WHY I WEAR WHAT I WEAR
BY ALAN FLUSSER
My appearance has always been one of my major preoccupations and priorities. I’m sure that many men who work in menswear started out with similarly strong sentiments about how they wanted to look and dress. Born to a father who loved clothes and was an unabashed devotee of the Brooks Brothers/Fred Astaire dressing canon, by the time I was seventeen I had figured out a little menswear business that allowed me get my clothes made by a local tailor. By twenty-eight, gainfully employed as a sportswear designer for Pierre Cardin, I was having my clothes custom-made in London and Paris. It was 1976 and I was traveling to Europe four times a year, with the Continent’s most storied ateliers and tailors no further than a left out of my hotel.
To my great fortune, many establishments still employed a few holdovers from menswear’s golden days, when the clothing exploits of the Duke of Windsor were daily news. It was a time still driven by fashions handed down from the upper classes to the great unwashed. Each establishment’s cadre of old boys were outfitted in their long-in-the-tooth bespokes, ever-ready to regale you with the sartorial histories of Hollywood’s high-priests of male elegance: Menjou, Gable, Cooper, Grant, Astaire, and so many others.
Anyway, it was in this milieu where my dressing principles were first forged. Perhaps the most foundational was the role of naturalness and easy comfort in conveying personal elegance. I was reminded over and over that being able to move comfortably in your clothes was essential if genuine stylishness and poise were to be achieved. To look like you were wearing the clothes, you had to appear confident in your own skin — no less the layers covering it. Coming upon such a concept was rather ironic as I was working for a designer who was making fashion history based on his form-fitting silhouettes. “Quick” was the term my English tailor used to run out when confronted by a fit that was too close to the body for his tastes. Forty years later and I have yet to come up with a more intuitive and charming description.
Once introduced to this network of Bond Street temples of menswear, no one spent more time or energy familiarizing himself with the taste-laden eccentricities and traditions that distinguished each. By the end of the seventies, having designed sportswear all across Europe, South America, and Asia, I’d amassed enough insider information to pen a shopping book about the finest men’s stores around the world and what made them tick.
My learning curve of taste had essentially been forged in these shops by bespeaking my clothes under the watchful and tutorial eyes of these legendary purveyors of classical male elegance, which essentially took its cue from London, much as women’s elegance did from Paris. My role models of taste were a growing kaleidoscope of competing looks derived from England’s aristocracy to America’s Ivy League to the boulevardiers of the emerging Café Society. Augmented by Hollywood’s bounty of male style avatars, I then added dashes of 1930’s Tyrolean golf and shooting gear, as well as the sportswear debuted at the world’s seminal watering holes such as Palm Beach, the Riviera, and St. Moritz.
At the time, my expanding supply chain included the English tailors Anderson and Sheppard, Old Bond Street shoemakers Maxwell, where shoemaker-to-the-stars, George Cleverly held court; there was London’s equivalent of Brooks Brothers, the 19th century shirt maker Beale and Inman, along with Savile Row’s Bowing and Arundel as well as Paris’ Charvet for dinner shirts. Custom-made collar bars, monogrammed or vintage estate cufflinks, and Edwardian dress sets were the specialty of the New Bond Street silversmith S.J. Phillips while individually crafted travel accessories and card cases were courtesy of Aspreys (their original London store was King-like) plus accessories from Burlington Arcade, Charvet, Knize, Hermes, et al. You would have thought I was born a Rothschild, however just a kid from New Jersey with an outsized appetite for all things forever stylish and forever in good taste.
Overshadowed but by no means forgotten was the sport side of my wardrobe, those non-working breeds and what personal aspirations they must meet. As a card-carrying Taurus with an alleged inclination towards the material and self-indulgence, I’ve been committed to unearthing the world’s most elegantly comfortable sports clothes for as long as I can remember. My mantra is “comfort is its own luxury.” In fact, how I now dress on any given weekend is not all that far in principal from how I approach dressing for the weekday. The key is that whatever I wear must be classic, meaning its stylishness is not bound by time or fashion. The garment has to drape as opposed to hug, and it must offer the best of both quality and unbridled comfort. I like practical things and lightweight things so I can layer them. And if I can’t put it on and take it off with a minimum of effort, it’s just not going to make the cut.
My standard cool temperature casual outfit is typically some variation on the following — pull-on knit bottom, cotton tee shirt, cashmere cardigan sweater, silk and cashmere neckerscarf, cashmere and nylon socks, and slipper-like driving shoes. So swaddled, I feel like I could just as easily take a nap, or hang out in bed, both ideas that ultimately weigh in during an afternoon’s later hours. I have been refining while filling out that basic dressing paradigm for the past fifty years.
Today, on top, I still rely on my custom-made Scottish cashmere cardigans over a fine quality cotton tee shirt with a printed Hermes cashmere and silk scarf knotted loosely around my neck. On bottom is either an Adidas football bottom, a Polo knit trouser, or a cashmere track bottom I designed for myself in Capri. Cashmere and nylon socks paired with Belgian loafers, Puma’s Mostro sneaker, Gucci’s former St. Tropez model driving shoe, or my clog-shaped, felt Norweigan indoor-outdoor slippers cocoon my bottom extremities.
Fortunately, whereas even twenty years ago you couldn’t find a well-designed elastic waistband knit bottom that looked dressy enough to wear outside of a gym, today technology and fashion are turning out versions in many different incarnations. I can remember coming across my first pair of cotton knit bottoms that were dressy enough to wear on an airplane. It was at the Paris store Loft, still the treasure tower of the world’s most stylish knit basics, from tee shirts you’d like to sleep in to knit bottoms you’d like to wear all day. Today, I probably own more different elastic waist knit bottoms than anyone else in the Western world.
As my own dressing style has evolved, I have increasingly moved towards mixing my two seemingly oppositional dressing paradigms. The first time my then college-age daughters saw me sporting a sport jacket with my mostro sneakers, they thought I’d lost my mind. Called upon to defend my sartorial compos mentis from time to time over the years, I am fairly impervious to such outbursts from the peanut gallery. However, as personal style should always be a moving feast, I almost organically began to push the proverbial classical dress-up envelope towards more inclusiveness by mating different dressing genres together. I remember showing up to a meeting with Ralph Lauren sporting one of my football bottoms with a bespoke flannel suit jacket, only to bump into two young guys from his design studios dressed in tailored jackets with jogging bottoms. We both looked at each other and smiled.
To those hard-wired in traditional menswear dogma, my seeming abandonment of conventional dress-up mores borders on blasphemy, if not outright heresy. It’s true that my advancing age and increasing avoir de pois have pushed me towards a less august sampling of menswear’s standardized menu. However, for those who have spent time around me away from the office, I have never been a strict adherent to just one dressing genre. For example, there are pictures of me from the seventies sporting a green English flight suit, embroidered western shirt, custom cowboy boots, and a tie. Granted, each article was collectible and still stylish by my standards today. My two shopping books presented a wide variety of different clothing sensibilities from Western to Tyrolean, from Brook Brothers fun shirts to Maxfield’s black fashions. My dressing books, while grounded by the parameters of classic elegance, sought to introduce the reader to the many variations on high-brow taste as practiced by those historical masters of the haberdashery way. You saw Cecil Beaton pairing opera slippers with a suit and tee shirt and Basil Rathbone swathed in black sportswear from head to toe.
As a menswear designer and author, a large part of my professional career has been dedicated to helping individuals learn the basics of good form and permanent fashion in relation to their particular physiques and complexions. There is more to stylish dressing than owning a closet full of bespoken clothes. Whether donning black tie or a black cashmere sweater, knowing how they are supposed to button and what liberties you can take without “gilding the lilly” is where substantive personal style begins to emerge. Both require special attention at the waist.
For me, wearing new combinations and colors, mixing different kinds of clothes, experimenting with various arrangements of layering will always be a working part of my sartorial DNA. While intellectually grounded in the traditional verities underlying tailor-made décor, were someone to observe me nowadays they would be exposed to a larger trove of permanent fashion eye-cues than when I was attired head-to-hoof in classical bespokes. In fact, my outfits today contain as many classic garments in them as they did before; they just happen to hail from different backgrounds.
Learning how to combine different dressing genres, high with low, colloquial with tailor-made, vintage with designer, second-hand with expensive, these are the skills evidenced by that rare male who history has deemed best-in-class. The way I wore my Savile Row skins thirty years ago was still something of my own invention, perhaps I made that dressing mode more appealing, I don’t know. My message back then is pretty much as it is today, learn how to recognize classic design in high quality clothes and then put your own stamp on wearing them.
Sounds easy but I’m here to tell you that such a pilgrimage has no beginning or end. Over time, the process should reflect certain personal disciplines and maybe even a code of conduct. As unfettered or ground breaking as I might sound in juxtaposing unexpected dressing genres, there are certain decorums and gestures that have impacted my sartorial psyche that remain intact. For example, if I wear a tailored jacket, its breast pocket will inevitably display a pocket hank. I will always sport some kind of tailored top to walk into and out of a fine hotel. If dinner clothes are requested, a carnation will grace its lapel. I still have a manicure and wear baby powder. Some things will never change.
Like most men who long ago decided to dress for themselves, I am prepared to look different and possibly be misunderstood. At sixteen, arriving to pick up my date, I was informed that she would not go out with me because of my madras pants. There were those who thought my dress made me look bizarre. Standing out in a crowd or wearing clothes that cause others to stare is not for everyone. The writer Tom Wolfe used to tell me that he liked to dress different because he liked watching people watch him.
Personal style is just that, personal. Whether wearing track pants with a bespoke jacket will condemn me to the anonymity of history is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I’m about to slip into one of my own corduroy dinner jackets, satin tie, and yes, a pair of those pesky soccer bottoms to address some folks on the civilities of fine footwear. Maybe my hand-monogrammed bespoke slippers will distract them.