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Sweaters

If there ever was a genre for “good ol’ American films,” I have no doubt that The Great Escape would reign boastfully at the top of that list. It’s the ultimate World War Two era drama, pitting a rag-tag team of Allied POW’s against a flock of German soldiers that are at once both clueless and ruthless. Released in 1963, the film is a great piece of Cold War propaganda, using a tale of WWII triumph and sacrifice to remind the viewer that we must always march onward in the face of evil. Aside from its rah-rah patriotism, The Great Escape has long been heralded for its style, especially the epic motorcycle jump courtesy of Steve McQueen during the film’s finale. Of particular note for me though was the knitwear on screen, which was just as varied and roughed up as the film’s characters.

The Great Escape6

James Garner’s looking a bit too neat in a rollneck sweater and fresh-pressed pleated pants combo, while standing next to James Coburn in a remarkably threadbare knit

As an interesting aside, it was actually The Great Escape that helped immortalize McQueen as one of Hollywood’s first “superstars,” with all the baggage that comes with such a title. The cast and crew of the film recall McQueen being temperamental at best and impossible at worst, as he drank, screwed, and complained his way through the shoot. Nonetheless, McQueen and the rest of his motley brigade, which included the likes of James Garner and Charles Bronson, still managed to scrap together one of the greatest war movies ever made. If you somehow haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you head over to Netflix and give The Great Escape a watch on the double.

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I think it’s about time that I make a confession: I as an “adult” have never actually owned a suit. And yes I do realize that preaching about the importance of dressing well, while not even owning a suit myself is more than a bit hypocritical. So, after years of not practicing what I preached, I finally decided to take the plunge this weekend and head up to Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander Mansion to pick up a suit. While I plan to follow up the suit story with a full post in a couple weeks once I get it back from the tailors, I’d like to shift gears now, because aside from riding that “I just bought a suit” high, walking through the maze of sub-labels throughout the Mansion, I was continuously impressed by the shawl collar cardigans that I saw.

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It’s been about eight months since I first saw the above photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig wearing Yankees sweaters on Kiyoshi’s blog, but I don’t think there’s been a week that’s gone by that I haven’t come back to it.  The photo has become one of my favorite fall points of reference, but it’s also been quite a curiosity, leaving me to wonder where exactly those sweaters come.  At first I suspected they were just something that the players might have ordered for themselves to wear on off days.  But then a couple weeks back while watching a football game, the idea came to me that maybe the sweaters were some sort of warm up gear for the players, akin to the windbreakers and nylon jackets that we see today.  With this in mind, I began searching and that one photo of Ruth and Gehrig quickly lead to others.  Images of players sitting on the bench wearing cream colored cardigans covered in logos, team photos with all the players wearing identical navy sweaters, teams taking the field in matching shawl collar sweaters.

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We purchase two kinds of clothes, those that rest in our closet and those that rest in our minds. We buy those essentials-shirts, shoes, socks, trousers that sit idle throughout our rooms waiting for us to toss them on absentmindedly as we piece together a Monday morning outfit.  And then there are those rare few pieces that drive us simultaneously towards inspiration and obsession. They make us never want to wear anything else, to find a way to fit them into every single outfit we wear with in a week, these are the items that illustrate the true value of clothes.  They make us happier when we wear them, they strike confidence in us, and when they’re on our backs we truly believe we’re the best we can be. I was fortunate enough to acquire one of these elusive pieces this past week, as I stumbled upon a late eighties Polo Ralph Lauren double breasted cardigan.

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With the announcement last month on the impeding untimely death of Daffy’s, there’s been a lot of talk about the loss of the discount retailer and it’s random inexplicable deals.  Shopping at Daffy’s was far from enjoyable, it was an insultingly ugly and poorly laid out store that was constantly ransacked, but it still always drew me in thanks to the consistent stream of rumors about (insert illustrious Italian brand here) being available for dirt cheap.  Overtime I heard stories of Cucinelli, Isaia, and Zegna all being sold for below cost at Daffy’s, but every time I’d go there, all I ever found was a bunch of shoddy products from brands I’d never heard of.

Yet, Daffy’s did have one “true deal” that you could always count on if you were willing to ween through a sea of garbage, and that was Incotex pants.  Daffy’s sold the Italian brand’s slim-fitting pants in a bevy of colors for well below what they were worth and when it comes down to it that’s probably the only real reason to mourn Daffy’s.  While you can now pick up Incotex at Mr. Porter, Barney’s, and the ilk, there was obviously something appealing in getting an incredibly well-made, tailored trouser for next to nothing.  Nonetheless, I’m sure Incotex will get picked up somewhere else and they’ll find a way to offer it for just as cheap (looking at you, Yoox) and then everyone will slowly forget Daffy’s even existed.  While I never ended up buying anything at Daffy’s I still owe it to them for creating buzz around Incotex, not because I wear their pants often (full disclosure, I’ve never owned a pair, although my dad swears by them) but because they turned me onto Slowear.

Slowear could be considered Incotex’s “parent company” although that’s probably not the best term for them.  Slowear is an Italian based company that produces pants branded as Incotex, knitwear branded as Zanone, shirts branded Glanshirt, and jackets as Montedoro.  Now why they decided to have every facet of their line be a different “brand” I’ll never understand, especially because Slowear is such a great name on it’s own, but when you put all these products together you have what I believe is the next “big” Italian label.  Slowear was founded in 1951, producing private label trousers for other brands, but in the seventies they decided to go out on their own, starting Incotex with the philosophy of creating simple contemporary pants that were remembered for their fit and attention to detail, not for branding.  In the early aughts they applied this system to the rest of their “brands” creating a larger company that wasn’t just about pants but a complete wardrobe.

To me Slowear sits in a similar position as Cucinelli or Loro Piana in that they’re an Italian brand that’s trying to be about the entire package not just individual pieces.  Much like Cucinelli, Slowear has a relaxed sensibility to them, the colors are all a bit earthy and the garments have a comfortable, broken in feel to them.  While I doubt Slowear’s production is as meticulous as Cucinelli’s (therefore the prices are significantly lower) they are all still Italian made (except for Incotex, which I believe is partially made in Spain and partially made in Romania.)  What’s most fascinating to me about Slowear though, is not that they’ve built up this entire attitude without having many solid accounts here in America, it’s that when you look at their website, you can’t help but wonder what they’re waiting for.  Their look-books seem like an Italian version of a J. Crew catalog, they have a journal that covers everything from green living to food in Beirut, their products express that clean look that has come to define Italian design, but where are they expanding is slow and a bit perplexing having just opened up a store in the unlikely market of Mexico City.  Slowear is about totality, it’s a packaged lifestyle that is refreshingly forward-thinking, the only thing to do now is wait for them to really hit the states.

Via All Plaid Out

Well, in the end this wasn’t much a “Winter Week,” I suppose Sweater Week, or Knit Week, or even something about Trads and Fall would’ve been more appropriate, but oh well, hindsight twenty-twenty and all that.  While the name might be off, I still have to finish what I’ve started, and there’s really only one piece that can properly round out this collection: the L.L. Bean Norwegian.  The Norwegian erupted onto the scene in the mid-sixties and enjoyed decades at the top before slowly fizzling out in the early nineties, only to return to prominence recently, following along the same trajectory that trad style has taken as a whole.

Introduced in 1965, the Norwegian was L.L. Bean’s take on the old Scandinavian stand-by-the fishermans sweater.  Back then the brand still actually cared about authenticity, so they used a white and blue birds-eye pattern that was close to the original yet also uniquely L.L. Bean, and employed a small Norwegian knit factory to produce the sweaters the same way they’d been doing it for decades.  During their late seventies glory days, the Norwegian was crowning jewel of the L.L. Bean empire.  For card carrying preps, it was their card, a sign that you knew what the hell you were talking about.

From the Official Prep Handbook, via Alex Grant

Although, overtime that L.L. Bean empire began to crack and crumble.  All of a sudden, it was no longer considered cool to layer together every conceivable pattern and color, and the brash, dynamic wardrobe that once dominated was on it’s way out as the simplicity of solids moved in.  Companies like L.L. Bean lost their identity.  They began as a brand that embraced the American and European adventurer spirit, but their clothes were no longer even made there.  L.L. Bean became a shell of brand, doing whatever it took to make a buck.  Norwegian’s (if you could even call them that) started being produced in China, and the once high-quality sweater became a caricature of it’s past self.  Eventually in the early nineties the company decided to do away with the sweaters entirely.

From the Official Prep Handbook via All Plaid Out

Through those dark decades those that held onto the traditional mourned the loss of one of their favorite pieces.  The Norwegian even had an entire section dedicated to it in “The Official Prep Handbook.”  Which is why in 2009, when L.L. Bean announced it was going to resurrect their signature sweater I don’t even think they were ready for the outpouring of support.  Prep had begun to creep back in the conscience several years earlier and for those that held onto those ideals, their days of scouring eBay were over.  Search for Norwegian Sweater today and you can still find articles written about the triumphant return of the traddy trademark.  While I think we’ve all tempered ourselves a bit from the intensity of the layered out uniform of seventies New England undergrads, we can all take a page from their book when it comes to the Norwegian.

Sitting in a suburban backyard on a sweltering summer afternoon, the only thing on my mind isn’t the intoxicatingly sweet air, but a pullover cable-knit sweater sitting in my drawer back home.  A sweater much the same as Irish fishermen wore back in the fifties, yes just the fifties, because while we all assume that those cream colored cable-knits are some sort of ancient Irish tradition, they’re nothing less than modern.

Truth be told, they don’t even root back to Ireland proper, but actually the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland.  For centuries families across Ireland and Scotland had been knitting in cable formations, with each having their own unique design that was passed down through the generations.  And then during World War One, the fledgling fishing industry on the Aran Islands became short-staffed.  With all their workers away, the island community turned to young women from across Ireland and Scotland to fill the gaps.

These girls made a living picking guts and bones out of the daily haul but at night they sat in dimly lit rooms and knit while they told stories of their childhood homes.  After a while they began sharing their respective designs with each other, joining together all of their various styles of cable-knits into one sweater with many patterns.  Named after the Aran Islands, the sweaters were made from thick, neutral wools that were quick and easy to weave together.  The girls soon realized that their knits were an industry all their own, setting up shop around the Aran Islands, selling the sweaters and building their reputation.

Eventually the sweaters jumped the Atlantic Ocean and became popular across America and oddly enough it was only then that Irish fishermen began wearing the sweaters.  The tight cable patterns could not only withstand the blustery sea winds but had the ability to become soaked without the fishermen even noticing.  It was for these same reasons that the sweaters caught on in the New England yacht community, as evidenced by icons such as JFK and Steve McQueen (yes those names again) who could be seen proudly wearing an Aran sweater out on the water.  On dry land, the sweaters have remained an icon in their own right, a clever way to break up the monotony of a solid layer. Traddy but not traditional.

Summer is wearing on me.  Tee shirts.  Jeans.  Sneakers.  It’s all just getting a bit tedious, I mean where’s the fun in that?  I miss the complexity of the cold.  Tweeds.  Knits.  Wools.  Sure, there’s something liberating about the simplicity of summer, but it’s also remarkably easy to just become complacent.  I’m tired of wearing the same shirt and jeans for days on end simply because it’s just too hot for anything else.  With it being next to impossible to put any effort into summer right now, I’ve started turning my focus towards fall, and the days ahead that’ll actually require some forethought.

My first step towards fall came about a week or so ago at Antonio‘s moving sale, where I was able to pick up something I’ve been after for about a year now: a J. Press Shaggy Dog Sweater.  There was a time when Shaggy Dog’s were just one small chapter in J. Press‘ encyclopedia of American sportswear, but those days are long gone, and nowadays Shaggy Dogs live on as a remnant of a brand that seems nothing less than lost.  For a brand that’s now notorious for their inability to adapt in the modern age (barring very recent developments), the Shaggy Dog is a reminder that there was once a time when J. Press were the innovators.  Much of this can be attributed to Irving Press, (son of the brand’s founder, Jacobi Press) who led J. Press during their mid-century heyday and spearheaded their most legendary work, including the Shaggy Dog.  Legend has it that Irving got the idea for the Shaggy Dog after watching someone that got caught in the rain while wearing a shetland sweater.  Now, I don’t know how true that actually is, but what I do know is that what Irving came up with was nothing short of a masterpiece.  He teamed up with Drumohr the legendary Scottish knit-wear company to source the wool, which was then literally combed to give Shaggy Dog’s their signature fluffed-out texture.

Shaggy Dogs represented J. Press in their peak. Customers flocked to the store in search of the sweater’s broken in vibe,  and loud colors that hit the traddy sweet spot of brash yet classic.  They were everything you’d expect from a maverick brand like J. Press and they became integral to that era.  Looking back on images of New England icon John Updike sitting on his porch wearing a shaggy dog, coeds sporting them on the quad, politicians donning them during their days off, it’s obvious that these were the prime years of prep and Shaggy Dogs were nothing short of an essential.  While this full blown trad lifestyle is no longer the norm, and nowadays other brands have their own version of the combed-out shetland sweater, J. Press continues to crank out their Shaggy Dog year after year, even bringing in some new colors, as a rare sign of life from an otherwise dull brand.  Full disclosure though this design hasn’t been updated in decades so don’t expect anything close to slim fit.  They’re pretty much what they’ve always been, a fuller cut, borderline boxy sweater with unparalleled warmth, which quite frankly sounds like exactly what I want right now.

Starting a clothing brand at the ripe age of twenty-one is no small feat, starting that brand during the early 20th century before the modern age of manufacturing is nearly impossible.  But that is exactly what Soren Nielsen Skyt did when he founded S.N.S. Herning in 1920’s Denmark.  At the company’s inception, Soren Nielsen Skyt had one thing in mind, to create a sweater that would appeal to the weathered Danish fisherman who made their living on the North Sea.

With the needs of a fisherman at the forefront of his mind, it took Nielsen Skyt eleven years to perfect his design.  He found the solution in the unique “bubble” pattern that defines S.N.S. Herning’s Fisherman sweater which is manufactured using a careful Jacquard strapping technique. The bubbles weave together into a pattern that is practically as thick as Kevlar and provides warmth while simultaneously giving the garment a dynamic comfortable texture.

The complexity of the pattern is incredibly difficult to achieve and as a result S.N.S. has always kept production within the town of Herning, and uses the same machines since day one. Even today, the company only employs a handful of craftsmen and keeps production at an incredibly low volume each season.  In doing so S.N.S. keeps the quality of each sweater at the highest possible level, going as far as having each knitter hand sign the individual piece that they produce. It goes without saying that if an S.N.S. is good enough for a Danish fisherman to brave the Nordic seas, it will certainly keep anyone warm regardless of the environment. Plus, thanks to the small batch production, you’re likely to be the only guy in the room enjoying the snug warmth provided by over a century of craftsmanship.

Founded in North-West France in 1889 in the sleepy seaside town that bears the same name, Saint James has created the quintessential nautical sweater for over a century.  Their iconic boat neck nautical sweater is one of those rare pieces that has endured year after year, decade after decade without any major modifications.

The Breton sweater is first and foremost a functional piece, designed specifically for the fishermen that made their living on the rivers that bordered the community.  The constantly fluctuating temperatures that the fishermen faced out on the water called for a garment that could keep them warm but also not be so cumbersome that it would impact their work.  Saint James found the solution by creating a sweater spun from one-hundred percent wool sourced from the local community.  The signature metallic buttons on the left side of the collar are further evidence of the thought put into the sweater.  The fisherman had to be able to throw the sweater on and off quickly without interrupting their work, so by adding the four buttons Saint James ensured they would be able to do so without ruining the integrity of the collar.

The understated design and effectiveness of the piece make it a great seasonal choice that remains relevant centuries later. While the Breton was produced first and foremost for the fishing community,  it was adopted by Pablo PicassoAndy Warhol, and Jean Seberg in the 1960’s and 70’s, solidifying the sweater’s place within the modern fashion landscape. Since it’s inception Saint James has produced a subtle, functional garment that worked as well in the late 1800’s as it does today.

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