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A Winning Off-the-Rack Wardrobe

The Best Off-the-Rack Wardrobe
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

The Duke of Windsor was a stickler for detail. Fanatical when it came to his clothing, he was precise about the number of buttons on his jacket sleeve and the height of his trouser cuff. He had special linings sewn into his custom-made ties to produce the exact thickness of knot he desired, and when he decided that he really preferred American-style trousers with an English-style coat, he simply had his suit jackets made in Savile Row and the trousers made in New York City. It was something of an international compromise, which his wife referred to as "Pants across the Sea." But then, that is not quite as precise as the inclinations of George "Beau" Brummell, the great Regency dandy who reputedly had a different glove maker for each hand.

There are those men who wallow in the very "process" of custom-made clothing,

studiously pouring over the swatch books, luxuriating in the endless discussions of details and the numerous fittings over weeks and months. There is a great deal of pampering as fitters take the corporeal measure of a man, and there is no denying its arcane charm--if you've got the time and the inclination, not to mention a decent tailor and boot maker.

But many of us don't, and we merely want to look well turned-out without all the fuss and bother. We want a well-made suit that fits with minor alterations, one that we can examine and try on, rather than just imagine how it may look.

The problem traditionally has been that the gulf between custom-made and ready-made business wear--tailored clothing, shirts, ties and shoes--was both broad and deep. Selection, in terms of styling and silhouette, has always been rather narrow with ready-to-wear; and assembly-line work cannot begin to duplicate handmade quality. The designer movement in menswear these past two or three decades has only made more men aware of these disparities. There are some designer clothes that have a sense of style but no real quality to them; and then there are one or two quality manufacturers whose idea of brio is someone with all the dash and élan of Henry Kissinger. So the question remains: Where can a man get some stylish-looking quality gear without a lot of endless bother?

Do not despair. There is, as it happens, an international handful of ready-to-wear firms that are every bit the equal of custom quality and styling, firms that employ the finest craftsmen, use only the best materials and have a sense of classic taste.

At a time when hand-tailoring has been in steady decline, a few firms have created an innovative concept as a commercial basis for manufacture: a "factory" of craftsmen. Whether in the United States or Europe, the recipe for producing exemplary ready-to-wear is virtually the same: Success depends upon a happy marriage between technology and craftsmanship.

Success calls for the ability to use technology where it can do a better job and the foresight to keep the craftsmanship where handwork cannot be surpassed. That means using technologically advanced machinery and computers where they can do the most good--recording orders, keeping track of inventories, filing patterns, mailing correspondence and other clerical duties--while also bringing craftsmen together and organizing a workplace for the manufacture of handwork: hand-stitching, hand-cutting, hand-pol-ishing and whatever else cannot be duplicated by machinery.

Let's be clear what we're talking about here. When you have talented craftsmen working with the finest materials--the best woolens, cottons, leathers, horn buttons and the rest of it--the only difference in custom work is the use of individual patterns. With handmade

ready-to-wear, quality is assured, styling is superb and fit depends upon the silhouette a man prefers. And the results at this level of competence must be judged on styling: We are discussing the relative merits of a Rolls versus a Bentley. Prices, needless to say, are as comparable to custom work as is quality.

"There's an almost mystical relationship between mind and hand when it comes to the work of real craftsmen," muses Joseph Barrato, CEO in the United States for the Italian firm of Brioni, tailors extraordinaire for 50 years. In the famous workshops and apprentice school in Penne, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, 200 tailors handcraft suits of impeccable subtlety. "In Italy, they talk about how long it takes to make something, not how quickly it can be pumped out," says Barrato. "The measure of craftsmanship is quality, which means aesthetics married to function. There is still the tradition of taking pride in doing things the best way, rather than the quickest way."

And how long does it take to make a fine suit?

"A single tailor working in a custom tailoring shop can make no more than three jackets a week--and that's the standard," Barrato says. "In Italy, they talk about garments in terms of hours: 'It's a 10-hour suit,' 'a 15-hour coat' and so forth. The artisans at Brioni make an 18-hour coat, which means as much handiwork as in any custom shop."

And it shows: Each jacket is completely hand-cut with scissors; the chest, lapels, collar, armholes, buttonholes, lining, pockets and sleeves are all sewn by hand. Everything is hand-pressed. It is virtually the same way at Kiton, a firm that employs 170 tailors in Naples to make clothing the old-fashioned way. Both Brioni and Kiton limit the number of garments they make to a few thousand per year--or about as many suits as the large clothing factories churn out in a week using laser knives, conveyor belts, a bit of glue and some pressing machines.

Brioni, in fact, has continued the time-honored artisan tradition of apprenticeship by establishing its own senior tailors school to train young people in the craft, the technical aspects of which have a heritage that dates back more than 100 years. And a visit to the Kiton plant in a Naples suburb shows tailors sitting in small groups, doing the work in their laps, one stitching a buttonhole, another a sleeve head. At a worktable across the aisle, a man hand-presses a lining. Many of the tailors have tape measures slung around their necks; it is very much the Old World in a modern setting of space and light.

That experience holds true with the great shoemakers. At the French firm of J.M. Weston, "production moved into a high-tech factory in 1990, but the old cobblers' benches are still used, and the construction methods haven't changed in half a century," says John Ryan, United States sales director. At least 80 percent of each Weston shoe is made by hand, from cutting the leather pattern to final polishing. The firm, which began making shoes and boots at Limoges in 1865, still has its own tannery, to ensure the proper aging of the leathers. Across the Channel--or through the Chunnel, if you will--in the English town of Northampton, Edward Green & Company has been making shoes since 1890, with the skills of the craft handed down from one generation to the next. The firm continues to make the knee-high boots for the Queen's own Household Guard, a tradition begun with Queen Victoria.

"We simply wouldn't think of using glue," says managing director John Hlustik, in a voice that makes you think he would probably thrash you if you mentioned Velcro fasteners. "In fact, we use wild boar bristles for stitching, instead of steel needles, and we make our own twine because it's both thinner and stronger." That's the kind of dedication to craft I'm talking about!

Neither firm, of course, mistakes the frighteningly trendy for style, choosing instead the tried-and-true cap toes and tassel slip-ons, a classic monk strap here, a calfskin-and-linen spectator there. The tremendous variety they offer comes in the form of leathers, finishes and fittings. Sizes and half-sizes in five widths are the norm, and traditional styles usually are available in several different shadings and finishes.

"We are concerned with welted shoes," Hlustik says, "because they are the only ones that can adequately be repaired." Too true, and while we are on the subject, quality shoe manufacturers will, for a modest charge, rehabilitate and rejuvenate your purchase so that you can be well-shod for years and years. That is value for the money.

Shirtmakers have their own set of rules for perfection. Single-needle construction is a must, so that seams don't pucker, and collars must be sewn in layers, rather than be fused (a polite term for gluing). Only the finest long-staple and lustrous cottons and mother-of-pearl buttons are used.

Tie-making is a special art. Some, such as the famous French firm of Hermes, founded in 1837, print their own silk twill in an extremely ornate and complicated silk-screen process. The British firm of Charles Hill produces handmade jacquard-woven silk ties in a variety of weights, from 24 to 50 ounces, the traditional patterns of which are drawn from the archives of historic English silk mills.

The crown jewel of neckwear is the legendary seven-fold tie. The concept of the seven-fold is simplicity itself: A square yard of finest silk is folded in on itself seven times until the tie shape is formed; then it is hand-stitched and pressed. That is all there is to it. No lining is needed to maintain its shape or to tie a perfect knot.

The seven-fold's salad days were the early decades of this century, but as cheaper mechanized production replaced artisan tie makers, and as the price of quality silk rose after the Second World War, the seven-fold all but vanished. Today, there are only two companies that still make the seven-fold: Robert Talbott in the United States and Kiton in Italy.

"The truth is," says famed Biella designer Luciano Barbera, whose family has produced incredibly refined clothing for three generations, "that to make anything well it must be more than a business: It must be a passion." Exactly.

WHERE TO FIND QUALITY READY-MADE CLOTHING

TAILORED CLOTHING

Baldessarini/Hugo Boss
645 Fifth Avenue New York, New York 10022
(212) 940-0600

Founded in 1923 in Metzingen, Germany, Hugo Boss today produces three lines of menswear: a main-stream brand (BOSS), a trendier line (HUGO) and a more expensive group (Baldessarini/Hugo Boss). The Baldessarini line is handmade and uses exclusive fabrics, with a particularly large range of tweed-woven cashmeres in unusual colors. Suits from $1,150 to $1,500, sport jackets from $900 to $1,200 ($1,600 for Super* cashmeres), topcoats from $800 to $2,000.

Luciano Barbera
730 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019
(212) 315-9500

"To make fine clothing, it's necessary to start with the best fabrics," Luciano Barbera says. And he should know; his father, Carlo, makes some of the world's most exquisite. The superfine merino woolens and cashmeres are all exclusive to the firm, which epitomizes the Milanese school of tailoring: English-style shaping but with that fine Italian hand, creating understated and unobtrusive elegance. Suits at $2,500, sport jackets at $1,900.

Brioni
610 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10020
(212) 956-4155

Since its beginning in 1945, Brioni has specialized in the fashionable "Roman style" of tailoring--the first to define the international approach to contemporary elegance for men: slimming silhouette, luxury fabrics and lightweight construction. The workmanship is impeccable, with everything extremely well thought out, from the shape of a lapel to luxury silk linings and the finest horn buttons. Suits from $2,500, sport jackets from $1,700, topcoats from $2,500.

Kiton
730 Fifth Avenue New York, New York 10019
(212) 265-1995

Kiton represents the best of the Neapolitan school of tailoring: closer to the English, but a bit more sensuous and fluid, without all the stiffness and heaviness. A Kiton suit is soft and subtle in shaping. Most of the fabrics are the Super worsteds, cashmeres and silks--lightweight but with excellent drape. Suits and sport jackets from $2,500. Their renowned seven-fold tie is priced at $140.

Oxxford
1220 West Van Buren Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607
(312) 829-3600

Long having the reputation of the best suits (below) made in the United States (some say anywhere), Oxxford is the great traditionalist. With as much handwork as in any custom suit, Oxxford prefers moderation in styling, as best befits the American businessman: moderate shoulder and discriminating waist suppression on the jacket. Super 150 Worsteds, Loro Piana cashmeres, Duppioni silks. Suits from $1,500.

Polo/Ralph Lauren
867 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021
(212) 606-2100

New for Fall is the Ralph Lauren Collection. Handmade in England, the silhouette is classic Savile Row: broad shoulders, nipped waist, high armhole, and side vents give suits a strong architectural look. Done with all the custom details--handmade sleeve buttonholes, custom linings, extension waistbands on trousers--and the finest chalk-striped flannels, glen plaids and bankers Worsteds. Suits from $2,000. Shirts and ties designed for the tailored clothing available as part of the collection.

Mariano Rubinacci: at Bergdorf Goodman
745 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10022
(212) 339-3342

Rubinacci has a tailoring shop and haberdashery in Naples, but he also makes a complete line of ready-to-wear that is characterized by an easy elegance and softness unsurpassed in tailored clothing. He crafts his pared-down classics using only the most sybaritic of fabrics: unconstructed silk blazers that are absolutely whisper-weight, buttery flannel trousers in smoky hues, unlined cashmere jackets that are a poem. Suits from $1,450, sport jackets from $1,100, flannel trousers at $295.

There are two other names that should be included in our list: Both Canali and Zegna produce well-made garments of the most fashionable cut, using fine fabrics. And they are more widely available in the marketplace.

*A category of cloth made from extremely fine fibers.

SHIRTS AND TIES

Ike Behar
39 West 55th StreetNew York, New York 10019
(212) 315-2626

Behar doesn't make the most expensive shirt, just one of the best. It offers a variety of collar styles--its medium-point button-down, button-tab and moderate spread collars are models of styling--in traditional oxford cloths and broadcloths. Average price about $110.

Luigi Borrelli
730 Fifth AvenueNew York, New York 10019
(212) 265-1995

At the turn of the century, the Borrellis were custom shirtmakers in Naples with a reputation for shirts of superior comfort and elegance. Today, they make their shirts the same way--completely by hand. A Borrelli shirt is found at that point where beauty and comfort meet. Only the finest 200-count Egyptian cottons and double-thick shell buttons are used. Priced from $195 to $275.

Charvet: at Bergdorf Goodman
745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022
(212) 339-3342

Some consider the seven-floor building in Paris' place Vendôme to be the mecca of shirts, and Charvet is reputed to have the largest selection of shirting fabrics in the world. The ready-to-wear line is characterized by exceptionally fine workmanship, trimmer-cut body and very clean-cut, city-smart collars. Charvet shirts are known for their subtle colors and delicate stripes. Priced from $200 to $425. Their ties have a cult following; particularly prized are the jewel-toned basketweaves (at $105).

Hermes
11 East 57th Street
New York, New York 10022
(212) 751-3181

Only the best two-ply cottons are acceptable for Hermes. A moderate body shape is combined with a fairly bold collar (cut on the bias) to produce a youthful-looking shirt. Color also plays a strong role here, with bold stripes and checks making up a sizable portion of the collection. Priced from $275 to $450.

Charles Hill: The British Apparel Collection
745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10151
(212) 582-9834

Handsome English silk ties handmade in London is what Charles Hill is all about. The firm does all the classic patterns, but specializes in jacquard-woven styles in a variety of weights to suit every taste. Silk neckwear from $65 to $100.

Robert Talbott
680 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021
(212) 751-1200

Made in the United States with an international flair, the Robert Talbott shirt boasts solid quality and exceptional fabrics. With half a dozen collar styles (their cutaway has an unmatched sophistication), this collection presents real style: classic taste with a streak of jauntiness. Talbott is the only maker of the seven-fold tie in the United States. Completely handmade from finest silk, each one is numbered as befits a work of art (currently priced at $150). Talbott also produces one of the largest selections of quality ties in the United States (priced at $45 to $85). Shirts from $90 to $150.

Turnbull & Asser: at Bergdorf Goodman
745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022
(212) 339-3342

This is the ready-to-wear line from London's famed Jermyn Street shirtmakers. The body is full-cut and has the distinctive signature three-button cuff. The preferred collar style is an English spread with real Duke of Windsor presence. Colors and patterns here are bolder than those found elsewhere, with Bengal stripes in bright primary colors and checks and plaids in bold and unusual combinations. Priced from $155 to $250. There is also a good selection of silk neckwear with the same urbane sense of style, priced from $85.

Other tiemakers of repute that make our list because of high quality workmanship and silks are Ferragamo, Richel, Tino Cosma and Countess Mara.

SHOES

Alden Shoe Company
Middleborough, Massachusetts 02346
(508) 947-3926

Alden has been a New England shoemaker since 1884. The firm crafts a good variety of business and casual shoes, but one of its shoes stands out as an absolute model of the genre: the Alden original penny loafer. Handsewn on a last, with true welting, in black and burgundy genuine-shell cordovan leather (at $360), it is the real thing.

Tanino Crisci
795 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021
(212) 535-1014

Gaetano Crisci began making custom shoes in a small workshop in Milan 100 years ago. Today, the Criscis are still there, albeit in a larger workshop outside the city. But there is still the meticulous care for detail and soft leathers that characterize their elegant footwear. Crisci is particularly good for a variety of slip-on models--the "Emerson" model driving shoe in honey-colored pebble-grained calfskin is a marvel, priced at $410. Other styles from $350.

Edward Green & Company: at Paul Stuart
Madison Avenue at 45th Street, New York, New York 10017
(212) 682-0320

"We are English master shoemakers to the few," is how John Hlustik, manager of Edward Green, likes to put it. "The few" include the Queen's own Household Cavalry, for whom the firm makes those handsome knee-high, glossy black riding boots. Other customers are merely aristocracy, statesmen, celebrities and gentlemen. Only the most stately brogues, monk straps and slip-ons will be found here, although they are known to do an exceptional snuff suede chukka boot and a marvelous antique green velvet Albert slipper as well. Prices begin at $455.

John Lobb: at Hermes
11 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10019
(212) 751-3181

Lobb is the world's most famous shoemaker. The firm opened its London shop in 1850 and a Paris branch in 1902. In 1976, Lobb introduced its ready-to-wear line in Paris at Hermes. It takes 15 skilled craftsmen, using only the best box calf (as well as a few exotic leathers), to produce the 35 styles offered in sizes 6 1/2 to 11 1/2 (in widths B to EE). Priced from $450 to $725.

Sutor Mantellassi
730 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019
(212) 265-1995

Each pair of bench-made Mantellassi shoes receives 22 hours of handwork. The uppers are shaped on a last over an open flame, left to settle, then hand-welted to the soles, creating what many consider to be a perfect fit. The firm makes an extensive range of styles, but it is known for a distinctive square-toed design derived from seventeenth-century Italian styles. Priced from $350.

J. M. Weston
42 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022
(212) 308-5655

This 130-year-old French firm makes handmade shoes of great panache and durability. J.M. Weston presents the classic town cap-toed oxfords and slip-ons in the finest German and French box calf, but also produce a number of original styles, such as its wonderfully stout country blucher. For a modest additional cost, it will endeavor to create any of its models in any of its large range of leathers (including special colorations and topstitching). Priced from $375 (for slip-ons) to $805 (for a handsome split-toe blucher).

The Italian firm of Testoni is also a shoe crafter of distinction, and can be trusted to produce elegant, classic shoes of quality leathers.

* * *

There are just a handful of superb men's stores who will stock these names of distinction. Louis', Boston, on the East Coast and Wilkes Bashford, San Francisco, on the West come instantly to mind as repositories of sublime gear. Barneys, especially in New York, may have these clothes, too. And then of course, because their own private label clothing is of such high quality and stylishness, the firms Davide Cenci, on Manhattan's Madison Avenue, Sulka and Dunhill must be included on any list of fine clothiers.

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).

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