Defending Elitism in 2011

Happy New Year. If you are an avid follower of Off the Cuff, you’re probably an elitist.

This heady topic is one that we debate often here at OTC.  And as Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C., prepares for an ideological and partisan handover, that word is again popping up. “Elite.”

Grab a brandy and settle into your distressed leather club chair, this is a long one.  Enjoy and of course, feel free to discuss. And please don’t despair; we’ll shortly be diving into such weighty subjects as the history of Brooks Brothers and OTC’s favorite grooming products.

While the stunningly elegant halls of Congress are a mere five-minute stroll away, OTC is not a political site.  Indeed, classic taste reflected in modern times favors no party or ideology.  Frankly, if you are able to hold a reasoned debate over any mildly complex or potentially volatile issue (and order a Hendricks & tonic without losing your train of thought), you’re halfway to having great personal style anyway.

That said, the theoretically pejorative term “elitist” is starting to get tossed around again, and since we all clearly fit that description, it’s worth a look.  Wait, you don’t think you’re one of them?  You aren’t an elitist?  Really…

Are you jazzed by dead stock selvage denim straight from the warehouse in Tokyo?  Are you all about working surgeon’s cuffs and double vents?  Do you know what the heck a surgeon’s cuff is?  Do you carry a Filson briefcase to highlight your “authentic American workwear” aesthetic?  Do you tweet about vintage Rolex auctions or dig ACL’s co-branding project with J.Crew (do you automatically know what ACL stands for)? Do you have or want anything custom made? Do you have a favorite brand of khakis? Do you read Monocle?

Like I said…

America has always celebrated the underdog – it is part of our national psyche. We appreciate hard work, determination and sacrifice. We relish our ability to overcome the randomness of one’s initial station in life and make of it what we wish. That previous list of elitist pastimes and obsessions holds no interest to real folks. Jeans? You should have one pair and not give a hoot who made them.  And if cost more than $25.00, well, your priorities are mixed up.

We loudly tout the honesty and satisfaction of a tough fight to the top of the heap over the soft gifts of heredity and privilege; that is of course until we are the beneficiaries of such heredity and privilege. Then, maybe, it’s not such a bad thing. Perspective…….you know.

As a culture we admire the iconic all-American blue collar worker who earns an honest living and whose common sense usually works better then the highbrow babble of out-of-touch politicians and Ivy League “thought leaders.” We temper the idealized image of middle-America with an appreciation for the fruits of hard work: financial success and advancement, education and intellectual growth.

We tell our kids to value learning and to reach for the stars, to work towards a better life while not forgetting where they come from. And always we hear the same mantra repeated across all socioeconomic classes: I want my kids to have it better than I did.

How is it then, that being smart, well educated, worldly and cultured is a bad thing?  Striving to achieve great success though hard work and dedication is a positive trait, but actually achieving it seems to be negative. Appreciating different cultures, expanding one’s horizons and enjoying the finer things in life are portrayed as an abandonment of “real” America.

This being Washington, President Barack Obama tends to be the poster child for the classic Ivy League, white wine sipping, arugula eating, overly intellectual elitist. The subtext is clear – if one is overtly smart or refined, worldly or intellectual, it would appear that he is an “elitist.” The tone often accompanying this pronouncement reminds me of when people were slapped with labels like “commie” or “pinko.” It is meant as an insult; a sort of cultural betrayal.

The president did graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was also president of the Harvard Law Review; three things, by the way, I would be quite proud to to announce whenever possible had I achieved any of them. He is handsome and photogenic, dresses well, can give one heck of a speech (at least on the campaign trail) and is clearly an intellectual sort of guy, occasionally to his detriment.

And yet all of that hard work and sacrifice, all of that dedication is often chalked up to elitism in the most pejorative use of the word. Has he not done what we counsel children every day to do? Mr. Obama was not given any of these successes as gifts – he worked for them. But the question remains: does any of this make him an elitist? And what exactly is an elitist? And even if he (or you or I) is one, why is that bad?

My mother once sent me a newspaper clipping titled, “In praise of social climbing.” She liked the fact that the author put that often-maligned practice into context: social climbing is nothing more than networking with a purpose. It helps you succeed in a career, meet new people, take advantage of opportunities and just get out there in the world.  Today we call such social climbing “”

That is how I view this elitist brouhaha: it’s a PR issue. Take the genuinely impressive accomplishments of one man’s life and slap the label of elitist all over them and he is reduced to the caricature of an effete and out of touch snob. Regardless of your political leaning, that’s just wrong.

To be bipartisan about this, let’s remember that President George W. Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard universities.  And he didn’t go to public high school, he attended Phillips Academy – about as old school prep as humanly possible.  President Bush’s family history is riddled with elitist lawyers, senators, governors and of course presidential parents.  He is a member of Yale’s legendary Skull & Bones secret society and his significant wealth is primarily inherited – fine with us by the way.  Now, that’s elitist!

Encouraging growth, success and intellectual expansion but then bashing its achievement  is indeed a bad thing.  Tossing around polarized labels like “elitist” not only encourage small thinking but also creates a deterrence to the open appreciation of things like art and music, wine, culture and intellectualism.

It sends our kids a mixed message, but it also makes me look bad. I went to college and earned two master’s degrees – what a royal mistake that was. I like good food, design and, obviously, well made clothes. Worse, I ponder such issues as global relations, the long term social impact of our acquisitive culture and when I can afford a nice pair of handmade brogues.

I have written on such arcane topics as merino wool trumping cashmere and the unlikely role of Ralph Lauren as a historian of American social culture. You have willingly debated with me which mechanical watches are the best. Yep – we are all über elitists.

And what of it? This wonderful forum has grown into a global resource for nearly 25,000 people every month. Readers from more countries than I can count stop by to learn something new, leave a comment or find an inspiration for expressing their own personal style.

We question and challenge each other and each, hopefully, walks away with a better perspective on life. We celebrate craftsmanship and individual style because to us, each represents an expression of personal achievement. We are not happy being provincial and holding to a tunnel vision of the world.

So, if all that makes me an elitist, I will proudly wear the label ( I hope you do too).  Happy New Year and look for even more changes for OTC in 2011!

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Skinny Jeans!

Are just wrong.

At least for me. I don’t understand the appeal of trying to pour myself into jeans that are going to be uncomfortable and, frankly, make me look like I’m wearing some girl’s pants.

Jeans’ inherent appeal is bound up in their utilitarian roots. Fashionable because of their very functionality, well-fitting jeans have made guys look cool and sexy – in a Marlon Brando/James Dean kind of way – for decades.

And yet, here we are again with the tight, skinny jeans thing. Just as overly baggy jeans tend to make the wearer look like a punk who needs a belt, wearing skinny, tight fitting jeans only highlights a blatant look of femininity. Now, if that’s your goal than you’re good to go. However, most men are probably trying to just look good, not like tween teen idol Zac Efron.

He can pull off that slightly effeminate look and get away with it. You, mister 30-something, mid-career professional, jeans and polo shirt on Friday, cannot. The Wall Street Journal even jumped into the skinny jeans debate today, CLICK HERE for the article.

I understand the vagaries of fashion and the various driving forces that seek to make consumers perpetually unsatisfied and look for the next “it” thing. I do not though, understand adopting what is to me a totally counter intuitive trend that isn’t even comfortable. And as far as I’m concerned it is a trend in most classic way: fashionable but impractical, hip but uncomfortable and of course, emulating of celebrity.

This last point is always telling. Emulating George Clooney and his genuinely elegant/casual sense of monochromatic taste is one thing. It is actually usable in the real world and transferable to most guy’s wardrobes.

Zac Efron’s skinny jeans v. classic Levi’s 505s

Trying to look like the latest cool kid on the block when you are even five years his senior is another thing all together. It doesn’t really work. In addition to the age/fashion ratio (the younger you are the easier it is to pull off overly stylized looks), as we get older our bodies change and the ability to carry of age specific fashion tends to wane. Though I was never a skinny teen per se, I could probably have pulled off the skinny jean thing in high school had I even wanted to. Now, I’d look like a joke; even my one-year old would laugh at me.

Of course, skinny jeans were never my thing. My high school years were dominated by the ever fashionable parachute pant craze, so it was kind of the opposite issue. Baggy and cluttered was in, MC Hammer wasn’t a reality TV dad, he was Hammer Time!

My dream pants in high school, still available on the web

Ultimately, it’s a gut thing (pun not originally intended). Skinny jeans are awkward on men; they restrict movement and conform to the body in a way that is, for many observers of fashion, unappealing and off putting. Even former British prime minister Tony Blair was a fish out of water when he pulled on a pair overly tight pants on his first visit with then president George W. Bush. He could not even put his hands in his pockets: awkward.

The international tight-jeans incident

The upshot here is that I am not trying to act like Mr. Blackwell and pick on those who are simply trying to show a sense of personal style. I just want to point out that we all need to take a look in the mirror every now and then and see what’s really there, not what we want ourselves to see.

Before anything else, jeans should be comfortable. Maybe that should be our collective starting point.

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Retail Blues Meet Global Finance

The economic crisis currently scorching balance sheets across the globe has finally reached up to singe some prominent retailers.

Companies like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks which have so far been able to ride above the economy’s troubled waters, are now getting caught in the unprecedented economic downturn. In a nutshell, people are realizing that while they do need clothes, they don’t necessarily need fashion; or at least pricey fashion. This is an abrupt turnaround from the last several years of aspirational aquistion.

Basically, the party’s over.

Everyone’s Feeling the Pain
Until recently, the conventional wisdom held that prestigious retailers were more or less immune to the credit crunch affecting the masses. Their affluent customers appeared to be just fine – if only a little more judicious with their spending than in the past. For many companies, that mirage has evaporated. In October Neiman Marcus and Saks posted declines of 27.6 percent 16.6 percent, respectively. Nordstrom, which lowered its third-quarter earnings outlook to a range of 32 to 37 cents, suffered a 15.7 percent comparable-store decline.

Boston Area Gap Store

Specialty retailers weren’t spared either. Gap North America and International put up comparable store declines of 14 and 5 percent, respectively, modest in comparison to Banana Republic and Old Navy, which registered decreases of 17 and 20 percent, respectively. Ouch.

According to Burt Tansky, CEO of Neiman Marcus, high end customer service will not suffer. In today’s DNR, he stresses that the stores will continue to offer “high-level service” and that associates will continue to be work closely with customers. “They are obviously still shopping, just shopping less and shopping more focused.” He also said his customers’ shopping habits are very much tied to the stock market and that “based on our experience in previous business cycles, we believe our customers’ buying levels will increase once the economic environment stabilizes.”

Though many retailers were expecting soft numbers going into the fall, the reality of the situation is on the bleaker side. Slowing sales and cautious shoppers are hitting everyone in the sector harder than anticipated. This is not a purely domestic virus. No, the international flavor of this crisis is a sign of things to come. When American debt held in Asian funds invested in by German insurers goes bad because of residential foreclosures in Detroit, you know we are in a new place.

Bucking the Trend
Mid-tier retailers like Macy’s, J.C. Penny and Gottschalks had poor showings too, but not nearly as bad and their high-end counterparts. Discounters like BJ’s Wholesale – the place you go to buy a 20 pack of undershirts – showed positive numbers and WalMart, almost 2.5 percent. The message is clear, for the commodities of life, brand is no longer king; value is.

Ralph Lauren’s Chicago Flagship

All that said, which company totally out-performed the market? Ralph Lauren. The company posted a second-quarter profit gain of 39.6 percent that beat analysts’ estimates by 33 cents. For those of you who are not into market lingo – that is huge. Normally companies beat expectations by two or three cents, not 33.

The company announced that its online presence, posted double digit gains across all major categories. One reason for this strong showing could be the company’s brand diversification. With distinctive yet connected brands covering all price points, Ralph Lauren is able to compensate for slower sales of Purple Label inventory with greater demand in Chaps. The company also assumed full control of its Japanese operations this year, a move that will finally balance local inventory that heretofore always seemed skewed disproportionately toward menswear.

What does this all mean for clothing retailers? Well, first it means that things will probably get worse as we lurch toward what can only be described as an anemic looking holiday season. Actually, anemic may be too generous an adjective. Second, this situation is also a chickens-coming-home-to-roost situation for many high-end labels that courted mass market shoppers with discounted luxury. I wrote at length about this earlier in the year.

When the fiscal dust settles, we will invariably be in better shape as a market overall. Companies with thin financials and leveraged balance sheets will have fallen by the wayside. Those with solid business plans and strong fundamentals will see new opportunities here and abroad.

Consumers will likely set the tone for a while as designers and manufacturers keep their noses to the grindstone, producing goods which customers actually want to buy. Passionate visionaries will be able to capitalize on the new breathing space in the market and present collections that can help define our new economic and social reality.

If nothing else, this turbulent and exciting moment in history is signaling to people everywhere that no country, population, or financial demographic is an island anymore. Financially speaking, we are a vast interconnected web of commerce and no one is immune from catching the proverbial cold.

As deep and technical as that all sounds, I’m really curious as to how this will all be reflected in a runway show.

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DNR Announces Top 100 Power Players

DNR just announced it’s Top 100 Power Players in menswear and, no surprise, Ralph Lauren holds onto the number one slot yet again.

While this may not seem particularly noteworthy, Ralph Lauren has never been known as one to rest on his bespoke laurels. Constantly driving his vision and company forward, Lauren, 68, is as innovative and finely tuned as ever.

Below is a excerpt from the DNR story, click here to read the entire article.

“Polo Ralph Lauren finished the year with 27 additional, directly operated stores. More recently it opened boutiques on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles and in Istanbul, Turkey, a new market. In 2009 a Paris flagship will bow on Boulevard Saint Germain, and the original Manhattan flagship, the Rhinelander Mansion, will be converted to a men’s-only concept. The Rugby chain has expanded to 12 stores, all in affluent and/or collegiate areas, as this youth-oriented and lower-priced brand is expected to become a serious growth engine. To that end, revealed e-commerce capability this past summer.

At the beginning of the decade, Ralph Lauren blazed a trail for luxury brands to sell product through Web sites, supported by rich multimedia. This year it led the way in adopting another interactive technology, which allows consumers to make purchases through their mobile phones with ease. Quick Response technology has already become mainstream in Asia and is catching on in Europe. Ralph Lauren is the first luxury brand in the U.S. to directly launch this type of service and incorporate QR codes in advertisements.”

Rounding out the top Ten:

#2 Gorgio Armani (Armani, Emporio Armani, A/X, et al.)
#3 Gildo Zenga (Ermenegildo Zegna)
#4 Eric Weismann (VF Corp.)
#5 Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana (Dolce & Gabana)
#6 Terry Lundgren (Macy’s)
#7 Mickey Drexler (J. Crew Group)
#8 Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli (Prada)
#9 Bernard Arnault (LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton)
#10 François-Henri Pinault and Robert Polet (PPR)

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Investments, Cont.

Right after I posted the “Capital Investments” article below, my musings on the economy pushing men toward the classics as long-term wardrobe investments were proved right – buy Brooks Brothers, no less.

Almost the very next day I received a Brooks Brothers e-mail, in which a vintage World War II era Brooks ad played center stage:

Extolling the value of investing in a Brooks suit, this historic piece plays right into today’s headlines. “Brooks Brothers is still the investment you can trust.” It’s true, of course; if you are going to pick up a new interview suit or freshen up your shirt drawer or tie rack, Brooks is about the safest sartorial bet you can make.

If off the rack is not your thing, stroll on over to Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks just inaugurated a new private label made-to-measure service at 12 stores across the country. Be warned though, made-to-measure is not bespoke. Your suit is based on a pre-existing pattern and then tailored to your body, and Saks has made it very clear that these suits fall into an accessible cost bracket – around US$1,200-1,400. That’s much less them true custom, but certainly nothing to sneeze at.

If you re in D.C., there are numerous excellent tailors, several of whom provide bespoke services to the president and other White House bigwigs. If that kind of pedigree is a little out of your price range, check out VM Clothiers.

Owned by Vishal Mirpuri, a fellow who’s family has more than 40 years in the tailoring business, his company provides true custom tailoring at very reasonable prices. Mirpuri specifically targets younger professionals who may not be familiar with custom tailoring – or maybe familiar enough to be put off by the cost and complexity. Based out of D.C., he can take measurements and review fabrics from the comfort of your office and ship the details off to his tailors in Hong Kong. In a few weeks, you meet up again for a fitting and touch up work.

I’ll be writing a bit more about Mr. Mirpuri in the near future. I spent some time speaking with him about the tailoring business and put in an order for a couple of shirts too. I’ll let you know a bit more about him and tell you how the shirts worked out.

All of this reinforces what’s happening in the real world right now – people are looking to everything on which they spend money and asking themselves whether it’s an investment worth making.

In this particular case, the answer is a solid “yes”.

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