Handmade Clothes for a Self-Made Man

Behind the scenes of Alan Flusser Custom’s partnership with New York City bandleader and Jazz Age Lawn Party founder Michael Arenella. By Andrew Yamato

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   September 2017

   September 2017

Photo: Geoffrey Berliner/ Penumbra Foundation

Photo: Geoffrey Berliner/ Penumbra Foundation

By Andrew Yamato

“Timeless style” has always been a bit of trap. Timeless, traditional, classic — these axiomatic virtues of fine menswear all suggest the immutable permanence of a bronze statue. But clothing is dynamic, fashion is fluid, and those who aspire to transcend trend with “Golden Age” style often end up looking like they’re off to a costume party. It’s a dilemma I’ve personally pondered countless times as a recreational dresser myself, determined to dress classically while strenuously resisting the odious charge of “nostalgist.” It’s also been an ongoing concern for the man most responsible for creating today’s cult of the sartorial past in the first place: one of my own personal style gurus and — since February, my boss — Alan Flusser.

Part of my job has been to help promote the brand of Alan Flusser Custom — the tailoring house in New York City that Flusser has operated for the past 32 years. A central challenge is how to appeal to younger aspirational dressers who might have read Alan’s bestselling and definitive books on classic menswear, but who might be unfamiliar with the beautifully handmade clothes we actually make for clients in accordance with his sartorial principles. Knowing that my friend Michael Arenella — the charismatic young bandleader at the heart of the vibrant “vintage” jazz scene in NYC — was looking for a new tailor to help him update his classic look, I sensed the opportunity for a partnership.

When Michael moved from Georgia to New York City in 1997 at the age of 19, he didn’t have much besides his horn, some big dreams, and a prodigious work ethic. Subway busking gradually gave way to regular gigs around town and a reputation for personally embodying the exuberant style of the 1920s jazz he performed. In 2005, Michael hosted a small gathering of jazz and vintage style aficionados on the as-yet undiscovered idyll of Governor’s Island in New York Harbor: The Jazz Age Lawn Party was born. Twelve years later, it has become one of New York City’s most popular and stylish events, attracting thousands of revelers every summer to dress up in their best linen and seersucker to dance under the trees.

Looking for clothes that paid homage to the heyday of male elegance in the 1920s and 1930s, Michael had first turned to his friend, tailor Michele Savoia. A flamboyant fixture on the New York fashion scene since the early 1980s, the hard-partying Savoia was also a dedicated artisan specializing in retro menswear. His rather theatrical renditions of pre-war styles (often made for the theatre itself) were exactly what Michael was looking for to help establish his own stage presence. By 2013, he had commissioned an entire wardrobe, which Savoia prominently featured in an opulent tent display at the Jazz Age Lawn Party that summer.

Michael was deeply affected by Savoia’s tragic accidental death in February 2014, and wasn’t in any rush to find a new tailor. In time, however, he began to find the swagger of Savoia’s heavily roped shoulders, wide lapels, and Oxford baggy trousers to occasionally be a bit much — especially offstage, where one has to get along with the 21st century. Michael himself was certainly getting along well enough; the Jazz Age Lawn Party had become a staple of the New York social calendar (and favorite hunting ground of late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham), and Michael himself had become a darling of the fashion media, so it was only fitting that he find a more understated look to better reflect his success and substance.

Photo: Geoffrey Berliner/ Penumbra Foundation

Photo: Geoffrey Berliner/ Penumbra Foundation

After coming aboard at Alan Flusser Custom, I knew that our clothes would be a perfect fit for Michael before we took his first measurement. Since the 1970s, Alan himself has been perhaps the world’s most prominent avatar and advocate of classic male style, having codified it in several bestselling books including his lavishly illustrated magnum opus Dressing The Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (Harper Collins, 2002), which has become something of a bible in the menswear trade. Although it has been updated over the years, the Flusser house style remains based on the classic Savile Row drape cut, first made famous by Frederick Scholte for the Prince of Wales in the 1920s, later by Anderson & Sheppard for Fred Astaire in the 1930s – and arguably the baseline of male elegance ever since. Softly constructed by hand with natural shoulders, high armholes, ease built into the chest and back, and trousers cut to sit on the natural waist, it is not only the most shapely and timeless silhouette, but the most comfortable.

Critically, Flusser has never aspired to strict reproduction of traditional Savile Row clothing, believing it generally too stiff and heavy for comfortable wear in today’s more casual and climate-controlled world. Accordingly, while retaining traditional tailoring techniques, we use lighter, more flexible canvas and other internal structure to create softer, more modern garments. Most important are the cloths themselves, which Alan individually curates for each client: technologically advanced fabrics, milled for lighter weight while retaining much of the texture, depth, and drape of the heavier worsteds, flannels, and tweeds so beloved by traditionalists.

The hot weather performance of his clothes is critical to Michael, especially onstage at the June and August Lawn Parties, where the mercury regularly rises well into the 90s. His existing summer wardrobe consisted of traditional standbys like seersucker and linen, but by the third set of the afternoon, these tend to get a bit soggy; Michael once had to write off a brand new pink seersucker three-piece from Savoia that has been too deeply stained from the sweat-soaked leather of his braces to save. At Flusser’s recommendation, Arenella selected summer tropical worsteds for his first two suits from us: a single-breasted, peak-lapelled three-piece in a high/low textured pearl gray 7½ oz Super 120s wool from United Smith Woolens, and a double-breasted navy suit in a 8 oz 60/40 wool and mohair blend from Harrisons. Alan assured Michael that these zephyr-weight cloths — especially the mohair, a house favorite — would admit a breeze while retaining their shape and crispness.  

In creating a new, more mature silhouette for Michael, we sought to moderate some of the more overtly retro elements of his aesthetic, letting Michael’s own athletic physique carry the clothes. Rather than heavily roping and padding the shoulders as Savoia had, we softened them to a more natural expression; trousers, while retaining a full drape through the thigh, became more elegantly tapered; the coat, which Michael previously preferred stolidly ventless, now carried side vents to confer ease and movement. Michael gamely embraced these tweaks to an established personal style which had already won him notice, but ironically he pushed back a bit on a feature one would think he’d find comfortably anachronistic, or at least old-school: pleats. In the end, Alan’s insistence that our forward English-style pleats would best complement the cut of the 3-piece and the drape of both suits prevailed. Thus has Flusser always charted a sartorial course irrespective of fashion’s winds, and thus have his clients benefitted from his taste and knowledge.

Next came shirts — another opportunity to practice classic Flusserian principles of proportion. Alan recommended a taller collar with longer points which would not only fit Michael’s vintage aesthetic (especially when pinned, as he prefers), but which would properly frame and elongate his face. Flusser also ensured that Michael’s cuffs would fit properly — that is, snugly at the wrist, so that even with a longer sleeve (allowing freer movement) the cuff remains in place. Such seemingly mundane details can make all the difference, both in physical comfort and the elegant nonchalance such comfort confers. Alan further left his stamp on Michael’s look by recommending (in addition to staple white, blue, and blue butcher stripe shirts) a Flusser signature style: a pink and white horizontal stripe shirt with white contrast collar and cuffs. “This is the shirt you’ll reach for more than any other,” Alan observed. “It’s a dresser’s shirt.”

Finally, the Custom Shop has always stocked a full line of accessories from the world’s finest makers. Indeed, Flusser can credibly claim to have singlehandedly saved the dying braces industry with his prominent deployment of Eton-striped Thurston suspenders on Michael Douglas’ torso in Wall Street.  Reconciling Alan and Michael’s taste in ties proved to be among our more challenging tasks — no surprise, really, given how much neckwear tends to reflect the wearer’s personality. Alan tends toward a tasteful gorgeousness in his ties, and our selection reflects it: you won’t find a more sumptuous collection of lustrously rich silk anywhere; in contrast, Michael’s more old-fashioned preference in ties is simpler, more understated, arguably boring. In the end, Alan successfully argued for the inherent appeal of a soupçon of sheen in ties destined to be worn onstage, and Michael went home with a half-dozen ties that strike a chic medium between dandified and dignified.

Having now been dialed in over several fittings, Michael’s new Alan Flusser Custom suits debuted at this summer’s second Jazz Age Lawn Party at the end of August. If there is a single person responsible for the Promethean knowledge that’s driving the current revival of interest in classic menswear, with its obsession about detail, proportion and tradition, it is Alan Flusser. We’re looking forward to introducing his clothes and sensibility to a new generation of young men who, like Michael, are calling their own sartorial tunes, unafraid of style for its own sake, who dress up for both work and pleasure, and who do so with knowledge and taste.