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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The Complex Web of Production

On a warm afternoon in April 2009, the machines at the Southwick factory briefly stopped humming, as workers took a break from sewing fine men's suits and naval officers' uniforms so they could listen to two distinguished guests speak. The guests were Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Brooks Brothers CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, who were visiting that day to congratulate workers on their new facility. Just a year prior, Southwick, which was then located in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was on the verge of closing and having its operations moved to Thailand. It was then narrowly rescued by its largest customer, Brooks Brothers, who purchased the factory and relocated it just ten miles north to Haverhill.

Compared to its old location, the new Southwick factory had countless upgrades, including air conditioning and about $10 million in new manufacturing equipment. Instead of rolling out large, heavy bolts of cloth by hand, as workers used to do, this Haverhill factory had a computer-guided machine that effortlessly skimmed across a cutting table. When Del Vecchio promised in a speech that "Southwick's best days are still to come," hundreds of workers erupted with applause. "If it weren't for him, we'd be in the unemployment line," Regina Parisi, a stitcher, told The Eagle-Tribune.

Earlier this year, news leaked that Brooks Brothers was planning to close all three of its US factories — the suit factory in Haverhill, MA; shirt factory in Garland, NC; and necktie factory in Queens, NY — which spurred concerns about the brand's future and its identity as a "made in America" label. As it turned out, Brooks Brothers was trimming its cost structure and preparing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By the end of summer, Southwick's equipment was sold off, and a Japanese company acquired the rights to its name. Meanwhile, the Garland shirt factory has been sold to a company specializing in manufacturing personal protective equipment. Such has been the long decline of Brooks Brothers' American footprint. Forty years ago, nearly all of Brooks Brothers' clothing was manufactured in the United States. Before their closure, these three remaining US facilities produced just 20 percent of Brooks Brothers' inventory, which has mostly shifted to sportswear.

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Black Friday: The Cozy Edit

There's a wonderful photo of a grey-haired Ralph Lauren sitting at home, lounging in his leather armchair while looking pensively out the window. He's wearing coral orange trousers, likely made from corduroy, a pair of black velvet Prince Albert slippers, and a green cable-knit layered over a white dress shirt. Lauren, who's a master orchestrator when it comes to image making, knew precisely how to tell a story through the objects that surrounded him. He omitted the stuffed animal heads traditionally used to decorate rich men's hunting lodges at the turn of the last century. However, he included the books, sculptures, paintings, pillows, and throws traditionally associated with hominess and Old World domesticity. The photo says one thing: this man is comfortable.  

As many of us are spending more time at home these days, I thought I'd put together a list of some of my favorite domestic items, which are now part of various Black Friday promotions. Over at Put This On, you can find a full list of every worthwhile Black Friday and Cyber Monday deal for the next few days (I will be updating the list periodically). But this one focuses on just those things that I think make life at home more comfortable. For me, that means wearing chunky shawl collar cardigans with five-pocket cords, leather slippers, and flannel shirts. It also means rediscovering old hobbies, listening to forgotten records, and cooking up something delicious to eat. 

If you're looking to do some Black Friday shopping this weekend, here are ten things that can make life at home more comfortable. Hopefully, you can find something here that works for you. 

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Mr. Porter Starts Black Friday Sale

Mr. Porter's massive selection puts them in everyone's orbit. Whether you favor classic tailored clothing, Japanese workwear, or oversized, minimalist contemporary garb, Mr. Porter likely carries more than a handful of brands for you. 

Today, Mr. Porter started their Black Friday promotion, where you can take up to 30% off select items. Inis Meain's sweaters are expensive, even with the discount, but absolutely exquisite and a joy to wear. Engineered Garments and Chimala are personal favorites for workwear; SNS Herning is great textured knitwear you can layer under heavy coats (be sure to size up). 

Things tend to move fast at Mr. Porter. Given the size and scope of their inventory, your best bet is to filter things by category, then brands, and then sizing. If you're on the fence about an item, I recommend just taking a chance and returning if things don't work out (Mr. Porter offers free and easy returns). If you want some quick highlights, here are ten things that I think are notable. 

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Seven Amazing Black Friday Sales

It's that time of year again. Black Friday is technically supposed to start on Friday, but many retailers have gotten a jump on their promotions. This Friday, I'll be rounding up some of my favorite sales both here and at Put This On. But for some early Black Friday shopping, here are seven stellar deals. 

No Man Walks Alone: Up to 35% Off, No Code Needed

No Man Walks Alone is a sponsor on this site, but also genuinely one of my favorite online stores. Founder Greg Lellouche worked for a time as a banker on Wall Street, so he knows his way around a classic coat-and-tie rig. At the same time, he has an exceptional eye for casualwear. Take the suede Valstar jacket below, for example, which comes in both black and tan. It has a Western styled yoke, snap button pockets, and a generously shaped collar that looks great when popped from the back. You can wear it with denim, chinos, or even wool trousers. The subtle Western details give it a bit more flavor than your average suede bomber, and it looks especially good with sneakers or boots. I recommend taking your regular jacket size. 

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Streetwear From Above

In 1994, advertising executive Donald Rifkin came up with a new installment for Coca-Cola's "Obey Your Thirst" campaign, designed to promote the company's sparkling lemon-lime beverage Sprite. In the commercial, a young white teen with an unfortunate center-part haircut wrestles with one of life's eternal questions: "what is cool?" As he stands at a city intersection, our narrator considers the various identities he can adopt to boost his social standing — hip hop head, defiant skater, or entitled prep ("now that is not cool," he quickly surmises of the third). By the end of the 30-second advert, he still has not chosen an identity, but Coca Cola assures us that he can at least give his mind a rest by selecting the one reliably cool drink, Sprite.

When this commercial aired, countless corporations were already clamoring to co-opt street culture as a way to gain street credibility and reach new markets. In the decade prior, companies such as Philips, Atari, McDonald's, Hershey's, and Mountain Dew aired hip hop themed advertisements, which featured breakdancers popping and locking to sell everything from egg sandwiches to chiropractic services. Following the success of Jane Fonda's at-home workout videos, many companies also tried selling breakdancing videos to teach people how they can top rock, windmill, flare, float, and freeze. By the mid-90s, breakdancing was so thoroughly co-opted by the Suits, it was considered uncool in the streets, and a new dance movement emerged called freestyling.

It was also around this time when streetwear became legitimized as a fashion market. To be sure, street and youth culture have long existed. Since the end of the Second World War, young people in Britain and the United States have expressed themselves as beats, beatniks, bobby soxers, modernists, mods, hippies, bohemians, surfers, skaters, punks, and rockers. During mid-1940s Britain, ex-Guards officers, many of them gay, ordered fanciful Edwardian suits from their Savile Row tailors as a reaction to demob dreariness. These suits were defined by their long, flared skirt, turnback cuffs, and tight, drainpipe trousers. At the time, this New Edwardian style was fashionable in posh gay circles, having been championed by society photographer Cecil Beaton and the dandy couturier Bunny Roger. Savile Row tailors were all too happy to promote the look, as doing so helped fill their ledgers with orders.

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How to Choose Better Shoes

In the last ten years, the internet has exploded with innumerable sources for high-end shoes. What used to be a small market of Goodyear welted footwear has become an electronic bazaar with virtual stalls from around the world. In the past, if you wanted a pair of good shoes, you had your pick of two American brands, a handful of Northampton makers, and some Continental labels that were hard to source. Today, dozens of specialized dealers offer MTO options, adjusted lasts, and handwelted shoes made in the Austro-Hungarian tradition.

When shopping for shoes in this environment, it can be easy to get sucked into the endless number of options, especially when you’re scrolling through Instagram accounts and dedicated shoe blogs for inspiration. The photos that catch our eye tend to be of shoes that are sleek, interesting, and creatively designed. So people pause on photos of shapely oxfords in gleaming museum calf leathers, two-toned button boots, and chukkas in jewel tones such as sapphire blue and ruby red. And since footwear blogs tend to be so singularly focused on shoes — the leather types, construction techniques, and historical origins of some style — it’s also easy to find yourself thinking about shoes as standalone objects, disconnected from a wardrobe and be to be collected like Pokémon. I found myself doing this when I first got into fountain pens. The more I learned about filling systems and specialized nibs, the more I wanted certain pens, even though my time would have been better spent practicing my handwriting with the pens I already own.

Such internet-driven shoe shopping doesn’t always lead to good results in a wardrobe. In classic men’s dress, the cynosure of an outfit is typically the triangular area formed by a jacket, shirt, and tie. When done well, this area should lead a viewer’s eye upwards toward the space that deserves the most attention, your face. This is why it can be hard to wear patterned trousers or shoes in unusual colors: they draw the eye downwards. But when shopping online, we tend to be drawn to shoes that catch our eye, which is the opposite of what you want in an outfit. This doesn’t mean you have to get the most boring shoes possible (“They are not cheap; they are also an investment,” Hardy Amies wrote in The Englishman’s Suit. “So design is of the plainest”). Dreadfully boring shoes can sometimes signal a kind of conservatism that suggests you’re too self-conscious and afraid to have a point of view. Instead, get something that complements the rest of your wardrobe and builds towards a style you want to project. Here are three friendly suggestions on how to shop for better shoes.

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Things I’m Excited to Wear This Fall

A few months after the world shut down this past spring, Cathy Horyn of The Cut interviewed Raf Simons about what he thought of fashion's possible future. Simons, who's known in fashion circles for introducing a generation of men to the skinny black suit, was sitting in his apartment in Antwerp at the time while wearing elasticated easy pants and a hoodie. He ruminated on what fashion might look like after this pandemic. "'I think there must be a bunch of people out there, when they start thinking about fashion, who don't want to be reminded of the shitty time they had at home in the last five months. But —' He hesitated. 'It's just so personal. I have no clue. [...] honestly, I haven't worn a piece of fashion in months.'"

That's mostly the feeling I get when I think about fashion nowadays. But recently, I've been enjoying Mark Cho's new YouTube series, titled "Dress to Ingest." In a series of relaxing videos that run between five and ten minutes, Mark sits down with various Hong Kong restaurateurs to talk about their signature dishes. The videos are meant to give people some context on where they can wear tailored clothing, here being at restaurants. "They say you don't appreciate it until it's gone," Mark tells me. "Tailoring is often misunderstood only as a 'formal' option, but there's a difference between 'formal' and 'dressed up.' 'Formal' is serious and somber. 'Dressed up' is simply being invested in your appearance for your benefit and others around you. There has always been something precious about breaking bread with friends and family. Given how seldom we see each other now, why not give these rare occasions the celebration they deserve?" 

I don't wear tailored clothing as much as I used to, given that I mostly spend my days at home. But I've tried to make an effort to wear nicer clothes when I can -- a sport coat for short walks around the neighborhood, better flannel shirts even when I'm at home, a nicer pair of pants that I used to reserve for going to the city. "Outside" clothes help break up what's become a very monotonous life at home. Plus, on the few occasions when I can safely meet with friends, I've taken the opportunities to "dress up" more than I used to. The future of fashion is still uncertain, and yet, clothes continue to be one of our small comforts. In that spirit, here are eleven things I'm excited to wear this season. 

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