“The rise of haute couture in the early 20th century dovetailed with advances in communication and travel, and so, too, the public’s unusual interest in this rarefied world. There are well-known stories of Paris policemen and taxi drivers being able to recognize couture, like a cop in the ’30s who refused to arrest a feminist agitator on the grounds that she was dressed by Molyneux. By the ’60s, everyone knew about the latest fashion, if not from Mary Quant, then from the Beatles. But sometime in the late ’80s, fashion discovered semiotics. Clothes suddenly acquired meaning (think of the efforts to “decode” a Helmut Lang show or almost any by Martin Margiela). You truly needed to be an expert to appreciate why a jacket was worn inside out or why a dress that made you look like a bag lady was cool. Susan Sontag described a similar shift in the arts in the mid-60s, noting that “the most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language.” Today, as high fashion moves closer to mass media — with brand-hosted YouTube channels, films, huge spectacles — there is pressure to simplify. I also wonder whether the surge of new brands — their shows often crammed with weird and banal designs — hasn’t caused elite designers to rethink matters. Hence more straightforward clothes.”

Cathy Horyn in The New York Times.

-Pete

Expats in Tangier

The New York Times’ Style Magazine published a feature a few months ago on Tangier, a northern Moroccan city that has long been a destination for European and American diplomats, spies, writers, and businessmen. The story focuses on the expat community there and their eccentric style. People who came to visit, and decided to never leave. An excerpt:

It’s an old story — as old as sailing and sex — yet there is always something new coming over the strait. Indeed, it may be the hunt for newness in an old port that brought them here, adventurers and outsiders — from Mark Twain and Delacroix to Yves Saint Laurent and Tennessee Williams — who merely broke the path for the uprooted of today. Deep in the Casbah and high on the slopes of Vieille Montagne, you find these people, these elegant, exotic plants who fill their days with lunch parties and gossip. They may be the harmless denizens of an old idea, doing it with style, living beyond their means but strictly within their taste. It is a painted city where ripe vegetables and aged spies litter the souks, where men of hidden consequence can always find a drink. Most of all, Tangier is a city where attention to detail is undivided, a place where you meet people just crazy for beauty.

[…]

In a large old room smelling of narcissi, Pasti sat me down and smiled through cigarette smoke. The tables around us were filled with strange shells, bones and Neolithic pottery. I looked around as he spoke and you could almost breathe the beauty: a piece of an Islamic column from Spain, an Italian Renaissance stemma, many Berber pots, pine cones and marble busts. Past a big 17th-century German armoire was a fireplace of the same period. An 18th-century Venetian screen held back a little of the evening air, which came, nonetheless, rosemary-scented and chilled. Painted Moroccan chests and side tables were dotted everywhere — “I love patina,” he said — and around the walls was a multitude of astonishing tile panels, some from Seville and Portugal and fired 200 years before the birth of Shakespeare. Pasti writes novels and makes gardens. He is both intensely sociable and extremely private. Walking from room to room in his perfect house, he seemed somewhat like a man in a fairy tale, lost in beauty, hiding behind windows in a secret garden. But then he laughed and puffed on his cigarette and seemed quite normal again. Pasti started as a literary critic and then began collecting strange fragments and rare bulbs, which he would plant in his garden in the Moroccan countryside, and also in pots at his house in Tangier. His first novel is the story of a botanical obsession. “I started collecting wild bulbs more or less 15 years ago,” he said. He sometimes sleeps outside among the plants. In some ways he considers himself to be a kind of doctor to sick plants and sees his place in the country as a kind of botanical hospital. 

You can read the whole article, and view a very, very cool video feature that goes along with it, here.

Our friend Niyi in New York, a guy we often feature in our Real People series, recently showed up on the New York Time’s fashion blog. Apparently he was at an apparel tradeshow in Paris, and spotted getting some lunch. As usual, he was also exceptionally well dressed. 

Our friend Niyi in New York, a guy we often feature in our Real People series, recently showed up on the New York Time’s fashion blog. Apparently he was at an apparel tradeshow in Paris, and spotted getting some lunch. As usual, he was also exceptionally well dressed. 

Street Style From Around the World

The New York Times has a nice collection of vignettes on street style from around the world. Pictured above are some screen grabs I took from the videos on Brooklyn Heights Village, Paris, and Milan.

“keep-it-real-itis”

Coinage via Jon Caramanica, on the condition afflicting heritage brands as they clumsily try to hold on to the roots that make them interesting while pivoting to attract new customers. In this case, he’s talking about Filson. I suffer from chronic keep-it-real-itis myself.

-Pete

What the Shift to Online Shopping Could Mean

US News & World Report recently put together some data showing something we’ve already long known: people are shopping less at department stores. The first graph above charts department store sales. That’s been steadily declining since 2001. The second graph shows what could be the cause: consumers going online to purchase things they’d otherwise buy in a store. The red line you see charts nonstore sales (which includes internet retailers). The blue line charts department store sales. In the last year, nonstore sales rose 6.5 percent, while department store sales fell by about the same amount.

The one blip in this is clothing sales, which grew slightly by 1.2 percent in the last year, suggesting that people are still going to department stores to try things on. I imagine much of this is because of womenswear, which is harder to size right online. But this is just a hunch. In either case, companies such as True Fit and PhiSix are developing technologies for “virtual fitting rooms,” which might make real fitting rooms less important in ten years. 

Some things not discussed in the post are the implications of this shift. For example, the New York Times had an interesting article two years ago about how online shopping has made customers more sensitive to the pushiness of sales associates. An excerpt:

Self-service has long infiltrated the consumer experience, most recently with self-checkout at grocery stores. But the biggest factor affecting attitudes toward salespeople may be the amount of time people spend shopping online, which tends to be a solitary experience. In 2011, online shopping on Cyber Monday was up 22 percent over the previous year, according to comScore, which tracks Internet traffic.

“The element of control, by contrast to the salesperson service experience, is attractive,” said Ravi Dhar, a professor of marketing and psychology at Yale. “You feel like you’re in control of the entire experience, and people like that. There is this notion for the millennial generation that they don’t quite like the style of salesmanship that was going on, since they were raised on online shopping. But it might be becoming true for a larger group of people.” […]

“This distancing is so serious today that some customers walk into stores and hold their hand up and say, ‘Just looking,’” said Mr. Shanker, who said he has trained the employees of luxury stores like Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Van Cleef & Arpels.  […]

“We see the customer with their earbuds in” who does not want to be approached by a sales representative, Mr. Costino said. “Some shoppers don’t want that kind of service, especially the ones we see who have done their pre-shopping online.” 

The other possibility – one that I have a gut feeling about, but no real evidence for – is that the shift to online shopping will eventually affect how companies design and market clothes. Whereas you can handle things in department stores, online shopping is mostly just about words and pictures. Presumably that’ll mean that designers will have to use design details that you can easily see, rather than rely on subtle things such as the feel of some fabric. Think of the difference between the drape of a heavy 50oz silk twill tie or the chalky hand of an ancient madder versus the more “obvious” textures of raw silk that menswear enthusiasts seem to favor today. I also recently handled some plain cotton sweatshirts from Maison Martin Margiela, which were really remarkable to the touch, but looked rather plain and boring in photos. True indeed, those ended up being discounted much more than Margiela’s more “visually interesting” pieces last year. 

And without the ability to handle items in person, and get a real up-close view of their quality, perhaps we’ll see brands rely more on “stories” to market their goods. The telling of stories, after all, has been at the heart of the “heritage movement” for the last ten years. 

So that no one accuses me of being a Luddite, it should be noted that online shopping has also made it possible for us to buy a much wider selection of items, and get things at cheaper prices. But like the trend of declining department store sales, you likely already knew that. 

He’ll Do Anything For Custom (But He Won’t Do That)

“But I don’t like to make a seersucker jacket or suit for anybody,” he said. “I’ll do it, but I really shouldn’t. Because of what I have to charge them for the tailoring” — his prices start at $1,400 for a jacket made-to-measure in standard patterns and sizes and up to $2,400 if it is custom-made — “it’s not worth it for something that’s just made of cotton.”
He continued: “It’s like this … even the richest guy in the country wouldn’t pay $20 for a banana. He could afford it, but he wouldn’t do it.”
One of Mr. Winston’s favorites is a bolt of cloth printed with Zodiac-themed variations on the Kama Sutra. “A customer had me make a jacket out of this for his sister’s wedding on Fishers Island some years ago,” he said. “I bought a lot of it and use it as tuxedo linings now. Some of the women in my workrooms refused to do it, so I had to have one guy bring it home to work on.”

— Paul Winston of Chipp2 on how he’ll make you a tuxedo with a Kama Sutra lining, but he’d be reluctant to make you a suit out of cotton. 
(Pictured above: Paul holding up a jacket made out of tussah silk, a very slubby, textured fabric made by allowing silk worms to live on a wild diet rather than exclusively on mulberry leaves)

He’ll Do Anything For Custom (But He Won’t Do That)

“But I don’t like to make a seersucker jacket or suit for anybody,” he said. “I’ll do it, but I really shouldn’t. Because of what I have to charge them for the tailoring” — his prices start at $1,400 for a jacket made-to-measure in standard patterns and sizes and up to $2,400 if it is custom-made — “it’s not worth it for something that’s just made of cotton.”

He continued: “It’s like this … even the richest guy in the country wouldn’t pay $20 for a banana. He could afford it, but he wouldn’t do it.”

One of Mr. Winston’s favorites is a bolt of cloth printed with Zodiac-themed variations on the Kama Sutra. “A customer had me make a jacket out of this for his sister’s wedding on Fishers Island some years ago,” he said. “I bought a lot of it and use it as tuxedo linings now. Some of the women in my workrooms refused to do it, so I had to have one guy bring it home to work on.”

Paul Winston of Chipp2 on how he’ll make you a tuxedo with a Kama Sutra lining, but he’d be reluctant to make you a suit out of cotton. 

(Pictured above: Paul holding up a jacket made out of tussah silk, a very slubby, textured fabric made by allowing silk worms to live on a wild diet rather than exclusively on mulberry leaves)


“But the question on my mind is this: Is there anyone who can actually follow someone like Cathy? Have we, the fashion industry, nurtured and nourished truly independent, informed voices who say what they really think? I think not. Too much fashion writing is fluffy drivel concerned with front-row attendees and the “hottest new trends.” And too often, it describes the clothes in only an elementary, superficial way that lacks an understanding of how garments are designed and constructed, and how they fit into a wider cultural and economic context.
What’s more, too many of the honest comments that experienced show-goers make to each other on the way out of a show never make it into print. Too many journalists have told me that their opinions are neutered by the powers that be for fear of pissing off advertisers or jeopardising relationships.”

- Imran Amed on the sorrier state of fashion criticism, following news that Cathy Horyn, the New York Times’ chief fashion critic, has resigned.

But the question on my mind is this: Is there anyone who can actually follow someone like Cathy? Have we, the fashion industry, nurtured and nourished truly independent, informed voices who say what they really think? I think not. Too much fashion writing is fluffy drivel concerned with front-row attendees and the “hottest new trends.” And too often, it describes the clothes in only an elementary, superficial way that lacks an understanding of how garments are designed and constructed, and how they fit into a wider cultural and economic context.

What’s more, too many of the honest comments that experienced show-goers make to each other on the way out of a show never make it into print. Too many journalists have told me that their opinions are neutered by the powers that be for fear of pissing off advertisers or jeopardising relationships.”

- Imran Amed on the sorrier state of fashion criticism, following news that Cathy Horyn, the New York Times’ chief fashion critic, has resigned.

In a strange bit of news, Men’s Wearhouse is apparently putting in a bid for the purchase of dress-shoe retailer Allen Edmonds. At the same time, they’re also preparing themselves against a possible hostile takeover from Jos. A. Bank. The purchase of Allen Edmonds is rumored to be in the low hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s unclear whether this will affect Jos. A. Bank’s bid for Men’s Wearhouse.

Full story at the New York Times

"The main point is: they think about it. And the whole disheveled look is, I think, on the wane."

This is a spectacular On the Street where Cunningham draws parallels between the transition between the silhouettes of the 1940s and ’50s and today. And a strong argument for putting thought into men’s clothes.

Bravo, Bill Cunningham, as usual.