Where "Bespoke" Is Spoken Fluently

 
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By Mitchell Owens. New York Times, January 1997

I had tried my best. I wore the chalk-stripe suit. But the verdict was that the shoulders were both too narrow and unnecessarily padded. It turned out that my shirt collar was too low for someone with a long neck. And the one-and-a-half-inch trouser cuffs were deemed meager for someone 6 foot 2 with size 11 feet.

But, Alan Flusser said cheerfully, the ensemble I had so carefully planned wasn't a total loss. Mr. Flusser, the fashion pundit and men's wear designer, called the combination of sky-blue shirt, bronze silk handkerchief and navy tie with brown and cream dots a success.

''Blue and brown is pretty sophisticated,'' he said, sitting down to a takeout lunch in the kitchen of his apartment in the Apthorp, a grand and brooding Edwardian building at Broadway and 79th Street. ''Not many people manage to do it well.''

When Alan Flusser talks (or more often, writes), men who want to look like Cary Grant in ''Bringing Up Baby'' pay close attention. A designer with a custom shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, a snappy ready-to-wear line and three style books to his credit -- ''Style and the Man'' (HarperCollins, $24) has sold 40,000 copies since it was released on Nov. 6 -- Mr. Flusser, 51, is arguably the arbiter of modern American men's wear.

Steven T. Florio, the president of the Conde Nast Publications, wears made-to-order Flusser. So does Bill Beutel, the news anchor and, the designer said, more than a few celebrity financiers and even certain male fashion designers ''who wouldn't appreciate their names being divulged."

Mr. Flusser's talent for romanticized power dressing led in 1988 to his biggest professional breakthrough: suiting up Michael Douglas for his role as the predatory mogul Gordon Gekko in the movie ''Wall Street.'' That commission caused as much of a cultural quake as Ralph Lauren's clothes for Robert Redford in ''The Great Gatsby.'' Sharply tailored but comfortably modern, Mr. Flusser's suits -- call them Corporate Raider Chic -- won the designer plaudits and spawned boardrooms full of Gordon Gekko imitators.

The Flusser sartorial vocabulary is more Astaire than Armani. When Mr. Flusser won a Coty Award, fashion's Oscar, in 1983, John Duka of The New York Times described his look as an ''unforced, stylish reworking of the custom-made garments fashioned by British tailors in the 1930's.''

On a recent afternoon, he wore a chalk-stripe double-breasted suit of supple unlined wool with a bold black, gray and white plaid shirt. ''It's all my stuff, except the Belgian loafers,'' said Mr. Flusser, who grew up in New Jersey among the various Oranges and enjoyed an uneventful childhood marred only by taunting jeans-clad classmates.

''Thank God, I was a good athlete, because if you were a guy who was into clothes then, you automatically had a gender problem,'' said the designer, who has the affable stride and sunny disposition of a golfer, a profession he briefly contemplated. ''I had five different pairs of golf shoes. I wore argyle socks and alpaca sweaters; I loved alpaca sweaters. So you can imagine that most people didn't think I was the most masculine guy walking around.''

The father of Mr. Flusser's high-school girlfriend did not find his wardrobe a laughing matter. Instead, he hired Mr. Flusser, then 16, as his fashion consultant. Then he steered him to what were in effect his first clients. ''He said, 'You take my friends to the tailor, advise them,' '' Mr. Flusser recalled. '' 'They'll pay you some money. Then, the tailor will pay you some money.' ''

''It was better than mowing lawns,'' he added with a laugh.

Mr. Flusser's precocious fashion sense was influenced by his father, Martin, a natty dresser who idolized Fred Astaire. The designer's madeleine is the old-fashioned garter, which brings back memories of his father's dressing for work, garters holding his socks secure, his breast pocket flourishing a handkerchief.

''Maybe I started to learn to like clothes in order to be close to him,'' Mr. Flusser said. ''He was a real estate broker, which meant he could be more fashionable in his wardrobe than, say, a banker. When I was a kid, a great day would be to drive to Brooks Brothers with my father on a Saturday morning, shop and then play some golf.''

After stints at Phillips-Van Heusen and Pierre Cardin, Mr. Flusser went into business for himself in 1980. For a while, he was as much a household word as other made-in-the-80's designers: Alexander Julian, Perry Ellis, Willi Smith.

But in 1993, financial problems -- including debts to investors and shipping delays that caused Bergdorf Goodman, a major client, to reduce its ready-to-wear order by more than half -- led Alan Flusser Enterprises to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Soon after, the custom shops -- two in New York and one in Washington -- were consolidated into a single operation.

Mr. Flusser is sanguine about the whole experience. ''You can't be in fashion without going bankrupt at least once,'' he said.

However reduced his fashion empire might seem now, it is the books and the precision tailoring they celebrate that have secured Mr. Flusser's position as the doyen of faultless style in an increasingly uncompassed fashion world.

When ''Making the Man'' (Simon & Schuster, 1979) and ''Clothes and the Man'' (Villard, 1985) were published, he was surprised by questions asked at his book signings.

''Nobody asked me who is going to be the next Armani,'' Mr. Flusser recalled. ''Instead, they asked questions that were very practical, not fashion-driven at all.'' In short, questions that betrayed a fear of fashion: Can a short person wear a double-breasted suit? What is a Windsor knot?

A more recent concern: casual Fridays. ''That one I just don't understand,'' he admitted, shaking his head. ''Nobody has learned to make clothes for casual Friday because nobody knows what it is.''

His latest book, ''Style and the Man,'' is a Martha Stewart-style guide that demystifies the arcana of male style in ways few people's fathers ever did, no matter how well-dressed they were.

The book also incorporates a gazetteer of his favorite haberdasheries. Among them are Georg Materna in Vienna (home of square-toed suede Alpine mountain shoes), Arnys in Paris (where dandified bohemians like Jean Cocteau bought their clothes) and, of course, the author's own shop.

''Women are aware of clothes from childhood, of how much better you feel and look if you take care with your appearance,'' he said. ''It sounds sexist, but it's true. But so few men know how to tie a tie properly, how to put it into a collar so it's comfortable and stylish. And this is something most of them do every day of their lives.''

Which explains why Mr. Flusser goes to detailed lengths in explaining proper lapel widths, why a jacket with working buttonholes on the sleeves is preferable to one without, why one-sided toggle-back cuff links are anathema and why plain-front trousers were invented (to save fabric during World War II). There is also a handy diagram for the bow-tie-challenged.

''These standards are not rules that I've made up,'' said Mr. Flusser, an ardent student of fashion history. During a discussion of pre-World War II style, he pulled out copies of Adam, a 1930's French fashion magazine. ''Men's clothing was pretty much invented back then, worked out between tailors and clients,'' he said. ''And everybody else followed their lead.''

Mr. Flusser may be the guru of dapper demeanor, but in his home's decor a cheerful anarchy reigns. Instead of the discreetly faded backdrop to go with all that British tailoring, the Flussers' apartment -- which he shares with his wife, Marilise, and their daughters, Skye, 16, and Piper, 13 -- has the comic-book ambiance of a giant pinball machine decorated by Elsie de Wolfe in partnership with Pee-wee Herman.

What isn't covered in eye-popping flowered chintz is painted bubble-gum pink, pollen yellow or robin's-egg blue. A giant neon circus clown dominates the front hall. Christmas ornaments hang year-round from the living room mantel, and giant arrangements of football-size silk flowers blossom on the table tops.

In the kitchen, empty boxes of Lipton tea and Brillo pads are glued side-by-side onto a Pop Art cornice. Like the decorative molding of Ivory Snow boxes in the laundry room, it is the handiwork of Mr. Flusser's wife, a stylist and writer who wears only primary colors and occasionally uses a Minnie Mouse vinyl backpack as a purse.

''Marilise is the original recycler,'' Mr. Flusser said. ''When I met her 25 years ago, there was only one recycling place in New York, under the 59th Street bridge. It was such a hassle taking the garbage there, so she decided to recycle almost everything.''

It is a curiously buoyant setting for a sheik of suave. But hold on -- what are those braids of colored string tied around Mr. Flusser's cuff-linked wrist? Friendship bracelets, it turns out, made by his daughters during a summer vacation.

''They're supposed to rot off in a few weeks,'' he said, brow furrowed. ''But it's been six months already.''