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…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

Suits E.U., sir!

I can hardly be the only British gent who is regularly bombarded by advertising from Jermyn Street shirt manufacturer Charles Tyrwhitt. I wrote to them several years ago pointing out that while I approved of their democratising marketing strategy, I would be more happy to buy their clothes if their tailoring and design was not all so old-school British. I pointed out that traditional British menswear is often starchy-formal and has associations of occupation and social stereotype that I don’t feel happy with – and that’s without the age profile that it still implied.

I received one of their habitually jolly letters in reply, explaining that this was what the British market still wanted. Well, some years on, I note a distinct modernisation of Tyrwhitt’s catalogue, with sharper styles and fabrics sourced from amongst others, good Italian mills. I also noticed recently, the first appearance of a non-white model in the catalogue: well done – but about time too! I’m certainly not claiming any influence over the decision, but I think it has made Tyrwhitt a more appealing clothier, and has hopefully broadened their market as a result.

While there’s no question over the quality of traditional British men’s tailoring, my reservations still hold, and this is why I tend to prefer French and Italian style – it is slightly sharper while also less formal, more open to interpretation and relatively devoid of the overtones of social class.

So I’ve been delighted to discover more recently, a number of British companies that are challenging the conservative norm by offering British clothing – designed for British body shapes – while looking to the continent for some of their design inspiration. I will be reviewing items by a number of these companies in forthcoming posts.

In the meantime, I must admit I rather worry about the effect of Brexit on this welcome development. Here we have companies doing their design work in one country, sourcing their materials and doing their manufacturing in others, and retailing from others again. A number of them seem to be relatively small start-ups, and one might almost suggest that there is the making of a pan-European industry here, which provides for a range of clients by taking the requisite elements from the different traditions. And that’s without the large number of European companies now selling internationally. If it leads to an improvement in the general sartorial standards of the male British population, that will be a welcome bonus, too.

I will mention the names of Chester Barrie clothing, Lussoti Shoes, Scarosso Shoes and of course Charles Tyrwhitt as some that seem to be taking this route (there are others) – and end by saying that I hope they have plans for dealing with Brexit, because it would be a great shame if their interesting business models and the stylish, well made products they are making, were destroyed as a result of this madness.

 

Sartoria

Shop-keeping done well

 

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I’ve never accepted that, if you live outside a major city the local M&S should be the apex of your clothing options – so it was a great pleasure to discover, a few weeks ago a shop that is confirming the view that regional-town Britain can and should support great independent traders.

Ian Johnstone has established The Shopkeeper Store in the small Essex town of Great Dunmow. Ian has done an excellent job of creating an interior very redolent of traditional shops with wooden floors and a long serving counter.

The selection of goods on offer is what I suppose one would call Gentleman’s wares, ranging from clothing and shoes, through grooming accessories to a small selection of home wares, stationery and books. It is curated (which seems like the right word) with a mind to quality, craftsmanship and sustainability. Most pleasingly of all, the defining criterion for the stock is simply Ian’s own (very good) taste, and as a result he has achieved both a consistent ‘look’ and an extensive knowledge of his goods. It would be nice to see a growth in the more formal though still creative end of his clothing range as his enterprise grows.

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The very courteous personal service and genuine enthusiasm for what he is doing is the icing on the cake, and I sincerely hope that Ian makes a success of this relatively young venture.

It is possible to buy from The Shopkeeper Store online, though if you are close enough, I would recommend a visit just to experience the lovely ambience. Oh, and there is an excellent independent wine merchant next door…

The Shopkeeper Store,

9 Market Place, Great Dunmow, Essex CM6 1AX

www.theshopkeeperstore.com

(Usual disclaimer)

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Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

The God of Small Things

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It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from meschausettesrouges.com in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just look, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also what we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

Much of modern life seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good time to the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of beautiful fabric.

https://www.meschaussettesrouges.com/en/  (usual disclaimer)