Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The 'Business Bag'

My business role as a CEO involves almost daily travel, anything from a 2 hour train ride to long haul flights around the world. I needed a bag larger than my 'man bag', with room enough for my macbook, Ipad, power cables, books, magazines, pens, cigar travel humidor, food and drink (!) and, as my Director of Communications regularly tells me, my accessories also need ‘gravitas’! In my world that meant it had to be very stylish, made of high quality leather, with the option of handles (for short trips) and a strap (for lengthy hikes through airports). But it still needed to be relatively discreet. And finally, it would not have looked out of place as an accessory 100 years ago – traditional yet contemporary. 

I found the perfect solution in the Hammond & Co range at Debenhams. 

During my first reconnaissance I spotted the bag and it met all my specifications, except the price of £150 seemed high. A week later it went on sale for £75 and I quickly purchased it! Now, 6 months later, I cannot imagine life without it. It is indeed multi-functional and I have found myself using as a weekend bag, business bag, even occasionally as a daily ‘man bag’.

  • Very good quality chocolate brown leather, which is holding up to the endless rough and tumble of daily travel.
  • Padded handles, which are long in length making holding the bag when heavy easier and more comfortable. They can also be removed should I wish to have just the shoulder strap in use.
  • Very robust solid metal zip.
  • Metal studs on the base to protect the leather when I place it on the ground.
  • Padded shoulder strap, so less likely to damage my jackets when I wear it over my shoulder.
  • Inside are six pockets of different sizes.
  • I can fit business cards, pens, keys (in a zipped pocket), an Ipad in a button closing side pocket, mobile phone, small items of office supplies (such as Post-It notes).
  • It is 5 inches wide, 12 inches high, and 16 inches long.
  • It seems to change shape depending on the volume inside, looking one day like a slim case and the next a robust weekend bag!

I realise now I was wrong to balk at the price tag of £150 – if I had paid the full price I still believe I would have obtained a bargain. 

But what to call it? It is not a 'Briefcase' or 'Attache Case' in the traditional sense I would remember from my early working days in the 1980s. Then, quite by chance on the train platform the other morning, a fellow traveller beside me looked down at my bag and said "Great business bag!"

So now I have a new term in my vocabulary – ‘Business Bag’!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Surprising find in H&M – A great quality shirt

Bernhard Roetzel in his excellent book 'Gentleman - A Timeless Guide to Fashion' said ‘Dressing like a gentleman means mixing tailored garments and mass products, exclusiveness and modest practicality'’.

I had occasion to remember this piece of advice during a recent visit to H&M. Firstly I should state I do not often visit H&M without a reason. I find the large volume of stock, the often claustrophobic layout, the skin tight design of most of the clothes, just too much for me and my love of more traditional styles. However, they do stock great value plain t-shirts and very good summer scarfs.

On this occasion I went in to explore their sportswear line (more of that in another post – it was very good!), and whilst weaving my way through the racks of clothing noticed a checked button-down soft collared shirt. 

The combined colours of blue, white and red had been on my radar for a while as something particularly suitable for Spring and Summer. I had found a similar shirt in John Lewis recently but the £75.00 price tag seemed excessive for a casual shirt.

I would not normally write about every shirt I purchase but this one is worth mentioning. The quality of the workmanship is very good. Despite usually fitting into a Medium t-shirt at H&M this particular shirt followed the trend of ‘slim fit’ which meant having to purchase a Large. It has well constructed seams, robust buttons, a side gusset, a reinforced collar and a horizontal final button hole (often the mark of a bespoke shirt). 

It is 100% cotton, and a decent weight. It is going to work well with my tailored blue blazer, linen and cotton jackets, and even under a cashmere sweater.

And of course the price. £14.99. A classic example of what Bernhard Roetzel referred to as a 'mass produced' and perhaps it means I may need to visit H&M more often!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Suit Review - Hammond & Co Prince of Wales Check

In my continuous search for style I draw a lot of my inspiration from the period of the 1920s and 1930s - the so called golden age of men's fashion. One particular style of suit which became prevalent during this period is the Prince of Wales check, a bolder version of the Glen Plaid. I have never owned such a style, but have been searching for an appropriate such suit for some time. The majority of off-the-peg options are a grey/blue mix (and everyone seems to own one), but I wanted something a little different. I finally found the solution in the Hammond & Co by Patrick Grant range at the store Debenhams.

The most popular style in the 1920s/1930s was the double breasted suit, often seen worn by the then Prince of Wales Prince Edward, later to become HRH The Duke of Windsor.

The Hammond & Co suit came in a grey/blue three piece suit option or the grey/brown double breasted. I opted for the later. The suit was only available online, as an 'end of season' sale. I took a risk in guessing the size, clicked order, and 3 days later it arrived. Free delivery, and only £150! As soon as I touched the soft cloth of the suit I knew I had found a bargain. What a wonderful suit.

Firstly the fit. The jacket has soft shoulders, a generous roll on the lapel, and a tailored waist giving a sharp sillouette. I already own another Hammond & Co suit, so I knew in advance their sizing is not generous. I can purchase a suit from Marks and Spencer in a size 40" regular and it will fit perfectly. With Hammond & Co I need a 42" - they call it the 'tailored cut'. I remain confused in general with the (hopefully dying) trend of calling clothing 'tailored' - which seems to mean ultra slim cut to save money on the amount of fabric used! 

The buttons on the jacket sleeve work, adding a nice touch not often found on off-the-peg suits. Another rarity is to find sleeves cut the correct length. The sleeves on the jacket are perfect, just touching my wrists, allowing for 1/2" of shirt cuff to show.

The trousers are very well cut. A straight leg, with adjustable side fasteners on the waistband.

No belt loops are an added refinement, adding to the tailored feel to the suit. However, I had to purchase a 34" waist because the suit only came in 2" intervals (I am a 33"). I am already finding the trousers a little loose, so I will be having my tailor add some buttons inside the waistband to enable me to use braces (suspenders) to improve the general drape of the trouser. The trousers are also lined to the knee.      

The fabric is worsted wool, and has both a softness and a durable feel to it. Although the label showed the suit to have been made in Egypt (the rather impersonal number of the employee is on the label!), the material is woven in England. 

I know I have used the word drape several times, but the overall feel of this suit is that it is draped on you, not hugging your body. I have not felt this comfortable in a suit since I wore my first bespoke suit a few years ago.

The suit now needed a road test! It is all well and good admiring oneself in the mirror and on the selfie photograph, but how will it stand up to being worn for hours on end? I had to visit Northern Ireland recently on business for a few days, so took the opportunity to wear the suit. This involved a train ride to Heathrow, an hour and a half at the airport lounge (sitting whilst on a one hour conference call on my mobile phone), a one hour flight, then a one hour drive to Portrush. I emerged from the rigours of this exhaustive trip in the suit as if I had just put it on. The weight and quality of the fabric seemed to allow it to avoid a crumpled look so often associated with travel, and it also bounced back into shape within minutes. Very impressive - especially for someone as obsessed as I am with well pressed and clean clothes!

Finally, I should mention its flexibility. On this particular business trip I was able to wear the trousers with a black cashmere sweater for a more relaxed look, and I tried wearing the jacket with an open necked shirt and dark jeans. The grey/brown colour mix in the check also means brown or black shoes work very well with it, adding even more flexibility (a later post will look in more detail at the flexible options of such a suit).

I am happy - I have managed to add a classic piece of clothing to my wardrobe, stay true to my love of the style of the 1920s/1930s, yet maintain a contemporary twist - all for £150! 

Hammond & Co definitely gets my vote of approval.

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!