I used to love wearing Havana suits (aka matching shirt and shorts) in Madras checks when travelling in hot countries, teamed with trainers or Gucci loafers. I was convinced a Madras check could carry me effortlessly from the edginess of a shebeen to the fanciest of yachts. And I was mostly right: a strong Madras check seemed to get a good reception at every port of call. It’s no surprise – the slubby cotton, traditionally handwoven in Madras (now Chennai), with the same pattern on both sides is a jubilant cloth, telegraphing positive energy.
Oliver Spencer, a man who isn’t scared of putting multiple checks together, and is always offering cool new fabrics, has put Madras front and centre this summer, so it goes without saying that I love the collection. The New York Special shirt (£95) with matching tailored shorts (£120) in his Whitley pink/stone/amber Madras cotton/linen is beautiful, complete with uneven hues and slubs – just as authentic Madras should have. “We used Madras for jackets too,” Spencer told me. “An intricate check in a light, cotton seersucker – which seemed perfect for our bomber shape [£360].”
Spencer’s collection is part of a raft of super-lively Madras and Madras-inspired fabrics in play this season. Not least of these are shirts in wrinkle-resistant (£115) or crisp Oxford cotton (£125) from Brooks Brothers, as well as a revised Madras cotton sports coat (£725) – now slimmer, with high armholes and “picked-stitched” edges on the lapels and hems – and a Madras shirt (£85) with a turquoise/navy/white check from its Red Fleece line. Brooks Brothers’ links with Madras checks are the stuff of legend, owing to Madras cotton’s tendency to bleed if it’s real. This was something that Brooks Brothers was compelled to address in 1958 by brokering the publication of an article called “Bleeding Madras – the miracle hand-woven fabric from India”, reportedly intended to put a positive spin on a batch of bleeding Madras they’d acquired. “Guaranteed to bleed” became the tagline; it must have worked, because the shirts from that era are now extremely sought-after and command serious cachet with aficionados of preppy style.
Indeed, Madras is a lynchpin of the preppy American summer code. Just why arguably comes down to Elihu Yale, the ignominious East India Company president/slave trader/sometime British governor of Madras, who, in the 1700s, shipped swathes of the fabric to the Collegiate School in the then-colony of Connecticut – a school that eventually acknowledged his patronage by renaming itself after him. Madras came to be seen as a sort of badge of British Empire status, almost like tropical tartan.
Vivienne Westwood has some excellent new Madras-inspired tartans for summer, blowing up her signature checks to ramp up their impact. Her waistcoat-cum-jacket (£620) in cream with a red/green check has matching trousers (£340) or shorts (£304), but the best piece is the oversized grey and olive Harrington-style jacket (£840). At Polo Ralph Lauren, a vibrant Madras-inspired patchwork of checks – another preppy motif – is used for more outerwear, such as a cotton duffel coat (£795) and field jacket (£345), as well as more typically traditional pieces like the Morgan sports coat (£445).
More restrained takes include Camoshita’s ramie/cotton grandad-collar shirt (£360) in a muted cocoa and blue combination that’s “inspired by farmers”, says founder-designer Yasuto Kamoshita; and Madras-inspired shirts from Inis Meáin in a refined, tawny raw silk/linen ($360) – founder Tarlach de Blácam says he wanted colours “that would be reminiscent of the [Aran] islands’ landscape”.
Other urbane takes can be found at Cifonelli; the new ready-to-wear line, inspired by archive cloths, reworks Madras checks in cashmere/silk. There’s a smashing pair of taupe trousers (£495) that work with a plain overshirt; a tan one-button suit (£3,000); a multilayered, light-grey check safari-inspired jacket with leather yoke detailing (£2,100); and a showstopping three-button chocolate suit (£3,000). In a similar vintage vein is Camoshita’s naturally dyed “summer tweed” jacket (£800) in tropical-weight linen, which feels very traditional, in a British country house-style way.
Modern Madras variations come from Italian brand The Gigi. The Ziggy double-breasted unstructured jacket (£595), a seasonal staple based on a naval pea coat, looks great this season in a superb blue, black and fawn Madras cotton; the cool blue and white Polaris overshirt (£215, main picture), with mother-of-pearl snaps, comes in a soft Tencel/cotton/linen Madras mix; and the Angie jacket (£650), in a vibrant ultramarine and red Madras-inspired polyester mesh, is breathable and comfortable. Z Zegna has taken a sporty angle too – take the navy and beige check stretch-cotton wide-leg chinos (£375) and matching Moscova jacket with patch pockets (£875).
Single-pattern Madras style is a safe and sure path to on-point preppy weekend style. But putting check upon check is also a strong look. My own plan is to hang convention and create some rich Madras clashes this summer.