Between Done and Finished

We have redone our calling card.  

The first card had several flaws the most obvious of which was that it felt nostalgic (one of the conceptual enemies of The Suitable World). It wasn’t exactly what we wanted… but we wanted it done.  And that brings me to the distinction between done and finished.

Being done (as I define it) is a provisional condition; you move from one state of “done” to the next (hopefully improved) state of done.   Done comes without too much pressure or judgement.  

Being finished denotes an end-state.  Completion.   Seeking to be finished comes with all kinds of hang ups…struggle, procrastination, withering self-criticism to name a few (or is that just me?).

Getting things done is simple; a small victory that opens the way to the next small victory. 

Our friend Jack (the inimitable Jackie T for those who know him well) gave us some feedback on our first card and offered to redo it along much simpler lines.   Jack now joins so many people whose counsel and generosity shapes this project.  Thanks Jackie T.

The card is printed on thick, grainy card stock and has a lush burgundy seam pressed into the edge, all of which give it a voluptuous feel.

On we go.   

Three Days before Iceland

Ross’ Law:  In any project of any size or duration, 50% of the work will be done in the last 10% of available time.   

It is crunch-time for The Suitable World.    

These are the items going into my suitcase (tech items like laptop not included).  One of the themes in The Suitable World is seeking economy and balance in the things we carry with us...  David Albert (the master packer) should be proud.

Shooting the Suit: Seven Days Before Iceland

Today we took studio photographs of the outfit.  These photos capture the suit in its purest form- unworn, appearing without indicators of environment, person or place.  

The suit here is new and yet to face trial by sun, ice, rain, dirt, activity and time.   

I have often thought of it as a character in its own right; with a life and significance of its own that provokes reactions and judgments independent of who is wearing it.  

Here are some iPhone photos we took to document the day.  We will publish the actual shots at a later time. We are lucky to be working with photographer Alain Auzanneau here in Puy L’Eveque

Side note: As we prepared for the photos we needed to find hangers that felt appropriate; no plastic, enough width to hold the suit properly, an implied generosity in their shape etc.  I have never in my life paid much attention to a hanger.  They are simple objects that don’t really change much over time since their form is based on the fixed shape of the human body.   That said, when you pay attention there is an enormous range of aesthetics within these narrow design parameters.    We went on a hanger hunt.  Our favorite is an old (perhaps 1960’s?) hanger from Czechoslovakia.  It will appear in all of the photos.  

Fitting the Suit

I first met Chris Coleman in London at our local Monmouth Coffee shop in Borough Market.  Chris runs Copperfield Tailor in Moorgate with his wife Anne and son, Dean.  

Chris is a consummate professional and radiates enthusiasm for the craft and tradition of fine tailoring.   I would often go to work late on a Friday in order to stop by Copperfield to learn more about classic clothing and dress. .

Here Chris describes the design of the suit that will make the trip to Iceland.

Note: This is an earlier version of the suit - which has been subsequently fitted and kitted with fabric buttons.  The shirt, tie and braces were worn for the video shoot.   We have since replaced these with the actual accessories that will make the journey.

Many thanks to Hugo Tyer for shooting the film.  I did these edits so any faults are mine.

The Boots: Joseph Cheaney & Sons

I am happy to announce that Joseph Cheaney and Sons are supporting The Suitable World, providing us with a bespoke boot and care kit for the journey. 

Joseph Cheaney and Sons is a heritage UK brand that embodies the quest to bring form and function together.   

For the project Cheaney has customised one of their oldest patterns, The Pennine.  The Pennine uses a Veldtschoen construction - a rare stitching method that guarantees a waterproof boot while retaining its form against the hazards of weather and terrain.  There are only a handful of manufacturers (and indeed only a handful of older machines in the UK) capable of making this type of boot.  

The grain leather of the shoe will hide wear.  The commando sole unit will make it well-suited to hiking and rugged landscape.  The burgundy colour of the boot picks up on the red of the Prince of Wales fabric while the elegant stitch at the toe-cap blends nicely with the style of the suit.   Given the temperatures in Iceland Cheaney wanted to ensure a warm, but breathable shoe thus they have customised the Pennine by inserting a shearling lining.  

This is the only boot of its kind.

The tagline of The Suitable World is “Seeking One Perfect Thing.”  The project uses clothing as a lens to explore how we choose the objects that surround us.  Rather than accumulating specialised goods with limited function we are looking for items that embody a perfect marriage of beauty, utility and durability.  In this way these objects become worthy of our care and preservation.   From the very beginning everyone at Cheaney has had great enthusiasm about the project, its aims and values. 

A huge thank you to Martin, Marc, Neil, Richard and Met.    Art projects (like any idea) never go anywhere without the generosity, enthusiasm and support of others.   I am most grateful.   

The Virtue of Reinvention

In my life I have been an artist.  I have been a musician.  I have been a company man.  

In long stretches I have been a mix  - splitting my time between a corporate workplace during the day and a rehearsal space at night and on weekends.   

My band, Farma, during a photoshoot for our EP

My band, Farma, during a photoshoot for our EP

About 7 years ago, I chose to focus on my professional career.  The decision was made from a mix of fatigue, curiosity and conservatism.  I was tired of falling short of what I really wanted from music (fame, if I am honest).  I was curious how far “up" my talent might take me in the workplace if I devoted my energies to it.  It was also the safe choice - promising a well-traveled route to income and security.

Today, I have a job with responsibility and respect.  I earn a lot of money.  And recently I quit.  My last day comes at the end of this month.    I ran out of curiosity and curiously, I found that the  older I become the less willing I am to let caution and security run the show. 


above: The wide world of consulting - (from top left)  Boston, on-wing over the US, approaching Calgary, the frozen sea in Helsinki, Heathrow in snow, the pattern-lobby of Marriotts anywhere (this one in New Jersey), London's City Airport (a second home), Singapore... The endless carousel of airports, taxis and hotel lobbies often make travel a generic proposition. 


This has led to some interesting dilemmas related to my identity.

Over the past few weeks we have been filming video segments for The Suitable World - my current art project.   As I write the script outline I have been struggling to figure out how I introduce myself.  I started with “I am Joshua-Michéle Ross, an American artist living in London”….   

But beyond my name everything in that sentence is problematic.  After years of work and an ascending set of business titles, telling people I am an artist doesn’t quite seem to fit.    After living in Europe for five years - does it matter that I am an American?     We are leaving London in May and will be living in France for six months before returning to California… so where do I “live”?

Whenever we refer to people we try to anchor them in the familiar.  We give their nationality, their profession, where they live, perhaps some physical reference that places them in a recognizable category.   Right now most of these are up in the air for me;  I have quit my job, I am returning to a more artistic life, I will be nomadic for the remainder of 2015;  all of this while wearing an Edwardian suit - not how I normally appear to the world.   

For the video I am going with, “I am Joshua-Michéle Ross, an artist working in London” — it is a provisional solution that seems to negotiate the current tensions in my identity.  

Beyond all of this I am aware of the great and very modern luxury we have to remake ourselves, to retell the story of who we are, what we do, where we live and how we appear in the world.   It seems a shame not to rethink each chapter, each act and make the most of it.

The Suit Has Arrived

After about six months of planning and design,  Dean texted me this week to tell me that the suit had arrived.

Text_SuitIsIn.PNG

I headed over to Copperfield yesterday where Ralph took a final fitting of the waistcoat.  He hand made the waistcoat and it will be one of his last as he is retiring this year.   He pointed out how the check patterns across the entire waistcoat are completely aligned - a difficult effect to create but beautiful.  The buttons will be made of the same fabric as the suit.  I have debated this since fabric buttons will show wear more easily.  But fabric buttons it will be.

 The suit is impeccable - and fit with very few modifications - just a bit of length on the leg and a slight narrowing of the jacket.   

Today we did the video shoot with Hugo and Marc.   We are producing an introductory video to explain the project in more detail.    More on that coming soon.

The Calling Card

The Suitable World calling card (first edition) is now sent to the printers.  Here is the front:

It is modeled directly after this one (thanks mssr. Ira J Foster)

The Suitable World is always teetering on the brink of nostalgia - harkening back to an era when travel was synonymous with adventure and the unknown.  The trick is to borrow from that age but not too liberally.  I want the most of its spirit but only a few of its devices.   

The calling card will be used to socialize the concept of The Suitable World, send people to the site for more information and generally convey the spirit of the project through an old visual trope: the suited man of society paying a social call.  

We went back and forth over whether the back should carry the inscription;  “no, no… the pleasure is all mine”.   In the end we weren’t sure if people would think that too sarcastic.   The mantra that we have for the project is what finally made it to the back, “In Time. Out of Place.  For Now.”   

We did a very small print run of these to test them out.   We are already leaning towards a more simple card but this was a lot of fun to make.   

Thanks so Yvette for slaving over Photoshop to make this happen.  

The Suitable World Goes to Iceland

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The concept for The Suitable World began during a holiday in Morocco.  

Yvette and I were in the middle of a rugged trip through desert, icy gorges, sunny seaside towns and crowded souks when my boss sent me an email inviting us to “the best restaurant in Paris”.   It was to be a reward before heading back to work in California.  After some research on “best restaurant in Paris" at an Internet cafe in Marakech we chose L’Arpege on the Rue de Varenne.

 

The problem was - we had no clothing to suit the occasion.  We had packed a small amount of clothing for hard-wear and fast drying times.   We were not fit for a table at L’Arpege.  

So the Suitable World began as a question;  what would it mean to have a beautiful suit designed for the extremes that would take us from Morocco to Paris - from hot to cold, from camel to car to hiking, from scenes of relative poverty to extreme luxury?   At first it was a bit of a running joke, conjuring visuals of a man-in-tuxedo astride a camel in the desert.

But the idea stuck.   And it deepened into the themes I am now exploring: unorthodox travel,  seeking economy and beauty in the objects we have around us, the notion of “suitability” and what our clothing says about us and our “place” in the world and finally the act of “preservation” and self-care amidst the inevitable wear of time.

When I started TSW (and this blog)  again I wasn’t sure where the first location might be.    Today it is official.  Iceland.

We have decided that Iceland is the ideal place for a number of reasons:

  • Iceland sits at the convergence of the North American and European tectonic plates.  These plates are slowly pulling apart - with Europe (our home for the past 5 years) pulling away from America.   There is a personal symbolism for me as our nomadic lifestyle has moved us further away from a fixed concept of home.  
  • It is geographically the youngest country on our planet. It is still being formed by glacier and volcano; providing a kind of physical drama that will be hard to match elsewhere.   
  • It is a land with many of the extremes that will lend aesthetic beauty to the documentation and integrity to the essays and themes I want to explore.  

The timing of the project is also now fixed.  We will depart on May 29 for four weeks.

We will be looking to connect with as many people who have experienced Iceland as we plan an itinerary.   All suggestions and references for things to do are welcome.  Onward!

The Most Common Question

The most common question I get about The Suitable World:

Won’t the suit get nasty after 21 days of continuous wear?  

The short answer is (I hope) no. 

We gather dust, skin and hair on the clothing we wear.   When these aren’t removed they settle into the fabric and your clothing gets stale.   The answer to this is not to immediately opt for the washing machine (which is brutal) or dry cleaner (which is expensive and often toxic).   There are simple habits you can use to keep your clothes in good shape.

These habits come from an earlier time when it was very common to have one suit in your wardrobe.   Drawing on that tradition, here is the regime I will employ to keep the suit wearable over the 21 day journey:

  • I will brush the suit at the end of each day to remove any unwanted material
  • I will properly store the suit each night - this means fresh air if possible and always a proper hanger
  • I will only put on the suit when I am clean.  This means a daily bath (unless utterly impossible) before suiting up. 
  • All of my undergarments will be clean beneath the suit each day.   Thus my packing list has two pair of undergarments.

This list will likely grow as the project develops.  Any other thoughts or comments on suit care are welcome.

Schmattas and The Men Who Knew Their Cloth

The Jews of Europe were often to be found in the schmattas (or cloth) business.   Schmatta literally means “rag”.   The men who plied the trade were part of a great supply chain that extended from the wool farms of England/Scotland and cotton plantations of the Americas and North Africa to the tailors of Savile Row.  

One of the last vestiges of that world is Crescent Trading Company where Yvette and I went to explore fabrics for The Suitable World.   It is the only cloth wholesaler left in Central London.  Tucked into an unhip cul-de-sac within uber-hip Shoreditch, Crescent is an unadorned treasure, calling back a lost world. 

 

You enter a warehouse wall-to-wall with mohair, flannels, camel hairs and woollens of every weight and pattern.  Long cutting tables sit in each row, allowing you to get closer to the cloth, test its tensile strength (you pull a single thread to hear if it snaps - good - or just gives way without a sound - not good), and compare potential choices.   We pulled a variety of fabrics - from an amazing camel hair to thick tweeds.   Ultimately we found the Prince of Wales plaid that we decided would be “the suit”

Here Phillip, who has co-owned Crescent for over 50 years, gives us an education and helps us make our way through the maze.

Yvette helps trawl potential fabrics at Crescent Trading Company, London

The Packing List

One part of this project is about seeking economy in travel.   The miracle of the modern world is that I can document and share the voyage from almost any place on earth with very simple clothes and  tools like mobile phone, laptop and camera.   

Ideally all of this can fit into one piece of carry-on luggage.  Here is the current thinking on what exactly will be needed.

Clothing:

  • 1 three-piece suit (see here for details on its construction)
  • 1 pair of lightweight long underwear
  • 2 pair of underwear
  • 3 pair of socks
  • 2 T-shirts
  • 1 Pair of all-terrain shoes
  • 1 Watch
  • 1 Hat
  • 1 Scarf
  • 1 Outergarment to protect against rain and extreme weather
  • 1 pair of pyjamas (I won’t sleep in the suit)
  • 1 All-purpose rucksack
  • 1 packed dop kit
    • Razor
    • Shaving cream
    • Hair gel
    • Toothbrush
    • Toothpaste
    • Ibuprofen
    • Sewing kit
  • Small shoe care kit
  • Suit care kit (contents tbd)

Technical gear

  • 1 Mobile phone (used for geolocation, photography, video, etc.)
  • 1 Macbook Air
  • 1 Digital Camera with video capability 

The Suit is in Construction

I have commissioned the suit from our tailor Chris at Copperfield.   There are still many variables to lock down (where the trip will take place, the specific itinerary, activities and accommodations) so the suit is being designed against the broadest set of requirements I can foresee:

  • Durability  (won’t quickly bag at the knees or show signs of wear)
  • Cleanability (needs to be able to be hand cleaned)
  • Breathability (across warmer and colder climes)

This led us to select a natural mid-weight wool in a Prince Of Wales plaid:

In terms of design we are definitely creating a hybrid of various styles to accommodate aesthetic and functional requirements:

Trousers

The trousers will be cut slightly larger at the waist and wider in the leg to afford extra movement (for cycling and hiking).   We will go with braces (suspenders) that reside behind the waistcoat and button to the trousers.  We are doing a standard no-cuff at the leg.  

Jacket

The jacket will be cut slightly long to give a sense of proportion (I have very long legs).   We selected a box pleat (aka an action pleat) for the jacket.  This is commonly known as a Norfolk Pleat for its use in the Norfolk Jacket .  This single pleat behind the shoulder will allow for extra movement in the arms.  Originally the pleats in a Norfolk jacket allowed  mobility for hunters holding a rifle.  For our trip the pleat will allow me to ride a bike, horse and generally hike about.   

We are going with a tab collar that allows me to pin flora from the journey into the jacket on a daily basis (more on this in a later post).  We are also going with patch pockets that keep the design inline with a traditional hunting jacket.  The lining will be a rich burgundy paisley that picks up on the red-thread that distinguishes the Prince of Wales check fabric.

Some great reading on the Norfolk Jacket - it’s origins and design - is at The Gentlemen’s Gazette: http://www.gentlemansgazette.com/norfolk-jacket-guide/

As a matter of trivia - it seems Indiana Jones wore an action pleated leather jacket… http://indylounge.proboards.com/thread/69/raiders-jacket-screen-caps

Considering footwear

One of the hardest things to select is the footwear.  While it will be relatively easy to keep the suit away from the elements, the shoes will be cycling, hiking and tramping through all kinds of weather.

Dean from Copperfield sent over a series of possible options.   I am considering the short-boot, with military tread (see pics below).  I think it will wear well and hold its look.   Dean is brokering a meeting with "the Bearded Buffer" a shoe enthusiast who will be one of the people we interview for the project.   


The Fabric

After a fairly exhaustive review we have chosen the fabric for the project; a Prince of Wales plaid.

The Prince of Wales fabric - selected from the book at Copperfield tailors

The Prince of Wales fabric - selected from the book at Copperfield tailors

The Prince of Wale (also known as a Glen plaid or Glenurquhart check) has a long history.

Glenurquhart check is a woollen fabric with a woven twill design of small and large checks.[1] It is usually made of black/grey and white, or with more muted colours, particularly with two dark and two light stripes alternate with four dark and four light stripes which creates a crossing pattern of irregular checks

The name is taken from the valley of Glenurquhart in Inverness-shire, Scotland, where the checked wool was first used in the 19th century by the New Zealand-born countess of Seafield[3] to outfit her gamekeepers,[1] though the name glen plaid does not appear before 1926.[4] Glen plaid is sometimes nicknamed the Prince of Wales check, as it was popularized by the Duke of Windsor when Prince of Wales.[1]
— http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glen_plaid

The fabric has a beautiful blue and red stripe.  Chris tells me that such a plaid can only be a Prince of Wales when it has this red stripe.  I cannot find reference to this rule anywhere else but Chris is not to be questioned.   As Phillip from Crescent Trading Company - the only fabric wholesaler left in London told me, "Chris knows his cloth".

Ideally the fabric will wear well, hide dirt and allow me to keep warm.     My only concern is how conservative the fabric will look when writ-large in a 3-piece suit.    The suit will be done just before Christmas and we shall see.

Consider... the kilt

My friend Brandy has had a long love affair with Scotland.   When she heard about  T.S.W. yesterday she emailed me the following.  It is posted with her kind permission.

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I would argue that an all-purpose suit (of some form) already does exist – the kilt! So many functions: it acted as a family crest, an identifying uniform, a blanket to keep you warm, a makeshift shelter in bad weather, a shield to protect you in attack (it was sometimes made out of leather or canvas). You could wear it for a formal occasion, a ramble through the wild, or in combat (the Black Watch regiment were nicknamed The Ladies from Hell!). And it let you trample through boggy moors & wade through rivers without impediment. Of course I’m talking about the olden day kilt here – the gigantic swath of fabric that they expertly wrapped around themselves, not the pre-cut ‘skirt’ form.

And there’s lots of political intrigue with the kilt too…it was such a powerful symbol that the English banned its wear after the Jacobite uprisings as part of their effort to crush the Scots. And then King George IV had the nerve to show up in Scotland wearing one! The drama of it all…

Image credit: kiltmakers

 

The Disappearing World

The casual beach towns of Southern California where I grew up were no place for jacket and tie.    My later university and adult life were set against Northern California’s laissez-faire attitude and the Silicon Valley premium on individual codes of dress. The suit was an object of conformity, of class and an oppressiveness I associated with the choking neck tie, cinched belt and the unforgiving hardness of leather-soled shoes..   I have never had any cause to love, much less understand what the suit meant to the generations that preceded my own. 

I have set out a basic rule in this project.   I speak about it to anyone who will listen.   Ironically this finds me listening a lot more than I talk because everyone seems to have a story about “the suit”.  It evokes personal memories and a nostalgia for a time when the suit meant something very different.   It used to be ubiquitous.  It spanned classes.  Look at any photo from the Western world that is over 40 years old.   Everyone is in a suit, regardless of class and often, regardless of the physical activity they were engaged in.  

The suit was a symbol of self-respect and dignity.  It was worn by plumbers and shop keepers, it was worn by archaeologists in the field and by middle-class fans at soccer matches.   

Suited fans watch Swansea vs NorthBank - circa 1950s 

Image from scfcheritage

The Tailor and pondering "Peak Suit"

Yvette and I have coffee with Chris Coleman nearly every morning.  

We are both regulars at Monmouth Coffee and I did not know he was tailor until just a few months ago.   Chris is passionate about his work - about the marriage of rigorous quality and complete service that goes into running his business.  It is inspiring.

In all likelihood he will help me make decisions about The Suit; fabrics, construction and care.   

Yesterday we spent the evening with fellow Monmouth ritualist James - on his 73 year old WW II MBT gunship.  It is moored along the Thames and James has retrofitted it to become a houseboat.  The giant engine room has been ripped out to accommodate a kitchen,  the communications room is his study and he has converted the officers' quarters into his bedroom.  

Boarding the MBT with Captain James

Boarding the MBT with Captain James

We spent the evening on deck in the best approximation of naval gear that we could muster.    Basically Yvette and I wore striped shirts.

The sun sets upon the Thames

The sun sets upon the Thames

The leisurely evening gave me a chance to speak with Chris about suits and I asked him one of the questions that will likely play a role in how this project is shaped;  

What was the peak year for the suit?  

In other words, when was the suit at its height in relation to ubiquity, fashion and quality?

I had predicted Chris' answer to be 1964.  I was off by two years... According to Chris it was 1966 though his reasons for this were much different than what I expected.

I had assumed the suit to peak in '64 due to several factors

  • Mass communications were sufficiently developed to create a nearly singular Western ideal for The Suited
  • Post-war industrialisation meant that there was enough wealth returning to society to drive demand
  • The counter-cultural movement hadn't yet arrived to celebrate individuality and a (return?) to casual freedoms...(bell bottom jeans and paisley T's) 

I am going to capture Chris' response so you can see his reasons why '66 was "peak suit"   Chris is a great storyteller and my question led to a long soliloquy on 1960's London, poverty, pride and "watching the street".   It is too good to put into words so I am going to try and film it.

The Suitable World

The Suit.

Whether you call it fashion, style or just clothing - the act of getting dressed and heading out into the world is a daily ritual of identity, utility and social conformity (or non conformity).

The Suitable World is a project to see what happens when trying to build the ultimate suit.  One that is fit for purpose across many geographies, climates and social conditions.

It is a kind of travelogue.   But the journey is just an excuse to explore what our costume says about who we are,  where we fit in the world and how we make our choices about the most explicit part of our identity; the outfit.