June 25, 2013 by Ville Raivio
‘I’m in my thirties and proof that mediocrity survives: both Byron and Alexander were dead by my age. I studied and earned degrees in several different subjects in France and the U.S. None of them are related to clothing or design, but I think that along the way I learned the importance of details and context, and a sense of rigor. To a degree, that’s useful – and unpopular – in discussing men’s clothing. Clothing by its nature involves appearances, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who want to learn more about it should uncritically take what designers, PRs, salespeople and fashion writers repeat at face value. Rather, sometimes teasing out the actual truth about clothing construction, history, or brands is a bit of an investigative task.
As a new parent, my principal hobbies are sleep and coffee, and perhaps playing with our dog to remind him that we haven’t forgotten him.
Like many of the more vocal members of styleforum, I like to cook, but unlike them am pretty mediocre at it. I suppose I’m also a bit of a film buff, but not with any academic background.
Reading – I have five or ten books I’m reading at any given time on any variety of topics, some less pretentious than others.
I think amused tolerance, perspective and patience are the best we can hope for from our spouses when we ourselves devote so much attention to clothing and style. I am very lucky. I have a very young son who appears to like colorful and brightly patterned things (he must get that from his parents.) He has in particular signaled his approval of anything cashmere or bespoke that I wear by spitting up on it.
As I get older I realize that some of my clothing compulsion was already writ large in my heredity, even though my parents do not have the same tastes in clothing as me. From my parents I inherited a sense of value and a concern with making things last. My idea of value may not be the same as theirs was, however, but I share the same sort of fascination that they had with finding a gem in the rough, and perhaps with collecting those gems.
I became interested in clothes as an adolescent. I think that I grew up at a time when – as a young person – you could use what you wore to communicate identities independent of actually belonging to the social movements or classes that certain clothing styles used to signal, in a way that hadn’t been the case before. Subcultures became unanchored from the time periods that gave them context. Items of clothing by themselves could become lifestyle signifiers where in the past the activities they were designed for were what signified a certain lifestyle. Ralph Lauren was a pioneer of this, realizing that clothes branded and logoed “Polo” substituted for mallets and ponies and the wealth needed to maintain them, and so on. But by the late 1980s and 1990s, various other styles – punk, goth, mod, etc. – were all being appropriated outside the eras that gave them relevance and meaning. So much had taken place that we had missed. You could wear the clothes to signal allegiance to a movement that had died out decades ago, or – in true adolescent fashion – try out different identities every week depending on what you wore. In the time and place I came of age the one that was freighted with the most baggage was prep.
Prep means many things to different people, but there’s recently been an idealization, a sanitation, of what it was about that rings hollow to someone who lived it, or at least its last unself-conscious moments in the wake of The Official Preppy Handbook. Prep had its colors and patterns and particular eccentricity, but all of those – colors, brands, patterns and beyond – were coded, regimented, used to judge in that particular game of prep school judgment which everyone, ultimately, loses. There’s a bittersweet beauty to it, but only at a nostalgic distance or viewed through the lens of Jamie Johnson. I learned the grammar of it, but wanted no part of it.
At the same time, in later life I found that I wanted clothes I felt good in. I don’t think the business casual uniform of oversized light blue oxford shirt, khakis and shoes that look like Trabants does that for me. I liked pattern and color, but not those from the prep palette. I took inspiration from elsewhere, the gaudiness of David Hemmings’ striped shirts – which may have come from Jermyn Street, but a psychedelic Jermyn Street – in Blow-Up, Terence Stamp’s Mr Fish wardrobe in Modesty Blaise, and the sort of self-conscious elegance Bryan Ferry adopted from the mid-1970s onward. His pose – louche postmodern playboy – became his identity. I am no playboy, but I did glean from his style and that of Terence Stamp, both poor boys from the working classes made good, a respect for knowledge and seeking out quality even when the vogue is simply to buy the right names. And don’t kid yourself, the vogue is always simply to buy a recommended brand, even today when the buzz is all about supposed heritage and knowhow and a sort of one-upmanship for the most obscure makers. Some brand gains the currency of accepted wisdom, whether in a magazine or among some tastemakers on an Internet forum, and people who think they know better unquestioningly flock to it. Knowing too much, like Ferry and Stamp did, is not fashionable. But I wanted to know, not to flaunt.
I think that the way that I dress came out of my natural attitude, which is a bit of a contrarian. So I dressed in reaction to certain settings, to begin with a particularly prescriptive, grasping preppy environment, and later in college and thereafter and the sort of apathy that has encompassed how most people have dressed since about 1995.
I don’t think that what I wear is particularly classic. Perhaps I am simply crap at the accepted hip style of clothing, what styleforum used to call and for all I know still calls “Streetwear.” I have friends who do that well and I respect them for it. One might argue that some of what I wear and write about wearing attracts attention – brightly colored rollnecks, intricately striped shirts, certain materials that are unusual like Persian lamb… I suppose it’s aspiring to the sort of mild subversion that such flamboyance meant on certain people. When you don’t have other outlets for your identity, it can be one of the few forms of self-expression.
When I was a bit younger, I adopted Richard James’ homage to the glorious 1960s striped shirts and Peacock Revolution psychedelia that I’d only read about or seen in movies, as well as, once I could afford it, the bespoke Savile Row finery that Bryan Ferry used to glower from and that he has finished by adopting as a sort of hermit crab-like shell – first camouflage, then poseur home. Over time I evolved, a bit, into somewhat more restrained patterns, but I love color, texture and pattern still.
I also came at clothing with the idea that I wanted clothing that was functional, that could be worn in many different settings. I liked turtlenecks for that reason – they could take the place of a shirt and tie, they could be worn with jeans, they removed the need for a scarf when it was cold, they made it harder to pin you down.
In addition, I wanted clothing that would last. I mention that from my parents I took a sense of value. I wanted items good enough to last and repair rather than replace. One of my first dress shirts (by which I mean a business shirt, not a tuxedo shirt) was a cheap brand that I had because I thought shirts were fungible, worth wearing just for the pattern with little regard for the construction or cloth quality. The first time I washed it, the sleeve placket came unstitched. It seemed ridiculous to me that an item of clothing could be that disposable. Later, I read Bernhard Roetzel’s Gentleman and Alan Flusser’s Style and the Man and began to get a sense of what made for a quality shirt…and quality in other items of clothing. I don’t believe that buying a lovely bespoke shirt is better value than the junky cheap shirt that wore out with one wash, since most good quality bespoke items tend to be very expensive relative to cheap ready-to-wear, and you can make bad-quality clothes last, too, if you have enough of them and rotate them. But I personally get some satisfaction with wearing something that feels and looks good and that’s made well.
Most of all, I have realized I wanted items that had meaning to me, some form of resonance. Perhaps that’s what led me down the path to accumulating some of the odd accessories I have.
Currently, there are so many more sources of information about men’s clothing – or anything, really – than what there was before the Internet, when one either panned for flecks of knowledge in clothing magazines, which can get tiresome, or learned from expensive trial and error buying clothes firsthand. There weren’t that many interesting books on clothing, but I suppose that I started with those (as mentioned above) as well as with what I could piece together from magazines.
After some hesitation I joined several of the Internet discussion groups where people with actual experience ordering and wearing bespoke clothing exchanged information. I learned a lot from my exchanges with some of the posters there, people like jcusey, bengal-stripe, manton, RSS, Michael Alden, T4phage and many more. But that information became more valuable when I applied it to my own experiences as a clothing consumer – that is, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of firsthand experience. Nowadays there are many, many sources of information, but so much of it is unreliable, out of date, or hearsay that is picked up and repeated from one end of the Internet to the other, while savvy bloggers and other Internet personalities have realized that they can get free clothing and God knows what else for giving lots of attention to a particular brand. So now all kinds of information is available, but it isn’t easy to know what or whom to believe outside of your own empirical evaluation.
I’m a voracious reader; I’m fluent in three languages and can smash my way through several more. I also like having my sources close at hand. So I read and began collecting books on men’s clothing and style, realizing eventually that I didn’t need to read any more books on how to dress but that I was interested in the history, the development and connections between different phenomena that led to changes in clothing and changes in the famous, hallowed names that came up across different books or that were on the lips of the knowledgeable consumers from whom I learned so much in the earlier days of the forums. Also, though, from keeping abreast of news and contemporary reports about makers – important for a sense of history; for a sense of perspective/context. It’s quite easy to do a news or news archive search on a maker you’re interested in, and sometimes the results are surprising. But you need firsthand knowledge as well as an ability to think critically and maintain perspective. So much of periodical and newspaper reporting, particularly on “soft” topics like fashion, is just repeating press releases and marketing materials put out by brands or their PR firms.
There is no substitute for personal experience. It’s extremely easy to rely on word of mouth or hearsay, whether it’s what a salesperson tells you, what an acquaintance recommends, an Internet review of dubious reliability, or a debased rumor on an online forum. But that sort of second- or multi-hand knowledge tends to fall at either extreme of unquestioning boosterishness or complete negativity. Figuring out what such sources leave unsaid is a forensic endeavor. Does someone who gives a glowing review talk about ordering items from a maker but never mentions paying for them? Is someone who gives a scorchingly bad review of some tailor or shirtmaker giving that maker an opportunity to make things right? It’s important to remember the need for nuance.
A sense of history and critical thought are the rarest commodities in this pursuit.
I dress for myself. When I’m asked how I’d describe my own dress, I’m inclined to consider how a third party would view me, and in that case I’d say it’s rather dandified. I like clothes, and I care about what I wear, so to today’s layperson, that amounts to dandification.
Since you ask what makers and tailors I like, most of my RTW suits and sportcoats I purchased vintage; for those, I liked the old Chester Barrie (for the last three or four years, the Chester Barrie brand has been separate from the old manufacturing facilities in Crewe, England; the Chester Barrie brand is now put on Italian-made clothing without the same internal quality of the old English stuff. I also greatly liked Sartoria Partenopea, which I bought new. For tailored suits and jackets I last used Anderson & Sheppard and Charvet, both of which I was very happy with but which have very different esthetics. I don’t know if there’s a need to hash through the debate about Anderson & Sheppard here, but I can say I was amazed, following the heated debates online about them, how literally true their old quip was that “some swear by them, some swear at them.” I liked their soft cut, as wonky and flawed as it may or may not be. I liked Charvet’s truly French precision of cut and fit and gorgeous finishing and handwork. I’ve also used Poole, who made me some wonderful suits and sportcoats.
For shirts, I principally used Charvet in Paris. The bespoke cutters did me well, but the cloth room in itself is reason enough to have shirts made there. They have bolts of cloth that you’ll not see elsewhere and that the world will never see again, in almost any pattern or material imaginable. I also used Lanvin, whose cut was closer-fitting and which had more handwork, and most recently I’ve had a very rewarding collaboration with CEGO. Carl Goldberg is a delight to talk to. I’ve also used Courtot, who are very professional. In ready-to-wear, I’ve just ordered some shirts from Budd in their famous large herringbone. The make and attention to detail are very British, which is to say quite wonky, but too charming to resist.
I used to buy a lot of ties from Richard James and Charvet, which made me a few bespoke seven-fold ties. Recently I’ve either bought vintage Holliday & Brown ties (the brand itself has been dead for a few years after its Italian owners tried to relaunch it about a decade ago) or ties from the Paris branch of Hilditch & Key, which are made by hand by Boivin, a French tiemaker.
I’ve had shoes made by Gaziano & Girling, Anthony Delos, Cleverley and Dimitri Gomez. Each of them has been wonderful – Tony Gaziano was exceptionally good at realizing some of my more far-fetched ideas, Dominic Casey at Cleverley made me wonderful slipons and nailed the fit, Dimitri Gomez was gruff and direct and always right, but Delos was just a great person to collaborate with: a very down-to-earth person with enormous pride in his work and an absolute commitment to getting things right. He had the kind of integrity that is very rare nowadays. He’s now at Berluti; I hope they value him. All along, I’ve also continued to be a fan of Edward Green, who have been the best ready-to-wear shoemaker I’ve used and who, as my friend Bengal-stripe put it, just have this perfection in proportion and design that other makers don’t.
I don’t subscribe to that horrible marketing statement that my possessions are an extension of me. But I like things that have a bit of meaning to me, or that make me think or at least smile. I don’t really collect any particular type of item. I suppose I just like interesting things, whether it’s an old but still usable alligator-wrapped flask, a vide-poches from an 18th-century tobacconists’, or my silly orange fountain pen whose model name was “The Dandy” and an old Asprey alligator blotter to mop up its ink [pictured above]. I don’t have space to collect many of any particular kind of item. I do like nice cufflinks but in recent years have reduced rather than expanded my number of those.
I guess one grail piece which I had the pleasure of seeing attained was the RJ cat pocket square made by Kent Wang. In the early days of my involvement on Styleforum my late cat was a very active part of my personal life. I think many of us have at some point in our lives had a beloved pet who seems so closely in tune with us that they are almost a familiar of sorts. I suppose I mentioned him frequently on SF and, appropriating a theme from Shepard Fairey, came up with the “The RJ cat (2’5”, 10.1 lb) has a posse” avatar. When he died, I wanted to do something in his memory. Kent Wang is a fellow cat lover and has a quirky sense of humor. When he launched his pocket square business, I suggested making a commemorative RJ cat pocket square. I didn’t think it would lead anywhere but eventually my friends and I came up with a design, which he realized. Today, men all over the world have my cat close to their hearts. Kent still charges me full retail, though!
There are other favorite items of mine, many of which I’ve written about, but a piece that really is a mythical grail for me now is the red double-sided coral branch cufflinks that were made for the Dunhill Heritage Boutique in Paris ten years ago. They only made 15 pair and sold out before I decided to buy them. To this day, I’m kicking myself about it. Looking like small stylized coral branches, they were gorgeous and poetic, unlike the vulgar logoed stuff Dunhill usually sells nowadays. Dunhill sold some single-sided versions with toggle backs in plain silver in their main collections years ago, but I prefer this pair, which was enameled red over silver and double-sided so that each end of the link is a branch. On the hypothesis that eBay represents a corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that is, that everything in the universe will pass through it at some point in time – I keep my searches peeled and my fingers crossed. But it’s a long shot.
I discovered styleforvm in 2003 or 2004 when I was doing searches for a few brands or makers I was interested in. There obviously wasn’t as much online presence then of PRs, e-commerce sites, and so on as there is now. Links to discussions on styleforvm and Ask Andy came up in my searches. Like many of us around that time, I joined both. I eventually gravitated to styleforvm and London Lounge. Quite a few of us came to styleforvm to talk about clothes but stayed for the banter and the in-jokes. But people’s lives change, some move on and others get too uncomfortably rooted. I haven’t contributed in any meaningful way to any internet forum in over three years. Still, as mentioned above, I learned a great deal from my interactions with some of the forum members. Some, such as emptym, Fuuma or voxsartoria, I keep in contact with, while others, such as Alan Cornett, Derek Guy of Die, Workwear! and unbelragazzo, have become personal friends. And, strangely enough, through the forums I came to the attention of a few other Internet presences, such as the bloggers dirnelli and Paul-Lux, who have also become friends.
Will interviewed me for a podcast on vintage and obscure items. I had gotten a reputation for having a knack for that sort of stuff from a thread I had founded on styleforum called “Cool Shoes, Paraphernalia and Desiderata” where a few of us presented a hodgepodge of interesting or random stuff we’d come across on eBay or elsewhere. I also collect, in a small way, books on men’s clothing, and, at Will’s occasional suggestion, wrote reviews of new books for his blog. Eventually I became a fairly regular contributor. I think he likes the difference in tone between my pieces and his. I like having the opportunity to express thoughts on a particular topic in a more or less focused manner, as opposed to over the course of forum banter, which nowadays tends to dissipate attempts at coherence. So I try to actually marshal ideas before committing them to print, which gave me the idea for the picture I provide, the items I use in my search for intelligibility and some of the tools for mundane inspiration.
I find inspiration in both what inspires me to better because I find it, as Hardy Amies or my e-friend unbelragazzo would say, naff, and what inspires me to emulate something because I find it so wonderful. The latter, of course, represents the ideal, those images that stay with us. And because they are ideals, they are unreachable, whether they are a cartoon by Floc’h or a character in a movie who could never exist in real life, or some paragon entitled to dress the way he does through great age, great youth or great beauty, the characteristics that allow someone to look good in anything.
An off-the-cuff (no pun intended) definition of style: looking good on your own terms and not caring what others make of you. When you can do that without being – and appearing – acutely self-conscious, you have style. “Looking good” is a subjective concept, but I’m afraid I can’t break that down further.
If asked what more men should know about style:
In a nutshell, and to begin with, know thyself. But I guess many of us go through most of our lives without fully knowing ourselves. So more concretely, a few other tips.
When receiving style or clothing advice, consider the source. I don’t think we should be skeptical of everything, but maintain some perspective. The internet certainly hasn’t rid us of the inflammatory. There must be a middle ground between complete credulousness and being eternally angry, disillusioned and distrustful. I think that most of the men I’ve met who are very interested in clothing and style didn’t learn from or emulate male family members, but made up that ground themselves. I cannot emphasize enough that there is no substitute for personal experience.
And fundamentally, do not do it if you do not enjoy it. Clothing isn’t rocket science, it’s not even a science. Certainly, there are accepted ways of doing things, accepted codes of dress, but the more you know about such things, the more you may be able to play with convention. You can learn all you want about history, decorum and what’s appropriate, technical details. And perhaps that’s important if you’re intending to tell others how to dress or pass judgment on how they dress, so that you know what you’re talking about. But as for yourself and personal style, ask yourself: Do you like clothes? Do you feel good in what you’re wearing? Then perhaps you don’t need to ask any more questions about what works for you.’
Picture: © Réginald-Jérôme de Mans