Walpole editorial | Best in Class by Alex Bilmes
His tech may come from other countries, but from his hat to his shoes and everything in between only British will do for Alex Bilmes.
Creativity knows no borders. Artistry cannot be constrained by arbitrary international boundaries, lines on a map. No nation state has the monopoly on craft or skill. You can’t tell a person’s talent by looking at her passport. Nationalism – patriotism perverted – might be on the rise here, there and everywhere, but not, please, among the sophisticated and the urbane. Like the man said, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.
All true, I hope, and yet…
There are histories and attitudes and traditions and skills handed down across generations that are specific to places and peoples, and that result in particular areas of expertise and spheres of interest and influence. And there are geographical facts. The ultimate borders of the British Isles are not artificial. The clue is in the name: we are an island people. In this we have more in common with the Japanese, say, than the French, though both of those countries have an equally impressive history of artistic and artisanal excellence, of making beautiful things, gifts to the world.
To be British is, then, at least on some level, to share a collective spirit. One that changes, for sure, over time, like the weather. But remains, in some deeper sense, consistent, like the seasons.
From outside, this spirit is relatively easy to fix: the British combine orthodoxy with irreverence, stoicism with wit, formality with eccentricity. We are funny, we are adventurous, we are tough, we are kind, we love pomp and circumstance but we don’t stand on ceremony. We respect the rule-breakers just as much – whisper it, but maybe a little more – than the law-makers.
In British fashion and luxury and style, we have long been presented with a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, the sticklers for the old ways of doing things: the Mayfair haberdashers and the Northampton bootmakers and the Scottish crofters; and on the other hand the trendies and the tearaways: the ultra-modern, bleeding-edge East London design students with their wacky innovations and eyebrow-raising, outré creations.
But it won’t wash, really. Many of our most maverick figures have been steeped in tradition. I always think of the late Lee McQueen, who combined a truly avant-garde vision with a rigorous approach to his craft, taught to him on Savile Row. McQueen was British to his bones, which is why he could be at once a diehard traditionalist and a committed subversive.
“You’ve got to learn the rules before you break them,” he once told me.
But I digress. We hear quite a lot about the death of manufacturing in our country, and yet from Cornwall to the Highlands there are people making items and objects of extraordinary quality.
If you’ll indulge me in a little eccentricity of my own, can I take a moment to walk you through today’s working wardrobe?
The shirt is from Emma Willis, made to measure in London, by the lady herself, at her shop in St James, manufactured at her factory in Gloucester. The charcoal flannel suit is an old Kilgour bespoke job, cut for me by Will Adams, for my money the best cutter on the Row, using cloth from Yorkshire. The tie is knitted silk from Drake’s, made in Clerkenwell. Socks are Pantherella, from Leicester. Underpants, if you must know, are Sunspel, of Long Eaton, Derbyshire.
The shoes are Church’s, from Northampton. The spectacles are EB Meyrowitz bespoke, fitted at the atelier in Mayfair. My cufflinks are from Alice Made This, of southeast London. My wallet is Ettinger, of Walsall. My notebook is from Aspinal of London. My pen is Dunhill. My diary is Smythson. My correspondence cards are Mount Street Printers. The biscuit I am chomping as I type this is from Fortnum’s as is the tea in the cuppa I’m chasing it with. (Bone china: William Edwards of Stoke-on-Trent.)
As soon as I’ve finished typing this, I’m off to take the dog for a walk. It’s a bitter afternoon so I’ll be putting on a pair of cashmere gloves from William Lockie, of Hawick in Scotland, alongside a worsted cashmere scarf from Begg & Co, founded in Paisley but now based in Ayr, and a woolly hat from the great Richard James.
The raincoat I’ll be pulling on is from the excellent Private White V.C., of Manchester. It’s made of cotton Ventile, the stuff developed to keep downed RAF pilots alive when crash landed into the North Sea. Which ought to be sufficient for a brisk stroll into Shepherd’s Bush. The hound will be wearing her Paul Smith leather collar and lead. Spoilt dog.
Tonight, when I turn in, I’ll put on my Derek Rose jimjams, though not before filling my Hackett hot-water bottle. (You think I’m making this stuff up; I’m ashamed to say it’s all true.)
All of which makes me sound completely mad and jingoistic, the Nigel Farage of the lifestyle pages. I’m not, really I’m not. I also love Italian kit, and I have lots of it. And I have plenty of French stuff, and some American gear too, sportswear mostly. But it is perfectly possible to dress oneself, and to accessorise – to coin an ugly phrase – in homegrown-only. Not only is it possible, it is desirable. When we Brits do something well, we do it better than anyone.
A few years ago, at Esquire, the magazine I edit (that’s British Esquire, by the way, not the American edition) we published a special issue devoted to celebrating the best homegrown products. We had an Aston Martin, from Warwickshire; Catcheside cutlery, from Hereford; a Bremont watch, made in Oxfordshire; Corgi socks, from Ammanford, Carmarthenshire; a Dualit toaster, from West Sussex; a John Smedley polo shirt, from Derbyshire; a weekend jacket from Oliver Spencer, made in London; a Roberts bicycle, from Surrey; a Burberry trench; a Thomas Pink dress shirt; an umbrella from London Undercover; a suit from Thom Sweeney. On the cover? Croydon’s finest, Kate Moss.
The message: all across the country skilled craftspeople are designing and fashioning and manufacturing some of the very finest products in the world. (And in Croydon the genes are stunning.)
We also had beer from Suffolk, doughnuts from Bermondsey a terrier from Yorkshire, a motorcycle from Leicestershire, fish and chips from Hammersmith, and I could go on but you’re getting the picture, I think.
There are other areas of course, where British products might not be one’s first choice. Or perhaps the choice is not offered. My TV is from South Korea. (I had to look that one up.) The laptop I’m typing this into was designed in California and assembled in China. (Though it was a Brit, Jony Ive, who did the designing.) The same goes for my phone and tablet. My fridge is German, as are my dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer.
I don’t know about you but I find it hard to get excited about white goods. I appreciate what they do, but my emotional connection to my tumble dryer is remote, to say the least. It doesn’t speak to me, and I try not to talk to it, except on those occasions when it develops a fault, at which times I’m afraid I speak to it in the harshest possible terms. (You have to show these things who’s boss.)
My clothes, on the other hand. My wallet. My pen. My notebook. These are my companions, my friends. I feel a kinship with them. They say something about me.
They say I’m British.