October 10 2010
When Richard E Grant emerged from his gloomy Camden flat in the title role of the 1986 film Withnail and I, who in their right mind would have marked him out as a fashion icon for 2010?
Lost in the folds of a huge flapping military coat – the apogee of baroque ’n’ roll fashion in 1969, the year Bruce Robinson’s tragic comedy is set – Grant’s Withnail is the embodiment of aristocratic cool. A generation on, and that voluminous military coat, combined with layers of knitwear and scarves, has influenced the makers of outdoor wear both directly and indirectly.
If previous Nicole Farhi men have been Mr Comfys in their chunky knits, her current gent seems to have wandered back from the Crimea. The look is dark and layered, and as low-tech as they come. “He is the quintessential Englishman,” says Farhi of her “new man”. “He’s educated, and has eccentric sensibilities and a colourful family history.” That’ll be Withnail. “He doesn’t take himself seriously, but understands and appreciates quality and intricate detailing,” she continues. Withnail would have looked good in her peat resin-coated fur-collar coat (£800). Resembling a battle-weary leather it is in fact a wax-coated blend of cotton and nylon. According to Farhi, these clothes have a “handed-down” appeal. My favourite piece is an enormous calf-length grey overcoat with brown sheepskin trims on the collar and vast cuffs (£750).
Meanwhile, Zegna’s take on the military coat comes in grey “compact” wool (price on request), again with a huge collar. Burberry Brit has a wool great coat (£995) in black, but it’s more rakish in bracken, with a shearling overcollar. It’s so big you want to surrender to it, with its flap pockets, single back vent and lacquered buttons.
Polo Ralph Lauren has gone military boho too. It has captured “rugged whimsy” in a cool sheepskin-trimmed utility parka (£520), in khaki or safety orange. Also alert to the dangers of being blown away by trigger-happy duck hunters, Prada’s nylon puffa fleece (£990) comes in an orange, tan, black and white camouflage, while Barbour’s down Explorer Gilet (£130) has a bright orange safety lining.
From the US marines in the Korean War to 1960s mods, parkas are now everywhere. The problem for designers is how to improve upon a classic? It’s almost like reinventing the wheel. If you are at Armani Collezioni you can make it in shiny techno wool and trim it with rabbit fur (£795). Or, if you’re at Hermès, you can make it in black waterproof cashmere and line it with nutria fur – a semi-aquatic critter (£11,100).
Vintage military styles abound at Burberry too. The double-dreasted wool dress coat (from £1,395), is a blend of 85 per cent wool and 15 per cent nylon, providing a level of outdoors performance Withnail couldn’t imagine. It comes in dark moss, with epaulets and buttoning-tab cuffs.
Of course, on the list of the many things that men over 40 shouldn’t embark upon is wearing anything with epaulets or brass buttons (the notable exception being a navy blue blazer). For such “middle youth”, Burberry’s parka-esque canvas field jacket (£1,895) is much more wearable – a practical, warm and understated, go-anywhere sheepskin-lined coat. Or they could stick to the man’s man’s coat, the duffel – tried and tested by Jack Hawkins in the film The Cruel Sea and given a slimmer cut by Hackett (£375).
Shearlings (aka sheepskins) have been hovering around the periphery of menswear for a generation, killed off after their epoch in the 1960s, due to their association with sports commentators and used-car salesmen. They are back from the brink and include the unstructured floor-length ones you imagine Afghan shepherds wear, and cut-off updates on the Biggles’ flying jacket. Zegna’s would have looked the part on any first world war Prussian aristocrat. It’s a full-length Japanese denim overcoat with a brown shearling inside (price on request) held in place by a single buckle. Less flamboyant, although more practical, is Zegna’s double-breasted shearling pea coat (£1,850).
Burberry’s really eye-catching items are a range of aviator jackets, waist and calf-length, in canvas or leather sheepskin or with shearling throughout, bristling with as many straps and buckles as an S&M convention (£2,295-£3,495). Meanwhile, Dunhill raided its military archives for a navy version with sheepskin collar (£795, above) and a hooded military parka with a removable wool lining (£995). The water-resistant and breathable wool and beaver shawl collar three-in-one coat (£2,995) is the most pricey, but it does include a removable down-filled gilet with beaver trim.
One of my favourite garments this winter comes from Rapha, the gentleman cyclist’s outfitter. Teaming up with City of London tailor Timothy Everest, it has devised a Savile Row-style blazer (£400) for the chap who doesn’t want to look like a Day-Glo shrink-wrapped ham on his bicycle: single-breasted check with stretchy arm gussets, hems that button the front panels up and out of the way the legs, and lapels that button down. Rapha doesn’t claim that it’s waterproof, but it is water-resistant and looks as smart on the way to the office as in it.
Of course, this isn’t the only work jacket around. Barbour is keeping the spirit of flat-top motoring alive with a car coat. It commissioned Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida, who has taken to posing in a cravat like a true gent, to produce a range of functional jackets: for cycling, field sports, motorcycling and driving (£479). With its 8oz “velvet bloom” finish waxed cotton and detachable helmet-style hood, it might be a bit OTT for most modern cars (especially those with roofs). But for sporty topless ones it’s the very thing.
Quilting has been a long time coming, but I think it is fair to say that it has finally arrived in 2010. The “diamond” quilting used in garments hundreds of years ago was initially worn beneath armour to prevent chafing. It cropped up again in the early part of the 20th century on the outside of smoking jackets. These were worn after dinner to protect a chap’s clothes from falling ash. (Less clear is why convention dictated they be worn in conjunction with a de-tasselled fez.)
In the late 1970s, the quilted jacket was adopted by both the equestrian and skiing fraternities, perhaps due to its military – and thereby upper-class – connotations. And it may have remained there had not the Italians, in their desire to dress like the English aristocracy, taken quilting into mainstream fashion. And there is no better yardstick of its current popularity than flicking through Barbour’s 2010 catalogue. The South Shields company, which launched its first quilt – the now legendary Liddesdale (from £69.95) – back in 1979, has added no fewer than eight men’s quilts to its collection. These range from the Bardon quilt (£149.95), which has a storm flap, and the Motor Cycling quilt (£249) to the Down Wax jacket (£279.95), a light 4oz waxed-cotton cost with a detachable hood and chest-height hand-warmer pockets.
For sheer warmth, though, nothing comes close to a Canada Goose coat with polyester/cotton mix on the outside and duck down inside. With quilted squares the size of place mats, they may not be as elegant as Barbours, Ralph Laurens or Belstaffs but, boy, are they snug. I first encountered them last winter in Venice, where every water-taxi driver on the icy crossing from Marco Polo Airport wore a fur-trimmed quilted parka bearing the badge of the company in Toronto that has been making them since 1957. These are the default winter wear for Canada Rangers and Swedish cross-country ski instructors.
Canada Goose is one of those companies that tweaks its range according to technology rather than the whims of fashion. So this year it has the Banff Parka (£580), with a slimmer profile than previous garments and a removable coyote-trimmed ruff. More interesting, though, is the HyBridge jacket (£550), which moves into the realm of skiwear. Knockout in fire-engine red with white stripes around the upper arms (there are other colourways available), it incorporates Thermal Mapping Technology, a fancy way of saying the jacket has secondary layers of white duck down fitted in such a way as not to impede activities such as skiing or hiking.
Hackett’s take on the quilt is the handsome Paddock Jacket (£300) with box-shaped quilting. But, for my money, Nicole Farhi’s obsession with the elegantly wasted male comes up trumps again. Her quilt is reversible (£570): a classic tweed on one side with a satin quilt on the other. It’s the sort of practical garment of which Withnail would have approved. Farhi explains: “The pieces have a worn, loved, familiar feel to them – as if they have been in the wardrobe for years and may have belonged to a father or even grandfather...” And when you’re cold, who better to turn to than an old, dear friend?