Sunday, January 31, 2010

StylePointer rates American shoemakers

All right, it's gotta be the shoes! They're usually among the first things that are noticed about a person. When it comes to professional dress for men, a well-made shoe is all-important, for comfort's sake if nothing else.

Not even the brand name can be more important than comfort. Certain shoe lasts aren't for everyone. I have spent more money on name brands where I should have paid attention to how well the shoe fits. Doc Martens of England, for example, are really durable, but the last is too wide for my foot, which I consider to be a medium (D) width.

Same with Alden, perhaps the best in U.S.-made cordovan shoes; too wide for me. I usually choose a C width in Aldens.

Johnston & Murphy? Another great shoe; another wide last. These also last a long time and are a sound investment for those whose feet fit the shoes.

There are three U.S. shoemakers that work best for me:

Cole-Haan has lasts that fit like clockwork. The company was bought by Nike in the late 1980s, and has since improved the comfort level of its shoe offerings, though some of its designs are less aesthetically pleasing than its classic predecessors.

Allen-Edmonds is a staple in consistency, offering rubber as well as leather soles. I recently have found discontinued models (like the Mapleton) that are incredibly comfortable.

The early H.S. Trask models are unbelievable with respect to its use of bison leather and rubber soles. The Gallatin oxfords are nothing short of stellar. I purchased my first pair in the '90s in Philadelphia, and I still have them.

If I had to my top five U.S. shoemakers, it would look something like this:

1. Allen-Edmonds
2. H.S. Trask
3. Cole-Haan
4. Alden
5. Johnston & Murphy

In an upcoming Style Points entry, I will give my top five English shoemakers.

Best in U.S.-made: Bills Khakis

Straight up: I can't get enough of Bills Khakis.

And no, I don't get paid to say this: These are clearly the most comfortable trousers on the market. They're based on the old World War II designs that allow for generous leg room and maximum breathability. Click here for the quick history of Bills Khakis (est. 1990).

What I like about them is not just the wide leg, but the deep pockets and durable fabrics. Bills Khakis are cut from the toughest of cotton and the finest of wool. There are three types of fit: Model 1 (widest leg), Model 2 (less wide, which many specialty menswear stores carry), and Model 3 (slim cut).

Not least, wherever possible, I try to support businesses whose goods are "made in U.S.A." Bills Khakis are not cheap, but a quality investment that lasts.

Where to find Bill's Khakis? Just go to the upper-left corner of their Web site, which has a store locater. I've been successful in finding them at esteemed establishments On The Fly of San Francisco, Culwell & Son of Dallas, The Village Clothier of Houston, and O'Connell's of Buffalo, to name a few.

Bills Khakis are found only at selected menswear stores. If you see them, try 'em ... you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why Style matters

On a recent flight back to Houston from Dallas, I was seated in the very last row of the plane, next to a man who was impeccably dressed: dark Zegna suit, burgundy Brioni tie, black John Lobb wingtips.

These items are usually found at Neiman Marcus. I recognized most of his clothing before actually asking him. I knew his pieces were carefully chosen.

Turns out this man, a radio executive, is a student of Style. He mentioned Canali as his other designer of choice; he outfitted his 22-year-old son in a Canali suit, and his interest in clothing has since taken off.

Now, I still have my tan Zegna and charcoal Canali suits in my closet. I purchased both in early 2001 at a Barney's warehouse sale in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, Calif.

So now, I'm on a plane with a 20-year Army veteran who recognizes the power of clothes. "When people are doing business with me, personal presentation matters."

I concur. Clothes send a message. If you're disheveled, chances are you're disorganized. If you're well-coordinated, you likely mean business.

And business this man did mean. He cared enough to put his best look forward.

When I got home, I went to my closet and checked out my suits and casual wear. I know what messages I want to send in future dealings with the people I meet.

Thanks, Mr. Executive Guy.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When only the vest will do

Work environments have become increasingly casual over the years. Comfort is the primary criterion over dressing "to the nines" for the office. But these two goals need not be mutually exclusive. It's a matter of maximizing certain pieces of your presentation.

During America's colonial era, for example, breeches and wigs were the norm for lawyers and politicians. The suit has since become the standard for professional dress for many sectors of the workplace. Toward the end of the 20th century, improvements in technology have prompted a shift toward less formal clothing. Shirts and ties have given way to polo shirts and designer tees.

Whether you choose to go formal or informal, the vest is an excellent complement to either style. A vest can be worn indoors and outdoors, whereas a jacket is usually removed while working in an offices. The vest also offers a retro look.

Not least, the vest usually is not expensive. I've found vests in consignment stores, Urban Outfitters, and Orvis. There are vests that I wear with suit pants or slacks and such, but I prefer cotton over wool.

Right now, the vests I wear have a more Western feel. The Houston Rodeo is coming up in the next month or two, so I'm gearing up for it.

Call it a "vested" interest.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Purchase of the month: Edward Green shoes

In my nearly 30 years of observing trends in menswear, I will never stop searching for the best of bargains. Whether I find them during seasonal sales or at outlet stores, there's always the thrill of pursuing quality items for the best price.

Shoes are my primary interest in getting great deals. The last time I closed in on such a deal was in 2005 at a small shoe store in Newport, RI, which had a 75 percent-off sale on select high-end footwear. Usually, these sale shoes will fit those with really small feet or really large feet. Having an average foot (9 to 10 US depending on the last), I was lucky enough to find a pair of Paraboot shoes that fit like a glove. They retailed at $260 at the time. I corralled them for about $70.

Fast forward to Sunday, Jan. 17, in San Marcos, TX ... At Off 5th, the outlet store of Saks Fifth Avenue, I came across a pair of Edward Green derby shoes. Founded in 1890, EG is steeped in tradition and is the shoemaker that Ralph Lauren has used for some of its shoe lines.

I was doubly excited to see that this particular pair of shoes fit really well. They retailed for nearly $1,200 and were now down to $400. I had the salesman hold the shoes for me until I got through the entire shopping center.

I power-walked through the outlet stores for Neiman Marcus, Zegna, Polo, Brooks Brothers, Cole Haan and many others. After about two miles' worth of walking, I decided these shoes were the only item I would buy today.

So back to the Off 5th store I returned, with a coupon for 20 percent off, thanks to my AAA membership discount. After tax, I got a pair of Edward Green shoes (orig. $1,195) for less than $350.

That's about a 70 percent savings. And I'm well aware of the Edward Green reputation for making "the finest shoes in England for the discerning few," according to its Web site. I visited the Jermyn Street store a few years back. The salespeople are more concerned about getting you the shoe that fits rather than just sell you a shoe.

Back to my purchase ... I probably won't be shopping for anything else any time soon. But if there's a bargain out there, I'm always in the hunt.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Time for a new season, almost

The "End of Season" sales are in full swing now that the holidays have past and retailers want to get rid of inventory to make room for spring fashions.

What's curious is that winter has visited places that least expect it, like Houston. Temperatures have gone as low as the 20s lately. No snow on the ground, but it's decidedly cold outside. There's still time to reverse the mistake I made: Get your sweaters back out to wear a little while longer.

So far, I've concentrated on shoes as my post-holiday sale targets. There are plenty of items on sale, but check your wardrobes first to see what you might want to stock up on and what you have enough of. That'll help focus your spending habits.

Make the rounds on the following retail stores: Neiman Marcus, Dillards, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, J. Crew, Orvis, Brooks Brothers, Polo, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Syms. I like going into these stores in person, but they each have Web sites that make online shopping convenient.

There are many more online shopping sites, but here are a few of my favorites: J. Peterman, Sierra Trading Post, On The Fly, Charles Tyrwhitt. I'm all ears on any other sites that offer good deals on clothing.

Ready, set ... go get 'em.