September 11 2009
The intolerance of the young is really a remarkable thing. If I think back to myself in my mid-20s and imagine what I would make of my older self, I find myself wincing with embarrassment – especially as I have recently been guilty of violating one of my most stern taboos.
I am talking, of course, about denim. Rather like those eager young workaholics who equate ceaseless toil with virtue and claim that they will never want to stop working, I once promised myself that I would never, ever become a middle-aged man in denim. And yet, as I sit here, my 44-year-old fingers dancing over the keyboard, I look down to see my legs covered in the even indigo of an old (I should probably say vintage) pair of Mr Strauss’s eponymous denim trousers. Although I find it hard to explain to my younger self, I have become what I long despised – an older man in jeans. Yes, jeans.
I suppose I should overcome my phobia of the person I have become, but I still find it difficult to reconcile my growing collection of jeans with the wardrobe of really rather nice clothes that I have built up over the past 25 years. As a youngster I wanted to demonstrate my difference and in the 1970s and early 1980s this meant wearing vintage suits and ties rather than the demotic denim that was the uniform of the time. And then, in 1982 I think it was, The Face magazine came out with a cover showing a man’s backside in a pair of distressed jeans. The coverline, as far as I can remember, was: “Hard Times – Whatever Happened to the Zoot Suit”.
It made a great impression on me. In fact, I think it is safe to say that my 17-year-old life was destroyed. At that age I was all about striped suits, kipper ties, vivid silk pocket handkerchiefs, keychains, collar pins, trench coats and Basil Rathbone-era, Sherlock Holmes-style tweed overcoats. Every Saturday I would escape from my boarding school armed with a copy of the West Sussex County Times, which listed the jumble sales where I found much of my wardrobe, including my then proudest possession – a 1920s dining suit. I took my style tips from old films, was obsessed with lapel widths and had just made a solemn vow to myself that henceforward I would only wear bow ties. And then all of a sudden I was being asked to junk my suits and get with the Hard Times Zeitgeist, which, as far as I could determine, meant buying a perfectly good pair of jeans and destroying them with a razor blade and pumice stone.
Apparently, it was all Margaret Thatcher’s fault for giving us the recession (yes, I am old enough to remember when a recession was a normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill occurrence for which it was important to be correctly dressed, rather than harbinger of the end of the world). But I couldn’t help taking it rather personally. And I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I had just invested in a very natty pair of plus fours (I still have them); my style god was Terry-Thomas and not Robert Elms (I subsequently met Elms, and he is a very nice man); but it was no use, and by the time I was at university I had entered into an uneasy pact with jeans.
While my fellow undergraduates Boris Johnson, Jacqui Smith and David Cameron were busy planning lofty careers as our national legislators, I was wrestling with my soul, trying desperately to reconcile my addiction to fine tailoring with the seemingly inexorable rise of denim. Hooray Henrys wore them with Barbours and chunky knitwear, trendies wore them with Bass Weejun loafers and polo-neck sweaters – and I finally knew the meaning of peer pressure.
It wasn’t so much the Nick Kamen advertisements in which we saw an epicene young man with a quiff take off his trousers and put them into a washing machine, nor the sequel that was clearly inspired by the wonderful Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer that gave rise to what religious people call “doubts” about my faith in suits and tweeds. It was, rather, a very clever print campaign that asked well-known designers to accessorise a pair of Levi’s jeans with items of their own make.
If jeans were good enough for Paul Smith, who was one of the designers enlisted by Levi’s, then they were good enough for me. I even remember that one afternoon in my study I created my own still life as a homage: I had just been to New York for the first time and had brought back a pair of Levi’s 501s with a particularly long leg, to which I added a ranger-style western belt, a pair of cape buck brogues by Church’s and a Madras cotton checked jacket in brown and black. I dare say that my contemporaries were revising for their Finals or putting the finishing touches to their maiden speeches in the House of Commons, but then, as now, clothes (and backgammon) were uppermost in my mind.
For a while, I even digressed into a flirtation with white jeans. I am a fan of the Antonioni film Blow-Up – which you can either view as a piece of pretentious twaddle or a 1960s masterpiece – and at the time I was particularly taken with David Hemmings’ outfit of blazer and white jeans. For a while after graduating I used to wear this out to nightclubs along with blue suede Gucci shoes.
And then I joined the working world (well, sort of) and for a period of almost 20 years, jeans left my life for good, I thought. Their place, should casual trousers be needed, was taken by a pair of cotton drill chinos, and that, or so I thought, was that. Until a couple of years ago, that is, when I walked into Timothy Everest’s little shop in the mews just off Berkeley Square.
Looking back, I suppose it had to happen. Chinos had just become too appallingly dad-like and it is one of the eternal truths of fashion that we all try and look like what we are not; videlicet my teenaged attempts to look like Terry-Thomas and Basil Rathbone. And, much as I love my children and believe them to be the best thing that has ever happened to me, there was no way of getting round the fact that I was now a dad and I had better watch it in case I caught myself looking like one, dressing “practically” and all that.
What I liked about Timothy Everest’s jeans was not so much the jeans themselves as the culture around them. I still have a suit that Tim made for me back in 1990 and he and I have always understood one another when it comes to clothes, so I reasoned that if Everest had managed to convince himself of the rectitude of denim, then I should think about reviewing my prejudices. He invited me to try a pair. It transpired that Everest was inspired by the Japanese attitude to denim, which combines a forensic attention to detail with a sense of reverence that elevates certain examples to the level of museum-quality art. There is nothing new in this; I remember that certain arcane items of denim apparel were fetching huge sums 20 years ago when I put away my jeans for good. But by presenting me with a fresh cultural context for jeans, Everest enabled me to reconsider them.
Pretty soon I was seeing jeans wherever I went – there were jeans at Dunhill, there were jeans at Etro and there were, of course, jeans at Ralph Lauren. I saw stylish men such as Tim Jefferies wearing jeans. When I asked Neapolitan tailor Mariano Rubinacci which pair of trousers he would recommend wearing with a certain boldly checked cloth, he had no hesitation in suggesting jeans. And when chatting to Hilary Freeman, managing director of fine shoemakers Edward Green, about what trousers to wear with a pair of two-tone brogues, he suggested, “They’d look wonderful with a pair of jeans.”
Jeans, it appeared, were the sartorial panacea. It was the old Paul Smith thing again. After all, huge international brands, shoemakers, bespoke tailors and Tim Jefferies can’t all be wrong… So, I capitulated. I was finally catching on to what everyone else had known all along: there really is no shame in having a pair of jeans. Like all addictions, it started in a small way. I had planned on allowing myself a sole pair of Levi’s to wear in the privacy of my own home, then I got adventurous and walked into the office of GQ editor Dylan Jones wearing a pair. Instead of going into shock, he merely complimented me on my casual look – as well as being well-mannered, Jones demonstrated that it is possible to have a carefully assembled ensemble including jeans noticed, just as it is with a suit.
Already, and it’s only been a year, jeans have begun to change my life. When I was last in New York I even went as far as seeking out a jean shop called Henry Lehr in downtown New York. I don’t go downtown – my idea of New York heaven is staying at The Carlyle and never going below 60th Street – and yet there I was in what I imagine is a funky shop, complete with saloon-bar-style changing-room doors that reminded me of the denim emporia of the 1970s. It was at Henry Lehr that I got into J Brand jeans.
I now find myself looking for excuses to wear jeans. I’ve begun to augment my collection of fancy belt buckles and started looking for telltale patches of blue in a jacket that will enable me to wear it with jeans. I certainly have no intention of saying goodbye to my suits and I can’t see myself becoming a jeans fanatic just yet. But – and I know it sounds odd to say this – after all this time, I find jeans exhilarating. After years of wearing just suits and flannel trousers, jeans feel different. However, I rather suspect that to anybody who is unaware of my recent conversion, I look like that being I thought I would never become – a middle-aged man in jeans.