In London: Goodbye Cargo Pants, Hello Savile Row
The overnight ferry from Guernsey arrives in Portsmouth at 6 a.m. I got up, therefore, at 5:30 a.m., and when I looked in the mirror that morning, I thought of one man: Laurent Derame.
You will not remember Laurent because I never told you about him. He is a French hairdresser who lives in London and I met him in Mongolia, as one does. It was dusk, I had just returned from my excursion into Hustai National Park where I saw rare Mongolian wild horses, and there was Laurent, standing outside his ger and sipping a glass of white wine. "I found a lovely bottle of Bordeaux in the bar," he said by way of introduction. "Would you like a glass?" It was practically a rhetorical question.
"80 Days or Bust" face
Laurent and I shared a few glass of Bordeaux that night and traded travel stories. I had cause to think of Laurent in Russia and by the time I hit Turkey, my thoughts turned to Laurent every time I looked in the mirror. The problem was my hair. It was getting long, and in my case that means bushy and rounded and quite unsightly. In Greece I emailed Laurent. I would be passing through London, I told him. Would I be able to get a haircut? Mais oui.
And so the setting of our friendship changed from a ger camp four hours out of Ulaan Bataar to a trendy salon in Mayfair called Michaeljohn. He looked just as he did in Mongolia: smiling and well groomed, but no wine this time. His assistant, Sophie, washed my near-80-day old lid then escorted me to Laurent's chair, where the master set about pruning it into back into acceptable form. He cut away hair growth from the Midwest, the South Pacific, China, Mongolia and Russia, and left a shapely coif none of which, I figure, was older than Moscow.
Keep the dreads
This was just the first act in a vanity-themed day in London. The next stop was just down the road, on a street called Savile Row, which you will know as the world's throbbing heart of bespoke tailoring, where gentry have been coming to buy fancy outfits for something like 200 years.
Bespoke is a fancy word for made-to-measure, and I have owned a grand total of one bespoke suit in my life. The problem is that I didn't own it for very long. Here is the short version of what happened: In the summer of 2001, my wife and I were engaged to be married. I didn't want to wear a tuxedo to my wedding because a) the world "tuxedo" is a very tacky word b) I'm not in the habit of wearing pants with racing stripes running down the side and c) a good suit looks better than a good tux. As fate had it, a friend worked at the Toronto office of Ermenegildo Zegna who could get me a bespoke Zegna suit for a very good price. I got the suit, I got married, but then, less than a year after the wedding, I got robbed.
It was a break-and-enter, and one of the possessions that was stolen was my bespoke suit. (Getting robbed is a miserable experience, no doubt, but getting robbed by a thief with good taste makes it a tad more bearable.) I promised myself that I would one day own another bespoke suit. That day, I thought, wouldn't come for a very long time. But here I was in Mayfair, freshly coiffed and with an expense account. Now seemed as good a time as any.
Laurent Derame, my compadre from Mongolia
The question, of course, was which tailor? Men have been coming to Savile Row to buy suits since the early 1900s, and as is often the case in England, many of the tailors appear to still be living in the century. These people make nice clothing, make no mistake. But to pull off a traditional Savile Row suit you need to run an investment bank, order £200 bottles of red wine at lunch and start sentences with "I say old boy...," even when talking to your wife.
Luckily, a new store had just opened called Richard James Bespoke. It sits just across the street from the Richard James flagship store, which is where the fashion-minded junior investment bankers shop for clothes. (English men don't start dressing and talking like their fathers until their mid 40s, at which point there's no turning back.) A lot of celebrities have their suits made by Richard James, and a few of them are people I actually like--Paul McCartney, Daniel Craig, Richard E. Grant--and one or two I'm not so fond of, like that idiot from Oasis.
Richard James and his new client
For a man who's crafted suits for men far handsomer and wealthier than myself, Richard James is both friendly an downright approachable. We began by reviewing rolls of fabric. Pinstriping was decided against right off the bat. The idea of a blue suit was floated and struck down. Richard suggested I might look good in a fabric called sharkskin, so named not because, like the hide of a shark, it has a sheen but manages not to have a shine. It was medium grey and I held a section of it against my arm and liked the way it looked.
What distinguishes a bespoke suit from one that's off-the-rack is the same thing that distinguishes a fine raw-milk cheese from a Kraft single. One is handmade, the other comes off a line. The idea with bespoke is to craft it from the ground up with wearer's body in mind. Thus, the measurement process is as much about taking down the lengths arms and legs as it is diagnosing bodily quirks and anatomical asymmetries. The good news was that I was "even on the shoulders," which meant that neither shoulder sloped more than the other, an affliction that affects roughly half of all men and results in a suit's buttons not matching up with the holes. But that's not to say my shoulders were without deformity. They were, in fact, "square," which is a polite way of saying I have bad posture. On a regular off-the-rack suit, square shoulders causes that little nub of cloth to bunch up between the shoulder blades. More alarmingly, I was a size 40 in the shoulders, but my body tapered to 39 inches at the chest-I'm not much of a weight lifter. Curiously, I appeared to be longer in the torso than most men of my size.
The suit itself would be hand sewn one floor below, a process that would take roughly six weeks. Itching for more immediate satisfaction, I asked Richard if I could try on an already-finished suit, just to give me some idea how I would appear in the final product. He brought out a grey suit-slightly darker than my own-along with a shirt and tie, and I stepped into the changing room.
Newly attired, I stepped out and asked Richard how I looked. Here is a man, after all, who's seen the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, and Tom Cruise in a suit. "Like chalk and cheese," he said, and by this he didn't mean that I looked like chalk or like cheese, or like some combination of the two. It's an English expression based on the idea that cheese is far preferable to chalk, and in Richard James's estimation, I looked like chalk when I walked in, but now I looked like cheese. Coming from him, it meant a lot.
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