Sunday, March 29, 2009

American sportswear may well have begun with the invention of the DENIM JEAN and a resourceful tentmaker named Strauss...

The story goes that back in the 1850’s, a tent purveyor named Levi Strauss noticed how mining for gold in the California mountains wreaked havoc on the miners’ clothing. With the canvas he sold to these forty niners for tents and wagon covers, he fashioned work pants from the same rugged cloth. Rugged as they were, the work pants were less than ideal with regard to comfort. Intent on finding a way to merge comfort and functionalism, Strauss had his work pants sewn up with a more comfortable cotton twill fabric that was equally as rugged, a little known cloth from Nimes, France called denim (a corruption of the phrase "de Nimes").

A decade later, Strauss designed what would become the classic American jean, a design inspired by a Nevada prospector who insisted on carrying rocks in the pockets of his Strauss-built work pants. Unfortunately, the rocks would cause the seams at the pockets to tear. Seeing this, Strauss got the idea of placing copper rivets at all stress points through out the pant. It did the job. Soon, "Levi's" with the copper rivets, spread in popularity beyond the gold rushers, becoming a clothing staple on ranches and farms throughout America's heartland.

By the late Fifties, teenagers adopted "Levi's" denim jeans as a badge of identity, a form of rebellion against prevailing fashion. Two decades later, with designer labels firmly taking root in the American fashion landscape, jeans became the focus of every Seventh Avenue talent worth his tape measure. In fact, names that no one inside or outside of fashion circles ever heard of began surfacing on jeans labels and became instant icons: Sassoon, Jordache, Sergio Valente, were just a few of the new "designer" names on disco-inspired jeans successfully marketed to the masses. Indeed, so confident and wildly aggressive were the business minds behind Jordache that they spent millions on advertising, creating a demand at retail even before there was an actual jean.

Once made, Jordache jeans became instant classics of a sort, offering a tight-fitting sexiness for the disco and beyond that the big three jeans producers, Levi-Strauss, Lee and Wrangler, had yet to consider. The jean as sexy sportswear phenomena grew throughout the late Seventies and into the next decade, spawning the most unlikely names ever sewed onto a denim waistband, including the heiress turned designer Gloria Vanderbilt and New York Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson.

As the Eighties unfurled, these tight-fitting, disco oriented jeans faded as fast as mirrored ball discos. Power suits and American traditionalism returned and fostered a spiraling popularity in jeans. It was not until Ralph Lauren wore a pair of blue denim Levi's, rolled at the cuffs, with a tuxedo jacket to a fashion industry awards ceremony that jeans began to be viewed in another light: that of an offbeat icon of American fashion.

One of the most important, if unwitting, purveyors of basic blue jeans as classic fashion statement was Andy Warhol, whose wardrobe consisted solely of Levi's 501's and white cotton T-shirts, with a Brooks Brothers button-down and tweed jacket for dressier occasions. Ultimately, not only did the denim jean go on to live in fashion infamy as an American classic, it eventually became one the most important fashion exports of all time. And probably still is.

Friday, March 27, 2009

It is not by divine intervention that ITALIAN TAILORING reigns supreme in men's fashion. Or perhaps it is...

It is not entirely surprising that only in Italy is there a patron saint of tailors--St. Homobonus for the uninitiated—especially when considering the almost religious devotion to quality so many Italian companies bring to the clothing, furnishings, knitwear and shoes its craftsmen create, often painstakingly by hand. Indeed, the idea of working under the watchful eyes of a higher authority seems entirely appropriate.

Few would argue that credit is due Brioni, the 60-year-old Rome-based tailoring house, for largely elevating fine tailoring to a modern art form and establishing Italy's lofty place in the world of 20th Century international men’s fashion.

Of course, fashion, particularly as it applies to hand-tailoring, is rooted deep in the tradition of Italian art and culture, dating back two centuries. When British nobility began spending their summers visiting picturesque Italian country and seaside villages in Naples and Abruzzi, the Savile Row suits these gentrified Englishmen wore became an inspiration to local tailors and artisans. Yet, could an off-the rack suit costing upwards of $4,000 possibly be worth the price, when custom-made clothing, in certain quarters, can be had for even less princely a sum?

If you ask the principles of Italian fashion companies that make such high end clothing—Brioni, Kiton, Attolini, Saint Andrews, Belvest and Isaia to name a few--the answer is a resounding yes.

“There is little doubt that Italian designers have raised the men’s fashion aesthetic to new important heights of elegance and sophistication in the last decade or so,” says Robert E. Beauchamp, luxury market advisor to Departures Magazine and former Fashion Director of both Esquire and Gentleman’s Quarterly.

Italy has become the chief source of inspiration for men’s wear designers all over the world, including the U.S., mainly because their style-conscious customers are becoming increasingly aware of the level of quality in Italian hand-crafted clothing, sportswear and accessories. A designer name is no longer good enough; the workmanship and attention to detail has to be there and style savvy men recognize it.”

But while designers and manufacturers, even in Italy, have all strived to upgrade the quality and make in their mostly hand-tailored collections, Brioni, in a sense, has never had to take its clothing to greater heights of handcraftsmanship; it has been there since the venerable company opened its first atelier on Rome’s Via Barberini in 1945, when the likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Gary Cooper, among other notable men, ventured in for regular fittings.

Rome-based Brioni is still the standard bearer in off-the-rack hand tailored men's clothing

Todd Barrato, Vice President and Sales Director for Brioni USA says that handcraftsmanship is their heritage and that “first and foremost, we’re tailors, and that truly sets us apart. Our master tailors feel each individual garment’s shape and personality coming to life as they build a Brioni suit, sport coat or trouser."

Ultimately it is the consistency in make that places Brioni atop the hierarchy of suit makers in the minds of prestigious retailers around the world and wins such undying loyalty among its customers. Certainly the company can boast an impressive roster of Brioni aficionados, a list that includes Prince Andrew, Pierce Brosnan, Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela, Ming Tsai, Gay Talese and Robert Wagner, to name just a few.

While the average Brioni suit these days is about $4,000, it can get considerably higher, depending on the fabric, easily making Brioni the most expensive off-the-rack garment in the world. Says Barrato: “Anyone who thinks a Brioni suit is too expensive has never tried one on.” He is probably right.


Founded in Naples in 1953 by Ciro Paone, Kiton is considered by its somewhat obsessive and loyal devotees as the Holy Grail of Neapolitan tailoring. Not unlike the company’s soft and extremely lightweight hand-tailored suits, Kiton builds the same painstaking, hand-sewn comfort and finesse into their remarkable line of dress shirts.

In fact, the Kiton shirt pattern was designed by the same pattern maker who designed the Kiton jacket, which lends a consistent fit when paired with a suit jacket or sport coat. Because it has more hand made features than any other shirt in the market, every Kiton shirt takes over four hours to make.

The painstaking needle work in Kiton dress shirts provide a comfortable fit like no other

There is no fusing in the front plackets and a special “panama weave” cotton backing is sewn into the collar for reduced shrinkage. The front panel and armholes are smaller than other shirts, which allows for a clean fit under the jacket yet the shirt remains comfortable because of the generous back panel and sleeve.

Most of the fabrics Kiton uses, which start at 120’s two-ply and go as high as 200’s two-ply, are exclusive in design, coloration and quality, all carefully selected to assure consistency in taste and coloration with the clothing and tie collections.

Completely hand-sewn, Kiton’s dress shirts are built to coax the fabric into imitating the natural curves, contours and flex of a man’s physique. Though a Kiton dress shirt is not inexpensive—a single shirt can run from $575 to $750—the special needle work, done by hand, offers a special brand of shape and suppleness that, after a few wearings, becomes like a second skin.

Massimo Bizzocchi

A consummate gentleman with taste and flair, Massimo Bizzocchi is highly regarded in the international style arena not just for putting Kiton on the fashion map but more recently for his luxurious neckwear collections that go beyond the pale in innovative construction, quality fabrics and elegant styling.

Bizzocchi says he buys exclusive fabric in Como, London, Milan and Paris and makes every effort to “study the younger generation to understand how they think about style and what makes them feel good.”

He adds that their fashion influences can range from the flea market to their fathers’ closets and that his customers like knowing the story behind the name on a label. Apart from the gorgeous patterns, pure silk fabrics and rich colorations, Bizzocchi’s ties are unique in that they are hand sewn with what the designer calls a “spine stitching” system that virtually eliminates wrinkling by allowing the tie to “relax” once it is knotted.

The hand stitching along the spine of the tie closely resembles the human spine in the way it curls and stretches. By pulling a special string sewn into the spine, the fabric wrinkles, then relaxes the tension that causes the tie to wrinkle in the first place.

Hand sewn "spine stitching" allows Massimo Bizzocchi tes to "drape" perfectly when worn

In addition, Bizzocchi constructs all his neckwear with an integrated buttonhole that allows the tie to be secured to the shirt, thus eliminating what he calls "fly-around." Another first for Bizzocchi is that his neck wear is designed to have the skinny part on top show the design of the double face underneath.

Another part of the collection includes classic “seven fold” tie construction, the ultimate symbol of quality neckwear. Bizzocchi also designs matching handkerchiefs, bowties, ties that double as ascots and matching formal neckwear ties and matching accessories. All are superbly crafted and singly cut by hand on a 45 degree angle to avoid twists in the fabric and saddle stitched by hand with 36 beads of silk braid.

Avon Celli

Based in Longastrino, Italy (outside Bologna) Avon Celli, has been producing luxury knitwear since 1922. Much of Avon Celli knitwear is produced on old hosiery looms, and the luxurious knitwear items and one-of-a-kind, hand-knit cashmere sweaters qualifies Avon Celli as an elite status symbol among Hollywood’s movers and shakers and New York’s elite jet set. To be sure, the company continually strives to overachieve, searching out the finest quality yarns of the rarest and highest quality cashmere, testing new materials, and carefully maintaining the company’s venerable tradition of careful workmanship and attention to the finest details.

A case in point: Avon Celli’s classic cashmere knit blazer in lofty two-ply cashmere known as the “Cary Grant” model (it is also available in a two-ply merino wool “Pablo Picasso” model) that, not unlike the screen legend whose name it bears, is the epitome of ease and elegance. This knitted blazer has all the attributes of bespoke tailoring in that each garment is pattern-cut one jacket at a time and meticulously hand-sewn to provide subtle classic shaping with un-constructed softness and a contemporarily slim silhouette.

Truly luxurious, Avon Celli cashmere is at once refined and sophisticated

Designed with a one piece, seamless back, and side flap-and-besom pockets it is also has banded finished cuffs and comes with hand-sewn genuine horn buttons. For luxury knitwear in cashmere and other precious fibers, Avon Celli is virtually without peer. Every piece in the Italian company’s impressive collections consistently reflects an authentic expression of understated style—a perfect synthesis of tradition and innovation. Avon Celli is synonymous with refined taste and sophistication.

Although Cashmere is an important protagonist in the world of Avon Celli knitwear, used in a wide range weights, exclusive “pile effects” and blended with mohair, wool, Lurex and silk, the company also boasts a generous offering of sweaters in such rare and luxurious fibers as white baby camel, 16 micron Tasmania super 150's, extra-fine merino wool and the impossibly elegant combination of wool, silk, angora and cashmere--all hallmarks that have earned Avon Celli its worldwide reputation.

No one with any sense of sartorial style would argue that Italy enjoys a celebrated reputation for quality. It is a standard to which most other countries strive to meet. Fashion consumers all over the world have learned that a "Made in Italy" label is often an assurance that the garment is the best it can possibly be.

There is a certain trust people place in Italian tailoring and craftsmanship, a vote of confidence that underscores Italy's leadership position. Ultimately, Italian style is more than just a state of mind. It is a force to be reckoned with in the scope of world fashion.


Considered by fine footwear aficionados as the Rolls Royce of hand-cobbled shoes, Lattanzi was founded by Silvano Lattanzi as an artisan shoe company in 1971 in the small village of Casette d’Ete. Lattanzi first drew inspiration for his shoe designs, at least with regard to color, from the warm tones of French Impressionists paintings. Likewise, every Lattanzi shoe is truly a work of art. More than 300 steps go into each pair, from when the leather is chosen to the time when the shoes are placed in their box.

A Lattanzi shoe requires a standard 30 hours of hand craftsmanship. Incredibly, the work is sometimes repeated up to 10 times before it is deemed perfect. Once the shoe is finished, it is left on the form to give it time to mold itself into the proper shape.

For men who appreciate artisanal footwear, a pair of Lattanzi shoes is a must

Mr. Lattanzi has said that his shoes follow the rules of craftsmanship born more than 100 years ago and according to the silver-haired designer, “we live with them, we sleep near them. Today, we interpret the same timeless style but in a cosmopolitan way.”

Apart from such tireless dedication to their craft, what distinguishes Lattanzi shoes, beyond the often antique-like patina worked into the finished leather, is their signature welt--a strip of soft leather, carefully hand-worked then scored with small regular notches that perfectly correspond to the stitches.

Such meticulous detailing takes time, skill and nimble hands. Unlike many other shoemakers, Lattanzi preserves all of its precious leathers in a vault where the skins are continually tested for consistency and softness.

Small wonder why Lattanzi’s select worldwide clientele, which includes former President Bill Clinton, consider Lattanzi shoes as collectables. Today, there are Lattanzi shops in Rome, Milan, New York and Hangzhou, the exclusive resort of choice for cosmopolitan urbanites from Peking and Shanghai.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

For casual yet dressy occasions, there is nothing quite like a LINEN SUIT for cool, comfort, style and grace...

Neither is there a fabric that wrinkles so prolifically. Yet for those who understand and appreciate the virtues of this unique fiber, which dates back to prehistoric times (fragments of linen cloth have been found in remains of Stone Age villages in Switzerland), linen stands apart as one of the most comfortable, elegant fabrics ever put to needle and thread. Wrinkles be damned, who could forget Sydney Greenstreet in his white linen vested suits or Burl Ives prowling around in his ivory linen suit as Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Perhaps the oldest fabric known to man, linen is a natural fabric made from the fiber surrounding the woody core of the flax plant known as Linum usitatissimum. Ranging in color from creamy white to natural tan, the tubular flax fiber, surprisingly enough, is actually stronger and more absorbent than cotton. Certainly this elegant fabric has been put to the test over the years, dubious endeavors that include impregnating it with a resin solution to cure the cloth of its propensity toward wrinkling, and another whereby the finished fabric is pounded with wooden blocks to impart a permanent luster.

But anyone with a sense of style knows that cool, comfortable linen, in neutral shades of cream, ivory, beige, flax or wheat, is best worn with nary a care about crinkling or a second thought about wrinkles.

Nothing beats a cool white or ivory linen suit in summer, wrinkles be damned.

For the majority of better men’s clothiers, linen has always been an important fabric in warm weather collections for spring/summer, and always will. To be sure, a certain amount of educating the consumer is always needed to a degree because the qualities of pure linen, not unlike Dupioni silk, are often misunderstood. In the same way some men fail to understand how silk can be as cool as cotton in the summer, they similarly don't realize how cool and comfortable linen can be.

From a purely romantic standpoint, a pure linen suit certainly allows for a truly timeless look, one that conjures images of Havana and cigars, white bucks and boutonnieres. As with no other fabric, it exudes an old world sense of style. And never dispel a dapper straw hat as a finishing touch to any linen outfit. It's only natural. Sydney and Burl would be proud.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The SANDAL originated with cavemen who tied animal hide or bark to the soles of their feet for protection. An inventive use of nature, to be sure...

It has been written, variously, that more than any item in the male wardrobe, a man's shoes express his vanity at its most indulgent. Though this theory has been put forth in the last half century, it is not an entirely new idea; in fact, ancient history would seem to back it up: wall paintings derived from the earliest civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia dated to 3500 BC depicts an Egyptian king being followed by his servant who carries the royal sandals. The Egyptians also had an odd propensity toward painting pictures of their enemies inside of their soles so as to "tread" on them, figuratively as well as literally.

The treasures of King Tut, a lad indulged if ever there was one, included sandals decorated with pictures of the Nile. In ancient Greece, footwear was the sign of a freeman. To walk barefoot was a dead giveaway you were a slave.

That a good-looking pair of well made shoes (or sandals, as it were, in ancient times) have been an earmark of gentility since time began is inarguable. But vanity, indulgence and gentility had little to do with the invention of the shoe, which actually began, in its earliest manifestation, as a sandal. Rather, the shoe was born of primitive man's persistent and life-long goal of improving upon nature.

It didn't take a genius to understand that the sole of the human foot was hardly built for walking along jagged rocks, in murky swamps or on hard, hot, dusty ground. Throughout the Stone Age, man, a creature who was nothing if not resourceful, understood that his soles were relatively soft and ill-equipped for negotiating the elements underfoot.

Not so for the animals man hunted and eventually domesticated, such as goats, sheep and mules. Just as he took their fur and skin for clothing and tools, so too must he have looked enviously at the tough, protective hoofs nature provided them. Using a layer of animal hide or bark between the soles of his feet and the ground, he secured them with a cord tied around the instep and the ankle.

Thus was born the sandal, the progenitor of all footwear as we know it today. The high top Converse All Stars would come a bit later.

Theories abound as to when ITALIAN STYLE first garnered world attention. One thing is certain: the spotlight is unlikely to dim any time soon...

Italian fashion was born with fabric, much of it created just after the turn of the century in the hilly mountainside villages that dotted the northern and southern Italian landscape. Even today, Italian fabric is synonymous with the most creative weaves, patterns, colors and textures. These are exquisite cloths that designers all over the world seek out as an integral part of the style, elegance and innovation in their collections.

Likewise, these towns gave birth to many of Italy's legendary tailors, men who would ultimately be responsible for establishing and defining Italian fashion. The combination of the world's most beautiful fabrics and the tradition of fine tailoring is powerful, earning Italy a starring role in the arena of world fashion.

Of course technology has also played a key role in why the fashion spotlight is focused on Italy these days. For example, the country has pioneered the introduction of super lightweight fabrics that are as comfortable as they are handsome. This has enabled Italian designers to turn out new styles of clothing that drape beautifully without sacrificing shape or line. Few countries can boast the widespread creativity that thrives within its textile industry.

The fact that Italian fashion is rooted in fine tailoring may well explain its longevity. But Italy is unique in that creativity is always rewarded. As much as there is respect for the past and their tailoring traditions, newness and innovation is embraced. Italian fashion ranges from the classic to the imaginative.

Sergio Loro Piana in the cool, comfortable style that his company's fabrics brought to the fashion world.

While Rome has its standard bearers in such venerable names as Brioni, Caraceni, Piatelli and Valentino, Milan boasts important fashion houses such as Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Gianfranco Ferre and Ermenegildo Zegna, all of whom turn out collections best described as an artful fusion of tailored clothing and casual sportswear.

The namesake of his family company, Ermenegildo "Gildo" Zegna personifies Italian elegance.

From the beginning, the Milanese designers got the world's attention with clothes that were young, casual, sophisticated, brimming with new ideas and remarkably well made. As the Nineties unfolded, two younger Milanese designers, Franco Moschino and Romeo Gigli, began steering Italian fashion in other directions. Moschino's genius was his ability to lampoon fashion in general with wit and style, striking a responsive chord, if not in the funny bone, in the psyche of global fashion. Gigli, not unlike the Japanese designers who were his muses, brought a deconstructed wistfulness to his women's collections and reduced his men's fashion designing to bare bones minimalism while staying relevant and thought-provoking with his shapes, fabrics and colors.

In many ways Gigli paved the way for two of the hottest Italian names in accessories to carve their own ready-to-wear niche right out of Milan's fashion establishment, Gucci and Prada. To be sure, Gucci has proven beyond a doubt that older Italian fashion houses never die but instead are reborn in new and imaginative ways.

Iconoclast designer Romeo Gigli continually brings new ideas and wit to otherwise familiar tailoring forms

While designers and manufacturers alike are continually moving forward, the one constant is that their ideas in fashion never compromise quality. Italy enjoys a celebrated reputation for quality. It is a standard to which most other countries strive to meet. Fashion consumers all over the world have learned that a "Made in Italy" label is an assurance that the garment is the best it can possibly be. There is a certain trust people place in Italian fashion, a confidence that underscores Italy's leadership position.

Italian style is more than just a state of mind but indeed a force to be reckoned in the scope of world fashion…and one that won't soon be quenched on any fashion front.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Until recently, GOLF CLOTHES were defined by polyester, white belts and awful colors that practically glowed in the dark...

Style on the golf course was, in the game's own parlance, in the rough. But of late, links apparel has never looked better, so much so that men who have never stepped foot on a fairway are sporting the cool, comfortable and decidedly fashionable knitwear designed more for the back nine than brunch. Yet so versatile and sophisticated is the new golf apparel that the clothes are altogether appropriate for both. And, irony of ironies, these days, any item of golf apparel always makes a terrific Father's Day gift.

From a purely historical standpoint, golf's contribution to American fashion extends beyond garish colors and knitted shirts with collars as long as a four-iron. It was on the lush fairways of the old course at St. Andrew's in Scotland (considered by those in the know as the world's first golf course) that Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, ushered into vogue the intricately patterned Fair Isle sweater and ubiquitous plus fours. Legendary French tennis star Rene Lacoste's alligator mesh shirt, a rage on golf greens and tennis lawns all over Europe for years, did not become popular stateside until President Eisenhower wore one while teeing off at his favorite club.

Other classic men's wear items born of the greens: argyle socks and the links cardigan, perhaps the most often copied sweater in the annals of fashion, though the genuine article, made completely of pure alpaca, is rarely seen and once worn only by golf's sartorial purists, including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen in earlier years, more recently the late Payne Stewart, Arnold Palmer, Bernhard Langer and Phil Mickelson.

While the timelessly classic links cardigan, with its stretchy "purl" loop-stitches and roomy bell sleeves, subscribes to the "form follows function" school of design, much of modern golf wear today is equally functional yet doesn't sacrifice style or comfort in the process. Indeed, many of the newer "golfwear" lines have become so sophisticated that the clothes easily blur the distinction between golf apparel and casual sportswear.

More than ever, the classic-minded, well-dressed executive has a wealth of options for proper, gentlemanly sportswear that is flattering on the fairway and chic enough for the club. Dunhill, a label likely to be found on the inside jacket of many a CEO's pin or chalk stripe suit, is now found on golf clothes with the same understated yet formidable style. Even Brioni, the venerable Roman hand-tailored clothing maker, now produces a high quality line of well-tailored, if expensive, casual trousers, shorts, polos, knitwear and jackets under the Brioni Sport label and is right at home on greens anywhere.

It should be no surprise that the price of many of the new, modern golf clothes are comparable with that of some designer sportswear lines, as the best of the new golfwear employs such high fashion, luxury fibers as Pima and Sea Island cotton, superspun, high twist wools and worsteds, plush merino wool, cashmere, handkerchief linen, baby alpaca and even silk. Fabrics, soft to the touch, include two and three-ply sateen, fine line gabardine, covert and twill, mesh, four-ply cashmere and sueded silk.

Prints have become highly refined, whether as neat geometrics, computer-like linear graphics or conversational, whimsical motifs as golfing figures, scenery and equipment. Some of the better golf/sportswear collections like Bobby Jones, named after one of the great gentlemen of the game, even extend into tailored clothing, offering softly constructed, elegant blazers in cashmere, linen and silk, which can feature timeless detailing such as bi-swing or cinched backs, open patch pockets and working buttonholes.

Remarkably, golf apparel has also kept right in step with the technological advances in fabric development. The use of microfiber in particular has become widespread throughout better golf lines, both domestic and European. This fine denier, tightly woven fabric is being used for trousers and shorts, pullover V and round-neck jackets and classic zip-front windbreakers.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in golf clothes in the last few seasons has been the application of color. With the game of golf soaring in popularity, particularly among young men and women of the baby boom generation, many designers have turned their attention to the sport and all its trappings. Golf shoes in particular are more handsome and understated than ever, with the colors kept low key and natural. Ditto for the clothing.

Where duffers once wore combinations of riotous colors that clashed with a roar, much of the today's golf clothes tends to focus on earth tones and natural shades, often worn in monotone combinations. Even primary colors as red, blue, yellow and green, have been quieted significantly, softened into deeper shades of navy, burgundy, forest or sage and creamy yellow.

Once upon a time, even the least savvy fashion observer could spot a golfer a mile away. With today's golf clothes as sophisticated and understated as they are, the only thing that might give the dedicated hacker away are his spikes. Or, depending on how well he did on the course that day, his disposition.

For anyone in search of the ultimate luxury in matters sartorial, CASHMERE is without peer and has been since the Roman Caesars ruled the world…

Think of the most classically luxurious garment a man can wear and cashmere comes immediately to mind, whether in the form of a suit, sports jacket, topcoat, sweater or even a pair of socks. Soft. Plush. Comfortable. Luxurious. For those who would surround themselves with the finest possible quality, there is no substitute for cashmere. Indeed, a truly fine cashmere garment is often as prized as a rare vintage Burgundy or Bordeaux and likewise will become more valuable to its owner in time.

As with no other fiber or fabric, cashmere identifies the wearer as a connoisseur, a man with consummate taste who appreciates cashmere’s urbane style and regal history—legend has it that the Caesars’ togas in ancient Rome were made of cashmere. But where and how was this buttery soft fiber created and why is it always so expensive?

These natural fibers were always separated by hand until the late 19th Century, when Joseph Dawson, a Scottish wool manufacturer invented a method for doing this mechanically. Dawson’s invention essentially shifted the manufacture of this precious fiber to Scotland, ushering in the modern era of cashmere knitting.

These days, China is heralded as the source of the world’s largest supply of fine quality cashmere knitwear, an altogether fitting tribute when one considers that this is where the fiber has its origins. As with the Roman Caesars, throughout history cashmere has always won favor among the noble and wealthy. Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, popularized cashmere among the French upper classes after having the fiber locally woven into her famous "ring shawl" - so called because the fiber was woven so fine the shawl could be drawn through her wedding ring. Fact or fiction? It’s anyone’s guess.

Cashmere is considered to be one of the world’s most luxurious fibers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that almost all quality cashmere knitwear is commonly knitted by hand. After each goat is individually combed in the spring—its shedding season—the fibers are washed, de-haired, dyed and spun mechanically with the most technologically advanced machinery.

Fine cashmere yarns are then hand-framed to a particular garment’s specifications. It is a tedious and labor-intensive operation, and one that usually results in a high quality yet expensive garment. When one considers that up to four miles of yarn goes into one super fine cashmere sweater and that it takes a single Tibetan goat four years to grow enough fleece for a man’s sweater, it is not surprising that cashmere is considered a luxury.

A fun fact: the annual worldwide production of cashmere is only a fraction of that of wool or cotton. Consequently, supply and demand factors into the high cost of cashmere at retail. Since a goat can only produce about four ounces of cashmere fleece in a year, it would take five years for a sport coat, ten years for a man’s full length overcoat.

While China today turns out fine cashmere knitwear at relatively affordable prices, there are those who believe that the best quality still hails from Scotland. Romantic lore contends that the purity in the waters of the River Tweed, where the yarns are first washed, lend the fiber the optimum in softness and silkiness. More likely, the soft hand of Scottish cashmere knitwear is a result of the work of local artisans who have been processing and knitting the luxurious yarn for generations. Ditto for Italy, where companies such as Loro Piana, Agnona and Ermenegildo Zegna have spun new fashion twists on this traditionally elegant fiber.

Like so many fashion icons, cashmere has a history steeped in misinformation and myth. Many believe that if two-ply cashmere is good, three-ply will be better, four-ply even better still and so on. But in truth, a three-ply cashmere sweater, rather than being superior to a two-ply one, is merely weightier. The three-ply simply means a third strand was added to the yarn, which makes it thicker, not necessarily better.

Also contrary to popular belief, not all cashmere is created equal. Factored into the ultimate quality of cashmere is where the fiber originated, how it was collected, separated, bleached, washed, dyed and spun. Super fine cashmere yarn of the best possible quality can only be made from long fibers. The longer the fiber, the tighter the knit or weave, which means a longer life to the final garment. When a cashmere knitted polo or sweater “pills” it is usually due to the fact that the garment was made from shorter fibers, which can sometimes release from the yarns after continual wear. The short fibers that pull away from the yarns in the weave or knit actually form into tiny balls, which can eventually render the garment unwearable. Some experts suggest taking an electric razor and “shaving” these pills or tiny balls that form on the fabric, but it should be done with the utmost care; the slightest slip may ruin the sweater or jacket forever.

Over the years, cashmere manufacturers have attempted, unsuccessfully, to breed more cashmere goats in other parts of the world such as the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, the weather in these regions can hardly approximate the windy and frigid conditions in Mongolia and Tibet—conditions that may well have spawned the local goats to grow the insulating fleece under their bellies in the first place.

When it comes to the luxury of cashmere, necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and a force, unlike fashion, that will not be changing anytime soon.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leading men of HOLLYWOOD and the silver screen have played a starring role in defining style and elegance in America and Europe through the decades...

Cary Grant's head size was immense. Fred Astaire was the original thin man. John Wayne was somewhat barrel-chested, even as a lad. Elegant as they may have been, the physiques of these Hollywood icons were less than perfect, yet one would never know it from the way they looked in their clothes. Grant, for example, would have his suits and topcoats made with squared-off, padded shoulders set wider from point to point to counterbalance his head size. Likewise, Astaire favored fitted, double-breasted suits with high armholes and virtually no padding to ensure his ability to move through the air with the greatest of ease. Wayne preferred a more structured shoulder, with lower button placement to offset his burgeoning girth.

Of course, legends such as Grant, Astaire and Wayne, among so many other stylish men of the silver screen, had the means to avail themselves of the finest custom tailors in London, Rome and New York. In the hands of these master craftsmen, with their keen eye for balance and finesse and innate knowledge of the classics, any man would look his best and come to understand intuitively the subtle nuances of fit and shape and how best to take advantage of both.

Hollywood and the movies led to enormous fashion directions that became American classics, including the two-button suit, the extended shoulder, high waist trousers (sometimes known as the “Hollywood” waistband), to name just a few. Perhaps even more importantly, it was the stylishly individual way these cinematic heroes put their clothes and looks together that is most noteworthy—Fred Astaire's and William Powell's impeccable double breasted suits with peaked lapels, always worn with pocket square and boutonniere deftly in place come immediately to mind. Or even James Dean's leather motorcycle jacket, worn with faded blue jeans and white T-shirt, a classic American combination if ever there was one.

Few in Hollywood could ever touch the personal style and consummate elegance of William Powell

In Hollywood's Golden Era, finely tailored clothing often played an integral role in building the powerful image of the various studios’ leading men. To be sure, these screen idols were decidedly aware of their appearance, on screen and off. Grant used to say about his acting: "All I have to do is point my suit towards the camera."

Hollywood also lent its hand in ushering in the popularity of certain suiting fabrics as well. Since its early days as strictly a southern garment, the seersucker suit traveled a stormy path to acceptance, but on the silver screen, the garment was looked upon in an entirely new light, so to speak. Who could forget the daring-do of James Cagney in "A Lion in the Streets" or the cool nonchalance of Tom Ewell in "The Seven Year Itch,” as they confidently seethed and swooned dressed in seersucker. Perhaps the real turning point in elevating the seersucker suit to popular status beyond the Bijoux came in 1964, when in the movie "Charade," Cary Grant wore his Haspel drip-dry version into a running shower to escape the pursuit of George Kennedy.

Fast forward to the modern era. The British government may have given James Bond a license to kill, but Dormeuil, Savile Row, and later Brioni, gave the secret agent a license to thrill. Outfitting Pierce Brosnan in the recent 007 movies has been overwhelmingly valuable to both companies, not just because Brosnan looked exceedingly handsome in clothing custom tailored with Dormeuil cloth, but because the image of sartorial suave and sophistication long established as part of the fabled spy’s image, instantly rendered fine English tailoring chic.

Apart from James Bond’s wardrobe, Dormeuil over the years has supplied fine fabrics to the Savile Row tailors of many a screen idol, including such American stars as Ben Afflek, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Wagner and Marlon Brando, to name just a few. In the film, Austin Powers, Michael Caine’s elegant, English cut suits were made from Dormeuil fabric.

What began with Sean Connery, developed later with Roger Moore and now is in the hands of Brosnan, is a virile, masculine character that is, in a manner of speaking, tailor made for stylish clothing. But as far back as the Forties, custom tailors such as those of Savile Row and Rome-based Brioni, among others, were much in demand for their impeccable tailoring that wealthy, elegant Americans would soon covet led by Hollywood icons as John Wayne, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Rock Hudson, Johnny Weismuller and Anthony Quinn.

Pierce Brosnan's own personal style was perfectly suited to his roles as debonair spy James Bond

Today, the look of custom tailoring is more in demand in the U.S. than it ever was, from the back lots of Hollywood and the front lawns of Palm Beach, to the oil-rich Texas ranches and bustling cities of New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

To many fashion observers, Italian style was re-introduced to America in 1980 on the back of a young actor named Richard Gere in an otherwise forgettable film called "American Gigolo." A less than memorable movie, the suits Gere wore as designed by a young unknown designer named Giorgio Armani presented new tailored clothing ideas that challenged the prevailing trends. If nothing else, Gere proved to a generation of style-conscious men that fine tailored suits could be at once sportive and, well, sexy.

Giorgio Armani's wardrobe design for Richard Gere in "American Gigolo" broke new fashion ground for men the world over

While "American Gigolo" may have been one of the first movies that enabled a fashion company to reap generous rewards from outfitting the man with the leading role, it certainly has not been the only one. American designer Ralph Lauren reaped huge rewards from his sartorial contribution to Robert Redford's title role in the film "The Great Gatsby." Likewise a few years later, American clothing designer and Anderson & Sheppard enthusiast Alan Flusser would win a lion’s share of accolades for the tailored clothing worn by Michael Douglas in the epic finance and corruption film, "Wall Street."

With the premier of “The Great Gatsby" came Lauren's most eloquent moment. As Robert Redford's remarkable wardrobe in the F. Scott Fitzgerald saga on screen attests, Lauren demonstrated just how rich and elegant men's clothing could be, emphasizing and underscoring the beauty in luxurious, classic and timeless clothing.

Gatsby’s perfectly fitted double-breasted suits, often with double-breasted waistcoats, Norfolk-inspired summer tweed jackets, pima cotton, colored spread-collar dress shirts, silk satin neckwear and cashmere surplice vests were impressive indeed. The clothes were nothing if not inspirational, especially to the younger generation of American designers who would follow in Lauren's footsteps.

No one but Ralph Lauren could have designed Robert Redford's dapper clothing in "The Great Gatsby"

In Wall Street, the Savile Row sensibility Flusser designed into the wardrobe for Gordon Gekko as portrayed by Douglas in the Oscar-winning film played an integral role in conveying the acrimonious financier’s arrogance and swagger, right down to the patterned braces, English spread-collar dress shirts and double barrel French cuffs. Few would argue the boost in sales that Flusser’s designs gave to the men’s tailored clothing business in general following the film’s success.

Likewise, Academy Award-winning costume designer Milena Canonero did such an outstanding job in designing the wardrobes for films such as "Chariots of Fire," "The Cotton Club" and "Out of Africa," that she parlayed her profound influence on men’s fashion in the early 80’s into a job with Norman Hilton Clothiers. A traditional American clothing manufacturer (now defunct), the Hilton company marketed a Milena Canonero Collection of hand-tailored suits, sportcoats, trousers and outerwear, all faithfully in keeping with the look of Thirties-inspired English country dressing so wonderfully showcased in “Chariots of Fire.”

The enormous success and popularity of “Chariots of Fire” occasioned renewed interest in fine tailored clothing and elegant fabrics, providing, in the process, an exciting new direction in men’s fashion. Credit was due the Italy-born Canonero, who artfully revived English style in all its cut, details and unsurpassed fabrications.

Given the current trends in fashion today, men’s wear designers would do well to once again turn to the silver screen for inspiration. Hollywood was, after all, always closer to home on Savile Row than Herald Square.

The classic TENNIS SWEATER became popular in the 20’s not on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon or Forest Hills but on ski slopes at home and abroad...

It is one of the more peculiar vagaries of fashion, and sportswear in particular, that throughout history certain garments originally designed for one sport are eventually borrowed, perhaps stolen, and popularized by another and yet another. Eventually, historical accuracy notwithstanding, the garment becomes identified by the most recent sport as its propagator. Such is the case with the cable-stitch V-neck knitted pullover otherwise known as the tennis sweater.

Rummaging through fashion annals and costume history tomes yields relatively little about this classic sweater. But most authorities agree that the bulky, wool V-neck cable style was first popularized in the early Twenties not on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon or the manicured greens of Forest Hills but on the icy slopes of ski resorts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is easy to see why--the bulkiness of the cable stitches added warmth and the V-neck treatment was a perfect foil for a turtleneck worn underneath.

But it was the Prince of Wales during this same decade who first adopted the V-neck style as part of his golf ensemble, worn as a pattern-less look with just a touch of color near the neck. Eventually, odd as it may seem, the cable-stitch V-neck sweater as favored by the dapper royal, was taken up by American golfers who wore this sweater style in place of the tweed jacket for teeing off in the fall months.

As the 30’s reached midpoint, tennis reclaimed the cable-stitch pullover once gain, as younger players referred the casual look of a white sweater tossed over their shoulders rather than a more formal tailored blazer or long camel polo coat.

Traditional sportswear companies perennially serve up a slew of classic tennis sweater looks

Sometime during this period, the burgeoning popularity of the tennis sweater made a circuitous route to another part of the tony grass court clubs that were springing up all over the country--to the croquet and cricket fields. So pervasive did the use of the garment become in the game of cricket that for a time, the sweater even began to be called the cricket sweater. And in venues where cricket is still wildly popular, like Bermuda and other parts of the English-owned Caribbean, it is still referred to as such.

In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the classic tennis sweater experienced a rebirth of popularity at tennis clubs all over the world, thanks largely to the elegant Englishman Fred Perry and the squad of Australian players that included Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Frank Sedgeman. Indeed, Fred Perry went on to lend his name to a classic line of tennis wear, a collection that was always noteworthy for its plush cotton or linen cabled V-neck sweaters. For his part, Rosewall wore the tennis sweater as though it were a second skin, influencing in the process, scores of young American players eager to emulate his sartorial style as well as his backhand slice.

Stateside today, the tennis sweater is alive and well. And while technology has given us micro-fiber warm-up suits and super-lightweight jackets, nothing compares to the style and swagger of a hand-stitched, pure cotton or lightweight wool cable V-neck pullover in white, cream or ivory highlighted with a touch of blue, yellow or burgundy at the neck, sleeves and waistband. The trouble is, finding one worthy of its tradition becomes increasingly difficult in the "throw away chic" era that is now upon us.

The ARGYLE SWEATER is arguably one of the most popular and fashionable forms of knitted outerwear, both on the golf course and off…

The sweater as we know it, a staple in any American sportswear wardrobe, actually began as a basic knitted undershirt or what the Brits like to call a “jumper.” Initially knit with fine gauge wools, some clever manufacturers began using thicker yarns so that the jumper, as it were, could actually be worn as outerwear, which many men did, especially for exercising and outdoor sports like rugby and soccer.

Before long, sports clothing manufacturers. Particularly in America, began adding colored yarns to their knitting machines and the colored sweater was born. With the invention of intarsia knitting—a technique whereby patterns could be created by using multiple colors, patterned sweaters became a part of the male outerwear wardrobe.

One of the most popular and fashionable forms of knitted outerwear, particularly on the golf course, is the argyle sweater. The name is an adulterated version of Argyll, which was a branch of the Campbell clan in Scotland and the particular tartan plaid that represented their family.

For the uninitiated, argyle is the name given to a multi-colored, knitted diamond pattern intermixed with an overplaid. Long a favored pattern with hosiery manufacturers, the idea of using argyle as a pattern for sweater design is relatively new. Dating back to the early 1930’s argyle sweaters were the garments of choice for playing the links courses among British nobles, who favored the pattern for their knee length hosiery under plus-fours as well as for sweaters and vests. Soon, the argyle sweater became popular with men stateside who never picked up a putter in their lives. It was a look, and a handsome one at that.

Argyle sweaters have faded in and out of popular fashion over the years, but it remains a perennial classic in any sportswear collection, especially for men. The most modern looking variations focus on more conservative, deeper tones particularly for fall, and the best versions are fully-fashioned (constructed in a continual knit rather than pieced together) and made of fine merino wool, pure cotton or even cashmere.

While American men (and women) may have embraced the classic argyle sweater as their own, there is no denying that it looks great on everyone. Even Scots.

Some argue that the TOPCOAT is no longer necessary in the male wardrobe. But I say an elegant overcoat still belongs in the men’s clothing lexicon...

In the accelerated, climate controlled environment in which we live, where a man steps from heated automobiles into temperature regulated office buildings, airport terminals and homes, there are those who view the traditional topcoat as no longer necessary in the male wardrobe. However, this sentiment is largely lost on people like me who maintain that an elegant overcoat still occupies a pivotal place in the lexicon of men's clothing.

Since the middle ages, man has cloaked himself in scratchy woolen outerwear with little in the way of shape, style or swagger. In fact, up through the medieval period and into the Renaissance, outerwear was defined only by crude cloaks, capes and wraps that smothered the body like a sack. Tailors of the era criticized these outer garments as essentially shapeless, lacking waist suppression, seams, pleats and other tailoring details.

To trace the origins of the dress overcoat as we know it, one must rummage through the fashion annals as far back as the 1830's, to when a French nobleman known as the Comte D'Orsay, a bit of a fop, was stranded one evening during inclement weather. Not wanting to ruin his silks, D'Orsay borrowed one of the crude, woolen cloaks that belonged to a local seaman.

Since D'Orsay was viewed as a man of wealth and taste, a stylemaker in modern parlance, he unintentionally wore this unseemly coat into fashion infamy, since at the time, all men's coats were tightly fitted, with narrow sleeves and button-front closures. By wearing the loose-fitting seaman's cloak in public, D'Orsay unwittingly initiated a trend toward, bigger, more voluminous outerwear that would eventually become known as "greatcoats." In fact, this same nobleman was once recorded to have worn a greatcoat in pure white, highly impractical to be sure, and not the standard issue for gentleman of that period. The Comte must have looked striking nonetheless.

Fact or fiction, the fashion legend associated with the Comte D'Orsay is entirely believable in that most classic topcoats still with us today trace their beginnings to either battlefields or sporting grounds. Within a few years, this looser, roomier overcoat caught the imagination of practical gentleman as well as those dedicated to the fashion of the day. By the end of the nineteenth century, the most popular overcoat for wearing in town was a single-breasted model known as the Chesterfield, named for the sixth Earl of Chesterfield, a Regency period dandy who would have given Beau Brummell a run for his cravat. The modern Chesterfield looks much as it did then, with black or taupe velvet collar, covered button placket front and slightly pulled in waist. In charcoal or hunter green herringbone or navy or gray melton or cashmere, it is, to my mind, the most elegant of all overcoats.

The classic single-breasted Chesterfield with velvet collar and peaked lapels in gray wool chevron

When the weather is particularly harsh, or when traveling, a fine alternative to the Chesterfield is the stylish wool tweed, English-born Ulster, which is always double-breasted and features wide, sweeping lapels that can be turned up for protection from wind, rain and practically anything else El Nino may conjure up.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, noble British sportsmen became synonymous with a variety of caped and stylized tweed overcoats. These English lords' counterparts hailed from Bavaria or the Austro-Hungarian regions, where wealthy gentleman with a penchant for outdoor sports like hunting, utilized locally-produced loden cloth, as ubiquitous there as tweed was in the British countryside.

From the classic trench coat, designed expressly for British troops holed up, aptly enough, in trenches on the Western front, to the raglan coat named after Lord Raglan, a British noble and commander in the Crimean War, military conflicts have been the mother of invention in overcoat design. Probably the most famous of all dress outerwear born of sport, although technically it may be rooted more in the wardrobes of British officers, is the elegant, versatile polo coat, often executed in tan camel's hair or cashmere.

Though seen infrequently in the US, other coat styles with military history include the British Warm, the duffel (a favorite of Field Marshall Montgomery and named for the Belgium town of Duffel where it originated) and the Inverness, the latter, with its skirt of fabric draped from the shoulders, is virtually gone from the vocabulary of men's clothing outside the Scottish moors. Indeed, after the war, when demobilization came and the clothing market was flooded with military surplus, the duffel coat made its way to Civvy Street with ease. What had been standard outerwear for sailors on North Atlantic convoys became the uniform of sorts for the beatniks who frequented coffee shops that were springing up in cities such as New York and San Francisco, along with the Gauloise-smoking intellectuals of Paris' left bank.

The Warm and plush Duffel, with its wood toggle closures, is a perennial favorite in New England

The adoption of the duffel coat by American beatniks and Paris left bank intellectuals stands as one of the first instances where an overcoat was used as a style statement. A decade or two later, Afghan coats--essentially the same type worn by Middle Eastern sheepherders--would become de rigueur among hippies on both American coasts. The practical overcoat had morphed into something decidedly symbolic.

Ironically, today it is those who continue to wear classic, elegant overcoats who appear to be the rebellious ones. Admittedly, it is in a spirit of symbolic defiance against the pernicious promotion of casual wear that I still wear my dress overcoats. To my mind, there is nothing like a classic Chesterfield in solid black, navy or charcoal for adding a much needed air of dignity to any cityscape. All too often, a man who is otherwise properly suited, spoils the balance of his ensemble by opting for a hideous anorak or some other sports-oriented outer garment. These sportive coats are appropriate for camping weekends and mountain climbing but so much fish out of water in a business environment.

My personal rules regarding elegant overcoats are quite simple. A well-tailored Chesterfield in a solid dark color is best, although one made up in a classic yet subtle pattern such as herringbone is permissible. Ideally, the coat should reach below the knee; exactly how much depends on the individual but anywhere between six and ten inches is acceptable. Any longer and the coat will begin to look theatrical.

Avoid any and all extravagant trims and flourishes in favor of the understated elegance of a fly front and set-in shoulder detailing. If desired, a velvet collar in a complimentary tonal shade is fine and in keeping with the coat's origins. A patch of silk in the breast pocket might also be worn.

For country wear and more casual occasions, the loose-fitting, raglan-sleeved Balmacaan, tailored in a mini gun check, twill or tweed fabric, is highly versatile and travels well. Edward VIII, as the Prince of Wales, a man given to breaking certain rules of fashion, favored this style coat, which he wore in town over his pin striped suits and reverse-calf oxford shoes. While the overcoat may not lend itself to color and pattern as well as the lounge suit, finely tailored topcoats marry extremely well with luxurious fabrics made of alpaca, cashmere, camel's hair and, in Europe anyway, vicuna. Inside the coat, linings may be made of woven silk --a remarkably practical fabric in and of itself. Or, if the climate demands and a buyer has the means, fur also works well as a topcoat lining.

The casual yet elegant Balmacaan, with flip-up collar, often features a lap seam across the shoulders and down the sleeves

On the subject of fur, it is, in my opinion, a worthy option for extreme northerly climes. Apart from being luxurious, fur exudes aristocratic opulence, if that is your thing. In modern parlance, a fur coat is, understandably, the ultimate "feel-good" garment. I never did subscribe to the idea of "political correctness" in matter of gentlemen's dress. When it comes to fur, almost all the animals of origin are responsibly farmed or ranched. The spurious argument that killing an animal for its pelt is morally reprehensible is founded on the unfound premise that dignity for animals is in some way tantamount to that of man.

But as with everything, a fur coat is best worn only when circumstances dictate that it is proper to do so. Different countries, with differing climates demand alternative approaches. For example: a loden coat in Milan may be viewed as a model of restraint and conservatism. In London, however, a velvet-collared, navy blue Chesterfield would be seen as much more appropriate.

While the coat may have been born of function, in the modern era, fashion is to the fore. The style-conscious man today should have a well-rounded 'library' of overcoats from which to choose, and use his best judgment as to the right coat for the proper occasion. It is only when a man owns a well-rounded assortment of topcoat styles that he can truly appreciate the elegance and pleasure that comes from wearing this most underrated and overlooked classic.