HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Let your imagination lead you, not your brain. Try to see the world as you did when you were a child, capturing images spontaneously without thought. Put those images together and let your eye be your guide. Have fun, laugh and make others laugh with you! If you can do these things, you will be at the doorstep of style.
We pass from the joys of innocence into the turmoil of experience. We are taught to be builders. To survive we must use our brains, design, lay foundations, add infrastructure, elaborate, furnish, render things useful with logic and reason.
WHAT the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
Do you dress yourself like a builder, layering clothes one upon the next? If so, does the result appear studied, forced, can your intent be read and blunt the apparition of style?
Put down your measure, let the ruler fall from your hands, close your eyes and imagine the walks you took when you were a child, the smells, the colors, the textures, feel the breeze and your mother’s hand. Now look at your dress with the same enlivened eye.
It looks like an ordinary table and is often made of solid wood like oak or walnut. These tables are generally many generations old. You will be hard pressed to find a new one. And antiques never come onto the market.
There are many lives laminated in the oil rich wood. The oldest vein, the deepest one can be seen and felt through the fissures and cracks on the surface of the table. Molded by steam and by hand these imperfections have a rounded, warm edge. If you rub your hand on the swirled patina, stand close by and close your eyes, you can hear voices in the wood.
“My father was like that, humble and reserved, almost shy, but behind this façade he concealed an enormous talent and a genius for shirtmaking. In addition to the love for this profession, he also taught me respect for others and humility. So it is that today as I approach 52 years of age, even though I know that he is not there to see it and hear it, I write to him and I say, ‘Thank you, father.’”
Pierre Duboin, Third Generation, Benchmade shirts
The sounds around the table are steady and concentrated, sometimes frantic, sometimes murmured but always tuned to the rhythm of work going on in the background. In the foreground the sounds can be entertaining even funny, requests mingled with hushed plaints and enduring expectations. You can’t hear the pride amongst all the other sounds, but it is omnipresent.
“He loved and had profound respect for the craft that had given him life and had given his family life and had put fish and grain on his table.He loved the ancient craft given to his hands by the old men. The clock ticked slow back then. Easy hours. Quiet. Simple.”
Frank Shattuck, Benchmade tailor
The design of the table is simple, four legs hold up a rectangle. But you can cut fresh wood, shape it, glue it together and still not have it right. It takes time, patience and sacrifice.
“I started at seven years of age in the atelier with my mother and my aunts. My father stayed in the workroom most of the day by his table. I used to sew shirts and buttons trying to please my grandfather. He would shake his head and point to the stitch that was not right. He saw the error before I made it because I used to grab the cloth and hold it wrong out of nervousness. He would smile and place my hands correctly and tell me to start over. It’s been sixty years now and I still remember his lessons.”
An old Sicilian tailor, Third generation Benchmade tailor
One might ask what the value of such an old massive table could be. It’s not an antique or a relic. Museums would not be interested and they will not fit in a kitchen. To pry them out of the small rooms where they are lodged, one would have to knock down a wall. Makes one wonder how they got there in the first place. Maybe they were not hewn at all, maybe they grew there.
“I started my seven years apprenticeship when I was fourteen. I got the chance to work in a local shop and was well looked out for by its owner until one day I landed a job on Savile Row. Well “landed” is a good word, because a few years later the old shop changed hands and all of the young lads were back on the street. For a few days I wondered what good all the work had done me, when a friend took me into the service entrance of the most famous of English tailors, the one that made for the Hollywood types and such. They asked me to work as a coatmaker. “You’re a quick study and quick with your hands” so we’ll give you your chance. I had a reputation for sewing coats faster and better than any of the others. I don’t know why I could do it, but they saw value there. I worked with the best cutter in the firm and together we made 21 suits for the Prince of Wales. I’ve been doing the same for sixty plus years now. I don’t stop working and never will because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
British tailor, Benchmade clothing
It could be tables like these are not owned at all. And things that have no owners have no price. And yet no matter which side of the table you stand behind, there is something magnetic that draws you to it and keeps you coming back to visit. It’s not familiar or particularly comfortable but a man winds up finding his favorite place by it, listening to stories, watching, imagining, dreaming days a way whenever possible.
“At the shop, plug in the iron and turn up the heat.The iron would tik. We didnt really talk. “Here. Look” that was about it. Around noon or so one of their wives would arrive with lunch and begin heating it on the iron. Louie Pisegnia might stop by with home made wine. In the afternoon old customers would start stopping by, most of them friends of both of my grand fathers. All of them old. My great grandfathers full dress pattern still hung in the shop. A photo of the Mayor , in one of their suits, shaking hands with John F. Kennedy, hung on the wall. The radio played old things. The old tailors couldnt pay me. In fact I mowed their lawns and tied up their tomatoes. And I had to thread their needles. The old tailors took so much time to show me. They liked me around. I one time took them snagging salmon up on the salmon river with my friends. Here we are snagging 30 pound salmon up on the Salmon River in the redneck town of Port Ontario NY with two elegant little 87 year old twin tailors in handmade three piece suits yelling at each other in Italian. Even Fellini couldnt come up with this. I will never forget running with them ,as they held on to each other, into the woods when we saw the game wardens comming ’round the bend. They loved it. They never stopped talking about it. Soon after they lost their lease for the shop where they had been since the 1930s . I moved to NYC . These two old tailors are in all of my suits. I remember them most when I am pressing. All, all, all of the old men I learned from are gone.”
Frank Shattuck, Benchmade tailor
Some men like Italian tables, some French and some say English models are the best. You might think you’d need an expert to know the difference and a translator to know what is going on at times. But you don’t really, the feeling for these old tables is instinctive, natural, engrained in all of us. We hate to leave them and tarry by the door a few minutes savoring the odor of the iron, the whirring of hands in motion, the last bon mot while planning the next and “final” visit. Or at least that is what we tell our loved ones.
Our eyes, our hands, all of our senses focus on sights, sounds and smells radiating from a table that is not really a table at all. Because of its capacity to enchant us with glimpses from the past, present and future we do this humble table the special honor of calling it a Bench.
Photos courtesy of Megumi and Frank Shattuck
Oscar Wilde has one of his more earnest characters remark that “a well tied tie is the first serious step in life.” That may well be, but the first serious step in bespoke tailoring is a well cut shirt.
How often do I see men with no cuff showing or sheets of it in view casting accusatory glances at their innocent tailors when the cut of the shirt is at fault and neither the coat nor its maker? And what is to be said about men who wear off the rack shirts that do not fit and wonder why their fine bespoke jacket is wrinkled and untidy? Or into what infernal bolgia will be cast the man who wants a tailor to cut a coat to fit all of his shirts when all of his shirts are all over the globe in terms of measures, fit and sleeve length?
Coats are crafted to fit shirts whose measures must be constant.
So, the first step in bespoke is to get a serious shirt, one that fits, made by the best craftsmen you can’t afford before you step foot inside a tailor’s shop. When you have acquired short term funding from the IMF and had a proper shirt made, have it duplicated in Bangladesh and never (ever) vary from its measures. Then and only then can you venture to the tailors and ask him to make a coat whose sleeves will be calibrated to the shirt’s measures (now a mathematical constant) so the right amount of shirt cuff is revealed.
This mad science sounds pretty simple, right? Falsch meine kleine kartofellpuffe! The proliferation of bespoke (sic) MTM shirts has muddied the waters of pure Cartesian shirt logic for a few reasons, ones that can drive tailors batty.
MTM shirt makers generally do not pay attention to nor make accommodations for the difference in the length of your arms caused by such things as physical deformation, tilted shoulders, uneven shoulders, awkward stance, poor posture and juvenile knuckle dragging syndrome. So the resulting bespoke (sic) shirt that does not fit will have to be compensated for by your coat and that coat will only fit that offending shirt and no others including ones that might be properly cut.
To make matters worse most MTMers do not even notice the shiny Audemar Piggy that weighs in at half a ton on your wrist. The wrist measures must be taken with the Piggy on the wrist and enough fabric provided on the shirt cuff to allow it to be buttoned firmly at the proper and never changing position your tailor will love you for.
And speaking of buttoning cuffs, most MTM shirts do not button at all. They are so loose at the wrist that the cuff travels between Memphis and Cairo on your forearm and wrist on its own mercurial volition and whimsy leaving you and your tailor to grasp dueling pistols at dawn. The cuff of the shirt needs to be firmly fastened, not blood clottingly tight, but tight enough for the cuff to stay in place where we want it to rest not where it decides to after a few kilometers of anatomical tourism.
Do imagine the pleasure your tailor must feel, after painstakingly crafting a beautiful coat with a wonderfully precise small oval armhole, when you try to cram a shirt with an armhole big enough for a medium sized circus elephant into it? One of the first lessons in bespoke is to recall that a tailor possesses marvelous cutting talent, scissors that are as large as they are razor sharp and your back is turned to him for most of your visit! I hope the wisdom contained in this merry bit of philosophy sinks in.
If you are serious about bespoke and are smart enough to sidestep besmoke, equip yourself with a well cut shirt, no matter the cost. You will make your shirtmaker, your tailor and your life insurance company very happy.
Once you have your shirt made, and a good coat to match you will need to focus your attention on the second most serious step in bespoke: how to knot the well knotted tie. And that will be the subject of some upcoming bombast.
Chic, the enfant terrible of fashion jargon, is an adjective often used incorrectly. It’s not beautiful, pretty, elegant, understated, suave, flashy, and it’s not a la mode or debonair, so, zut alors what in blazes is it?
Well the French language is chic and so is Paris. In fact the City of Lights has always been the world capital of chic so it might be a good idea to start there in our search for clues.
One often hears references to the chic parisien and one of the most chic of all Parisians was Jean Gabin, a possessor of quintessential chic. He left Paris in his youth to pursue a lady friend to Los Angeles. The lady friend was called, Marlene Dietrich. So birds of a feather do Normandie together.
Marlene Dietrich had chic in every pore down to the molecular level and what a couple they must have made strolling down Sunset Boulevard arm in arm. Well the idea of Sunset Boulevard extinguishes any glimmer of chic imagery. Even William Holden, who was immutably handsome, lacked chic.
So what did Gabin have that Holden lacked? Gabin had a face that only a mother or a Dietrich could love. He was not six two though he did have eyes of blue. And he was a bit stout. Holden was a masculine 10. There is a lot of great news in this discovery: you don’t have to be tall or handsome to be chic.
Gabin didn’t always play the hero and even though he was often cast as the good guy, he was always pretty much a bad boy as well. Mae West would have appreciated Gabin’s rugged looks and would probably have noted that when he was good he was good but by being chic he could afford to be bad. In any case, it’s a relief to know one can be good and bad at the same time as long as one behaves with chic.
At one point in his career Gabin was not convinced he could make enough money to support and assure the security of his family, so he bought a farm in Normandy and tilled the land to feed his kin. Not having to be rich is an attractive feature of chic. But courage and class are clearly required.
In his many roles in cinema and the theatre, Gabin was outfitted in every manner of dress imaginable and he always looked chic. I hate to disappoint the fashionistas, but chic has little to do with clothes.
Confidence and charm were the principal assets Gabin displayed in his career and his life. He was never what you would call smug as that device would have obviated the cheeky charm. But he was never lacking in direction or will.
Dear reader, I am not sure to have transported us any closer to a definition of the indefinable, but a few words tend to stand out when we speak about chic: confidence, courage, charm and class. Oh, by the way, if you have enough of these you’ll wear your clothes well and you’ll be chic in them.
“It’s not a pretty picture, Gannon. They start out as boys sneaking to look at pictures of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. A few years later you’ll find them hiding in their grandfather’s closest mixing and matching tweeds. Before long they are afflicted with a lurid fascination about having their shoes shined. Of course, all the attention they get from young ladies does not help a bit, it makes things even worse. They start drawing and designing on their own and finally and inevitably get mixed up with the hard stuff…!”
“The hard stuff?” gasped Gannon looking with a mix of horror and disgust, “You mean, an incontinent interest in stylish dress does in fact lead to the hard stuff, Sgt. Friday?”
“It’s a proven fact, Gannon. Don’t believe for one minute the experts who see no relation between early recreational interest in style and long term hard core addiction to elegance! I tell you it’s the dealers, the heartless traffickers in the illusory pursuit of beauty that need to be contained: the tailors, shirt makers, and cobblers. They are all involved and they’ve got protection from City Hall!”
“Style should be banned, outlawed, abolished…!”, offered Gannon with decided panic in his voice.
“”Where have you been Gannon? Style has been outlawed in Los Angeles for the last forty years! What good has it done? Most of the dealers have been eliminated, but now they come from other countries to ply their devilish trade. For years they have smuggled elegance in from England…and the latest word has it that the Neapolitan mafia and the Rubinacci gang is getting involved, the big boys, Gannon, the big boys from Italy. ”
“Goodness, you mean natural, unprotected, unlined, unsafe Elegance …?”
“You betcha, Gannon, the most virulent form of Elegance known to man. The kind that makes grown men wear their suits and ties to bed they are so comfortable. We got by the Anderson & Sheppard scourge a few years ago and now it’s the Neapolitans. They incite to addictions that are irreversible!”
“What are we to do?”
“I have informed the House of Representative’s “Committee on Aesthetic and Elegant Activities.” We are deploying the very best we’ve got to fight this plague. Detectives Saks, Neiman, Marcus, Bergdorf and Goodman are being deployed to strangle Elegance where ever and how ever necessary.”
By the way, Gannon, where did you get that necktie you are wearing?”
“Well sir, Chief Inspector Marinella brought it back from his vacation in….in…”
“In Italy?”, Barked the hardened officer cruelly.
“Ah yes, I think it was…….well, yes, Italy sir.”
“Well, I will have to confiscate that tie Gannon. Hmmm yes, internal affairs will have to have a look at this pretty strip of silk. Here you can have mine in exchange, but I’ll want it back, you can’t find 100% virgin nylon like that anymore Gannon!”
“Yes sir, of course, gulp, sir. Thank you, sir.”
There are blue men and grey men. Each return to their favorite colors as swallows to San Capistrano. They return to one of these colors for a variety of reasons.
For the business environment, or occasions that are formal, the color of the suit should have one quality: it should be as neutral as possible. The impact of the suit comes from its cut and fit, and the way it is complimented with shirt, tie and accessories.
The navy blue suit is the salesman’s suit. It fills both the wearer and beholder with a clear, forthright and hard working brand of honest confidence. It is athletic, seductive, disciplined and toned. The blue suit is well defined.
Grey suits are more mysterious. Their mottled reflection leads to many more questions than answers. Our eyes linger on their image as we search for clues. The hero wears a white hat and the villain a black one. Who is that wearing the grey? Mystery holds our attention. The grey suit is refined.
Defined or refined, each has its place in the connoisseur’s wardrobe.
I am not sure it’s true of blondes, but grey guys have more fun.
Extraordinary men and women are extraordinary in everything they do. The lives of the ordinary are likewise and in every way common. It has nothing to do with wealth, fame, success, looks, race, birth, class, education etc. It has everything to do with being extraordinary or not.
Before another extraordinary person can be intrigued by you, curious about you, desirous of you and covetous of you, she has to be able to see and recognize you. If you dress exactly like all the ordinaries, she will pass you by in a sweeping gaze that never fixes, that passes over the horizon of the ordinary, a never ending, flat Nebraska field. Dress is an extraordinary device. If you have the courage and style to stand out from the crowd, she will notice it. Then, if you have a twinkle in your eye and the wit to incite laughter, you will pass as many deliriously extraordinary moments as you are able to imagine.
We all have the choice in life to be extraordinary or accept the fate of the ordinary.
Choose to be extraordinary!