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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Sartoria

Chester British?

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Manchester, “summer” 2014. Urgent need dictated the purchase of a new pair of trousers, and House of Fraser was near our hotel. I don’t like jeans (all denim and rivets), and I don’t really like chinos (too much crinkly double stitching on the seams and often so rigid that you look like you’re wearing lengths of drainpipe), and on the British High Street that doesn’t leave a gent much choice. After what was looking like another fruitless trawl round the menswear department, an assistant hared off upstairs to bring down some trousers he knew were languishing up there (“that might fit sir rather better”). He came back with a pair of rather nice flannels (this was a Manchester summer after all) which did indeed fit, and as two-year old remnants were offered at a not-to-refuse price. Thus happened my first encounter with Chester Barrie.

Very satisfactory they proved to be, so I was delighted some months later, to notice that an outlet shop was opening in a shopping ‘village’ just a few miles from my home, of which more later.

Chester Barrie is a long-established tailor whose flagship store opened on Savile Row in 1937. Simon Ackerman, its owner, had had experience of American gents’ tailoring, and sought to create an early global brand. Sir Winston Churchill, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra were customers.

The brand has a complicated corporate history similar to many others, but the important thing here is its emergence in recent years as a strong exponent of modern British tailoring. While Sprezzatura loves all things Italian, it is still something of a sadness that the home industry doesn’t offer more to please my eye. For me, traditional British tailoring is just too formal, stiff and class-redolent. It may work if you are a member of a city law firm or bank, but I have no wish to wear the badges of those particular cliques, with all the chauvinistic clubbiness that it too easily implies.

What’s more, the clash of multiple primaries, loud patterns, checks, stripes and pastels that one often sees at the ‘country’ end of the look too, to me suggests nothing more than a blatant disregard for the simple rules of aesthetics – or else incipient blindness. There is something in that guidance about never wearing more than two colours at once, and matching the belt and shoes. Perhaps it doesn’t matter when you’re shooting grouse.

So Chester Barrie is a very welcome presence on the market, and I think can give the Italians a good run for their money, in both the styling and the presentation of their collections. The clothes are sharp, modern and yet clearly British. That said, they make an Anglo-Italian blend a distinct possibility, and this is especially useful in the trouser department where Italian imports may look great but clearly aren’t cut with northern European body shapes in mind.

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The fabrics in use are of superb quality (often, I note, Italian in origin) and the manufacturing equally good (also done in Italy on their premium line) – which strikes me as a little ironic for a Savile Row company, but I’m not complaining. I don’t intend to review specific items here, but recommend a click to the website for a more comprehensive view.

And those outlets: they are important. This is certainly not cheap clothing, the prices in a regular outlet easily rivalling those of Milan and Rome – but a little research will reveal that House of Fraser regularly offers a limited range of C.B. clothing with some good mark-downs. The C.B. website offers its own seasonal sales too – and the three outlets in Braintree, York and Gloucester offer good service and some items at prices so reduced as to make the High Street chains seriously blush. Well worth the cost of a tank of petrol to make a visit to one of them, if needs be.

It is good, at long last, to see a British clothier grasping the market for modern, forward-looking clothing with a Brexit-defying edge, and not letting go.

http://www.chesterbarrie.co.uk/

https://www.chesterbarrie.co.uk/store-locator

 

Sartoria

Lussoti – Anglo-Italian style on a good footing…

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Giovanni penny loafer

For some time I have been bemoaning the fact that much British men’s footwear, as well as being deadly dull, was not even well-made any more. Having run out of patience with offerings that lasted barely a season, and given the local famine of inspiration, I got myself up to the West End to see what might be had. I tracked down one of the few self-owned Loake outlets and my jaw hit the deck: £800 for a pair of ordinary-looking black brogues… Well, I suppose I should have expected that from the Burlington Arcade – but when even Russell & Bromley who, while a quality shoe-maker are hardly top of the tree, charge in excess of £200 for a similar pair, I began to realise that it was probably my frame of reference that was out of date…

What’s a man of average means to do? The kind of money I was used to spending on shoes was all too evidently a false economy. Luckily, the dear old internet came to the rescue once again, and doing the virtual rounds of Tuscany, I found several makers who would dispatch to the U.K. – but again, Italian shoes don’t come cheap…

Enter two companies who can provide something of an answer: Scarosso, who are a small German-Italian outfit, and the newcomer Lussoti, who are based not in Chiantishire so much as Chesterfield. Lussoti Shoes may have a convincing Italian ring to the name, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The company is the project of Luke Twigg and Garry Marshall, who were equally fed up with the lack of good quality, reasonably-priced men’s shoes on the market. Having met little success in sourcing shoes from other makers, they set up their own brand, largely designed in-house, but manufactured using the top-notch  labour and materials of and in Tuscany.

The result? A small selection of hand-made shoes which display a distinct Italian styling but with prices which, while not exactly cheap, at least make the occasional acquisition a distinct possibility. By keeping out the middle-men, cost-savings can be passed on to the customer, and result in a collection the majority of which comes in at between £100 and £250. I have by now re-educated myself such that this is an acceptable price to pay for a product that will hopefully last and last – and after all one does not need new shoes every day…

What makes a significant difference, too, is the quality of the product. Not only are these designs that are quirky and sharp enough to be different without marking oneself out on the mean streets of Chesterfield or Colchester as a full-on Mafioso, but the material quality and craftsmanship really stands out. From the sturdy slip-type box, to the dust bags and complimentary shoe horn, this is a very good all-round retail experience for the price. The two pairs that I now own are light but sturdy, and were almost like wearing slippers from the word go. None (yet) of the six months of agony needed to wear in a pair of Loakes. I like fairly pointed shoes, which are more interesting than blunt-nosed British types. These are just right, with ample toe-room, which is not always the case.

The Nero derbies are extremely supple and while I don’t really like brogues, I find the hand-stamped, oblique reference to those over-elaborate items vaguely amusing. I ordered a pair/size combination that was out of stock, Luke scoured his retailers until he secured a pair for me in just a couple of days.

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Nero derbies

The more recently-arrived Giovanni embossed burgundy penny loafers are also delightful, though needing slightly more walking in. For someone who dislikes ‘boring black’ shoes, these are a good, slightly subversive alternative with grey or black suit or trousers.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am intrigued to see a number of pan-national companies like this arising as a means of reconciling demand for distinctive products with the places that can supply them. Although the company has only been established since 2015 their shoes are already being retailed in selected shops across the U.K. and at one place in the U.S.A.

Full marks to these gents for the initiative and I just hope that the madness of Brexit does not do too much harm to business models like this.

https://lussoti.com/

The views are solely my own, though the review was written with the co-operation of Lussoti Shoes. The appalling puns are entirely my own work; well, it was one of those afternoons…