Connect with:

Standard Blog Whole Post

Leather looks tribal and always will, says Robin Dutt

Some might opine that leather has had a bad press. Undoubtedly useful as this ancient material is, it carries with it often psychological significance and curious connections. But it is not only for the denizens of Soho, seeking entertainment, nor yet the would-be biker rock and roller – who works in Greggs. Banish the very idea of Herr Flick or Herr von Smallhausen in floor-sweeping trench coats in ‘Allo, ‘Allo! from your mind and also put out of your mind the burly foundry worker in a kiln fire-crusted, stained gillet. And as for Del Boy… No. Leather can be a pleasure and in the tailoring world it is regarded as another functional material with properties and qualities that it uniquely possesses. It is a versatile, seductive material that is transformative. A good leather garment really does have a personality of its own.

One often wonders why, in certain quarters, items are stamped, “Genuine Leather” or “Real Leather”? Unless it is Pleather, Vegan-Leather, Faux Leather, Leatherette, PU Leather or plainly, Artificial Leather, one has to say that leather is, after all…simply, leather – but, like people, divided into classes. Perhaps it goes back to even relatively modern times when if an item was made of the skin of cows, oxen, sheep, goats, pigs, deer or what you will (each animal origin having its own distinct name of leather type) because of the husbandry and tending required over years, to nurture the skins was costly to acquire and so the customer had to know that it was real. Indeed, the skin is a by-product and a valuable one at that – from purely farm-functional garb to the most glossy of couture items. Over time, leather has proved time and again its magnetism as, even in fashion circles, investment pieces or pedestrian essentials. The plain fact of the matter is that even if you are not a fan of leather you just might have more than you think in your wardrobe made of the stuff – and I don’t mean footwear. Accessories, trimmings, weekend jackets and the like all count. In a sense for some a go-to material, it is for others not even thought about.

Of course, the crafting of the hides of animals (first wild and then also domesticated) can really be traced back to the time before humankind crafted language. After the kill, there was the thrill (and necessity of fashioning skins into clothes). The ancient Egyptians and Romans were masters of leather tanning and sculpting, realising the material as both attractive and durable. And, from these bygone days through the mediaeval times, innovations and improvements in the leather processes of production ensured better qualities and versatilities. The invention of better leather tooling and cutting devices made work in these matters more efficacious and although still a costly material (as it is, in general, even today) the demand and spread of the very idea of wearing leather has enshrined it as something of a staple – but one with many layers of use.

In tailoring, couture, ready-to-wear and even the high street, leather boasts a contemporary presence. Much of this influence can be traced back to the use of leather in nut brown jackets, first introduced in the 1900s for the militia. And then of course the 1920s saw Irving Scott create the first leather motorcycle jacket for Harley Davidson and what the rebels of the 1950s Hollywood scene did for variations on a biker theme such as Marlon Brando and James Dean is still evident today and probably always will have a resonance. It spelt, “Rebel”. And when the punks took to the stage in the 1970s, what was the one item that screamed brash individuality from rooftop and basement alike? The leather biker’s jacket; but in this case, and probably not quite as ever before, that jacket was scarred by slogans, pinned with safety pins, badged, studded and deliberately cut into and torn. Too perfect was too pedestrian. Leather looked tribal. And always will.

And then, what did David Sylvian rock up in on the cover of Quiet Life, Steve Strange on The Anvil and Bryan Ferry on The Bride Stripped Bare (left)? The effect is, even today, immediate, in each different case. Rebellious poses here were struck without resorting to the biker model, just sleek, beautifully tailored leather.

Leather remains a superb source material for designer craftsmen and classic tailors who understand how effective it can look from catwalk to street. Its durability (and, yes, it can get better with age and wear too) makes it a partner in crime to the wearer and sends out a definite message. That message is still redolent of something suave and dangerous in many quarters and for many wearers. It is an aspect of the uniform of intent. Gianni Versace was a superb visionary of tailored, sculpted leather, lending those who wore his early examples a high-octane gloss and, in his case, made chicly ironic by the gilt Medusa buttons which made his male models a hedonistic, impossibly beautiful army of celestial soldiers. The lavish elaborate stitching hinted at luxe de luxe and the hand of an artist. High catwalk camp it might have been but serious street theatricality it was too. And it was all so obscenely expensive which was part of the magnetism. Contrast the sleek, cocktail, streamlined blazer examples from such Houses as Gucci, Hermes, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren and this will show how versatile leather can be. All four Houses are practically interchangeable when it comes to displaying the sotto voce timelessness of what leather should be – no fashion, just passion to prove a point. As for the classic revisited Yves Saint Laurent trench in leather, it simply hasn’t been bettered.

As (good heavens!) Albert Einstein said, “one leather jacket solves the coat problem for many years”. Indeed, you can even purchase the replica (and very chic and functional) jacket, a favourite of the genius from Leathercult for a comparative song.

Respected British brands such as Aquascutum and Dunhill (in their day) and tailors, Gieves and Hardy Amies know what to do with leather. In the case of the former, the House once produced a very limited range (26 in the edition) of sculpted leather jackets with army chevron and coiled swirl-domes on one shoulder and arm, hinting at gladiatorial decoration/protection. Proudly, their “No 1 Savile Row” address-logo, snakes around the collar. Vivienne Westwood often incorporates a certain “fit and flow” approach to her leather or suede garb as in the legendary (and eminently collectable Chico jacket) – boxy and youthful with more than a hint of the irreverent; Tailored and tumbledown at the same time. Indeed, very Chico Marx. This is the very opposite of the sculptured tailoring of that leather supremo pair, Whittaker-Malem who since 1988 have been slicing and sculpting leather in an extraordinary way and have worked for, among others, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. Their costume design can be appreciated in films such as Die Another Day, The Dark Knight and 300: Rise of an Empire.

But can you get leather wrong? Of course! You can be too old for it. You’ll know when! If it really doesn’t suit your frame – don’t do it. A sausage, a good silhouette does not make… And there is a reason why black is the only real incarnation for a seriously-taken leather item (unless you are in the country) or are experimental – but still tasteful. Wearing black leather is a personal campaign. It is as to clothing yourself in a slice of sculpted night – full of clandestine adventure.

And if that’s all too much for you…there are alternatives in the soft fabrics department.

Leather looks tribal and always will, says

Exhibition News 

No one quite does florals like the celebrated jewellers, Van Cleef & Arpels, writes Robin Dutt. The company’s lusciously simple and elegant settings for their flawless gems are world renowned and often feverishly collected. I remember so well, a ‘happening’ at London’s Home House, more than a decade or so ago, when the unique and chic Joan Rolls organised a series of mis-en-scenes featuring performers (ballet dancers, opera singers and statuesque models) in many of the well appointed suites, each chamber informed by a single glorious example of the craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels, which was established in 1906. Vincent Meylan in ‘Van Cleef & Arpels :Treasures and Legends’, (2011) points out – ‘Van Cleef & Arpels was not merely a purveyor of jewels to men and women who possessed – and still possess – colossal fortunes, but also their confidant’.

This season, the well-respected photographer, Mika Ninagawa (pictured above) will show her take on some of the jewellery house’s floral gems in almost impossibly vibrant colour. Flowers are transient, living gems – something that the talented jeweller, JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) as another prime exemplar, would understand so perfectly – the joy being their ephemeral essence and so all the more precious. Seasons remind that you cannot force the hand of Nature and so capturing their spirit of life in natural and often rare gemstones is an attractive reminder of the magic and intensity of a variety of buds and blooms – from the very simplest fruit blossom to the complexity of shade and pattern seen in say, an orchid. Ninagawa knows this only too well, as her love of Sakura (Japanese cherry blossom, in blush pink) shows which has a specific bloom time in Spring, is an international tourist attraction and indeed, a much loved domestic delight and source of national pride. The artist spends days at a time, photographing these ballerina blooms in different light and from different angles producing unusual and stunning effects.

The current exhibition, ‘Florae’ features some 100 flower-inspired jewellery masterworks but is it Art imitating Nature or Nature imitating Art? Either way, the result is indulgently glorious and a seduction of the senses.

Hotel d’Evreux, Place Vendome, Paris, France until November 14.

Exhibition News  No one quite does florals like

Almost any book on fashion legends will have an instant audience and especially at this time of year, says Robin Dutt.

With international fashion catwalks having very largely returned following various Lock Downs and Slow Downs and the homogenising nature of Zoom shows, we might be able to be a little more confident in the future of fashion. Many publishers are planning several fashion titles to whet the appetite as part of this return to flair and fit. Part of Frances Lincoln’s series about fashion greats, ‘Icons With Attitude’ these two livres de poches (for so they are) are manageable and fit perfectly into this season’s capacious raincoat pockets. The subtitle (with obviously more in the pipeline, one presumes) is ‘What Coco Chanel/Alexander McQueen – ‘Can Teach you about Fashion’. But don’t let that put you off. These are not designed for the student alone and contain page after page of delightful quotes, stories and, of course, images – some seen for the first time for many readers. Ms Chanel, it would seem, has much to say on every subject in the fashion arena and some gems include these – ‘Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman’, ‘Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance.’ and ‘The best colour in the whole world is the one that looks good on you.’ Sound advice and views, indeed.

From McQueen, we have observations such as, ‘Clothes and jewellery should be startling, individual’, ‘I use things that people want to hide in their heads. War, religion, sex:’ and ‘When you see a woman in my clothes you want to know more about them’.

Caroline Young penned the Chanel book and Ana Finel Honigman wrote the McQueen and, in relatively short texts, cover much ground, reminding the reader of the lasting legacy of two very different and two highly respected talents, the world over. The archival shots of Chanel are especially engrossing and perhaps to be expected, the ‘shock value’ catwalk imagery of McQueen, worn by celebrity models such as Stella Tennant, Kristen McMenamy and the much missed fashion icon, Isabella Blow who bought McQueen’s final college runway collection. In the former, we see the couturier at work in her atelier, lounging at home in timeless luxury or modelling her own creations in her early days, by the sea. McQueen’s catwalk shots remind of his dark and dangerous edginess incorporating tailored military suiting, bondage influences or the use of bones and horns, feathers and lace which somehow do not look surreal or out of place at all.

So whilst these are not ‘How To’ books (even though some may still feel they might have an element of this) it must be remembered that both contain material which really does conjure the spirits of these two stellar artists whose take on individuality and glamour whilst being so different is not at odds when it comes to creative vigour and verve.

Coco Chanel and Alexander McQueen published by Frances Lincoln, £12.99 each.

Almost any book on fashion legends will

It’s always a problem. Snaffling away evening trinkets by the bedside table, writes Robin Dutt.

Why only the other night, this writer thought he lost his 1930s sapphire ring which only on returning to the scene of the ‘crime’ (and resigned to its loss) discovered it between the creased sheets of a worrisome bed. The answer to assuage concern must be Ettinger’s collection of elegant goat leather boxes with a reassuring snap fastening which will store your night time jewels, ensuring you will only have sweet dreams.

Whilst the concept of a bedside leather box or tray is nothing new, the company gently reminds that as a gentleman and perhaps, that (still) gentleman having enjoyed an evening’s revels must take care of his jewels. A signet ring seems wedded to the pinky but what about studs, tie bars, stick pins? There are especially 18th century stories a-plenty concerning those who sought out the cleaning jobs at grand houses and semi palaces, where they could be sure that amidst the detritus left by pleasure and combing through filth and vomit, there just might be lost diamonds and gold accessories which fell from wigs and coats in abundance. Nice work if you can get it, as someone once sang…

Ettinger’s boxes are made from this versatile Capra leather and lined with butter soft suede, the former being available in jet black, forest green and marine blue. And the newest addition to the range is the oblong valet, the ideal place to keep jewellery, watches and pens and even spectacles. How many times have you lost yours temporarily down the back of a sofa? It happens! Robert Ettinger commented: “We are always excited when launching new products, collections and colours but this new Capra Ecru really is a lovely combination of colours and materials. It is also the only collection where we have a contrasting leather and suede combination as usually, we complement the two.”

So, whilst one won’t quite vote for abstinence when it comes to a night’s jolly, if you have an Ettinger at home, you won’t lose your diamonds in the sheets – or anywhere else, for that matter. Rest easy, as you turn out the lights…

Capra Ecru Small Stud and jewellery Box £120
Capra Ecru Large jewellery roll – £160
Valet trays from £105

It's always a problem. Snaffling away evening


It is surely a given. Unless your choice is supremely judicious, a bag can simply ruin the silhouette of your suiting. You don’t need a cross-body to trammel your intent – useful as that can be for shall we say, a hands-free experience?  Even an example carried in your hand might ruin, that all important ‘line’.

I have always been a fan of elegant bags – streamlined, linear, reliable, glossy. But I have learnt a most important lesson, which to most will or could seem obvious. The more capacious, the more cram.

I have a small collection of vintage briefcases – and one especially for musical scores, with the tell-tale steel bar.  They are of no particular provenance, but the Dolphin label, handmade example delights and also the Parisian Texier document case with the retractable handles so you can carry and clutch.

And then, my sturdy barrel-chested Italian opera star of a conveyance, my cherry-black Condotti, with the Arctic white overstitch, hinting at a suiting pin or chalk stripe looking at any moment to break into ‘O Sole Mio’!  Another for high days and holidays is a Moroccan saddle bag studded with ancient coinage.

If you are in the market for a good bag for whatever purpose, do have a checklist of how you’d like it to perform for you. For me, the inclusion of an outer pocket for the newspaper and immediately get-attable choses is an instant attraction and of course, it has to be streamlined.

Somehow (beloved of the French and Italians) the ‘clutch’ bag with a wrist strap does a suit no favours and, however masculine might be one’s bent, a simple thing like this spells ‘fey’. And of course, there is nothing wrong with that if, fey’s your way.

So, thank heavens that Sandquist is on hand – literally. A particular favourite with the style brigade who like their generously styled box bags which are thankfully deliberately anonymous, these accessories complement your suits and add an elegant dimension of their own.

They may be roomy but crucially, they are slim too. Could this be really possible? Yes. Sanquist bags make you seem that you are carrying a work of art, in the finest, minimalist taste.

Sandquist is renowned for being ground breakers in the eco-friendly stakes, too and their Soho-based boutique has a more than fine selection of cases and bags for the discerning gent.

All products of the brand are made using organic cotton or vegetable-tanned leather and all synthetic materials contain recycled fibres. These bags are so metropolitan, so simple and classic that, in some cases, playfully oversize, they still look totally correct.

And they won’t ruin the cut of yer jib.


THE LAST DETAIL: By Robin Dutt It is