A moan about blandness
In the grand scheme of things, men’s fashions as far as the Western world hasn’t changed that much in the past 100 years. The historian in me has never quite fathomed out why, after the First World War, menswear seemed to stagnate as far as how clothing evolved. What happened to all of the space-age jumpsuits that the futuristic movies of old promised us we’d be wearing in the 21st Century? (I’m still waiting to see who’ll make the technological breakthrough that will allow hoverboards that Back to the Future II promised us would be coming back in the 1980s).
The basics of suit, shirt, tie, shoes have remained broadly unchanged as far as formal menswear is concerned. Ever since my first office job back in the late 1990s, one of the things that struck me was just how few colours there are in formal menswear – especially on the high street. For over the past 10 years I’ve wanted to explore some of those boundaries – sometimes getting things embarrassingly wrong while other times standing out for the right reasons.
But why do this? Doesn’t it just attract ridicule?
It has done. But then perhaps it’s just my little rebellious streak that says ‘I don’t want to conform’ in what is otherwise a generic office workplace where conforming is the norm. There is an element of insecurity combined with a ‘look at me’ stream in all of this – perhaps more so in my immediate post-university years when I still felt I had something (I’m not sure what) to prove, but less so now. Also, in those years of experimentation with what works & what doesn’t, I’m much more sure in my choices and much more thorough in my research than in years gone by. At the same time, it’s meant bypassing the high street, all of whom seem to be cloning each other.
Clone town Britain
Back in 2010 Cambridge was labelled as the worst clone town in Britain – and it’s hard to disagree that it’s got too many clone brands that you see elsewhere. In part, Cambridge University is the town’s worst enemy because it owns much of the land in the historic centre, thus controls the rents which have been jacked up in recent years so that small independent shops are unable to make ends meet. That plus the model of franchising takes some of the core worries of running a business away, making it an easier model to work with day-to-day. (The problem with that is you have a lot less independence on things like what stock to sell). Until those barriers to entry are reduced, Cambridge will be a difficult place for independent firms to do business – as a recent closure of one testifies to. Is there a place for smaller firms with a lower turnover to do business?
“So, when & where do you go to get your clothes?”
When? I guess I now subscribe to the ‘fewer, better’ theme. Better to spend a greater amount of money on an item of clothing that will last than smaller amounts on something that will come apart at the seams after the first few washes, or that will shrink till it no longer fits. I no longer have the washboard stomach of my dancing days that makes the skintight top look suitable. Most of the clothes from my regular dancing days are now gone – having expanded from a 38/32 to a 40/34 suit size.
Where? Online or in London mainly. The one shop in Cambridge I save for special purchases is Anthony Menswear. About once every six months/a year I’ll buy something from there. Over the same time period I’ll make a journey to Bury St Edmunds which seems to have more independent menswear stores (such as Six Whiting Street, set up and run by a very talented young team) than Cambridge.
In London, the TK Maxx store on Charing Cross Road seems to get first picks on the discards from the top London fashion boutiques. Certainly the top end stuff there never seems to find its way to Cambridge. I also keep a regular check on Duchamp – mainly for their sales to kick in. Then once every few years I’ll head down to Savile Row to see what’s on offer there in their January sales. In a nutshell I found that if you look hard enough in the sales, you can find an off-the-peg suit made from fine wool and with silk lining for about twice the price of a standard high street suit. It’s still very expensive – hence a once-every-few-years purchase. But the quality of the fabric and the tailoring is noticeably different to what you find in normal shops.
What strikes me about what I currently have compared say to my university days, is how long I’ve had a number of items for – several for nearly five years. But then there was no way I could have afforded such items back then. But what my student days did teach me was the joys of charity shops. In those years, most of my clothing was second hand, taking the view of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ at a time when the bad practices of high street shops were in the public eye over poor working conditions. This was before the time online clothes shopping really took off too.
I still have a look in charity shops for accessories – ties, cufflinks etc. But these days I’m more of a donor than a purchaser of clothes. I also try and vary which shops get which donations too. Some donations I’ll take along to the Romsey Mill in my neighbourhood. Others might go to Oxfam or the Red Cross. The point being here is that I know what it’s like to be dependent on people donating good to charity shops for me to buy clothes to wear. Remember in those days you couldn’t get a t-shirt for £1.99 from anywhere else. On such a tight budget in those days, there was little other choice. Thus I hope the things I donate and have donated in the past help those who are buying clothes on an extremely tight budget.
With online shopping, I tend to be extremely patient as well as avoiding the high street stores like the plague. Much of the time I’m looking around for inspiration and ideas rather than for direct purchases. There’s no way I’d be able to afford any of the items that catch my eye in FarFetch or MrPorter. For Duchamp and Six Whiting Street, I keep tabs to see when it’s worth visiting in person because I like to get a feel for what I’m buying if it is that expensive. At full price, I cannot afford much of what they sell. Yet I also know when their sales are likely to be on, and at what point the prices will come tumbling down by half. I’m patient, I can wait. That patience paid off recently when I got hold of a suit at high street prices rather than at new in designer prices.
The other place I spend too much time looking is Yoox. It’s like Asos but more expensive. Other than price, what I look out for here is the material the garment is made from. Comparing this with the price gives me an idea if something is a complete rip-off or whether it’s a bargain. The one fabric I try to avoid like the plague is polyester. In part because it’s a cheap fabric but also because it doesn’t let my skin breathe. On public transport & being out and about, it’s not a comfortable feel and not a good look either. I’m also not so keen on cotton in suits either.
In more recent times I’ve also paid much closer attention to combinations of items – basically giving a more diverse wardrobe. That as well as trying to work out which things suit my hair and skin tones and which ones don’t. Pale pinks and greys I avoid like the plague. Again, I have a softer spot for bolder colours, despite the dangers that wearing things like red and purple can come with.
Being able to say “No” to the salesperson
During my late teens I was too easily led on too many things. On clothes shopping there were many things which I should have just said ‘no’ but didn’t have the courage of my convictions. I’m convinced to this day that the first suit I ever bought was one I should never have purchased in the first place. A horrible scratchy dark blue 3 piece number that was a wool and polyester mix. Horrible, always static, didn’t suit me and very difficult to find shirts that would match it.
These days, I’m not very good with shop assistants unless I really know what I want and can get to the specifics. Otherwise I prefer to be left alone. Hence the massive headphones with the noise cancelling switched ‘on’. (Even these ancient pieces are still going after five years). In conversation though, one thing I have learnt is to be able to articulate sensibly why I don’t want to buy something. A kind of ‘informed rejection’ – expecting a fabric to be softer or a fit to be more comfortable or the colour not being quite what I was looking for. The big one these days with suits and ties are the micro-thin lapels with ultra-skinny plain ties. It’s just too dull for me. What surprises me is how no mainstream designers have given much thought about lapels being a canvas for individualised designs.
So…yeah…that’s a description of what does and doesn’t work for me. At some stage I’ll put together some photographs of some things to help illustrate some points.