September 7, 2013

In Review: The Coat Route

I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting menswear-related books and on a recent trip to Strand, I stumbled across a small book with a vibrant blue paisley print on the book jacket and a long, but intriguing, title – The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat by Meg Lukens Noonan. I skimmed the inside flap and wasn’t really sold so I put it back down and kept shopping, but I found myself repeatedly drawn back to that paisley cover.

Admittedly, I was a little skeptical about the titular coat. Was it some ostentatious overindulgence or narcissistic spectacle? What would posses someone to spend $50K on a coat? What I found was that the book turned out to be less about this one specific crazy expensive coat and more about the culture and uncertain future of bespoke tailoring framed within the context of this overcoat’s creation. It was also a much-needed indictment of disposable fashion mixed in for good measure.

The way the book is written, the reader accompanies Mrs. Noonan on her journey of discovery and I am hesitant to give a play-by-play style review because I want you to experience the journey on your own (should you choose to read it).

Divided into nine chapters plus an introduction and epilogue, the author’s journey begins with the discovery of an apparently non-descript navy overcoat that a tailor in Sydney, Australia by the name of John H. Cutler made for one of his long-time clients. Upon seeing pictures, Mrs. Noonan likens it to “something you might find on Macy’s clearance rack.”

In actuality, this coat is made of vicuña, a $6,000/yd cloth that is made from the fleece of its rare namesake animal. The lining is exquisite printed silk secured from an Italian designer who never sells his fabric. The buttons, secured from a 180+ year-old English firm, are made from water-buffalo horn. The gold-trimmings, two small plaques to be placed inside the collar and above the inside breast pocket, were made by one of the world’s best engravers. Then, all of this was hand-stitched by the firm of one of the foremost tailors in the world, John H. Cutler, as “the ultimate expression of the bespoke tailor’s art.” A swan song, if you will, for an aging fourth-generation tailor with no successor.

The story that unfolds takes the author to six countries on three continents in her efforts to track down the history and legacy of what can only be called a bespoke masterpiece. Each chapter begins with a short narrative, which reads like a novella, telling part of the coat’s unique story as it pertains to that chapter’s topic. The chapters then each delve into the history of each of the coat’s components and their makers, often informed by tales of glory days long since past: The Roots, The Fleece, The Lining, The Merchant, The Cloth, The Buttons, The Gold Trimmings, The Tailor, and The Coat.

What emerges is a glimpse into a culture of people that spend a lot of money on clothes, not because they carry a flashy label, but because they appreciate quality in tailoring the way some appreciate a fine scotch or cigar or vintage car. In point of fact, some bespoke tailors will actually hide their labels inside pockets because, as the saying goes, “those who know, know.” Wearing bespoke is not about advertising your clothing’s provenance; it is about an appreciation of the skill and craftsmanship that went into making a truly unique, often one-of-a-kind, garment that fits you perfectly and will last a lifetime. This stands in stark contrast to the ever-growing instant-gratification consumerism that has seen the decline of manufacturing in the West in favor of cheap overseas labor and fueled the backwards notion that things are purchased with the expectation that they will break.

My main criticism of the book, aside from a couple editorial oversights in the introduction, is the marked lack of pictures. Frequent references are made to the author’s camera and taking a picture of this or being denied a picture of that, but the only glimpse the reader gets of what I can only assume to be stunning visuals are the small black and white thumbnails that mark the beginning of every chapter.

Don’t get me wrong, Mrs. Noonan does an incredible job of painting a detailed picture with her words. She does such a good job, that I find myself wanting to actually see the antiquary looms at Paragon Textiles or the orange crocodile-skin chairs in Stefano Ricci’s Florentine boutique or even some detailed (color) shots of the infamous overcoat. The story is so compelling that, in the end, I can’t help but feel a bit slighted. I suppose it’s an appropriate comparison to draw because Mrs. Noonan does such a good job of making me want to indulge in the unique experience that is bespoke tailoring despite the fact that my bank account currently will not allow it.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in tailoring or menswear regardless of how much you know about the industry. There is equal value to be found for the reader who is unfamiliar with the true meaning of ‘bespoke’ as for the well-read student of menswear. Even a casual appreciation for the work of the dwindling number of true artisans is reason enough to pick this book up.

Having read it a twice now, my takeaway from this book is a renewed dedication to investing in quality. Paying more for quality, and I mean true quality, means that not only will the piece last longer, but you are also helping to ensure that the people that made it get paid a fair wage. This book will also make me really think about any future ‘fast fashion’ purchases I may be tempted to make because of a renewed awareness of the global ramifications of our disposable consumer culture.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts on the future of bespoke?

Stay stylish,
- JJ

The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat by Meg Lukens Noonan. First published by Spiegel and Grau on July 16, 2013. Hardcover with dust jacket; 272 pages; MSRP: $27.00.

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