On Perfection

As is sometimes the case, my attempt to formulate a response to a post in a forum leads me to expand my thoughts. Since I hate reading multi-paragraph forum posts I figure it’s only polite to pen such essays elsewhere and point to them.

So the topic is perfection as it relates to the wardrobe. Spend enough time on forums for men’s dress and you’ll ultimately run up against questions of perfection as you seek to take on new clothes or dispose of old ones. The parameters developed in pursuit of the perfect fit seem to tighten like a noose as options disappear and entire brands, shops, and styles are culled from the running.

Back on the mothership someone’s wondering at the modes of shoulder construction and a few of us have offered our interpretation of our own perfect shoulders. The forum being genre specific the advice will likely trend in the same direction. A soft natural shoulder that’s defined American tailoring for decades. But even within that definition is enough debate to keep these discussions at a low boil year after year.

But rather than retry the J.Press case I thought I’d say a few words on what I’ve found in the clearing where the path ends.

Clothing is one of the few pursuits I consciously began. Unlike music, industrial design, architecture and other interests that were sort of always there, I decided that my clothes were awful and didn’t fit and most importantly didn’t project who I wanted to be. As a child of the baby boomers that brought about casual fridays I had no real role model in dressing and over 12 years of private school engenders more of a hatred of formal clothing than appreciation. So I was mostly t-shirt and jeans and bad ones at that.

What I assumed was that I would zero in on a style and develop a singular strategy around it. This started out as crisp black & grey suits with bright shirts and fat ties. That seemed to project a creative type of power that someone in design should have. And while the clothes fit alright and garnered some compliments, I was struck early on by a client who whose clothing was unremarkable in a way that blared like neon. It was my first real notice of the TNSIL style that I’d end up pursuing. The clothing looked comfortable and expensive. Every time I saw the client he was wearing something different, but always looked the same. His personality was one that was so modest that it almost contrasted with the facts as I knew them: he was moderately powerful and influential, fairly wealthy, and extremely intelligent. The clothing expressed perfectly the identity of someone engaged in real power rather than consumed by the appearance of perceived power.

I’m not using power in a Wall Street Movie or Cobra Commander sense. Maybe there’s a better word. But you know what I’m talking about.

There’s a John Mulaney joke that Donald Trump is what a Hobo thinks a rich guy should be. That’s how I see a lot of men’s formal dress. The TNSIL style never telegraphs that to me. It says “your tie can be as pink as you want, your knot can be a triple windsor, your shoes can shine like chrome and point like knives, but I run things sonny.”

So that’s where it started. But it would be years until things finally came together. It’s easy to pick a destination, but mapping out the path can be frustrating. There are very few professional salespeople left who have any idea what they’re doing so if you don’t have a personal role model you can forget flesh and blood humans as guides. You’re basically left with looking at other people and trying to figure out what they’re doing that you’re not. I have no idea what people did before the internet. Maybe they just sat in parks and gawked. Maybe the internet destroyed the livelihood of the professional salesperson.

The real battle lines are those of fit and construction. Since the great singularity of commoditization is nearly at hand I can only imagine that many of us have tread the same path. Mall stores are the first and often most familiar for suburban middle class guys. Brands are initially more important than fit because you can learn them in a few page flips in a magazine. So we work the malls. We find an Off 5th or Last Call and snatch up all of the designer goods that come close to fitting. There are a lot of french cuffs and strange belts. We look absurd.

Then we realize that brands are for douche bags and start to key it down a little. We find things online and maybe drive into the city. We find Barney’s CoOp. We find Thomas Pink. We feel slightly more elegant. Still nothing fits. Still we look absurd.

We’re probably already lurking on a fashion forum. Never posting pictures. Our questions, when we pluck up the courage to ask them, are as stupid as we look. We’re fierce and proud for no good reason.

But as we advance we start to acquire a little wisdom and humor. We can chuckle at the sordid enterprise. We can crack a wry smile as we explain to our spouse that “yes, I’m photographing myself for men on the internet.”

Around this time we’re confronted with fit and construction. They never mattered before. They couldn’t. It’s advanced theology. It’s the debate on transubstantiation to the WWJD bracelet. But we’re here. At the wall. Solemnly.

And so we have to define for ourselves what perfection is. Little Merkins all, we have to draw a line – to the quarter-inch – of where we stand on fit. Of what we will and won’t accept in the construction and origin of our clothes.

What I’ve found is that probabilities collapse as perfection approaches. I’m left with access to only a few styles by a few brands. I don’t know the measurements of these garments and unless a company goes bust or I have too many second helpings I’ll never have to again. I can just keep going to what are now suppliers and adding more into the mix. That’s not to say that there aren’t more options out there, but the hunt is over for this time and physique.

What I’m saying is that perfection is both highly personal and absolutely final. It’s why I’ve never been able to occupy the same headspace as thrifters. Though I appreciate the exercise and the frugality, you have to open up your tolerance to an unbearable degree. To have jackets in your closet whose sleeve length can vary by an inch? Some collars that gape and some that bubble? I don’t understand it.

TE

Belting Out The Hits

Shirts were my first love. I had over a dozen dress shirts in my closet before giving into the necessity of a second pair of pants. Whether shoes or ties came next it’s difficult to remember. Pants took a while. I can’t say why. Tailored goods, likely stemming from a scarcity in capital, were late, too. Though they probably still came before pants. Of course much of what I snagged in those early days wouldn’t stand up to my more seasoned sartorial palate, but the intent was there to do great work in the field of men’s dress.

So what was the last item of sartorial errata to beg my scholarship? It was one quite literally at the center of my wardrobe. Long after I’d come to understand the sacred proportions of a spread collar, the proper roll of a lapel, and the art of the trouser break, I was holding the whole affair together with what may as well have been mover’s straps.

Now this is not to say that I mastered every last nuance of every last article of clothing and accessory, but I had studied the various phyla of each item and had established some understanding of what made a good thing and a bad thing and what was a good thing for me and what wasn’t. So while the verdicts may remain in deliberation, ample evidence had at least been submitted in discovery.

The belt had always seemed neutral somehow. As though there was no ground it could gain or forfeit. I had simple brown leather straps with matte silver buckles, mostly rectangularish. I think I may even have had a ribbon belt. Maybe. But it just didn’t seem to matter. To this day I’m surprised by the pedestrian offerings at even the most hallowed menswear bastions, and this sort of weak tea may have been partially responsible for my early beliefs that belts were simply not fussed over.

All of that changed with this belt here. I can’t recall the precise genesis of the desire to own one of these “types” of belts. I don’t think that I had a fully formed understanding of the engine turned buckle and croc strap, though I may have seen the configuration and admired it. But I grabbed this from J.Crew and immediately things started to change.

The first major realization that struck me was that all of my belts, and most belts in general, were too thick. Like wristwatches, belts seem to have gained more muscular hardware and grown their straps to match. Looking back to images from Old Hollywood and Apparel Arts type prints there appears a lithe elegance in items like belts.

The 1″ belt became the absolute standard and I’ve yet to waver from it, though I’ve found myself considering a 3/4″ Tory job.

Even back then I knew that the strap that this buckle came with wasn’t nearly elegant enough. A quick Ask Jeeves (I assume that was the dominant search engine in 2007 or so) query and I found Beltmaster. $15 for a faux croc strap and I was off to the races.

Unlike some, my wardrobe doesn’t vary much from day to day. I work so much at a job I’ve held for so long that I always sort of look the same. My jackets are all soft and sack-like, my pants are generally jeans or worn-in chinos, and my shirts are poorly cared for dress shirts or OCBDs. So the belt often sets the tone more than any other items.

Another workhorse has been the woven belt. This is probably not the model I would have chosen, but after seeing it and grabbing it from Club Monaco I’ve had no reason to replace it or add any other woven belt. Likely never will. In fact, given this belt’s infamy on Tumblr I don’t think I could bear to part with it.

Descending in order of dressiness, the surcingle belt is awfully useful. For whatever reason I have yet to pick it up in the most celebrated color way: Navy w/ Red Stripe. All things in time…

There’s a lot of attention paid to the novelty buckle and while I wouldn’t turn down an oyster shell or crab claw, I wouldn’t really go our of my way to grab one either. They’re generally too distracting. I have one novelty belt, a silver horse-bit job from Ralph Lauren and it doesn’t get much wear. Usually I let it peak out from something. Otherwise it seems garish.

A minor digression on form as we head toward the conclusion. It’s generally said that you should use the middle hole of the belt for correct sizing. I don’t do this. Maybe it’s my challenging shape or the wiring starting to go, but I prefer a longer belt. It started when I got the woven deal from a few photos up. It was a 38″ waist (I’m a 33/34 depending on sammich intake levels) and usually wear a 34″ or 36″ belt. Initially I put it aside to take to my cobbler who’s done some great leatherwork to shorten, but I ended up wearing it a few times and found that I liked the extra belt and how it sort of flopped over. It gave it a little bit of character and since it was such a thin belt it didn’t seem burdensomely phallic.

So when I contacted Narragansett Leathers to check another key belt off my list I ordered a little extra length so that the bridle leather could soften and flop over like the woven. It’s already started with only 6 months or so of wear. I can’t wait for this belt to start to look like my Filson handles.

So as I’ll close the essay with a few more pictures riffing on the croc strap and buckle scenario. I eventually stepped up to the real deal sterling silver engine turned model:

But what has garnered much more attention since its web debut is the Sid Mashburn plain brass buckle. While I won’t be getting my initials etched into it, I’m certainly leaving my mark on it.

 Until next time.

Wider Days Ahead

The internet has been warning us for some time.

About a week ago this image popped up on my Tumblr feed. I don’t usually take notice of press photography from retail stores, but the chinos in the picture caught my attention. Having sustained an incredible homogeneity on the matter of fit for almost ten years, it appears that we may be seeing either a pendulum swing in another direction, or at least a blossom of variety in the landscape of #menswear.

Of course there are those who don’t partake in trends, such as the skinny khaki, but this is a boon for them, too. The wider leg, higher rise, and other attendant details of a classic pair of chinos had become so scarce that, like the sack coat, there were scarcely a handful of options and even fewer worth the spend. Now there’s at least one popular retailer offering a pretty good product at an average price-point.

The Rugby University Slim chino has been a favorite of mine for some time. With only 3-4 exceptions they account for the totality of my chino collection. The fit is flattering, the material is nicely textured and has a sturdy hand, and the hardware is a cut above (I can’t tolerate the plastic buttons that are the same color as the chino material). So for about 6-7 years (since I started actively dressing up) I’ve worn mostly slimmer fits. In fact, the overall attention to my silhouette has been the fundamental driver in getting my wardrobe put together. Here are some pictures of the University Slim in the type of outfit I wear most days:

Generally I’ve found the pants comfortable and have liked the way they fit and look. However, there have always been a few details that I’d change if possible. While the slim leg is flattering in certain ways, it can’t maintain a good leg line. Whenever I see photos of men in slim pants (chinos especially) that are not in some way popped or crumpled at the knee my assumption is that they have yet to sit or kneel in any way that day. Only standing perfectly erect can you avoid the inevitable knee pops clearly visible in the top two photos. Now they don’t bother me, and the few deep-brain itches I’ve suffered over the years have been fleeting and easily alleviated. After all, I like the way they taper and fall on the shoe and cope with my challenging physique.

So while I can’t foresee a wholesale move from slim to generous, I’m interested to put a few pair in the wardrobe. I had a pair of Bill’s M2 a few years back and despite liking the quality I just couldn’t figure out how to integrate them except for the occasional sweater day (they compliment a Shaggy Dog with aplomb). But as I’ve spent more time and money on the way I dress I’ve also become more of an enthusiast of clothing in general and have become more comfortable with the idea of outliers in the wardrobe even if they only come out a few times a year.

So when the purveyor of my current chino of choice decided to bring out an historically (mostly) accurate pair of wide leg chinos I figured they were worth a try. When I first saw pictures it appeared that they’d widened up the leg, but what I couldn’t have foreseen were the few additional details that Rugby added. The first thing that I noticed was the fabric and hardware. I have yet to be able to find a concise way of describing what I like in a good khaki material, but it’s something to do with a rough sturdy feel, a coloring that has character and will wear nicely, and a drape that’s unique to khakis (simultaneously soft and stiff?).

It’s also a button-fly, which I have a soft spot for. Someone else can speak to the historical significance or lack thereof. The buttons, as usual, are a higher quality than similar priced chinos. You can also see in the above picture that they have an excess of material and look much friendlier to tailoring than any other sub-$100 chinos I’ve seen. In fact, most, including Land’s End, are just stitched together in a rear seam. A nice detail, but not one that will immediately jump out to most buyers.

The fit remains compelling, but I’m keeping the tags on them for another few days.

Of course a wide leg isn’t unique. There are plenty of options from Dockers to Bill’s that feature a wide leg, but what makes these fundamentally different (to my knowledge at least) is that they’re a mainstream chino with a very high rise. In the first picture in the above series the waist band is running right across my navel and the leg drapes from there. Most of the wider leg chinos, including L.L.Bean, J.Crew, & Lands End are all lower rise, if not as low as their slimmer counterparts.

So the jury is still out on these pants and a leg this wide in general. I think it’s safe to say, however, that once some branch of the Ralph Lauren empire begins to push an agenda it will see fairly wide adoption in short order.

Any which way but right

As the internet continues to animate to the exploration of the full polyverse of clothing and fashion, brands seem to respond schizophrenically to the new stimulus. The result has been new brands, forged in the crucible of #menswear, with deep focus and passion as well as established brands going to absolute pieces as though they never knew how to make a buck to begin with.

Brooks Brothers is aping Ralph Lauren’s Rugby line, J.Press is collaborating itself into tizzy, and L.L.Bean has taken itself out for a walk. For all the time, money, and effort lavished on the innovation of these and other storied brands, the one thing that seems never to have been considered was simply to make their clothes better. It shows a fundamental misreading of exactly what’s been going on with all these enthusiasts and their bloggodollars.

Taking a few cases, we look at a brand like L.L.Bean which seems to have a legacy as sterling as any in American history. Their greatest hits almost completely define the categories in which they compete. Their duck boots are unrivaled in outdoor footwear. Barn coats, camp mocs, flannel shirts, chamois cloth shirts… the list goes on and on. So you’d think that L.L.Bean would see that they were sitting directly in the path of a resurgence in rugged and practical American clothing and simply run around the shop polishing things up before swinging the doors wide to accept the deluge.

You’d be wrong.

The changes to the main line merchandise have thus far continued on the depressing course of reductions in quality, outsourcing, and the relentless application of the wrinkle-free chemical scourge. They are now the hemisphere’s premier purveyor of large square Chinese plastic shirts. From Maine. Instead of addressing what can only be interpreted as the systematic gutting of their core product line, they leapt into left field with their Signature line which squandered the lion’s share of its promise almost immediately when it was discovered that not only were the clothes less than inspirational, but they were priced at a laughable premium over L.L.Bean’s traditional offerings and made almost entirely overseas.

One has to wonder if there were dissenting voices that thought that the best way to capitalize on the back-to-landers was not to curate a kabuki theater of shrunken corduroy separates,  but to systematically raise the levels of quality, tweak the fit, and reassess the sourcing of their core offerings so that when someone who’d never owned a chamois cloth shirt or a Norwegian sweater finally made their way to an L.L.Bean to experience one in the flesh they didn’t wander right back out wondering what the hell the big deal was.

As for Brooks Brothers, they’re creeping around malls and internet tubes with an “ask me about my relevant offerings” t-shirt on. They’re snugging up their fits, painting repp stripes on the insides of Wayfarers, and making shirts for the types of people who run on Dunkin’.

Many of us have already resigned ourselves to prospect that their US made oxford shirts will one day vanish quietly like a convalescing ancestor or, more disturbingly, fall victim to some sinister innovation (as they have in the past when the collar construction was altered or the slim-fit “extrafied”).

But what’s compelled me to pull the tarp off this blog and actually write something wasn’t Brooks or Bean or even Land’s End, but J.Press who seemed small enough to avoid the sort of shameful pulling of faces demanded necessitated by larger companies. When speaking to the internet this morning I was disturbed to find that #menswear darlings Shimon & Ariel Ovadia are designing a collaboration with Press for next spring.

It’s certainly possible that these brands are more successful than I think, but I think that the argument could be made that the cost of rehabilitating the core brand is generally a better prospect than trying to spawn a sub-brand or suck the blood of someone whose career is ascendant and brand is in focus. Why bother trying to stand on the shoulders of giants if you’re already a giant?

I remember first conquering my intimidation and going into Brooks Brothers to buy some shirts and pants for work. I got the shirts monogrammed like Sam Seaborn’s from the West Wing because it just felt like this is where serious people go to buy clothes. Getting that giant rectangular receipt dropped into the dark blue bag made me feel like I’d been somewhere and spending more than twice what I’d ever spent on similar type clothing felt like the smartest money I’d ever parted with.

Now going into Brooks Brothers hardly feels special. You have to wade through so many giant patches and logos that it feels more like a factory outlet than a gentleman’s club. They even use rolls of receipt paper now. I’m not old enough to have clocked several decades with the brand, but if in the 10+ years I’ve been shopping there registers such a decline, I can only imagine the involuntary head shaking and face-palming that must grip longer standing clientele when they see what’s happened.

Bean could have saved the whole expense of developing the signature line and figured out how to dial the clock back 20 years or so to better materials, less chemical innovation, and local sourcing. I know more people who splurge on Filson gear and have it tailored than would buy Signature on sale.

The point that these companies have missed is that these new designers, companies, and brands are trading on their own authentic visions of what their industry should look like. They haven’t learned the art of growing margins or gotten big enough to have their equity extracted by speculators. They still have to put in the hours, and more importantly still want to. There’s something in truly great clothing brands (and brands in general I suppose) that makes you feel like you can trust them because there’s somebody at the helm that would rather shut the damn thing down than put out a poor product. There’s a Ralph or a Sid or a Thom whose pride would be personally injured if something slipped out the door with their name sewn onto it that didn’t impress the bejesus out of whoever was lucky enough to buy it. No amount of brand science can recapture that once it bolts. You can smell the lack of given shits on Brooks Brothers shirt stacks at Nordstrom or inside a sport coat with alpha sizing.

I want a store like the Brooks Brothers I went into when I was still in college. I want to buy serious clothing from serious places. I want to buy practical clothing from practical places. I just want a thing. Not an inspiration of a reinterpretation of a derivation of a thing.

Book Report | The Dark Tower Series. So far.

As I write this brief report I’m approaching the last stretch of Wolves of The Calla, the 5th book in the Dark Tower series. There are currently 8 books and with Stephen King very much alive there will no doubt be additional volumes added.

During the last book, Wizard & Glass, I stopped reading entirely at one point. Stephen King had become too much to bear and like many series that span the length of a creator’s career we can see them slip as, having rolled their boulders up one side of the hill, they sit down and rest as it rolls back down the other. I commented to my wife somewhere around the 3rd or 4th book that I would bet money that Stephen King wrote this book wearing white sneakers. How that manifests as literary criticism is all down to your particular associations with white sneakers, but I’m content to let it stand.

So why have I continued on, like Roland Deschain across the wastelands, consuming a good 6 pounds of questionable literature? It’s difficult to say – and the reason has likely changed over the past year it’s taken me (sometimes haltingly) to get this far.

To start with, I’ve gained a new – and, I believe, very accurate – appreciation for Stephen King. This characterization has so far suffered well through the unpredictable swings in the quality of his work because it may be the most “on the head” summation of his personality as a writer. I realized by the third book (I have to think of the first book, The Gunslinger, as a separate work – more on that later) that I had this feeling before. It eluded me for a brief time, but then I identified it as a creative writing class at college. Reading Stephen King is like reading the work of the world’s best creative writing teacher. Unlike many of my other favorite authors he seems absolutely unconcerned with voice and will bounce from narrative device to narrative device with unchained whimsey. These hapless applications of trope and device remind me of the sort of exercises we used to undertake in writing classes. We’d have to write everything from essay to poetry to longer form fiction. We’d have to write from various points of view. We’d have to write in the voice of familiar authors. We’d undertake “challenges” like chain writing where groups would build a story around an agreed upon object with very few ground rules and “pass” that object from author to author. All of these bore varying degrees of success, but they were always very clearly relevant only within the classroom setting. No mass audience would brook such a kitchen sink approach to authorship, would they? Well apparently they would.

To further highlight King’s “anything goes” approach writing this opus, the final battle scene includes the use of weapons called Sneetches which are exactly J.K. Rowling’s Snitches from the Harry Potter world’s Quidditch game. He even gives her and Harry a shout-out. It’s gross.

I’ve learned that in the coming books I can look forward to Stephen King himself becoming a character. Gadzooks. I can see another long break while I adapt my stomach to the undercurrent of sour heaving that accompanies the rapid-fire suspension of disbelief necessary to stick it out with King and his Mr. Toad’s wild ride of a literary crap-opera.

That’s not to say that there aren’t gems. As I said, King swings wildly and in producing these works has turned some touching and artful phrases and invented a few colloquial versions of English that are as well executed as I’ve ever experienced. Included among the pockets of treasure are the entire first book, The Gunslinger, the flashback portions of Wizard & Glass, and most of The Wolves of the Calla.

The Gunslinger in particular finds King at the very beginning of his published writing before he played in a dad-band with Dave Barry. It’s sparse and unpolished and could convincingly find a home in Cormac McCarthy’s early canon. In The Gunslinger, King describes a world that’s moved on and explains that the thread that holds the jewel to the breast of the world has snapped. That’s as touching a description of the dystopian condition as one can demand. Similarly he describes death as the clearing where the path ends. Also economically beautiful. The book has a sense of space that spreads out meaningfully between events and stakes are felt rather than explained. It’s a short book and so unlike what an uninitiated reader would expect of King that you can’t help but to proceed, especially with the promise of so many volumes.

BUT…

No sooner has King played so artfully against type that we find ourselves in The Drawing of The Three where one could say, especially in hindsight, that the series really finds it’s legs. Slipped comfortably on the feet at the base of those legs? You guessed it – big white sneaks.

With this book King firmly defines The Gunslinger as a prequel and established what will be the voice and timeline of the book’s Now. The nearly silent main character, Roland, now picks up some companions by dipping into other worlds through doors in thin air. Each door leads to a different time in New York where Roland is able to collect a wise cracking drug addict named Eddie, a brassy legless black lady named Odetta Holmes, a little boy (who was previously a slightly different character in The Gunslinger) named Jake Chambers, and A TALKING DOG-LIKE CREATURE CALLED A BILLY-BUMBLER.

I’ll wait while you grab some sawdust to put down.

I forgot to mention that while Roland is snatching these folks out of New York across a span of decades he is battling giant gabbing lobsters.

There’s the Stephen King I was worried about.

It was during The Drawing of The Three that I would go through periods of weeks without progress on the series. When, in Wizard & Glass, the rag-tag crew finds themselves on a yellow brick road with red sparkling shoes laid out for each of them I stopped altogether. It was nearly 6 months before I returned to the story.

The reason I kept coming back is two-fold. I was investing considerably more time as I progressed (these are long books) and I’m a sucker for long series. Then there was the fact that so many people held the series in high-regard and it seemed to have a cult following in the fantasy & Sci-Fi worlds where I’m an erstwhile but card-carrying member. I figured that at worst I’d be treated to a 50/50 endeavor and that’s about what it’s turned out to be so far.

As I move to wrap up The Wolves of The Calla with Song of Susannah waiting patiently I know a few plot points that I have to look forward to. A spoiler addict I also know that the book effectively ends in the now penultimate book The Dark Tower and that the following book, The Wind Through The Keyhole seems to feature a young boy and a tiger on it so god only knows what’ll happen by then.

Onwards, I suppose. More as the story develops.

New Beginnings

Operations at our Tumblr offices have picked up steam and we are re-opening facilities in the old WordPress building. The new format will serve to refresh our efforts.

Man Bites Dog | Central Valley, NY

Tucked away at the Woodbury Commons outlet center in Central Valley, NY is a little stand called Deutcher Wurst Platz. The hot dogs and various sausages are worth the hour drive from Greenwich alone. Try the special un-marked mustard!

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