RIDDLE MAGAZINE - Mr. Burghes and His Cycling Suit: Alan Flusser Custom and Dashing Tweeds Revive a Classic

 
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By Andrew Yamato

Photographs by Rose Callahan 

This article originally appeared in Riddle Magazine.

When commissioning one’s first suit, conventional wisdom maintains that one should resist the temptation to indulge wilder sartorial fantasies and lean conservative. A versatile navy or grey worsted will undoubtedly do good service in the years to come — especially if, like many men — you require a suit only for the occasional wedding, interview, or other special occasion. The problem with such a sensible approach, however — at least for the more dandified among us —  is that it can have all the appeal of a high-fiber diet.

There is a growing demographic of frugal young dressers who’ve managed through patience and perseverance to assemble impressive off-the-peg or secondhand wardrobes without having ever having felt a tailor’s tape trace their shoulders, and thanks, but we (yes, I am personally nailed here) generally have the sober solids covered. For us, that first bespoke (or even made-to-measure) suit can represent an irresistible opportunity to own a truly unique garment we’d never find in years of trawling eBay, hitting sample sales, or sifting through thrift stores. Sometimes, as well-versed as we may be in Brummelian principles of simplicity, we’re driven to satisfy a deeply personal craving for the baroque, the exotic. Sometimes, nothing but a perfectly fitted, patch-pocketed, half-belted, action-backed, three-piece suit with a lapelled vest and wide-legged, fish-tailed trousers (convertible to plus-sixes) made up in a luminescent, boldy-checked multicolor tweed will do.   

It’s happened at least once. The intrepid eccentric who commissioned this singular suit is of course an Englishman, and the maker is my employer Alan Flusser Custom — and thank goodness on both counts, because I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off.

 
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I first met Will Burghes, 36, about eight years ago in highly auspicious circumstances as a fellow participant in one the earliest Brooklyn Tweed Rides. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon – originating in London and now found in cities across the globe —  a tweed ride is a somewhat flashmobby affair in which intersectional enthusiasts of both The Big Cloth and low-intensity cycling converge at an appointed time and place to compare exfoliating ensembles and vintage velocipedes before rolling out at a leisurely pace through unsuspecting city parks and streets (where they receive mixed reviews at various volumes from random passersby). Not everyone’s cup of tea, but with the right people, attitude, and wardrobe, you can’t beat it. Will was a young banker recently transferred to New York, chuffed to have found an occasion to wear his deerstalker, and happy to do so in solidarity with a group that included me in a bespoke 1930s three-piece Harris tweed suit. We soon determined that we’d both also recently attended a top secret meeting of the Corduroy Appreciation Club (“Hail the Wale!”), and a lasting friendship was established on the bedrock of textile-based recreation.

Meanwhile, across the Great Herring Pond, a small but innovative textile firm was in its infancy. Founded in 2006, London-based Dashing Tweeds was the brainchild of photographer Guy Hills and textile designer Kirsty McDougall, who understood that tweed — despite having accrued a rather sexless reputation as the preferred clobber of rumpled professors and crusty peers — was in fact “the original sportswear fabric of Great Britain” in the sense that it was “traditionally the way men have worn colors, patterns, and texture whilst enjoying themselves in pastimes and country pursuits.” Hills and McDougall set about to redefine tweed for a younger, more urban demographic, creating boldly modern patterns in blazing colors, and, most innovatively, weaving reflective technical fibers into their 100% British wool that produce an altogether stunning effect when caught in headlights at night.

 
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This last, unique property of Dashing Tweeds’ “Lumatwill” cloths has almost single-handedly revived a forgotten sartorial genre: the cycling suit.  While today’s deadly serious cyclists work themselves into a lather wearing body-clinging, moisture-wicking, heavily branded synthetic performance fabrics, a classic wool tweed cycling suit is a more elegant garment from a more civilized age. It’s nominally active raison d’etre justifies deliciously anachronistic features like bi-swing action backs for freedom of movement and plus-four knickers that keep clear of the chain. Such a garment admittedly risks charges of nostalgic costumery, but when rendered in Dashing Tweed’s reflective threads, the effect is both postmodern and practical.

One ingenious element of Hill’s promotional strategy was to commission his personal suits in Dashing Tweeds cloth from some of Savile Row’s most prominent houses, ranging from structured stalwart Huntsman to swaggering Edward Sexton to our own design inspiration: the soft tailoring icon Anderson & Sheppard. By the time the Savile Row Bespoke Association became an official sponsor of the London Tweed Run (Anglo nomenclature for the wooly wheel-about) in 2014, Hill and his cycling-suited clients were fixtures of an event that had become an annual institution.  

In the meantime, Will (now working as the Executive Director of Data and Analytics at advertising agency KBS, and a veteran of many tweed rides) was monitoring Hill’s gear with growing interest, and saw his opportunity when I started working at Alan Flusser Custom last year. Having both read Alan’s books as fundamental texts in our own sartorial self-educations, Will and I share a deep affinity for the classic 1930s silhouette espoused therein and immortalized in scores of Esquire and Apparel Arts illustrations: draped chests, small armholes, high waists, broadly pleated trousers. As tastes have evolved over the years toward trimmer jackets and narrower trousers, this isn’t actually a style we get to make much anymore, but that only added to the windmill-tilting appeal of the project.

We pride ourselves at the Custom Shop in serving the needs of our clients’ appearance, and not merely indulging fancies which might not be in their sartorial interest. A first-time client proposing such an eccentric commission as Will was could reasonably expect a full-court press advising a more versatile and easily wearable garment, but Will was something of an outlier. The fact that he was already such a clotheshorse, and deeply knowledgeable about his hobby, mitigated our concern. So too did his very tall and slim frame. One underappreciated aspect of the classic “golden age” silhouette is that it was expressly conceived to put the illusion of meat on the bones of its wearers. The beau ideal for the lean men raised during the hardships of The Great War and The Great Depression was one of the British Army’s powerfully built Guardsmen, and Frederick Scholte’s great tailoring innovation was to sculpt this form in cloth via a swelled chest, suppressed waist, and full-cut trousers. On the beefier frames of most men today, this classic “drape cut” can be a bit overwhelming (hence the trimmer proportions of our own “updated drape” house style), but it’s a look perfectly suited to someone’s of Will’s build.   

Dashing Tweed’s website offers a comprehensive online catalog of their fabrics, and Will had come to us having already made his selection: the “Dashing Explorer” — a deeply layered plaid of ochre, copper, green, blue, and plum that carried a pinstripe, barely noticeable in daytime, of 3M reflective fiber. We at the Custom Shop found the Lumatwill cloth intriguing in the dark and quite tasteful in the light, and proceeded to order a length from London. Everyone was a bit confused when it arrived. Check-patterned cloth is almost always woven with the longer side of the rectangular check running the length of the fabric, which produces a generally desirable elongating effect once made up. The Dashing Explorer’s dominant check was horizontal, as were the 3M fibers. Again, our client’s stature assuaged our concern: where a stouter man might have found the horizontal lines unflattering, Will’s slender frame could carry them off with aplomb, merely raising the boldness quotient of the suit even higher.  

 
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With the aforementioned action back and plus-four trousers, this was already going to be a heavily retro-styled garment. With Alan’s blessing, we threw in a lapelled vest, side-tabs and a high fishtail back on the trousers (the better to avoid a ruinous flash of shirt waist while cycling jacketless), and — if anyone was in doubt about the sporty nature of this suit — a half belt and patch pockets. Over the years, we’ve made plenty of garments with these bells and whistles (what menswear blogger and Flusser client Dusty Grainger has memorably dubbed “fuzzy dice” features) but always at the fully custom level — that is, made here in NYC, where we can closely control their execution. As with many of our younger clients, however, Will’s budget dictated a made-to-measure (MTM) suit, which comes in at about half the cost of custom. Seeing the glass half-full, we figured his suit would be the perfect opportunity to test the tailoring limits of our made-to-measure factory.

Bi-swing “action” backs, for example, are famously difficult to execute properly. They must open to provide a full range of motion, but close cleanly when the arm is at rest. Tailors have often resorted to various types of elastic rigging between the blades to ensure a smooth action, but since this was to be a quarter-lined coat, such an arrangement would be unsightly and potentially easy to snag. In the end, we needn’t have worried; the bi-swing vents were tailored perfectly, neatly closing on their own. We’re pleased to now offer this and the suit’s other custom-y details to MTM clients with full confidence in their quality.    

 
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Perhaps the most idiosyncratic element of the suit was created in our own workshop. Will had originally been considering a four piece suit — coat, vest, trousers, and “plus-four” knickers (so named for the length in inches they fall below the knee) — for both cycling and conventional wear, but a close reading of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate sale catalog had suggested a more efficient arrangement. A caption accompanying a photo of the young Prince of Wales’ trendsetting 1920s knickers describes a unique design feature: because the Prince disliked the constricting knee buckles that usually secured each leg on such garments, he had his plus-fours (really plus-sixes in his case) constructed so that the bloused woolen cloth actually buttoned internally to the cotton lining, thus hanging freely about the legs. Extending the logic of this unconventional but sensible construction, we determined that given a sufficiently full and tapered leg, it was possible to cut trousers that could be converted into plus sixes by folding the legs inside themselves and buttoning a special tab on the inside of the cuffs to hidden buttons on the interior seams. Fortunately, wide and deeply pleated trousers were exactly what Will wanted in the first place, so this most experimental of features turned out (or rather, turned-in) a complete success. We’ll wager there’s not another pair of trousers anything like them in the world.

All of our MTM garments receive exactly the same attention as our custom clothing in the fitting process, but surprisingly little was required in this case — just some scooping out of the waistcoat fronts for more rakish 1930s flair, and a snugging of the high fishtail trousers into the small of the back. The suit’s twenty-three buttonholes were then each hand-sewn, including four on the converter tabs on the inside of the trouser cuffs, and four on each of sleeve (which feature a deep “turnback” of cloth to allow full unbuttoning without exposing any sleeve lining).       

 
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The suit was delivered this spring, and especially given tweed’s reputation for being cold and foul weather gear, Will has been particularly pleased at how wearable the suit has been well into warmer weather. Tweed is, after all, a relatively loosely woven cloth, and particularly at cycling speed, it admits a cooling breeze — all the more so because we made the jacket and trousers unlined. At this point the suit has run its paces cycling on Will’s refurbished 1950s steel-frame Gillot, trap shooting up in Westchester, and admiring cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, near where Will lives with his wife Whitney and their dog Shadow.

Classic custom tailoring is a fundamentally traditional business, trading on artisanal craftsmanship and received notions of taste, proportion, and propriety. There remains plenty of latitude, however, for innovation, reinvention, wit, and sheer fun. Dashing Tweeds has been at the forefront of revitalizing a younger, fresher Savile Row, and Alan Flusser Custom is very pleased to have partnered with them and Mr. Burghes to create such an old-school classic for a new millenium in the New World.

 
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