Since a few years, we have the pleasure to welcome on board at PG the most famous authors in men’s style on the planet. As you’ve probably noticed, G. Bruce Boyer is now contributing to PG with a couple of pieces every year while Bernhard Roetzel is also contributing with several pieces a year, focusing on Austrian and German tailors and shoemakers.
Today we have the pleasure of introducing our latest Contributing Editor, the formidable Eric Musgrave.
Having been observing and commenting on the fashion business since 1980, Eric Musgrave is one of the best-known British journalists in the sector. Starting his career in 1980 on Drapers Record – affectionately known in the UK as the “bible of the fashion business” – Eric began writing about menswear specifically in 1982 when he joined Men’s Wear, the brother publication to Drapers Record. In 2000, he was the editor who merged these two venerable titles to form the modern pan-industry Drapers magazine. Eric has been twice named the UK’s business media editor of the year for his work on Drapers.
Working in Europe, Eric was on the staff of fabrics trends magazine Textiles International (and its menswear stablemate Sir) in Amsterdam and with the denim industry magazine Sportswear International in Milan.
In a stint away from business-to-business titles, Eric was the launch editor in 1984-1986 of For Him Magazine, the first of the modern British consumer “style” magazines for men. He returned to the title in 1990 for a year. (Later, under different ownership, For Him magazine became known as FHM).
Outside magazines, Eric is best known for writing the highly-regarded Sharp Suits, a pictorial history of men’s tailoring since about 1860. Both editions of the book, published by Pavilion in 2009 and 2013, sold out.
He has contributed to other books, such as:
- Fashion, The Whole Story (Thames & Hudson, 2013)
- Menswear, Vintage People on Photo Postcards, by Tom Phillips (Bodleian Library, 2012);
- The Measure of Elegance, Artisan Shoemaking from XIX to XXI Century (Lucini Libri, Milan, 2010);
- The Jeans Encyclopaedia (Sportswear International, 1993);
- Cult, A Visual History of Jeanswear by William Gilchrist and Roberto Manzotti (Sportswear International, 1992).
Eric’s writing has appeared in publications ranging from the Financial Times to Bentley magazine, but these days his thoughts are most likely to be found on Instagram or Twitter.
Eric, who has three grown-up children, lives with his wife, prolific author Jane Eastoe, plus their two whippets and three cats in the beautiful county of Northumberland, close to the River Tweed and the English-Scottish border.
We will begin the Musgrave series with an interesting archive piece from 1983, which highlights two revered authorities in men’s wear: Alan Flusser and Alexander Julian. Let’s see if 36 years later, the content still resonates…
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American Designer Profile: Two Modern Traditionalists
[Men’s Wear, October 27, 1983]
[See photo: Clothes maketh the man. Alan Flusser in his everyday work attire–the perfect English gentleman from New York, show how it should be done”.]
“If you want to find British tradition kept alive, look to the U.S. Two of the most distinctive American Designers, Alan Flusser and Alexander Julian–take a large part of their inspiration from the classic looks of the English gentleman of the 1930s–and come to the British Isles for their cloth too. Coincidentally, both are bringing to men’s dressing an intellectual and articulate approach which is highly relevant to today. Deputy editor Eric Musgrave interviewed them in their New York showrooms.”
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Go into most fashion showrooms in New York and you will be greeted by the sound of the local pop or funk radio station coming over the sound system. Enter Alan Flusser’s showroom and you hear the “30s bass of Fats Waller being played. With covers of French men’s magazines from between the wars decorating the walls, the mood is definitely retrospective.
Alan Flusser himself is best defined by the word dandy: “a person devoted to smartness, esp of costume.” By his own admission, he is fascinated by clothes and he has made a success in the U.S. of serving the growing number of men who appreciated that there is more to dressing than just putting on clothes.
Although he gets most publicity from fashion editors for his tailored clothing which is inspired by the classic English looks of the 1930s, his main commercial business is sportswear, the field in which the Americans excel. He has had his own company for about three years, but before that he was head designer at Pierre Cardin Relaxed Sportswear, having previously worked as sportswear and boys’ wear designer for the American Van Heusen Company.
“It’s a shame that the British have all the great history of the sources of men’s clothes, and so few people know about what British clothing was, or even is about today” — Alan Flusser
Yet he has no formal design training. “When I started out at Van Heusen, I began to take courses at The Fashion Institute of Technology and Parson’s School in New York and although they gave me basic textile background, unfortunately there are no educational facilities in the world that can develop taste levels, which essentially is what design is all about today,” Alan Flusser asserts.
His own taste levels were developed initially by his father, a property man who married late, after traveling extensively. Alan Flusser’s reputation was enhanced when in 1981, he published a highly readable book entitled “Making the Man. The Insider’s Guide to Buying and Wearing Men’s Clothes”. About 60 pages are given over to the Flusser philosophy of dressing, while another 160 lists his favourite menswear specialists in the U.S. and Europe and Far East. The dedication in the front gives a clue to what lies within. It reads, “To my father, whose wonderful esoteric wardrobe first whetted my appetite for French Lisle, hand-clocked socks, striped English suspenders, and garters, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts, and alligator tassel loafers, and whose memory is never far from my mind when in my travels I happen upon some exquisite legacy from his time, an item crafted by artists and altogether elegant.”
The book has sold something over 30 thousand copies and acts as almost a beginner’s guide to elegant dressing. Flusser describes the target audience as those individuals who grew up during the jean generation, those who never learned the important rules of men’s dress. but his is not a romantic longing of a bygone era he offers a cogent argument for his support of the 30’s look, epitomized by the classic Savile Row drape suit.
The drape cut emphasizes a man’s shoulders and waist, had little padding and a soft front that was full across the chest and shoulder blades in the back. One result of this was to allow full action of the arms–and to allow the wearing to sit completely comfortably, even with the jacket buttoned, which Flusser stresses is the characteristic of a good garment.
“I’m heavily involved on a personal level and a professional level in trying to add some sense of beauty in the world, and the 1930s is a period of time when the thinking about men’s clothes has some relevance to today. The ’20s was more Victorian and the cut was not similar to what’s being worn today.
The last war obviously changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards clothes; there were rules and accepted disciplines that enabled people to maintain a certain level of elegance, but today people are grappling with trying to put together their own wardrobe. Through all the various experimentations with men’s clothing and with all the new ideas about men’s clothing, it’s sometimes hard to understand what is long and enduring, and what is fashion.’
Unsurprisingly, Alan Flusser’s clothes are not inexpensive. A db suit in wool twill costs about $720 this autumn, with cotton shirts going up to $80, silk club ties costing $38 and polka-dotted braces being sold at $52. But this the tailored collection, which only goes to a handful of specialty stores in the U.S. His sportswear, although still at the better end, goes to 400 stores and in his own words “is what pays the bills round here”, but he believes more men will be tempted by the tailored collection.
“Once the customer puts on one of our drape suits, it’s so comfortable and lightweight and so easy that they say ‘gee there might be something in this’. Our customer is perhaps the disaffected Polo customer who wants something else because Ralph Lauren has become enormous, and also people who have bought a lot of clothes and found that they cannot wear them. One thing we want to stand for is longevity.”
Flusser accepts that there have been probably more new ideas introduced into men’s wear during the last 20 years than in any other period. But, he says, most of these stylistic experiments no longer seem appropriate, which leaves men with a wardrobe of clothes they wouldn’t be seen dead in.
He certainly can speak from experience. Now in his late 30s, he has had virtually all his clothes made for him for 20 years. He favors Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row for his suits. “Since I was 17 I have been having my clothes custom made, not because I’m so well-to-do but just because I’ve always been crazy about clothes and I can never find ready-made clothes that I particularly like.
“I’ve created circumstances for this. When I was in college, I sold motorcycles to finance my trips to Europe so I could get my clothes made. All my shirts, ties, shoes, hosiery, suits are made either in London or Paris.” Appropriately he has as his and his company’s trademark a motif of a bowler hat, a walking stick and gloves.
This sartorial peacock takes his faith in the expertise of the Old World in his company’s products. His shirt and tie fabrics both come from England–“you couldn’t get anything better in Savile Row” he claims–and his suitings are made in Huddersfield. “Generally people don’t buy Huddersfield quality fabric these days, other than the Japanese, the Arabs and Savile Row.” Grenson makes up the Alan Flusser label shoes. But he notes with regret that the expertise of British tradition and of the British craftsman is not appreciated on home shores.
“It’s a shame that the British have all the great sources of the history of men’s clothes, and so few people know about what British clothing was, or even is about today. It’s a shame to see English men’s wear so underdeveloped, only people like Margaret Howell and a little bit of Paul Smith take advantage of it. People criticise Ralph Lauren for ripping off the English, but he made it look better really–not all of it but quite a bit.
Clearly Alan Flusser has strongly held opinions on men’s dress and spends some 30 percent of his time writing about the subject for a variety of magazines and newspapers. But it must not be thought that he is a die-hard anachronism in his approach–quality, not nostalgia, is his main tenet. So in his book “Making the Man”, alongside references to “the finest knit shirt available by John Smedley of England” and Red and Blue in Milan (“This shop is the only one in the world where you can still order custom-made Lisle hosiery”), Flusser makes mention of original Levi’s 501s (“the only jeans worth buying”) and embroidered ’50s cowboy shirts.
He explains that there is no contradiction between admiring this and admiring an Anderson & Sheppard drape suit. “Clothing that is long-term and enduring does not have to be English or American, or whatever. A lot of design that is related to its original function has a lot of aesthetic appeal to it. You could wear an old western shirt–a rayon gaberdine, not a polyester one–as long as you could wear a Brooks Brothers button-down Oxford. It’s classic in it’s own way, it just depends on the quality of design, although I hesitate to say design because that means different now to what it used to.”
The continued success in his business in the United States supports the theory that men are beginning to recognise quality and longevity in place of the vagaries of fashion.
But with all his fascination with clothes of the past, does he ever wish he lived in the ’30s? “No” comes the very definite answer, “I’m very happy to have been born when I was.”
No matter what form or shape you are putting it in, you are selling cloth. If you have interesting, appealing, aesthetically-pleasing textiles, that is half the battle.” ~Alexander Julian
A telling advertisement once used by Alexander Julian showed a close-up of some of his textiles coupled with the catchline: Alexander Julian — Look into it. Certainly his work deserves close attention — he has married and artist’s perception of colour with an appreciation of the past and a smart commercial approach which has put him in the centre of a multi-million dollar business.
Now 35, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence by bringing an intellectual approach to designing — without having any formal design training. This did not stop him, however, winning the prestigious American Coty Award for menswear when he was 29, only two years after going into business on his own. He followed this by becoming the youngest member in the Coty Hall of Fame.
[See photo: The best advertisement for Julien Alexander’s collection is Julian himself, a man who wears his colours with confidence. No wonder he’s got a lot to smile about.]
Alex Julian’s success has been built on his belief that traditional men’s wear could be enhanced by a more sophisticated concern for detail and colourization. He wanted — and has succeeded — in serving the individual. The son of the owner of a “small but important” men’s wear shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by the time he was 18, he was managing the shop. Three years later he opened his own unit — Alexander’s Ambition– but in 1975, when he was 27, he moved to New York to devote his energies to design and marketing his stimulating taste in clothes.
What he has subsequently evolved he terms “modern traditional” and he acknowledges the influence of British men’s wear from between the wars. “Let’s face it, the ’20s and ’30s kind of British men’s wear set the tone for good taste all over the world” he says. “It has a timeless elegance, so what we are trying to do here is to take the most important elements and incorporate them into something that is modern. Therefore it is modern traditional. But modern is the more important word because it signifies a recent approach to colour and pattern, and a juxtaposition of these things”.
Known outside the U.S. by reputation other than by sales, Alexander Julian maintains the link with tradition by turning to the mills of England, Scotland and Italy for his yarns and fabrics. “We are one of the few companies that does virtually 100 percent of its textile design in-house. I would say that 100 percent of our jacketings for this winter come from Scotland, and I designed all the textiles myself. I work with what is hands down the best tweed mill in the world, TM Hunters of Brora, and bloody nice people they are, to boot. We do all our sweater yarns from Scotland too, and have them made up in the Orient.”
Among the many recent developments for Alex Julian is a deal with a member of the Zegna group in Italy in which his tailored clothes will be made up in Italy, using the fine Zegna cloths, designed by him, of course. “This is to further upgrade our collection–this is meant to be the state of the art. I want the finest workmanship of tailoring, of fabric detail, but we are not looking for a giant audience, we are dealing with the creme de la creme.
“We have shifted our production from the states to Italy as part of the deal, and the average price of my suits has gone from $500 to $750, but we have doubled our business. My customers want more and better.”
It was serving such customers with a complete collection of clothing, sweaters, shirts, trousers, neckwear and knitted shirts through the Alexander Julian company that he established his expertise in offering the unexpected as a superb colourist.
It takes a confident man to produce grey trousers that are accented with pink, green, blue, yellow and hyacinth stripes to be worn with a large plaid burgundy and grey silk jacket, highlighted with mint, gold, aqua and royal blue.
Naturally his own label merchandise is expensive (a wool suit can cost around $740, a cotton shirt $70) but his work has brought into the reach of the less well-heeled through a collection called Colours by Alexander Julian, which is manufactured and marketed by two large U.S. companies — Grief and Arrow Shirts. Oriented towards the fashionable youth, this distinctive range brings a bright splash of colour to many a dull men’s wear department stores in the U.S.
Colours are a spin off of the main “couture” collection, but although it has proved highly profitable since it began three years ago, the move into the more “commercial” market was not made easily by the intellectual designer.
“For colours, I do not sell my name, I sell my ideas. I wear two hats for two totally different sides of my philosophy. In my mind, they don’t conflict, although in the minds of others they might. On one hand I am a total snob and in my couture collection when I sell a jacket, a suit, even a tie, I’m like an adoption agency! I want to check the customer out and see if its going to a good home. If they’re going to spill gravy over it, I want it to be grouse!
“But on the other hand, I have an idealist sort of fashion approach. I care about people having been raised in retailing, and I wanted to do something for all people who were excited and really turned on by what I was doing in my couture, but couldn’t afford it. Thomas Alva Edison once said that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. If the public’s reaction is an indication, the time is right for “Colours”.
The catchline of one of the seductive colour advertisements for “Colours” (Julian spells it the English way!) termed them “Pigments of the imagination”, a clever phrase which aptly sums up Julian’s approach. He is at once bold and subtle. His own favourite quote about his work is that it is “thinking man’s clothing where you sit in a bus and discover the mathematical repeat of your necktie.
His position is amply displayed with one of his dark grey flannel suits. Six feet away it looks like a well-cut but regular dark grey flannel but up close you notice the fine shading of subtle stripes – blue, yellow, mauve – which catch the light like the feathers on a duck wing. Even in the basic shades, there is always a little twist to delight and excite.
“I gave a speech entitled “How I won a Coty Award without any formal design training”, and I wasn’t being facetious. The point I was trying to make was that the most important thing is to write out the idea and be able to see it through.
My first trip into the fabric market was when I was two years old. I designed textiles before I knew how to weave. I learnt how to weave later – the point was that I was able to see what I wanted.” Julian remains a traditionalist in that he is not interested in jumping from look to look, changing every season.
[see photo: Timeless elegance from Alexander Julian’s Autumn Collection.]
He believes that a customer should be able to wear his clothes from season to season. “Everything I do, including Colours in done with the same general attitude in mind. One point has to do with the fact that clothing is emotional, it evokes emotions. Having been an English graduate, and loving alliteration, I call it positive personal perception. There is something more than just getting dressed. Mine is a concept that is rooted in the overall feeling that no matter what form or shape you put it into, you are selling cloth. If you have interesting, appealing, aesthetically pleasing textiles, that is half the battle. I make them well and put them into silhouettes that are not radical but not ordinary either, because that’s what’s called wearability today. I don’t care how much spendable income a person has, you need the quality and the longevity of fashion, two words which would have historically been somewhat of a paradox to use in the same sentence. That’s not necessarily true now. I think you do need to justify the men’s clothes.
Alexander Julian, like Alan Flusser, is a member of the International Designers Collective, which shows in New York and includes Paul Smith, whose work in many ways Julian resembles, with its astute colouring and textural richness. It may not be too long before Julian’s name becomes better known in the U.K. He worked for Pringle knitwear for a time, and has been stocked by the Grey Flannel shop in London, but expansion is on the horizon for the Julian empire.
He already has shops using his name in Japan, he opened his own shop in Washington D.C. earlier this year and “by popular demand” brought his first women’s wear collection this autumn. The tie-up with the Zegna satellite may make distribution of his clothing easier in Europe, he believes.
He admits that for a long time, his couture business would not take off (lilac and green together did not immediately grab the public’s fancy) but he persisted with what he believed in, which makes the success now that much sweeter. A witty and likable man, Alexander Julian has something of that classic English eccentric about him.
He well could be a character of one of the novels of his favourite author, P.G. Wodehouse, and he obviously enjoys being driven around town in his black ’50s vintage checkered limousine (like a classic New York yellow taxi, but considerably more comfortable).
He clearly revels in the financial security that Colours by Alexander Julian has brought. It now has three strands with three different manufacturers producing sportswear/furnishing, clothing and casual trousers.
He illustrates how big the business has become, “My furnishings and sportswear license with Arrow resulted in a new division that was the first in the industry with that company to make money within the first six months. In the first year, we made about $8 million wholesale, and this autumn, the third season, the will end up doing between $16 and $18 million, just in shirts, ties and sweaters.
“I bet they’re glad they met you”, I suggest.
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Visit Eric’s blog on www.ericmusgrave.co.uk
Opening photo © Laura Lewis