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............

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I need an everyday bag - not as easy as it sounds!

Here in England I am spending my days in a combination of both working and leisure activities, so I leave the house in the morning needing to carry my 'phone, ipad, note book, pens, magazine/newspaper, wallet, business papers, sunglasses, reading glasses, keys, cigars, etc. Because I am 'mobile' I find I do not need a briefcase - it looks and feels too formal and bulky - but I need a bag which can cope with the more informal approach I am taking, yet still look stylish. It needs to look appropriate meeting with my Bank as it does relaxing in the coffee shop.

As I began my research for the perfect middle-aged man's stylish solution one of our regular readers (Felix) emailed me and told me he had purchased the new Galaxy smartphone, and once he had put a protective cover on it, he could not fit into any of his pockets (without an embarrassingly large bulge!). How do we cope with carrying all these gadgets he asked? I know therefore I am not alone!

The first challenge is understanding the language and terminology of male bags. Here is my simple guide, starting with the smallest potential solution to the largest.

The Portfolio

Elements: Slim, no handle or strap, a zip or sealable flap, room for a few documents, an ipad, but very little else. Generally made of leather or PVC.

Use: Classic item for attending meetings and looking as though you have people to carry all your stuff!
Suitability for the task: Too small for the many loose items I need to carry.

The Tote

Elements: Smaller than a briefcase, no strap, two handles, can vary in size from slim to up to 6 inches wide and depth can vary as well, options for internal pockets. Comes in all fabrics and materials.
Use: Can fit documents, newspapers, 'loose' items such as keys, glasses, 'phones, even small laptops.
Suitability for the task: A medium size model would appear to suit my needs.

It looks stylish, especially if made of leather, a slimmer model would stop it looking like a briefcase. My only concern: does it look too much like a ladies handbag?

The Messenger Bag

Elements: A cross between a portfolio and a tote, no handle, a strap long enough to hang across the body, made in all fabrics and materials, one large flap, options for internal pockets.
Use: Has the same potential as the Tote, but more useful if you need to be hands-free.

Suitability for the task: As with the tote this would suit my needs - and with no handles it does not look too handbag-like! However, I dislike wearing a strap across my chest - and I am no longer a messenger boy on a bike!

The Sportsman Bag

Elements: Close to the traditional 'gym bag'. Not quite a weekend bag, side pockets, handles and a strap, options for internal dividers. Often seen in canvas material.
Use: Can fit a great deal of personal items.

Suitability for the task: Because of the broader base on these bags I find them too bulky for my needs. I also dislike the canvas bag look - too 'young' and utilitarian.

The Backpack

Elements: Two straps for wearing on both shoulders. Many side pockets, water bottle holders, one large flap, vary in size from large (for climbing mountains) to very small. Can be made with any material or fabric.

Use: Anything you can think of!
Suitability for the task: Regular readers will know my preference for using products for which they were originally intended - so, backpacks are for hill walking and mountain climbing. Period.

Next step is to head out to the stores and road test. I will let you know in a few weeks my choice and solution!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Should I Wear Pointy Shoes? - A reader's question

Felix wrote to me in December and asked:

"I would appreciate reading your thoughts on wearing pointy Italian shoes. I'm sure there is a formal name for them, but my observation is that one needs to be relatively small-footed. For instance, wouldn't my size 12 feet look obscene in pointy toes, which would exaggerate their length to size 16 proportions? What are the do's and don'ts?"

With my home in Canada in the grip of constant -30c temperatures since December 1st in the coldest winter in history it was difficult to bring myself to comment on styles of footwear when I have been living in my Hunter boots for two months! However, I have been in the UK over the past week and I decided, now I am in a country of mild (if wet!) climate and everyone dressing 'normally', I could research Felix's question and provide a non-artic based reply!

I spent a day in the High Street recently, and took the opportunity to observe English men and their footwear (bear in mind I have not lived in England for the past 14 years). I am able to report the wearing of these pointy shoes seems to fall into two categories: Those worn by 'high fashion' users; and those who wear very cheaply made shoes.
A slim fitting shoes with a bizarre square toe

In addition, everyone wearing these shoes seems to be under 35 in age. The 'high fashion' shoes,such as in the image above, looked okay when worn with slim jeans, but they looked dreadful worn with a suit. The cheaply made shoes seem to be worn by nearly every young man I saw! Interestingly I observed the shoe seemed to curl up at the toe and reminded me of a ski jump/ramp or a 14th century court jester! I went into several shoe shops and found the quality of these shoes dreadful - they retail at about £30 or $40. No wonder they curl up at the toe. Finally, as Felix alluded to, wearing long, thin pointy shoes can be a challenge when you are trying to get the proportions of your look correct. So, they work very well with tall men, but will look somewhat strange when worn by someone of low or average height with larger than average feet.
The ski ramp effect

Would I wear a pair? I like a slim fitting shoe, I think it is the most stylish option. As with so many items I consider classic for the middle aged man my advice is to avoid extremes - no pointy toes, and no square toes. 
These monk strap shoes from Cheaney provide an excellent example of a slim, not pointy, shoe.
A slimmer rounded toe will always look superbly stylish, they will work with many different outfits, and provide excellent proportion to your overall look.

Monday, December 23, 2013

How to dress for the informal Christmas party

Informal Christmas parties are a challenge sartorially. Do we don the hideous Christmas sweater? Perhaps wear our business suit but remove the tie and try and look cool? I have found the perfect solution - the velvet jacket.

My Black and Brown Jacket - image from Hudson's Bay
My BW presented me with a velvet jacket as my Birthday gift recently - it was a deep chocolate brown, unlined, soft shoulders, surgeon's buttons on the cuffs, slanted side pockets. It is stunning. Its real glory though is how lightweight it is. It can therefore be worn indoors over a shirt or my preferred way over my cashmere turtle sweater (read the post here), and not find an unacceptable rise in body heat! It works with jeans, cords, chinos, or even more formal wool trousers, making it one of the most versatile items of clothing I own.

The velvet jacket has seen many re-births - I first owned one in the late 1970s as a teenager - and they now feature in many designer collections. I am very happy to have re-discovered velvet, in fact it may now have to be included in my 'essential collection' of classics (read the original post here).
Colin Firth showing how to be 50 and look a little rakish in a velvet jacket

How wonderful to now be wearing an item of clothing in my 50s  I last wore over 30 years ago!