To pretend to be a gentleman, go to London and get suited
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01
(continued from page 1)
Over the years, Michael de Cozar, head concierge at The Ritz London, has handled some unusual requests by hotel guests. There was, for example, a Frenchman who wished to buy a double-decker bus to use as an outdoor bar in his Provence country home.
An American equestrian enlisted Mr. de Cozar to have her English saddle flown by Concorde to New York in time for her performance in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. And a British expatriate, who hoped to bathe in his native Brighton waters but found himself too busy in London to travel to the Channel, had the concierge arrange to transport enough barrels of Brighton sea water to fill his tub at The Ritz.
All these feats give me confidence that Mr. de Cozar is just the man to help with my own quest: living the life of an English gentleman during an extended four-day weekend in London. Perhaps not mission impossible, but difficult nonetheless in this era of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair when stuffiness is passé. Even the Tory opposition leader, William Hague, sounds like a populist, embracing a philosophy he calls "kitchen sink conservatism."
Travel magazine articles seem to favor London hotels with a cool, minimalist décor more appropriate to South Beach, and food critics concentrate on London restaurants that artfully serve up Mediterranean fusion cuisine to patrons clad in designer T-shirts.
But I want the London my father told me about, a place that I can recognize from a Rex Harrison black-and-white movie. To pretend to be an English gentleman means staying at a hotel that opened in the Edwardian era, devoting time and money to clothe myself in bespoke apparel, dining at wood-paneled restaurants on chops or fish good enough to devour without sauces, wangling an invitation to a private club, and attending an annual event that draws the royals (since I arrive in May, the Chelsea Flower Show will do).
For lodging, The Savoy or Claridge's would be as agreeable, but The Ritz is a shorter walk to the main activities I have in mind: getting fitted for a suit on Savile Row, shirts on Jermyn Street and shoes on St. James's. I start with the suit store. After visiting all three establishments suggested by Mr. de Cozar, I pick Anderson & Sheppard Ltd., partly because it looks like the sort of place that hasn't changed much in a century and partly because its managing director, David M. Williams, plays upon my insecurities and pretensions like a maestro. "If we don't think we have what you want, we will suggest a different Savile Row tailor," says Mr. Williams, making me think that I would do anything to want what they have.
The store's signature style is a comfortable look with a natural shoulder line, or in Mr. Williams's words, "a timeless classic" -- which is the best possible slogan for selling clothes that are supposed to be as suitable today as they were at a cocktail party 30 years ago. Mr. Williams queries me about my sartorial needs before going any further. Since this is my first custom-made suit, I want to get as much wear out of it as possible. So, he suggests a mid-weight cloth, about 11 to 12 ounces per yard, that can be worn in New York nine months out of the year, and something in charcoal gray that I can use both day and night.
We look through the large bolts of fabric that take up most of the floor space (other Savile Row shops, with a more contemporary concern for the rental price of a square foot of West End property, offer customers book-bound swatches of cloth -- or "bunches," as they are known in the trade). I pick out a subtle herringbone that will end up costing me $2,500. But this is a suit that's supposed to last a lifetime -- a credible claim now that I'm past 50.
Next comes a half hour of measurements -- about a score for the jacket and seven for the trousers. "We are looking at the ?configuration' -- for example, if you have a slight stoop," Mr. Williams explains. "Remember, this is an item that will live and breathe with you." It's the first time I think of a suit as a vital organ. An initial fitting, in three to four weeks, will be only enough to "see the style we are aiming at -- the silhouette -- but the shoulders and sleeves won't be there yet," says Mr. Williams. Four weeks later comes a second fitting -- "Essentially, the finished product," he explains. A week afterwards, there will be a "final look," so that the entire process adds up to at least eight weeks. Fortunately, the store representatives make several visits a year to New York and other American cities, where they reserve suites in the best hotels to receive clients for fittings.
But the "final look" usually takes place on Savile Row, just in case something is amiss. Simon, a London friend, tells me of an instance when a tailor decided during a final look that the shoulder stitches weren't quite right -- and immediately tore off the sleeves. He makes it sound as if an officer had his epaulettes ripped away moments before stepping in front of a firing squad.
Our conversation takes place at The Ritz on a Sunday afternoon, where Simon and his wife, Cheri, have brought their 6-year-old son, Theo, for a rite of passage towards becoming a gentleman -- tea at the hotel's Palm Court. Daylight streams through the central glazed skylight, illuminating the palms, the hanging lamps that look like birdcages, and a central niche with the sculpture of a woman surrounded by angels. Looking around the room, I see a number of mop-headed youngsters with their parents, but also foreign visitors of my age from the Middle and Far East.
Tea, in seven varieties, is served in silver teapots with silver milk jugs and tea strainers. There is also a triple-tiered tray: on the bottom level, finger sandwiches of smoked salmon, egg and watercress, cucumber, and turkey and cheese; a middle tier of freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream; and on top, a selection of afternoon tea cakes. Simon demonstrates to his son the proper way to pour tea through a strainer; the most important part of the ritual is not to let a drop of tea stain the table. Being an aspiring gentleman, I'm all eyes and ears. But Theo, a budding violinist, is instead riveted by a familiar melody from a harp being played a few feet away. When the bill for tea ($42 a person) arrives, I recognize the harp strains -- the theme song from The Godfather -- and settle without protest.
My next morning is spent getting fitted for shirts at Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street. "From prime ministers to princes, to mere earls and baronets, Turnbull & Asser has dressed them all," reads the store catalogue. But Steven Quin, the salesman, assures me that most clients are untitled, "successful, well-established men in their 40s and 50s" -- a profile within the parameters of my fantasies.
I will have to place a minimum order for six shirts, at prices ranging from $173 to $314 per shirt, depending on the quality of the fabric. Among the swatches of different cloth in ascending quality, I pick out: a classic poplin woven from Egyptian cotton, with quite a bit of body, in a blue-and-white gingham check pattern; two triple-color stripes, also in Egyptian cotton; a super-fine, soft cotton in a cream herringbone pattern; a light, almost silky, white-on-white with the vaguest of stripes, in what is called Sea Island quality cotton; and one shirt in the shop's top-of-the-line "two-fold 200" fabric -- a cool, dense cotton with a silky feel -- in a solid blue.
For my two least expensive shirts, I ask for a three-button cuff that is a Turnbull & Asser trademark. For the middle-priced shirts, I select two-button cuffs with round corners. And for the priciest shirts, I choose French cuffs to accommodate cuff links. Next come the measurements -- 13 in all, including one of my left wrist that takes into consideration the thickness of my watch and its band. My shoulder pattern, called a yoke, is prepared in cardboard, while my torso measurements -- front and back -- are silhouetted and cut out in thick paper. The sleeves, cut separately, are also patterned in paper. "We will keep your patterns for up to 20 years," explains Mr. Quin. "As you expand, we expand the pattern."
Within 10 days, a sample shirt will be ready and sent to me in New York by parcel post. I will be asked to wash and wear it a few times. If I'm happy with the shirt, the store will go ahead with the balance of the order. The total bill comes out to $1,160, a princely sum, although fulfillment is at less than royal speed. Once, after suffering a polo injury, Prince Charles had the store create special one-armed shirts with matching slings, and wrote back that they were made "not only wonderfully well, but with breathtaking speed." Had he waited the nine weeks it will take for my order, his arm would have already healed.
In a celebratory mood, I walk across the street to Wiltons for a lunch of a half dozen rock oysters ($15) and a broiled Dover sole ($38). The quality of the décor, service and food has remained unchanged for many decades. Waiters in black suits and waitresses in white nanny uniforms move about at a pace bordering on haste. For those who wish privacy, curtains still separate some of the heavy wood tables. The succulent oysters and the thick, meaty flatfish need no other seasoning than a squeeze of lemon.
The following day, on the top floor of The Ritz, I pay a visit to Mr. James, advertised as "one of London's few remaining traditional gentlemen barbers." His real name is Demitriov, and he still speaks with a charming Greek accent, despite a half century in London. His small establishment looks like an early twentieth-century barbershop, with an old-fashioned leather-backed chair and an assortment of clippers, combs and straight razors carefully arrayed on an open shelf. His guest book is filled with grateful remarks from actors, lords, MPs, generals and board chairmen. But when I ask about his most memorable client, he mentions John Kenneth Galbraith, the very tall, former Harvard economist. "I had to stand on a bench to cut his hair," says Mr. James, only about five and a half feet himself.
Mr. James is that rarest of diplomats, a credible flatterer. "Most important is to achieve a balance by making your hair fit your face and forehead," he tells me. "In your case, I would not even think of using a part." It's a nice way of suggesting that my current swept-back look perfectly suits my receding hairline and bald patch. As I step down from the chair, I also appreciate the fact that this is one of the few times I'm leaving a barber shop without an intense desire to shower away stray hairs down my neck. "Now you are ready to meet anybody on equal terms," says Mr. James, adding his $45 fee to my hotel bill.
It's just the sort of confidence booster I need as I head to Home House, a private club where I have been invited to lunch. Located a 10-minute walk from the hotel, the club is named after its original owner, Countess Elizabeth Lawes Home, who built it as her 18-bedroom residence in 1777. At the time, its location, Portman Square, was the most fashionable address in London. But the Jamaican-born heiress suffered the usual biases towards colonials, and was described by one of her contemporaries as "unattractive aside from the size of her fortune."
Home House, as it turns out, is considerably less snobbish than other clubs. In the grand salon, there are no overweight, florid-faced elderly gents snoring in their club chairs. According to Brian Clivaz, the managing director, most members are "successful financial types and entrepreneurs of either sex," and he estimates that one-third are, in fact, women. Moreover, the club receives nonmembers by prior arrangement on Sundays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mr. Clivaz insists "they have to be of the right ilk." But I really wonder if all 6,000 people who have traipsed through Home House over the last couple of years were carefully vetted (some might consider my own presence as prima facie evidence to the contrary).
About $20 million has been spent to refurbish this Georgian-style building, and it shows. The walls in the main lounge have Grecian urns in bas-relief and scenes from classical mythology. A set of ancient organ pipes serves as the backdrop of the bar. In a drawing room, a man is playing Rachmaninoff on a grand piano under a crystal chandelier. A skylight tops a superb atrium, its travertine marble walls decorated with statuary and portraits. Among rooms rented out to guests, the most impressive is the one in which Madonna recently slept under crushed-velvet bed covers.
The club has its irreverent touches, including a second, informal bar with three television sets simultaneously broadcasting different sporting events, and several video games in a back corridor. But lunch proves to be impeccably traditional -- roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, spicy horseradish and (this being May) purplish-green English asparagus, all served with a vintage claret.
I begin my last day in London with a visit to the annual Chelsea Flower Show, where some 700 exhibitors put their plants and wares on display under a series of tents spread over several acres of the Royal Hospital grounds. I arrive as soon as the show opens at 8 a.m. on the advice of Giles Shepard, managing director of The Ritz. "The flowers are looking their best at that hour," he says.
Mr. Shepard displays the sensibility to gardens that seems to eventually overtake even the most virile English gentlemen. The square-shouldered, ramrod-straight Mr. Shepard had a career as a military officer in the elite Coldstream Guards before recasting himself as a hotelier -- first at The Dorchester and The Savoy, before taking over The Ritz. He says he has surprised himself and his daughter by the seriousness with which he has plunged into gardening. And of all the events attended by the royals -- including Ascot and Wimbledon -- he now favors the Chelsea Show because the crowds are more serious and less status-minded.
As I walk through the show, with my catalogue in hand, I overhear mostly earnest conversations: visitors talking to each other and the exhibitors about their successes and problems with particular flowers; questions about what plants grow best in the shade; debates over whether chalky soil is more suitable for a particular variety. Soon, I also am amazed at the profusion of daffodils this late in the season and by the scores of rose varieties in full bloom this early in the year. But I gather from my eavesdropping that this year's superstar is the iris -- in purple, deep-blue or mauve-fringed white.
I notice a smattering of celebrities, perhaps most surprisingly tough-guy actor Terence Stamp (fresh from The Limey), who is escorting his Auntie Maud. And in keeping with Chelsea's macho image, a gold medal is awarded to six prison inmates for their re-creation of an old-fashioned meadow garden. In an editorial, titled "Why We Want to Go to Chelsea," The Daily Telegraph lauds the four-day show as an example of the best of British values because it "revels in innovation but keeps a sure hold of its foundations" -- sentiments that any true English gentleman would doubtless share.
My last acquisition spasm is on a visit to John Lobb Ltd. -- or Lobb's, as everybody calls this cavernous, wood-paneled store for handmade shoes on St. James's Street. The establishment was opened almost 150 years ago by John Lobb, "a lame Cornish farmboy," according to his direct descendant and namesake who is the present owner. The original Lobb became the favorite shoemaker of Prince Edward, who later, as king, gave the Edwardian era its name and reputation for elegance. Soon, European royalty, maharajahs, politicians and entertainers also insisted on being shod at Lobb's. Unlike most other makers of handmade shoes, Lobb's survived the Great Depression and the Second World War (its premises were damaged six times by German bombs during the Blitz). Over generations, its work methods have changed extremely little.
The current John Lobb turns me over to Emmanuel Kastellis, the fitter who will begin the long process of making my shoes. After an hour or so spent on the pros and cons of various models on display, I select a black Oxford, with laces, a square-shaped toe, a one-row stitch cap across the top of the shoe, a standard one-quarter-inch-thick sole, and a one-and-an-eighth-inch heel.
During the fitting, Mr. Kastellis sounds like a podiatrist, inquiring if I have any sores, bunions or particular pains about my toes, metatarsals or heels. He asks if I always wear socks of the same thickness. With a pencil, he draws an outline of each foot on white paper. He then places my right foot on his knee and takes three measurements: around the "joint" -- the broadest part of the foot, right behind the toes; then, the instep; and finally, the heel -- both at bottom and closer to the ankle. The process is repeated on my left foot.
The fitter's measurements and notes will go to the last-maker, who will use the data to carve a solid block of beech into precisely contoured models -- "lasts" -- of both my feet. The lasts will be molds for my first pair of shoes. Mr. Kastellis shows me the huge cellar where wooden lasts are kept. Soon, sculptures of my feet will be in the vicinity of those of Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock and Groucho Marx.
Next, the clicker takes over. He is the artisan responsible for choosing and cutting the eight pieces of leather (lately, German calfskin is in vogue), which will be used for the upper part of each shoe. A closer will cut and slice the leather into thin layers and then stitch them together into a finished "upper." The maker will then stitch the upper to the sole, made from tough, British leather, and add the two-layered heel. Finally, the polisher gives the shoes their permanent color and sheen. "Another pair of Lobb shoes has been born," states the shop's catalogue. "A process which has lasted months compared with the factory articles produced in minutes -- a Rembrandt compared with a penny print."
My first Rembrandt of footwear will require at least two more measurements (the store's fitters visit the U.S. several times a year) and eight months of work before it will be ready. It will cost me $2,500, plus $63 for parcel post and $125 in U.S. duties. Add mahogany shoe trees made to measure at $470, and the total for my first pair of Lobb's is $3,158. Though they will no doubt last longer than any previous shoes I have owned, Mr. Kastellis cannot guarantee that my future purchases at Lobb's will take less time or money. "As we get older, sir, our feet tend to spread from the additional weight," he points out.
Back at my hotel room, I pack my small, carry-on suitcase, no heavier than when I arrived. My bank account, however, is noticeably lighter. Airfare, lodging, clothing, meals and miscellaneous expenses involved in my four-day impersonation of an English gentleman hover near $10,000. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," Samuel Johnson once said. Or maybe, he has simply run out of money.
Jonathan Kandell is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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