March 16, 2015 by Ville Raivio
Much has been said of the collar of buttoned points. What’s often left unsaid is that this model is also part of the British culture, mostly the street style of the Mods, Teddy Boys, and Skinheads. Nathaniel Weiner reminds us of this Anglo leap in his swell, referenced piece on the most (insert your favourite hyperbole) button-down shirt, and also shares an explosion of colour from his shirt collection.
March 15, 2015 by Ville Raivio
“It’s the secret vice! In Europe, all over England, in France, the mass ready-made suit industry is a new thing. All men, great and small, have had tailors make their suits for years, and they tend to talk a little more with each other about what they’re getting. But in America it’s the secret vice. At Yale and Harvard, boys think nothing of going over and picking up a copy of Leer, Poke, Feel, Prod, Tickle, Hot Whips, Modern Mammaries, and other such magazines, and reading them right out in the open. Sex is not taboo. But when the catalogue comes from Brooks Brothers or J. Press, that’s something they whip out only in private. And they can hardly wait. They’re in the old room there poring over all that tweedy, thatchy language about ‘Our Exclusive Shirtings,’ the ‘Finest Lairdsmoor Heather Hopsacking,’ ‘Clearspun Rocking Druid Worsteds,’ and searching like detectives for the marginal differences, the shirt with a flap over the breast pocket (J. Press), the shirt with no breast pocket (Brooks), the pants with military pockets, the polo coat with welted seams—and so on and on, through study and disastrous miscalculations, until they learn, at last, the business of marginal differentiations almost as perfectly as those teen-agers who make their mothers buy them button-down shirts and then make the poor old weepies sit up all night punching a buttonhole and sewing on a button in the back of the collar because they bought the wrong damn shirt, one of those hinkty ones without the button in the back.
And after four years of Daddy bleeding to pay the tabs, Yale, Harvard, and the rest of these schools turn out young gentlemen who are confident that they have at last mastered the secret vice, marginal differentiations, and they go right down to Wall Street or wherever and—blam!—they get it like old Ross, right between the eyes. A whole new universe to learn! Buttonholes! A whole new set of clothing firms to know about—places like Bernard Weatherill, probably the New York custom tailor with the biggest reputation, very English, Frank Brothers and Dunhill’s, Dunhill’s the tailor, which are slightly more—how can one say it?—flamboyant?—places like that, or the even more esoteric world of London tailors, Poole, Hicks, Wells, and God knows how many more, and people knock themselves out to get to London to get to these places, or else they order straight from the men these firms send through New York on regular circuits and put up in hotels, like the Biltmore, with big books of swatches, samples of cloths, piled up on the desk-table.
The secret vice! A whole new universe! Buttonholes!”
– Tom Wolfe in his still-glorious The Secret Vice
March 12, 2015 by Ville Raivio
László Vass is a Hungarian artisanal shoe workshop set up in Budapest in 1978. In his old interview with Keikari, the founder tells us that his journey in shoemaking began at the age of 14, and nine years later he felt ready for the master level. Shoes have been his trade and life, and the work has been good to him. The workshop currently has two retail stores in Budapest, and around 20 craftsmen who take two-dimensional leathers and give them life as shoes by hand. While most Goodyear-welted shoe factories market their goods as handmades, they are machine-mades instead. At Vass, machines are only used to join the upper and lining leathers. All pairs are clicked, joined, welted, sewn, and brogue holes struck by Hungarian hands in Budapest.
For uppers, Vass uses French box calf and American shell cordovan, while exotics come from Italian leather merchants. Leather soles and welts are soaked in oak bark liquors in the German Rendenbach tannery. Beech wood shoe trees are made in Hungary to compliment the nine lasts the company uses. The shoes are lined with European calfskin. The upper leathers are somewhat thicker, the welts wider, and the soles heftier than what most Italian makers use. These Hungarian characteristics lead to sturdy, solid, and long-lasting shoes. Most Internet Gentlemen also know the Vass Bible of shoemaking, Handmade Shoes for Men, that shows the arduous, long, and thorough process of making footwear by hand. It is one of the finest books on the topic, and should be owned by any shoe enthusiast.
While each pair takes a few dozen hours to make, Vass shoe prices begin at some 400 euros. This is thanks to the Forint and Hungarian price levels. While there are likely more economical options somewhere, I don’t know another maker with the same price-quality level in Europe. Similar materials and level of make usually lead to end prices of around 1000 euros. The workshop completes only a few thousand pairs each year as they’ve turned their backs on machines. There are a few limits, of course, as Vass only offers 11 smooth leather colours, 10 grained ones, 5 exotics, 3 suedes, and 6 cordovans. For special orders, they also have 6 smooth, Italian calfskins with an antique patina effect. Readymade pairs are limited to nine last models:
- the Budapest is roomy, with a high toe
- the New Peter is rounded, mild, and fairly English
- the Peter last is rounded and roomier than New Peter
- the P3 is wider than the other Peters
- the 3636 is roomy, somewhat shorter, and has a higher toe
- the R-last is plump, rounded, and roomy
- the F-last is close-fitting, sculpted, and has a round toe
- the U-last is very close-fitting, with a pointy Italian toe
- the K-last has the most aggressive and pointy shape
Most of these lasts also have a higher-than-average instep, and the K and U will likely fit better when taken a half size larger than what the customer usually goes for. Special orders begin at a hundred euros more than the RTW pairs, shoe trees are around 30 euros, though it’s best to contact the maker directly for pricing. Belts can be found in the same leather as the shoes, and leather bags are the newest addition. The most thorough and helpful buyer’s guide to Vass shoes can be found on Shoegazing’s excellent shoe site.
As a peek of a Vass shoe, the pictured collaboration pair is a made to order Balmoral boot in the F-last, with a double-to-single leather sole. The model is not shown on the company homepage, but I found a photo of the store’s sample pairs and liked what I saw. While traditional Balmorals have some nine eyelets, this Keikari pair only has five. It’s faster to get on and off, though there’s no pull tab, and the shaft is shorter than usual. The so-called HAF-sole has two stacks of sole leather below the ball of the foot, tapering to a single one below the waist. With this peculiar construction, the sole will last longer and the waist looks lighter, and more formal. For a touch of vintage, I asked the makers at Vass to leave the top of the welt undyed, and sew the welt with a white thread. This detail was more common still around the 1940s, even on black shoes, as it made them look a bit lighter, and the white stitch showed the skill and patience of the shoemaker.
The F-last is rounded and form-fitting, though I wouldn’t say it has a high instep like most Vass lasts have. The shaft top has a circumference of only 23 cm in size 42, and fits very close and well. The upper leather looks clean, smooth, lustrous, and fine, but the shaft leather seems to be cut from a different part of the hide. When worn, this difference is not visible though it won’t go away either. The upper stitching is very dense and straight. Despite the heavier soles, the boots feel light, and also come with a wonderful beechy smell. Life’s a beech, as the carpenters say. The shoe trees proved troublesome as the large knobs couldn’t be pulled when put inside, so I replaced the original trees with a generic model. The leather soles have a nicely beveled waist, and the welt disappears under the shoe at the waist and heel. The shoe trees are smooth and fill the last well. In sum, the boots look very clean and formal, just like a Balmoral should, and feel pleasant when worn. The pictures show what my words may miss.
March 12, 2015 by Ville Raivio
March 3, 2015 by Ville Raivio
February 28, 2015 by Ville Raivio
February 28, 2015 by Ville Raivio
VR: Your age and occupation?
AE: I am 59, Leather Worker and Owner of The Great English Outdoors.
VR: Your educational background?
AE: I trained as Leather Worker in the East End of London.
VR: Have you any children or spouse (and how do they relate to your leather enthusiasm)?
AE: I have one son, he is also a craftsman and is a Picture Framer. He also appreciates fine Leather work
VR: …and your parents and siblings’ reactions back when you were younger?
AE: I come from a family of artists so everyone was very encouraging. My eldest sister is a performance artist, younger sister is an Illustrator and my brother is a Land Artist.
VR: What other hobbies or passions do you have besides working leather?
AE: I love being outside and enjoy fly fishing, walking and riding horses, I also enjoy collecting Textiles
VR: How did you first become interested in artisanal goods, and when did you turn your eyes towards leatherworking? Why this material over others?
AE: My mother left a copy of Sidney A. Davis’s book ‘The Saddler’, I was supposed to be going off to study Landscape Architecture but I read the book and realised this is what I wanted to be. I trained as a Saddler and, having ridden horses professionally as I was growing up, I already understood the needs of the competitive rider. Many Saddlers have never ridden horses so I had an immediate advantage. I was lucky enough to be able to work in the amazing 200-year-old Russian Reindeer Leather – the Stradivarius of all leathers. This remarkable leather is richly aromatic and grained with a distinctive cross hatched finish. It remained undiscovered in a shipwreck, a Dutch ship, the Meta Catarina, at the bottom of the sea for 200 years and was finally recovered by divers in 1978. This precious cargo from St. Petersburg was destined for Genoa.
VR: How have you gathered your knowledge of the trade — from books, in-house training, workshops or somewhere else?
AE: I studied at the prestigious Cordwainers’ College in the East End of London. Having completed my training, I settled in Gloucestershire where I started a saddlery. Amongst my clients was the Princess Royal, Princess Anne. In 1989 I moved closer to my family roots and established a business in Hay on Wye. Having always worked in leather, I began making a line of luxury leather goods, and business grew and diversified. I began making beautiful leather wallets, purses, handbags, belts and dog collars, and working with the amazing 200-year-old Russian Reindeer Leather. My collection of leather goods reflects the saddler’s emphasis on strength and durability.
VR: Please describe how your company was born and what goals you set for yourself in the beginning. How have you been received so far?
AE: The business continued to develop and through my passion for collecting textiles I started collecting Welsh blankets, because these textiles reminded me of the materials used in saddlery. We now buy and sell hundreds of old Welsh blankets, antique tapestries, and vintage quilts. Following William Morris’ maxim, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, I also began to sell objects for the house and home, made locally, where possible, and ethically sourced.
As the shop in Hay on Wye gained in popularity, I started a Mail Order business and then later set up a retail website. Over the years I have become very well-known and frequently appear in the Press.
VR: Have you any particular style or detail philosophy for your wares?
AE: Good design, excellence of craftsmanship and the best materials. Simplicity and functionality.
VR: Why should Keikari’s readers choose you over other British leather artisans?
AE: I offer a niche product with a strong foundation in traditional craftsmanship, integrity of materials and an element of exclusivity.
VR: Who or what inspires you?
I look back to my roots, the stables where I worked, and try to make leather goods that look beautiful but are to be used everyday and will last.
VR: What’s your definition of style?
AE: Simplicity in design, something that you recognise at once, a piece that stands out alone for its beauty of line.
VR: Finally, have you any tips for identifying quality leather and make?
When I see a fine example of leather work I am excited, I want to touch and handle the piece, to examine the lustre and the natural patina, which is only recognisable in really good leather work. I look for the quality of the stitching and check to see the quality of the fittings.
Photos: The Great English Outdoors
February 14, 2015 by Ville Raivio
Huddersfield has published a handy little infotainment leaflet that covers the basics of cloth. Included is some info on sheep breeds, worsteds and woollens, glossary, and the very British fibre management business that is Hudderfield’s speciality.
February 12, 2015 by Ville Raivio
February 9, 2015 by Ville Raivio
VR: Your age and occupation?
B: I was born in Chicago in 1942. Tomorrow, I’ll turn Seventy-three. After college, almost all my working life centered on the securities of technology companies – from Venture Capital investing in start-ups, to Investment Banking for companies undertaking Initial Public Offerings, and directing researchers who analyzed the investment merit of public companies, on to managing portfolios of technology securities, and, most appealing to me, speculating on opportunities that would be created by new technologies. I was very lucky to have had such endlessly fascinating and challenging work!
Barred owl spotting
VR: Your educational background?
B: I graduated from a Midwestern University in 1964, having majored in Industrial Engineering and Business Administration. I chose my college for the most rigorous of reasons – my High School sweetheart was gonna go there, and they offered me an Athletic Scholarship to run and jump for them! Such failure to focus on the central factors in an important decision would episodically haunt me throughout my life. Still, serendipity befell me often enough so that everything kinda balanced out. As I entered college, my vague career goal was to be a car designer for Jaguar or Ferrari. Sometime early in those college days, that dream sloughed off and slid away. Nonetheless, I still sketch sleek automobiles while sitting in the waiting room of my auto repair shop. And, yes, I do notice that my drawing hand isn’t as steady as it once was. :-)
I was fortunate to make the Dean’s List several times in college. I also made the Dean’s “One more time and I’ll boot you outa here!” list. For a brief period, my future wife thought the song the best fit me was a Country and Western ditty by Faron Young, entitled “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.”
“As a Junior in college, 1962: corduroy sport coat, tabbed club collar shirt, obligatory skinny tie of the era.”
VR: How do your wife and children relate to your style enthusiasm?
B: That I didn’t die young was the result of two women who believed in me: My wife of fifty-one years and my business partner of 31 years. I am grateful to them both. They both believe my apparel fetish is a genetic defect with which they have learned to live. As to my three Sons, the oldest has zero interest in clothes and has his wife buy his clothes and suggest what he wears. The other two boys are natural shoulder dressers, from their Brooks Brothers 132Q button-downs, right down to their Allen-Edmonds Strand shoes.
“1963: Best dressed male on Campus.”
VR: …and your parents and siblings’ reactions back when you were younger?
B: Neither of my parents dressed stylishly. Nor did my brother or sister. They always looked tidy, but they just didn’t pay much attention to clothes – and that included mine. Of course, in the late 1950s and 1960s, wearing the Ivy League Look was like putting on the Cloak of Invisibility. Since almost all the guys who thought about clothes wore the same look, nobody paid any particular attention to someone wearing Ivy gear. I was merely EVERYMAN.
VR: What other hobbies or passions do you have besides Ivy gear?
B: My wife and I love modern Architecture. In particular, I love the so-called Organic branch of modern architecture. We have purchased, restored, and lived in four modernist houses – all of which came with the original plans. In addition, I wrote and had published a monograph on the architect of one of the houses we owned. Our library is weighed down by more than 200 architecture and modern design books. It has been an interest of mine since my Dad gave me a copy of the Herman Miller collection in 1952, nearly sixty-three years ago. The book was co-authored by two architects and furniture designers, George Nelson and Charles Eames. Their simple, minimalist, form-follows-function furniture is what I have lived with for a long time. That furniture, and the modernist architecture with which it fits, has a certain parallel with the Ivy League Look. They share design principals of minimalism, no (or very little) ornamentation, and the belief that form follows function.
My other passion is Lacrosse, a Native American game that has been played for more than 600 years. The game was used as a dispute resolution method between tribes, and the game is called – by Native Americans – the Little Brother of War. I became involved with Lacrosse on a long-ago day when my youngest and I were sitting in a city park, waiting for his Little League Baseball practice to start. He saw three lacrosse-playing boys from the local High School team having a catch, with helmets and gloves on and sticks in their hands. He watched this fast, fluid game for a couple of minutes, turned to me and said, “Da, that’s the game I want to play. What is it?” Those two sentences changed my life. Valuing the traditions of long ago came to be something I cherished. That formerly un-exercised part of me also reinforced my interest in traditional apparel! My youngest recently turned 21. He continues to play the game to this day. On Spring days, whenever there’s a game, you’ll find me sittin’ in the stands, at his college Lacrosse Stadium, as he and his teammates do battle with other NCAA DI lacrosse teams.
“J. Press handwoven Donegal Mist 3/2-roll jacket, cable knit Cardigan vest, and Light-gray flannels.”
VR: How did you first become interested in style, and when did you turn your eyes towards the classics? Why Ivy style above others?
B: In November of 1958, my family hosted the Thanksgiving Dinner for both sides of our family. I was a Sixteen-year-old High School Senior, already at work on my college applications. My two college-attending male cousins arrived, dressed in very similar outfits. Both were wearing Bass Weejuns, Wigwam wool crew socks, pressed khaki pants with cuff/no break and white Oxford Cloth Button-Down shirts. Both wore Shetland sweaters – the Northwestern cousin a Caramel Tan V-neck and the Cornell cousin a Gray crewneck. I was stunned. Those were the best looking rigs I had EVER seen! Every component seemed to fit perfectly with every other component. It all seemed so… so… coherent to me! I did not know that the cousins were wearing something called The Ivy League Look, I just knew that I wanted to wear that AND NOTHING BUT THAT! There was nothing loud about the cousins’ apparel. The colors were quiet, the shirt collar and trousers were crisp, and, except for the Weejuns, nothing was shiny. To a color-blind guy like me, each of the guys looked just PERFECT.
I came to find out that The Ivy League Look was the dominant menswear look on college campuses throughout the nation. It had been that way for about 15-20 years and would remain that way for another decade. I’d seen David Nelson of “The Ozzie and Harriet” television show wear similar things (he was then a college student at USC and a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity) and I liked them. But seeing those apparel elements in person, being driven nearly crazy by the deep, dense, textured, Shetland wool, the perfectly creased Khakis, the slouchy wool socks, and the shine on the “Brush-off” Weejuns caused me to say to myself, “Why would anyone ever wear anything but this kind of clothing?” Fifty-six years later, I still think the same thing!
“Club wear: 3/2-roll tweed jacket, 6 button vest, brown suede loafers.”
VR: How have you gathered your knowledge of the tailored look — from books, talks with salesmen or somewhere else?
B: When I arrived at college in the Fall of 1959, I quickly spotted the Campus “Ivy” shop. I walked in, wearing the one outfit I’d copied from my cousins. Richard Ross – Dick to his friends – Mr. Ross to me, was the proprietor. He was a diminutive Scottish gentleman, with only a trace of a burr. As I walked in, he greeted me, though I was in the midst of being dumbstruck by the tie table, the shirt shelves, the tweed sport coat racks, the reversible outerwear. It was too much for me! I blurted out, “Hello! I would like to work here part-time, as I’m a student at the University and I just pledged Kappa Sigma and I’ll do it for free if I have to.” Yup, that was the world’s longest run-on sentence, but I needed to get it all out in one breath!
He smiled, and gently asked, “What do you know about clothes?”
Without thinking I said, “I know nearly nothing and I want to learn nearly everything!”
Well, he hired me and I worked at his store part-time for close to four years. He taught me how to think about, and describe, collar roll. He meticulously compared the two shirt brands we carried, Gant and Sero, so that I could help customers find the best shirt for them. He let me sit in on the conversations he had with the sales reps who came calling. They usually repped (represented) more than one line. Our Gant guy repped Reis of New Haven ties as well. I was in heaven as I listened to the rep pitch Mr. Ross, and heard Mr. Ross asking the tough questions. Sitting silent, I thought to myself, “Someday, I’d like to know enough to ask the tough questions.” Much later, I’d learn to ask tough questions, but that was in a different industry and at a different time.
Mr. Ross was my mentor. He taught me everything. In return, he expected perfection from me. For example, the phrase, “Cuff/no break,” was not just a good idea, it was THE LAW if you worked for Dick Ross. Every day I worked, I’d come in and he’d look me over. If my pants had a break, he’d gently say, “Bill, adjust your braces.” I didn’t wear braces – he knew I wore a belt. That was just his gentle way of saying, “Fix it, Bill!!” After a few more episodes of “big break,” he blurted out, “Bill, it is better to endure the occasional flood than to live in a perpetual puddle!” At that point, I got it. There was never any break in my trousers again!
A couple of years into my part-time job, Mr, Ross asked me to represent his store in the University’s “Best Dressed” competition. I felt that all that I’d learned from him would stand me in good stead. It did! I was named the Best Dressed Man on Campus. I had learned so much from him.
Mr. Ross was the only person who mentored me in apparel. For the rest of my life, mistakes have been my teacher. I have made many, and I’ve had to address them on my own. For better or worse, I’m an analytic guy. I LIKE to analyze problems, find out what went wrong, and work to find solutions. Being colorblind is not the least of them. Thinking through fit issues is just another issue. I’ve come to know what I want, and how to describe what I want to both retailers and tailors. There may be better, cheaper, and faster ways to learn the drill, but I found my way – and it works for me.
VR: How would you describe your style?
B: When I look in the mirror in the morning, I shake my head and say, “You’ve sure become a flamboyant old geezer!” Somehow, in my old age, the Madras jackets are a little bolder, the trousers colors a little brighter, and the pocket squares ride a little higher in my breast pocket. Somewhere along the way, those perfectly beautiful neutrals I started out with have mutated into something more bold. I don’t understand why. It just is.
VR: Which tailors or RTW makers do you favour and why?
B: First, I am a Ready To Wear guy and, with one exception, always have been. About 30 years ago, though, I thought the next step in my sartorial development would be to start on the bespoke tailoring path by having a suit measured, a pattern made, cloth selected, and three or more fittings undertaken. Long story short, I loved the suit, but ended up hating myself. I learned that I’m a RTW guy. It’s just how I’m wired.
I give my ready to wear tailored clothing business to: The Andover Shop, Ben Silver, Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and O’Connell’s. Most of my purchases come from Internet orders. The only vendor who would recognize me when I called or visited would be Jim Fitzgerald at J. Press.
It’s much harder buying today than it was a decade ago! Adjusting for all the new Brooks Brothers models, the various J. Press manufacturers, each using their own patterns and their own interpretation of natural shoulder, O’Connell’s with several sport coat and suit manufacturers, each using different patterns, is painful. Add to this the advent of vanity sizing, with a 42R today measuring bigger than the 42R of a decade or two ago. My actual chest measurement remains 42, but in, say, Brooks Brothers Madison or Fitzgerald fits, I was once a 42R, but have become a 41R. It takes a lot of work to keep up with the changes vendors make!
If the question had been, “Who are you rooting for? among RTW clothiers” my answer is, and always will be, “I root for the little guys!” J. Press, The Andover Shop and O’Connell’s.
VR: Have you any particular style or cut philosophy behind your items?
B: Yup! Here are Billax’s stupid rules: 1) In the Ivy League Look all cinches, closures, and adjusters are invisible when standing. 2) In the Ivy League Look all ornamentation is exposed when standing. 3) When rules 1 and 2 are in conflict, rule 1 takes precedence.
VR: Who or what inspires you?
B: Charlie Davidson of The Andover Shop and the Huber men of O’Connell’s. These entrepreneurial guys opened for business in 1953 and 1959, respectively. By 1967 one could hear the death rattle of Ivy style. A thousand Ivy retailers shuttered their doors. Only a handful remain. Gotta admire the grit of these gentlemen!
“Summer garden party wear: 3/2 Navy Hopsack Blazer, Seersucker vest, linen trousers, and Spectator wingtips.”
VR: What’s your definition of style?
B: The following definition resonates with me: A distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed. In Architecture, Automobiles and Ivy League Men’s apparel this definition is applicable.
VR: Finally, what can Keikari’s readers learn from traditional American dress?
B: I’ve written that there are four sub-styles of the Ivy League Look: Campus, Country, City, and Club. Of these, I believe the Campus look best reflects the American character. When Yale introduced a Dress Code in 1952 that required a coat and tie to enter the Commons (the University-wide dining room at that time), Yalies responded by complying with the letter of the law. The Spirit of the Law? Not so much! One can see pictures in Take Ivy (taken in 1968) of Yalies walking on campus in Bermuda shorts, OCBDs and Madras sport coats… wearing ties. Americans have never much liked to be told what to do! By the way, as Yale declared, in 1968, that they would admit women for the 1969-70 Academic year, they also abandoned the Dress Code!
“Cords, Orvis 3/2-roll Horse Blanket plaid, Polo coat. I am a country guy.”
Photos: the Billax home archives
Copyright © 2013 Ville Raivio