Silence of the Lamb

It's been barely a month since J. Crew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, making it the first major retailer to fall during the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, an alarming number of fashion-related businesses have followed, including Neiman Marcus, Aldo, John Varvatos, JC Penney, and J. Hilburn. This month may lay claim on one of the largest men's clothiers. In a phone call that took place late last April, Brooks Brothers CEO Claudio del Vecchio allegedly told a group of senior executives that that company plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this June.

I first heard about the phone call last month while I was working on a story about how Brooks Brothers is planning to shutter all three of its US factories. Since finding the bigger headline, I've been interviewing former and current Brooks Brothers executives, who were willing to share the insider story of how the brand has found itself in this position. This morning, Business of Fashion published my feature. The story is about a lot more than the spread of Casual Friday or the coronavirus pandemic (although those certainly contributed to Brooks Brothers' downfall).

The situation stems from a massive network of long-term real estate leases, which stretch back to the 1980s. Under the leadership of Julius Garfinckel & Co., Brooks Brothers operated just 11 locations in 1971. By the time Marks & Spencer sold Brooks Brothers to Retail Brand Alliance in 2001, there were 155 stores and outlets in the US and Japan. Today, there are roughly 250 stores in the United States alone -- and nearly half of them are outlets. Of Brooks Brothers' full-line US stores, just 40 are responsible for 80 percent of sales. One executive told me that they could have closed over 100 locations and not seen much change in profits. The fall of Brooks Brothers ties together many things: the decline of tailored clothing, the challenges of running a brick-and-mortar business, and the difficulty of telling an American story during a globalized age. You can read my story over at Business of Fashion

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Reading, Donating, and Doing

Like millions of other Americans, and now millions more abroad, I was horrified to see police officer Derek Chauvin slowly and blithely choking the life out of George Floyd this late May. America has progressed in some ways that I never thought I’d see. And yet, on the issue of police brutality and racial violence, I feel as horrified today as I did when I watched Rodney King get brutally beaten in 1991, or heard about the senseless execution of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Or when I read about Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. It feels like the only thing that has changed is how we consume the news about these deaths. 

I’m far from an expert on this issue, but I wanted to share some things I’ve been reading and doing. By now, you’re probably buried in recommended reading lists and resource guides. If you’re anything like me, you may be feeling overwhelmed by the suggestions. There are just so many links and lists, coupled with the heavy heart I feel over this issue, I find it’s easy to put things off for another day. 

Sometimes, however, I come across something short and manageable, and it’s easy to act upon it at that moment. Yesterday, Mark Cho of The Armoury shared an excerpt from a book about redlining. David Shuck at Heddels wrote about how you can help reform the criminal justice system. The Cut has an excellent post on how you can support the struggle against police brutality. This morning, 3sixteen sent out nine links related to this issue (I like their reading list). I also want to share a brief list of things I’ve found to be useful. Maybe there’s something here you will find helpful too. 

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Will We See a #Menswear 2.0?

Menswear entered this coronavirus era while in the throes of no-holds-barred style. In the weeks leading up to the Bay Area's shutdown order, I received a steady stream of emails promoting oversized suits, Gore-Tex hiking boots, and hallucinogenic tie-dye tees. But in even in the early days of the crisis, this veneer was starting to crack. In a Dazed interview published last December, Virgil Abloh predicted that fashion will soon move on from its obsession with streetwear and hype culture. "How many more t-shirts can we own," he asked, "how many more hoodies, how many sneakers?" Could we be witnessing a return to heritage menswear, classic tailoring, and appreciation for craft?

This sentiment is popping up everywhere. At Business of Fashion, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort suggested that this crisis will "completely reset the way we produce, dress, and consume." Designers will no longer make six collections per year, nor will consumers feel compelled to purchase everything they see. Anna Wintour hinted on CNBC this week that the pandemic could end the era of disposable fast fashion. On the other end of the price spectrum, Simon Crompton at Permanent Style believes that artisanal menswear will fare better than other areas in this industry. In his article, industry figures predicted that it will be less acceptable to flaunt your wealth in the future, so we may see a resurgence of high-quality, low-key menswear.

Cam Wolf summarized this viewpoint well in his GQ article last month. "The garish, maximalist designs of the past couple years that emphasized status through logos or obvious brand symbols, and were welcomed with open arms in economic boom times, will likely no longer fly," he wrote. "Consumerism won't grind to a halt, but as a point of comparison, think of how differently our $500 kicks look now compared to 10 years ago: blank-slate Common Projects gave way to loud-as-hell Balenciaga Triple S sneakers. Which might look a little weird these days."

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Taking a Shorts Break

In the mid-1920s, the press snapped a photo of the renowned radiologist Dr. Alfred Charles Jordan as he was cycling to work at his Bloomsbury practice. Soon after, the picture was published in a British newspaper, where it scandalized readers. Jordan was shown wearing a pair of shorts with a tailored jacket. At the time, no man in the city, and certainly none in professional life, bared his knees in public. Shorts were for children and perhaps people hiking on holiday. Even tennis players in the 1920s wore cream-colored flannel trousers when playing sports.

Jordan went on to be one of the founding members of the Men's Dress Reform Party, a flock of odd ducks in Britain who believed there was an intimate connection between clothes and health. Founded in June 1929, after a meeting at 39 Bedford Square in London, the Party sought to reform men's dress so that it could catch up to the progress they felt womenswear achieved. Members believed that men's clothing was too tight, ugly, and cumbersome, and before the adoption of dry cleaning, unwashable and thus unhygienic. “The Committee believes it would be premature to offer fixed and final views,” they wrote in their first publication. “Indeed, the men's dress reform movement should have as one of its aims the encouragement of a somewhat greater range of individual style than is possible with men's stereotyped costumes.”

For generations up to this point, "proper attire" in Britain was regulated by time, place, and occasion. Men wore dark worsted suits and black calfskin oxfords in the city, then tweeds and brogues for sporting and leisurely activities in the countryside. The members of the MDRP, however, wanted to free men from the shackles of social convention. They didn't just want to banish the suit; they want to replace it with holiday attire. For work in the city, members felt that men should be free to wear soft, open-collared shirts made from colorful rayons and fine poplins, which they thought paired well with jacket-and-shorts suits and matching wool stockings. "Most members wish for shorts; a few for the kilt; nearly all hate trousers. Some plead for less heavy materials and less padding; others for brighter colors," the London Times reported in 1929.

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Why Fashion Still Means Something


On the morning of June 14th, 1940, Parisians woke up to the sound of a German-inflected voice telling them, in French, that they were not to leave their buildings. The German Army was invading Paris, first entering from the Porte de La Villette and making their way towards the city's center by way of Rue de Flandres. Soon, German soldiers took over the main intersections, while tanks rumbled down Champs Elysees. By the time of the invasion, nearly two million Parisians had already fled for the countryside and south of France. But among those still trapped in the capital, millions more despaired as they watched a giant swastika flag being hoisted underneath the Arc de Triomphe. That evening, the German Army imposed a curfew from nine in the evening until five in the morning. At night, the city went dark. This was the beginning of life in occupied Paris.

The occupying Germans had big plans for French industry. For generations up to this point, Savile Row had been the center of men's tailoring, while Paris was the heart of haute couture. It's said that a single dress from a leading French courtier at this time was the equivalent of "ten tons of coal," while a liter of fine French perfume was worth "ten tons of petrol." Germany, however, wanted to relocate French haute couture to the cities of Berlin and Vienna. To achieve this, they set up administrative offices back home, introduced subsidies for German manufacturers, and demanded that leading French fashion figures move to Berlin, where they were to help establish dressmaking schools.

Fashion isn't just crucial to the French economy; it's central to the French identity, so many in the trade protested. So many in the trade protested. Lucian Lelong, president of French couture's governing body, Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, defiantly declared that "couture is in Paris or it is nowhere." And even as the German government imposed humiliating rationing standards — transforming the French economy to serve Germany needs, first by shipping away food, then clothing, and finally coal — many Parisians found ways to boost their morale. Ingenious French women wore hats made from blotting paper or newspapers — sometimes cleverly designed to signal their political allegiances — and blouses cut-and-sewn from parachutes. Young French men known as les zazous sported billowing zoot-suit-esque fashions to provoke the Vichy government. In her book Fashion Under Occupation, Dominique Veillon quotes one of the workers at Reboux, the largest milliner in Paris at the time, who described the attitude of her fellow workers:

We all wore large hats to raise our spirits. Felt gave out, so we made them out of chiffon. Chiffon was no more. Alright, take straw. No more straw? Very well, braided paper. Hats have been a sort of contest between French imagination and German regulation. We wouldn't look shabby and worn out. After all, we were Parisiennes.

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The Rise of Korean Fashion

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When British economist Alfred Marshall was looking out of his window in the late-19th century, he saw a country full of cottage industries and industrial clusters. In the Scottish Border towns up north, thousands of spinners, weavers, and knitters were making robust tweeds and soft cashmere. A little further south was Manchester, where steam-powered mills produced so much of the world’s cotton, the city was known as Cottonopolis. In the East End district of London known as Spitalfields, the descendants of French Protestant refugees and Irish immigrants were toiling over looms to make some of the world’s most beautiful silks. When those silks were woven, they were then transported to Macclesfield, where artisans decorated them with hand-blocked patterns.

Marshall wrote about similar clusters in his book Principles of Economics, which not only became the standard economics textbook in England for decades to come but also sparked an intellectual revolution. Most econ students will know Marshall as the man who transformed economics from the philosophical works of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx to the rigorous mathematical field it is today. Marshall helped lay the groundwork for neoclassical economics, as well as developed the supply and demand graph. But in Book 4, Chapter 10 of Principles of Economics, there were also a few paragraphs about the benefits of spacial clustering — an idea that would come into greater prominence about a hundred years later and helped to shape developmental policies.

Clustering is the idea that firms benefit from sharing infrastructure, suppliers, and distribution networks. Companies that supply components and support services can fit neatly into each other like Lego bricks. When you have a cluster of businesses, skilled workers can also share knowledge and move between firms, which helps soften the blow of unemployment. Back in the day on Savile Row, tailors across the many firms gathered at the pubs after work, where they would imbibe, gossip, and share ideas. “They were all enormous drinkers,” Thomas Girtin wrote of them in his book Nothing but the Best. “When they had been paid, they would ‘go on the cod,’ indulging in monster drinking bouts — drinking like a fish, perhaps — from which there was no recalling them until they had spent all their money.” Tom Mahon of Redmayne tells me that he remembers how much fun he used to have with other tailors at the pub, as well as how tailors shared knowledge by sketching out drafting patterns on the back of napkins.

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The Much Reviled Baseball Cap

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About a month ago, as I was walking home from work, I made a mental note to call my barber and make an appointment sometime that weekend. A friend of mine’s wedding was approaching, and I was two weeks overdue for a cut. But on March 16th, when seven Bay Area counties issued a sweeping stay-at-home mandate, all non-essential services in my neighborhood were shut down overnight. Truthfully, even if the quarantine order was lifted tomorrow, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable going to the barbershop anytime before June. So I’ve resigned myself to looking like Shaggy Rogers, the lanky slacker in the Scooby-Doo franchise. By June, I suspect I’ll look like an ugly version of Fabio.

I’m still unsure how I should dress when living under quarantine. Online, I’ve seen some people go as far as wearing a coat-and-tie, but I mostly wear the same uniform Bruce Boyer describes for himself in this Drake’s article: “either khakis or jeans (the older, the better), a casual button-front shirt (chambray, flannel, drill, or whatever suits the season), and camp mocs (again, the older, the better).” The only difference is that I also wear a baseball cap (like the rest of the uniform, the older, the better). These days, when I start feeling cabin fever — which is often — I find it helps to out for a brisk walk around the neighborhood (safely, of course, and away from other people). Going out for a walk keeps my blood moving, clears my mind, and keeps me feeling connected to the outside world. Since these outings are brief, however, I don’t want to style my hair. So I’ve been throwing on a baseball cap, which is currently my only wardrobe essential.

The baseball cap is the only headwear style to have made it out of the 20th century unscathed. Its popularity can be explained using the same themes that have driven the history of men’s dress: democratization, the confluence of commerce and art, and how something can be used to express tribal identity. Most of all, the style has become so ubiquitous in American culture, you could call it America’s national hat. In an ode to the style published in The New York Times, Troy Patterson called this sporty headpiece “the common man’s crown.” 

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Recommendations for Life at Home

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By now, you’re probably buried in reading recommendations, Spotify playlists, and suggestions for films you can watch on Netflix. Well, let me add a few more to the pile. As millions of people across the United State and abroad are subject to stay-at-home orders, outlets have been busy publishing ideas on what you can do to bide the time. The two most creative stories I’ve read come from isolation experts – Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who spent a year in outer-space, and Billy Barr, who has been living alone in an abandoned silver mining town for almost fifty years (both agree you should follow a schedule). Over at StyleForum, my friend Peter published a list of things you can read, watch, and eat (other than despair over the news). Peter has better suggestions if you want something closely related to men’s style, but if you’re looking for other ways you can settle in at home, here are some of my favorite films, cooking shows, songs, and books. Hopefully you can find something here to distract you. 

SOMETHING TO WATCH

Crip Camp: The latest Barack and Michelle-Obama produced Netflix documentary, Crip Camp, is a rousing and rare look at the disability rights movement. The film is about a group of young teens who attended a Catskill summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s, where they bonded over mealtimes and warm-weather flings. For camp attendees who usually feel excluded because of their conditions, this gathering was a bastion of acceptance and community. It also helped spark a movement. Coming out of the camp, many attendees went on to become nationally visible disability rights activists. Ultimately, this is a film about inclusion, intersectionality, and how inspirations found during one’s youth can lead to world-changing results. If you need a break from all the bad news, this feel-good story will make you optimistic about the future.

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Hearing From Small Businesses

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Last week, as I was reading Sendhil Mullainathan’s article in The New York Times about the importance of small businesses, I felt like I was reading my own story. Mullainathan is an Asian American who grew up in California, where his mother owned and operated a small video store. “She survived a major economic recession, two riots that rumbled past her window, and even the opening of a Blockbuster nearby,” he writes. Eventually, however, her business succumbed to the changing times. When her customers moved on, she felt she was ready to let go too. The difference, as Mullainathan notes, is that there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses today under threat, but were flourishing just three weeks ago. Their owners are not yet ready to move on. Their customers want those businesses to continue. And more importantly, their employees want to work.

Mullainathan’s article made me think of how many people in the United States have experience either owning a small business or working for one. On the block where my parents ran their video store, there were other Vietnamese families just like us. I remember playing in the back alley with kids whose parents owned the neighboring grocery store, bakery, dentist office, chiropractic office, and phở restaurant (why nearly every Vietnamese commercial block has this same exact mix of businesses, I have no idea). “I take the plight of small-business people personally,” writes Mullainathan. “Perhaps you do, too.”

Over the weekend, I reached out to some people behind small menswear operations to see how they’re doing. These are the people behind bespoke tailoring workshops, ready-to-wear boutiques, and even factories. I’ve been worried sick about what the crisis will do to small businesses. Instead of wondering what challenges these people face, and how others can support them, I asked business owners directly. Notably, since this crisis is moving so quickly, some details have since changed (Kiya at Self Edge, for example, noted that the quarantine timeline was looking to be months, which is now uncertain). But the contours of these concerns remain largely the same. Here’s how seven small business owners are thinking about the crisis.

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Sometimes Distractions are Good

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I was supposed to jump on a flight to Mexico later tonight to attend a friend’s wedding. I had the flights booked, a hotel room reserved, and a cat sitter was waiting in the wings. But like many people around the world are finding, the coronavirus outbreak has not only disrupted plans, but also changed the rhythm of daily life. Cities around the globe have instituted curfews, shut down schools, and banned large gatherings. Every regular activity nowadays feels like it comes with a new moral complication: how do you not only keep yourself safe, but also slow the spread of this virus and thus not endanger people in your community?

This past Monday, seven Bay Area counties issued “stay in place” orders — the strictest measure of its kind yet in the continental United States — directing all 7 million residents to stay inside their homes for the next three weeks. Businesses that don’t provide “essential” services have been instructed to send workers home. Grocers were already struggling to keep up with demand last week, but things took a turn after Monday’s announcement. Hours after the press conference, grocery stores were all but cleared out. Bins were scraped empty and shelves picked clean. The once busy thoroughfare near my home is now ghostly quiet, nearly all shops are closed, and without a daily routine, I find it’s easy to lose track of time.

So far, the focus has been, rightly, on the spread of the virus itself. But few people have discussed the psychological effects of the 24-hour news cycle and quarantine measures themselves. Here in the Bay Area, it’s too early to say what life is like under quarantine — things still feel hazy and new — but some lessons can be taken from the Toronto experience, where 15,000 residents were put on lockdown in 2003 after a SARS outbreak. Those living under quarantine were instructed not to leave their homes or have visitors. They were told to wash their hands frequently, wear masks when in the presence of others, not share personal items (e.g., towels, drinking cups, and cutlery), and to sleep in separate rooms from other household members. In addition, they were required to measure their temperature twice daily. If any symptoms of SARS developed, they were to call Toronto Public Health or Telehealth Ontario for instructions.

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