Alan Flusser – Part 2: The American Male and His Wardrobe

Photographed by Rose Callahan

I was discussing the history of style with Alan Flusser in his office on East 48th Street in Manhattan, a convivial nook that shares the floor with his showroom and workroom. I turned to a topic about which I knew, from Mr. Flusser’s informative writings, that he had much to say: how it is that the typical American businessman or professional man used to look so natty and how is it that his descendants came to look—rather as they now do.

“First of all,” Mr. Flusser told me, “in between the wars, you had a situation in which a lot of people couldn’t afford clothes. It was the Depression. On the other side of it, there were still a lot of wealthy people. And there was also Hollywood, and in Hollywood at the time, when moviemaking was at its zenith of popularity, you had great male leading actors whose job it was to project Hollywood glamour, not just on screen but in their social lives.”

Anyone so young as to wonder if celebrity worship started with iPhone apps and social media should read a good history of American popular culture to know what Mr. Flusser means. My mother, a spiritual child of the Golden Age of Hollywood, grew up hoping to copy every button and bow on her favorite stars and still sees actors as transcendent personalities. For men, however, as Mr. Flusser went on to note, the catalyst was a “confluence of male sartorial role models,” from British aristocrats, politicians and businessmen to those movie stars. Men were taking an interest in dressing well, in part due to those examples, which were regularly offered in the new media of film, picture magazines and, later, television.

“In Hollywood at the time,” continued Mr. Flusser,” you had about twenty men who individually set their own kind of style” and thereby marked the path for those millions interested in following. He noted in particular Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. “In terms of learning how to dress, there developed between the two world wars the kind of clothing that we wear today, soft clothing that you could move in comfortably—lounge clothing, it was called—not stiff and Victorian.” Indeed, although the modern business suit’s origins can be traced back to nineteenth-century military uniforms, it was the resulting lounge suit of British gentlemen that evolved into the contemporary international business suit. (If you do not believe that, put on a suit of the London cut, turn up the collar and pull the lapels toward each other. You will look just a bit like the Duke of Wellington.)

That is all well and good, but who in the public eye right now would a young man seek to emulate? Attention, Millennials, this one is for you: “I would be hard-pressed to come up with a single person,” said Mr. Flusser, a note of frustration overtaking what had been an assertive tone. He suggested George Clooney, who is not in his first youth, of course, but did not feel comfortable naming anyone else in entertainment.

As I now knew was his method, Mr. Flusser offered history: “In the 1960s, you had the Peacock Revolution. There was a rebellion against ‘the Establishment’ and the more traditional dress that people associated with their parents. From about 1968 until the 1980s, there was a void of good guidance on how men should dress. If you take the generation after that, you get pretty close to where we are today, and you find two complete generations of men who never had the benefit of having any kind of solid information on the elements of stylish dressing. By then, you had had a complete inversion. Instead of style being handed down from above, it bubbled up from below—from the street.” And street wear, as we know, makes its mark by aspirating toward a state of cool—a hard state to reach and an even harder one to maintain.

Where does that leave us now? “It’s a very confusing period of time in terms of trying to learn how to dress and come to terms with what you know about how to present yourself,” concluded Mr. Flusser. True enough, but at least, because of our conversation, I had come to understand why that is so.

Credit:  Alan Behr

See previous post…”Alan Flusser – Part 1: A Question of Balance


Textiles and Tariffs

Just as fashion designers and retailers have been struggling to adapt to changing consumer demands, they now must face a new battle: a trade war.

Back in May, the White House announced its plan to impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods in the hope of pressuring China to stop alleged unfair trade practices and intellectual property infringement. After the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert E. Lighthizer, released the final list of goods subject to the new tariffs, China responded with tariffs of its own on U.S. goods. Upping the ante in July, the U.S. next threatened to impose a second round of levies, resulting in 25% aggregate tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods. Once again, China hit back with more tariffs of its own.

Many economists have warned that the effect of a prolonged trade war between China and the U.S. will ultimately increase prices for American consumers and will damage U.S. businesses. Those working in the fashion industry are likely to agree. The May round of tariffs placed on Chinese imports, which covered a range of industrial, agricultural, and medical goods, left the fashion industry relatively unscathed. But the next round of tariffs, initially rumored to include textiles, handbags and suitcases, is likely to hit designers, retailers and, ultimately, the American shopper.

Following the U.S. threats made in July, Mr. Lighthizer agreed to hold a hearing to discuss market opposition to the proposed tariffs. In attendance at the hearing, held in August, were more than 350 stakeholders, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the Accessories Council.

To say that the American apparel industry relies on Chinese manufacturing may be an understatement. Kathryn Hopkins of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) has noted that “China is vitally important to the industry with government data showing the U.S. imported $27 billion worth of apparel from the country last year, accounting for 34 percent of all apparel imports. That is more apparel than was imported from any other country, dwarfing second-place Vietnam at $12 billion.”

Concerned about impending tariffs, Edward Rosenfeld, the CEO of Steve Madden, told WWD: “We and others will certainly try to pass on a good chunk of this to the consumer in the form of higher retail prices.” Steve Madden is also looking to move its handbag manufacturing from China to Cambodia in response to the higher duties.

National Retail Federation President and CEO, Matthew Shay, told WWD: “This round of tariffs amount[s] to doubling down on the recklessness of imposing trade policy that will hurt U.S. families and workers more than they will hurt China – it’s two-and-a-half times the amount already imposed.”

Smaller businesses are particularly vulnerable to the proposed levies. Anne Harper, the CEO of OMG Accessories (annual sales: approximately $2 million), expressed her concern for the impending tariffs, stating: “I can’t just absorb that percentage…. The bread and butter of my business is selling to retailers, so that’s a big challenge. Q4 is where we ship all of our holiday goods. If the 10 percent comes into effect right before the goods ship from China, we’re subject to that extra 10 percent so it represents hundreds of thousands of dollars for my business. It’s basically a loss.”

On August 26, 2018, China filed a formal dispute with the World Trade Organization (WTO), alleging that the U.S. tariffs violate WTO rules.

On September 17, 2018, the White House made good on its warnings in July, confirming that tariffs of 10% would be placed on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports – ranging from silk to handbags. China promptly responded again, stating it would impose its own tariffs, of 5% to 10%, on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods. Meanwhile, the U.S. has threatened to increase tariffs on Chinese goods to 25% total on January 1, 2019, unless the two countries can conclude a trade deal.

Is there an endgame in sight? At this point, there are more questions than answers. The White House is slated to share more information following its September 17th announcement. One can only wait for the next episode of Textiles and Tariffs.

Credit:  Candace Arrington


Alan Flusser – Part 1: A Question of Balance

“One of the principles that I teach is that clothes should lead the eye of the viewer to the face of the person wearing the clothes. That’s particularly important in the legal profession, where you do a lot of communicating.” Hardly had I started my conversation with Alan Flusser, who is one of the premier custom tailors on this side of the Atlantic, when I was the recipient of such good advice. I had come to Mr. Flusser’s shop, in midtown Manhattan, with a three-button jacket he had made for me so long ago that I had missed a fitting on the morning of 9/11 (for quite obvious reasons). Although it had been worn often, Mr. Flusser and his team had just returned the altered piece to me looking as if it had left the workroom for the first time. Not only had it been recut for my late-blooming athletic physique (I had at long last learned to sit less and to pump more iron), but shorter and now boasting a pinched-in waist, it was also quite au courant. A hidden benefit of quality custom-tailoring is economy: every off-the-rack garment I owned back then has long ago been sent away.

With that good start behind me, I joined Mr. Flusser in the office of his shop.  Mr. Flusser sat in one of his guest chairs, appearing at ease in an open-collared shirt, unbuttoned jacket and casual shoes minus socks. With my notes spread in front of me, I probably looked to him like a defense lawyer trying to impress a trial judge. He continued: “What is closest to the face is the dress shirt collar. You should look at it as a painting and a frame—your head is the painting and you are trying to give it a frame that complements your face but doesn’t distract from it. The criteria for making the decisions about that—the size of your chin and the shape of your head, for example—are not changeable or subject to fashion. So if you discover what kind of dress shirt collar best presents your face, and build on that, what you figure out will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

When I asked what was the most common collar mistake, his answer was immediate: “Most men wear dress shirt collars that are too small for their faces. If you are 5’10” or above, the likelihood is that you will be wearing a dress shirt that does not sit tall enough on your neck. Instead, the dress shirt decorates the bottom half of your neck, and if you add a necktie, it will look like a dead fish hanging around your neck. That has nothing to do with fashion. It only has to do with your own physiology. And it’s not about knowing how much you should pay for something. It costs no more to wear a shirt with a collar that is appropriate for you than not. If you don’t wish to spend a lot of money, but you understand what works for you, it will look just fine. All of this is just about knowledge.”

Feeling my moment of reckoning had come, I noted the obvious: that I have a large head and a wrestler’s neck. My shirt collar was tall enough, it turned out—but that was just the start of the conversation. Before I knew it, Mr. Flusser had unfastened my tie in order to relieve it of the Windsor knot I have been using since I was a first-year associate and retied it with a more rakish four in hand. “Much better,” he said, and then he replaced my machine-finished pocket square with a proper French-made, hand-rolled model. It all came together just so. And that is what style is really about: helping you look your best, not the best of someone seen in a magazine or on a social media page.

Credit: Alan Behr

Alan Flusser maintains his custom atelier at 3 East 48th Street in New York City. He is the author of “Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” and other works about men’s style. (www.alanflusser.com)


Brooks Brothers at 200 – Part 1: Background

ing

At a time when the fashion press engages in a group hug with brands over how labels can stay viable in the digital age, it is fitting that we should pause to consider a brand that has been doing just fine, thank you, since James Monroe was president of the United States. Brooks Brothers, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, has had different owners and various designers (with Zac Posen now directing womenswear), but has adhered to a consistent philosophy that can be described in abstract terms as “wearable and confident American style.” Brooks Brothers can also be described, more explicitly, as one of the few places where, no matter what you buy, if the color and fit work, you can forget the term “fashion victim.” To celebrate its anniversary, the brand mounted its first show at Pitti Uomo in January. Sixty-one models (including eight women who made the term American style into a synonym for chic) were presented to the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra; unusual for almost any show anywhere, every piece could have been worn out the door of the Palazzo Vecchio onto the streets of Florence (or New York, London or Tokyo).

As a branding lawyer, constancy in branding message and in legal protection are always on my mind. Managing that from the flagship at the corner of Madison Avenue and E. 44th Street in Manhattan may have been easy enough back when, if someone said he was going to Brooks Brothers, you just assumed that he meant going to that corner and into that store. Keeping consistency in message and legal protection became a bit more complicated when the brand expanded across the USA (eleven stores by the 1970s) and then, in 1979, to its first international location, in the prosperous Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo. The challenges are global now, with the brand maintaining hundreds of stores in nearly fifty countries, and with a wholesale business that places Brooks Brothers products onto shelves and racks of many third-party retailers.

I sat down recently with Arthur Wayne, the vice president of global public relations at Brooks Brothers, in his office in the tower behind the company flagship, to gain some understanding on how it is done.

The first thing that became clear in speaking to Mr. Wayne is that Brooks Brothers adheres to the strategy (which I fully support in general and for fashion in particular) that a brand is its story made temporal. The Brooks Brothers story is the American experience. There are many examples, but consider just three outlined briefly by Mr. Wayne: when miners landed in New York from around the world and headed (one might say herded) west in 1849 during the gold rush, Brooks Brothers innovated, with the ready-made suit. No need to wait to be measured and return for fittings. Pick one off the table,* let it out or take it in, and off you went to California, well-dressed, with a pickaxe in hand. Then came the Oxford button-down shirt, which has been copied by nearly everyone trying to look American.** And I have gone into detail on these pages about why the stripes of American ties, led by Brooks Brothers, go from right to left instead of left to right, as do the British regimental ties of their inspiration.

In my next post, I will pick up with what brought the company to where it is now—and what it is doing to keep its brand on message.

– end –

* Until comparatively recently in the company’s long history, men’s jackets were neatly folded and presented in stacks on counters.

** American style is about looking effortless; that does not mean it is easy to do. I shared with Mr. Wayne how I once knew the American representative of a renowned British shirtmaker. As he explained it to me, after several failed attempts on Jermyn Street to get that American collar right, he walked over to Madison & 44th, bought two Brooks Brothers button-down shirts off the shelf and sent them back to England with the message to please just copy this.

Credit:  Alan Behr


There Ought To Be A Law–Against Bad Manners

There has been much in the news lately about the law and the appropriateness of conduct. Here is a short summary: groping people you come across during the course of a workday is illegal. That was easy. Now try this one: when hosting a business lunch, should you direct the seating or let your guests choose their own seats? If you draw the task of picking the wine for the lunch meeting but may not end up paying for it, what sort of bottle should you choose? These and other questions (that may be of small moment to celebrities who risk arrest for sexual harassment or worse but remain of considerable consequence to those very many of us who want to host a successful business lunch) were answered for me in a private session by Skype with the British etiquette consultant William Hanson.

Young, well-spoken and serious about his subject, Mr. Hanson, who appears regularly on British television, proved uniquely qualified to help guide me through these muddles of my own making. The host, he advised, should take it upon himself or herself to assign seats to the invited guests. That was comforting to hear because it is often the case that, in any group of people seated for business, there are one or two you especially want to speak with—and there may also be one or two you know would not take particularly well to speaking to each other. Mr. Hanson’s license to direct the seating was therefore gratefully accepted.

As for the wine: although many has been the time I have thumbed the wine list to survey first-growth Bordeaux bottles from triumphant years, I know better than to stick my host with a four-figure drinks tab. Mr. Hanson recommended a practice I have actually been following (to my relief): ask what everyone is having for a main course, choose an appropriate style of wine and (if needed, with the help of the sommelier) pick a bottle two or so notches up the price scale from the cheapest.

The question of who pays is an interesting one—especially when everyone is presumably on an expense account and is privately measuring the price of the meal in relation to his or her firm’s rules or expectations. One the nice things about bringing guests to your club is that the question of who pays is thereby settled. In a restaurant, Mr. Hanson advised, the host should consider setting up payment with management before the first guest arrives. Failing that, slipping away discretely before the bill comes is also an easy way to handle a sometimes-delicate situation.

There ought to be a law. That has been said so many times about things that are merely annoying, albeit consistently so. For me, there ought to be a law reprimanding any food and beverage manager who permits servers to pour water intended for tea into a coffee chafer urn—because once the urn has been permeated with coffee, the tea will taste from coffee no matter how long you let it steep. Mr. Hanson addressed my related concern: the speaker has stood up and everyone is drinking that so-so coffee or even worse tea—and returning cups onto saucers with clacks that can make the speaker feel as if he or she is addressing a room full of obedient crickets. The solution: practice doing it in silence or muzzle the fall of the cup with a paper napkin.

And finally from Mr. Hanson, a fashion tip (and one I have been giving): for those of us who wear bespoke suits: button all the sleeves—no leaving a couple open so everyone knows you have a tailor. It is obviously a good suit, and the buttons do their assigned good work when closed.

As Mr. Hanson reminded me, good etiquette is simply about putting others before ourselves. If everyone does it, everyone, in business or socially, will feel blessed.

Credit:  Alan Behr


More Good Cheer

My partner Helene Freeman has offered her reflections on these pages about the recent Supreme Court opinion in Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., commonly known as the cheerleader uniform case.  Our Fashion Practice held a seminar recently for the industry where Helene provided further thoughts based on her posts, and I provided some practical considerations based on the court’s ruling.  Here is a brief summary.

The key point to remember is that the Supreme Court has greatly simplified how you look at cases of apparel and accessory copyrights and claimed infringement.  Because the case involved fabric patterns, I will limit my discussion to them, but there are broader implications, from belt buckles to furniture.  The bottom line is this: from now on, we will not examine the garment itself, just the surface design.  It no longer matters that, if you take stripes, chevrons and other familiar cheerleader-uniform patterns off the uniform, all you have left is a tennis dress–that is, something with a different function from a cheerleader uniform.  All we need do is look at the pattern on the fabric used to make the dress, as if it were unrolled from a bolt of cloth and laid flat.  In fact, it does not even matter if a cutter snips pieces from the bolt into a recognizable shape of a dress.  It’s the design of the fabric, and just that design, that matters from now on.

That possibly makes even more important the question that the Supreme Court sent back for consideration by the trial court: whether the design that was allegedly copied embodied enough original expression to warrant protection by copyright. The rule is that even modest creativity, when fixed in a creative work, is protectable by copyright.  (All you haiku writers, take heart.) Using neckties from several makers and nations as an example, I showed our conference attendees that original variations to familiar patterns (such as bees and starbursts) could be protectable.  Even if what results is a “thin” copyright, it is still enforceable.

That leads to a follow-on reflection: There being no central database of protected designs, and with fabric designs now being viewed as if standing alone, as some kind of sartorial Ding an sich (a “thing in itself” in Kantian philosophy), if you have a pattern that looks like it might be original, and if you intend to spend time and money using it to make clothing (or other products), now, more than ever, it is important that you seek copyright registration–and that you discuss your options with counsel. Because the cut of the cloth and claimed usefulness (as in, “Those look like the kind of stripes I would find on a cheerleader uniform.”) are now irrelevant for copyright purposes, you will have to undertake your analysis in a field of potential risk beyond that formed by the goods you are making.  Using cheerleader uniforms as an example once more: stripes and chevrons on those uniforms, if upheld as protectable by copyright, could, in theory, be infringed upon not merely by designs on competing uniforms but also by fabric designs on anything that is nonfunctional (such as a purely decorative wall hanging) or functional (such as neckties, carpets and sofas).

That brings us again to our favorite money-saving advice: discuss these issues with knowledgeable counsel before you invest your time and money.  In the law, that ounce of prevention is worth at least a ton of cure.

Credit: Alan Behr