OFF THE CUFF

Clothes maketh the man, or so the say­ing has it. Greg Bruce set him­self the chal­lenge of rein­vent­ing his style, with a lit­tle help from two friends.

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Dean’s beard was gin­ger down to his chin and then grey to his up­per chest, where its mag­nif­i­cent voy­age fi­nally ended. He was wear­ing Ray-Ban Way­farer 2132s; an un­tucked blue, white and yel­low check flan­nel shirt; crisp selvedge denim jeans, pin­roll-cuffed to just above the an­kle; bright yel­low socks and cherry Doc Martens.

He was in front of a brick wall out­side his house on the coast of Kent, Eng­land, walk­ing to­ward the cam­era, bend­ing slightly, hands low, as if poised to do some­thing — what ex­actly? It was in­trigu­ing, in­tox­i­cat­ing, a great pho­to­graph, like some­thing from a fash­ion mag­a­zine. I wanted that out­fit. I wanted to look like that. I wanted to feel like that.

If any­thing, his pic­ture the fol­low­ing day was even more in­spir­ing. He was stand­ing at up­mar­ket eat­ing and drink­ing estab­lish­ment Searcys in Lon­don’s St Pan­cras sta­tion. One of his feet, en­cased in a clas­sic black high-top Chuck Tay­lor, was up on the leather ban­quette. One of his hands was rest­ing on the ban­quette’s pol­ished wooden top and the other hand was sit­ting coolly on his left hip.

The pic­ture cap­tured the cathe­dral scale of the grand old sta­tion — both its for­mer grand brick glory and its epic mod­ern light and glass. Dean wore skinny navy chi­nos, cuffed to the top of his Chucks, an un­tucked black and red checker­board plaid shirt, sleeves per­fectly triplerolled to just be­low the el­bow, and the same pair of Ray-Ban Way­farer 2132s from the day be­fore.

The looks Phil had been send­ing me were fairly con­ser­va­tive semi-for­mal work out­fits, but in­spired or chal­lenged by Dean’s pho­to­graphic bril­liance, he sent a shot of what he called “My Dean”: un­tucked red and navy buf­falo check flan­nel shirt, sleeves rolled to just above the el­bow, clean, dark navy selvedge jeans, iron­worker-cuffed to mid shin, and caramel moc toe boots, It was taken in his Hong Kong apart­ment kitchen, but that didn’t nec­es­sar­ily di­min­ish it.

It’s hard to say the pre­cise point at which my in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional life came to be dom­i­nated by fash­ion but I don’t know that any of the roughly 130,000 beau­ti­ful, in­struc­tional, some­times cruel words we have ex­changed on our three-per­son What­sapp group “Fash­ion” over the past two months have been as pow­er­ful as those three photos that ap­peared on con­sec­u­tive days from June 15-17.

THE THREE of us had be­come friends in our fi­nal year at jour­nal­ism school. Phil had a rep­u­ta­tion as a bad boy, at least by jour­nal­ism school stan­dards; Dean was the course’s top stu­dent two years out of three. I had a wardrobe ro­ta­tion of three pat­terned polo shirts and a sin­gle pair of jeans.

Af­ter J-school, as we didn’t call it, we all went over­seas. Never again have we all lived in the same place at the same time. For pe­ri­ods, some­times long pe­ri­ods, up to two of us have been in touch, but in re­cent years our level of con­tact has drifted.

Two years ago, I saw Phil for the first time in years. He looked good, which was a sur­prise be­cause he had al­ways been a slob. He told me he had taught him­self about fash­ion en­tirely us­ing free on­line re­sources and had dis­cov­ered how to build a wardrobe us­ing only 16 items.

I found that idea cap­ti­vat­ing and have found

my­self think­ing about it of­ten since. I have spent a life­time feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated and/or up­set by my in­abil­ity to dress well, start­ing in my high school years, when I fre­quently wore po­lar fleece tops and Sand­bags-brand track­pants.

At the start of June, on a Sun­day af­ter­noon — that time of dream­ing and hop­ing, of re­assess­ing our lives, of imag­in­ing things other than they are — I sent Phil the fol­low­ing mes­sage on What­sapp: “Can you send me your 16-gar­ment wardrobe list so I can get buy­ing?”

I thought it might lead to a few mes­sages or an af­ter­noon’s dis­cus­sion. In­stead, it led to ques­tions, which led to an­swers, then to in­ter­net links. Two weeks later Phil added Dean to a What­sapp group called “Fash­ion” with a one-line in­struc­tion: “Send Greg a photo of what you’re wear­ing” and here we are, 130,000 words later, with my wardrobe rad­i­cally over­hauled and my wal­let $227 lighter.

The more you turn your at­ten­tion to some­thing, the more it re­wards you, con­sumes you, and even­tu­ally de­fines you. What I have learned over the past two months is that this can hap­pen with any topic, no mat­ter how dis­con­nected from your ex­ist­ing self-con­cep­tion.

Sylvia Park, that grand east­ern tem­ple of cease­less con­sump­tion, used to suck my en­ergy so much that, af­ter half an hour there, I could hardly sum­mon the will to walk. Now, just the thought of vis­it­ing fills me with a sense of ex­cite­ment, op­por­tu­nity and per­sonal growth. I have fallen into this so deeply I am shocked by it.

I AM a sys­tem­atic per­son, so I set about things sys­tem­at­i­cally. I built a li­brary of links to in­flu­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions’ ar­ti­cles about items ev­ery man needs, then I tab­u­lated them to see what ap­peared most fre­quently.

The 10 top items were: plain T-shirts (es­pe­cially white), Ox­ford cot­ton shirts (white again), V-neck jumpers, blaz­ers, indigo/raw denim/selvedge jeans, chi­nos, black dress shoes, brown dress shoes, white sneak­ers and chukka boots.

I started us­ing on­line ser­vices Lookas­tic and Epy­tom, which sent me daily sug­gested out­fits. I sent some of these to the group for dis­cus­sion. They sent me links to other sites and sug­gested other items I might buy. I started trawl­ing on­line re­tail­ers. My 4-year-old daugh­ter took daily photos of my out­fits for the group’s cri­tique.

Phil and his fam­ily flew to Bris­bane and back, Dean took the train to New­cas­tle, I went to Hawke’s Bay. The What­sApp never rested. Our 130,000 words cov­ered big is­sues like black vs blue jeans, the vi­a­bil­ity of dou­ble denim and the dif­fer­ence be­tween chukkas and desert boots but more sur­pris­ing and in­sight­ful were the thou­sands of mes­sages we ex­changed about small things: when to tuck and un­tuck; when to pin­roll-cuff and when to iron­work­er­cuff and when not to cuff at all; how to wear an un­der­shirt and how many but­tons to fas­ten over it; how many times to roll one’s sleeves and to what point on the arm. Phil made me buy new laces for my dress shoes and take an on­line tu­to­rial in how to bar-lace.

The whole project threat­ened to founder though on the fact my wife wouldn’t al­low me a bud­get, ar­gu­ing that we’d al­ready spent too much this year.

The lack of bud­get drove Phil crazy. One day he said, “It’s dif­fi­cult. You ask us what warm top you should wear but then say you can’t buy it.” He sug­gested closing down the group, but half-heart­edly, I think, in the same way you tell your kids that if they don’t share their toys you’ll sell them on Trade Me and use the money to buy a new $250 camel over­coat from Zara.

I didn’t ex­plic­itly push for bud­get, but clothes steadily be­came all I talked about, un­til one day, af­ter I had been de­scrib­ing in de­tail

Our 130,000 words cov­ered big is­sues like black vs blue jeans, the vi­a­bil­ity of dou­ble denim and the dif­fer­ence be­tween chukkas and desert boots.

ev­ery­thing I could get for un­der $150, Zanna, who was try­ing to change Casper, our 1-year old, said, “Okay, well, if it’s com­ing in un­der bud­get that’s fine.”

And just like that, the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar world of fash­ion opened it­self to me. Rather, it opened $150 of it­self to me.

“WHAT DO you think we know about style?” I wrote to Dean and Phil. “Is there some ob­jec­tive thing we are pur­su­ing? Surely it’s just peo­ple agree­ing about things that have no value out­side that agree­ment.”

“There is an el­e­ment of re­belling against my cul­ture and up­bring­ing in this,” Phil wrote. “Many New Zealan­ders re­spect and seem to admire un­der­state­ment. They do not like any hint of ego.”

Dean wrote: “I agree with Phil in that we grew up in a time and place where an in­ter­est in clothes was not en­cour­aged and there were no role mod­els. On top of that you couldn’t get the stuff you wanted any­way. You’d see some­thing in a 6-month old copy of Smash Hits and, when you re­alised the lo­cal Warnocks didn’t stock it you’d be left try­ing to find the next best thing. I re­mem­ber get­ting a friend to make me a cou­ple of shirts and ask­ing my grand­mother to knit me a black jersey with a checker­board hem when I was go­ing through a two-tone ska phase. I did not look like Suggs.”

“Who changed it for us?” I asked. “Who said, ‘Guys it’s okay to care now’?”

Dean wrote: “I re­mem­ber once wear­ing one of my grandma’s old dia­mante brooches to the shops dur­ing a short-lived New Ro­man­tic phase. I did this while my dad was at work.”

What I think he meant was that fash­ion is not about get­ting per­mis­sion. More ac­cu­rately, I think he meant fash­ion is about not get­ting per­mis­sion.

WE GOT to work on the $150. I bought a white but­ton-down at H&M for $30, black and white tees at The Ware­house for $6 and $8 re­spec­tively, a pair of slim-fit black jeans for $35 and a cham­bray shirt for $44 on Asos, and a bright red flan­nel lum­ber­jack shirt at The Ware­house for $10. Phil sent me five new shirts. Dean sent me a five-pack of state­ment socks.

At Save­mart New Lynn, af­ter try­ing on a few ill-fit­ting things that smelled of old, dry skin, I found a Levi’s denim jacket that ap­peared to have never been worn, for $15.

I put it on and sent Zanna a photo. She loved it. I sent the photo to the What­sapp group. Phil wrote, “That is a great f***ing jacket.” Dean wrote: “Jacket is fierce! You look like a gin­ger Paul New­man.” He added three flame emo­jis.

And just like that, I was no longer a New Zealan­der who em­braced un­der­state­ment.

I wanted more; I had no more. There was $1.70 left. Then it hit me! I had a bunch of longne­glected, small-de­nom­i­na­tion for­eign cur­rency at the bot­tom of my bag. I changed it at ASB Sylvia Park. It came to $107.

Phil thought I should spend it on a bomber jacket, high-top Chucks and a tan belt. For Dean, though, the only thing that mat­tered was Ray-Ban Way­far­ers.

They started at about $150 so I said I would get knock-offs in­stead. Dean at­tacked me. He re­ported a com­ment from his part­ner: “Fake Ray-Bans?! Does he want to get eye can­cer?!”

I tried to find a so­lu­tion. I googled “Way­far­ers” re­peat­edly, as if that would do it. I found a site that al­lowed me to do a vir­tual try-on and frankly they looked fan­tas­tic on me.

I be­came ob­sessed, out of con­trol. I didn’t care. “I want to buy, buy, buy!” I told the group. It was un­healthy.

“Get them,” Dean replied sup­port­ively. “You won’t re­gret it.” “But I only have $107,” I wrote. “They will make ev­ery­thing else you wear look 15-20 per­cent bet­ter” he wrote.

“But when I com­pare the pic­tures of the Way­far­ers with the knock-offs they’re ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal. Is a cou­ple of mil­lime­tres here or there go­ing to make such a big dif­fer­ence?”

“It makes all the dif­fer­ence,” he wrote. “Trust me. Re­mem­ber it’s about the small things.”

“I know I know,” I wrote. “But some­times the small things ap­pear so small and cost so much.”

I FOUND some Way­far­ers on Trade Me, listed by some­one from the Bay of Plenty with 100 per cent pos­i­tive feed­back. They looked so good. I en­tered the auc­tion hot, with no in­ten­tion of back­ing off and, af­ter a fiery bid­ding war, I got them for $63. I couldn’t be­lieve it.

I sent Zanna a screen­shot but she mis­un­der­stood and didn’t re­alise I’d al­ready bought them. She replied: “Honey, with three young chil­dren I do not think spend­ing more

Dean wrote: ‘Jacket is fierce! You look like a gin­ger Paul New­man.’ He added three flame emo­jis.

than $20 on a pair of sun­glasses is a good idea. Sorry, it’s just too risky.”

I felt bad and anx­ious but what could I do? I guess I should’ve asked for per­mis­sion.

But five hours later, in Eng­land, Dean woke up and wrote: “Great call on the Ray-Bans! You won’t re­gret it for a sec­ond. Slip them on and the world will look dif­fer­ent … and you’ll look dif­fer­ent to it. And so what if it’s a risk?” He at­tached a photo of Jack Ni­chol­son wear­ing a pair of Way­far­ers. He wrote: “Does this guy look like he’s afraid of tak­ing a risk? No he doesn’t. And this is you now.”

I could’ve punched the air. I felt the weight of years’ worth of de­li­ciously com­fort­able po­lar fleece lift­ing from my shoul­ders.

That night, Dean up­dated the group’s icon to the pic­ture of Jack Ni­chol­son in the Way­far­ers.

Zanna would for­give me when she saw them on me. Of that, I was hope­ful.

IN THE days af­ter we started what we came to call “The Project”, Phil told me I had to write about it. He went on and on about what he called, “The An­gle”.

At var­i­ous times, he wanted The An­gle to be what makes some­thing look good, or the rel­a­tive con­ser­vatism of male fash­ion, or Dean’s rel­a­tive lack of com­mit­ment to The Project, or the value of tech­nol­ogy in rekin­dling adult friend­ships, or a sum­mary of a fort­night’s out­fits as cu­rated by him.

Even­tu­ally, just to get him to stop go­ing on about The An­gle, I had to tell him there was not go­ing to be a story. Be­fore I did that, though, he wrote: “I think the con­clu­sion of the story will be am­bigu­ous and you will state the su­per­fi­cial­ity and con­sumerism just made you sad. You will then go home to your fam­ily and de­scribe Casper’s out­fit with a line that lists the la­bels he is wear­ing, with an em­bed­ded joke about some generic baby food smeared on his shirt.”

I replied: “The story will be that I came up with the per­fect box of clothes for ev­ery man to look good with­out spend­ing more than $1000 and here I am wear­ing it.”

He wrote: “That’s a good story. But eas­ily found on the web.”

The Way­farer pur­chase scored points from Phil and Dean.

Greg Bruce, con­sumed by a wardrobe re­vamp.

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