Monday, October 13, 2014

A Suit That Fits - Review of Marks and Spencer Sartorial Suits


Marks and Spencer have been a UK stalwart for more years than I care to imagine. However, according to the media, profit margins in their clothing lines have been challenged for some time now. In an attempt to shore up their position in the High Street fashion stakes they have been re-launching themselves seeking to attract back lost customers and find a new niche. Grey Fox wrote about their problems a while ago and you can read his thoughts here.

In search of two suits for everyday business wear, and having watched several impressive marketing campaigns, I recently decided to visit M&S and explore their range. I went to their flag ship store in Oxford Street London.

On entering the menswear area I immediately sensed where some of M&S issues arise. The sheer volume of clothing available is overwhelming. Moreover, there is little logic to the layout in the store. It is a mix of areas sorted by brand name (but who knows what ‘Autograph’ means for example), some by seasonal item (tweed jackets, summer shirts, chinos), but then you can find chinos in several different areas. As for shirts they are all over the place. I could understand if the store wished to differentiate between major brands (such as Ralph Lauren, Hackett, Gant, Hilfiger etc.) but it does not stock any external brands - only their own. However, despite this initial mass marketing confusion the suits at least are mainly all together and are in one very large area at the rear of the menswear floor.

Suits are again by ‘brand’ and in racks and rows at many different angles, rather like a confusing maze. I walked around the area twice and was still not convinced I had seen all the suits! I also found the labelling confusing – suits called ‘tailored’ does not mean that in the sense they are carefully made - it is code for slim cut. I tried one ‘tailored’ jacket on and, although in my size, I could not fasten the button because the two sides of the jacket failed to meet each other by one inch! I felt I looked like Norman Wisdom from the old 1950s movies! 


Other suits called ‘slim fit’ should have read ‘body grip’ as there was no room to move in them!

I furthermore discounted many suits that looked good from a distance but on closer examination contained 50% polyester – hopeless for everyday wear – we need 100% wool to allow the fabric to breath and keep its basic shape.

Almost reaching a point of despair I eventually found a range of suits called ‘Sartorial’. Finally, a suit that fits! The cut is superb, classic in style, the sleeves were the correct length, the chest comfortable, a little tapering at the waist. The trousers are cut straight and sit correctly at the waist. More importantly they came in my waist size (32”) with many options of length. As someone with a 31” inside leg I always have to purchase a 32” and have them tailored. No more!

The attention to detail is noticeable. The hem on the trousers is cut at a slight angle (allowing for the break) and additional fabric is sewn into the rear of the hem, both to add weight and avoid the heel of the shoe wearing down the hem. 


I was able to purchase two suits, and wear them immediately. No tailoring was needed -  such a rare occurance I cannot remember when that last happened. I choose a pinstripe (and added a waistcoat for the winter months) and a sharkskin. 


These photos show some of the detail and pattern.

Correct sleeve length

Secure mobile phone pocket

Fun lining

Functional buttons

Lined collar


Detailed stiching

Lined pockets


At £199 each these are excellent value and if looked after correctly (steam cleaning, sponging, careful pressing) they will last for many years – I will only be wearing them each once a week on average and have expectations therefore of many years of use. The cut is classicly timeless so they are not going look out of style next year (as will happen when the skinny suit look dies a natural death in 2015/2016).

If M&S can produce such quality at an affordable price why do they bother with the rest of the more cheap lines in their ever extending range?
Variation on just one suit!
My advice, as a customer, to M&S is to drop the extreme lines and stick to the fundamentals. Good quality affordable tailoring never goes out of style. Moreover, I am certainly likely to visit more often if I do not have to navigate myself around confusing piles and racks of polyester blends and ill fitting clothes (Burtons, Zara, H&M, River Island have that market nicely covered already!).


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Italian Shirts in Rural England - Really?


After 14 years living in North America I have now returned to the UK and live in Ipswich in Suffolk. Ipswich is a small town of 150,000 people, yet the oldest occupied town in England, dating its roots back to the 7th and 8th Century. I was born and raised here but left on my many worldly travels in 1987. One of the reasons for returning is the beautiful countryside (endless opportunities to wear tweed at the weekends!) and Ipswich is now only 1 hour 10 minutes from the city of London by train, which allows me to comfortably commute to my London office each day. It is also convenient for an enjoyable day out from London!

Ipswich was never what you would describe as ‘cutting edge’ in terms of style, shops, stores and fashion when I grew up. Frankly it is not really now (it is more like a comfortable pair of old slippers!), so imagine my surprise when my lifelong friend (and lifelong Ipswich resident) Terry Baxter (Chair of the Board of Ipswich Central and CEO of the wonderful charity Inspire Suffolk, and one of the most stylish men in Ipswich) told me of a new menswear shop in the Town selling high quality Italian Shirts. I headed down to make a visit!

It is rather unimaginatively called ‘The Italian Shirt Shop’! Hardly original, but in a Town with a somewhat provincial outlook it probably pays to be very descriptive in shop signs!
I met Antonio Bellini the owner, a most interesting and engaging man. He used to design his own line of Italian clothing but due to the challenging profit margins in such a venture changed his business model to look for, and stock, unusual and distinctive Italian shirts (and some very Austin Powers looking jackets!).


The shirts are classically Italian. They have a generous size of shirt collar designed to be worn without a tie and unusual design features such as double collars and fun colours and patterns. It is quite possible to pick up a shirt here and know you are very unlikely to see anyone else wearing one the same. You must be careful though as some of his shirts could make you look distinctly like the wretched and sartorially challenged James May from the BBC TV Show ‘Top Gear’!

Antonio focuses very strongly on customer service and has a keen eye for which of his shirts will work with each individual customer. He took me outside my comfort zone in a careful and considerate way and I left the store with a blue patterned shirt, which I did not go in looking for!
Here are some pictures of the wonderful blue shirt I purchased.



One of his catch phrases is ‘No shirt here costs more than £45’, and this helps dispel the perception that his shop is ‘high-end’ and expensive (he even has a sign in the shop window stating his phrase).
If you spend too much time shopping in department stores you can quickly forget how pleasurable shopping can be when you meet someone who genuinely cares about you and your intended purchase. 

Do though allow yourself sometime if you visit Antonio’s shop. My two visits have lasted over 30-45 minutes each! It is quite the experience, and frankly the way shopping should be.

Antonio visits Milan every few months to re-stock, so if you stagger your visits to him you can always be assured of a fresh selection of shirts to select from. I am sure he can even find what you are looking for before you can even describe it yourself!

Antonio admits to having a limited approach to social media and only has a Facebook page – the link is here –  and a website http://www.antoniobellini.com/ 

With train times from London to Ipswich only 1 hour 10 minutes why not consider a visit to this historic town. The days of being a Premiere League football team may be over (for a while!) but the Town does host a fabulous waterfront, excellent dining, wonderful history and architecture and now apparently leads in male Italian style!


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Black Shoe Road Test Part 3 - Jones Bootmaker (and the winner is announced!)


We reach the third and final pair of shoes in the black formal (dress) shoe road test (you can read the previous 2 reviews here for Samuel Windsor and here for Marks and Spencer). This final pair are from Jones Bootmaker, a delightfully antique title! For the final pair I selected an Oxford style, but added the option of a patterned toe cap – a style of shoe I had admired for some time but had never owned a pair.


Price wise this pair is the most expensive of the 3 I am testing, but I did manage to obtain them in a sale at £90 ($130). At this price, compared to the others in the test at £39.95 and £55, I had high expectations.

They are Goodyear Welted and leather throughout, including a very soft inner lining around the point between the end of the laces and the toe cap, where the shoe naturally ‘breaks’ when you walk. The result was almost instant comfort. Overall the leather was very firm, in line with the leather used by Samuel Windsor, but has softened with use more quickly.

I treated them to the standard polishing treatment of saddle soap, shoe cream and shoe wax and after 6 weeks they have developed a wonderful lustre and shine – the toe caps are superb! As the shoe cream and wax have built up over the 6 weeks the shoes are now the easiest to quickly restore a shine to with the weekly clean/polish.

They are now the most comfortable of the 3 pairs after the first 6 weeks.


The results of the road test (and really I am not a shoe expert, so I am looking for simple criteria – price, comfort, quality of sole, ease of cleaning & look!):

Name:                                                      Full Price:                                  Sale Price:
Samuel Windsor Brogue                                    £70                                     £39.95
Marks and Spencer Monk Strap                         £65                                     £55.00                                   
Jones Oxford Patterned                                    £135                                     £90.00

Comfort:                                       At the beginning                                After 6 weeks
Samuel Windsor Brogue                                    3rd                                           3rd                 
Marks and Spencer Monk Strap                         1st                                           2nd                 
Jones Oxford Patterned                                      2nd                                          1st

Goodyear Welted:
Samuel Windsor Brogue                                    Yes
Marks and Spencer Monk Strap                         No
Jones Oxford Patterned                                      Yes

Shoe Shining:
Samuel Windsor Brogue                                    3rd
Marks and Spencer Monk Strap                         2nd
Jones Oxford Patterned                                      1st

Overall I must side with overall comfort and say the most expensive are the best – Jones are the winner. Which, I suppose, lends credence to the saying "You get what you pay for" - well at least where shoes are concerned!

That said, I am very pleased with all three pairs of shoes, and wear them equally with pride. Goodyear Welted clearly give you an edge in being able to re-sole the shoes for many years to come and provide a high level of weather proofing. They all respond very well to quality cleaning and polishing. They are all classic in looks and style.

On reflection, they are all winners and provide us with very affordable options to (with careful regular polishing and maintenance) look stylish on a budget, which was how we started this road test in the first place!


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Black Shoe Road Test Part 2 - Monk Strap Shoes from Marks and Spencer


Welcome to the second in my series of 3 reviews of road testing formal black shoes (dress shoes). As part of my review I wanted to test a pair of shoes which have leather soles and leather uppers, but are not Goodyear Welted. I was curious to see how well they stood up to day-to-day walking, rain and wet conditions.

I have considered obtaining a pair of monk strap shoes for some time and purchased a pair of suede ones from Marks and Spencer last year. I liked the style, the fit, and the slim line of the shoe lends itself to a narrow cut of trouser I favour – especially with cords. I decided to return to Marks and Spencer to acquire a black leather pair of monk straps.

My first impression of the shoe was how lightweight it felt. Although the leather uppers felt solid in construction the leather (in comparison to the other shoes I am testing from Jones and Samuel Windsor) is very thin. In additional the soles, because they lack the robustness of a Goodyear Welted construction also lacked a certain robustness. The sizing was also a little small and I found I needed an extra half size to add to the length of the shoe.


After their first 6 weeks of wear here are the findings:
  • Polishing. Following the same cleaning format I have adopted with the other shoes (saddle soap, shoe cream and then wax polish) these shoes are top of the list. They polish extremely well and have developed a mirror like sheen on the toe caps.
  • Comfort. Despite how thin the leather uppers originally felt the leather is now developing a softness and is moulding to my foot very comfortably.
  • The soles. I am convinced the soles will not last long, they are after just 6 weeks already feeling vulnerable. Although, I must say they kept my feet relatively dry during a walk in some very wet conditions. I suspect I will be having them re-soled within their first six months (I did take another pair of thin leather soled shoes from Marks and Spencer to my local shoe repair shop recently and he was able to replace the soles with a much thicker sole – this photograph demonstrates the excellent job he was able to undertake).
  • The look. I cannot fault the look of these shoes – now they are polished and gleaming they look classic and timeless and work well with my suits (especially my dark blue pinstripes). The gentle creasing appearing on the uppers is adding to their individualism and character. Once they have some more robust soles on I suspect they will be even better.
  • Price. I paid £55 ($80) for them and would rate them as good value for money for a leather shoe. 


I know I need to add another £20 soon for new soles, but I believe I have shoe here that will last for many years to come. 


Monday, August 25, 2014

Black Shoe Road Test Part 1: Handmade Leather Shoes for only £39 - Can they be any good?



Shoes are to me what handbags are to my beautiful wife – I would happily own hundreds of them if I could! However, I am also fussy about my shoes. For example the upper part of the shoe must be made of leather, they should have leather soles, and they should have a style or shape which is not extreme (no square toes!), so they will be useful for many years to come.

I am slowly building a new collection of black shoes for office wear, now I have started in my new CEO role in London. A typical day can involve over an hour of walking, many hours sitting on trains, being in an office, short aircraft flights to and from Europe and some more lengthy trips to Africa and the Americas. I need robust shoes. But, in line with my emerging sense of middle aged style, I want them to be classic in shape and design – and most importantly they need to be cost effective.

I have been road testing three pairs of shoes over the past 6 weeks and wanted to present my initial findings of the first pair from a mail order company called Samuel Windsor.

First the company. I first heard of Samuel Windsor in the newspaper The Daily Telegraph. They run a series of advertisements throughout the year in the newspaper, ranging from cotton and linen suits and jackets, hats, shirts, but I always remember them for the shoe advert. The image they use makes the shoes look rather ‘frumpy’ and uninspiring (and the advertisement often seems to appear on the same page as those for ‘comfortable shoes’, ‘stretch waist band trousers’ and ‘Tilley Hats’ – all the items that scream “You are now 50+ so you should now dress age appropriately”!!).

However, on this occasion I noticed the sale price - £39.95 ($60). So, now the risk was only £43 (including the postage) per pair of shoes – it seemed the moment to order a pair.

Ordering on line was easy and efficient, there was a range of sizes to select from and even an express delivery option. I opted for standard delivery and placed my order on a Sunday evening – the shoes arrived Wednesday!


Opening the box the first thing that hits you is the smell of leather – very intense, but obviously a good sign. My pair of black brogues came with a shoe horn and a spare pair of good quality laces. The leaflet in the box explained the shoes were ‘handmade with pride by craftsmen’ and 'made almost exclusively by hand'. They added 'it takes over 100 individual processes and up to four weeks to produce each pair' The leaflet concluded with a rubber stamped signature of the person who made my shoes.

They had Goodyear Welted leather soles, leather uppers, leather lined. On the tongue of the shoe a small loop had been stitched in to allow the last line of shoe lace to be threaded through, helping with a firm fit of the shoes across the upper part of my foot. They are a classic shape, a slim brogue, and are far better in real life than the photograph in the advertisement portrayed them. See their youtube video:


The leather was very stiff, and had a comfortable degree of thickness to it. Was I really holding such a well made pair of shoes for which I had paid less than £40?

So the road test. I followed Justin ‘The Shoe Snob’s’ advice in caring for new shoes and cleaned the shoes first with saddle soap to help soften and nourish the leather (his excellent blog post is here). Then applied some black shoe cream, followed by several layers of shoe wax polish. A shine eventually began to appear. I paid particular attention to the toe area, as (being ex-military) I like a shine to my toe caps! I have then repeated the process once a week. Here I must say I am disappointed so far. I am finding it very difficult to get a true mirror-like shine. The other two shoes I am testing (these will feature in two later posts) have after the first month a high gloss finish – not my Samuel Windsors. Yes, they are ‘polished’ but not shining. I will though keep up the routine and assess again after a few months.


I added my own purple laces!

In terms of comfort I am impressed. The stiffness of the leather was noticeable on the first day, but the continued use of the saddle soap and wearing them once or twice a week (my working days are long and I am wearing the shoes from 6 am through to 9 pm) has helped to gently soften them. They are slowly moulding to the shape of my foot and my style of walking. That is the glory of all leather shoes.



If the shoes eventually respond to the polishing I will definitely purchase another pair, possibly several. I am very impressed. I do have to finish though with one complaint. I wanted to find out more about the construction of the shoes (for example where are they made?) so I emailed Samuel Windsor and asked for some background information. I never received a reply. I also added a customer review on the website stating they had not replied to my email - the posting has been removed! Are they trying to hide something about the process? 

(August 30th. Since publishing this review Samuel Windsor did reply to my email. Here is the text:
"Hello Mr Hollingsworth

Thank you for your email, and please accept my apologies that you did not receive a reply without prompting. The enquiry seems to have been closed on our system without reply, and I can only presume this was due to an operator error.

I have read through your blog, and would like to thank you for considering us for this comparison test. It is good to hear that you are pleased with the shoes and I trust they are serving you well.
Our Goodyear welted shoes are made in India using the finest  leathers, and the factory we use makes exclusively for Samuel Windsor. The process follows the traditional Goodyear Welted construction. The  factory is now in its third generation of family ownership retaining the skills and knowledge necessary to produce a quality, traditionally made shoe, at affordable prices.

We are more than happy for you to use these comments on your excellent blog, and if you need any further information please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Once again, apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I do hope this has not shown us in too dim a light in your view!

NB: Please ensure that any replies to this email contain all previous correspondence.

Kind Regards

Derek Whinstance
Customer Service Advisor"

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Versatile Tie - The Red Knitted Silk



I am always on the look out for classic items (with a little contemporary twist to them), especially if I can find them in a sale! As an example I have always admired the knitted silk tie and several years ago managed to acquire a dark blue tie from an Armani outlet in Palm Springs (read my previous post here). I recently acquired my second knitted silk tie - at Marks and Spencer of all places!

It is a dark red, almost burgundy, but unlike my Armani version this one has a square end – hence the more classic feel to it. It is constructed extremely well. The neck section has a silk lining which allows it to sit/hang perfectly and provides the perfect start point to tie it at the correct length (so the end of the tie rests on the waist band of my trousers). It is 6 cm wide, mid way between the normal width of a tie and the latest trend for very skinny ties – a good compromise, and unlikely to look dated for many years to come.




It also has an interesting sheen to it, which I am taking as an indication of the quality of the silk knit. In a very short space of time it has become my go-to tie. What I especially like about knitted silk is how it can be worn with almost any style of clothing. Here are some images of the tie with soft collared oxford shirt, the same shirt with a cotton jacket and a more formal suit and shirt.








Knitted silk ties are enjoying something of a revival and are therefore much easier to find - TM Lewin for example has a very good selection. Finally, I only paid £15 ($23) for it in the sales. One tie, so many options, and it looks good in all seasons. Classic!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An alternative summer hat


For my current extended visit to England certain items of clothing, because of space restrictions, did not make the final cut for packing. One such item was my aged Panama Hat (see my previous post here). With the English summer already much hotter than I anticipated life without a decent summer hat has proved unbearable. Because I do not need a replacement Panama just yet I did not want to go to the expense of purchasing a new one – I therefore set out to find an affordable alternative, very much in keeping with my focus on writing about classic clothing and accessories at affordable levels!

I want to introduce you to the paper hat, in a classic Panama style. I am not sure exactly how these hats are constructed – I suspect they are massed produced in a form of moulding from paper and the inner and outer bands are then added.


I found this particular hat in the store Debenhams, reduced in price to just £10 ($15), but I have seen them in many stores and outlets for no more than an average of £15. With a traditional Panama ranging from £50 ($75) to £200 ($300) this seems a great price point. So, I have been ‘road testing’ the hat now for a few weeks. The findings:
  • The hat was originally shaped with a rolled down rim. I personally do not like such a style, preferring my hat to look more ‘trilby’ like with a rolled up back rim and rolled down frontal rim. The paper construction allows for moulding any shape you like. I found I could easily bend the rim, moisten it a little with cold water and then grip it in my hand and after a few minutes the desired shape was fixed.
    Rim rolled down

    Rear rim rolled up
  • The hat is very lightweight and, like a Panama, you hardly feel you are wearing it.
  • The weave is open, allowing for maximum ventilation.
  • The inner band is fabric and is useful for absorbing the moisture (or perspiration) from one’s head.
  • The paper construction does give the hat a certain stiffness in the crown, which leaves me a little nervous it may rip or tear if handled too aggressively.
  • It certainly looks sharp, classic and stylish. From a distance you could easily take it for a classic Panama.

Summary:
  • I like the classic look.
  • Will it last rough handling?
  • It is very affordable.
  • It is comfortable and can be worn for extended periods.
  • It is functional in that it does keep the sun at bay.

If you are looking to try wearing a classic hat for the first time and are reluctant to initially invest in a traditional Panama this hat is the perfect solution for you.

If you are a hat wearer already and need a summer hat you can ‘knock about’ and not worry about spoiling (perhaps on the beach or garden) this could also be for you.

Or if like me you have not packed yours on a trip or vacation and need an affordable stylish alternative then look no further! I am impressed.