How Much Should You Spend on Dress Shoes?
One of the questions I frequently get in my inbox is: “I’m looking to buy a better pair of dress shoes, and only have X to spend. Should I save up for something better, or is so-and-so brand OK?” Like with many questions we get, a lot depends on the person asking.  
It’s worth noting, however, that in footwear (like in everything), there are serious diminishing returns after a certain point. Very roughly speaking, that point tends to be around $350 at full retail, although what’s sold at full retail can be had for less with smart shopping (eBay, factory seconds, seasonal sales, thrift stores, etc).
The Unfortunate Reality of Diminishing Returns
There are a number of things that go into the construction of a good shoe, but the two biggest are: the quality of the leather used and how the soles have been attached. Jesse did a great job in describing the difference between corrected grain and full grain leathers here. It’s also worth noting that even among full-grain leathers, there can be differences in quality. Additionally, most well made shoes will have their shoes attached through a Goodyear or Blake stitching process. Jesse reviewed some of these in the second episode of our video series, and you can read more about each technique here. The short of it is: with a sole that’s been stitched on, rather than glued, you can more easily resole your shoes, which means you don’t have to bin them when the bottoms wear out.
In the past, the “entry price” for good (dress) shoes tended to be around $350. These were usually from Allen Edmonds, Ralph Lauren, and Brooks Brothers, although not everything from these brands were worth buying. There were also some European names such as Herring and Loake’s 1880 line.
After this, you get marginally better constructions, but the differences become smaller and smaller (perhaps a leather insole vs. a fiberboard insole, or a sole that’s been attached by hand rather than machine, or slightly better leathers used for the uppers). Largely, as you move up from the $350 MSRP mark, you’re paying for design. A $1,250 pair of Edward Greens won’t last you 4x longer than a $350 pair from Allen Edmonds, but to many, they’re shaped and finished more handsomely.
The Emergence of a More Competitive Market
The good news is that the market has gotten a lot more competitive in the last five years, and the cost/ benefit curve has smoothed out considerably. Today, there are companies such as Beckett Simonon, John Doe, and Jack Erwin below the $200 price mark (the last of which I was particularly impressed by). Just a hair over $200 is Meermin, which I still think is one of the best values for (relatively) affordable footwear. They have a “Classic” line for about $200 (but with customs and duties, you might pay around $230) and a higher end “Linea Maestro” line for about $300 starting. And at the $350 mark, there’s more than Allen Edmonds and Loake’s 1880 these days. Paul Evans, Kent Wang, and Howard Yount are all good companies to look into.
The question of how much should you spend isn’t about what’s “good” in the footwear market, it’s about what’s “good enough” for you. For dress shoes, the only real criteria are: quality full-grain leather uppers and some kind of stitched on sole. Much of the rest is about aesthetics and personal preference.
(Photo: Crockett & Jones’ Whitehall oxfords at Ben Silver)

How Much Should You Spend on Dress Shoes?

One of the questions I frequently get in my inbox is: “I’m looking to buy a better pair of dress shoes, and only have X to spend. Should I save up for something better, or is so-and-so brand OK?” Like with many questions we get, a lot depends on the person asking. 

It’s worth noting, however, that in footwear (like in everything), there are serious diminishing returns after a certain point. Very roughly speaking, that point tends to be around $350 at full retail, although what’s sold at full retail can be had for less with smart shopping (eBay, factory seconds, seasonal sales, thrift stores, etc).

The Unfortunate Reality of Diminishing Returns

There are a number of things that go into the construction of a good shoe, but the two biggest are: the quality of the leather used and how the soles have been attached. Jesse did a great job in describing the difference between corrected grain and full grain leathers here. It’s also worth noting that even among full-grain leathers, there can be differences in quality. Additionally, most well made shoes will have their shoes attached through a Goodyear or Blake stitching process. Jesse reviewed some of these in the second episode of our video series, and you can read more about each technique here. The short of it is: with a sole that’s been stitched on, rather than glued, you can more easily resole your shoes, which means you don’t have to bin them when the bottoms wear out.

In the past, the “entry price” for good (dress) shoes tended to be around $350. These were usually from Allen Edmonds, Ralph Lauren, and Brooks Brothers, although not everything from these brands were worth buying. There were also some European names such as Herring and Loake’s 1880 line.

After this, you get marginally better constructions, but the differences become smaller and smaller (perhaps a leather insole vs. a fiberboard insole, or a sole that’s been attached by hand rather than machine, or slightly better leathers used for the uppers). Largely, as you move up from the $350 MSRP mark, you’re paying for design. A $1,250 pair of Edward Greens won’t last you 4x longer than a $350 pair from Allen Edmonds, but to many, they’re shaped and finished more handsomely.

The Emergence of a More Competitive Market

The good news is that the market has gotten a lot more competitive in the last five years, and the cost/ benefit curve has smoothed out considerably. Today, there are companies such as Beckett Simonon, John Doe, and Jack Erwin below the $200 price mark (the last of which I was particularly impressed by). Just a hair over $200 is Meermin, which I still think is one of the best values for (relatively) affordable footwear. They have a “Classic” line for about $200 (but with customs and duties, you might pay around $230) and a higher end “Linea Maestro” line for about $300 starting. And at the $350 mark, there’s more than Allen Edmonds and Loake’s 1880 these days. Paul Evans, Kent Wang, and Howard Yount are all good companies to look into.

The question of how much should you spend isn’t about what’s “good” in the footwear market, it’s about what’s “good enough” for you. For dress shoes, the only real criteria are: quality full-grain leather uppers and some kind of stitched on sole. Much of the rest is about aesthetics and personal preference.

(Photo: Crockett & Jones’ Whitehall oxfords at Ben Silver)

The Meaning of Selvedge Then and Now

Following Jesse’s great post last week on selvedge denim, I thought I’d share some scans from an old 1997 issue of Continental Restyling — an important lifestyle magazine for the Hepcat scene from 1993 until 2000. This was a publication for people passionate about 1950s American culture, rockabilly music, and a certain style of vintage clothes (e.g. circle skirts, rock’n’roll shirts, Hawaiian shirts, and blue jeans). In this issue (now almost 20 years old, if you can believe), we see what the selvedge stripe used to mean to a certain group of vintage clothing enthusiasts. 

What Selvedge Used to Mean to Some People

In his article titled “Blue Jeans: The Hepcat’s Guide to Vintage Denim,” Thommy Burns writes:

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen young Hepcats (guys and girls) who have taken the time to seek out the right shirts, jackets, shoes, etc. only to have their blue jeans be the missing link. Let me tell you, vintage jeans are very different to those available today and are an important key to achieving an authentic look. Jeans in the ‘50s were made with different dyes (believe it or not) and different fabric to those today – they look different when new and the differences become more apparent when they’re worn in.

[…]

Levi’s are my personal favourites. They have always been the world’s most popular jeans and therefore more Cats wore them in the ‘50s, it just stands to reason. Vintage Levi’s have a beautiful ultra-dark indigo colour that gets a distinct and attractive “streaky” grain as it fades.

And how do you spot vintage Levi’s? Well, there are a few things you can look for, but important among them is the selvedge stripe:

Another important facet of vintage Levi’s is the selvedge edge the fabric, visible on a turn up. This is a finished white edge inside the pants, on the outer seam. […] All Levi’s made up to the 1960s had selvedge, this makes it an integral part of an authentic ‘50s look.

What Selvedge Means Today

Jesse’s right when he says that turning up your cuffs to show the little selvedge stripe means “I care.” This was true for vintage clothing enthusiasts in Japan in the ’80s and it’s true for denim enthusiasts today. 

It used to mean other things as well, however. It used to mean not only that the denim was woven on narrower shuttle looms, but also something specific about what kind of dyes were used, how the yarns were dyed, and how the resulting jeans were finished. In other words, people cared about that little selvedge stripe because it meant something about how the jeans would fade (sound familiar?). It was an indication of a greater set of production choices, originally made in the mid-century by companies such as Levi’s and Lee. 

Today, companies can produce selvedge denim in ways that was never done in the early- to mid-century. Generally speaking, the presence of that little stripe still means that the jeans are meant to fade a certain way, but exactly how those jeans fade is a lot more variable. The connection between selvedge and the broader picture of production methods has evolved a lot over time. 

Reducing Clothes to Details

There are dozens of companies now offering selvedge denim. Some even offer “fake selvedge jeans,” where a strip of selvedge is sewn onto the bottom of the cuffs, so they can be flipped up and made to look fashionable.

So what’s the difference between one pair of jeans and another? As Jesse noted, everything. Selvedge denim jeans are defined not just by that little stripe, but also what kind of cotton was used, how that cotton was spun into yarn, how those yarns were dyed, how those dyed yarns were woven into denim, how that denim was made into jeans, and how those resulting jeans were treated in the “finishing” process. All those aspects will determine how a pair of jeans will fade and age over time, and it’s for this quality why some people will choose one pair over another. 

Which for me, says something about how we view clothes. Presumably, we got to this place because people reduced jeans to just that little stripe — whether because they equated selvedge with quality, or because they heard selvedge stripes were fashionable right now. This gave companies more of an incentive to produce. As Jesse mentioned, you can buy selvedge denim nowadays for $40 from Converse, $89 from The Gap, or $350 from The Flat Head. In some ways, I think this is great, as not everyone can (or wants to) spend a lot of money on jeans, and it’s good to have options. 

On the other hand, it’s useful to remember there’s no “one thing” that will ever tell you the whole story about a garment. That “thing” can include country-of-origin labels, care tags that say 100% cashmere, stitches that look to be hand sewn, buttonholes that are working on sleeves, and little colored stripes on jeans. Clothing production is much more complicated than what those things reveal. When deciding what to purchase, think about the bigger picture of how something was made and don’t rely on just one detail.

Determining Quality in Leather Goods
Our friend Réginald-Jérôme de Mans has a very good and very active bullsh*t detector, and there’s surprisingly more bullsh*t on menswear blogs and in fashion magazines than there is in companies’ marketing materials (which already sets a high bar). In a recent piece at A Suitable Wardrobe, de Mans talks about the dumb and not-so-dumb ways to determine quality in leather goods. An excerpt, pulled from the part about Esquire’s recent advice to ask salespeople whether something has been made with French or Italian calfskin:

No salesperson in any store I can imagine - including Hermès, the best well-known quality leather goods maker - would know whether an item was made with French or Italian calf, and most would make up a response on the spot.  If the item had an Italian-sounding brand name, like David Brent’s Sergio Georgini, or was tagged “made in Italy,” they would suppose the leather must be Italian.  The same would apply if the brand sounded French.  But, of course, no matter where an item is made, or by whom, its materials are often sourced from somewhere else, for both good reasons and bad.  So even if an item is marked “made in Italy,” for instance, its leather could have been sourced from Brazil, among many other places.  (This leaves aside the thorny issue of country-of-origin labels not always meaning much work was done in that country.)  The only way a salesperson would know where the leather came from would be if some sort of marketing materials for the item in question mentioned that fact specifically – but marketing materials are by definition self-serving too.  I certainly wouldn’t expect a salesperson in a multi-brand department store to be so familiar with the materials used in a specific item, and wouldn’t trust one who claimed to be. 
[…]
 We all do want an easy metric, which is why we hope we can rely on essentially commodifying quality, as ignorant magazine writers do when they suggest all English shoes, all Scottish cashmere, or all Italian leather is of similar quality.  The reality is far more complicated, boring, and ultimately discouraging, because brands and marketers use those metrics to substitute buzzwords for integrity.  That has led to, ultimately, the perpetual one-upsmanship of brands like Loro Piana bringing to market new luxury fibers when cashmere was not enough: they announce “baby cashmere,” vicuña, lotus fiber and who knows what else, as well as to the arms race of ever finer yarn numbers (they’re not thread counts like on bedsheets) like Super 150s, 180s and 200s.  A well-finished Super 100s from Lesser will feel better, wear better and look better than a Super 150s from a less trustworthy source. And unfortunately, Lesser and many other quality cloth houses like Fox and Minnis are generally only available in bespoke.  But Loro Piana and Zegna have found an outlet for their lower quality branded cloth in having it made up by cheap suitmakers whose labels trumpet the brand which produced their cloth, without it having much bearing on the actual quality of make or cloth.  What is the casual punter to do?

de Mans has some (reasonable) suggestions for how to assess leather quality later in the article. You can read the full piece here. 
For what it’s worth, in my own attempts to learn how to determine quality in leather goods, I’ve found three things:
As with everything, it helps to check out the best. Browse around, even in stores where you can’t afford any of the products. In doing so, you’ll start to get a sense of what qualities you might want to look for when shopping for things within your own budget. Of course, figuring out what’s actually on the “high end” is its own task, as not everything that’s expensive is necessarily good, but it’s useful to just keep an eye out and not be afraid to casually (and politely) browse, even in stores that are way out of your price league.
Keep in mind that certain leather qualities are meant for certain design purposes. I was recently at a designer boutique in Canada, where slightly more “avant garde" leather jackets were being sold. The leather they used was somewhat thin, very waxy, and it crinkled easily. Someone might mistake it for bad leather, but it’s not in an objective sense. It’s just that the qualities the designer was looking for - how he wanted the jacket to drape, crinkle, and age - were very specific, so he needed a certain type of leather. When determining quality, it’s good to also keep in mind design purposes. 
Nothing substitutes for first-hand experience. After a while, once you’ve browsed around, seen things on the high end, and have had the chance to use leather products of different qualities, you’ll be able to spot the stuff that’s right for you. 

Determining Quality in Leather Goods

Our friend Réginald-Jérôme de Mans has a very good and very active bullsh*t detector, and there’s surprisingly more bullsh*t on menswear blogs and in fashion magazines than there is in companies’ marketing materials (which already sets a high bar). In a recent piece at A Suitable Wardrobe, de Mans talks about the dumb and not-so-dumb ways to determine quality in leather goods. An excerpt, pulled from the part about Esquire’s recent advice to ask salespeople whether something has been made with French or Italian calfskin:

No salesperson in any store I can imagine - including Hermès, the best well-known quality leather goods maker - would know whether an item was made with French or Italian calf, and most would make up a response on the spot.  If the item had an Italian-sounding brand name, like David Brent’s Sergio Georgini, or was tagged “made in Italy,” they would suppose the leather must be Italian.  The same would apply if the brand sounded French.  But, of course, no matter where an item is made, or by whom, its materials are often sourced from somewhere else, for both good reasons and bad.  So even if an item is marked “made in Italy,” for instance, its leather could have been sourced from Brazil, among many other places.  (This leaves aside the thorny issue of country-of-origin labels not always meaning much work was done in that country.)  The only way a salesperson would know where the leather came from would be if some sort of marketing materials for the item in question mentioned that fact specifically – but marketing materials are by definition self-serving too.  I certainly wouldn’t expect a salesperson in a multi-brand department store to be so familiar with the materials used in a specific item, and wouldn’t trust one who claimed to be.

[…]

 We all do want an easy metric, which is why we hope we can rely on essentially commodifying quality, as ignorant magazine writers do when they suggest all English shoes, all Scottish cashmere, or all Italian leather is of similar quality.  The reality is far more complicated, boring, and ultimately discouraging, because brands and marketers use those metrics to substitute buzzwords for integrity.  That has led to, ultimately, the perpetual one-upsmanship of brands like Loro Piana bringing to market new luxury fibers when cashmere was not enough: they announce “baby cashmere,” vicuña, lotus fiber and who knows what else, as well as to the arms race of ever finer yarn numbers (they’re not thread counts like on bedsheets) like Super 150s, 180s and 200s.  A well-finished Super 100s from Lesser will feel better, wear better and look better than a Super 150s from a less trustworthy source. And unfortunately, Lesser and many other quality cloth houses like Fox and Minnis are generally only available in bespoke.  But Loro Piana and Zegna have found an outlet for their lower quality branded cloth in having it made up by cheap suitmakers whose labels trumpet the brand which produced their cloth, without it having much bearing on the actual quality of make or cloth.  What is the casual punter to do?

de Mans has some (reasonable) suggestions for how to assess leather quality later in the article. You can read the full piece here

For what it’s worth, in my own attempts to learn how to determine quality in leather goods, I’ve found three things:

  • As with everything, it helps to check out the best. Browse around, even in stores where you can’t afford any of the products. In doing so, you’ll start to get a sense of what qualities you might want to look for when shopping for things within your own budget. Of course, figuring out what’s actually on the “high end” is its own task, as not everything that’s expensive is necessarily good, but it’s useful to just keep an eye out and not be afraid to casually (and politely) browse, even in stores that are way out of your price league.
  • Keep in mind that certain leather qualities are meant for certain design purposes. I was recently at a designer boutique in Canada, where slightly more “avant garde" leather jackets were being sold. The leather they used was somewhat thin, very waxy, and it crinkled easily. Someone might mistake it for bad leather, but it’s not in an objective sense. It’s just that the qualities the designer was looking for - how he wanted the jacket to drape, crinkle, and age - were very specific, so he needed a certain type of leather. When determining quality, it’s good to also keep in mind design purposes. 
  • Nothing substitutes for first-hand experience. After a while, once you’ve browsed around, seen things on the high end, and have had the chance to use leather products of different qualities, you’ll be able to spot the stuff that’s right for you. 

Jesse called Tweed in the City’s post on Simonnot Godard chambray “the nerdiest single post in the history of #menswear.” I see that post, and raise him a Sleevehead

Why It’s Hard to Determine Quality
There are probably no fewer than a hundred books about classic men’s clothing, and the majority of them will have sections on how you can determine the quality of an off-the-rack suit. Some advice is reasonable. The most common one recommends that you conduct the pinch test to see if the jacket is canvassed. However, as we covered before, this will only tell you if something is fully canvassed, not whether something is half canvassed or fully fused. That’s because you can only conduct the pinch test on the bottom half of a jacket (since chest pieces are always floating). On a half-canvassed or fused garment, the bottom section will always be fused, so the pinch test will tell you nothing.
Other advice given, however, is a bit more dubious. I’ve read writers suggest you look for certain benchmarks, such as whether the lining has been attached by hand, or if the underside of the lapel shows that there has been any hand padding. The logic is that no maker would invest in such expenditures if the other parts of the garment weren’t also well made. The problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between handsewn stitches and machine-made ones, especially since there are machines nowadays capable of executing stitches that look like they’ve been handsewn. 
Other “benchmarks” are also problematic. Super 100s wools, as we’ve discussed, don’t reveal anything, and the country where the garment was manufactured is more often about marketing than it is about actual quality.
I recently had a chance to talk to Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and patternmaker who has extensive experience in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. When I asked whether any of these “tricks” worked, he had a very good answer: one should think of garment production more like a recipe. There is some golden standard out there, where everything is made from the best materials and everything is done as traditionally as possible. However, most manufacturers have to meet realistic price points, so designers have to decide on what things to put into a garment and what to leave out.
Imagine it like making a dish. You could hire the best chefs in the world and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell the dish, you might want to think about what things can be sacrificed in order to make things affordable. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned, chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide that the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These kinds of calls are going to be very subjective.
Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and you can’t order these things up in hierarchies. It also means that many of the things that go into a suit are internal, and not things a consumer can readily examine. The “benchmarks” that people have written about are sometimes just ways for a company to differentiate its product – either to attract customers who are looking for something that stands out from the crowd, or for the salesperson, who needs a tell-tale sign so he or she can easily grab something off the rack. 
In the end, I think the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. The best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford a $3,500 suit or $2,500 sport coat, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details will be important to you. You should also pay close attention to men who look good in their suits. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You might not be able to tell the quality of a suit based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.    
(Photo via The World Bank)

Why It’s Hard to Determine Quality

There are probably no fewer than a hundred books about classic men’s clothing, and the majority of them will have sections on how you can determine the quality of an off-the-rack suit. Some advice is reasonable. The most common one recommends that you conduct the pinch test to see if the jacket is canvassed. However, as we covered before, this will only tell you if something is fully canvassed, not whether something is half canvassed or fully fused. That’s because you can only conduct the pinch test on the bottom half of a jacket (since chest pieces are always floating). On a half-canvassed or fused garment, the bottom section will always be fused, so the pinch test will tell you nothing.

Other advice given, however, is a bit more dubious. I’ve read writers suggest you look for certain benchmarks, such as whether the lining has been attached by hand, or if the underside of the lapel shows that there has been any hand padding. The logic is that no maker would invest in such expenditures if the other parts of the garment weren’t also well made. The problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between handsewn stitches and machine-made ones, especially since there are machines nowadays capable of executing stitches that look like they’ve been handsewn. 

Other “benchmarks” are also problematic. Super 100s wools, as we’ve discussed, don’t reveal anything, and the country where the garment was manufactured is more often about marketing than it is about actual quality.

I recently had a chance to talk to Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and patternmaker who has extensive experience in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. When I asked whether any of these “tricks” worked, he had a very good answer: one should think of garment production more like a recipe. There is some golden standard out there, where everything is made from the best materials and everything is done as traditionally as possible. However, most manufacturers have to meet realistic price points, so designers have to decide on what things to put into a garment and what to leave out.

Imagine it like making a dish. You could hire the best chefs in the world and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell the dish, you might want to think about what things can be sacrificed in order to make things affordable. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned, chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide that the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These kinds of calls are going to be very subjective.

Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and you can’t order these things up in hierarchies. It also means that many of the things that go into a suit are internal, and not things a consumer can readily examine. The “benchmarks” that people have written about are sometimes just ways for a company to differentiate its product – either to attract customers who are looking for something that stands out from the crowd, or for the salesperson, who needs a tell-tale sign so he or she can easily grab something off the rack. 

In the end, I think the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. The best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford a $3,500 suit or $2,500 sport coat, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details will be important to you. You should also pay close attention to men who look good in their suits. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You might not be able to tell the quality of a suit based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.    

(Photo via The World Bank)

Why You’re Unlikely to Tell Between a Fused and Half-Canvassed Jacket

Tailor Jeffery Diduch, who maintains the rather illuminating blog Tutto Fatto a Mano, was nice enough to contact us a few weeks ago to correct us on the pinch test. Apparently, you can’t use the pinch test to see if a suit jacket or sport coat is half-canvassed, only if it’s fully-canvassed. The pinch test, as many readers know, is when you pinch the two outer layers of a jacket, typically along the lower front near the edge, and pull them apart to see if there’s a distinct, floating piece of material in between. If there is, this is said to be a mark of quality. To understand this, we should first review how suits and sport coats are made.

A Quick Primer on Suit and Sport Coat Construction

Oversimplified, a jacket is made up of distinct layers of fabric. The two outermost layers, which is the cloth we see and feel, make up the “shell.” Sandwiched in-between are layers of haircloth, canvas, felt, and fusible interlining, depending on whether the jacket is fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused.

On a fully-canvassed jacket, you’ll have a canvas – typically made from a blend of wool, often cotton, and animal hair – running down the full length of the garment. Tacked onto this will be the chest piece. As the name implies, this piece is just set at the chest and shoulders, so that it gives this area some shape and support. This chest piece is usually made of haircloth, which is a cloth that has had strands of horse tail hair woven in. Horse tail hair is very stiff and wiry, which is why it’s perfect for lending structure. Add on to this some felt to cover the wiry animal hair, possibly a very lightweight fusible if the outer shell’s material needs some stabilization, and we have the basic ingredients of a full-canvassed jacket.

The upside to this kind of construction is that the canvas will give a nice bloom to the lapels, making the jacket look more three-dimensional, and give some support to the front. The downside is that this type of construction is very expensive, both in terms of the materials and labor required, and if poorly executed, it could cause the fronts to pucker.

So, about forty years ago, a German company came up with a new type of construction: fusibles. A fused jacket is much like a full-canvassed garment in that it still has the two outer shell layers, a chest piece, and some felt. Replacing the floating canvas, however, is a fusible interlining. When heated and pressed, this interlining’s special resin will melt and bond to any cloth, thus adding a similar kind of support that canvas does. The upside to this is that we cut costs. It’s quick, easy, and requires little to no skill on the part of the operator. The downside, as you can imagine, is that it slightly stiffens the cloth and doesn’t provide as nice of a support as animal hair. Lapels don’t “bloom” in the same way, but rather look flat and lifeless. It also used to be the case that fused garments carried a risk of delamination and bubbling over time, but the technology has come far enough where such cases are rare.

Finally, we have half-canvassed garments, which are the compromise. Here, the front of the jacket is fused (since you still need to stabilize the fronts), but the fusible doesn’t extend to the lapel area, where you want that kind of bloom and structure that animal hair gives. Instead, the lapels will have canvas in it like a full-canvas garment. Here, you try to get the benefits of both methods, while minimizing the cons.

The Limits of the Pinch Test

Now, the pinch test is said to be a way for you to tell if a jacket is canvassed or not. Usually, you’ll want to take the fabric a few inches below the lowest button, pinch the two outer layers and pull them apart. If you can feel a distinct, floating layer in-between, that’s the canvas. You know so because below the lowest button, there’s really nothing but the two shell layers and whatever has been used to stabilize the fronts. If it’s floating and distinct, then you’ll know it’s been fully-canvassed. If you can’t feel anything between, that means some fusible has been glued onto one of the shell layers.

The reason why you can’t do this on a half-canvassed garment is because below the second button is always fused, so you don’t know if the garment is half-canvassed or fully-fused. If you go above the second button or so, towards the chest area, you won’t know if you’re just feeling the chest piece. All garments – fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused – will have a floating chest piece, so feeling a distinct layer there means nothing. The only way to know if a garment is either half-canvassed or fused is to ask a knowledgeable salesperson, but from my experience, these are very, very hard to find. Especially, frankly, at places that would sell a fused garment. So, unfortunately, there’s little way to tell if a garment is fused or half-canvassed.

* Thanks to Jeffery for his help with this article. For a more detailed write-up on how suits and sport coats are made, read Jeffery’s post here

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part II
We talked last week about how to judge the quality of leather, but there’s more to leather goods than leather, of course. There’s also the hardware and how everything has been put together. High quality leather will mean little if the brass snaps on your bag break or the lining rips out. So today, we’ll review each in turn, and talk about some things you can look for when shopping around.  
Hardware
Any bag or piece of luggage will be made with a variety of hardware. These can include swivel snap hooks, which are commonly used to attach the leather shoulder strap to the bag; tucks, which are used under a buckled strap so the strap does not need to be buckled and unbuckled; and various latches. Any of these can fail if they’re not made well. Frank Clegg, the eponymous owner of Frank Clegg Leatherworks, told me last week that zippers are perhaps the most common point of breakage. “We had a $600-700 leather coat dropped by our workshop just recently,” Frank said. “It had eight different zippers, all of which had the pulls snap off. The zippers had pulls that look similar to the ones we use, but instead of taking a wire loop and casting around it, they cast the loop into the pull. The cast metal just snaps off when it’s that thin.”
Frank suggests that consumers look for something that’s of a good weight. High quality hardware has a thicker look and feel, and the casting seams are usually removed and polished. If the metal has been treated with some kind of finishing, you may also want to examine the quality of the job. Solid brass, for example, can be left natural (which is OK) or polished and then lacquered, and zinc and steel can be plated with brass or nickel. If these lacquering or plating jobs haven’t been done well, the metal can look dull or foggy in a short period of time.
Construction
In addition to the leather and hardware, there’s the matter of how everything has been put together. Much of this depends on the type of product at hand. For example, belts will have their own standards. A high-quality belt will have a leather lining (if the design requires one) instead of the cheap paper stuffing that lower-end manufacturers use. You may also want to examine whether the keeper has been squared off (shaped into a rectangle), and whether the details, such as any beveling, have been done well.
One thing you can look for on all leather goods is the quality of the stitching. Naturally, these should always look neat and straight. You may also want to see if the edges have been left raw or if they’ve been turned. Turned-edge leather is made in a way that’s similar to how the edge of a piece of garment has been finished – the edges are turned underneath and then stitched. This yields a more attractive and durable edge, but of course, whether it can be done depends on the job at hand. Alex Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly & Sons has a good article on this you can read here.
Takeaways
Leather products can be expensive, but if you purchase the right ones, they’ll last decades and only get better with time. Look for fully tanned, full-grain leathers; smooth, durable hardware; and neat stitching. If applicable, also look for edges that have been turned and sewn, rather than left raw. You should examine for these things on the outside as well as the reverse side, inside, or any other parts that don’t normally show. Even if they’re not easily visible, a top-quality maker will make sure that all parts of the product are pleasing and well done, and these are signs that you’re buying something of quality.
(Special thanks to Dave Munson at Saddleback Leather Co. and Frank Clegg at Frank Clegg Leatherworks for their help with this article. Pictured above is one of Frank Clegg’s beautiful briefcases)

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part II

We talked last week about how to judge the quality of leather, but there’s more to leather goods than leather, of course. There’s also the hardware and how everything has been put together. High quality leather will mean little if the brass snaps on your bag break or the lining rips out. So today, we’ll review each in turn, and talk about some things you can look for when shopping around. 

Hardware

Any bag or piece of luggage will be made with a variety of hardware. These can include swivel snap hooks, which are commonly used to attach the leather shoulder strap to the bag; tucks, which are used under a buckled strap so the strap does not need to be buckled and unbuckled; and various latches. Any of these can fail if they’re not made well. Frank Clegg, the eponymous owner of Frank Clegg Leatherworks, told me last week that zippers are perhaps the most common point of breakage. “We had a $600-700 leather coat dropped by our workshop just recently,” Frank said. “It had eight different zippers, all of which had the pulls snap off. The zippers had pulls that look similar to the ones we use, but instead of taking a wire loop and casting around it, they cast the loop into the pull. The cast metal just snaps off when it’s that thin.”

Frank suggests that consumers look for something that’s of a good weight. High quality hardware has a thicker look and feel, and the casting seams are usually removed and polished. If the metal has been treated with some kind of finishing, you may also want to examine the quality of the job. Solid brass, for example, can be left natural (which is OK) or polished and then lacquered, and zinc and steel can be plated with brass or nickel. If these lacquering or plating jobs haven’t been done well, the metal can look dull or foggy in a short period of time.

Construction

In addition to the leather and hardware, there’s the matter of how everything has been put together. Much of this depends on the type of product at hand. For example, belts will have their own standards. A high-quality belt will have a leather lining (if the design requires one) instead of the cheap paper stuffing that lower-end manufacturers use. You may also want to examine whether the keeper has been squared off (shaped into a rectangle), and whether the details, such as any beveling, have been done well.

One thing you can look for on all leather goods is the quality of the stitching. Naturally, these should always look neat and straight. You may also want to see if the edges have been left raw or if they’ve been turned. Turned-edge leather is made in a way that’s similar to how the edge of a piece of garment has been finished – the edges are turned underneath and then stitched. This yields a more attractive and durable edge, but of course, whether it can be done depends on the job at hand. Alex Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly & Sons has a good article on this you can read here.

Takeaways

Leather products can be expensive, but if you purchase the right ones, they’ll last decades and only get better with time. Look for fully tanned, full-grain leathers; smooth, durable hardware; and neat stitching. If applicable, also look for edges that have been turned and sewn, rather than left raw. You should examine for these things on the outside as well as the reverse side, inside, or any other parts that don’t normally show. Even if they’re not easily visible, a top-quality maker will make sure that all parts of the product are pleasing and well done, and these are signs that you’re buying something of quality.

(Special thanks to Dave Munson at Saddleback Leather Co. and Frank Clegg at Frank Clegg Leatherworks for their help with this article. Pictured above is one of Frank Clegg’s beautiful briefcases)

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I
I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suits, shoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.
This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself.  
The Basics of Leather
Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.
Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.
Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.
Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.
How Manufacturers Cheat
So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?
Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.
The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.
When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.
Takeaways
In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.
Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods. 
(Pictured above: Leather swatches from Horween, one of the best tanneries in the world. Photo taken from Carryology)

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I

I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suitsshoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.

This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself. 

The Basics of Leather

Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.

Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.

Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.

Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.

How Manufacturers Cheat

So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?

Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.

The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.

When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.

Takeaways

In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.

Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods. 

(Pictured above: Leather swatches from Horween, one of the best tanneries in the world. Photo taken from Carryology)

"Old Clothes, Like Old Friends"
While catching up on my men’s style blog reading, I came across this post by Nicholas Storey at A Suitable Wardrobe: 

I am wearing a mid-weight worsted navy and grey pinstripe suit; a separate vest in grey wool; a poplin shirt, woven silk tie, a pair of navy calf and off-white nubuck, toe- cap Oxford co-respondent (spectator) shoes and a Panama hat. I bought the hat around 1984, when Herbert Johnson still had an independent existence in a high, light and airy shop in Bond Street, which still resonated with its fame as a hatter to the haut ton, following patronage by Bertie, Prince of Wales and his set, various crowned heads of Europe, and blue bloods from the USA and elsewhere. I don´t think that (unless I lost it), I should ever replace this hat: being a firm believer that old clothes, like old friends; old books; old wine, and well-loved places bring us special comforts that only time and familiarity can reliably bring us.

The passage reminded me of something Yukio Akamine recently said:

The shoes I wear today are from John Lobb, they are 25 years old. When I first got them they weren’t really comfortable but after 25 years, they really feel comfortable. With beautiful things, it is all about learning to wait, being patient. People today, they don’t want to give it time. But it is like love, it is like a relationship, it is like learning, like all the things we admire, it takes time. Anything that happens in the snap of a finger isn’t good.

Both seem like good reminders that we should spend more time cherishing the old clothes we have (assuming we’ve invested well and they’re of good quality) rather than buying new ones. 

"Old Clothes, Like Old Friends"

While catching up on my men’s style blog reading, I came across this post by Nicholas Storey at A Suitable Wardrobe: 

I am wearing a mid-weight worsted navy and grey pinstripe suit; a separate vest in grey wool; a poplin shirt, woven silk tie, a pair of navy calf and off-white nubuck, toe- cap Oxford co-respondent (spectator) shoes and a Panama hat. I bought the hat around 1984, when Herbert Johnson still had an independent existence in a high, light and airy shop in Bond Street, which still resonated with its fame as a hatter to the haut ton, following patronage by Bertie, Prince of Wales and his set, various crowned heads of Europe, and blue bloods from the USA and elsewhere. I don´t think that (unless I lost it), I should ever replace this hat: being a firm believer that old clothes, like old friends; old books; old wine, and well-loved places bring us special comforts that only time and familiarity can reliably bring us.

The passage reminded me of something Yukio Akamine recently said:

The shoes I wear today are from John Lobb, they are 25 years old. When I first got them they weren’t really comfortable but after 25 years, they really feel comfortable. With beautiful things, it is all about learning to wait, being patient. People today, they don’t want to give it time. But it is like love, it is like a relationship, it is like learning, like all the things we admire, it takes time. Anything that happens in the snap of a finger isn’t good.

Both seem like good reminders that we should spend more time cherishing the old clothes we have (assuming we’ve invested well and they’re of good quality) rather than buying new ones. 

Quality as Taste
A friend of mine recently asked me for my opinion on what makes a well-made tie, and the conversation got me thinking about quality in general. You often find men on various online forums debating which items are better made than others. Some even go through the trouble of making incredibly detailed hierarchal lists. There are objective and subjective criteria for judging quality, however, and I think one should be careful not to confuse the two. 
For example, you should only buy ties that easily return to their shape after they’ve been knotted and unknotted. If they don’t, terrible creases can form along the neckband, which will eventually make them difficult to wear. Something like this would be an objective dimension to quality. 
Then there is the subjective, by which I mean things that are very open to taste. For me, I like a tie that dimples well, but I’ve seen a few smart dressers who wear ties without one. In addition, I like my ties to arch a little, then drape down, and have some gentle movement to them throughout the day. The fabric, in my opinion, looks best when it shows off its natural characteristics. I also prefer slightly smaller, elongated knots, although this isn’t always easily found. These characteristics – the dimple, drape, and knot – all have to do with the material, lining, and cut.  
Outside of that, there are small, artisanal details. E&G Cappelli ties, for example, have more visible handstitching and Vanda’s have a higher bar tacks so that you can easily peek at the folds. However, there are also makers who don’t exhibit any of these qualities, such as Drake’s or Ralph Lauren, and they’re still excellent ties.  
What some people pass off as objective criteria for quality can often be something very subjective. You can compare it to wine or whiskey (or anything that has some artisanal dimension). There are obviously bad whiskeys, but among the good ones, a lot of this is about preference and taste. Brooks Brothers’ ties, for example, don’t have any the artisanal detailing, but they’re still excellent and cost a fraction of what luxury-end makers charge. If you wait for their sales, you can get them at ~40% off. Likewise, there’s no reason to debate whether Cappelli is better than Vanda, as they each offer a different “taste.” 
Like with almost anything, the only way to really figure out what you prefer is to try things in every tier. If you try enough things, you’ll eventually develop an opinion. If you’re at a store that sells cheap, polyester ties, try one on. If you come across a Drake’s or other similar luxury-end brand, also try one on. It would be impossible know what people mean by “better drape” or “better knot” until you do. Or, more importantly, whether you care about such things enough to pay the premiums. 
Picture above taken from E. Marinella

Quality as Taste

A friend of mine recently asked me for my opinion on what makes a well-made tie, and the conversation got me thinking about quality in general. You often find men on various online forums debating which items are better made than others. Some even go through the trouble of making incredibly detailed hierarchal lists. There are objective and subjective criteria for judging quality, however, and I think one should be careful not to confuse the two. 

For example, you should only buy ties that easily return to their shape after they’ve been knotted and unknotted. If they don’t, terrible creases can form along the neckband, which will eventually make them difficult to wear. Something like this would be an objective dimension to quality. 

Then there is the subjective, by which I mean things that are very open to taste. For me, I like a tie that dimples well, but I’ve seen a few smart dressers who wear ties without one. In addition, I like my ties to arch a little, then drape down, and have some gentle movement to them throughout the day. The fabric, in my opinion, looks best when it shows off its natural characteristics. I also prefer slightly smaller, elongated knots, although this isn’t always easily found. These characteristics – the dimple, drape, and knot – all have to do with the material, lining, and cut.  

Outside of that, there are small, artisanal details. E&G Cappelli ties, for example, have more visible handstitching and Vanda’s have a higher bar tacks so that you can easily peek at the folds. However, there are also makers who don’t exhibit any of these qualities, such as Drake’s or Ralph Lauren, and they’re still excellent ties.  

What some people pass off as objective criteria for quality can often be something very subjective. You can compare it to wine or whiskey (or anything that has some artisanal dimension). There are obviously bad whiskeys, but among the good ones, a lot of this is about preference and taste. Brooks Brothers’ ties, for example, don’t have any the artisanal detailing, but they’re still excellent and cost a fraction of what luxury-end makers charge. If you wait for their sales, you can get them at ~40% off. Likewise, there’s no reason to debate whether Cappelli is better than Vanda, as they each offer a different “taste.” 

Like with almost anything, the only way to really figure out what you prefer is to try things in every tier. If you try enough things, you’ll eventually develop an opinion. If you’re at a store that sells cheap, polyester ties, try one on. If you come across a Drake’s or other similar luxury-end brand, also try one on. It would be impossible know what people mean by “better drape” or “better knot” until you do. Or, more importantly, whether you care about such things enough to pay the premiums. 

Picture above taken from E. Marinella