All posts by Dave

The Value of Thrift

The virtues of enterprise, diligence and thrift are the indispensable foundation of any complex and vigorous civilization. R.H. Tawney, The New Republic, May 12, 1926

Our family can trace its lineage to some of the earliest arrivals in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. So you might say the Puritan instinct–with its impulse toward thrift–is encoded in our DNA. In fact, my maternal grandmother, according to story my mother often retells, used to wash and reuse tinfoil.

Buying classic American pieces is an extension of that ethos.

Instead of viewing apparel as essentially disposable, a commitment to classic pieces insulates against the vicissitudes of fashion. It’s a emphasis on durable, well-made clothing: welted shoes whose soles can be replaced when they wear out, a tweed suit that will outlive its original owner, a sweater that will provide decades of warmth.

It also means a commitment to maintaining clothes to a high standard, whether its brushing suits before they’re hung up each night, knowing how to re-sew a button or storing shoes with cedar shoe trees inside.

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Sewing a button back on my blazer

 

And for the more adventurous among us, it can even mean searching the aisles of thrift stores for treasure among other people’s castoffs.

The other day, Frannie and I were in the local Salvation Army store, and we found a vintage Peters Whaler madras jacket. It appears to have been made sometime in the early to mid 1960s, although its look is timeless. It calls to mind family vacations in a wood-paneled station wagons or a New England beach on a cool summer evening.

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Vintage madras jacket

Jack Spade

While several of the companies we’ve featured are doctrinaire in their devotion to American manufacturing, some have only a portion of their wares imprinted with Made in the USA bonafides.

Jack Spade is one of the latter.

The masculine analogue to Kate Spade, Jack Spade came into existence in 1996 with a line of men’s bags. Over time, Jack Spade expanded into menswear–everything from suits to jeans–with a modernist/Ivy aesthetic. Today, a decently sized minority of the firm’s offerings are of American manufacture.

Frannie gave her brother one of the American made Jack Spade ties last Christmas. While it’s a bit too narrow for my annuated tastes, it does work very well with today’s narrower look, which Andrew favors.

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Still, I have a bone to pick with Jack Spade. Many of the company’s products are constructed in less-than-savory locales. Yet its prices suggest the kind of premium that American-made products command. With prices so dear, virtually all of the company’s items could easily be made in U.S. factories by workers making a living wage.

Mo’s Bows

There is a phenomenon, known in popular parlance as the Jesus Year. It’s a bit of an existential parlor game, and it goes something like this: at the age of 33, the year of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, you take stock of your life. You ponder your existence, holding it up against the putative accomplishments of the ancient Hebrew. It’s a way of making you feel anywhere from vaguely to completely inadequate.

At 33, I had a one year old, so I was changing a lot of diapers, leaving me little time to found a new religion. I’m fairly certain that if Jesus had to deal with poopy diapers, we’d all still be celebrating Saturnalia.

Let’s ramp things up a bit. Just for grins, think to everything you accomplished at age nine. Chances are, the accomplishments of Memphian Moziah Bridges outpaced yours.

When he was still chronologically in the single digits, young Master Bridges, something of a budding dandy, tried in vain to find bow ties to his liking. Sensing a dearth in the marketplace, he began to learn  to make them himself, with his grandmother’s tutelage and his mother’s encouragement. Quickly the ties he made developed a following, and he started crafting them for others.

Now 12 years old, Moziah Bridges is the impresario behind Mo’s Bows, a Memphis-based producer of cotton bow ties. He and his family design, cut and sew them in Memphis–around the family dining table, no less!

This Father’s Day, my family bestowed upon yours truly a grey gingham tie from Mo’s Bows. Although I’m not as partial to cotton neckwear, I have to give the tie its due. The cotton is very nice, the color is splendid and the construction is rock solid.

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Each tie is shipped in its own sack

 

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It’s Father’s Day, and what does Dad want? A tie, of course!

 

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My Mo’s Bows tie in full deployment

Hickey Freeman

Since 1899, Hickey Freeman has been in the business of producing some of the finest menswear around. When founders Jacob Freeman and Jeremiah Hickey built the company’s headquarters in the early 20th century (known in colloquial company parlance as the “Temple to Fine Tailoring”) they inscribed the motto Keep the Quality Up, an invocation that remains to this day.

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The company has bounced among owners for the past few years and is now in the hands of Toronto-based Grano Retail Holdings. Happily, much of its clothing continues to be made in Rochester, New York.

Even more happily, the company announced last month a new arrangement with Ralph Lauren. As reported in the May 5, 2014 issue of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle:

Before a throng of cheering Hickey Freeman Co. employees, company officials and Sen. Charles Schumer announced a $1 million manufacturing deal with Polo Ralph Lauren… Under the contract with Polo Ralph Lauren, Hickey Freeman will manufacture the company’s “Blue Label” line of tailored suits and sport jackets.

Production of the Blue Label line was a niche formerly occupied by Corneliani. Whether Ralph found religion and decided to relocate at least some of his production back to these shores or simply found Corleliani’s prices to be too dear, I do not know. But I do know this is a positive development for fans of American made clothing.

I have a couple of pairs of Hickey Freeman corduroy trousers, although both are made in Italy.

However, my three Hickey Freeman ties are all of American provenance. Rare is the Hickey Freeman tie I encounter that would not make a good addition to my collection. They’re well made. They’re visually distinctive, yet conservative. For someone who likes brightly colored checked and striped shirts, they are an ideal complement.

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A trio of Hickey Freeman ties
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Still made in the USA

Sterlingwear of Boston

I read somewhere once that the pea coat’s brilliance comes from being engineered rather than designed. That, to me, seems an apt description. Long enough to cover the torso and rear, yet short enough for movement while casting about a ship’s deck in the North Atlantic, the pea coat is a perfect intersection of fit, warmth and durability.

The Gentleman’s Gazette has a particularly excellent account of the pea coat’s history, outlining the various and competing origin stories. Suffice it to say, the pea coat has been around for upwards of two centuries, its form and function largely unchanged.

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A vintage Swedish officer’s pea coat/reefer jacket

For more than four decades, Sterlingwear of Boston has been supplying pea coats for the U.S. Navy. Their civilian offerings are made to the same exacting specifications. According to the company’s website, it employs more than 250 union workers in New England.

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Sterlingwear pea coat, made in America

My son’s winter outerwear of choice is Sterlingwear’s Navigator Pea Coat. Made of a sturdy 24 ounce melton wool, the coat is available in three colors; his is the classic black. While he doesn’t have to endure  brutal New England winters, his coat is an effective bulwark against the blue northers that come barreling down the plains into North Texas.

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Andrew in his Sterlingwear pea coat

Demoiselle

“I’m going to wear these with everything!”

So proclaimed Frannie the day after I presented her with a set of pearls from Demoiselle.

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I first learned about Demoiselle from Muffy Aldrich’s bog, The Daily Prep. She extolled their virtue, and they presented a wonderful opportunity to confer upon a young lady, soon to venture off to boarding school, her first set of pearls. Both stylish and affordable, Demoiselle’s necklaces are made in Massachusetts from Austrian crystal pearls.

Frannie’s necklace is the Classic Knotted Pearls in the standard 18 inch length, although Demoiselle also offers necklaces in 16.5 inch, 22 inch and 26 inch lengths.

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Allen Edmonds

Since 1922, Allen Edmonds has been in the business of producing men’s footwear. Where other makers of men’s shoes have diluted their lines, sending much of their production overseas, Allen Edmonds has largely resisted the impulse.

Now, here’s the rub: I’m not exactly the world’s most dedicated partisan for Allen Edmonds shoes. Some things they do well. Take the chukka, for example. My son owns a pair of Allen Edmonds chukkas, and I think they are a fine product.

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But, in general, I find their shoes, even on the narrowest of the lasts they offer, less elegant than their English and Italian brethren. It may have something to do with 360 degree welt they use. But the result in a shoe that is less aesthetically pleasing than other Goodyear welted footwear.

Still, I am glad to live in a world with Allen Edmonds around. My black Park Avenues are my go-to shoe for situations that call for the most conservative attire. They’re a sturdy, well-made product. And, except for Alden, Allen Edmonds is the only major producer of men’s dress shoes left in America.

The other day, I stopped in the Allen Edmonds store in River Oaks. Many of the usual suspects were in attendance. But something stood out: The Rutledge, a shoe I had never seen before. It was far from typical in the Allen Edmonds universe. The waist was elegantly narrow, the toe was slightly squared off and the leather had a very appealing burnishing to it. Out of context, I might have pegged the Rutledge as a refugee from the Santoni Fatte a Mano line. But Allen Edmonds it was, and it’s earned a spot on my wish list.

Custom Hide

About seven years ago, I was in the market for a good weekend size bag. Most options, however, were either cheap Third World sweatshop junk or radically outside of my price range.

Enter Custom Hide.

Custom Hide is an American maker of leather briefcases, backpacks and duffles. They do all of their business online, and their products are reasonably priced for the quality they represent.

I ordered the Weekender in the whiskey colored hide, and, over the past several years, it’s been a regular presence in my travels. It’s accompanied me on romantic getaways with my wife. It’s seen a year’s worth of business travel. And it’s been with me to London, overstuffed for four days of post-backpacking vacation.

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My Custom Hide Weekender, packed for a weekend

After a few years of fairly vigorous use, the zipper broke. I sent it back, and Custom Hide graciously stood by its lifetime guarantee.

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Brooks Brothers Ties

More so than just about any other company, Brooks Brothers has defined the American style.  While the company’s aesthetic is still largely American, much of what you’ll find in a Brooks Brothers store is now made overseas. Effectively, the company has abdicated its historical roots and is now a shell of its former self.

Happily, ties remain one of the company’s American-made holdouts. All crafted in the same Long Island City factory since 1999, they are both a good value and a decently made product. I have to wonder how much longer the company’s current owners will elect to keep tie production domestic. Given the company’s headlong rush into Third World manufacturing, I’d be surprised to see it endure for more than a few years longer.

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Still made in America
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A cashmere Brooks Brothers Makers tie

Bill’s Khakis

Any discussion of classic clothing made in the USA would be incomplete without a hearty mention of Bills Khakis.

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It’s what L.L. Bean used to be: an American manufacturer of definably American clothes, with a sensibility honed by tradition. Although Bill’s Khakis has only been around since 1990, it’s quickly developed a reputation as a go-to place for superlative khakis: American-made and tough as nails.

I own two pair of trousers from Bills. The first I’ve had for several years; they’re the baggier M1 model which hews closely to the original WWII military design that inspired founder Bill Thomas. The second and most recent pair are the slightly slimmer M2 version in a green twill.

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Everyone needs at least one pair of green trousers