Sartoria

From Italy with Love…

Having sung the praises of online shopping in my previous post, I was immediately reminded of its limitations when a repeatedly used clothing retailer in Italy informed me that it has suspended shipments to the U.K. due to Brexit.

As I have rather neglectfully managed to reach a point where several necessary renewals have coincided, the search for new sources has been more focused than usual. I refuse to give up: the dearth of easy solutions to the problem of what I consider the lack of appealing men’s clothing in the U.K. is not about to make me part with my hard-earned for things I do not really like simply because they are readily available. And that especially holds true when significant outlay may be involved.

When it comes to browsing (even virtually) in Italy the supply problem rapidly disappears (as would my savings, if I let them), only to be replaced by a partly cultural one: despite my appreciation of the work of their fine tailors, I do struggle to get my inhibited English mind round the kind of figures that Italian men seem willing to spend on their clothes. While the difference between rubbish and well-made items is readily apparent to anyone who cares to look, I retain a suspicion that the law of diminishing marginal returns must set in after a point. How much better than a £300 jacket can a £2000 one really be? Beautiful materials and superb craftsmanship do not (and should not) come cheap – but even so, there are surely limits to what is justifiable purely on grounds of superior quality. I found myself wondering just how much of a premium some of those renowned brands command just for their name…

Or am I just showing my ignorance? It is certainly true that having pushed upscale somewhat in the past, it is much harder to accept going back down it again – so maybe there is more to it than meets the eye. On the other hand, is it wise – or even necessary – to keep trading up the ladder of connoisseurship? At what point do we reach good enough? And of course, even were one willing, the capacity of one’s wallet does present a constraint that no amount of canny purchasing can entirely wish away…

So when my searches landed me again at the virtual door of a relatively local business, I took the opportunity to investigate a small retailer whose website I had discovered at around the time of the first U.K. lockdown and whose shop I have been intending to visit ever since. The Italian Shirt Shop is situated in a rather nice ‘independent’ shopping street not far from the centre of Ipswich. As restrictions have now eased, I recently took the opportunity to make the thirty-mile trip and do some in-person shopping for a change.

‘Antonio Bellini’ is on a mission to bring Italian style to the British Male – and he appreciates that cost can be an issue. His shop is lovely: a transplanted version of what every small independent Italian menswear shop still is – but without the hefty price tags. Antonio has arrangements with manufacturers in Italy that allows him to retail his own brand at something much more approachable, while still retaining a very pleasing quality. His customer service, too, is exactly what one would hope for from such a shop. He has now diversified beyond shirts – and is certainly a lot more visitable than anything south of the Alps right now.

At present, he only accepts one customer in his shop at a time – which was not a problem on a quiet Thursday morning – and so I had his undivided attention in helping me identify what was admittedly a limited number of items at the more generous end of his size range. This, he says, is a perennial problem with Italian producers, who are widely uninterested in broadening their appeal simply to address the mere inconvenience that customers everywhere are getting larger. He also confirmed that a huge proportion, perhaps 75%, of those vast prices can simply be a premium for having the ‘right’ label. There is much better value to be found elsewhere – including in Ipswich.

I came away with the couple of summer shirts that I had been seeking (and a rather dinky jacket that I hadn’t) – all for a price that would barely cover one shirt from some higher-profile sources. Time will be the ultimate test, of course, but I know a decent fabric when I feel one.

I stand by my comments from the previous post, concerning the opportunities afforded by supporting small businesses online, but I do not think it is incompatible with supporting in person local ones where they do exist. And it is certainly a very much more enjoyable experience to spend time in a real treasure chest like Antonio’s shop, than the virtual equivalent. You can’t stroke all those lovely fabrics online, for a start. Let alone chat with someone who knowledgeably shares your enthusiasm.

My brief splurge is now done – summer shirts and properly weatherproof shoes are once again to hand, their predecessors having been worn to destruction over the past five or ten years. (The shoes might have lasted longer had it been possible to reach a repairer more easily in the past eighteen covid-restricted months…) A couple of items ordered online are yet to arrive – but here’s to one British gent (for despite the name he is British) who has had the nerve to stick his neck out and retail what he loves. Long may he continue to do so – I shall be going back.

Shop photos taken from Antonio’s website with his permission. The views in this post are entirely my own.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Consume – lovingly

Trying to be an ethical and ‘green’ consumer is like walking through a minefield. The complexity of modern production makes it, in many cases, almost impossible to identify the full impact of one’s choices. I’m not sure I trust the labelling to tell the whole story, either; it has just become another aspect of marketing.

I have long pondered the sustainability of Sprezzatura: an unconfessed guilt – or at least doubt – that the principle of discerning consumption could be morally and ecologically acceptable. Choosing superior products as a matter of principle can seem like unreasonable self-indulgence, particularly at a time when the environmental impact of human activity is becoming ever more extreme.

The materials and methods that are sometimes required to produce refined products can involve the disproportionate exploitation of scarce resources, perhaps sourced from obscure places, and manufacturing, to keep costs down, by people paid low wages and living in terrible conditions. Such is the reputation of the sweat shop.

Recent research for a couple of clothing items led me to further suspect that another trend is not helping matters: it seems that the middle-market is being hollowed out. I have trawled quite widely for the items concerned – and my conclusion, not for the first time, is that the choice on offer is increasingly between low-end disposable junk and a high end whose prices are heading for the stratosphere, thus taking better quality goods out of the reach of much of the population.

The most breath-taking example of this was at Brunello Cucinelli – where I happened on a price tag of £1300 for…. a credit card holder. While there are no doubt people out there who will pay this without batting an eyelid, it surely represents the ultimate divorce of any proportion whatsoever between utility and price.

This is only the extreme, however. I can accept that I may simply be failing to keep up with the impact of inflation; as a state employee, my income was always fixed, beyond my direct influence, and relatively modest. It has no doubt been eroded by the pubic sector pay-freeze of the past ten years – and certainly by the change in my own personal circumstances. But even allowing for all that, my impression is that prices at the better end are soaring away from me. A couple of decades ago, we were able – occasionally – to pay out on expensive items, such as one of Bang & Olufsen’s more modest sound systems – and even the occasional small purchase from favourite labels such as Armani. Today, it’s an impossibility. No doubt the premium that such brands have increasingly found they can command is part of it, as is the willingness of the economic elite to pay whatever it takes to preserve their exclusivity.

This might sound like the first-world problems of a self-indulgent whiner, but there is rather more to it than that; Quite apart from my innocent appreciation of good quality, cheap products so often represent a false economy – at least as much so as slavish adherence to outrageously over-priced ‘labels’. So I was pleased to find that my recent reading of JB MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping provided sensible support for my views.

From the ethical standpoint, the key point is this: buying good quality (whether sporting a desirable label or not) is often less harmful than the mass-production throw-away alternative. Our B&O system is still doing good service twenty years later, as is our rather-more-expensive-than-IKEA Italian kitchen, most of our other furnishings and indeed quite a number of those clothes. Being well-made, they aren’t unduly showing their age – and we still love them. For what it’s worth, we apply the same purchasing principle to what we eat, though the price point is obviously rather different, and the goods don’t last as long…

As MacKinnon points out, it’s about a mindset. Much of the really harmful consumption is done by those who purchase almost as a reflex; who use items only a few times, if at all, before junking them in favour of newer ones. The alternative (which with satisfaction I noted we have always done) it to know your own deeper needs and preferences. It is about consuming mindfully, no matter what the item concerned. I suppose another word for this is discernment. This means that you will probably set a much higher bar for purchases made, will think hard about the choices and sources, be more prepared to hunt them down, and identify things that you will still like perhaps a decade later (and hence have no need to throw away). As a result you will make fewer but better purchases; in the long run, it need not be more expensive – and it’s as much about minimising waste.

Pleasingly, I think this is entirely in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It means being in charge of one’s own consumption decisions, doing the necessary work to fulfil one’s needs and desires – and having the discipline of mind to live with one’s decisions. As MacKinnon points out, well-made, pleasing items are ones that often age gracefully, and to which one can develop an attachment that will not fade after a few weeks. This is certainly the case with the items I mentioned earlier. And crucially, it results in the lowering of one’s consumption. Apparently, the typical U.K. consumer buys at least several tens of items of clothing per year, and many are only worn once or twice. I buy perhaps two or three items a year – and wear them for many to come. In that sense, not only is the increased outlay offset, but we throw much less away.

I am fairly sanguine about the sourcing of such items. Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that regular trails round the local high streets were pointless in terms of finding much I was prepared to part with cash for; particularly when the outlay is relatively great, I want to be absolutely sure that it is 100% what I have in mind, and the high street chains just did not do that. I cannot shed many tears for their passing.

I am much more prepared to shop online if necessary, to fulfil that criterion. Here again, there is a choice: one can patronise the large conglomerates, or one can seek out the smaller producers who in some cases just happen not to be local. Labels may be all very well, but often the ones you’ve never heard of are pretty good – and better value.

The inflated prices are being driven by the large multinationals, and it is not necessarily the case that smaller producers all charge high-end prices, though it is true that craftsmanship and good quality do cost more. It does mean doing the mouse-work to find them, but I would rather support an independent tailor in Bangalore or leatherworker in Florence than a large corporation that just happens to have a local outlet. Transport costs are an issue – but I concluded that since many of the high street goods are coming from the same countries in any case, I might as well cut out the middle-man and select the people I wish to patronise myself.

The clothing item in the header picture is one such – a pair of made-to-measure linen trousers that I recently bought from a company in India, which cost little more than a much-inferior pair would on the high street – and which will probably last me for years if previous examples are anything to go by. Such manufacturers are becoming increasingly good at guiding self-measurement and material choices online, and in this case, I took advantage of much-lowered prices, presumably because people are currently wary about buying from India. Apart from an apparent logistics error that sent them from India to the UK via Cincinnati of all places, there would have been little difference in the transport impact – and I have hopefully paid a better wage to those who made them as a result.

There has been much speculation of the impact of the pandemic in moving so much more activity online. I think that will depend not on the mechanics so much as the mindset. If it results in further growth in mindless consumption, as does seem likely, it will undoubtedly be harmful; if on the other hand it makes people think more about what they consume, it need not be.

MacKinnon explained the Japanese word aiyosha – which means “a person who uses a product lovingly”. It is not a rejection of materialism, but about forming a deeper relationship with one’s possessions such that one does not feel the constant need to replace them. That can include accepting that they age – and if they are well-made that need not be a problem. I think this is entirely in keeping with this blog’s philosophy of careful, discerning appreciation of the good things in life.

The appreciation of material quality need not be a source of guilt. The amount of money spent on an item is irrelevant if the intention is only to use it superficially, and ditch it before its time. On the other hand, being aiyosha can be a source of genuine pleasure in our lives. Appreciating quality and individuality are part of that, as is accepting that things will not look new forever. What is more, well-made items are more likely to be repairable, thus extending both their lives and our enjoyment.

I find the search for items that I really like is itself enjoyable, even though it mostly now happens online. It is a world away from the mindless waving of plastic in cloned local “outlets” on a dull Saturday afternoon; the anticipation of delivery is part of the experience, and the revelation of the product when it arrives (usually) a great pleasure. Quite often, small suppliers are still managing to provide a personal touch, such as the hand-written note from a musician in Ireland from whom I recently bought her latest CD, even if it is not quite what one sometimes receives in person in specialist shops.

The real enemy here is mass, planned obsolescence; it is nonetheless what makes the junk economy go round. It also supports millions of jobs world-wide. There undoubtedly rests a huge responsibility on the commercial sector here: if it produces products that are designed to break, while simultaneously pushing the price of higher quality ones beyond the reach of most people, that will make aiyosha, and responsible consumption more difficult – and the result will be ecologically catastrophic. MacKinnon found signs that some companies are re-evaluating their approach, but it is still far from becoming universal.

There is also a responsibility on all of us as consumers: no matter what our price-point, the principle of buying (less frequently) the best we can afford rather than the cheapest we can find still holds. With a shift in our thinking, we can still appreciate good things, while turning it to the benefit of both better-rewarded producers, and the global environment.


Footnote: literally within minutes of posting this article, I was informed by a shirt-supplier in Italy that despatch to the U.K. is suspended because of Brexit. A minefield indeed…

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

In praise of neckwear

Maybe we need a bit of frivoli-tie? Recent posts here have largely been about the gravity of our present situation; hardly escapable really, but I think we need to keep something for the lighter, but still intriguing side of life too. So this post is about the globally-serious matter that is the demise of the male necktie.

I have little doubt that I will end up convincing readers of nothing more than the fact that I am one kipper short of the full cravatte, but nonetheless, such gentle matters pertaining to the quality of life of at least some of us should, I believe, command an occasional place in our attention.

My father spent most of his working life showing young people the methods of craftsmanship and design that came from his teacher training in practical subjects and as a cabinet maker. After hours, he switched to the tennis court, as was a qualified coach. But he refused to allow anyone to participate in either activity if they were not properly dressed. In his view this was again a largely practical matter, but he nonetheless maintained that you would not do your best work unless you felt the part – and an important part of that was being decked out appropriately. For tennis, it was whites or nothing.

I guess it rubbed off; I have always dressed for my own work in what I felt to be a manner of suitable gravitas, and I think there was probably more than one occasion where looking the part played to my advantage, even if I didn’t fully deserve it… I think I had learned to appreciate good craftsmanship, too.

So it has been a pleasure, on returning to professional work, to bring out items that had barely seen the light of day for some years. Despite the pretty relaxed approach of most of the staff at the College where I work, I make a point of wearing what was once considered normal professional garb, albeit notched down a peg or two to jacket-and-tie rather than a suit.  I do it partly as a matter of forme professionelle – but mainly just because I like those clothes.

The sad thing is, opportunities to wear such items have been in free-fall in recent times; for many, I suspect that weddings and funerals, and perhaps interviews, are the only occasion when they don an otherwise unfamiliar item.

Dress-down Friday seems increasingly to have invaded the rest of the working week in recent years, and of course remote working means you can get away with almost anything. Ironically, given that DDF is originally an American invention, at least a proportion of the men of that nation still seem to pay more regard to sartorial matters than we Brits, and while the same trend has clearly spread to continental Europe, the still-present preoccupation of French and Italian males in particular with sartorial form is of course legendary.

Yet in these times of individual liberty, dress-down has had a contrary effect: anyone wishing to raise their game a bit in this respect increasingly easily risks looking over-stuffed and out of place. The necktie suffers particularly badly here: they have become the symbol par excellence of old-fashioned male formality, and therefore inconsistent with the laid-back modern dude… Many men seem to hate them, so they are the first thing to go, but I am not sure why. Are they really that uncomfortable? It is all the more surprising, since other neck-accessories such as scarves seem to have experienced boom times recently. Perhaps it’s the conno-tie-tions with workplace conformism that is the real issue here? But we should remember that there is more than one way to ‘wear’ a tie, and that those emblems of the Sixties social revolution, The Beatles, were often photographed wearing (and indeed performing in) them. Studiedly narrow, of course.

I think the thing that appeals to me about the tie is its potential for a degree of personal expression – and I’m not only thinking of certain messages sent by comic ties… Originally, the tie was the centrepiece of a man’s at-tie-re. It’s really about the potential for subtle signalling. Socks have the same potential, and they too have been experiencing a significant resurgence of interest in recent times. So why not ties?

Maybe the relaxation of sartorial diktat means that there is no need for such small acts any more – though that doesn’t explain the renewed popularity of those other accessories. Maybe it simply comes down to comfort? Because there is no doubt that a tie and done-up top button feels less relaxed than people seem to prefer nowadays; I am not suggesting I would want to sit at home in one, either. But not all occasions are the same.

That loss of signalling ability has further-reaching implications, of which perhaps the most significant is the loss of a sense of occasion that can accompany dressing well. I remember the writer Michael Bywater saying that doing so is not narcissistic, but a courtesy to others since it is largely they who gain the pleasure from your efforts. It says you think they are worth it; perhaps we no longer do.

What’s more, the way in which a tie is worn sends subtle mood-messages, from the simple-or-showy choice of knot, to the semi-undone end-of-evening, worse-for-wear effect. And that is before even considering the effect of bow-ties, whether hand- or ready-tied, done or undone and just draped round the neck; there is a world of subtle social signalling about the tie that is simply lost to the non-wearer.

A tie is a relatively inexpensive way of turning a set of standard garments into a different outfit, and in that sense no different from using jewellery or other accessories to the same effect. I am less keen on some of the symbolism – the Old School Tie and the Regimental Tie both have connotations that I find stiff and undesirable – but there is the simple matter of an appreciation of beautiful colour and pattern; the tie as minor artwork, simply an item of wearable beauty – and why should men be deprived of this?

I remember once shocking a colleague by admitting that I was prepared to spend a fair amount of money on something that he saw as a complete waste. A cheap tie is very likely not to be worth it and will quickly end up looking like a rag round your neck. A properly crafted one, on the other hand is indeed a minor work of art. Hand-made ties have five, six or seven folds, and this gives them a ‘body’ and artisanal effect without the need for interlining, that a slip of mass-produced viscose just cannot match. It means they will hang well, even after long and repeated wearing; the best have a runner thread the length of the reverse, pulling on which will straighten out any crumples at the end of the day. Personally, I feel that silk is the optimal material, since a beautiful tie needs to hang close to the body, and move well with that body; but wool, linen and even leather all have their place. I think that woven-in patterns are preferable to printed designs since they are somehow more integral with the fabric which gives rise to them and give a pleasing relief to the texture.

But perhaps most important thing of all is the almost infinite scope that ties give to the material craftsman for beauty of design, whether variations on the traditional themes, or indeed complete innovation; whether in weaving, printing or dyeing. Quite apart from anything else, such craftsmanship is a pleasure to collect and own.

As with so many of these things, the Italians are the masters, and seem relatively unencumbered by the starchy conventions of the British style. It is possible to spend crazy amounts of money on ties from classic makers such as Emarinella of Naples – but an astute purchaser can also find hand-made items much more reasonably from lesser-known makers such as Segni e Disegni in Como, the centre of Italian silk.

My guiding principle is that one doesn’t need a lot of ties – but as with almost all things, a few good quality ones are a pleasure to own and wear, and I think it is high tie-me for a revival.

I just wish more people agreed with me…

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

Chester Barrie was a British men’s tailoring company founded in 1935. It produced semi-bespoke clothing with a shop on Savile Row. I first encountered the brand via its concession in Manchester’s House of Fraser in 2014. While I’m not keen on starchy, traditional British menswear, I was pleased to see that the brand was innovative, clearly taking some of its lead from Italy and turning out several seasons of nicely styled, modern clothes. At last, I felt, here is a company that is doing something other than rest on its traditional laurels, which might even hold a light to what is still done so well in Italy. It did well enough to become official dresser to, for example, Leicester Tigers rugby team.

CB’s usual offerings were well out of my price range – but I was delighted when it opened an outlet shop a mere handful of miles from my home a year or two later. Given the precipice off which my income fell in 2016, that shop has done a sterling job of keeping me dressed for minimal outlay – and deflected the need to fall back on the dullness of the usual High Street stores, whose men’s department heave with piles of over-priced, low quality cloned jeans, chinos and trainers.

And then it disappeared. It turns out that CB was bought and sold several times, before being acquired by the Japanese Itochu Corporation in 2017. In early 2020, the decision was made to close the brand, including its concessions, outlet shops, and the Savile Row flagship store. A piece of recent British tailoring history summarily executed, to suit the accounting bottom line of a distant corporation. I struggle to imagine this happening in Italy, where I suspect veneration of such a company’s heritage would overridden short term profitability issues. It would probably still be family-owned in the first place.

This has become the story of much of the British economy, particularly that of the ‘High Street’. For decades, a process has been underway whereby profitable smaller companies were absorbed by larger ones, until huge corporations came to own vast swathes of retail and other activity. Delve into the ownership of almost any well-known British brand, and you are likely to find that it ultimately funnels money towards one or other of the large corporations, most insidiously of all, Venture Capital companies and hedge funds, whose speciality is the aggressive acquisition of companies which are often asset stripped and disposed of, making a (very) few – and mostly anonymous – individuals very rich in the process.

Another classic example was Costa Coffee, which began as a small concern in London in 1971, before being bought out by Whitbread in 1995, and being being sold again in 2019 to the Coca Cola Corporation for £3.9 billion. In the meantime, its character has changed out of all recognition, from the small Italian-style coffee bar I first visited at Liverpool St station in the late 1980s, to just another themed chain, albeit one whose coffee still isn’t bad.

We can add other venerables to the list – such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s – not to mention the other sectors that such corporations now operate in, perhaps most controversially private care home provision.

I suppose one could argue that this is just the way in which advanced economies are developing. It is clearly not just a British phenomenon – and I might be just about willing to accept that this happens, were it not for the effects on the companies – and the rest of us – in the meantime.

Those large corporations do not buy smaller outfits out of sentiment: their one and only concern is maximising their profit, often only in the short term. We tend to see a change of direction – almost always towards the dumbed-down mass market, because that is where maximum revenue lies. Products are homogenised and mass-production processes ramped up – nearly always at the expense of distinctiveness and quality – while at the same time, tried and tested favourites are jettisoned in favour of trendy gimmicks. There is no quality, and there is no continuity.

And where this is not possible, as in the case of Chester Barrie, it seems that the bones are picked clean, and the company jettisoned – with no concern for history, employees or long-standing customers – let alone the loss of diversity in the market place.

In the process, our towns and cities have become standardised clones, their streets filled with the same old chains pumping out retail therapy, but whose real purpose is to channel income from the very many, towards the very few who stand at the top of such corporations. Let’s not pretend that the employees of such chains benefit very greatly from their presence – they are often unskilled and low-paid – and eminently disposable, unlike those who worked in more specialist trades.

As I said, this is certainly not just a British phenomenon – but it still seems that the impact of the trend varies from place to place. There seem to be, for example, far fewer national or international chains on the streets of Italy or France – even, I think, Germany. Clothing retail in particular seems still in the hands of many small boutiques, and there are many individual restaurants, even though the small eateries of France are known to be under threat.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent months, at the impact of CV19 on towns’ economies. Having ventured into my nearest town for the first time in months a week or so ago, I did not notice much change – but it is possible that the worst is still to come. I even read someone recently, bewailing the loss of the “traditional British chain store”. What was very noticeable, however, from the branding on the Covid health notices, was just how much of the town centre is now privately owned.

For several decades, these giants have bled local businesses dry, and turned our towns from civic centres into semi-privatised conveyor belts for shovelling cash from the not-very-well-off many, to the very-well-off few. They have taken aggressive advantage of a neo-liberal economic climate, whereby the government of the country failed to intervene in the market despite the inequalities that were being created. So far as I am concerned, they should not squeal when liberal free market conditions, whether Covid-related or otherwise, turn against them. What we do need, however, is protection from the adverse consequences of their behaviour, which our government mostly declines to provide.

I am of course concerned for those whose jobs will be just more collateral damage as the corporations pull in their belts – and there is clearly a job to be done to figure out how to fill what may end up as  a vast over-provision of urban retail space. But I am much more concerned about how the small and local businesses are faring – those who offer personal service, often distinctive and better-quality products, and earnings that flow back into local economies rather than distant HQs.

So forgive me if I fail to pass anything more than crocodile tears for the passing of these ‘household names’, the majority of which have not, and do not, serve us anywhere near as well as they claim, but which have been a major cause of damage to both local distinctiveness and real choice for consumers. Companies like Chester Barrie are a real loss, though – but largely avoidable. In the meantime, internet shopping provides an escape from the tyranny of the high street giants, and for this reason I use it shamelessly, to support small, distinctive and independent retailers wherever they may be. We can do better in future.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Proper

handle
Some time ago, my wife and I decided to upgrade the internal doors in our apartment. The advice about getting floors, doors, walls and windows right being the key to a good interior is, in my experience correct – and this was the last element in need of attention.

We replaced the inherited developer-standard panelled fake-Victorian moulded hardboard delights with some walnut-veneered doors in a plain finish. True to the principles of modernism, the beautiful colour and grain of the wood is all the ‘decoration’ needed. We also bought some brushed-steel bar handles which we felt would complement the richness of the wood very well. In short, while we hardly went for de luxe, we took the trouble to choose properly.

Unfortunately, over the following two years, the handles first sagged from the horizontal and then gradually pulled loose – and eventually one came away in my hand. ‘Proper’ comes in many shapes and forms, and it is surprisingly disconcerting to use a loose and saggy handle on a door. And I mean away: not just the handle from its spindle, but the entire mounting just pulled right out of the woodwork.

Investigation revealed that there were two options for mounting the handles: one consisted of holes for two bolts that would pass right through the mountings and door, linking them on either side and clamping everything solid when the nuts were tightened. The other was four screw-holes for fixing into the timber. In both cases, grub screws tightened the handles onto the spindle, providing secondary securing.

When I removed the cover, it turned out that the second method had been used – only instead of four screws, each door had only two – and in some cases just one screw holding the handle in place. Over two years, a little slack on the spindle had simply allowed the whole thing to pull loose. We suspected (correctly) that the doors were also just board beneath the veneer – but the holes for the handle mechanisms had been made in such a way that many of the screws also had little more than fresh air on which to purchase. Pulling the handle out had left it with nothing whatsoever.

A programme of re-working has just been completed, whereby the handles were secured using the first, mechanically-superior method, and we now have doors whose handles are both satisfyingly firm to the grip, and which won’t risk leaving someone stranded inside the bathroom.

Call me obsessive if you will – but all I am discussing here, really, is doing things properly. I’m very tempted to say that you would never find this problem in Switzerland, but then I am clearly biased. The fact remains, though, that I admire that country largely because of its culture of doing things properly. I have only once ever encountered a Swiss interior that might have been called shoddy – and that was because it clearly had not been updated by the elderly owner in several decades.

‘Properly’ is, however a difficult concept. It implies judgement against some kind of benchmark, and it is something that is also an occupational hazard for a teacher, whose very existence is to some extent predicated on assessing how other people’s efforts compare against an arbitrary set of standards. It can make one very judgmental.

I am not so dogmatic as to insist that my personal standards are in any way absolute, though they are often strongly-felt. To begin with, the guy who originally fitted those handles presumably had a set of criteria of his own. It just wasn’t mine. He was probably more concerned with time being money and getting home a little earlier that evening. The handle surviving for long enough to blunt any dissatisfaction of mine with his work when it eventually failed might also have been in the mix somewhere.

And yet the concept is a powerful one. It is not difficult to find a fair amount of consensus amongst the aficionados of, say, door furniture as to what constitutes Proper. The same can perhaps even be said when it comes to much more difficult matters such as bringing up and educating children. We might use it yet again when looking at the workings of the Law, Medicine, engineering, running a transport system or a government, and civil society more generally. Somewhere in the fog of personal interpretation there seems to lie a core of reasonably widely-shared values.

Slowly, however, these things do also evolve – and can certainly weaken –  over time, and a disconcerting by-product of growing older appears to be the way the goalposts move without one noticing. Some of what I consider Proper seems now to be out of date.

I was struck by this while reading Richard Goodwin’s article in last week’s Observer about the demise of formal dressing  for work. Like Goodwin, I appreciate ‘proper’ mens’ tailoring. I am not a luddite who yearns for some previous era, but for me looking smart is a pleasure in its own right quite apart from any signals I might want to send about my credibility – and, as Michael Bywater once observed, it is also a courtesy to others in the effort one takes both to delight their eye and to present oneself in a way that says you take your interactions with others seriously. Not having worked formally for several years, I still mourn the lack of openings for occasionally sporting a nice suit and tie. Even the traditional shirt and jacket seems to raise an eyebrow these days.

There are however, two inescapable truths in here. One is that my ability to do what I think is proper is constrained to some extent by the expectations of others. My efforts to dress well may in reality pass them by completely – and even worse, may simply send the (I hope incorrect) message that I am just an outdated old geezer. Maintaining what I consider ‘proper’ standards risks making me stand out for the wrong kind of reasons.

The second is that there is no way in which other senses of Proper (which I suppose I had really better call Propriety, although that in my mind has subtly different connotations) are in objective terms any less acceptable than my own. Ultimately the meaning that we attach to the word derives entirely from personal expectations and cultural norms. The same extends to matters like one’s use of written or spoken language, where propriety still in many countries depends on conformity to a predefined norm, whether that be the Queen’s English or the pronouncements of the Académie Franҫaise, to the ridicule of certain regional dialects.

The more one ponders this matter, the more perplexing it becomes. One can extend the notion even further, to matters of social groups. Traditional matters of Class in Britain depended on one’s adherence to a particular set of behaviours by which one could be seen to belong or otherwise – but which were very different from one group to another. Ejection from such groups depended to a large extent on one transgressing notions of ‘proper’ behaviour. (I am aware of the word used pejoratively to criticise someone as stuffy).

Wherever you go, the same thing crops up. Even in my arcane (to English eyes) field of Irish traditional music, much is made of playing ‘properly’ – even though doing so is often enough to make a classically trained musician tear their hair – and it still relies on a set of ultimately arbitrary norms. Yet quite far-reaching judgements are sometimes made about the standards of ‘proper’ that one’s fellow musicians personally express.

We might go further still by considering whether those expectations are even reasonable in the first place. In music, standards might reasonably differ between professional and amateur musicians, not to mention the opportunity one has had for formal training, or one’s ability to have purchased a high-quality instrument (judgements about which are, themselves, dictated why what is deemed to be ‘proper’…)

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is some underlying truth that goes beyond personal differences or cultural norms. The most obvious is that a door handle which is not properly fixed is sooner or later going to present a practical problem. It may be that the musician who has not learned ‘proper’ technique will eventually find themselves limited by poor habits. In those senses, ‘proper’ is to some extent defined by the collective consciousness of overcoming past difficulties. When it comes to the way that door handle feels, maybe that sense of solidity that I wanted was subconsciously determined by my need for confidence that the handle would function well. The same might go for a firm handshake – or none at all. It is somehow about gravitas.

It becomes a lot more difficult in matters of aesthetics, taste and personal behaviour. But perhaps underlying even these is a ‘truth’ that certain behaviours make for greater confidence between and within individuals that are somehow connected to a desire for certainty or security. One of the good things about being in Switzerland is the sense, from all that Properness, that things are generally well with the world. Even where the avant-garde is embraced, the underlying principles of confidence are maintained. And while that may on occasions be illusory, on a day-to-day basis, I think it is quite important for our mental well-being.

When it comes to matters like speech or dress, as Richard Goodwin suggests, maybe our tendency to opt for a rather superficial ‘comfort’ betrays a lack of willingness to make the effort required to achieve anything more demanding. And in any case, comfort is a state of mind, not dress – even without the problem that dressing down can impose its own tyranny on those who would prefer things otherwise.

The sense of insecurity that a loose and wobbly door handle can create is perhaps more of a common and significant experience than my fitter understood – and one that he might have done well to think about, as I am now less inclined to employ him again. I am no apologist for maintaining the stuffy status quo just for the sake of it, but perhaps more thought ought to be going into the underlying values which various courses of behaviour transmit, because throwing the baby of long-established truths out with the bathwater of redundant propriety really is no better.

Postscript.
A telling footnote to the door handle episode was the difficulty that I had in finding bolts to fit. I visited five different local outlets, where I was told that such things were not obtainable “because no one ever bothers to do it like that”. In the end I had to order them online, and they turned out to have been imported. So much for such things not being culturally-defined.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Eco-litism

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I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?

I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.

But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the  way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent.  It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.

What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.

A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces  suggested that we are not going to get it.

So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need  to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.

And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.

Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.

Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.

And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

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Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.

 

Sartoria

Cut your cloth…

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A few months ago, I purchased Hugo Jacomet’s new book The Italian Gentleman. It is a celebration of Italian bespoke tailoring, and a rich treasure-trove into which to dip. But as becomes clear on Jacomet’s blog The Parisian Gentleman, this is a rich man’s game. When a pair of shoes is discounted to €2000 and a shirt to €300, it’s time to admit when one is seriously out of one’s league. But the limits of one’s means do not necessarily dim the enthusiasm of those so-inclined for sartorial excellence. It is necessary to find other ways.

Last spring, I dipped a curious toe into the world of made-to-measure clothes, and now having had three items made, it is clear to me that the benefits of properly-fitting clothes are not illusory. That is all the more so when one is something less than a standard, idealised shape. It’s not only that they look better – they feel better too.

My first venture was with Studio Suits, an online tailor based in Mumbai, who appear to offer extraordinarily good value clothing. We all know how they manage it. However, the cotton shirt that I ordered was something of a disappointment, not because of the tailoring but on account of the rather cheap cotton used, which has proved impossible to keep even remotely un-crumpled. Sometime later, I discovered Camiceria Olga in Milan, and had a much more satisfactory shirt made by them, reviewed in the early days of this blog.

However, recently the issue has been trousers. There are several Italian tailors who offer an online service, though their prices (excluding sales) begin at a couple of hundred pounds –  more than I really want to pay for an item that I tend to wear out rather quickly. And to be honest, their fabrics are rather uninspiringly conservative in design, if not quality. So I decided to look again at Studio Suits. I had noticed that they offer ‘bespoke’ manufacture in a good range of Italian fabrics from around £100. Hopefully that solves the fabric quality issue. In fact, their range starts at nearer £60 – but I decided on an attractive wool-silk mix (‘carat’), with lining and side adjusters as extra. I was able to specify the style of the trousers (double pleats and turn-ups being my preference) and input numerous measurements. I’m not sure that their claim to be ‘bespoke’ is accurate: given that there is no intermediate fitting involved, I think it comes nearer made-to measure. However, one can split hairs…

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The trousers arrived this week, around three weeks after ordering. Initial impressions were rather disappointing: as with the shirt, the item arrived looking very crumpled, and it is not really clear why this should be so. However, the fabric is good, and after a careful press with the steam iron, things looked up significantly. The fit of these trousers is very good – certainly good enough to convince me that made-to-measure is worth the effort, and the general impression is much more satisfactory than the earlier shirt. Interestingly, the trousers have a more ‘homespun’ feel to them that the ultra-pressed products of the bulk manufacturers – perhaps not surprising when they are 70% hand-made, and quite endearing when you get used to it.

The tailoring is again of good quality too, with careful stitching and ample spare fabric provided on the inner seams.

The ethics of buying from India are of course somewhat debatable – but it is probably no different from where many high-street clothes come from in any case – and I am at least cutting out the middle men. I do wish the Studio Suits website allowed closer inspection of the fabrics than it sometimes does – it is a little inconsistent on this score – and they really need to sort out the state in which their goods arrive at the customer.

£100 is not a cheap pair of trousers by my (or high street) standards – but for a hand-made, non-synthetic item in a fine fabric, it is something of a bargain. While one can buy 50% acrylic ‘wool blend’ trousers for half the price or less, even the high street chains are charging £80 – £100 for a pair of 100% wool tailored trousers, and the slightly more select end of the spectrum goes higher than that.

I know which I think is the better deal – even if I do have to forgo the Italian tailoring.

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