Colorful Conversation With Stòffa

Over the summer, I thought I should buy some long-sleeved polos because I was tired of ironing my shirts. When I browsed online at some of my favorite shops, I faced a digital wall of seemingly endless options. Every shop had Italian pique cottons and soft jersey knits in a range of Pantone colors. Many of these colors were given names that sounded like bite-sized plates on an expensive Brooklyn bar menu: dark guava, dried fig, hazelnut, burnt acorn, and plum. I wanted to be more adventurous and break out of my routine of only wearing light blue and white shirts, but I wasn't sure how. These polos were expensive, and I wanted to choose the right colors. 

Some of the greatest minds have written about the sources and uses of color. Aristotle believed that colors were related to the four primary elements -- earth, wind, fire, and water. That theory held for more than two thousand years until Newton found that light breaks up into distinct colors when passed through a prism (this is the ROYGBIV of colors, also known as The Dark Side of the Moon). Yet, for all the theories, we still don't have many good ideas for how to incorporate more interesting colors into a wardrobe. Much of men's dress follows a formula: jeans are blue or black, shirts are white or light blue, shoes are black or brown, etc. When building a wardrobe, it's easier to stick to colors such as navy, brown, and white because they play well together, making it easier to get dressed in the morning. 

But what about the more exciting colors -- mauve, celadon, or ochre? To get some ideas, I talked to my friend Agyesh Madan, co-founder of Stòffa. Agyesh and his team put together some of the most beautiful online presentations I've seen from any brand, big or small. I also find their use of colors compelling: the styles are subtle and subdued, but there's always a sophisticated tweak here or there in how they vary their shades. To me, this is more interesting than just splashing purple shoes or bright orange parkas into an outfit. So I chatted with Agyesh on the phone a few weeks ago about how to use color in a wardrobe (secretly trying to ply some info for my polo purchase). 

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Cosmopolitanism and Style

At the Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong, a man in a dark blue suit shouted into a microphone as hands kept raising, pushing the price of Zao Wou-Ki’s triptych masterpiece, Juin-Octobre 1985, ever higher. Initially commissioned by I.M. Pei for his Raffles City complex in downtown Singapore, the painting represents the artist’s “Infinity Period.” Across three giant canvases, warm hues of peach, saffron, and lilac silently danced and exploded along a horizontal axis, giving the viewer a sense of the cosmos. In 2005, the painting was taken down from its Raffles City location and sold to a Taiwanese art collector. Then in October 2018, it appeared at this port-city auction house. That night, as arms flew up — many sheathed in silky worsteds, black lambskins, and gauzy blouses — the price kept climbing. By the time the hammer fell, the price for this marquee piece had landed on a staggering HK$450 million (US$65 million), setting a new record for an art piece auctioned in Hong Kong.

Born in Beijing in 1920, Zao was the scion of a prosperous family. His father was a well-heeled banker; his grandfather held the title xiù cai, which signaled a certain level of success in Imperial China’s civil service examination. Zao’s family encouraged him to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue finance, but he had artistic ambitions. As a teen, Zao spent his days clipping images out of European and American art magazines, and pleading with his family to allow him to attend art school. His parents relented, but not without requiring him to at least get a classical Chinese education. So in 1935, a young Zao went to to the China Academy of Art, where he spent six years studying calligraphic ink painting. Upon graduating, he spent a few more years there as a teacher. Then in 1947, as the Chinese revolution drew neigh, Zao hopped on a plane and flew to Paris, intending to pursue two more years of art education.

Even as Paris was lifting itself out of the wreckage of the Second World War, the city had a vibrant and flourishing art scene. Much of this was thanks to the diversity already present in the French capital. Before the war, Paris attracted talented sculptors, painters, and printmakers from around the world. Many of these immigrants were young Jewish men who relocated on the Left Bank of Paris, where artists, writers, and philosophers gathered in cafes, salons, and galleries. Such artists included the great Amedeo Modigliani (an Italian painter known for his sleek and beautiful portraits), Marc Chagall (a Russian-French pioneer of modernism), and Chaïm Soutine (a tailor’s son whose impressionist portrait of a woman has since become a symbol of democratic protest in his home country of Belarus).

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A Story About Ranch Dressing

Before arriving in the United States, Igwe Udeh had never seen a cowboy in real life. He didn't even know they still existed. When he was a child in Nigeria, peddlers used to come through his small town, show spaghetti Westerns on a projector, and sell American products to amped-up audiences. Udeh loved those films and knew all the lines to every Clint Eastwood classic. But to him, the cowboy was a mythical character — a symbol of a bygone era in the American West. That is, until the autumn of 1980, when he looked up from his desk at the University of Oklahoma and saw a tall, slender man strolling into the classroom. This man wore a red plaid shirt, thick leather boots that clicked as he walked, and a wide-brimmed hat that obscured his face. When he sat down, he gently took off his hat and set it on the seat next to him. As other students poured into the classroom, no one dared to sit there. Udeh was in awe of this man's confidence.

Udeh left Nigeria to pursue a graduate degree in economics at the University of Oklahoma. But when he arrived, he found that he was the only black man in his program and one of the few in the town of Norman. None of the local barbers knew how to cut Udeh's hair, so he let it grow into an Afro. Some of the locals also had a hard time understanding Udeh through his thick Nigerian accent. When Udeh went to church, he wore his most traditional garb: a colorful West African pullover known as a dashiki. "No one would talk to me," he recalls in an interview. "They'd look at me like, 'Why are you dressed like that?' I'd sit down and people would get up one by one from the pews and move somewhere else. I'd leave feeling rejected and alienated."

Udeh wanted to assimilate, but in a way that would still allow him to express his African identity. As a Nigerian of Igbo descent, Udeh recognized some commonalities between his background and the American cowboy. Both cultures are deeply connected to the land. They are also both known for their strong, independent spirit and blunt manner of speaking. So Udeh went around to the local thrift stores to shop for some cowboy clothes (not difficult, as that's all they sold). He purchased plaid flannel shirts with shiny pearl-snap buttons, second-hand blue jeans, and cowboy boots that made him stand taller. He even bought the biggest Kawasaki motorcycle he could afford — his own iron horse — but found he couldn't wear the helmet because his Afro was too big. His appearance tickled local Oklahomans who had never seen a foreigner dress this way. "The first time I walked into a classroom in my new cowboy getup, someone said, 'Look at that! Igwe wants to be a cowboy.' I smiled and replied, 'Yes, I do.'"

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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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