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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A great value summer jacket


Regular readers may recall my challenges two summers ago trying to purchase a light weight blue jacket (read the post here). The search had started in 2010, and I only found exactly what I wanted in August 2012! On a recent visit to London I decided to check out a few stores and see if it is any easier in 2014 to find a light weight summer jacket. The answer is yes and no!

I should first establish my ‘rules’ for the perfect summer jacket:

  • It should be light weight (no padding in the shoulders).
  • It can be lined as long as the lining does not make the jacket too bulky.
  • It should not cost more than £150 ($220).
  • It must be made of natural fibres such as cotton or linen (no polyester!).
  • The shape and cut must be classic - i.e. it will look stylish for years.
I visited H&M, UNIQLO, John Lewis and Mango (the cotton jackets at Mango retailed at only £50 came very close to meeting all the criteria - they were let down by the length of the jacket being just too short - not by much, another inch would have made them ‘classic’ rather than ‘trendy’). If you are unsure what a classic versus trendy jacket is (in my language) here is an image of a middle aged man in a trendy jacket:


The most impressive results came from Marks and Spencer. Here are some images from the trip:

Cotton jacket from Mango

Cotton jacket from Mango

My favourite find was a linen line of jackets in the Collezione line. Apart from the excellent fit, the jacket retailed at an impressive £119 and also came in three colours (blue, tan and stone) with the option of also purchasing a pair of trousers in the same colour for £45. This would enable you to purchase a linen suit for just £164. Moreover, if you purchased the blue and one of the other colours as two suits you could mix and match giving you an additional two further dress options.



Two of the jackets from Marks and Spencer

I know Marks and Spencer is working hard to improve its offerings and I must confess to being very impressed with the SS14 collection. My only criticism is the store experience - as my BW continued to point out the layout of the store meant we could not find ‘jackets’ all in one place. We kept having to move around the store finding them in many different places - very frustrating - and I am sure when we left the store we had still not found all the jackets they had to offer!

Finally I know I have a reputation for being conservative in my style choices, but I was very drawn to another jacket in the Sartorial line, also made of linen, (£129) which would certainly take me out of the zone. 





The small touches on this jacket of the white button hole on the lapel, the white cuff and jacket buttons, and the ticket pocket made this a very desirable jacket. Perhaps on my next visit..........






Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Polo Shirts - quality or quantity?

A while ago I wrote a short piece about my 4 Lacoste polo shirts I have owned since 2007 (read it here). They are still in good shape - a fine example of a quality item serving as an investment. With the summer season approaching, and now in the UK rather than North America, and continuing my search for affordable quality, I have started to look at adding to my summer wardrobe - starting with some more polo shirts.

My natural choice would have been to stay with Lacoste - they have not let me down in the past. However, I have found the cost of Lacoste polo shirt in the UK is a staggering £75 ($120), which does not fit in with my current philosophy of style and quality at an affordable rate - I could purchase three excellent formal shirts from TM Lewin for the same price as one Lacoste shirt. There is something wrong with this equation!
image from Lacoste

So I am road testing and deconstructing alternative polo shirts! Last year I purchased a few polo shirts from Joe Fresh in Canada. Last month I purchased 2 polo shirts from H&M here in the UK. Here are the early results:

Fabric:

Both are made from 100% cotton pique, the same as Lacoste. The Lacoste does feel very slightly thicker in comparison and has a little more 'give' or stretch in the fabric. However, this slight difference is hardly noticeable.

image from H&M
Cut:

The H&M and Joe polo shirts have a straight hem with a side split. This matches the Lacoste. The benefit of the straight hem is to be able to wear the shirt tucked in or out (a hem with a longer 'tail' looks  strange to me - rather like having a beaver tail!).
Straight hem with side split
They also have ribbed edge short sleeves, with a seam length from under the arm of 5cm on Joe and 4cm on H&M. However the H&M sleeve has an outer length of 19cm compared to the Joe length of 17cm. 2cm difference may not seem like much, but it gives the H&M shirt sleeves a greater sense of being parallel when worn. The Lacoste is 5cm inner and 19cm outer.



Construction:

Both shirts have a re-inforced shoulder seam and side seams under the arms. Lacoste is the same.
shoulder seam

Length:

Joe started out as 73cm long and H&M at 72cm. After washing the Joe has shrunk to 65cm! H&M shrunk to 70cm.
image from Joe

Cost:

H&M retails at £7.99 ($12.50) and Joe at $13.50 (£8.50).

Summary:

My one complaint (for as long as I can remember!) is that polo shirts lose their shape after one season of washing (the Joe one lost its shape after the first few washes!). It means they shrink in length and in doing so lose the original designed long shape and just look box-like. It also means you lose the option to tuck the shirt in should you wish.

My Lacoste shirts have never shrunk - that is why I like them. However, now I have found in H&M a comparable shirt which, whilst it may lack the quality of the Lacoste cotton, still holds it shape, feels soft, and frankly looks better than its £7.99 price tag.

If I therefore treat this an investment I can:

1. Purchase one Lacoste shirt for £75, knowing it will last me at least 6 years (based on my past purchases), giving me an annual cost of £12.50.

2. Purchase three H&M shirts for a total of £23.97 and keep them for 2 or 3 years - the same investment total of the Lacoste shirt.

With yearly changes to 'in-style' colours (this year seeming to favouring light aqua for example) changing polo shirts each year to keep updated can be an expensive business. My suggestion is to purchase three Lacoste shirts in classic colours (perhaps, one per year to spread the cost in navy blue, white, red) and then use the likes of H&M to vary a few seasonal colours.

And, finally, who knows how long these cheaper shirts will eventually last? They could last longer than 3 years, so you can always use them for gardening, golf, beach wear or even donate them to a charity shop!


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beware of advertising - The search for affordable quality continues

In a recent post (read it here) I wrote about my new search for quality clothing and how to achieve quality at an affordable price for the middle aged man. My search recently took me back to a retailer of my youth, through the lure of advertising. It was a disappointing return!

I went to visit Burtons Menswear. 


Burtons originally opened in 1904. By 1945/6 it is estimated one in four men in the United Kingdom owned a suit from Burtons. They went on to dominate the high street in the 1970s as a stylish place to go and, as a 16 year old, I purchased my first suit from Burtons in 1977, and then remained loyal to them for a few years. I seem to remember that my suits were branded in those days as 'Pure New Wool' - wool suits being the epitome of style.


I noticed an advert in one of the Sunday newspaper supplements effectively announcing that 'Burtons was back'. The full page advert  contained the following lines:

"Burtons offers serious covetable pieces for those who have outgrown spray on jeans and a slogan T-shirt."
"Ageless classics."
"The collection of classic suits is still here."
"We pay attention to the details buying in only the best."


So into the store I went. It was still in the same location as 1977 but now shared the premises with a women's clothing outfit (Dorothy Perkins). First impressions were that it was nothing like the store in 1977 where suits then dominated the window display! I weaved my way past tables of T-shirts and polo shirts, racks of faded jeans, cargo shorts etc, the most haphazard dysfunctional layout imaginable - I could not walk more than two paces in a straight line.

At the back of the store I found the suits. Oh dear! Now I am not yet a real clothing snob, but I could smell the polyester in the air! I checked every one of their suits, looking at the label (when I could find it hidden inside the pocket) and every single one was made of a minimum of 80% polyester. I did not find one single wool suit. The tiny one inch wide lapels on the suit jackets were so thin - all of my ties were wider than those lapels! But, in fairness to you the reader, I felt I should at least try a jacket on. 


The jacket for my size was so short in length that the waist felt it was almost around my chest. The length of the jacket only covered half my seat and the arm holes were cut so small I could barely move my arms without the whole polyester body of the jacket moving with me - hardly a 'classic' look. I also tried the 'scrunch' test - I gripped the jacket sleeve in my hand for a few seconds and then let it go -  rumpled creases marked the spot of the squeeze. Imagine what it would look like after a days wear!

I left the store of choice of my youth, that once offered only pure new wool suits, 
somewhat sad to see they now offered nothing more than polyester - yet still thought they could brand them as "classic suits" and "only the best". There was absolutely no way these were "serious covetable pieces". I did check the Burtons' website when I returned home and managed to find just one wool suit. Again the style was the very short cut in the jacket and very slim fitting trousers. This extreme fashion is not going to last more than a few years and is not worth investing in. 
Image from Burtons

These suits were selling at a price of £138 ($220), and on sale at £71 ($113). So yes they are affordable, but what do you really get? Hardly a piece of clothing you can wear for years to come. Who, in their middle, discerning, age wants to dress in cheap polyester material and part with £138 in the process? 

As a comparison a quick check around other websites found Charles Tyrwhitt. Here I could get a 100% wool suit, working cuff buttons, half canvas construction jacket, on sale for only £229 ($336) - and they, like TM Lewin, always seem to have a sale! (Note: I will be reviewing these suits for you in a future post).
Image from Charles Tyrwhitt

Comparing the two options of Burtons and CT reminds me of the notes I made in my journal when I began this quality search process. I said to myself in buying quality I am investing, I'm trying to create a wardrobe that will last and serve me in the long term, yet still give me a classic and stylish look. 

Sorry but  a cheap polyester suit for £138 branded as an "ageless classic" and "seriously covetable" will not could work for me. I may be middle-aged, but I know a classic piece of slick advertising when I see it. So, two lessons moving forward: Beware false advertising and always check the label!




Monday, March 31, 2014

The search for affordable quality - menswear trouser hems

For some time now I have been receiving emails from readers of this blog who ask questions which usually fall into two camps:
  • Asking for advice on what to wear in certain situations.
  • Questions about finding quality clothes at affordable prices.
I regularly try and write about the first but have not ventured too much into the second. Time to change that! 

The question of affordable quality came up in an enjoyable discussion I had with the Grey Fox (when we met for the first time recently in London). We agreed that neither of us are fashion experts - we have no training in the industry - we simply write about the style we think is appropriate for us in our middle age, and then share those thoughts in our blogs. But, we do share an interest in quality. I am pleased to see Grey Fox is as concerned as I am to keep clothing/style within reasonable budgets, because dressing well and taking a pride in our appearance should not be the result of spending vast amounts of money.

I am now at the beginning of a journey to better understand quality in clothing. I want to be able to make purchases of shoes, jackets, trousers etc sufficiently informed about value for money and whether the product is designed to last.

Because of the way my brain works I am following a slightly different route to understand quality - I am going to de-construct items of clothing to see how they are made, and where possible compare them against similar products. Knowing this is going to be a major ongoing project I am starting with a fairly simple yet essential item of clothing - trousers.

There are three areas in trousers which I find can improve the look of them - the length of the leg, the waist, the seat. So here I start - the length! Nothing frustrates me more than poorly fitting trousers, especially in the leg. I have written before (here) about correct length of the leg and how even a few centimetres can make a real difference to the finished polished look. 
Many pairs of badly fitting trousers, showing money does not necessarily buy style!
I compared two pairs of trousers from my wardrobe to compare the hems/length. The first is a pair from Tommy Hilfiger. They were altered for me by a local tailor who did a good job of ensuring the rear of the trouser hem is slightly longer than the front (so they 'sit' properly on the front of the shoe), but a poor job of getting the overall length correct. 
Notice the slight angle in the hem


Poorly fitting trouser length
However, when I compared them to a pair of trousers from my only hand made suit I noticed the tailor had sewn an additional strip of material into the rear of the hem - this not only adds a little weight to help with the drape but also helps protect the hem from unnecessary wear and tear from the heel of the shoe.
Inside the hem of the Tommy Hilfiger

Inside the rear hem of my hand made trousers

Lesson learnt: Quality can often be in the small details. Does it cost more to achieve the better hem? Is it difficult to achieve? How difficult is it to alter the length of a pair of trousers? 

I am now attempting a re-construction of my Hilfiger trousers and will let you know how that goes soon!


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'Man-Bag' For The Middle Aged Man - The solution

A few weeks ago I began the search for my first ever 'man-bag' (read the post here). I must confess to feeling strangely very self-conscious about the search, more so than any item of clothing or accessory I ever purchased. Having established the search criteria in the original post (and adding a financial limit of £50 - $75) I began looking in the stores in the old market town I am staying in at the moment (Ipswich in Suffolk in the UK). As I walked around the streets I became more sharply attuned to the men around me - very few seemed to have a bag, unless it was a backpack or a laptop bag. Perhaps I had this wrong?

I had no success in finding a suitable bag - so I searched online and quickly became overwhelmed by the choice! I did follow a Harris Tweed messenger bag on ebay for a few days - it started at £10 and stayed at that price for 5 days, and then in the final 24 hours went insanely high to £75! More than it originally cost. I decided to wait for a forthcoming trip to London, knowing the range of shops would be so much greater. It proved to be the correct decision.

Great colour, but too briefcase looking

This Marks and Spencer bag sent me on the search for grey - this one had no handle

Met the price point and very stylish - but no handle

This was close, but was too wide when slung across my body

I visited a range of stores (Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, H&M, Uniqlo, Zara, Next, John Lewis) and eventually selected a grey cotton bag in Debenhams, made by Mantaray (all purchases support the Marine Conservation Society). It met all my criteria:

  • A handle, as well as a strap.
  • Inside padded pouch for a macbook air or ipad
  • External zip pocket
  • Internal pockets for pens, phone, notebooks
  • Large enough for a magazine and newspaper
  • A design/shape different enough to not look like a ladies handbag (34cm x 29cm x 8cm)
  • Priced under £50






I spent the next two days in London 'road testing' the bag (visiting galleries, markets, shops - and even meeting fellow aged blogger the Grey Fox for lunch!). I quickly overcame my reluctance to wear the bag across my body (it gave me a hands-free option!), and it met all my needs. I cannot imagine life now without it!
Road testing the bag outside the Tate Modern

As an aside when I arrived in London and began my search I soon lost my sense of self-consciousness - I noticed I was one of the few men (middle aged and young) who was not carrying some form of man-bag! I think the middle aged men in my old home town of Ipswich have some catching up to do!


Monday, March 10, 2014

The solution to adding minimalist flair - Coloured Shoes Laces

I have been exploring style for the middle aged man now for nearly 20 months and have come to the conclusion my personal style is definitely on the more conservative side. I like colour, but struggle to fully embrace just yet. But, I am making progress. This week I discovered a partial solution - coloured shoe laces!

I found a company called Big Laces here in the UK (www.biglaces.co.uk) who sell a range not just of coloured laces but also different thicknesses, styles and lengths. As a test I ordered (through Amazon because they offered free shipping and a half price deal) a pair of red laces - spending the grand total, including delivery, of £0.99 (about $1.50 for our North American cousins). As I am also exploring style 'on a budget' I considered this not a bad investment for a splash of colour!

I am very pleased with the end result with my classic English-made brown brogues and my slimmer Italian brogues (although I may need a thinner lace for the Italian shoe).

The end result for me is the chance to show a splash of individualism without making too much of a statement. I now feel bold enough to try some blue laces with my black shoes, and perhaps some green ones with my desert boots. Who knows where this will lead - the opportunities seem endless............