Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

The not-so-bare necessities

I have been looking at some architectural impressions of various new developments. I always find architects’ sketches an attractive source of optimism, a promise of a better future. But notice how the human representations within are always stylishly dressed: people who, one could imagine working in glamorous creative industries or finance.

When these creations get built, many do bear passing resemblance to the designers’ dreams of a corporate Utopia – but those who populate them most definitely don’t look the same. I’ve recently spent time in a few such places: the enormous development that is the Stratford Olympic site for one. For all the lustrous finishes of the Westfield Shopping Centre, for all the stylish shops that occupy it, the majority of the clientele actually sports jeans and T-shirts or branded leesure-wear; stylish they aren’t. Truly well-dressed people are few and far between: one wonders who actually buys the clothes on show in the windows – maybe it’s just foreign tourists? Snobbery might resort to the fact that this is East London – but the same was pretty much true of the Grand Arcade in Cambridge, Chapelfield in Norwich, the Highcross Centre in Leicester, central Manchester and Birmingham, not to mention the glamorous alien that has landed in distinctly humdrum Chelmsford – Bond Street.

Truly stylish people have become almost an extinct species in Britain. It’s not as though we don’t have a time-honoured reputation for sartorial quality – even the Italians have a soft spot for traditional British style, menswear in particular. But who wears it any more, except possibly City bankers and Sloanes in Kensington? And even there, I suspect standards are slipping – the workplace is the last bastion of formal dress in Britain, but  that too is going increasingly casual.

Having done a little delving, there seem to be two issues that might be to blame: long working hours and a Protestant Anglo-American history.

Having recently suspended my own full-time employment, I can well appreciate the effect that it can have on one’s mind; when the attention is fully on the career, there is little mental space or energy left for the other aspects of life, let alone something so supposedly trivial as dressing artfully. And that’s where the second element kicks in: for all our supposed modernity, there remains a stubborn distrust of ‘show’ in British culture. A puritanical understatement is preferred, whether people are aware of it or not. I was inclined to blame America, the source of so many cultural evils, but there actually seems to be more interest with dressing well in the States than there is in Britain, if a quick web-trawl is anything to go by.

In fact, perhaps the mistrust is less spiritual and more societal: traditional British style still has strong associations with Class. People who choose to dress smartly are ‘probably’ either Hooray Henries, Toffs or other upper-class twits, and it isn’t cool to be identified as one of them. Much better to affect the inverted snobbery of wearing extortionately-priced sportswear and bling that make you look as though you’ve come straight from The Bronx.

Or maybe it isn’t even that: I suspect the majority of modern Britain either simply never thinks about how it looks, or doesn’t care, to the point of neglect. A concern for such issues only shows how shallow you are anyway, doesn’t it?

Well, I beg to disagree. True, taking care of one’s self may be unimportant when compared to huge global issues, but if every life is precious, then why waste it through neglect? Effort expended on small niceties adds colour and artistry to everyday life; it has a cumulative effect on the quality of that life and is a sign of self-respect.  I challenge anyone not to feel better if they eat well, live in cared-for surroundings, and take care of their personal standards in general. Conversely, what does it say not to care about these things? That life is trivial, unimportant, not worth taking care with? It may be that your priorities in life lie elsewhere – but somehow I suspect that they actually just took their leave some time ago. I think it was the designer Tom Ford who said that dressing well is a courtesy to others; if he is right, then it cannot say much about one’s care for other people either, to deprive them of that small pleasure.

What is true of clothes is also true of food, standards of speech and conversation and all other aspects of social intercourse. Collectively, these things create a context and tone for social interaction. In Britain, we supposedly had a food revolution. It’s true, the quality on offer has vastly improved, but eating well is still for the special occasion rather than the quotidien, and I suspect that most foodie books and programmes are consumed vicariously. When one listens to what people actually say about their lives, casual junk and supposed convenience seem to reign supreme.

It takes courage to maintain personal standards when everyone around you is dropping theirs, but I suspect there is a sneaking respect for people who do. In the small town where I live, there is one gent, probably in his early seventies, who regularly steps out in tweeds, plus-fours, waistcoats and a natty line in caps. He is clearly untroubled by the fact that he stands out.

But, in a very positive sense, everyone knows who he is.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Chasing the wrong rainbow

When your professional life takes as its raw material human beings themselves, it is difficult not to become curious about what makes them tick: why some people take one course while others take a different one, why some people respond well to a particular stimulus while others do the opposite. Then there is the whole issue of what constitutes ‘success’ in life – something the education world is almost obsessed with.

I don’t intend to delve into nature versus nurture here, but the choices individuals make do seem to be governed in part by the prevalent cultures within which they live. When I ran a partnership with a school in Switzerland, the differences were pronounced: before pairing students up, I used to ask for a written self-portrait from each participant. Year upon year, it was remarkable how the Swiss came back with long lists of favourite authors, musical instruments played, sports and hobbies pursued, languages spoken and more – while many of my own British students struggled to write much at all, even when prompted. Shopping and ‘socialising’ were the main two; there were exceptions on both sides, of course – but the pattern was too marked over too many years to be mere chance.

Long acquaintance with both countries does suggest that this reflects a wider pattern: it’s hard to substantiate such things, but my lasting impression is that the Swiss lead active lives, wherein they themselves are the main instigator of their chosen path, whereas the typical Briton is more passive and herd-like, perhaps feeling less able to assert their own direction and individuality, and more content for (and dependent on) third parties to provide the stuff of life.

The reasons for this are too complex to explore in depth here, but I suspect that they go well beyond the respective wealth (and therefore means) of the countries concerned; perhaps British passivity is rooted in history, in a strongly hierarchical society where people knew their often-suppressed place, and have never really shaken it off. The Swiss, by contrast, have a strongly egalitarian streak, and despite the immense wealth of some people in that country, it rarely seems to express itself in the kind of (anti)social snobberies that are rife in Britain.

This concerns me especially at the moment, given the current flux in relations between Britain and the continent. My own hopes of European union were always primarily cultural – but it seems that, as a nation, we really haven’t learned very much from our close relations with our neighbours – and now it appears we are about to pull up the drawbridge again.

What has always inspired me most about the continent might be summed up in its relative resistance to the ultra-liberalism of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, where just about everything in life is becomes a commercial opportunity to be exploited – and much thereby loses its authenticity. Ironically, this comes out strongly in the respective ways of life: unlike the British, there does not seem to be the same chasing of material status Switzerland, though that is absolutely not to suggest they don’t appreciate substance; things are appreciated for their quality and style, not their trendiness, branding or opportunity to flash ostentatious wealth. People seem to be less taken in by commercial manipulation, in the way one sees plenty of people in the U.K. spending their cash on armfuls of ephemeral trendiness irrespective of the fact that the quality may be poor.

It seems to me that in their rush to prove (mostly to themselves) that they are not the poor relations, many Britons fail to appreciate the things – material and otherwise – that really add up to a good life. I will develop this idea in another post in due course – but as a culture we often scoff at the things that really can improve one’s quality of life while expending huge effort on doomed attempts to be cool or trendy. The main reason is this: we don’t seem to realise that a well-lived life comes from self-respect and self-knowledge, not from the contents of your shopping bags.



Olga delivers


Quite a few years ago, I bought a lovely shirt from a small gents’ clothier in Bologna. It somehow epitomised everything that an Italian shirt should be: super-soft lightweight cotton, cutaway collar, beautifully stitched, in a shade of very pale yellow. It was one of those shops where everything is brought to you from behind the counter, and I spent a good time trying a number for size, all to helpful comments from the owner, before I settled on one.

That shirt lasted, and became a much-loved item in my wardrobe, until it eventually became too small for the – ahem – ‘lunch’ (as one of my favourite British menswear proprietors would say…)

I was looking for a replacement but yellow shirts seem to be at the nadir of their popularity at the moment – which is how I came to order one from Camiceria Olga (see earlier post).

It duly arrived some days ago after a couple of weeks’ wait. I was curious to see how it would compare with off-the-shelf items from the likes of Bagutta, which are superb but come at a significantly higher price – and would it be a worthy replacement for the original?

Well, I can’t remember what I paid for the original, but for €55 this is very acceptable. The same light, fine cotton is there, the collar properly cut away, though perhaps just a little longer than I would prefer. The stitching is also finely done, down to smaller details like the seam offset under the arms. The fit is excellent; it looked large when it arrived – but it doesn’t tug over the lunch as some off-the-shelf ones do.


The colour is even paler than the original shirt – almost verging on cream, and I would have liked it just a tad darker. But as I said, this is very acceptable; the fabric comes from Olga’s ‘everyday shirt’ range, but it is certainly a lot finer than one would find on the average British High Street – and one has the luxury of choosing collar, cuff and other details as well.


There are undoubtedly more luxurious tailors available online – but at a much steeper price; for my money Camiceria Olga is excellent, and I shall be going back for more in due course. Except I will have to wait for the autumn, as true to Milanese style, they are chiusu per ferie (closed for holidays) until then.


Advertising – but not as we know it.


The Italian menswear brand Caruso is not old; it was founded in 2009 when the former CEO of Brioni Umberto Angeloni bought up a little-known fabric manufacturer and turned it into one of the most desirable, esoteric brands in the country. It remains little-known though: there is still only one shop in the U.K., Trunk in Marylebone High Street where you can buy Caruso clothes over the counter.

I have, however acquired some items by a less expensive (but totally legal!) route and I can vouch that the quality is superb. All garments are entirely hand-made; both the workmanship and materials are top-notch.

Angeloni is a perfectionist; what else can you call someone who changes his watch several times a day to suit the hour? Part of an Italian outlook on La Dolce Vita that I find simultaneously immensely admirable and completely, narcissistically over the top.

Somehow, they manage to pull it off without appearing ridiculous, which is the most likely outcome anywhere else in the world. I think the secret is not to take oneself too seriously…

As you might expect, the price of such clothes is eye-watering, but I will explain how they can be obtained for a fraction of the original cost in another post. For the moment, enjoy the first of Angeloni’s adverts for Caruso: as subtle as his clothes are beautiful, and playing to all my fondest images of his home country – a thing of gentle, slightly humorous beauty in its own right…



Will Olga deliver?

italian gent

It hardly takes me to mention how the internet continues to transform our lives. Since I stopped full-time work I’ve had the chance to delve a little deeper into a few things that have always been on the ‘to-do’ list.

I’ve never particularly liked what the British High-street offers by way of men’s clothing. I dislike denim and trainers and branded clothing and am not into the ultra-casual mid-Atlantic look. There are still plenty of excellent clothes manufacturers in the U.K., but traditional English style has always struck me as rather fogeyish.

No, what I really like is the Italian style – superb fabrics and cuts and the chance for a little well-judged individualism. I like the fact that it comes much freer of heritage or class connotations and the cuts are rather sharper and more contemporary than most English style. (I will be reviewing some of the exceptions to this in due course). I like the fact that it combines casualness and formability and in part glories in personal tweaks rather than mindless conformity.

I am very reluctant to part with good money for anything that I don’t really like, and which will hopefully last well, and the consequence in recent years has been an increasingly severe clothes famine.

Whatever Italy’s other shortcomings, menswear is one thing they do beyond compare. And now I’ve had the time to see what could be done about my rapidly depleting wardrobe.

I have found several suppliers who will ship to the U.K. (and elsewhere) either free or at reasonable prices. More on them another time; for now I want to describe my latest experiment.

How shall I put this? Age has worked no wonders for my body shape, and so when it comes to off-the-shelf clothing what fits in one direction doesn’t always work in another. It is particularly bad when it comes to shirts; aside from the fact that in a world where body-sizes are increasing I don’t know who is wearing all these extra-slim cuts, a badly-straining shirt can destroy any outfit.

Italian gent 4
Not only for the younger man…

So I’ve taken the plunge into made-to-measure. There are numerous online tailors doing this now, and some of the prices are not as high as I had expected. My first shirt was from Studio Suits. It is well-enough made and the improved fit is definitely worth the trouble. Cost: £39 plus postage, and it arrived in a couple of weeks. But I am not so happy that they manufacture in Mumbai, presumably in sweat shops.

So I now have an order in place with Camiceria Olga, based in Milan since 1948. Most Italian online made-to-measure still starts at not much below €100, but Olga’s ‘everyday’ shirts come in at €55 plus postage.

By reputation, they are very obliging, and I have already had a little chat with a lady called Sara who wanted to be precise about my measurements. She struggled to understand why anyone would own shirts with a 2.5cm variation in shoulder width. I reminded her that I am not Italian!

Anyway, a yellow poplin shirt is underway for me in Milan. It will take around three weeks to deliver and I will report again on findings when it arrives.

(This post is not sponsored)