28 June 2014

Worth Every Penny: Zenni Optical

Only recently, at the end of last year, did I discover that I needn't to wear glasses. After one too many times driving home at night afraid I might hit a tree, I learned that all this time spent in front of various screens was making it difficult for me to focus at night (the things I do for you, dear readers). In any case, eyewear now became an accessory to consider, one I hadn't given any thought to in the past.

I also hadn't given any thought to the fact that good glasses are apparently unbelievably expensive.Seriously, what a racket. It was the end of December, and we had some flexible spending insurance money to use up, and Mrs. G already has five pair of glasses, so I was in luck. My first glasses were a pair similar to the ones above, but by Burberry. The full price of those was over four hundred dollars (!?!?!). Fortunately, between insurance, sales at the optometrist, and the flexible spending money that wasn't going to carry over into the new year, I managed to get the price down to about $125. I like those glasses, and still wear them 50% off the time. Trouble is they're black, and I really wanted a brown tortoiseshell pair to work with other outfits. Black frames can be a little too harsh, especially when wearing round lenses.

I had heard good things about Warby Parker, who offer a full pair of prescription glasses for $95. I had them send me five pair of frames for home try on, which was a great service. The frames were of good quality and looked well, so after deciding on a pair, I sent back the samples and ordered some. I was disappointed to discover that Warby Parker could not make my lenses, which require prism correction.

Enter Zenni Optical. A good friend at work who is literally blind without his glasses told me about them, saying that many glasses were as cheap as forty or fifty dollars. It sounded unbelievable, but this is a guy who depends on his glasses, so I took his word as a sound endorsement. I ordered the pair above, which came to $42.99 shipped. I figured if they were crappy I could at least leave them on the bedside table and use them around the house. Two weeks later they arrived, in a cheap case in a padded envelope. But the glasses themselves are more than acceptable. The frame is sturdy, the prescription is correct, they look cool, and if I loose them or break them it won't kill me to just get another pair. Best of all, no visible brand name on them, unlike the status seking Burberry pair. At prices like that, there's no reason not to keep a selection of glasses for various purposes. I'll be back to buy more soon.

Zenni Optical is worth every penny, even if it isn't so many pennies.

23 June 2014


A few years back, I was headed to an outdoor Summer wedding, and really wanted a nice straw hat to wear with a tan worsted suit. I searched high and low, but the only thing I could find in time was a less than mediocre one in cheap paper straw with a too yellow cast at a J. Crew in the mall. I suppose I should have just gone bare headed, but better judgement lost this battle and I bought the hat for $15. It's one redeeming quality was a pleated band in black and grey mini houndstooth. It has sat on a peg on my hat stand ever since the day of that wedding.
Another time, I bought a much better hat in quality off white straw in the end of Summer half price sale at the Andover Shop. I think I paid about $40 for this one. Clearly a better hat of better material, but still it remained mostly unworn. The navy and red grosgrain band is nice, but a whiff narrow for my taste, and I could't help but put it back for all the times I meant to wear it but was bothered by the band not quite making it with the rest of the outfit. Ah, vanity, but this is after all a clouting blog, no?
This Summer, my warm weather wardrobe has really come into its own. I've managed over the course of the long and terrible Winter to acquire an excellent madras jacket, another in cream colored linen and silk, and a perfect seersucker suit. A good straw hat would be a welcome addition, but something I'd be loath to gamble on for a third round. No matter, I simply removed the better band from the cheap hat and replaced the cheap band on the better hat with it. A few carefully and strategically placed stitches was all it took, and in the end I have the hat I set out to get in the first place.


p.s. Crazy good tweed on ebay right now, 42 long, plus a bunch of other choice items. As usual, the Shop is also jammed with great pieces. Have a look.

20 June 2014

Rules of Thrifting : Consider Context (house and home edition)

Only the other day, while out hunting for clothes, I came across this fine set of dining room furniture, circa mid 1960s, in a local thrift. A nicely sized table with two extension leaves and six cane back chairs, two with arms, in dirty but good shape. Asking price was $250, but after pointing out a nick or two here and there, I managed to get them down to $200. I figured the seat cushion fabric might be whiff ugly,  but nothing I could't easily fix via DIY tactics.
Then I got it home, and waxed it up with a little Old English with a drop of dark brown stain, and suddenly, in my dining room, with it's rusty orange walls and clean wood floor, those seat cushions didn't look so bad. In fact, they looked pretty damn good.

Few things are as important to remember as context if you want to thrift shop successfully. There are no end of good things out there, but the will often be crammed in amongst a bunch of junk under unflattering fluorescent lighting. They might be in need of cleaning or slight repair. You have to train your eye to see a little past what is right in front of you to what you're actually getting. It's all about context.

19 June 2014

Free Stuff: Combatant Gentleman

A while back, I was contacted by Combatant Gentleman about doing a review of some of their clothes. I get a lot of these requests lately, and decline more often than I accept, but I always do a bit of homework first to see if its something readers of this blog might appreciate. After an initial look at CG's website, I decided to decline, as their clothes had a very sleek, modern look that isn't quite my speed. But the kind folks there politely persisted, and so I accepted a suit, shirt, tie, and sweater in sizes that fit a friend of mine who not only has a  personal style more in keeping with the CG look, but also has more need of a new suit than I likely ever will again at this point.
(friend JD in a suit, shirt and tie for Combatant Gentleman. Note: trousers are not hemmed, just rolled under for the photo)
Combatant Gentleman offers a limited line of suits, jacket, trousers, shirts and accessories at fairly low prices. Part of their business plan is transparency about production, so each item tells the provenance of both its materials and manufacture. Shipping was fast, and included a label for free return shipping, as well as a reorder sheet if any sizes needed to be exchanged. In the case of suits, trousers and jackets are ordered separately, which helps minimize alterations. I must say their sizing runs very true. I took JD's measurements, and did the ordering after he chose the suit he liked, and as you can see in the above photo, no alterations are needed other than having the trousers hemmed. The styling is trim and modern, though not tight and over the top.

The fabric comes from a mill in Italy and has a nice heft to it without being heavy. Hacking pockets are a detail I personally could do without on a suit like this, but they are well executed. Overall, I'd say this suit is a good value. The fabric is nice and the construction is fine, better than many low level mall store suits. At $160 I think it's worth it. It's priced at or below many suits from H&M, for example, but feels much less like it's held together with spit and scotch tape. The quality is far superior to one of my failed forays in online custom.

Combatant Gentleman would be a nice option for a young, thin guy with a leaning toward fashionable clothing who needs to build a basic wardrobe on a limited budget, say for his first office job out of college. I thought that might be an accurate description of at least some of the readers here which is why I chose to review them. Though the clothes are on the trim side, they would be acceptable in most office environments, especially their solid navy or charcoal grey suits. True, you could get something better for the same or less by shopping thrift or buying from ebay or dealers like me, but that isn't always an option. I think if you need a serviceable suit for short money on short order, Combatant Gentleman would be one of the better options at this level.

17 June 2014

The Jams: Guilty Pleasures Edition

Dammit, Linda Ronstadt So seemingly silly...yet so great. Bonus points for Dan Electro teardrop guitar
Ah, Johnny Rotten. A punk icon to be sure, and yet he winds up appearing in a great suit, albeit with white shoes and a cheap tux shirt buttoned to the top without a tie.

 All of the above noted Jams were meant for the youth of their day, yet I find that I could not appreciate any of them until just now,at the age of 37, with a couple of kids in tow. I know now, however, that each is a full jam in its way.And so it turns out, I guess, that as we age our subversive tastes need not decline, but rather remain and evolve...for those of us that really mean it anyway. Earlier this evening, I heard "Just One Look" in its original incarnation by Doris Troy, a jam to be sure. In searching the Youtubes for a video, I stumbled on Ms. Ronstadt and her band nailing it...hard..in 1980. I'm generally loathe to say that a cover is better than its original, except sometimes it is. (see Blue Cheer: Summertime Blues)

 I listened to "I Know What Boys Like" by The Waitresses all through my punk years, and pretended not to like it, but in fact I always loved it. The older I get, the less time I have to pretend.

 The other day I found myself in line at a local thrift, diligently working to bring you all the best of the old stuff, when "Rise" by Public Image Limited came on the stereo. After years of hearing it, it finally dawned on me that it was the voice of Johnny Rotten. I had of course come to know our Mr. Rotten as an icon of Punk, but had also been conditioned to revile any solo work that happened in the mid 80s. Despite his overwrought "crazy bug eyed face" posture in the video, I think the song stands for itself.

 Actually, nix the "guilty pleasures" part of the title of this post. Whats to be guilty for, anyway? These songs, despite being stylistically "so eighties" transcend all that, not unlike classic clothing, good cooking, or any other well presented work of art.

14 June 2014

Boston Style

Last week, Put This On ran a q&a post about wearing loafers with a suit. I'm sure many of you have already seen the article, but for those who haven't you can read it here. While I find Put This On to be a very informative website and I agree with everything they say in this post, I feel I compelled to point out one glaring omission. What about tassel loafers?

The only reason I mention it is because the end summary is that one generally shouldn't wear loafers with a suit. Oddly, I almost always wear loafers with a suit. I'm not alone in this, but perhaps it's an East Coast thing. Here in Boston, tassel loafers worn with business suits are a common sighting, or at least they were when there were more men around in suits. It was/is so common in fact, that as a kid, before I knew the proper name for tassel loafers, I called them "lawyer shoes" because I only ever saw them with suits. I see plenty of guys with penny loafers and suits too, but that's a look I can't get with, excepting of course the case of seersucker suits. Tassels and suits go together like khakis and a blazer, at least in Boston. Why else would a thing like the black tassel loafer even exist if not to wear it with a navy blue suit? Then again, we are the same people who not only accept but tend to prefer button down collars with suits, another combination widely avoided almost everywhere else, so take my opinion with the appropriate grain of salt.

Context of course plays a big part. What's acceptable in an office environment here may not be elsewhere and these unwritten rules should be your guide.I tend to prefer the look because I wear my suits purely by choice, and I don;t want to look like I'm going to a board meeting. Often, a slightly less formal shoe is all I need to tone down a navy or grey suit. However, at a wedding or other formal event, I still wear black lace-ups.

Let me close by reminding you that I also like to wear black tassel loafers with my tuxedo, so it's entirely possible I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about anyway.

10 June 2014

Rules of Thrifting: 1, 2, and 3

Pictured above is a three piece suit in cavalry twill, the most recent addition to my own Affordable Wardrobe. Heavy cloth like cavalry twill my not be the very thing we want to talk about this time of year, perhaps most especially on the heels of my last post about seersucker suits, but it bears discussion here as this suit goes to illustrate not one but three of the basics tenets of successful thrift shopping. Before we delve too deeply into that, let's have a closer look at the suit itself:
For those that may not know, cavalry twill is heavy wool cloth with a pronounced diagonal weave (twill), usually seen in shades of tan, brown, or olive. As with so many things in menswear, it's origins are military. As one might guess from its name, this hard wearing cloth was first developed for the British cavalry, hence it's frequent use in colors that also derive from the military. Think of it as the big cousin to khaki chino, also a military twill fabric. As such, it's traditionally what we might call a "country cloth", most at home with wool ties and thick brogued shoes. This suit is an excellent example of the cloth, just as thick and heavy as you please, in a classic color comprised of a combination of tan and grey threads woven together. Welted edges and seams are an appropriate detail.
Dating from the 70s, but by no means dated. The lapels and pocket flaps veer just this side of wide, but the only tough detail is the wide belt loops and waistband. Fortunately, there is no flare to the trouser legs, which are cut in a fairly classic manner.
Louis Boston is a well known high end shop. These days dealing mainly in the more expensive Italian lines (Zegna, Brioni, Kiton, etc.), in the 60s through the 80s they also ran "The Bekeley Shop". a store-in-store that dealt in more traditional Anglo-American clothing.

As I said, this suit clearly illustrates three of the most basic principles of successful thrift shopping. The first point is the easiest to state: buy it when you find it. Here in Boston, it's only just gotten warm, if not hot, outside. After escaping the grip of an especially long a cold Winter followed by a relatively chilly and grey Spring, we're all more than happy to reject the heavy stuff in favor or madras and seersucker. But it just so happens that I found this suit yesterday, and it would be foolish to leave it behind simply because it will be months before I get to wear it. Conversely, I bought my best madras jacket in the middle of that very same long, cold Winter.

Secondly, this suit is the result of hard core thrift perseverance.  I managed to reunite all three pieces from separately around the store. I found the jacket first, and was about to take a pass. A few minutes later, the vest turned up elsewhere in the store, and I realized the jacket wasn't just a jacket, but part of a suit. I took those two pieces to the pants section, where I then found the pants. I took the time to put them all together on one hanger, and paid suit price rather than three separate prices for each, though even at that it would have been crazy cheap. This cost me $14.99.

Thirdly, it speaks to the fact that thrift shopping takes vision. This suit is from the 1970s, but really the only "bad" 70s detail here is the wide waistband and belt loops. Truthfully, this isn't much of a problem anyway, since the suit is cut right and the pants are high enough that the entire waistband is covered by the vest, as it should be. Still, I plan to put in brace buttons and remove the belt loops, perhaps even have my tailor build buckle side tabs, thereby removing the only offending detail.

You see, being a full blast professional cheapskate is not as easy as simply rolling into the first thrift store you see with a dollar in your pocket. You have to know what you're doing. It takes vision, patience, and a lot of effort. Luck has only so much to do with it.

08 June 2014

All in The Details: The Right Seersucker

I've wanted a seersucker suit for as long as I've know what one was, maybe for about 25 years now. Just this past week, patience and persistence were rewarded in the form of a classic old one by Brooks Brothers, had via ebay for $62. Given the limited time and occasion for wearing seersucker, I guess it's ironic that I paid more for this than I do for most of my other harder wearing, more useful clothes. But if we take an average, I'm still doing alright.

Seersucker is one of the most difficult things to buy vintage or used. Simply put, the cloth is just too lightweight to last. Finding one in this good shape, complete, is a real treat. But whether you're buying your seersucker new or vintage, it's important to know the details and be sure you're getting the good stuff. Not all seersucker is created equal. The first rule is of course to make sure you're getting all cotton. This is easier with new clothes as poly blend seersucker has pretty much fallen out of common use, but many old garments from the 60s and 70s were made of blended fabrics. Besides the fact that polyester is gross 90% of the time, using it in seersucker is downright antithetical to the point of the garment. Cotton wrinkles and breaths well, which is exactly what you want in a suit that you wear on a hot day.
Construction is important too. A seersucker suit should never be fully lined, again because that antithetical to the point. Reasonable suits will only have partial lining. The best kind, like the one I was lucky enough to grab, are partially "buggy" lined in their own fabric rather than a synthetic liner. Again, this adds to the breathability of the jacket and keeps it lightweight. This one has 1/8 lining at the shoulders and unlined sleeves. The shoulders are unpadded, and there is no canvas or other structural material in the coat, so it's like wearing a shirt. Yet for all that, it's well made enough that it still has the shape of a suit jacket. As you might guess, that's harder to do than just reproducing a stock jacket pattern and just using seersucker cloth, but it makes the suit what it is even more that the fabric itself.
Patch pockets are a must. Internal pockets will require additional structural material inside, and we already decided that's not what we want here.
Trousers can be either flat front or pleated depending on your own taste, but make sure they're a little roomy in the legs. This pair is relatively conservative but on the loose side. Remember, it's hot outside and you're already wearing a suit, probably by choice. Do yourself a favor and don't wear a tight one.
Accessories should be laid back here to. A surcingle or ribbon belt is a cardinal sin with any other suit, with the exception maybe of Summer poplin, but it's right at home with seersucker's laid back vibe.
Same goes for penny loafers: never with a suit, except seersucker. White bucks are of course a standard, but can be a bit much, even for me. Southerners pull it off with aplomb, but in all honesty on a Northerner and combined with a bow tie, I saw Pee Wee Herman looking back from the mirror. Brown shoes it is. And don't forget your socks. You do have suit on after all, and I don't care what magazines you've been reading, suits need socks. I thought these yellow ones did the job nicely, but argyle in bright colors, another general sin with a suit, work well too.

I can't say it enough, but dressing well is all in the details. Even if most people don't think they notice, they do. Others may not know what it is about your clothes that makes them look just a bit better than the average guy, but you'll know and they'll sense it. Pay attention to the small stuff.

p.s. Before one of you reminds me of that time I broke every rule and concept I just laid down here, allow me to beat you to it. We live and we learn, don't we.

06 June 2014

Worth Every Penny: Nikka Whisky

I like to keep a good bottle around the shop, you know, just in case (of what, who knows?). Recently, my previous bottle of Koval Four Grain dried up, and as its replacement I chose another esoteric bottle. Nikka 12 Year Old Pure Malt from Japan is indeed worth a look, especially for the adventurous Scotch drinker who thinks he's tried it all.

Nikka may have some novelty appeal in the US, but the company has been making whisky since 1934. The story is worth as much as the whisky. Masataka Taketsuru, son of a family of Sake brewers, leaves for Scotland in 1918 at the age of 24. He studies chemistry at the University of Glasgow and apprentices at a number of distilleries. After returning home in 1920 with a Scottish wife in tow, he is hired by Yamazaki, then a brand new company, as their distiller. However, when it becomes apparent that Yamazaki is more interested in mass production than quality, he leaves to found Nikka.

During his time in Scotland, one of the most important things he learned about whisky distilling is the importance of place, that environmental factors play a huge role in the resulting product. He opened two distilleries in Japan in very different remote locations. One produces rich, smoky, almost Islay style malts, while the other produces more delicate, nuanced whiskies. 12 Year Old Pure Malt is comprised of a blend of only single malts, all at least twelve years old, mostly selected from among the barrels at the Yoichi Ditillery where the robust malts are made. It's intense and smoky with a dry edge, and only the most perfectly appropriate slow burn on the back of the throat. When served with a rock or two, it shows a much more creamy texture redolent of honey and spice. In some ways it's as bold as the biggest Islay malts from Caol Ila or Ardbeg, but without the briny pungency. Think of it as a Summer whisky for fans of peaty Scotch, though this really is a good one year round, if you can find it. As a bonus, you get to be the guy with the cool weird bottle of Japanese whisky, a thing not yet widespread enough to have been spoiled by hipsters.

At $59.99 retail, it's certainly not a bargain bottle, but Nikka Whisky is indeed worth every penny.

04 June 2014

Better Isn't Always Best

Pictured above are two similar, yet very different double breasted navy blazers. The one on the left is from the Andover Shop, made of loosely woven hopsack in a classic  6x2 double breasted button stance, with four button cuffs. The one on the right is by Polo Ralph Lauren, in a denser twill weave, with a 6x2 double breasted stance rolled to the lower button. The one on the left is a recent acquisition, while the one on the right has been with me since Spring of 2012 and has been a favorite in regular rotation these last few years. Both were had for less than $10 in thrift stores.

Despite their similarities, its the differences that are most striking. The Andover Shop jacket has a more natural shoulder, while the button stance is more rigid and conservative. It has a darted silhouette, but is generally reserved. The Polo jacket has a soft extended shoulder and somewhat more "draped" chest, reminiscent of London tailoring of the 1930s. It has a more dramatic cut, yet the button stance lends it an air of casual elegance. The Andover Shop blazer has a center vent, despite being double breasted, while the Polo jacket has easy side vents.

They both have the same button stance, but they don't. The Andover Shop blazer has a hard nailed 6x2 stance, while the Polo has a soft version of the same thing. The Andover Shop jacket buttons lower, but has a more square set that the Polo jacket, which creates more of a swooping triangle without being hopelessly "90s".

Both have peaked lapels,  but the slight variations are striking. The Andover Shop blazer base very traditional peaked lapels with enough interior structure that they lay straight and flat to the chest. The Polo jacket has a more dramatic, wider lapel, with a sharper point, and less interior structure that allows it to "flop" a bit when moved. Both are size 42 regular, and both fit me well. The Andover Shop is a recent acquisition, the Polo jacket has become an old friend.

Strictly speaking, anything from the Andover Shop is inherently better than its equivalent from Polo, or is it? While it's true that the Andover Shop is a small and storied shop and Polo is a big ugly multi-national, in this case the decision is not so black and white. The Polo jacket has a slouchy nonchalance I like, tempering the formality of its double breasted cut with a certain ease. The Andover Shop has a more straight a head approach, good in its way, but less suited to the way I might wear such a blazer. For example, while I wear the Polo jacket with a shirt and tie most of the time, the other day I wore it open with a white tennis shirt and very faded jeans. It worked great, whereas the Andover Shop jacket would have failed miserably in the more casual application.

This is by no means to suggest that Polo is "better" than the Andover Shop, or vice versa. What I mean to tell you is that it's more important to find quality garments that not only fit well but are styled in a way that fit the applications in which you'll wear them. In this case, the Polo jacket was the better choice for me, for another man the clear decision would be for the Andover Shop.  What is "best" is what suits you most, whether or not it was the "better" thing to start with. Thrift stores have a way of leveling the field like that.

p.s. the last time I wore my Polo jacket into the Andover Shop, Charlie complimented it, then checked the label and muttered "goddammit" under his breath.

p.p.s. That Andover Shop blazer, among many other great items, is coming soon to the AAW Shop. Stay tuned.