Yet I cringe whenever I see someone wearing a soft, limp, wing collared shirt with black tie because I am almost certain they have not made any conscious style decision, but have simply picked it because it seems at some level more formal than a turn-down collared shirt, and they know nothing of the difference between black tie and white tie.

A friend of mine insists on wearing an ordinary white shirt with his black tie. In my opinion, the visible buttons and single-layered fabric are too informal for black tie, but my friend knows the rule and breaks it deliberately. I think, indeed, because he likes the slightly louche, informal look of it. In all other respects, his outfit is perfect and, in fact, his bespoke double-breasted dinner jacket is far smarter than my own . He is not breaking the rules out of laziness, or lack of awareness, but out of a genuine style choice.

It is my suspicion of laziness that most frustrates me about people who get black tie 'wrong'. That they dress badly out of laziness is quite ironic given that wearing black tie that conforms perfectly to the rules is actually the laziest way possible to look great at a party. When I see a black tie dress code I know that I can wear an outfit I have worn many, many times before, with no thought whatsoever, and still look good in it. If I wanted to break the rules, I would need to put far more thought in to how to do this properly and still look good. It seems sad that people can be so lazy in how they wear black tie and still miss out on the opportunity to look the smartest most of us men will ever look.

I suppose my conclusion is that you can either be lazy, or you can break the rules, but you shouldn't do both.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Barker Shoes

One of my other activities yesterday was to hunt down a new pair of shoes. I was on the look-out for some brown, closed lace half-brogues, and had my eye on
Maybe the best thing about Barker, though, is that their website includes not only detailed sizing (including width fittings) but also information about the last that the shoe was made on. By choosing shoes made on the same last as this pair, and in the same size, I can order online and be almost certain of getting a great fit. Which is good news really, since I still need an alternative pair of shoes to wear with a suit. This time, though, I've been inspired by the footwear of the Barker salesman who helped me, and who was wearing a lovely pair of black monks...

Monday, 7 December 2009

An afternoon in St James, and a suit that fits.

Saturday was a particularly raucous day in central London. The combination of three-week-before-Christmas shopping and a climate change demonstration of some kind (protestors on bicycles completely undermined by police officers in idling vans) made most of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Piccadilly pretty unbearable.

I was in town for a brief visit to ASuitThatFits' new(ish) premises on Glasshouse Street for a fitting of my dark blue self-stripe three-piece. I was slightly nervous about my first view of a suit which I spent a lot of time on designing and which I've been waiting for long enough to second-guess almost every decision I made. In the event, it's looking fantastic, although it needs a few minor adjustments, not least the addition of braces buttons, which they managed to forget to do. Sadly, I didn't think to get a photo, but I shall get one on the 14th when I go back for a second fitting.

I did have the distinct feeling that it might largely be down to me to identify changes I wanted made and I'm not always as confident asking for tweaks as I probably should be. I'd also have really appreciated an all-round mirror arrangement to help me check the fitting from the side and back. That said, David, the Senior Style Advisor who fitted me, was helpful, knowledgeable, and professional and I didn't feel any pressure at all to take the suit home without asking for adjustments. More importantly, the suit itself is lovely, with a number of nice touches that identify it as not just an average off-the-peg suit. Best of all (the adjustments notwithstanding) it fits me better than almost any other item of clothing I own. Wearing a made-to-measure suit feels noticeably more comfortable, with none of the awkwardness that can come from clothes that nearly, but don't quite, fit.

Anyway, after this is was time to escape the crowds, and so I headed to the relatively quiet environment of Jermyn Street and then to the East India Club, where I was pleased to find a large Christmas tree in the lobby adding to the general feel of comfortable peace and quiet.