You step into Melanzana’s Leadville, Colorado storefront and the first thing you see are rows of fleece jackets and hoodies for sale. But, peering beyond the product shelves, you notice something out of the ordinary: workers at sewing machines making the company’s products. For it is here where all the company’s offerings are crafted.
In addition to being a clothing hobbyist, I’m also an outdoor enthusiast: hiker, backpacker and occasional mountaineer. So a good fleece–soft, warm, fast drying, able to insulate even when wet–is a vital part of my kit.
Yet fleece, in its various incarnations, has even infiltrated the world of classic clothing. No less an authority than True Prep, the sequel to the Original Preppy Handbook, noted the embrace of fleece in traditional circles.
Last week, my family and I were on vacation in Colorado, and early in the week, we made a day trip to Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States. Near the end of downtown, we came upon Melanzana. Noting that all the company’s products are made, as they have been for 20 years, in Leadville, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to purchase one of their tops.
Unadorned with pockets, velcro closures or other unnecessary ephemera, Melanzana’s products are the epitome of streamlined function. My Micro Grid Zip Top in a large weighs a scant 9.1 ounces, making it the perfect mid-layer for a cool-to-cold thru hike.
It’s already been a worthy companion on three hikes: one on the trails outside of Salida, Colorado, one on the Colorado Trail and one on a climb of Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the state.
There’s no shortage of companies trafficking in classic American style. But some of the biggest names hawking that aesthetic–Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Tommy Hilfiger–are largely dumping grounds for cheap, foreign-produced goods.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I believe that an American look deserves to be produced in America. This is true for several reasons: the preservation of American jobs, American manufacturing and American livelihoods being foremost among them.
But it’s also about context and authenticity: producing clothes in the milieu that gave birth to them.
Happily, companies like Just Madras have stepped into the breech.
Unabashedly preppy, Connecticut-based Just Madras offers a wide range of USA-made women’s and men’s clothing. It’s fresh-faced, clean scrubbed, a paean to perpetual summer, as evinced by the company’s motto, Where Summer Lives All Year Long. With heavy doses of madras and seersucker and a definably nautical sensibility, the company’s offerings would be at home in any prep’s closet.
I recently bought Frannie a pair of pink seersucker Bermuda shorts from Just Madras. They’re delightful, a beautiful shade of pink, and really the perfect summer knock-around short.
Oscar Wilde once noted that “a well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.”
It’s an apt observation. For many of us, the wearing of a tie on a regular basis marks the transition into adulthood.
But a tie need not be an emblem of dour responsibility. For many men, a tie adds a bit of color and, among the best dressed, a touch of restrained whimsy.
Although Robert Talbott makes a range of men’s and women’s clothing, much of it in Monterrey, California, it’s probably best known for its ties. In fact, the company was among the first neckwear makers to reintroduce the seven-fold tie.
Robert Talbott’s offerings hew toward the vibrant end of the tie spectrum, with bright colors and distinctive (some would say over the top) patterns. True, they tend to be a bit more “out there” than some of the more restrained offerings from other makers, although several of the company’s ties would do perfectly well in conservative business settings.
My lone Robert Talbott tie was a gift. It’s a fauvist panoply of silk, a bit divergent from my usual neckwear. But it works well contrasted against a muted palette of light summer colors.
Every company needs a good origin story. High Cotton has a humdinger.
A 2004 study found that men’s ties, which are rarely drycleaned, harbor significant disease inducing bacteria. Fast forward to 2010. Judy Hill’s eldest son Cameron was attending medical school at UVA. He let her know about the study, and a spark lit the flame of inspiration.
She decided to sew Cameron a cotton bow tie to wear during his rotations. Her rationale was simple. As a bow tie, it was an excellent sartorial choice. As a cotton garment, it could easily be laundered to ward off pathogens.
From there, she decided to create a company focused on producing washable, cotton bow ties.
I work at a medical school, and a not insignificant number of physicians, particularly the older ones, sport bow ties. Even before medical science impugned the long tie for its germ retaining properties, country doctors recognized the inherent superiority of the bow tie. Formal enough still to command respect, the bow tie was far less likely to get in the way during an examination.
High Cotton has branched out in recent years. Suspenders, pocket squares, polos, cummerbunds, women’s headbands and t-shirts (all made in North Carolina) are now part of its expanded product line.
I recently ordered one of the company’s polo shirts, and it’s a thing of beauty. The cotton, harvested in High Cotton’s home state of North Carolina, is luxurious. While it’s a pique shirt, it’s much softer than other cotton pique polos I’ve owned. Plus, it’s not nearly as voluminous as the ones offered by other manufacturers. Where, for example, I have to wear a small Brooks Brothers polo, the medium High Cotton is an excellent trim fit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.