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Gentleman's Attire

To pretend to be a gentleman, go to London and get suited
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 2)

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.

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