A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Conversation with Chay Cooper, Product Director at Alfred Sargent (Part One)

Chay Cooper & Paul Sargent of Alfred Sargent

As I mentioned previously, I was fortunate enough to meet Chay Cooper, Alfred Sargent's Product Director, a few weeks ago at the MRket trade show here in New York City. Chay's knowledge and passion for shoes became readily apparent after only a few minutes of conversation. But I found his devotion to the British tradition of excellence in the craft to be just as impressive. Here, then, is the first part of an interview with one of Northampton's finest craftsman.


Let's go back to the beginning - how did you get started in the shoe industry?

I joined Alfred Sargent 22 years ago at the age of 17. To be honest, at the time I had no real interest other than making a few pounds in order to do the things teenagers like to do. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the local (sadly, now defunct) Footwear College for 3 years, one day a week. Here, I began to appreciate all the different areas that are involved in making Goodyear Welted footwear and the tremendous skill involved in each of them.

My renewed interest and growing passion for English-made shoes must have been noted by Paul Sargent, who took the basic education I had gathered from attending the local college and set about teaching me further. It is impossible to meet a man more passionate about making shoes than Paul - his enthusiasm never wavers and he continues to inspire the whole team at Alfred Sargent.

We are extremely fortunate to have quite a few people at Alfred Sargent who have spent their whole lives making shoes - their knowledge is astounding and I try to learn as much as I can from all of them as they each specialize in different areas.

Can you tell us a little bit about the different lines available from Alfred Sargent?

We have the Handgrade, Exclusive, and Country lines. In addition, we are also proud to have the opportunity to work with some fabulous brands - most recently and notably with J. Crew - to develop their private label collections.

AS Handgrade is an indulgence, a chance for the small team that work on these shoes to show what they can do. The line is a real team effort and incorporates methods from the early 1900's, which in some cases have been taught to the shoemakers by their Grandfathers. Without their input, these methods would have been forgotten in time.

Predominantly made to order, this allows individuals to select their own choice of Last shape, leathers, and sole, as well as personalization - such as your initials hand pinned in brass nails on the soles or your name inside the shoes. We hold trunk shoes for this range at such stores as Leffot, NYC and also accept private appointments at the factory - it is a small part of our business but thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding for all involved.

AS Exclusive was launched after the Handgrade line with the remit to become the best ready to wear English made shoes whilst being more affordable than the Handgrade line - some challenge!

From a technical and component perspective they are the best quality shoes available in their price bracket on the market, I have no doubt of that. But of course perception is a very personal and in some instances emotive thing so time will tell if those who choose to purchase them also believe so. Ultimately it is our clients opinion and not ours that matters so all we can try to do is use the very best materials available and hope that the quality speaks on our behalf.

The soles are oak bark tanned from England's only oak bark tanner and the sole waist is shaped a lot narrower than most ready to wear shoes producing an hour glass look. The heels are hand pinned and the shoe linings are cut from the same calf leather as the uppers. We stock a selection of these shoes as well as having some retailers who choose their own MTO colors. We don't offer single-pair MTO on this collection.

AS Country. Nearly all UK makers have a Country collection and certainly Alfred Sargent falls into this category, having gained a very good reputation over the years for producing country styles. Heavier in terms of both substance and styling, they are made to cope with more arduous wear than a dress shoe. And they certainly do - I recently had a gentleman contact me for a replacement pair after 13 years of wear! So they represent very good value which is something we insist upon for all of our collections.

Within the collection there are classic English country styles such as the Howard boot and the Hampstead shoe. I was also keen to introduce some styles that are more casual by design like the Lombard boot with its contrast edge and lacing.

More recently, there seems to have been a complete overhaul in the offerings available at Alfred Sargent. With the Exclusive and Handgrade lines, you seem to be targeting the upper-middle and higher tier of ready to wear - I'm thinking Crockett & Jones or Edward Green or Gaziano & Girling shoes. Is this by design and, if so, what led to the change?

I knew we were capable of making higher grade shoes than we had put our name to previously and I think most people want to show what they are capable of - we, as a company, are no different.

Paul Sargent allowed me to develop new lines and clients, thankfully, seem to like the new designs. We enjoy what we do and I believe that shows in the product.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process whereby a new model might be developed and created? Is there a committee aspect whereby new ideas are proposed regularly? Does the Sargent family still have a significant role in design/product development?

Yes, Paul is still very much involved. It normally starts with an idea I have which can be inspired by many different things. For instance, I read a lot of clothing websites, blogs, and forums - as I have very little dress sense personally! So I look for inspiration and some of these resources are great at putting clothing together. But when I look I often think, "That would look better with a different style of shoe like the Ramsay, our double monk shoe, or something similar . . ." Things like this - or even just a new leather, like in the case of the Radwell chukka boot - often start my thought process, then I discuss with our pattern makers and Paul and they normally come up with suggestions too. Collectively, we make a decision, then a paper pattern is made along with an initial trial. I also often send pictures to a few close friends, whose opinions I value highly, to hear their thoughts before releasing it.

To Be Continued . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2013

At the MRket Show: Alfred Sargent

Stepping down from the stand after my complimentary shine at the MRket trade show, a well-dressed gentleman stopped me to compliment me on my shoes - my Edward Green Dover boots as it just so happened. The gentleman in question turned out to be Chay Cooper, Alfred Sargent's Product Director. We continued our conversation at the Alfred Sargent booth and I had a chance to look over some truly lovely models from the Exclusive collection. The craftsmanship on these shoes is very impressive - I thought the lasts succeeded in conveying an understated elegance. But I was particularly intrigued by the narrow waist on the sole, a unique characteristic that one doesn't see everyday on standard ready-to-wear models.

Mr. Cooper's passion for shoe-making and amiable nature becomes readily apparent after only a few minutes of conversation, and he was kind enough to agree to answer a wide-range of questions for An Uptown Dandy. I'll be posting the first part of that interview later in the week, to be followed by part two and a review of a pair of shoes from Alfred Sargent's Exclusive range.

In the meantime, I hope these images from the MRket show, featuring some of Alfred Sargent's wonderful creations, will tide you over in the meantime.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Beau Brummell of Brownsville

I've written in the past about Harry "Pep" Strauss, the Syndicate trigger man who was perhaps the most prolific of Murder, Inc.'s gunsels (you can read more about Strauss here). Known as much for his style as his penchant for homicide, Burton Turkus - the assistant district attorney who successfully prosecuted several of the Brooklyn troops top guns - noted that Strauss was also known as the Beau Brummell of Brownsville around the DA's office.

There isnt much of a photographic record remaining to attest to Pittsburgh Phil's sartorial flair, but every now and then I'll come across written evidence of Strauss' impeccable style, which was apparently only matched by his utter disdain for the law.

Here, then, is former New York City police commissioner Lewis J. Valentine's recollection of his 1934 run-in with the ice-cool killer, from "Night Stick: The Autobiography of Lewis J. Valentine" (1947):

"I remember my encounter with a manicured, elegantly dressed thug in a police lineup," Valentine recalled. "Strauss bore an easy pose in his smartly cut Chesterfield overcoat with velvet collar. His blue suit was pressed to razor sharpness and a new blue shirt held fast by a tie to match, was snug around his neck. A new pearl-gray fedora was canted over one eye at a jaunty angle."

The sight of the debonair hoodlum must have been too much for Valentine, who then went on to instruct his men: "When you meet such men draw quickly and shoot accurately . . . Look at him - he's the best dressed man in the room, yet he's never worked a day in his life. When you meet men like Strauss, don't be afraid to muss 'em up. Blood should be smeared all over his velvet collar."

The golden age of men's style, indeed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Grenfell Tradition

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons that I happened to be at the MRket trade show was to interview Billy Neville, a long-time fixture in the world of men's retail, dating back to his days as the proprietor of "The Rogue and Good Company" store in Jackson, MS. Currently the principal at Neville & Associates, Mr. Neville was attending the show in his capacity as a consultant to Grenfell, the British heritage brand which has been selling outerwear made from its eponymous cloth since 1931.

Grenfell's roots date back a bit further to 1923, when Mr. Walter Haythornthwaite, a Burnley mill-owner, produced a cloth in response to the explorer Sir Wilfred Grenfell's description of the difficulties in finding the right fabric for arctic clothing - he was looking for something that was light yet strong and weatherproof as well as windproof, while simultaneously allowing moisture from the body to escape. After using Mr. Haythornthwaite's creation, Sir Wilfred wrote, "It is light, durable, and very fine looking. It really has been a boon to us all and I think the public should know of it; they will be grateful, I know." He went on to say, "We use it constantly . . . on the ships, on the planes, on the sledges, and motoring. It does not wear out and we cannot afford to take chances . . . much less , dare; we recommend it to anyone." Of course, Mr. Haythornthwaite's invention is today known as Grenfell Cloth.

Some of the wonderful coats on display at the Grenfell booth.

The unique properties of the cloth apparently stem from two basic points: (1) the cloth is made from the very finest cotton by master craftsmen; and (2) the cloth has an exceptionally close weave (no less than 600 single threads to each square inch. It is that compact weave which gives the cloth its windproof, water-resistant, and long-wearing qualities. And that weave has remained unchanged since the fabric was invented. In addition, Grenfell cloth benefits from modern advancements such as the use of yarn dyes, which provide added depth and permanence to the colors in the greatly extended shade range.

Mr. Mo Azam of Grenfell.

Mr. Neville explained a bit of this history during our brief conversation, and then introduced me to Mohammad Azam, the proprietor of Grenfell, who in turn introduced me to his son Mo. The younger Mr. Azam was quite generous with his time, and went out of his way to show me a variety of outerwear pieces manufactured with and without the Grenfell cloth. At the helm of such an illustrious, storied company, one can see how easy it might be to fall back on one's laurels. But the younger Mr. Azam struck an excellent balance between a healthy respect for the Grenfell tradition and a desire to expand the company's product base beyond the "classic" styles. The result is a collection of clothing that is grounded in the classics while still maintaining a contemporary flair.

Classic doublebreasted trench coats.

This mix of old and new was readily apparent in the outerwear models on display at the Grenfell booth. To be sure, there was a healthy dose of classic single- and double-breasted trenchcoats, (none of which would be out of place at J. Press, Boyd's, or Ben Silver, American stockists of Grenfell outerwear). This may owe something to the Azam family's impressive familiarity with the Grenfell archive, an excellent resource for outerwear styles and designs. At one point, Mr. Azam showed me a hooded mountain jacket designed by the company for Harrod's in the 1950s in a vibrant red Grenfell cloth  - the design was simple but refreshing, and looked like it could have been made from a sketch that was done last week.

A classic doublebreasted trench and orange toggle or duffle coat.

But there were also models with a more stylized - dare I say fashionable - feel (not surprisingly, these designs are quite popular in the ever-current Japanese market): single- and double-breasted raincoats with a slimmer and shorter cut that served to complement the classic look, toggle or duffle coats in a variety of bright colors, the classic Harrington jacket in Grenfell cloth, and a hooded rain jacket that reminded me of the Barbour/To Ki To collaboration (but with a cleaner, more refined appearance perhaps achieved by substituting Barbour's waxed cotton with the Grenfell cloth).

The classic Harrington jacket in navy Grenfell cloth.

All of which is to say that, after years of misdirected marketing efforts by the previous owners of the Grenfell brand, the company now finds itself uniquely positioned to cater to the demands of a global marketplace that has never strayed too far from its fascination with British heritage brands. As the Azam family and Grenfell continue to identify the opportunities available to a company that can provide quality clothing (made at the company's factory in London) to the contemporary streetwear market as well as the classic men's style audience, the future indeed looks promising for the purveyors of Mr. Haythornthwaite's Grenfell cloth.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Vintage Edward Green Catalog

One of the reasons I happened to be at the MRket trade show was to meet up with my good friend, Mr. Billy Neville - an all-around good guy, wealth of information, and walking archive for all things relating to men's clothing. Mr. Neville was kind enough to bring along a veritable treasure trove of wonderful magazines and catalogs - dating as far back as the 1920s - from the world of men's advertising for me to peruse and ogle.

Of course, the first thing to catch my eye was this circa 1980s Edward Green catalog and ordering form - which of course included my absolute favorite Edward Green model of all time: the Windsor; as well as my runner-up favorite Edward Green model of all time: the Braemar. Both models were featured then on the now-defunct 201 last.

Even Ms. Hilary Freeman, Managing Director of Edward Green, who happened to be stationed nearby, was suitably impressed.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Kiton @ Soiffer Haskin

Soiffer Haskin Exclusive Sales New York


including: Suits, Jackets, Outerwear,
Pants, Shirts, Knitwear, Ties & Shoes

also a selection of:
Clothing & Sportswear

              SUNDAY, FEB. 10th through TUESDAY, FEB. 12th              
 9:00am to 6:30pm Daily

To be held at:
Soiffer Haskin
317 West 33rd Street, NYC

(Just west of 8th Avenue)

Credit Cards Only
(American Express, Visa or MasterCard)
All Sales Final.
Strollers not allowed. No children under 12 will be admitted.

For more information, call: (718) 747-1656, Monday through Friday: 9am to 6pm

Soiffer Haskin has always been a good source for sample sales, but they may have just taken it to a whole new level now . . . of course, whether this reaches "Golden Age" sample sale status will depend a lot on the markdowns, which are not mentioned here.

In any event,the possibilities are intriguing!