A few years ago, we bemoaned the near demise of Bills Khakis. The fire sale of its remaining inventory seemed a harbinger of the company’s imminent closure.
When I found out that the company was to be resurrected, I imagined that it would be as a zombie brand, whose name and sterling reputation would soon be connected to a host of poorly made, imported goods.
How happy I was to be wrong. Bills is back, going strong, with a continued commitment to American manufacturing. In honor of that occasion, we’re featuring a pair of madras Bermuda shorts, which my lovely wife bought me recently for my birthday.
The fabric, of course, is not made in the United States, but that’s to be expected with madras, the best of which continues to be produced authentically in India.
A word of note on the sizing. I ordered the 34 (my usual size), and they are a touch big; I probably should have ordered the 33, but it’s nothing that a slightly tighter belt cinch won’t solve.
I like to think I keep myself fairly well up to date on makers of American made goods, particularly in their classic iterations. The downside to that familiarity can be an overwhelming stasis–an I’ve-seen-it-all-before sense of apathy and ennui. So it always brightens my day when I find a purveyor of American made goods whose presence has eluded my knowledge.
A few months ago, my wife and I encountered one of those, a surprise that enlivened her wardrobe to delightful effect.
We went to the Manready Mertcantile womens popup. It’s an annual event where Manready, which usually traffics in American made goods for men, opens its doors to female artisans whose domestically manufactured products are targeted to the fairer sex.
While there, we came upon a collection of blouses from Tutu & Lilli. She tried on one in black, a version called the Mollie with three quarter length bell sleeves, and we were hooked. I knew that it was a piece that simply had to be a part of her clothing collection. The fit was perfect. The design was first rate. And the fact that it was made in Houston sealed the deal.
She’s already worn it on a couple of occasions, including a wonderful night of dancing.
If there’s a defining element to Tutu & Lilli’s aesthetic, it’s a sense of flow and easy fit. They call it “casual lifestyle dressing.” Truth be told, we know very little else about Tutu & Lilli, save that its wares are made in Houston. Regardless, the blouse is a stirring exemplar of American manufacturing at its best.
My wife and I are traversing Austin’s South Congress Street, a once modest commercial thoroughfare that has seen a renaissance over the past quarter century. The temperature soars, so we seek refuge in Cove Boutique, an upscale women’s clothing store.
The vibe is modern. The staff is friendly and helpful but not obsequious.
My wife peruses the racks. A few pieces catch her eye. To our surprise, several are made in America.
While she picks a few items to try on, one of the sales assistants brings out a piece: a pair of black coveralls from a company called Loup. On the hanger, they aren’t much to look at, and he admits as much.
Despite our skepticism, my wife tries it on. It is, in a word, breathtaking. It conforms perfectly to her dimensions, and it immediately conjures up numerous possibilities for accessorizing. Buying it is a proverbial no-brainer.
Loup’s aesthetic is driven by the casual but effortless minimalism that typifies French streetwear, although its entire line is made in New York’s Garment District. Danielle Ribner, a native Los Angelino, avowed Francophile and former student at Parsons School of Design, started Loup in 2009.
Last weekend, my wife and I visited Manready Mercantile during the annual White Linen Night festivities. For those of you uninitiated in White Linen Night, it’s a street festival held on 19th Street in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. Its purpose? To promote the various merchants that populate that section of commercial Houston.
It was an amazing experience. As usual, Manready pulled out all the stops, showcasing its unparalleled commitment to American made goods.
I was excited to see that Manready had unveilled its own line of shirts. In the past, Manready’s clothing options had included collaborations with other makers, but nothing under its own label.
Now, for the first time, it offers American made shirts of its own design and provenance.
I had already slated to purchase one of the Taylor Stitch button downs Manready carries, so I mentally consigned the new shirts to the I-like-but-I’ll-buy-later bin. But my wife decided to try one of the shirts–a short sleeve in a Liberty of London type fabric–on boyfriend style. The result was spectacular, and I cajoled her into buying it.
Little did I know that she had different plans for the shirt. She believed, instinctively, that the shirt would work on me, so she let us purchase it under the subterfuge that it would be for her. But once we got home, she began suggesting that I try it on.
I can’t deny it. The shirt looks amazing, but that’s more a function of Manready’s design prowess than it is any innate attractiveness on my part.
Those of you who have followed this blog with any degree of regularity know that, although we venerate the time tested classics, we occasionally make detours into modernity. It’s a simple calculation: a splash of modern detail can enliven even the most tried and true outfits.
Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Manready Mercantile third anniversary party. As part of that celebration, Manready made room for several vendors of American made products, a multi-maker popup of sorts.
One of those was Nina Beranato, an Austin, Texas based jewelry maker. I took note of Nina’s offerings a few days before the anniversary party; several of the items she had for sale seemed perfect for a certain special someone in my life.
At the popup, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Nina, and, with her thoughtful recommendation, I purchased the Fragment Necklace (handmade in Austin) for my girlfriend.
How best to describe Nina’s jewelry? High modern bohemian, I suppose. I could easily see these pieces around the neck of someone wearing a flowing , floral maxi dress. But I could just as readily envision one of them worn with the ubiquitous little black dress, a perfect modern accompaniment to one of the classics.
There are few joys in life more profound, in my estimation, than putting on a backpack, lacing up some hiking shoes and hitting the trail. Nature refines us. It serves as a palliative from the sometimes onerous demands of modern life. It rights our moral compass. And resurrects in us something primal and ancient.
Backpacking has long been one of my passions. And while I strive for a minimalist approach to the enterprise, gear is still important. Good gear is the difference between comfort and suffering. Between frustration and an unburdened mind. And sometimes between safety and death.
A good baselayer is among the most important of all items for the backcounty. As its name suggests, it is the layer closest to the skin. Some versions are made of a wicking polyester. While they’re lightweight, they have a universal propensity to begin stinking after less than a day of hiking exertion.
Wool, on the other hand, has natural antimicrobial qualities; after a few days of wearing it, you won’t funk up the jungle. In its merino and rambouillet iterations, it’s also remarkably soft, making it perfect for multiday backpacking excursions.
I recently had occasion to purchase a baselayer from Duckworth, a Montana based company that manufactures a variety of products from the wool of rambouillet sheep. Duckworth’s enterprise is a remarkable exercise in vertical integration. In Duckworth’s own words: “We make our own goods from our own Helle Rambouillet merino, we don’t source them. This is increasingly important as wool now travels farther than ever before it meets your body.”
My initial impression of the shirt–worn during a backpacking trip in Big Bend National Park–is very positive. The shirt is snug without being skin tight. It has a quarter zip for ventilation when temperatures start to soar. And the wool is luxurious next to the skin.
Time will tell how well the shirt holds up, although it’s already survived one washing with no shrinkage.
As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, my feet are different sizes (8E on the left and 9.5D on the right), the result of corrective action during childhood to correct a club foot.
As a consequence, loafers have long been out of reach. Any pair that fits the right foot will be too voluminous for the left.
In my middle age, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the resources, if not to pursue bespoke shoes, at least to contract made to order versions from various makers. Allen Edmonds, Oak Street Bootmakers and Rancourt have all graciously made me a pair of shoes, with the proper fit for each foot, assessing only a modest surcharge–far less than the cost of procuring two pair at retail.
Alas, Alden. They flat out refuse to play ball. With a cavalier brusqueness that is galling, they decline the opportunity to help customers in situations similar to mine get the right shoe for each foot. The only option is to purchase two pair (at double the cost), running the cost of a pair of non-bepspoke loafers up to $1,000, too dear a sum for yours truly.
Normally, I would let this slide. But Alden’s tassel loafer, American made that it is, has long been considered the ur-tassel.
So I have sulked and I have sulked.
Until this past December, when an elegant solution manifested itself.
While in New Orleans, between bouts of drinking to lamentable excess, I ventured into the Allen Edmonds store. There, I encountered a version of the tassel loafer I had not seen before: the Acheson. I knew of the Grayson, Allen Edmonds’ previous iteration of the tassel loafer. This newer version was a notch above, with a lower vamp that gave it a rakish, louche quality.
In fact, it was every bit the aesthetic equal of Alden’s version. With a sale to tempt me, I ordered a pair in dark olive suede and only had to pay a modest $40 surcharge to have the factory make them for me. About four weeks later, they appeared on my doorstep.
I’ve already deployed them twice–sockless, of course, given the virtual absence of winter weather in these precincts. And they are a true joy to wear, with a perfect fit and impeccable styling, filling one of the few remaining voids in my wardrobe.
Those of you who are regular visitors to this little corner of cyberspace know of my affection for Houston’s Manready Mercantile.
Travis and company are as fine a collection of individuals as I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I never fail to walk out of Manready with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step, rejuvenated by the solace that their are such wonderful places and such wonderful people in the world.
This past Saturday was no exception.
I visited Manready to pick up a bottle of one of the Bravado hot sauces. Bravado is a Houston maker of various idiosyncratic sauces; one of their products was recently added to the hot sauce lineup on First We Feast’s Hot Ones YouTube show.
Browsing around, a pair of socks caught my eye. Their color scheme and pattern were eerily reminiscent of the L.L. Bean Norwegian sweater. That classic navy and white combination always elicits a Pavlovian response in me, reminding me of the treasured Bean sweater I received as a Christmas gift in 1981.
I quickly discovered that the socks are a collaboration between Manready and Richer Poorer. The toes are emblazoned with Manready’s motto: “Work hard. Live well.”
Manready is primarily a retailer of American made goods, although Travis got his start making candles, which remain part of Manready’s product line to this day. But, through collaborations with the likes of American Trench, Brooklyn Circus, Ebbets Field Flannels, Knickerbocker Manufacturing and Richer Poorer, Manready has dipped its toe into the process of bringing interesting new goods to market.
Naturally, I picked up a pair of the socks. The next day, they received their first wearing. And such a joy it was to put them on. They’re made principally of a sturdy cotton and, being navy, they’re a perfect addition to many varieties of outfit.
From time to time, I do a search on Instagram, looking for things that are made in certain U.S. states and cities. One such search, #madeinhouston, yielded some promising results.
I came across a series of scarves and toboggans, made in Houston by an enterprise known as Claire Drennan.
I remember being instantly captivated by her offerings. This was the stuff of pure whimsy, beautifully colored and textured knitwear that seemed as if it would be a perfect addition to a classic wardrobe.
I soon learned that Claire Drennan is the brainchild of one Claire Drennan Jarvis. She spent much of her 20s in South America, where she developed an affection for “the thick, hand spun sheep’s wool from the south and the luxurious and delicate alpaca yarns from the north.”
“I didn’t know how to knit or sew very well at the time,” Claire says, “so I worked with a friend’s mother to create beautiful custom sweaters for my own closet. Back in the states, I took knitting 101 at the Rhode Island School Design and fell in love with the Japanese punch card knitting machines that were produced in the 1970’s. I’ve been honing my skills ever since, learning their tremendous capabilities and innovating around their limitations.”
Her enterprise has only been a going concern since late last year.
She places an emphasis on slow, sustainable fashion, with a process that produces zero waste. “Slow fashion is a tough business model to crack,” she says. “People don’t realize that only a small percentage of the price of an item they buy at retail is allotted for materials and labor. Each piece I make has many hours or research and development, where both design and production are considered.”
In her own words: “The challenge is to make smart, elegant designs that can be produced efficiently and consistently.”
I purchased one of Claire’s scarves at the Launch pop-up in Houston. Sadly, Claire wasn’t there at the time.
The scarf, made of a luxurious double knit merino wool, takes, under optimal conditions, about four hours to produce. A small glitch can add to that total.
“The beauty of this particular design is that the front and back are different, with stripes on ones side and circles on the other,” Claire says. “Not only this, but the center of the scarf is the inverse of the same design! This effect is achieved through the use of a very old computer that uses no electricity and reads punch cards. A knitting machine is like a 3-D printer, making layer after layer. Each row of knitting represents an instance when I manually moved the knitting carriage across a bed of latch-hook needles, changing colors as needed to create the desired effect.”
Claire’s first collection, called “carrots,” has an interesting aesthetic genesis, inspired by a children’s book her family used to read. “The book features animals snuggled in their homes against a snowy landscape,” she says. “I was inspired by the soft, warm color palette and the idea of little bubbles of warmth.”
Battenwear’s New York made camp shirt hearkens back to a time when even outdoor pursuits were undertaken with a certain panache. It looks like something you might have found in an L.L. Bean catalogue during the company’s heyday.
Made of a soft cotton flannel, the shirt features two front breast pockets with a smaller pocket on the bottom left. But something else entirely–a pair of raglan sleeves–sets it apart. Typically, raglan sleeves are found on overcoats, so their appearance on a shirt is both unexpected and refreshingly iconoclastic.
But, for yours truly, raglan sleeves also have a practical dimension. One of my shoulders slopes a little more than the other, making it impossible to get a perfect fit in off the rack shirts. Sometimes the difference is minimal; raglan sleeves, set at the neckline, avoid those slight differences in fit at the shoulder seam.
I acquired my shirt on something of a whim. As you may recall, I was in the market for a parka, and Battenwear’s Travel Shell Parka fit the bill perfectly. I purchased one before visiting Battenwear’s Bivouac retail store, and I really hadn’t planned on buying anything during my visit.
But when the Battenwear folks showed me the shirt and I tried it on, I was hooked. It is an exceptional shirt in every way–with an aforementioned design that is so well thought out. It reminds me why American made goods are some of the most innovative (while remaining true to the precepts of classic dress) on the market today.