Interview with Réginald-Jérôme de Mans Part I

We are proud to present to you the first part of an interview with Réginald-Jérôme de Mans, menswear writer, bespoke connoisseur and inveterate seeker. Have a look at his tumblr here.

FTDF: When did you get interested in menswear and elegance, was it a family thing?

RJ: No. My parents and family were and are interested in value for money and finding a deal.  So some of that filtered down to me, in that I was always interested in finding something undiscovered, a gem in the rough or something that in the right context would be interesting to wear.  However, the concept of value that they have is rather more sane than the way I apply it – knowing that the only clothing that is timeless is clothing that is not completely of any one time.  A bespoke suit from a good tailor today is now so expensive that it will never pay for itself, so a large part of its value has to be in how the wearer thinks it makes him feel.  That is extremely difficult to justify to anyone else.  So my family tolerates my clothing compulsions, but doesn’t claim to share them.

I first got interested in clothes as a teenager, and not initially for the clothes themselves but for what they could communicate. A large part of the anxieties of early adolescence are about belonging and rejecting. Clothes were part of how one could signal, or pose as, belonging, as well as communicate rejection of various ways of thinking, class signifiers, and attitudes.  You could do that through wearing clothes diametrically opposed in style, color and so on to the clothes of those groups, or through appropriation, mockery of those clothes and attitudes, even through outdoing them with exaggeration.  How do you outdo prep? By wearing clothes that are actually well made and elegant.

FTDF: If you started from scratch how did you gather knowledge, from books or directly online?

RJ: Haha, given that I started learning about clothing as a teenager, the Internet was barely more than a gleam in the eye of some guys at DARPA at the time.  I gathered knowledge of one particular clothing aesthetic osmotically, being immersed in it but not of it at a high school where the greedy and grasping upper middle classes of the American northeast held sway in the last gasp of what was prep, in all its judgmental, insecure and plangent pink and green glory. I knew I wanted to aspire to something else. That something else could only be gleaned from magazines and hinted at, in stylized form, in movies – least imaginatively of course through the Bond movies, the gateway drug for so many of us in men’s clothing.  Later, with tongue firmly in cheek, I looked to Terence Stamp in Modesty Blaise and Patrick Macnee as John Steed in the black-and-white episodes of The Avengers, but also to David Hemmings and Terence Stamp in their 1960s movies, and so on.  Magazines like the very short-lived Esquire Gentleman introduced me to old 1960s and 1970s icons like Stamp and Bryan Ferry, men who loved clothing for its own sake after having adopted certain styles of dress when commercial success allowed them to live in the same neighborhoods (literally – the Albany apartment building in Stamp’s case and Primrose Hill in Ferry’s) as English gentlemen without affecting and assimilating the bundle of fucked-up class-ridden attitudes that such gentlemen may have carried.  It’s not a coincidence that a film like Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class came out at the same time that Terence Stamp was setting up in Piccadilly.T.Stamp Patrick Macnee Bryan FerryReading magazines that happened to discuss clothing was easier to justify mentally than purchasing books about clothing, although I ended up doing so finally, beginning with Alan Flusser’s Style and the Man and Bernhard Roetzel’s Gentleman: A Timeless FashionEven at the time I bought them, there was very little about men’s clothing – classic men’s clothing and traditional bespoke – online.  So those two books might as well have been the Dead Sea Scrolls of how to dress, with other writing of any quality on men’s clothing being almost nonexistent and certainly undiscovered.  A large number of us early adopters thus came to the internet heavily informed and influenced by those two writers and their attitudes, particularly Flusser’s on the drape cut in bespoke suits and Roetzel’s very German, more English than the English, fixation on the English makers like Drake’s, the shirt shops of Jermyn Street, the tailors of Savile Row, and so on. What made those two books so important was not just the lack of other comprehensive books on men’s clothing, or websites discussing it, but that the other source, magazines, are by their nature topical and superficial, and generally ill-informed.  Reading between the lines over a number of years, a perceptive reader might have gleaned that there were classic makers of beautiful and quality garments out there, but that message was drowned out by whatever magazine editors had to market that month, not to mention that most people writing about men’s clothing in periodicals have no idea of quality, construction or history and no way to evaluate critically (if they even want to) whatever press release or marketing horseshit they are rewriting under the guise of an article.Flusser RoetzelAt that time, around the debut of this millennium, there were a few very general websites on classic men’s clothing that were little more than directories of tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers, as well as the website of the infamous defrocked priest Francis Bown, whose mercenary business model for his website about bespoke appears to have been rather ahead of its time, given the great success today of some of the most prominent French and English clothing bloggers.  And again, given that it was the only information out there, all of us read it.

FTDF: What did you seek when you first went on forums such as Style Forum?

RJ: Quite simply, what I was seeking when I first joined an internet clothing forum was the whereabouts of my first tailor. At that time, the few tailors, shirtmakers and others who knew how to use the Internet to create a presence had something of a first-mover advantage, in that they were able to get the attention of people who had started searching online for information about suits, shirtmaking, and the rest, and they were able to engage with potential customers online and make their work immediately accessible.  That was an enormous change.  Previously, those of us who wanted to learn about bespoke and classic clothing had to soak up the few small drops of information, mostly garbled, that would occasionally drizzle out in magazines and the rare book. Exclusivity was not just physical. I note that a more unfortunate consequence was that those first movers, if they did reach out to potential customers online or through their websites, also had the opportunity to bad-mouth their perceived competitors and build themselves up, perhaps undeservedly. And because there were no other real sources of information out there, they could get away with that for a while.Mies joka piirsi mallin tyylikkäästä miehestäI had discovered my tailor through a website he had created online for a much better-known, royally-appointed tailor whom he was associated with at the time.  He had been authorized to represent that tailor on visits abroad. So he was able to gain customers on the reputation of that better-known tailor. He had reached out to me in response to an email inquiry through his website and met me for an initial visit, but shortly thereafter I was unable to reach him by email or phone, so I ended up joining my first clothing forum in order to ask if anyone knew of this fellow and how to reach him. I then got sucked into the discussions and interchange.

Initially I was afraid to join Styleforum. It seemed much more intense than the forum I had joined initially: in attitude, in volume of information, in give and take. Over the years it became the forum I spent the most time on, in part because for a number of those years it was well moderated with just the right level of member autonomy, and a great number of well-informed posters who came to talk about clothes and stayed, for a while, for the snark, schadenfreude and time-wasting in-jokes (you like it, the lamb?). I learned, in that through the forums I gained a lot of information and then I went out and empirically evaluated it, through my own experiences as a customer in various cities and at various makers and shops. That atmosphere changed at one point, but things always do.  We all have our own reasons for moving on, anyway. I had valued the byplay and the supposed relationships I had with a few posters I interacted with frequently on that forum. It was healthier that I stopped posting.

FTDF: What made you want to write about menswear?

RJ: As I mentioned above, posting on forums had not just been to exchange information in a constructive manner. It was a time-suck and a way to dissipate things that I may have wanted to say in a deeper and more constructive way. When I had the opportunity to write more focused things, at greater length than in a forum post, I found it much more gratifying than participating in the rat race of forum life, particularly as so much of it had become, more crassly and overtly, about consumerism and flaunting that consumerism. I wanted, and want, things that have some meaning to me, and those are the things I wanted to write about, to examine that feeling, that meaning. It gave me the opportunity for synthesis, to do something constructive with my obsessions, to interact with the internal drivers for why I wanted certain things and what made them special to me.  In contrast, so many forum exchanges seem to be about why someone else is wrong.  And it was validating to get feedback from people who found something of interest or value in what I had to say.

I lost my soapbox when my Svengali refocused his website.  I’m currently heading back to so-called old media and working on a book that will deal with some of my favorite topics, the history of wonderful places, and hopefully will say new things, so it’s not going to be just a rehash of old blog posts.  And it will probably be the only men’s clothing book ever written to contain a reference to Troll 2. My agent is very patient, thank God.  Writing a book has made me realize that even a blog post on a particular topic could get away with being topical and making throwaway references whereas in print, there’s a need to provide more context and background information since I can’t count on readers to be fully up on the in-jokes and so on.FTDF: How do you feel about the term « iGent »?

RJ: I am taken aback at how this term, initially derogatory, has been appropriated with pride by many people who don’t appear to know what it meant. What made an iGent an Internet Gentleman was that he was educated by the Internet, and that secondhand knowledge upheld his pretentions to being a gentleman, whatever that is in this day and age.

In other words, the Internet Gentleman was someone who went online and talked about clothes and actually believed the half-truths and misremembrances that other people told them, without actually using personal experience or independent, critical thought. They were emblematic of the downsides of the growth of Internet discussion forums:  people who followed invented trends like that of CBD (Conservative Business Dress) or soporific ties, without even knowing what the word soporific meant.  My friend Nicholas Antongiavanni, who uses the username Manton, started a “Soporific Tie Porn” thread on Styleforum years ago after I told him some of his new ties were soporific, that is, sleep-inducing.  Now enterprising eBay sellers use the term in their auctions!

One of the strange phenomena on the Internet forums was that credulousness.  Of course, in the beginning we all hoped we could believe each other, because it seemed that for the first time people, actual consumers, could share and pool their experiences across great distances and divides. In the end, it has meant the creation of new cults of personality as boys with the most toys can flaunt their newest acquisitions and, in some unfortunate cases, attempt to impress their tastes and prejudices on their sometimes all-too-accepting readers. What I mean is that many, many people online did not or do not consider the source or use their own personal experiences to come to independent conclusions, when they subscribe to what someone else online has told them. There are many, many examples – the minor tempest in a teapot around the drawbacks of gemmed and Goodyear-welted shoes versus hand-welted shoes, when in point of fact it’s incredibly difficult to find shoes that are actually hand welted, and almost always many, many times more expensive to buy or resole competently hand-welted shoes than well-made Goodyear-welted shoes. Or the recent debacle around a new tie brand that purportedly only used vintage tie fabrics. No one else appeared to stop to ask why those vintage fabrics hadn’t been used yet – they were hideous.  It wasn’t until the fellow behind it was caught out in numerous other lies and exposed on the forums that the iGents rallied against him.  

In addition, the Internet Gentleman was an Internet Gentleman because of an element of fantasy, even delusion – he was a gentleman in his own mind and only on the Internet, where his presence was as virtual and intangible as the nobility or accumulated prejudices or whatever else made him a gentleman. 

So to me, the iGents are not the new generation of elegants, any more than the cosplayers of the Chap movement are. As you have pointed out, though, the term has been appropriated as a badge of identification by many in that Internet subculture, the same way, I suppose, that furries and 4chanfappers have. And, as I myself pointed out in an article on them, if you know about the subculture, chances are you’re in it. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, as Baudelaire wrote in L’iGent de Paris or Assommons les iGents.

FTDF: What did you think of the not-yet known as IGent community back then and what do you think of it now?

RJ: As I wrote above, the term to me had meant someone who did not use critical or independent thought. By extension, that meant he was incapable of self-awareness or irony.  Now that the term has evolved and been appropriated to apparently mean anyone who discusses clothes on the Internet, I suppose we are capable of recognizing ourselves and laughing at ourselves and our pretentions. Still, despite having become a badge or a rallying cry, it carries a connotation of someone who lacks personal experience and perspective, who relies on hearsay and puts far too much faith in what someone else has told him about quality, and so on. Caveat lector, more than ever, since marketers, multinationals and anyone else have discovered how to use all forms of social media, including the supposedly consumer-empowering forums and blogs, to perpetuate the same sort of advertising that we thought we were fleeing from.

FTDF: How do you reflect on its evolution?

RJ: With bemusement. Now we need to be able to laugh at ourselves while using it. What it had meant, and what I had written about in my profile of the iGent, was a crowd of people believing that clothing makes them gentlemen, or taking stuff for free, or talking in stilted, ungrammatical formality that they believe is at the level of the clothes they are talking about.  Someone who trusted but didn’t verify. Someone who didn’t think for himself. In the end, we have found that we can’t trust these supposedly more democratic sources of information (forums and blogs).  First, because certain of the most vocal, or profligate, members of the forums became respected resources due to their volume and not their inherent virtue or value, and secondly, because these platforms have become more corporate – either because they had to in order to survive, or because clever folks realized they could get payment or free stuff from brands in return for posting about them on their Internet sites.  So our poor iGent today is more in peril than ever.  There is more information than ever before, but how much of it is reliable?

FTDF: You are known for being a keen reader and great writer, do you believe that now with the emergence of microblogging such as tumblr iGents tend to focus more on image than on writings so that most iGents nowadays are just copycats who are not that knowledgeable and thus just as easily influenced as any fashion victim out there? Or at least not as knowledgeable as the first generation of iGents who were probably more interested in finding their personal style rather than just emulating someone else’s.

RJ: I’m flattered you think I’m a great writer.  Reactions from my readers at the former A Suitable Wardrobe blog were entertainingly mixed, to say the least.

I’m also thinking of starting a tumblr for those self-indulgent exhibitionistic moments.  A number of my clothing-obsessed friends and e-friends have them, many are rather wonderful, like those of Paul-Lux or my friend Christophe.Photo part of the shoot for rakehound latest editionSartoria & CoI am reluctant to refer to the entire population of men seeking discussion or validation about clothing online as iGents.  Is that what it has come to?  Has the Académie Française OKed that expansion of definition?  Still, your question highlights an interesting point. In the early days, which were no Eden or Arcadia, there were far fewer men interested in talking about clothing, online or anywhere.  In the ensuing 12 years, #menswear and men’s clothing have become very fashionable discussion points. So the population is far greater, and broader, than it used to be. It is more permissible to be interested in men’s clothing than it was. This upsurge really first began to be felt around 2007, and certainly has not let up since then. The enormous growth of tumblrs and so on is both a result and a cause of this. Thus, it goes without saying that this newer generation is not necessarily as obsessive about knowledge and history as some of the early adopters were.

I cannot say that we were chiefly interested in finding our personal style. I think at that time we were happy to find a few kindred spirits. It was, at the time, astonishing to find that peer group. That first generation was the ones who were least aware of their being iGents, and came with their own creepy hangups and prejudices that influenced what made iGent, the subfamilies like the Colonel, with creepy politics and racial views, and so on. A great deal of sartorial conservatism reflected personal political conservatism. And nowadays some of those who were knowledgeable have left or moved on to trying to monetize that knowledge, while those who are left may have chosen to interact differently than in the past.

What your question also suggests is that the new interest in men’s clothing on many people’s parts may have less depth. Certainly, there are still new true believers coming on board, but with interest in men’s clothing being fashionable, many people are coming on without that baggage. In any event, current fashion for the flashy (#sprezz, and so on) has led to a strange homogeneity and a common and spurious lexicon of words they have rendered meaningless through misuse and creative bankruptcy.

FTDF: Do you believe that due to the emergence of blogs and microblogs, the forums have less influence nowadays?

RJ: I have no idea if forums have less influence now; I don’t follow them with enough technical knowledge or diligence to tell. I have the impression that forum readership has steadily increased over the years.  Many people come to the forums to discuss things that they have seen or read on those blogs or microblogs, by which I suppose you mean tumblr, Instagram and so on. Blogging and microblogging have been boons to those who seek particular attention and commercialize themselves, creating a personal brand and using their readership to market items they receive for free or through some other commercial relationship.The extent of my artistic talent is riffing on a Batman meme.People want to see pictures of nice things and read reassuring, flattering nonsense about high-flown concepts.  Most blogs with “gentleman” in the title cater to that.

Sources: google image, Paul-Lux, Sartoria & Co

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