Feature: FT How to Spend It ask Bayode Oduwole what makes a Gentleman's Outfitter in the modern day
Posted: Nov 17 2016
Pokit opens Mark O'Flaherty's feature on the rise of 'The Outfitter'
There is a well-thumbed book on the counter of the Soho store Pokit, entitled Why a Man Should be Well Dressed. Written by the Austro-Hungarian architect and modernist thinker Adolf Loos, it contains a paragraph that Pokit proprietor Bayode Oduwole has marked in bright-blue highlighter pen: “A completely new type of shop has been introduced – the outfitter. In a well-run gentlemen’s outfitter one can expect to choose an item completely at random and not end up with something not in good taste. A true gentlemen’s outfitter cannot make any concessions to the needs of the masses.”
“That was written in 1930,” says Oduwole. “But it’s more true than ever.”
The term “gentlemen’s outfitter” is as evocative as the oft-cited “most beautiful phrase in the English language”: “cellar door”. It conjures up images of leather Chesterfields, wood panelling, tailors’ dummies and mahogany-framed glass cabinets. Though that style never truly disappeared, it’s now being revisited and adapted by a new wave of high-end retailers who are distancing themselves from fast fashion and anonymous shopping. They are redefining the one-stop shop for men, selling newly timeless looks that don’t disappear onto sale rails at the end of the season.
“We live in an age where you can order something online and it arrives within three hours,” says James Brown, owner of east London store Hostem. “That’s a great service, but it’s devoid of any experience and enjoyment. We want to focus on interaction.” In March, Brown launched Hostem Bespoke, operating out of the shop’s Chalk Room and bringing together the talents of – among others – tailors Casely-Hayford and shoemaker Sebastian Tarek to create one-off and made-to-measure pieces. Here customers can be measured for a head-to-toe outfit and order luggage by Globetrotter (from £725) at the same time.
The new style of men’s outfitter is the antithesis of big-brand seduction. “What people wear is often motivated by status and aspiration,” says Tarek. “My shoes are minimal and modern, and use traditionally tanned leather that ages beautifully. I create them for men who enjoy having something made personally for them. The cost of my shoes [from £1,500] is a result of the materials used, time and care, not the profit margins of a multinational luxury group.”
“The consumer benefits from direct interaction with the creator,” says Joe Casely-Hayford. The Casely-Hayford label – designed by Joe and his son Charlie – sits somewhere between the world of classical tailoring and the accessible end of high fashion, which is where many of the new men’s outfitters are positioning themselves. “Our work has a clear aesthetic. We both studied at St Martins, while I designed clothes for bands such as The Clash, and then more recently I was creative director at Gieves & Hawkes. Our style sits where these two worlds cross.” Casely-Hayford suits at Hostem (from £1,250) are fashioned from four different blocks and made to measure from a choice of hundreds of fabrics.
While many elements of the traditional outfitters have been co-opted by chain stores and watered down to create a kind of ersatz Jermyn Street, Hostem has energised the ambience and style. Yes, there is a buttoned leather 19th-century sofa, but the space has been reworked by interior design duo JamesPlumb and a long wooden table has been incorporated into the sofa itself. The timber and metal textures are rough, dark and dramatically 21st century.
Some might find Hostem intimidating. Similarly, the huge skull above the front window and the rock’n’roll imagery that decorates the interior of tailor Tom Baker’s shop in Soho isn’t to all tastes. There are electric guitars on the walls covered with backstage passes, and a (fake) blue plaque commemorating Sid Vicious. Alongside the swatch books from English mills Scabal and Dugdale Bros that Baker shows to his bespoke clients, there are also oversized hats (£150) and quirky ready-to-wear pieces (tailored jackets from £275) by Child of the Jago, the label designed by Joe Corré (Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s son), and a wall full of footwear by Jeffery West (from £240), including what Baker calls “bastardised brogues” (£325). Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin comes here for his suits, but then so do major players from the Square Mile.
“Eighty per cent of my customers come to me for a good business suit,” says Baker. “I’m known for my English Cut [from £2,700]: succinct shoulder, elegant waistline, slim sleeve and no excess on the chest; it’s often single breasted, with one button and peak lapels. Customers like coming to the store because they appreciate the association with rock’n’roll. They like a space with spirit and a heartbeat. Oddly enough, the huge skull outside the store works as a natural filter. I don’t get any time wasters. The sort of men who come in are confident and have money to spend.”
It’s not just attentive service, styling advice and the ability to buy everything from socks to weekend bags that make the modern outfitter special; it’s the freshness and the sophisticated twists in the tailoring. The Spencer Hart flagship in Mayfair can kit a man out from head to toe for weekends in the country as well as for deal-clinching power lunches, and specialises in what designer Nick Hart calls “Savile Row cool as opposed to Savile Row dandy – pared down, sharp and modern”.
Meanwhile, Brooks Brothers might be seen as the very epitome of the staid US men’s outfitter, but it has energised its stores around the world by having New York’s Thom Browne, renowned for the truncated hem lengths on his 1950s Hitchcock grey suits, design the Black Fleece range (from £130). For spring there are plaids, tartans, shorts suits, monochrome cardigans and, of course, business suits (from £1,350), all styled in a far more restrained way than Browne’s eponymous main line. “I think the role of the modern men’s outfitter should centre around good, timeless clothing,” he says.
The tailoring at Pokit also plays subtly with proportion, while otherwise classic Goodyear-welted brogues (£285) are elasticated and made to fit without laces. There are two-tone knitted ties (£55), a range of bright corduroy trousers (£179), three styles of white shirt (£154-£179), ridge-top Panama hats (£165) and four styles of Seven Foot Cowboy jeans (£225-£295) made in England from 15oz Japanese narrow-loom denim. “Jeans are a part of our style heritage,” says Oduwole. “The traditional men’s outfitter never stocked them, but jeans and a sports jacket are now key. And an outfitter is a one-stop shop.”
Ready-to-wear and one-off jeans – created in genuine bespoke style according to a pattern unique to each customer – are an integral part of the offering at Against Nature in New York City, a store with a wood-lined and Chesterfield-leather fin de siècle aesthetic that general manager Nathaniel Adams describes as “sumptuous decadence with a Victorian edge”. The space – named after the infamous Huysmans novel that led to the downfall of Dorian Gray – is the result of a collaboration between four designers who between them cover all of the main bases of any outfitter, old or new.
Amber Doyle and Jake Mueser tailor suits (bespoke from $3,250) and shirts (custom from $350) with what they describe as “a manly silhouette with strong shoulders, a trim waist and long legs”. Ryan Matthew creates custom-made and ready-to-wear jewellery, cuff links and belt buckles (from $250), while Simon Jacobs is responsible for the denim lines (from $275 ready to wear). There is also an extensive range of leather luggage, as well as footwear (from $550) by Jeffery West – more classic than the range at Tom Baker’s in London, but still with a twist.
The store looks like Oscar Wilde could walk in at any moment in the company of Keith Richards to order a cashmere cape. There are stuffed white peacocks, drawers full of shirt collars and paisley ties, tables covered in antique metal shoe trees, and rows of those aforementioned crisp dark-blue jeans. “We use the strongest raw and selvedge Japanese denim,” says Jacobs. “But all the jeans are single-needle stitched and pressed by hand. We make sleek and clean designs that men can wear to the office.”
Just around the corner from Against Nature, off the Bowery, is Freemans Sporting Club, well known in the city for its wide range of slick, high-quality, workwear-inspired casual clothing and accessories, from boots to bags (from $40). The shop is also the first port of call for men with appointments for the FSC BenchMade Bespoke Studio, which is a little further down the alleyway, accessed by a staircase in Freemans Restaurant and through a door disguised as a bookcase. Here bespoke suits (from $3,950) are commissioned and made on site. The factory is attached to the studio and is on view, via an open wall between the spaces. “If customers are trusting us to construct a bespoke suit and committing to the process,” says Kent Kilroe, FSC’s managing partner, “they should be able to be part of the experience.”
The name Freemans has had a place in the New York zeitgeist since 2004, when the of-the-moment, off-the-radar restaurant of the same name opened. So what flagged up the gentlemen’s outfitters as the “next big thing” for them? “I think it’s about people looking for integrity in what they consume,” says founder Taavo Somer. “They are highly knowledgeable about where and how their food is grown and raised. Likewise, they make an educated choice to buy a suit crafted by hand before their eyes in New York City, rather than a mass-produced ‘mystery meat’ child-labour product.”
Alongside the bespoke, FSC has two new off-the-peg offerings – the House Cut suit (from $2,875), which is displayed in store without a collar or sleeves, to be finished after fittings with the customer, and a made-in-the-US, ready-to-wear suit (from $1,200). Remarkably, at a time when fused linings – which can lead to fatal creasing at the hands of a dry cleaner – are to be found in many a rack-bought jacket, FSC’s new ready-to-wear suit is fully canvassed.
One of the things that makes the space such a destination for men on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is the adjoining FSC Barber. The true men’s outfitter is always so much more than a tailor and accessories retail unit. It is the male, no-nonsense equivalent of the spa – a place to socialise as well as somewhere for grooming. The barber at FSC, like the in-house barber’s space on the top floor of Bourdon House, the Alfred Dunhill “Home” in London’s Mayfair, couldn’t be confused with any kind of salon. It’s the classic cinematic set-up, with foot-operated leather chairs, white basins and pomade: no hairspray, just hot towels and cut-throat razors. It’s luxurious (at Dunhill there is the offer of “something stronger?” before your appointment), but in a prosaic, masculine way.
Alfred Dunhill, which might have been the ultimate original men’s outfitters, might also be the ultimate modern one. You can dine in the club, have coffee in the cellar bar, get a massage and buy everything from Denon headphones (£650) to alligator-skin-cased mah jong games (£10,500). Away from the bespoke room, there are tussah-and-mulberry-silk-mix zip-through casual jackets (£550), two cuts of jeans with red selvedge detailing (£225) and new-season ready-to‑wear crease-resistant suits in high-twist wool (£1,450), perfect for the travelling-light, globetrotting businessman. And, of course, lest you be in any doubt that you are in a gentlemen’s outfitters, along with all the brass pillars and wood cabinets, vintage-map wallpaper and other HG Wells-esque detailing, there are those omnipresent Chesterfield sofas.
Against Nature, 159 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002 (+1212-228 4452; www.againstnaturenyc.com). Alfred Dunhill, 2 Davies Street, London W1 (0845-458 0779; www.dunhill.com). Brooks Brothers, 150 Regent Street, London W1 (020-3238 0030; www.brooksbrothers.co.uk) and branches. Freemans Sporting Club, 8 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 (+1212-673 3209; www.freemanssportingclub.com). Hostem,41-43 Redchurch Street, London EC2 (020-7739 9733;www.hostem.co.uk). Pokit, 132 Wardour Street, London W1 (020-7434 2875; www.pokit.co.uk). Spencer Hart, 62-64 Brook Street, London W1 (020-7494 0000; www.spencerhart.com) and branches. Tom Baker, 4 D’Arblay Street, London W1 (020-7437 3366;www.tombakerlondon.com).