Swellboy on... the joys of the gilet

Nick Foulkes recalls the deep Damascene moments on his road to sleeveless enlightenment. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

My first encounter with a Loro Piana gilet, a little over a quarter of a century ago, is indelibly imprinted upon my mind. It was a sleeveless body of quilted oatmeal-coloured cashmere with a ribbed collar that buttoned up to the throat like a poloneck. To my everlasting regret I did not purchase this garment. Mirabile dictu, I needed to have Loro Piana explained to me, although in my defence, Sergio Loro Piana, with whom I later became friendly, had only just opened his first store in Manhattan and would not open another until 1999 in Milan.

Happily, I did not have to wait that long. In 1997 I was on one of those gritty, hazardous frontline assignments that I undertook in my youth, before I had a family to be responsible for. I was staying at The Breakers hotel, researching a landmark piece of journalism on how to carry off pastel resortwear while driving a metallic-nutmeg (or was it cinnamon?) convertible Rolls-Royce around the Mizner houses of Palm Beach. It was a corker: had I qualified, it would have been a Pulitzer contender. But as it happens, I came away with something far more wearable than an industry award: in The Breakers’ boutique, I saw an egg-yolk-yellow example of the gilet I had missed in London and snapped it up.

I was not just buying a covering for my torso – I was purchasing an entry ticket to a way of life. BLP (Before Loro Piana), my vision of the gilet had been the functional pine-needle-coloured, quilted-nylon things worn by drivers of knackered Volvos that smelt of damp dogs. By contrast, this gilet conjured a world of evenings on the Amalfi Coast or sunrise among the pink peaks of the Dolomites; worn with pastel knitwear and tortoiseshell sunglasses, it made me look (at least in my mind’s eye) like an Italian industrialist deciding whether to take the helicopter or the yacht for a spin. 

In reality, I looked like an anaemic northern European in a bright sleeveless garment. As a counterpoint, I needed something indisputably urban and suitable for the leaden skies of London – happily, a couple of years later I found a black leather example at Dunhill (there is a current leather model available in olive, £3,495) and I had the makings of a gilet wardrobe.

My next Damascene moment of gilet revelation came courtesy of fashion’s philosopher-prince Brunello Cucinelli. It is impossible to dislike Brunello: his business practice is guided neither by Harvard Business School nor by INSEAD, but by Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle and Xenophanes, inter alia. It is perhaps by channelling the wisdom of antiquity that Brunello made one of the greatest contributions to modern menswear when he proselytised the wearing of gilets outside sports coats, blazers and even suits. Although there is no evidence to support it, I like to think of Cicero setting off to the Temple of Jupiter to give his first Catiline oration in November 63 BC with a light, down-filled suede gilet shrugged on over his toga. And Brunello has proved just as persuasive a style-setter as Cicero was an orator. BBC (Before Brunello Cucinelli), a gilet outside a jacket would have seemed only slightly less counterintuitive than wearing one’s underwear over one’s trousers. Now it has entered the canon of acceptable wear. I have not succumbed to this trend, but I have fallen for any number of Cucinelli gilets – including a linen sleeveless one (£1,150) with metal buttons in tobacco, out this season.  

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And that is the beauty of the gilet; it has expanded from a functional niche to a gloriously expressive range of wardrobe options. Alessandro Sartori at Zegna talks of its versatility with true reverence: “You can layer it, use it as underpinning or outerwear.” Being well acquainted with me, he knows not to speak of performance fabrics and what have you, and instead heads straight to the “luxury line of jersey cashmere and silk in gauges from 250g to 650g; and waterproof silk with cashmere lining. It is one of our new bespoke categories.” 

My only cavil with the gilet is that by its nature, while it is sometimes known as a bodywarmer, it could conversely be called an arm-cooler. Unfortunately, my physiology is such that it is not my torso but my arms that feel the cold, which is why I was delighted, when visiting Bel & Cia in Geneva, that Daniel Ballbe showed me a suede gilet (€1,970) with sleeves of knitted cashmere – in other words, a blouson disguised as a gilet and a piece of knitwear.

I am happy to see similar wit in Virgil Abloh’s way with gilets (cotton blend, £2,340) over at Louis Vuitton. Mr Abloh has a theory he calls “accessomorphosis”. The nice PR was thoughtfully spelling that for me when I told her that of course I knew how to spell it. She asked how I knew, given that he’d only just coined this neologism. My answer was: “When you know, you know.” Men like me and Mr Abloh are of a mind when it comes to knowing about the serious things in life such as gilets, or “utility vests”, as they are called at Vuitton.

Abloh’s genius has been to equip them with “archive pockets” created in the shape and size of small leather goods found in the Louis Vuitton archives: for example, the Pochette, Kasai, Zippy and Brazza. I sense a new era opening before me; no longer will I just fall for a gilet – I will also need to lay my hands on the necessary accessories to fit into the specially shaped pockets.

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