It feels more than a bit absurd to profess that Margaret Howell, a designer who is remarkably reserved in all facets of her work, has been generating a lot of buzz lately. And yet, with a New Balance collaboration on the way and a quintessentially crisp collection in stores now, it seems that Howell, who has oft been described as a “fashion outsider,” finds herself squarely in the center of menswear’s general purview. Despite this heightened level of interest in her designs, it would be tough to imagine Howell responding, or even thinking twice about the fact that her name has been orbiting through publications and conversations with greater frequency as of late. With nearly forty years in this industry under her belt, it’s clear that for Howell attention is not the end goal.
With its dual strap waistband, barrel cut legs, high inseam, and row upon row of pleats, the Gurkha short is certainly not for the faint of heart, but we’re sure the original Gurkha wouldn’t have it any other way. This overloaded short can be traced back to the Gurkha, a legendary Nepalese military regiment that consisted of that nation’s most fearless soldiers. The Gurkha were so revered for their bravery that even after suffering a loss to the British during the Anglo–Nepalese War in the early eighteen-hundreds, the kingdom enlisted them to fight for the English Empire.
Their legendary prowess at combat was not the only thing the Gurkha brought along with them when they joined forces with their former adversaries, for they also contributed, well their name. Overtime these shorts, which like almost all colonial garb featured a tan color and loose cut that could easily combat the often oppressive heat, were given the Gurkha name as they were so popular within the region.
There is nothing offensive about a pair of Clarks. Desert Boots, Mountain Treks, and Wallabees, these are the simple suede chukkas that your mother probably bought you for your first day of elementary school, and what could be offensive about that?
And yet, in Jamaica, the one word most associated with Clarks is “rude.” As in rude boys, the rebellious subculture that emerged amongst Jamaica’s lower class during the 1960’s. Driven by a reggae backbeat, Jamaica’s disenfranchised youths became enamored with the skinny suits, raucous music, and devil-may-care demeanor that defined England’s counterculture movement. The interplay between youth cultures in Jamaica and England was a mutually beneficial relationship that ultimately gave Rude Boys a chance to separate themselves from slum-life in a way that simultaneously audacious and aspirational.
Allow me to preface this piece by saying that no, I do not personally wear pith hats in public (although there was that one time) and no, I am not necessarily advocating for them to become popular (although stranger trends have happened, looking at you men’s skirts). But like the boater —which we are still waiting to make its comeback— it could be time for the pith hat to see a world wider than Ralph Lauren window displays and letter carriers.
A pith hat is not your standard headgear. More protective than practical, more of a shield than something stylish, the pith hat was a military helmet, that was adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by Anglophiles on safari, who were just looking for a way to combat the blistering Saharan sun. It was in the late 1800’s that the pith hat rose to prominence throughout Europe’s tropical colonies. The original version of the hat was constructed from real strands of pith extracted from the region’s plants (although later this would be replaced by cork and ultimately plastic), wrapped in white cloth, and often adorned with a military insignia.
“The taste level for tweed is like art.”
Purdey creative lead, Peter Sant has been walking me through the brand’s mammoth collections and he has just arrived at the tweeds. As we reach this section, Peter’s smile grows a bit wider, and his hands shuffle excitedly between the burly sport coats that define this particular offering. Based on this enthusiasm, there’s no question that this is Peter’s favorite section in Purdey’s latest assortment, but he’d never say that himself. Peter would probably say that he has an equal amount of love for every piece of the Purdey line. I can’t blame him, I mean, what’s not to love?
Since joining Purdey a year ago, Sant has taken a concerted effort to focus on the stories behind the brand’s complex, yet complimentary collection of items. He excitedly tells me tales of four-ply knitwear from Hawick, a Scottish border town, of an Irishman who hand carves sticks (or canes as they’re known here in the states) only producing one every day or so, and of gorgeous cartridge bags, which are hand-sewn by a retired saddle maker.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to see all sorts of things being made. I’ve been to Wayne, Michigan to see a newly re-tooled and incredibly modern Ford plant, to Schaffhausen, Switzerland to see the precision watchmakers at IWC craft beautiful timepieces. I’ve seen multiple generations of tailors sitting side by side in Naples, Italy making Isaia suits almost entirely by hand using skills that look liked they took lifetimes to develop. I’ve seen jeans made in L.A., suits made in Brooklyn and boots made in Minnesota.
After all of this, what I came to discover were people who are amazingly similar even though they hail from vastly different places and backgrounds. To walk into Sunspel in Long Eaton, England and see people making cut and sew underwear was an equally astonishing and familiar pursuit. In American and England, I don’t think people expect factories like Sunspel’s to exist anymore. I for one don’t, even though I have been to so many similar types of places. (I should point out that my marketing company Paul + Williams does work on behalf of Sunspel. Full disclosure and all that good stuff.) It goes to show that people want the real thing, they want quality and they will pay for it. That’s how I feel and over the course of doing ACL I’ve discovered that there are many people out there that feel the same way.
To go against the changes in society and continue to make the highest quality in England was likely not an easy thing to do. It is like swimming upstream. It takes guts and resiliency. On top of that, it takes a lot of hard work and some luck too. The important thing to remember here is that it can be done — these things can still exist in a meaningful way. I admire Sunspel because of its heritage and history. I respect it because it didn’t just close down its factory in the Midlands and chase cheap labor to the bottom over seas. I love it because it is real.
The history, the shape of the lasts, the legacy and most of all the quality. Those are the reasons which keep me buying and wearing shoes from Crockett & Jones. Every time I am in London I stop by at least one of the Northampton shoemaker’s shops (there are two storefronts on Jermyn Street for some odd reason) in Mayfair to browse and to occasionally take home a new pair of shoes that I plan on owning forever. The New York store is also nice to visit, but not nearly as much fun as seeing these shoes on their home soil.
Crockett & Jones is one of those companies that I have long sought to know on a more intimate basis, partially because I admire the history of the company, but also because I like to wear the shoes so much. Only thing is, Crockett & Jones is a pretty conservative company, one that is much more focused on making great shoes than making much of a fuss on the internet. It rightfully figured it has a loyal following and a strong business, the product is the marketing.
All of this reminds me of Alden. (Incidentally I have basically never had any contact with Alden, but that’s fine because all I need from them is to continue making shoes I love.) The beloved New England shoemaker is another company that doesn’t need to have a heavy hand when it comes to marketing, the shoes and the quality tell everyone all they need to know. Production is limited and it doesn’t want to go crazy increasing it and risk ruining everything. It’s admirable because it works, and also because both Alden and Crockett make such great things.