After throwing up yesterday’s finicky post on the formal, I figured something with a bit more levity (and brevity) was in order. I decided it was only right to shift focus towards The Beat Generation, a rough grouping of young New Yorkers in the fifties and beyond whose veins pulsed with a volatile mixture of desire, angst, discomfort, passion, and booze. Their lives were a constant battle between comedy and tragedy, Shakesperian not only in how they lived them, but how they recorded them. These men (and women) were the great storytellers of the fifties, capturing a post war era rife with feelings of curiosity, unease, and displacement in a world that was rapidly evolving far out of their control. William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and so many others, these were the men that gave meaning to the term counterculture.
About a month back during NYFW, I had a chance to meet a friend from online for the first time. She and I got to talking and when I told her that my birthday was coming up, to which she asked “Oh, what’re you turning? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?” It was my twenty-first birthday. She explained that based on reading my site she figured I had to be older, an impression that I’m sure a lot of my readers have. There are times where I struggle with this, knowing that my site reads like it’s been written by a man twice my age. To put it simply, I recognize that I’m constantly nostalgic for eras that I was never actually a part of, and is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Dare I say that we’re nearing the end of the soft seasons? Fueled by menswear’s Neapolitan love affair, for years now the dominant belief has been, the more unstructured the body, the more subtle the shoulder the better, but based on what I saw this past week I have a feeling we might be heading toward a changing of the guard. This isn’t to say that I’m relishing the day that the soft shoulder is no longer king, I mean to be fair the jackets that I throw on most often are all Italian made, unstructured slopping shouldered sport coats, and I happen to think they fit me better than anything else in my closet. Yet, even I’ll admit that it’s high time we get a few more options out there. The soft shouldered jacket is an undeniably great piece of design, but that doesn’t mean every label should go find their own tailoring house in Naples and forget every other suiting style out there. Which is why, a couple collections I saw a week ago felt like a breath of fresh air, albeit a very small one, but menswear is glacially slow, and it all it takes is a handful of looks now, and maybe things will be different in say half a decade or so (if we’re lucky.) What I’m referring to of course, is the return of the under-appreciated roped shoulder.
Long before the days of Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” or Old Spice’s “Shirtless Guy in the Bathroom Talking in a Deep Voice,” there was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” the catalyst for all the bizarre and inexplicably intriguing ad campaigns that would follow. The story of “The Man in the Hathaway” has always fascinated me, not only because it hails from the glory days of American sportswear and manufacturing, but because from an advertising standpoint it’s probably one of the smartest ads ever created.
Gentry Magazine was the sort of publication that could never exist today. It was laid out with an obsessive compulsive level of precision, the writing wasn’t the least bit watered down, playing to an educated set that could actually afford the clothes they profiled, and the features were immaculate, bordering on being almost too thorough, as evidenced by the magazine’s famous finishing touches that included fabric swatches and artist’s prints. At the same time, in a lot of ways Gentry carved out the path for our modern publications. It wasn’t only about menswear, Gentry also covered music, art, sports, food (James Beard was a frequent contributor), and other more general lifestyle topics, it’s staff understand the importance of imagery in keeping the reader intrigued (their “real life” style photographs seem like a precursor to today’s street style,) and their front covers were an art form all their own.
The end of this week marks the unavoidable start of New York Fashion Week, which can only mean that in a few days this city will be inundated with designers, editors, bloggers, models, opinions, booze, outfits months in the making, calculated stares, and of course an insurmountable number of street-style photographers to document every painstaking angle. In advance of all this buzz-word and flash bulb filled hype that is sure to follow in the days to come, I decided to dedicate this week to some of the forefathers of this industry, men who started their careers during simpler times, and who probably could never have predicted the impact their work would have.
It’s next to impossible to begin any discussion about fashion journalism without mentioning Condé Nast. It’s a name that’s repeated countless times everyday throughout the mediascape thanks to that corporation’s impressive publication list, yet behind that name (which, let’s be honest is one helluva name) was a mogul who ushered in the modern era of magazine publishing. Condé Montrose Nast was born in New York City in 1873, his father was a failed entrepreneur, but his mother was the daughter of a prominent St. Louis banker so with his father largely out of the picture, Nast spent his childhood out in Missouri.
As a young adult, Nast tried his hand at the law, but soon realized it wasn’t the field for him and he went to work for his college classmate at Collier’s Weekly, an investigative news magazine. Throughout the next decade, Nast turned Collier’s into a goldmine and by 1909 he had made enough to buy his own publication, picking up a fledgling New York society magazine by the name of Vogue. Following Vogue, Nast acquired Home & Garden, and then Vanity Fair, building up a cache of some of the country’s best up and coming magazines. It was Nast who took this group of rising publications over the top, introducing faster and higher quality printing, full color spreads, and innovations in layout and typography. Even during the Great Depression, Nast steered his periodicals to great financial and creative success, along the way becoming a fixture of the New York social scene, just like the men and women that graced the pages of his magazines. He had a thirty-room penthouse on Park Avenue, could be seen at lavish parties, and topped it all off with an exceptional wardrobe. Nast passed away in 1942, but his company forged on and thanks to him we have the concept of a modern fashion magazine with an equally recognizable editor at the helm, setting the tone for the way we view our favorite publications today, over a century later.
In the early seventies Ralph Lauren was just beginning to find his way as a designer. He’d won an award for his collection in ’70, then a couple years later he debuted his signature line of polo shirts, but as far as most people were concerned he was still just another menswear designer who hadn’t really made his mark yet. All of that changed in 1974 when Ralph received an offer to work on the costume’s for Jack Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Ralph constructed dense outfits for Robert Redford and the rest of the male cast that captured the style of the Jazz Age. Even though the movie’s head costume designer Theoni Aldredge went on the win the Academy Award for the film’s costumes, and never really gave Ralph any credit for his work, he got what he needed out of the project. At the time The Great Gatsby went on to gross over twenty-five million dollars, and helped to propel Ralph into becoming a household name. The movie is largely forgettable, most people classify it as a misdirected adaptation of the book, but the costumes are still remembered for giving an early glimpse into Ralph’s prowess as a designer.
Forty years later, we all know Ralph’s record. He’s become arguably the most important American menswear designer of all time, never compromising, instead thriving off the consistency of the “Ralph Lauren” look, a Northeast meets Southwest, preppy by way of heritage aesthetic that reflects his personal style. Ralph’s always known when to experiment and when to reel it in, when to look forward and when to allude to the past. It’s this reference to the past that I couldn’t help but think about as I scanning through the photos of Ralph Lauren’s Spring 2013 collection. It’s not to say that the entire collection is reminiscent of the costumes from The Great Gatsby, but certain looks, especially in the more formal areas, seem like they’re ripped straight from Ralph’s sketch book from the seventies. It’s the chalk white stripes, the two-tone spectator-esque shoes, the low button stances, the double-breasted waistcoats, the patterned ties, the cream colored suits, the pastel shirts, the contrast white collars, the club collars, all of these characteristics of Spring ’13 remind me so much of The Great Gatsby ’74. With interest in the Great Gatsby obviously peaking again thanks to the new movie, and the inevitable return to the formality and details of the Prohibition Era, it only makes sense that Ralph would take a literal page from his own design book right now.
Before I dive into this, I feel the need to point out that I’m not some Americana fanboy. Do I find it sad that out of Hanover, Footjoy, Florsheim, Allen Edmonds, Bass, Alden, Chippewa, Wolverine, Red Wing, hell even Nike, New Balance, and countless other brands that once produced their shoes in America, we’re left with only a couple that have stayed true to the states? Absolutely, but for me, what’s really disheartening is that as we move our production to other countries we might gain cheaper products, but we’re also losing the notion of true American design.
You look at English shoe brands, or Italian shoe brands, or even Spanish brands, and there’s a definitive look to them. You can tell their origins, their era, their style. On the other hand, if you pick up a pair of American shoes or “American” shoes, they’re just sort of there. I’ll leave Alden out of this discussion because they’ve always been a brand that’s open to innovation and collaboration, but as for everyone else, they seem content to just keep cranking out the same designs, or worse, stealing from other brands. It’s not about the lack of products made in this country, it’s about the lack of products made in this country that are worth talking about. Flipping through eBay listings of vintage American shoes, there’s something dignified about them, there’s a touch of English influence, but they’re also sleeker, the details are more city, less country, but what’s most important to me is that they’re absolutely American, not just in production, but in design. I’m truly not even sure what it means to be an “American shoe” anymore.
I was inspired to write this after looking at a photo that Ping had posted on Tumblr of his shoe collection, which included a beautiful pair of vintage Florsheim longwings. Sure his shoes looked so great partially because he’d taken care of them, but there was also something inherently handsome about their design. Everyday, people scrutinize and discuss the lasts, details, and shapes of Edward Greens, Carminas, Alden, Church’s, Vass, Alfred Sargent, etc. because these are shoes that deserve that analysis, they are thoughtfully designed, and meticulously crafted. Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but I wish that all American brands still made shoes that called for that sort of critical eye.
The only sign of hope comes out of the Northeast, where mocassin brands such as Rancourt and Co., have worked to keep production as close to the original methods as possible. They’re setting a new precedent for American innovation mixed with traditional craftsmanship that I can only hope that other brands learn to follow in the future. I apologize if this sounded like some heritage blog post circa 2008, but recently I feel like people are searching only for the aesthetic and ignoring what goes into a product, and what makes it worth wearing, I know we now have access to the items we want at cheaper prices, but I can only hope that it doesn’t mean we forget where we came from.
To be honest, the number of French brands worth talking about has always been considerably low, especially when stacked up next to their European neighbors, but on June 18th of this year that figure dwindled even lower, as LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) announced they would be purchasing and subsequently phasing out the French tailoring institution that was Arnys. Arnys had been a family run business, proudly positioned on Paris’ Left Bank since 1933, where the Grimbert’s and their knowledgable team peddled adventurous ready to wear pieces alongside meticulous custom suiting.
Yet, that was really the extent of their portfolio, and to a behemoth umbrella corporation like LVMH this was not good enough, as they announced plans to do away with Arnys and place Berluti, the shoe brand that they’re pushing into the apparel world, in it’s place. For Arnys, it was their endearingly small and creative approach that was both their great assest and their ultimate undoing. Unlike Italian, British, or even American brands, that have the ability to rest on their laurels a bit when it comes to design, Arnys didn’t have any distinctly “French” characteristics that they could fall back on in their collections. Their location wasn’t their guiding light, instead it was their creativity.
You would never look at Arnys and think “Oh, that’s definitely French,” but you would probably think “Oh, that’s definitely Arnys.” In defiance to ritzy French “luxury” brands, Arnys was a bit more country, as their signature piece, the Forestiere jacket exemplified. Based around a “gamekeeper’s” jacket, the Forestiere was a thick twill overcoat, finished off with three patch pockets, turnback cuffs, and a narrow collar. As for the rest of their collections, they adhered to a similar style-pronounced pockets, rich fabrics, deep colors, a sort of English foundation mixed with italian craftsmanship.
In the end though, it was Arnys lack of an easy to identify aesthetic that contributed to their downfall. Year after year they would almost experiment too much, placing their more understandable and accesible pieces alongside designs that were simply too confusing and misguided to make for a coherent collection. Nonetheless, it’s a great loss, as when Arnys was good, it was great, and watching them fade out into oblivion is just an all too apparent sign of the times. A bloated conglomerate replacing a company run by the third generation of a family with a more “luxury” and deliberate name brand simply does not sit well with me. Oh well, such is the industry I suppose, at least we’ll always have the images.
I realize that describing a brand that only went belly-up a couple years ago as “ahead of it’s time,” might feel like a bit of a stretch, but when it comes to Hickey, I really don’t think there’s any better way to classify the unfortunately defunct label. Hickey only existed for a handful of years (maybe even less, it’s tough to tell what the exact beginning and end of the brand were) in the aughts, but looking back they feel more like a brand from years down the line.
When they began Tommy Fazio was at the helm, but after a few years he left to head to become men’s director of Bergdorf Goodman, and after his departure Aaron Levine, (now Creative Director of Club Monaco) took over an incredibly talented design team that included Ian Velardi, who also went on to become one of the most talked about designers of the past year with his namesake label. Hickey was an offshoot of the aging suiting brand Hickey Freeman, but unlike their parent company Hickey understood how to adapt and appeal to the burgeoning class of twenty-somethings and teens that were suddenly changing the game simply by caring about how they looked for a change. While other labels ignored this generation or created clumsy capsule collections, Hickey dove in head first, they slimmed down their cut, opened up a store in Soho, and boldly flashed their pot leaf logo (a constant point of polarity for their fans), but where they really made their mark was in the details.
Menswear, especially in America, has become a game of reappropriation, where the design process is really centered around picking and choosing different elements from every conceivable era and region of men’s style, and it was Hickey that really led the way with this attitude. If Hickey Freeman was for fathers, then Hickey was for their sons, they had to make their clothes different and also flattering in a way that made sense to a younger, smarter customer. Hickey used Italian-style shoulders on their jackets, they tapered their chinos, they cropped their outerwear, played with Fair Isle, blackwatch, elbow patches, windowpanes, and extra pockets. They were essentially the template for so many “young” brands today. Unfortunately, most of the imagery and product information from Hickey disappeared when they went under (most people say it was largely for economic reasons), and Hickey Freeman got rid of the website, and any trace of the once great brand. Although the few remaining images that I was able to scrounge together still do provide a wealth of inspiration, especially today. Note the bellowed pockets, hoofpick belt, yellow harrington, three-piece suits, cropped pants, paratrooper pants….