Men's Wear, 1983 - American Designer Profile: Modern Traditionalists

Clothes maketh the man. Alan Flusser in his everyday work attire–the perfect English gentleman from New York, show how it should be done”.

Men’s Wear, October 27, 1983

“If you want to find British tradition kept alive, look to the U.S. Two of the most distinctive American Designers, Alan Flusser and Alexander Julian–take a large part of their inspiration from the classic looks of the English gentleman of the 1930s–and come to the British Isles for their cloth too. Coincidentally, both are bringing to men’s dressing an intellectual and articulate approach which is highly relevant to today. Deputy editor Eric Musgrave interviewed them in their New York showrooms.”

By Eric Musgrave

Go into most fashion showrooms in New York and you will be greeted by the sound of the local pop or funk radio station coming over the sound system. Enter Alan Flusser’s showroom and you hear the “30s bass of Fats Waller being played. With covers of French men’s magazines from between the wars decorating the walls, the mood is definitely retrospective.

Alan Flusser himself is best defined by the word dandy: “a person devoted to smartness, esp of costume.” By his own admission, he is fascinated by clothes and he has made a success in the U.S. of serving the growing number of men who appreciated that there is more to dressing than just putting on clothes.

Although he gets most publicity from fashion editors for his tailored clothing which is inspired by the classic English looks of the 1930s, his main commercial business is sportswear, the field in which the Americans excel. He has had his own company for about three years, but before that he was head designer at Pierre Cardin Relaxed Sportswear, having previously worked as sportswear and boys’ wear designer for the American Van Heusen Company.

Yet he has no formal design training. “When I started out at Van Heusen, I began to take courses at The Fashion Institute of Technology and Parson’s School in New York and although they gave me basic textile background, unfortunately there are no educational facilities in the world that can develop taste levels, which essentially is what design is all about today,” Alan Flusser asserts.

His own taste levels were developed initially by his father, a property man who married late, after traveling extensively. Alan Flusser’s reputation was enhanced when in 1981, he published a highly readable book entitled “Making the Man. The Insider’s Guide to Buying and Wearing Men’s Clothes”.  About 60 pages are given over to the Flusser philosophy of dressing, while another 160 lists his favourite menswear specialists in the U.S. and Europe and Far East. The dedication in the front gives a clue to what lies within. It reads, “To my father, whose wonderful esoteric wardrobe first whetted my appetite for French Lisle, hand-clocked socks, striped English suspenders, and garters, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts, and alligator tassel loafers, and whose memory is never far from my mind when in my travels I happen upon some exquisite legacy from his time, an item crafted by artists and altogether elegant.”

The book has sold something over 30 thousand copies and acts as almost a beginner’s guide to elegant dressing. Flusser describes the target audience as those individuals who grew up during the jean generation, those who never learned the important rules of men’s dress. but his is not a romantic longing of a bygone era he offers a cogent argument for his support of the 30’s look, epitomized by the classic Savile Row drape suit.

The drape cut emphasizes a man’s shoulders and waist, had little padding and a soft front that was full across the chest and shoulder blades in the back. One result of this was to allow full action of the arms–and to allow the wearing to sit completely comfortably, even with the jacket buttoned, which Flusser stresses is the characteristic of a good garment.

“I’m heavily involved on a personal level and a professional level in trying to add some sense of beauty in the world, and the 1930s is a period of time when the thinking about men’s clothes has some relevance to today. The ’20s was more Victorian and the cut was not similar to what’s being worn today.

The last war obviously changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards clothes; there were rules and accepted disciplines that enabled people to maintain a certain level of elegance, but today people are grappling with trying to put together their own wardrobe. Through all the various experimentations with men’s clothing and with all the new ideas about men’s clothing, it’s sometimes hard to understand what is long and enduring, and what is fashion.’

Unsurprisingly, Alan Flusser’s clothes are not inexpensive. A db suit in wool twill costs about $720 this autumn, with cotton shirts going up to $80, silk club ties costing $38 and polka-dotted braces being sold at $52. But this the tailored collection, which only goes to a handful of specialty stores in the U.S. His sportswear, although still at the better end, goes to 400 stores and in his own words “is what pays the bills round here”, but he believes more men will be tempted by the tailored collection.

“Once the customer puts on one of our drape suits, it’s so comfortable and lightweight and so easy that they say ‘gee there might be something in this’. Our customer is perhaps the disaffected Polo customer who wants something else because Ralph Lauren has become enormous, and also people who have bought a lot of clothes and found that they cannot wear them. One thing we want to stand for is longevity.”

Flusser accepts that there have been probably more new ideas introduced into men’s wear during the last 20 years than in any other period. But, he says, most of these stylistic experiments no longer seem appropriate, which leaves men with a wardrobe of clothes they wouldn’t be seen dead in.

He certainly can speak from experience. Now in his late 30s, he has had virtually all his clothes made for him for 20 years. He favors Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row for his suits. “Since I was 17 I have been having my clothes custom made, not because I’m so well-to-do but just because I’ve always been crazy about clothes and I can never find ready-made clothes that I particularly like.

“I’ve created circumstances for this. When I was in college, I sold motorcycles to finance my trips to Europe so I could get my clothes made. All my shirts, ties, shoes, hosiery, suits are made either in London or Paris.” Appropriately he has as his and his company’s trademark a motif of a bowler hat, a walking stick and gloves.

This sartorial peacock takes his faith in the expertise of the Old World in his company’s products. His shirt and tie fabrics both come from England–“you couldn’t get anything better in Savile Row” he claims–and his suitings are made in Huddersfield. “Generally people don’t buy Huddersfield quality fabric these days, other than the Japanese, the Arabs and Savile Row.” Grenson makes up the Alan Flusser label shoes. But he notes with regret that the expertise of British tradition and of the British craftsman is not appreciated on home shores.

“It’s a shame that the British have all the great sources of the history of men’s clothes, and so few people know about what British clothing was, or even is about today. It’s a shame to see English men’s wear so underdeveloped, only people like Margaret Howell and a little bit of Paul Smith take advantage of it. People criticise Ralph Lauren for ripping off the English, but he made it look better really–not all of it but quite a bit.

Clearly Alan Flusser has strongly held opinions on men’s dress and spends some 30 percent of his time writing about the subject for a variety of magazines and newspapers. But it must not be thought that he is a die-hard anachronism in his approach–quality, not nostalgia, is his main tenet. So in his book “Making the Man”, alongside references to “the finest knit shirt available by John Smedley of England” and Red and Blue in Milan (“This shop is the only one in the world where you can still order custom-made Lisle hosiery”), Flusser makes mention of original Levi’s 501s (“the only jeans worth buying”) and embroidered ’50s cowboy shirts.

He explains that there is no contradiction between admiring this and admiring an Anderson & Sheppard drape suit. “Clothing that is long-term and enduring does not have to be English or American, or whatever. A lot of design that is related to its original function has a lot of aesthetic appeal to it. You could wear an old western shirt–a rayon gaberdine, not a polyester one–as long as you could wear a Brooks Brothers button-down Oxford. It’s classic in it’s own way, it just depends on the quality of design, although I hesitate to say design because that means different now to what it used to.”

The continued success in his business in the United States supports the theory that men are beginning to recognise quality and longevity in place of the vagaries of fashion.

But with all his fascination with clothes of the past, does he ever wish he lived in the ’30s? “No” comes the very definite answer, “I’m very happy to have been born when I was.”

Thanks to The Parisian Gentleman for bringing this article to our attention.