The Calendar Says Autumn; the Weather Says Summer

For most of us in the United States, the changeover in the calendar from summer to autumn coincides with the appearance of cooler weather. Not so for those of us in the subtropics, where summer weather patterns generally persist for another month.

Consider the weather yesterday. The high was 89 degrees, with enough humidity to push the heat index over 100. With early autumn temperatures like that, it’s no surprise that our summer wardrobes aren’t mothballed until around Columbus Day.

So yesterday, I was sporting a button down from Hamilton Shirts (with the sleeves rolled up just so), a pair of critter trousers from Bills Khakis, a ribbon belt from F.H. Wadsworth and penny loafers (worn sockless) from Rancourt. I topped the outfit off with my new sunglasses from Saint Rita Parlor.

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On the Galveston Seawall

PF Flyers

The year 1993 was a memorable one for me. It was the year of my son’s birth.

Changing diapers and dealing with all manner of sleep deprivation hamper one’s ability to savor the cultural zeitgeist. As a result, I didn’t get out to the movies much that year.

And so a little slice of early 1960s nostalgia, The Sandlot, passed me by.

Fast forward 23 years. That colicky newborn is now on the cusp of graduation from college. Needing a new pair of tennis shoes, he turned to PF Flyers, one of just a few sneaker brands that continue to be made in the United States.

The model he ordered is “The Sandlot,” apparently in homage to a pair worn by one of the characters in the movie. (He got the reference; I did not.) They’re all black (except for the circular logo).

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During the 1930s, BF Goodrich produced a variety of shoes with vulcanized rubber soles. The company’s patented posture foundation insole begat the name “PF,” and soon several Goodrich shoes were being sold under that moniker. According to the PF Flyers website:

The PF brand grew throughout the ’50s and ’60s,becoming one of the most popular brands in America “for work, relaxation and play.” Women could buy outfits designed to match their PFs, basketball’s first superstar, Bob Cousy, wore PF, and PF was standard issue in the US Army.

Eventually, Goodrich left the shoe business, so the PF brand bounced among owners for a while; at one point Converse owned it, although federal regulators determined that merger ran afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Eventually, in 2001, the brand was picked up and resurrected by New Balance.

Most PF Flyers, like most New Balance shoes, are not American made. And those that are (assembled in New Balance’s Massachusetts plant) command a fairly significant premium. For example, the American made version of the Sandlot is $150, while the seemingly identical model produced overseas is $60.

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My son’s initial impressions are thus: “The shoes fit well and are already fairly comfortable without having to break them in too much. They feel like Converse that can take a beating.”

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He also offers this impression: “I feel like I could outrun a giant dog known ominously as ‘The Beast’.” This, I gather, is also a reference to The Sandlot; not surprisingly, it flew over my head.

One note about sizing. Because these are made by New Balance, which traditionally runs a bit small, I encouraged Andrew to order a half size larger than he normally would. The fit is spot on.

Saint Rita Parlor Sunglasses

The philosopher George Santayana once opined that “family is one of nature’s masterpieces.”

This is something Saint Rita Parlor founder Neil Bardon knows and knows well. Rita, the eponymous saint in the company’s name, was his grandmother, and her influence is a thread woven throughout Saint Rita Parlor’s figurative fabric.

With her visage stamped across the company’s product line, she is both mentor and muse.

Saint Rita Parlor has been described, variously, as “L.A.’s hottest eyewear brand” and “timeless, cool.” Its offerings–American made and relentlessly classic–are nonetheless targeted to a contemporary demographic.

Bardon describes describes his design aesthetic thusly: “Ivy league meets the wild west with an emphasis on European tailoring and attention to design detail.” Quite an amalgam of diverse influences, but one that has resulted in a very nice product.

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I first caught site of these sunglasses on the Manready Mercantile website. While I thought about pulling the trigger then, sunglasses are a curious beast, and what looks good on the computer screen can look awkward spread across the dimensions of the wrong face shape. Plus I can’t resist the opportunity to visit the fine folks at Manready.

The model I ended up purchasing is the 1072–an amber tortoise frame with a hunter green lens. The glasses call to mind Persol at its best, and they turned out to be both an ideal size and shape for my face.

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From the Archives: Brooks Brothers Tie

A few weeks ago, I was sifting through a box of old ties, mostly vintage neckwear from the 30s, 40s and 50s. One, however, was of a contemporary manufacture–a lilac Brooks Brothers neat. Why, I wondered, had I stuffed it away in a box of collectibles.

I can’t remember buying it, and I know I didn’t receive it as a gift. I must have purchased it on discount. As best I can remember, I had never worn it.

This is surprising for two reasons. First, I take issue with people who buy items of clothing that are either never or only occasionally worn. But it’s also a nice tie, and there’s really no good reason for me to have consigned it to the coffin of unwanted cravats.

Regardless, I resurrected it. And, yes good readers, I have already added it to my active rotation of ties. Here it is in full deployment.

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The 14 Preppiest Brands: An Alternate Take

A few days ago, I happened upon an article on jackthreads.com called “Preppy Brands: The 14 Preppiest Brands Available Today.”

Some of the brands featured (Tommy Hilfiger, Vineyard Vines) are a pale simulacrum of prep with a ghastly record of outsourcing production. Others, like Brooks Brothers, Patagonia, Ralph Lauren and Sperry, are iconic American companies who have lost their way.

But almost all have been seduced by the siren song of cheap labor in foreign locales, trafficking in an American ideal while shifting manufacturing overseas.

Let’s begin with a simple premise. Prep is a fundamentally American aesthetic. Although it synthesizes items and influences from a variety of cultures (Shetland sweaters; English Brogues, madras cloth), it is one of the few defineably American modes of dress.

Given that, it’s only fitting most of the items in a prep’s wardrobe be made in the United States (the only exception being those pieces produced in their native context). Third world manufacturing undermines authenticity.

Let’s also acknowledge another reality: smaller is preppier. Large, multinational conglomerates are not preppy. That small resort shop committed to stocking local and regional brands is.

So, based upon those assumptions, let’s consider an alternate list of the most authentically preppy brands going. I ranked them as best I could, although the process felt a bit arbitrary. Feel free add your thoughts in the comments section.

14. Bob Goodman & Co. (Est. 1992). The repp tie is a prep staple. For my money, New Jersey-based Bob Goodman makes the finest version on the market today.

13. Hamilton Shirts (est. 1883). Hamilton is the oldest continuously operating business in Houston and (to my knowledge) the oldest bespoke shirtmaker in the United States. With those bonafides, Hamilton is the definitive place for men’s custom shirting.

12. Alicia Bell (Est. 2007?). I’ve never seen Alicia Bell’s offerings in the flesh. But the pictures I’ve seen suggest a brand committed to classic pieces, both for resort wear and  for dressy informal occasions. Her custom shirt dresses are a paean to timeless good taste.

11. Bills Khakis (est. 1990). Consider some of what I’ve purchased from Bills over the years: seersucker trousers, a pair of classic khakis, green twill trousers, poplin critter trousers and brown Donegal tweed trousers. Classic, one and all.

10. Jolie & Elizabeth (Est. 2010). Every prep woman should own at least one Jolie & Elizabeth seersucker dress. Given the prep’s affinity for seersucker, it’s only natural that a company specializing in the fabric would make our list. Of note: Jolie & Elizabeth’s collaboration with Haspel has produced the shirt dress, sine qua non.

9. Kiel James Patrick (Est. 2007). Never mind the ad hominem attacks on the founder’s prep bonafides, Kiel James Patrick does a better job of selling the prep lifestyle–along with authentic, American made goods–than just about any other company out there.

8. Palm Beach Sandals (Est. 1960). Not the Jack Rogers sandals, a pale and inferior imitation. Palm Beach Sandals, made in the U.S., are the real McCoy. A summer/resort classic, their connection to Jackie Kennedy more than justifies their place on our list.

7. L.L. Bean (Est. 1912).  I know, I know. Bean is one of the leading examples of outsourcing writ large, a once venerable company sundered by a craven pursuit of profits over people. But consider this. If Bean’s only two products were the Bean Boot and the Boat and Tote (both still made in Maine), it still would have earned a place on our list.

6. Rancourt (Est. 1967). Where G.H. Bass and Sperry have both faltered, shifting much of their production overseas, Rancourt has rushed into the breech with a full range of classic shoes (penny loafers, boat shoes and camp moccasins) all made in Maine.

5. Mercer and Sons (Est. 1982). There are some gentlemen who consider Mercer the button down’s platonic ideal–with a collar roll superior even to the iconic Brooks Brothers version.

4. F.H. Wadsworth (Est. 2014). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you consider yourself a devotee of the prep look, you must have one of these belts in your collection. They are nothing less than a prep membership card.

3. Eliza B/Leather Man Ltd (Est. 1967).  A tandem of brands under the same ownership (and website) offering motif belts, sandals and other manner of accessories, for both men and women. While we were saddened to see the custom flats disappear from Eliza B’s website, we can take solace in knowing the company’s commitment to classic products endures.

2. Just Madras/Sailor-Sailor (Est. 2007). A paean to endless summer, more essential and more authentically prep than today’s Lily Pulitzer. Just Madras/Sailor-Sailor would have topped our list, if not for a slightly too heavy-handed reliance on synthetic fabrics.

1. High Cotton (Est. 2010). The high priest of the southern prep look. Offering a wide range of products (ties, belts, suspenders, cummerbunds, shirts and pocket squares) in all the correct fabrics. Although it’s no longer in High Cotton’s product line, I consider their North Carolina pique polo the finest such shirt I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning.

Honorable Mentions: Brooks Brothers (if only for the ties); The New England Shirt Company; Gitman (both the regular and the vintage lines); Lauren James; Criquet Shirts (with High Cotton no longer selling its polo shirts, Criquet is the place to get the classic, American made, pique polo); Haspel (for its American made seersucker trousers); Taylor Stitch, the Vermont Flannel Company, Wassookeag Moccasins; Alden Shoes; Allen Edmonds. J. Press.

Oak Street Bootmakers

The United States was once home to a thriving collection of men’s shoe manufacturers.

But outsourcing has taken a brutal toll, whittling that number down to a thin sliver of activity. Allen Edmonds, Alden, Quoddy and Rancourt are about the last remaining options for a man seeking an American made dress shoe. And Quoddy and Rancourt really exist at the casual edge of the men’s dress shoe spectrum.

In 2009, however, a new company joined those ranks. Headquartered in Chicago, Oak Street Bookmakers has already gained significant traction among certain segments of the online style cognoscenti.  George Vlagos, son of a master cobbler, started Oak Street when he made an interesting observation. Over time, the shoes in his father’s shop hewed less to such classic offerings from Allend Edmonds and Alden and more toward essentially disposable, foreign produced versions.

Oak Street is committed to producing designs, as George puts it, “based upon classic American silhouettes.”

I’ve kept my eye on Oak Street for a few years, but its driving aesthetic always seemed a bit more blue collar/casual than classic business dress. I did briefly consider Oak Street for a pair of penny loafers, but it only offers the beefroll, and I much prefer Rancourt’s weltline version.

Earlier this year, Oak Street introduced a classic double sole wingtip offered in three colors. I was intrigued and took particular note of the bourbon version. A summer sale offered further enticement, and so I took the plunge.

Because my feet are different sizes (8E on the left and 9.5D on the right), I had to make a custom order. As a result, I wasn’t able to tap into the sale, but the good folks at Oak Street did waive the fee normally assessed for custom orders.

In a little more than eight weeks, the shoes were on my doorstep.

My first impression is that they are a beautiful pair of shoes. Although I’ve never been an eager partisan of the wingtip, these have a beauty of design that stirs even my jaded heart. The double soles are a nice touch, and the leather is top notch.

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The shoes, right out of the box

However, there are some issues, and we need to look at the negative side of the ledger sheet:

  • The shoes are lighter in tone than the versions on the website. I was expecting a deeper shade, something akin to a cognac or bourbon. But they were a bit lighter than they appear online, a slightly reddish tan.
  • While the construction seems solid, it’s not perfect. The stitching on the inside of the left shoe is a bit sloppy, and there’s a pindot sized blob of darker color on the top of the right shoe. In a product that has a significant amount of handwork, I’m willing to accept a few imperfections. Others may not be as forgiving.
  • The shoes only come in medium (D) widths. For most folks, that’s not much of a concern. But when you’re paying the premium associated with a custom order, you expect a little more precision in sizing.
  • No shoe bags. If you drop five bills down on a pair of shoes (a not insubstantial sum for most of us), it’s a safe bet that they’ll include a pair of shoe bags. It’s standard practice in the industry. Over the past 15 years, I’ve purchased 19 pairs of non-athletic shoes; each came with shoe bags. But not these. Why?
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Sloppy construction

So would I recommend Oak Street? I’m torn. Despite the aforementioned deficiencies, I still like the shoes, and they fill a void in my collection.

But I don’t think, given the issues I outlined, that they’re a good value at their retail price (even more for a custom job). Perhaps at $350 or under, they might be justifiable, but not at this price.

So, a qualified recommendation.

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Dapper Classics Revisited

Over the course of this blog’s life, I’ve tried to spread the wealth, sampling American made wares from a variety of companies.

But there are some companies and some products I keep coming back to.

Dapper Classics and their exceptional socks are prominent among those.

A few weeks ago, before heading over to Manready Mercantile for White Linen night, I made a brief detour to Houston’s Norton Ditto.

Norton Ditto deserves a mention for a fairly robust commitment to stocking American made goods. Hickey Freeman Suits. Trafalgar suspenders. Alden shoes. Robert Talbott ties. And, yes, Dapper Classic socks.

While at Norton Ditto, I picked up two pair of cotton over the calf Dapper Classics socks (adding to the ten already in my collection). I’m also fond of American made socks from American Trench and Boardroom Socks (Fox River Socks for outdoor pursuits), but Dapper Classics, given their tendency toward bright colors and whimsical designs, are unequivocally my favorite.

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New Trafalgar Suspenders

In the long winter where outsourcing drained most of the life out of American manufacturing, Trafalgar remained a stalwart, largely resisting the impulse to relocate production overseas.

Today, virtually all of its suspenders continue to be made in the United States. I say “virtually.” Because one model–a tweed herringbone–is made in China. And this is cause for concern.

The past generation teaches a harrowing lesson: Once the genie of outsourcing has been unleashed from its bottle, it’s all but impossible to put it back.

So I wonder, is the lone Chinese made pair an anomaly? Or is it a harbinger of darker things on the horizon. For it would be a shame–truly a shame–if a company like Trafalgar lost its way.

A few weeks ago, I acquired a fourth pair of Trafalgar suspenders.

Made, of course, in the USA, they are wonderful in every respect. A navy silk herringbone, they feature nickel hardware and richly colored dark brown tabs.

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Trafalgar’s primary competition is Albert Thurston out of the UK. For my money, Trafalgar is the superior of the two options. Thurston, onec the definitive option for suspenders, seems to be riding on the coattails of a faded glory. The most recent examples I’ve seen from Thurston are a pale imitation of what it once was.

New F.H. Wadsworth Belt

A few months ago, I reported on my first F.H. Wadsworth belt. A grosgrain ribbon, D-ring version, it has a favored spot among my belts, running neck-and-neck with Leather Man Ltd. for my affections.

Given that the F.H. Wadsworth belts come in more than 30 color combinations, it’s only natural that I would add another to my collection. Classic and colorful, they’re the perfect accent to any self-respecting prep’s outfit.

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My newest F.H. Wadsworth belt

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In fact, I’m going to go out on the proverbial limb here. If you, in any way, fashion yourself a partisan of the prep/trad/ivy/WASP look, at least one of these belts must be a part of your collection. They are that essential.

Gurkha Shorts

Like many things we’ve featured on Classic American Style, the Gurkha short has military antecedents, hearkening back to the legendary Nepalese colonial military regiment. It was, for many years, the short of choice for British soldiers operating in our world’s tropical latitudes. With its high, dual strap waist band, forward pleats and wide legs, it was both stylish and functional.

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Nepalese recruits in the British Army, wearing the venerable Gurkha short

In the mid 1980s, the short gained an unlikely degree of popularity on this side of the pond, with a young company called Banana Republic largely responsible for its introduction into the American sartorial zeitgeist. For some years, the J. Peterman catalogue also featured a reasonably authentic version. And recently, Tokyo-based Beams+ had a version, although it no longer appears to be part of their collection.

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A page from the old Banana Republic catalogue, with Gurkha shorts featured on the lower right

Today, military surplus is about the only option for those among us seeking a reasonable facsimile of the original Gurkha short. And that is how I found my pair–combing the shelves of a now defunct militariana store in my hometown.

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Yours truly wearing a pair of Gurkha shorts along with a madras button down from Gitman Vintage and a pair of Rancourt penny loafers

I’m the first to admit that the Gurkha short is more classically British than American, but much of what makes up classic American style has roots in Albion. I think the Gurkha and the venerable Bermuda short are the only acceptable options for climates where even the lightest of trouser is too much fabric.