We are proud to present to you the second part of our interview with Réginald-Jérôme de Mans, menswear writer, bespoke connoisseur and inveterate seeker. Check out his is tumblr Obey Feline.
Read or re-read part I here.
FTDF: Do you believe that the community emerged because at some point a generation of fathers or grandfathers stopped teaching their sons and grandsons how to dress?
RJ: There’s a necessarily political aspect to a question like this. This is not the Paris of Père Goriot, lacking fathers and father figures. What I mean is that many of the people asserting that a generational break is a reason for why we dress so badly are theorizing that this generational break is why the world is going to hell today, that we turned our back on authority, tradition, morality and all sorts of other values in the 1960s and 1970s and that this is why things are so fucked up now. They play coy when asked what the particular bad things that contributed to this and that should be rolled back are: whether it had to do with women no longer being only sex objects and caregivers, or with dark-skinned people no longer knowing their place, and so on.The thing is, the same rat races, obsessiveness, one-upmanship and solipsism exist in forums dedicated to all kinds of topics, not just men’s clothing – in fact, any male-dominated internet forum, whether for stereos, martial arts, lovers of certain musical instruments, watches, and so on. Part of male psyche is to have this obsession over needlessly trivial. It does not spring from one generation’s abandonment of elegance – which is not the same thing as the simple ways of how to dress, which is the insinuation. Between 1960 and 1990 we did not forget how to put on clothes or wear them, even if we turned our back on elegance. And forums are not the surrogates to those missing fathers. Perhaps to missing paragons of elegance, but that is disturbing. So we are not the Paris of Père Goriot, but that of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (An iGent High and Low), missing our lost fop Lucien de Rubempré.
FTDF: How would you describe your personal style?
RJ: Alas, I think that any of us who have earned reputations on the Internet will be classified as dandies or fops, whether we like that title or not, for the simple fact of caring how we dress and taking pleasure in our clothes. So I would describe my personal style as dandified, because all of us are; colorful; slightly over-the-top.
We all want to see ourselves as the last holdouts for some lost idea of elegance… or perhaps that’s just me and my atavistic fantasies. But I daresay I don’t quite come across that way, not as elegant as I would like to be.
FTDF: How much of an impact did the internet have on your knowledge and on your personal style?
RJ: It’s obviously been influential in terms of the interactions I’ve had with people who were knowledgeable and information received that I could empirically test and verify. The Internet brought me and us into contact with a variety of people we never would have been able to meet otherwise, many with a great deal of knowledge. Still, as always, there’s a need to test and consider the source through personal experience and preference. I occasionally got taken in by the forum vogues, like the one for fresco in 2006 and the cordovan thing in 2008, among others. Japanese knives, too, in 2009. And nowadays, it’s useful to see what new developments there are at various shops and makers I’m interested in, reading between the lines.
FTDF: What is elegance as far as you are concerned?
RJ: That’s a surprisingly difficult question. I’ve been thinking of a definition of style as I’ve been working on my book, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that style is inspiration, no more and no less. I’m also reminded of Bryan Ferry’s rather neat definition of what makes a gentleman, 20 years ago: “good manners and handmade shoes.” I would submit that in that case handmade can include hand-guided through machine, as with Edward Green. But elegance? I’ve thought of one hypothetical definition: the ability to dress with the greatest care and the greatest inspiration, and then to forget what you have on and simply be yourself. But elegance doesn’t always involve care. Outside of clothing, it implies simplicity and clarity, like a good mathematical proof. But in clothing, a complicated ensemble (to avoid using the dreaded word “outfit”) can also be elegant in some circumstances. So it’s rather more complicated or ineffable than I would have thought. Handsome is as handsome does, as the old saying goes.I can’t stand them now, but I often think of the line from an old Jane’s Addiction song, “I wish I knew everyone’s nickname, all their slang and all their sayings. Every way to show affection, how to dress to fit the occasion.” That sort of control and flexibility, to me, always seemed something to aspire to – some ideal of courtesy and near-omniscience, in order to be obliging to one’s fellows. Perhaps that in some degree is a kind of elegance.
FTDF: You have met and been a customer to many tailors and shoemakers, what can you tell us about the relationship one is to develop with craftsmen/artisans?
RJ: What is most important is trust. Find someone you can trust, and then trust him or her and don’t second guess him or her. Unfortunately, it is extremely hard to find a maker you can trust. Trust doesn’t mean unquestioningly accepting whatever someone produces for you. It means trusting that person to get it right or make it right.
Some people have suggested that a good craftsman is one who is unfailingly polite and accommodating, while others have suggested the opposite, that real craftsmen are brusque and brutal. I have known genial artisans and gruff ones who each carried out great work, just as I’ve known artisans both good and bad who bad-mouthed their competitors or who were always gracious about them. As a customer, not a trained craftsman, I know that no matter how much I have learned about how something is made, I am a layperson. Thus, I have to rely on the maker and cannot keep second-guessing him. Unfortunately, whether you can trust someone or not is not something you always find out before you receive your order. In the end, you have to rely on the opinion of someone you can trust.
When something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, a good craftsman will make it right, if you give him the opportunity to.
But, also inevitably, you will never get exactly what you wanted in a bespoke order, because you can never fully communicate the image you had in your mind to the person who will make it. It is important to recognize that ideals are always different from their execution, imperfect because it is real. That does not mean that something artisanal must be badly made, imprecisely made or irregular in order to be craft-made or artisanal. That is a lie of long standing perpetuated by the Internet.
FTDF: How do you feel about Savile Row nowadays?
RJ: I like it. Why not? Where else has a neighborhood survived where several dozen different tailors have their shops and can make you each something beautifully handcrafted in the traditional manner? From Henry Poole to Meyer & Mortimer, through so many others. The real bespoke tailors left in Paris can be counted on one hand and certain of them I would not trust as far as I could throw them with that same hand. It’s very easy to dismiss it, as some of the professionally motivated bloggers have, with rumors impugning the tailors of offshoring or anything else. But there are still a number of very good tailors in and around Savile Row who will make a wonderful bespoke suit, hand cut, hand canvassed and hand sewn in the important places. What almost all of them, or almost all of the larger ones, have had to do to survive is find a secondary revenue stream. In the case of Anderson & Sheppard, it is their new haberdashery selling ready-to-wear. In the case of Gieves & Hawkes, it has been numerous ready-to-wear licenses, foreign licenses in the Far East, diffusion lines of trendy ready-to-wear, and so on. Henry Poole had for a number of years a Japanese ready-to-wear license. Gieves & Hawkes and Kilgour have foreign owners with deep pockets willing to bank on them. Norton & Sons has an MBA owner who launched a trendy, inaccessibly priced ready-to-wear line and raises their profile by appearing on reality shows like The Sewing Bee and so on. At the core of many of the remaining houses is still the bespoke – certainly at Poole, where I was a customer for several years and where the cut and service were impeccable. The danger for much of Savile Row, frankly, is following the French route where bespoke is simply a miroir aux alouettes, smoke and mirrors because it is so small a part of the business and so deterrently expensive that almost no one actually uses it. Instead, it is something used to sell the ready-to-wear, a branding exercise. That is the case at several very fashionable French brands with very, very expensive bespoke offers that get a lot of press without there being, or needing to be, a real bespoke clientele. As a marketing tool, all that is needed is the possibility of bespoke.
The alternate route that a few of the smaller Savile Row houses have taken is to re-establish themselves as Savile Row-trained and bred, but without a physical store in the Row, instead carrying out fittings at the premises of the cloth merchants who for decades have allowed that as a courtesy.
But if I had my druthers, that is, if I knew I would not be castrated by my wife for ordering more suits, I would go to Camps de Luca for the pleasure of trying them but to Steed for the wonder that is an excellently cut and fitted Savile Row suit.
FTDF: Could you talk to us about your attachment for Edward Green?
RJ: My love for Edward Green is irrational. Until the 125 last, I actually had a very slightly better fit in Crockett & Jones. But ever since I got a chance to examine Edward Green shoes in person, they’ve just been my ideal of the English shoe. Back in 2001 I got a chance to look at the Edward Green Westminster and the John Lobb Paris William, each house’s classic double-monk-strap model, side by side. The Green just looked right, and the Lobb looked off. Since then, I’ve noticed that Edward Green’s shoes, both in the proportions of their lasts and of their patterns, just had a perfection to them. The leather quality, the finishing and the construction are on the whole better than any other English maker’s – John Lobb Paris may use some arguably better leathers, but Green’s construction and durability are slightly better than any other English ready-to-wear maker’s I’ve tried. In addition, Green’s vast catalog of models, of last shapes, and the flexibility they had for special orders are amazing. Now they’ve gotten wiser and force many orders into the Top Drawer program at a soberingly high price, but the work is beautiful.There’s a lot of foolishness online about handwelted footwear and the importance of that over Goodyear welting (which by definition is carried out by a Goodyear machine), as well as the overstated dangers of gemming. Good hand welting is going to add thousands of dollars to the price of a shoe, for the possibility of perhaps one or two more resolings than a well-maintained Goodyear-welted shoe of quality. Not all Goodyear-welted shoes are of equivalent quality, but Edward Green is among the best of them, and in my experience the finishing and stitching are better than on the other English shoemakers, while the design, subjectively, to me is better than any – John Lobb ready-to-wear is either a bad attempt to copy Berluti or overly finicky versions of the classics Green carries off with panache; Weston is excellent in quality but the styles are less to my taste; Carmina is good quality but nowhere near as well finished; Saint Crispins and Vass rely heavily on their handwork as selling points, but the styles are less accessible to me than Green. Berluti is overpriced and lost whatever specialness it had when its colors and patination used to be a rarity. Green can create with Goodyear welting shoes that are at least as elegant and slim as Berluti in its Blake stitching – and Berluti prices its Goodyear-welted models higher than its Blake-stitched models on the assertion that Goodyear welting is better.Green can do the perfect unlined loafer as well as the most beautiful lace-up business shoes or magnificent boots, with such a level of finish that even my bespoke shoemakers (such as Cleverley or Delos) have thought the Green ready-to-wear shoes I was wearing were bespoke.FTDF: What advice would you give to neo iGents?
RJ: Well, as above, that’s a very freighted term, so I would tell them to take a long look in the mirror and think hard about what they are doing with their lives. Then I would give them the advice that the resident rebels had in high school. They had long hair and dressed transgressively and did politically provocative things, and they said to question everything. Regardless of the rest, it’s damn good advice. Learn to think critically and you may become a less happy person, but perhaps a better informed one. Empirical evidence and personal experience are irreplaceable. And I would remind them that the RJ cat (2’5”, 10.1 lb) has a posse.
We wish to thank Réginald-Jérôme for his kindness, his knowledge and his sense of humor.
Paris, July 2015. All rights reserved.
Sources: Google Image, Réginald-Jérôme de Mans, Edward Green, Skoaktiebolaget, Akira Sorimachi