25 January 2012

A Matter Of Relationship

by George Cheng

Where such a thing should arise in the first place and thereafter encouraged into practical existence; and then only where it is thoughtfully cultivated over time will the true relationship between a gentleman and his tailor grow into an uncommonly sublime and durable affair.

Swashing my buckles as I devised the above lines, I wondered if the words deserved to hold within them more truth than would normally be attributed to any old, hackneyed marketing catchphrase.

It is initially a sweeping statement but at least, I imagined it was appropriate to characterise as "uncommon", this notion of a true relationship with one's tailor, if one is able to distinguish it from the more ordinary encounters in which one is either abducted by an anxious mother or fiancee and then goose stepped before an aptly long suffered "family tailor" for the purpose of being sewn into some unholy colour-themed ceremonial costume of matrimonial intent; or where one is the unlucky hero ambushed on some seething tourist strip; forcibly measured and then with a ham fist gripping a tape measure poised menacingly up the inner leg, bullied by a red-eyed Pathan into buying a "matching set" of three "bespoke" suits glued to order in 24 hours.

For the most part with the men I know, the majority will not admit with any natural ease to being conversant (or worse, even preoccupied and certainly, never, passionate) with the general nuances of men's dress styles and even less so with the particular forms and lingua franca of the sartorial arts. Hence, to own up to pursuing something as seemingly affected as a (gasp) "true relationship" with one's tailor almost immediately imperils the confessor to the stigmatic fate of feckless dandy-ism; of underserved privilege and condemnation for squandering one's stewardship of God given time and physical ability. If I am even initially right, it would seem that the notion of a true relationship with one's tailor is itself not only "uncommon" - it may perhaps even rise to being controversial.

This having been said, and as ever resolutely heedless of any such popular form of mainstream prudence, I will own up to being an unashamed beneficiary of just such a true relationship for the past decade – and I will add, I have enjoyed the affair without reluctance or consideration for the hissing naysayers from the front pews.

However, in order to also credibly explain to you dear Reader, of the particular ingredients of such a "true relationship", and thereon perhaps indulging a fancy that you would in turn be inveigled to the merits (alternatively, you may be emboldened against the alleged demerits) of also owning such a relationship; it becomes necessary for me to clarify in the following few points, the basis of my writing this chapter.

Firstly, I am not a full-time or professional style writer by any description and have had no experience as a tailor, which therefore translates that I do not have any evidence as to whether tailors by creed, convention or even habit, regard at all their customers as people with whom they form relationships. The term is "true relationship"; and whilst this is to my mind far from fictional, it is nevertheless an invention of literary license constructed singularly for the purposes of this work.

Secondly, I cannot claim to have been particularly stylish (nor indeed, well-dressed) throughout my teens, and furthermore throughout my university undergraduate days and the ensuing Black Hole known as the "late 20s". I recall I bought my first suit off the rack at a Moss Bros. in Cardiff, Wales for the purposes of my graduation ceremony. I remember it was a black Yves Saint-Laurent three-buttoned single breasted unvented black wool suit popular circa the early 1990s which I then proceeded to camouflage into nothingness under a heavy black ceremonial robe and rented mortarboard.

Thirdly, today, after close to two decades in the business, I am merely a middle-aged lawyer shored up in Singapore who has, through the curse of his work and the endurance of an accompanying gauntlet of embarrassments and accidents over the years, only now learned to understand, and love, and care for what is now a pretty commanding wardrobe of a population viewed by my Wife as being shamelessly discordant with the ordinary image of a married family man with child. Others have suggested to me the usage of a sort of peer-sensitive, self-assuaging facility called "Metro-sexuality" to safely park my sartorial enthusiasms. Initially grateful, I was nevertheless after a very short spell puzzled because, apart for the obvious surreal notions of being prone to amorous pursuits amid the Paris underground transportation system, I had frankly no idea what the term meant. I still don't.

Fourthly, after many years hitting and missing on the road towards this motley collection of sport coats, blazers, and suits of different styles of wool, cashmere and tweed; in chalk-stripes, pin-stripes and Prince of Wales checks and whereas they also now span a variety in three-buttoned, two-buttoned, single-breasted, double-breasted and four-on-one and six-on-two versions with single and double vented coat-tails, together with working cuffs and fixed cuffs with variously notched and peaked lapels, and in still other respects, collar stances and shoulder ropes of varying heights, and (deep breath) not to mention the suite of matching and stand-alone trousers variously with and without belt loops, and waistband side-fasteners and suspender loop buttons, and which in all cases are further distinguished by turn-ups and in others, not; and ultimately, in all of this cornucopia of the traditional, and the downright old, and the other-worldly and the trigonometric, bullying, deeply unknowable complexities on how to dress with the correct decorum, and with the correct flair for the correct occasion, on each and every occasion; I still consider myself little more accomplished than an eager fan, and an occasional bumbling student of the Way.

Indeed, of all there is to watch and learn of the weaver's art and the cutter's skill, there are still so many questions that regularly collapse any vanity I might have as to being an aficionado.

For instance, what on earth is the relationship between a "floating canvas" and a suit jacket?

Just so we are clear, therefore; these are the grounds, as well as the ceiling limits of my alleged knowledge in the storied world of bespoke men's dressing.

Fortunately for me, in the majority of these years and more importantly for all of my pieces that are commissioned and made in Singapore, the suits in question have been the labours of love of the custom calibre hands, eyes, and the mercifully singular acerbic tongue of my man at Rossi's; whom we shall refer to by his preferred handle of "Nat" (and which reference to Nat for diplomacy's sake includes all due and worthy mention of his fellow cutters Don and Tim).

Before I start to talk about Rossi's, it is important for me to be clear that the idea and the practice of dressing well is a discipline; as well as it being an expression of a desirable philosophy based on self-respect and professionalism.

Sadly however, by today's ironic moral legislation, this is problematic because, to admit to caring particularly about one's dress is to signal that one is vain. Real Men, it seems, do only one of two things. They either wear ill-fitting and distressed casual garments because this means that they are somehow seen as "honest"; or else, they are morally bound to cause the posture of formal clothes to be affected with deliberate insouciant abandon, the prowess of which includes, egad; walking about with lapels upturned and jackets un-buttoned and flapping about so as to resemble, in the immortal words of Douglas Fairbanks Jr having witnessed as much; ".... an open can of tuna fish".

Returning to the plot, and accepting that if a true relationship with one's tailor is uncommon, it is worth asking next, what are the circumstances under which such a relationship comes into "practical existence".

In my view, all relationships for services of such a personal nature exist in equal parts on objective and subjective grounds. Take for example the Wife and the hairdresser in which the "practical existence" of that befuddling relationship is defined in one part as a measure of (objective) quantity by the frequency of the wife's visits to that particular pruner and includes the very many instances that she attends accompanied by a small squadron of her crones. In another part, the relationship is an expression of (subjective) quality evidenced by the depths of tawdriness and prurience that the accompanying tattle in these visits will descend to.

The gentleman's relationship with this tailor is fundamentally different than the heated fussing and inane prattling at the hairdresser's. For one, a weekend afternoon at the outfitter is almost always a solitary activity and in the most meaningful ventures, the meeting is a carefully staged rendezvous.

Inserted scrupulously into the time-table after a morning's rigorous earthwork excavation (read: either gardening or in my pitiable case, golf); followed by a light luncheon minus the blasphemous accompaniment of the Green Salad; the discerning gentleman is always welcome at an establishment such as Rossi's where he is assured that if called upon for measurement, his blood muscles are in proper hue and flow, and he is never in danger of tainting the proceedings by falsely representing to his attending man, the crucial true state of his urging waistline.

Now in session, the dialogue is by similar analogy, almost always appropriately limited to discussions of the objective and subjective.

For me, I am always concerned with the same checklist of issues, within which I find I always I tend to start any new journey to a suit with the devotion of the majority of my consultation time to the available material.

Notably, this means the pattern design, the fabric weave, the colour complexion, the branding and provenance; as well as in all events, the overall drape and fall – the (subjective) "feel" - of the cloth. After settling the cloth, I would then turn to the cut and design of the suit before engaging the trusty (and unfailingly crusty) Nat to debate the issues concerning how the feel of the cloth will play against the (objective) dimensions (read: limitations) of my Boterean body for which the finished product of the suit will eventually have the unenviable mission to magically disguise.

At this stage, aside from conveniently also answering the third question as to how one subsequently "cultivates" a true relationship with said tailor, this is also the time in the process in which Nat really comes into his own. "Ahem, Sir, my tape measure is unfortunately not long enough....." he would burr under his breath whilst theatrically "struggling" at the waistline measurement, tongue (I hope) cemented firmly in cheek; "....how many Double Whoppers did you say you had for lunch, or is this the normal size for you?"

As this sort of interrogatory occurred as a matter of ritualistic regularity in the course of our relationship, I would typically laugh lustily; albeit hiding the hot tears streaming down my cheeks with grandiose, manly hand waves. Am I joking? The laughing part is for real. We would be jousting constantly. Sparing, laughing and huffing in outrage. It is our "thing". It is part of getting the job done without taking ourselves too seriously.

Which brings me to the point. Once you have a "thing", you somehow have a culture. And when you establish a culture with regard to how you approach and execute any process, and this process indispensably involves another skilled person such as in this case, a tailor; you then have cultivated a relationship.

The proof of this theory came to me by accident one day at the end of a session during which Nat was busy (but patiently) jotting down some ridiculously elaborate and very likely, hopelessly irrelevant instruction from me, in the midst of which he then accidentally left hanging ajar the door of his personal locker which stood behind the shop's cash register. Gentleman or no, I peered; and was instantly, but luckily, silently flabbergasted.

Discreetly pinned to the inside panel of the locker door was a black and white photograph of a man wearing a charcoal-grey chalk striped suit adjusting a cuff-link. The frame of the photograph captured only the torso section of the garment, but showed off the smooth cut and detail of the cloth to poignant effect – not unlike a still off a Leslie Howard film reel.

I recognised the photograph immediately. In 2007, I got married and by some fickle finger of fate, the wedding photographs were featured in that year's annual edition of Singapore's Tatler Weddings. The suit was especially built for the occasion; and is still being used today. But more to the point, though, the man who put the suit together was Nat. And here's another point – whilst I remembered at the time to send him a copy of that photograph; I never did remember to thank him to his face. Being reminded now, I was resolved in my mind.

I was going to buy him a longer tape measure.

Rossi makes good clothes in general; and in particular, they make sure as best they can that good suits done by them are done right without breaking the bank. Financially scarred customers do not make likely repeat customers and even less so, true relationship makers. And they do not put on airs – not without trying not to, that is.

In my latest project in progress at their Chevron House branch, Don and I have decided to deconstruct an existing six-on-two double breasted navy chalk-striped suit in order to adapt and re-engineer its already sharp English lines for a still newer, un-forgivingly edgier silhouette to marry up with a brand new English blue-green checked pattern with burgundy accents.

"Let's decode it, give it more speed and put it back in a new way – like Ferran!" I enthused. I remember Don and Tim smiling back at me and then I saw the bubble appear over their heads.

"What a lunatic. But he keeps coming back, what to do lah?"

**** **** **** ****


I am fidgeting on a plane bound for London and eluding sleep at every turn, I found and put on a movie called Golf in the Kingdom. The film is an adaptation of a 1971 novel by Michael Murphy which tells the story of a young traveler who accidentally stumbles on a mystical golfing expert whilst travelling through Scotland and playing a round at the fictional Burningbush course. In one particularly splendid scene (which to my mind, as far as all splendid scenes in movies go, involved a philosophizing banquet), one of the characters Agatha MacNaughton, is begged by all those attending to expound on what she perceives to be the essence of the game of golf.

"It's the only reason ye play at all,' she gurgled in a peaty Scots brogue courtesy of actress Joanne Whalley. "It's a way ye've found to get together and yet maintain your proper distance. I know you men. Yer not like women or Italians huggin' and embracin' each other. ….. The love ye feel for your friends is too strong for that."

And then these wondrous lines that all at once seared onto my brain and damn near launched the half-clutched whiskey in my hand. "All those gentlemanly rools (rules), why they're the proper rools (rules) of affection - and all the waitin' and oohin' and ahin' o'er yer shots, all the talk o' this one's drive and that one's putt and the other one's gorgeous swing - what is it all but love? Men lovin' men - that's what golf is.'"

I smiled; delighted at the unexpected helping hand towards a fitting close to this chapter.

If there is a strange, rarified kind of love of the noble, quiet, understanding, and non-sexual variety that exists in this fabled true relationship between a gentleman and his tailor, then it is eloquently analogised in the above passage.

Welcome to the Kingdom.