Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Review: Otto Originals

There's a nice scene in the film of Another Country (which is well worth watching, if you haven't already seen it) where the pupils (at a school that is not Eton but pretty much definitely is Eton) are playing cricket. They are casually dressed in that fantastically casual 'public schoolboy on the playing fields in summer' look that brands like Ralph Lauren would so desperately like to capture: rumpled white shirts, hand-me-down cricket jumpers, and grass-stained white trousers held up with school ties. Later, if I can track down my DVD copy, I shall try and get a suitable screengrab.

Anyway, it's that look of using a tie as a belt that I particularly like. Trouble is, it's a bit self-consciously preppy, ruins your ties and can look a bit odd when you're no longer 17 so it's not something I tend to go for. That doesn't change the fact that a flash of striped silk at the waist of casual trousers evokes endless summers, cricket games on green meadows, post-rowing beers in a pub with a lax policy on ID, and all sorts of other wholesome visions. Is it any wonder, then, that I particularly love the belts made by Otto Originals, a start-up company created by a brother-sister team based in the Cotswolds. They've taken a slightly more grown-up approach to holding your trousers up with a tie, and make the ties into proper belts with leather ends, brass buckles, and hidden webbing to support the silk.

It gets better though, because they're not just selling belts made from any old ties. While they do sell a range of one-offs made from ties found in charity shops (and thereby indirectly supporting a range of charities!), the core of the business is a clever model where you pay online, send your chosen tie to a freepost address and, in a couple of weeks, get back a beautifully made and carefully packaged belt, plus a little bracelet made from the offcuts.

This is one of those ideas I just wish I'd come up with. In retrospect it's obvious, but I'm not aware of anyone else who does this and (if they exist) I doubt anyone else does it with quite the same combination of efficiency and charm as Otto Originals.

The belts are all handmade in the Otto studio in the Cotswolds and the quality is obvious - soft tan leather, neat stitching, and a solid brass buckle. How long the belt will last depends a lot on the tie you send in, but they're more robust than you might expect and I would imagine they'll wear well and look more distinguished with age.

Having a belt made from your own tie costs £44 which is extremely reasonable given the individual work that goes in to each one. I suppose if you were to buy your own tie specially then the whole thing would come out quite pricey but, for me, the real appeal is in finding a use for an old tie that, for whatever reason, you don't get much use out of otherwise. A stripey school tie that doesn't quite seem suitable for business-wear could make a great belt, as could a slightly more flamboyant one that you love but can't pull off in the office and have no other opportunities to wear. Or you could always do your own charity-shop hunting and find something suitable.

Whatever your choice, you'll end up with a beautiful and genuinely unique casual belt. Oh, and you can get 25% off until the end of March in their Spring promotion, by entering SPRINGBELTS into the voucher code box. So there's no excuse not to.

Note: The belt in this article was provided by Otto Originals for review. No payment has been made for this post, and acceptance of items for review does not guarantee positive coverage.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Complementary but not matching

Understanding the meaning and vital importance of 'complementary but not matching' is probably the most difficult part of wearing a pocket square. I'm not sure my own grasp of colour is really up to the task, so I tend to go with 'whatever I happen to think looks nice'.

If I were to post-rationalise this particular outfit choice, I might point out that the pink in the pocket square picks out the pink shirt, while the blue flowers are the same shade as the blue overcheck on the jacket. However, all I really care about is that I found a pocket square with little elephants on, to go with my Oriental Club tie.

Sometimes, that's all that matters.

(Pocket Square is from Thomas Pink, Tie by Dege & Skinner)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Debrett's to launch accessories range

Debrett's, the specialist publisher famous for its books on etiquette and its register of aristocrats and other notable figures, is apparently planning to launch its own range of accessories. I can't say I'm surprised; although Debrett's books are excellent, they are both niche and relatively few (about 13 titles, not counting the Peerage and Baronetage or the annual editions of People of Today) and it's hard to see how they make enough sales to stay afloat in what is a very difficult climate even for much larger publishers and booksellers.

Information is fairly scarce (and largely behind a paywall on a ladies fashion site that I have no intention of subscribing to) but it seems that Jodie Kidd has been called upon to design the range, and my guess is that it will be fairly female-focused and revolve around the sort of smallish leather goods that can be more easily sold online. In some ways it's a shame that Debrett's is moving away from its core expertise, but their existing leatherbound diaries and notebooks are nicely made and I wouldn't rule purchasing out a wallet or something. That said, I can't help wondering if they'd end up being rather indistinguishable from the range of (undeniably very nice) wallets already made by people like Smythson, Aspinal of London, Mulberry, and so on. Do we really need another brand doing the same thing?

Do let me know if you have any more information on this.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Restaurant Review: Great Queen Street

I like fine dining, I really do. Unlike several of my friends and family I actively enjoy a formal dress code, a quiet setting, starched linen, flawlessly courteous service and, of course, excellent food. (Without excellent food, the other items just serve to disguise mediocrity and should be shunned, which is perhaps part of the reason people can be cynical about such restaurants.)

Nevertheless, part of the joy of living in London and dining out once or twice a week is in exploring the more casual options which, often, serve equally good food. These are the sort of places that you can drop into with friends for a quick bottle of wine and a steak, or for a three-course meal finishing with brandy, and still spend under £100 a head and not be hurried off your table at the end. For some reason, three of my new favourite restaurants in this sort of category are clustered around the Covent Garden area; a nice enough part of London but generally one I associate more with crowded and overpriced tourist traps than particularly enjoyable dinners. These, which all sit somewhere between the bistro/gastropub and the brasserie category are exceptions, and ones well worth a visit. The first, and the subject of today's post, is Great Queen Street; located (perhaps unsurprisingly) on Great Queen Street, opposite Freemason's Hall and roughly equidistant between Covent Garden and Holborn.

Image property of Ewan Munro. Distributed under Creative Commons license.

Very much in the gastropub mold, Great Queen Street has no website, an unassuming and easily missable frontage, and a self-consciously laid-back aesthetic with bare wooden tables, a long bar with spaces for those dining solo or in small groups and all drinks from cocktails to claret served in an range of chunky tumblers. Actually, they do dish out proper wine glasses if you ask or if, it seems, you've ordered something that they think justifies it. I still haven't quite figured that one out - perhaps it just depends on the waiter at the time.

Anyway, the important thing is that the food is largely excellent. The menu varies daily, and veers towards the traditionally British, with an emphasis on large grilled or roast meat dishes, seasonal game, and various forms of potatoes. One occasionally fun but occasionally annoying quirk is that the really appealing dishes are often only available 'for two' or even 'for four'. That may require a certain amount of negotiation with your dining companions and it can lead to frustration if you have your heart set on the slow-roast lamb with dauphinoise potatoes, but your companion is more interested in a fish dish. On the other hand when everyone can come to terms this style of eating is both sociable and cost-efficient even if, as has once happened to me, an odd number of diners means that you end up having to order enough veal for six, for five...

Service is always excellent; knowledgeable bar staff make a range of well priced cocktails with skill and care while the waiting staff are polite, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about the food. Despite the restaurant being relatively small and pubby, it never seems to get excessively noisy and there is enough space between tables to be able to converse comfortably and with a degree of privacy.

Prices are variable, with enough main courses in the £15-£20 range although the best stuff can be closer to £30 per person, particularly once you've added a couple of side-dishes, since potatoes and vegetables are often not included.

It's become a regular haunt for a reason. Give it a try.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Barrington Ayre: Hand-made tweed slippers

A couple of years ago I came very close to buying a pair of black slippers embroidered with my initials. You know, the sort of thing that you can wear with black tie (in your own home) or a dressing gown (in anyone else's home). Perhaps fortunately, I was pulled back from the brink by a friend who suggested that I could really only justify such an extravagance when I actually owned a house. Fair enough, I thought, and you may rest assured that as soon as I trade up my little flat for something attached to the ground, I shall be off to Crockett and Jones in a heartbeat.

Anyway, all this is by way of introduction to a cunning loophole I discovered in this rule. After all, noone said anything about a pair of hand-made tweed house shoes, entirely lacking in initials.

These beautiful items are made by Barrington Ayre, a bespoke tailor based in Gloucestershire (but with regular visits to London) who do a particularly nice line in tweed and other country-wear. The slippers are hand-made in England in the traditional house-shoe style; with a thin leather sole and properly built heel, semi-rigid body and a slim round-toed shape. They're a far cry from your average slippers and better-made than most people's shoes, so you can understand why, in black, they're considered suitable for wear with dinner dress. Barrington Ayre's are even popular with people who are getting a bespoke shooting suit made and like the idea of having matching house shoes for when they go in to lunch. Apparently people even get ones made in left-over material to match newly re-upholstered furniture.

Even if that's not your thing, Barrington Ayre give the option of having the slippers made with a variety of their own tweeds or any other fabric of your choosing and of course you can also choose the colour of that gorgeous quilted silk lining. Beautiful matching tweed dressing gowns are also available, which probably appeals to me more than the furniture or shooting tweed.

Anyway, all that is by the by since for now their main purpose is keeping my feet warm in my often-freezing flat (I'm cultivating an aristocratic dislike for turning the central heating on) and in various under-heated country houses I sometimes have the pleasure of visiting. This job they do admirably - few things are warmer or more comfortable than a combination of tweed and quilted silk, and the fact that they happen to look beautiful is an added bonus, particularly if you have an overnight stay at a shooting party or some other event where a degree of formality is combined with cold stone floors and long corridors.

Throw away those old M&S slippers and invest in the sort of thing you could wear to Buckingham Palace.

Note: The slippers in this article were provided by Barrington Ayre for review. No payment has been made for this post, and acceptance of items for review does not guarantee positive coverage.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Giveaway: Smart Turnout watchstraps

I'm a long-time fan of Smart Turnout; a real success story of a company which started off with a former Scots Guards Captain selling school and regimental stuff online (socks, ties, cummerbunds, even dressing gowns) and has now opened its first real shop in Princes Arcade. Which is, of course, in the St James district of London. Ideal.

Wearing accessories with school, club or regimental stripes is a fine British tradition and one which has done a lot to influence traditional and 'preppy' style here and across the pond in the states, so I have a lot of time for a company offering such a wide range (even if I myself am disinclined to over-accessorise in the old black'n'blue).

One of the products I have always fancied is one of their watches with the replaceable straps. These are styled after the traditional NATO watch, although Smart Turnout offer a range of styles, and can be refitted with natty webbing straps in any of a wide range of school, university and regimental colours. They're lovely watches, unique in that they are suitable for casual or sporty wear but also, because of their military association, not inappropriate with a suit.

Anyway, the good news is that Smart Turnout have kindly agreed to give me five of their straps (just the straps, I'm afraid!) to give away to my readers. It's the first time I've done something like this, and I'm hoping it'll be of interest to you all. All you need to do to be in with a chance is to retweet the tweet below. Make sure to keep the @StJamesStyle bit in, as that's how I'll find all the people who've entered. Then, after midnight on Wednesday the 13th of Feb, I will randomly select 5 people who've retweeted this, and they will be able to pick any strap from the Smart Turnout website, which I will then send them. Simple, eh?

By participating in the giveaway, you agree to the terms and conditions.

A few things to note in particular: any re-tweets after the first will be discounted and will not increase your chance of winning, and anyone discovered to have created more than one account to enter will be disqualified entirely.
Winners will be contacted by DM on Twitter, so please follow the @StJamesStyle account (at least for a week or two!)
Winners who do not respond with a choice of strap and a postal address within five working days of being notified will lose the prize and an alternative winner will be selected.
Any contact details requested as part of this will be used only to supply the winner with the item, and will then be deleted. They will not be disclosed to any third party, including Smart Turnout. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The basic luggage set project

Having spent the last ten days more or less constantly on the move travelling first to India, and then around Uttar Pradesh, including one night staying in a little room in a temple at the Kumbh Mela, I have come to appreciate the vital importance of really good luggage. My own is, frankly, inadequate - I have a selection of battered grips, all somehow the wrong size for any given trip, and have an embarassing tendency to transport suits in the zip-up cotton covers my tailor gives me, rather than the sort of lovely leather suit-carrier that would properly protect them.

So, my belated New Years resolution is to finally get some decent luggage. But what do I need, and where shall I get it? I have decided on an initial set of three basic items:

Weekend Bag
This will replace most of my current selection of sports bags, grips, holdalls and other assorted stand-ins for proper luggage. It needs to be big enough to contain everything I need for a long weekend but small enough to take as carry-on - so that I can travel for short trips without checking luggage in, and can use it as a supplementary bag for longer trips. It needs to be elegant, but hard-wearing enough for serious travel, and not so expensive-looking as to just scream 'mug me' when I'm travelling in the less salubrious parts of the world. And I include South London in that.
Something like the above from Opumo is exactly what I'm after - beautiful, practical, perfectly sized, and suitable compartmentalised. That said, at £994 I'm not sure I could comfortably throw it into an overhead compartment or the back of an auto-rickshaw. Perhaps I should be sensible and go for something a bit more suitable for serious travel, like the cheaper and more rugged offering from Henri Lloyd.

Suit carrier
This is an absolute must, and I've been after one for ages, but all the ones in my price bracket seem to be of the boring black canvas variety. Opumo do something reasonably nice (below) but it hardly looks more substantial than the freebies I get with my suits, and I really fancy something that can cater for a couple of suits and maybe a pair of shoes, a tie and a few other odds and ends. That way, it can carry everything I need for a black or white tie event or a single night away. Aspinal of London do one that looks a bit more meaty, although at £550 it's a bit on the steep side.

Suit case
And finally, for everything else, a proper suitcase. Here, there's really only one thing I want, and that's a globetrotter case.

There are a few options, but the centenary model particularly appeals - I like the straps and the colour options. Globetrotter cases are awesome - they have the look of old fashioned trunks, the strength of modern suitcases, and wheels for those of us without an army of porters. The midsized 28" suitcase in tan is probably just what I need although, at just short of £1,000, it's not necessarily what I can afford...

Any other suggestions to fulfil my requirements?