My Tailoring Wish List

A few weeks ago, Bruce Boyer emailed me a photo of his big day in Manhattan. He had just passed the two-week period after getting his second dose of the vaccine. Eager to get back to his normal life, Bruce took a trip to New York City -- for the first time since March 2020 -- and met with friends for a wine-soaked lunch. He also went to The Armoury to commission a new suit: a soft-shouldered Model 3 made from Dugdale's tan cavalry twill. In the photo, a clearly happy Bruce can be seen wearing his signature look: a brown sport coat paired with a button-down collar shirt, solid navy tie, pair of charcoal trousers, and what looked to be Edward Green's Dovers in dark oak leather. 

The photo warmed my heart because it reminded me that normality is just around the corner. Soon, we'll be able to meet up with friends, make appointments, and go window shopping in the city. His photo also reminded me that trunk shows will resume sometime this year. When the Bay Area first went into lockdown last year, everything screeched to a standstill. Although I've bought some clothes since then, much of it is casualwear I can wear at home -- baggy shorts, ball caps, and some graphic tees. When Bruce emailed me his photo, it was the first time I've thought about buying custom-tailored clothing in a long time. "Hm, cavalry twill suits," I thought. "Interesting." 

I've since found myself going down the rabbit hole, daydreaming about new summer sport coats and casual fall suits. Since I often get inspired by friends' commissions, I thought I'd put together a list of clothes I'd like to order at some point. Hopefully soon, tailored clothing will once again be part of our normal lives. If you're looking for something new to wear, here are some suggestions that go beyond your basic navy sport coats and fall tweeds. 

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Mr. Porter Starts Spring Sale

The biggest sales event every season is at Mr. Porter. Tonight, they started their spring promotion, where you can find select items discounted by as much as 50%. 

Things tend to move quickly at Mr. Porter, and you'll often find that discounted items don't make it to the second or third round of price drops. I find that the best way to approach the sale is three-fold. First, Mr. Porter's free shipping and returns make purchases fairly risk-free. So if you're on the fence about something, it's sometimes worth buying it and just trying it on at home. Secondly, things that sell out sometimes come back, as customers make returns. So it's worth checking back every once in a while. Thirdly, since the inventory here is vast, you can browse the selection by filtering for sizes, your favorite brands, and the categories of items. 

The entire sale section is viewable at Mr. Porter, but if you want some suggestions, I've also pulled some highlights below. 

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Small is Beautiful

Shortly after the loud roar of New Years' celebrations quieted in 1955, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher flew into New York City on his way to Rangoon. He had been to the United States before. In the 1930s, he attended Columbia University as a student of economics and even took a year-long post as a lecturer at Columbia's School of Banking. But if the city's bright lights spellbound him as a young man, he saw them differently now. At the time, he had just been appointed as an economic advisor to the newly independent Burma, and was required to attend a series of United Nations briefings before his trip. Each day, when he came out of his Midtown Manhattan hotel, he felt a vague sense of disgust for the crisscrossing roads and oversized vehicles he saw everywhere. "One gets the impression that the primary preoccupation of the American people is with motor cars," he wrote to his wife back home, "you see nothing but cars everywhere you look, cars moving, cars shopping, cars parking, cars for sale, cars required and unrequired, all enormous and ugly." Schumacher, who had dedicated his life to promoting growth, started to question his role as an economist.

Born in Bonn, Germany in 1911, as the second son of a political economy professor, Schumacher grew up in the ivory tower of academia. He attended the best schools — The London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge, and Columbia University — and studied under some of the great British intellectuals of his day, including John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Cecil Pigou, and Dennis Robertson. Upon finishing his studies, he returned to Germany in April 1934. Two months later, Hitler, then Chancellor, purged his party of disloyalists and, shortly after, declared himself Führer of the German people. Appalled by the Nazis, Schumacher fled to London the following year. When the war broke out at the dawn of September 1939, Schumacher and his wife remained separated from their German family for the duration of the conflict.

Life for Schumacher was not easy during the war, even as he took refuge in Britain. At the outset, he was labeled as an "enemy alien" and interred at the Prees Heath camp in the Shropshire countryside. After several months, he was given an early release by the government, thanks partly to his connections to a network of influential British figures. Schumacher then moved to Eydon Hall, an isolated Northamptonshire estate located not more than twenty-five miles from where John Lobb and Crockett & Jones produce their shoes today. While there, he toiled in the fields, repaired fences, and brought in the harvest by day, and then wrote papers about international economics by night. Always a voracious reader, Schumacher also consumed a mountain of books. He pored over the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, essays by J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science, Seebohm Rowntree's Poverty and Progress, and C. H. Waddington's The Scientific Attitude. By the end of his time at Eydon Hall, Schumacher, an erstwhile liberal, became a cocksure socialist and strident atheist. He would later recall his time at the farm as his "real education."

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No Man Walks Alone Starts Sale

No Man Walks Alone, a sponsor on this site, is one of my favorite online stores. For such a small operation, they’ve had an outsized impact on how many men think about clothes. Over the years, they’ve helped break down the imaginary border between classic tailoring and casualwear. Along with selling suits and sport coats, they carry contemporary casualwear, classic workwear, and hard-to-find Japanese labels. For men who want to build a more holistic wardrobe, No Man Walks Alone is as close as you can get to a one-stop-shop.

This morning, they started their midseason sale, where you can find select items discounted by as much as 25%. Since it’s relatively early in the season, there’s still a good selection of sizes left. There’s also no code needed — prices are as marked.

You can find the sale section up now on their website. I recommend browsing through the whole selection, as the number of discounted items is still reasonably manageable. If you want some highlights, here are some pieces I think are particularly special. 

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The Armoury’s Spring Style Tips

When The Armoury started putting together their spring lookbook a couple of months ago, they knew they couldn't travel abroad. The company's team members were stuck in their respective home cities, Hong Kong and New York City, and could only communicate with each other via phone and email. Yet, they also wanted to create a lookbook that was hopeful, an encouraging reminder that better days are ahead. "We love traveling, and we miss visiting Florence, Italy," Mark Cho told me over the phone. "So we wanted to make something that would be a celebration of our time there."

After drumming up some ideas, The Armoury's co-founders Mark Cho and Alan See dug through their holiday photos, and the company's team shot one or two people at a time in a studio, following masking rules. They then had to figure out a way to put the images together. At first, they used a green screen, but Mark says the resulting images were so terrible, a viewer would never be able to suspend their disbelief ("they were not good enough to be believable, but also not so bad that the images were funny. They were just bad."). Eventually, they landed on this cutout sticker design. "We had a colleague illustrate things, handwrite things, and then photograph crumpled paper to give everything some texture. There are also small paint drops on the collages, echoing the colors in the clothes, which helps bring everything together." The result is a virtual destination lookbook that feels reminiscent of a travelog.

Over the years, The Armoury's collections have gotten noticeably more casual. Along with their suits and sport coats, they also sell sporty knitwear, holiday shirts, and workwear from The Real McCoys. Mark says he expects this to continue in a post-vaccine world. "I think things will get more casual," he says, "which means tailoring also has to be more casual. This year's spring tailoring can be worn in the office, but the clothes come into their own when they're worn casually. When you show a collection like this, I think people become more comfortable with the idea of wearing tailored clothing." If you, like me, are eager to get back into a suit or sport coat, here are some suggestions on how to wear tailoring this spring, using images from The Armoury's new lookbook and various social media feeds.

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Excited to Wear This Spring

By many accounts, life in the United States is supposed to start feeling more normal sometime this year. It's unclear what "normality" will look like in a post-vaccine world — who knows when we'll return to crowded bars, restaurants, and offices — but we may have small gatherings by summer. Which, of course, means the ability to dress again.

In the last year, many people have become sharply aware of the pleasure that clothes can bring to their daily routine. Yet, without the ability to move through the world and be seen, few people truly get dressed. These days, I mostly wear things that sit somewhere between loungewear and tailored clothing. I don’t like the feeling of wearing shapeless sweats all day, but I also don’t feel motivated to put on a tie. So, I wear comfy flannel shirts, raw denim jeans, and five-pocket cords, sometimes with a sweatshirt that I can easily launder at home. At the same time, when going out in public, I want to feel good about my outfit without having to fully change. This at-home uniform then serves as a base layer for outerwear with structure, texture, and weight, reminding me that brief moments outside are special.

I imagine many people will be dressed in some version of this for much of this year, as they balance comfort, presentability, and ease of cleaning. If you're in that position, here are some things I'm excited to wear this spring, either in this in-between mode or as easy get-ups that don't require special care.

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The Shimmer of the Southwest

At the turn of the 20th century, Kentucky humorist Irvin S. Cobb published a book of essays under the title Roughing It De Luxe. It was about his travels out West using railway passenger cars, which at the time had become the new middle-class luxury. Cobb was acutely aware of how his smooth passage contrasted against Mark Twain’s stagecoach journey fifty years prior, so he peppered his essays with wry musings about the upscale services and fine dining available to him. He wrote:

Starting out from Chicago on the Santa Fé, we had a full trainload. We came from everywhere: from peaceful New England towns full of elm trees and oldline Republicans; from the Middle States; and from the land of chewing tobacco, prominent Adam’s apples, and hot biscuits — down where the r is silent, as in No’th Ca’lina. And all of us — Northerners, Southerners, Easterners alike — were actuated by a common purpose — we were going West to see the country and rough it — rough it on overland trains better equipped and more luxurious than any to be found in the East; rough it at ten-dollar-a-day hotels; rough it by touring car over the most magnificent automobile roads to be found on this continent. […] Two thousand miles from saltwater, the oysters that are served on his dining cars do not seem to be suffering from car-sickness. And you can get a beefsteak measuring eighteen inches from tip to tip. […] If there was only a cabaret show going up and down the middle of the car during meals, even the New York passengers would be satisfied with the service, I think.

Conspicuous among Cobb’s fellow travelers was a hodgepodge of well-to-do people. There was the Chicago surgeon who was so distinguished, he had a rare disease named after him; a woman who enjoyed stepping out onto the train platform at every stop, so she could expand her accordion-plaited camera and snap a few photos of the scenery and people; and a corn-doctor from Indiana who was anxious about everything, from breakfast preparation to the proper clothes he should wear when finally faced with the splendor of the Grand Canyon. When the corn-doctor asked our essayist for style direction, Cobb politely replied that he could not be of any help. “I had decided to drop in just as I was, and then to be governed by circumstances as they might arise; but he was not organized that way,” Cobb remembers. “On the morning of the last day, as we rolled up through the pine barrens of Northern Arizona toward our destination, those of us who had risen early became aware of a terrific struggle going on behind the shrouding draperies of that upper berth of his. Convulsive spasms agitated the green curtains. Muffled swear words uttered in a low but fervent tone filtered down to us. Every few seconds, a leg or an arm or a head, or the butt-end of a suitcase, or the bulge of a valise, would show through the curtains for a moment, only to be abruptly snatched back.”

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The Future is Made to Measure

In the storybook tale of how clothing is made, there are three tiers of production, each ascending a luxury pyramid. At the bottom-most level, you have ready-to-wear, which are those clothes we see hanging on racks and in stores, ready to be tried on, coveted, and perhaps even purchased. The next level up is made-to-measure, where a block pattern is adjusted using a client's measurements, and then, we assume, a whizzing, thumping machine somewhere shoots out a custom-tailored garment. Finally, at the capstone of this pyramid, there's bespoke, the highest expression of craft. In the popular imagination, bespoke is about the hush-hush, wood paneled rooms on Savile Row, where tailors work diligently around ancient tables stacked high with heavy bolts of worsteds, flannels, and tweeds. For many, bespoke is "the dream."

That's the story anyway. Men who are just getting into tailored clothing often think they should climb as high up on this pyramid as their wallet allows. But in reality, clothing production systems are much more complicated, and there are good and bad examples of clothes in each tier — quality ready-to-wear, bad bespoke, and everything in between. Rather than being stacked on a pyramid, these systems overlap with each other in meaningful ways. To understand how clothing is made, we have to go back to the early 19th century, when the development of the ready-to-wear industry coincided with the industrial revolution, the emergence of modernism, and the American Civil War.

There was a time when nearly all men wore bespoke clothes. Before the Civil War, most men had their clothes custom made by a tailor, if they could afford one, or by women in their home. The only ready-made clothing at this time was crudely sewn workwear, often produced for sailors, miners, and slaves. It wasn't until 1849 that Brooks Brothers debuted the first ready-made suit in meaningful quantities, and even then, the quality of these clothes paled when compared to bespoke garments.

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2020 in Hindsight: A Year in Fashion

In the social science literature, the term "critical juncture" is used to describe a moment when significant changes can occur rapidly, knocking institutions and culture onto a new developmental course. In the last year, many have debated whether the coronavirus pandemic is such a moment. Is remote work morphing into a more permanent reality? Will we be wearing coffee stained t-shirts and elasticated pajama bottoms forever? Are we witnessing the death of hype culture and the emergence of a more thoughtful fashion consumer? In a recent New York Times interview, Raf Simons expressed skepticism over whether liberal market economies can be permanently bent and reshaped. "The one lesson I think fashion will not learn from this, which is the one it should learn, if I am brutally honest, is that it should be less greedy," he said. "It became too much this economic machine. For the majority, the first desire is economic growth. […] And you can't do that with only one or two collections a year."

It's been one year since the first case of coronavirus was reported in the United States. Since then, some things have changed, although their permanence is yet to be determined. After J. Crew filed for Chapter 11 protection in May of last year, other corporate giants toppled like dominoes — Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, J.C Penney, Men's Wearhouse, Aldos, and John Varvatos among them. That has sent shockwaves throughout the global supply chain, affecting heritage producers such as Vanners Silk Weavers. The Gap and H&M, two mainstays in high-street retailing, announced plans to shutter hundreds of stores in this coming year. And for every one of these headlines about big industry names, countless small businesses don't get nearly enough attention. Last year, New York City lost over 500 small businesses alone. The Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, estimates that about a third of the city's 240,000 small businesses "may not make it to see the post-vaccine promised land."

Last December, as the year was drawing to a close, I wondered "what are some of the year's most defining themes?" (Yes, this is a "year in review" post, which comes a month late, but please cut me some slack, as I've been dealing with a pandemic, a recession, and an insurrection.) Some of the things that have transpired were many years in the making, just accelerated and taken to the extreme. The Casual Friday movement that started in the 1990s has now ended with all of us in sweatsuits and t-shirts. The decline of suburban malls, department stores, and other general merchandise stores has morphed into a total brick-and-mortar meltdown, threatening to reshape the American landscape. Online shopping is at an all-time high, which has created a new demand for shipping supplies. Environmentalists are now bracing themselves for all the corrugated containers, plastic packaging, shrink wrap, bouncy air pillows, and bubble mailers that will wind up in our landfills, incinerators, and natural environment. To be sure, these are the real themes of last year. But along with these very obvious concerns, what else defined fashion in 2020?

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A Soft History of American Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Christians

Shots were fired in the late summer of 1777, a year after the United States declared independence, as some 15,000 British soldiers descended onto Philadelphia, then the seat of the rebellious Second Continental Congress. After some hard-fought battles that resulted in over a thousand Continental Army deaths, the British marched into Philadelphia unopposed. The Continental Congress first relocated to Lancaster and then York, leaving civilians behind in Philly. One of those civilians was Molly Rinker.

Molly Rinker, also known to friends as Old Mom Rinker, was a matronly woman who ran a Philadelphia tavern. While George Washington and his troops were encamped just a few miles outside of the city, Mom Rinker closely tended to British soldiers and Tories, keeping their plates full, their beer pitchers flowing, and the conversation animated. But her intentions went beyond just providing good service. While drunken redcoats chatted away, Mom Rinker picked up bits and pieces of information, which she then covertly jotted down in the backroom. Each night, she wrapped her notes around tiny stones, and then hid those stones inside large balls of yarn. And on the following day, she took her knitting needles and yarn to the outskirts of town, where she’d climb high atop of a rocky ridge. From this vantage, Mom Rinker could easily survey the area. She would then sit down and proceed to innocently knit.

With yarn strewn around her and knitting needles in her hand, Mom Rinker was a portrait of tranquil domesticity. British soldiers who may have seen her from afar suspected nothing. But from this position, Mom Rinker could see when a Continental soldier emerged from the brush below. When she did, she’d gently nudge a ball of yarn over the brink, causing it to tumble to the ground, and the soldier would then scoop up, pocket, and carry her priceless message to George Washington. Old Mom Rinker, who never dropped a stitch, was America’s first and perhaps only sweater-making spy. She turned cloak-and-dagger techniques into yarn and knitting needles.

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