Wisdom of an artisan: On the importance of mentors
Every quirk in my dress, every individuality, is only as individual as my experience in life so far. I owe each twist of the tie knot and polish on the cap toe to someone who has helped shape the individual I have become. I have been blessed in life to meet some great people, many whom are both instinctively and intentionally very elegant in their dress and demeanor. There is nothing I have done, or studied, or trained at in life that has even had a fraction of the influence that these people have. And it is something I think that every man, wanting to be elegant, should try to cultivate.
The Armoury’s Ethan Newton On the importance of mentors
I began in the rag trade young, at about 16, and through every role I soaked up a little of the wisdom from mentors I latched on to. Starting with my mother, whose words still ring in my ears each time I lay hand to scissor – “measure twice, cut once” she would say. Her insistence on careful pattern making taught me to keep my eyes open every time I did something, whether it was cutting a pattern or buying a plane ticket. She taught me – and it is a lesson I often have to work hard to practice – that careful consideration never hurt anyone, and usually led to better matched and cleaner fitting garments.
In my early twenties I chased a young girl from Sydney to Tokyo, a move that changed my life in many ways. The ten years I have been married to that girl not being the least of them. Finding myself working in the denim industry, I found many great minds – from my impetuous boss and his gleaming G-Wagon, Mr Yamane, to my great friends Murai and Hayakawa, and my tenchyo – Ono-San.
From Murai and Hayakawa, two veterans of The Real McCoys – a seminal vintage replica brand in Japan – I learnt the passion for detail. These were guys that could tell you how a Roughwear placket would slant up the body and how a Dubow collar would lie on a WWII leather jacket. They reveled in detail, and every time I knit pick over a buttonhole I have them to thank. Murai also taught me how to wear denim like a kid from the 50’s, how to rethread a chainstitch machine, and why a proper denim hem should run off the edge. I learnt to love Chore jackets, horsehide and monkey boots. I learnt the appeal of tube knits tees and a proper comb rib. I wouldn’t know anything without them.
Mr Ono was the first guy I knew who was a ‘charisma-tenchyo’. This guy could sit in a leather chair chain smoking cigarettes, while customers came in one after the other to shoot the breeze and talk fishing. If he recommended them to buy some jeans, or this jacket, or that button down, they did. He had the charisma and charm, he had the respect, for clients to take his word as bond.
From Yamane, I learnt lessons hard earnt. He taught us all respect for product, and respect for the store. We spent the first twenty minutes of each day, on hands and knees, cleaning the floor with a tiny rag and a bucket of water. While one man and a mop could have done it quicker, it was his way of reminding us that we were there to serve the store, to serve the product, to serve our customers. While Ono taught me the importance of personality, Yamane taught us the discipline of service.
He also taught me the importance of keeping a cool head – as neither of us ever did in dealing with each other – and the need not to burn bridges, as we both did that too. I have always had a temper, and at 22 maybe it was at its worst. Every time I think to run my mouth now, I remember Mr Yamane.
Years went by, the location changed, and my education progressed. From my clients I learnt to fit, experimenting on each body that came through the door. As always, the most dearly bought lessons were the ones long remembered, and from my good friend and customer – GW – I learnt about fit. I learnt through his obsessive eye to proportion, and his demand for perfection. We altered and re-altered, we worked to build a cut to flatter, and the dull edge of my eye sharpened. He has a masterful eye to colour and pattern, and together we built him a wardrobe that belied our location and the tools we had to hand. He taught me, or rather forced me to learn, the exactitude of fit.
Around the same time I met another – KS – and I learnt the importance of grace, drape, elegance. He was just as meticulous, even more so, and one of the most elegant men I have ever met. He taught me to slow down, to look at fit objectively, and to approach dressing with a studied hand. He gave me the liberty to throw fashion and trend out of my mind, and to dress myself and each client to the best of their needs. The hours spent together learning to polish shoes gave me much more than a technique at mirror shine. It gave me an appreciation for more than just fit, but rather three dimensional fit. He remains one of the best dressed and most elegant men I have ever met, and a dear friend I should call more often.
Now I live in Hong Kong, and count amongst my partners in this little business two of the best dressed men I will ever know. From Alan’s natural sharpness and simplicity to Mark’s eye for individuality and quirk, they are the sounding board I bounce each sartorial decision against. And now at 33, I have a junior me to try to influence in the form of Jake. Albeit a junior me with far more natural elegance than I have ever had.
We deal with artisans and artists that I am privileged to spend copious amounts of time with. Each is a master in his own right, and each as adamant and strong willed as the next. The time I spent speaking to Antonio Liverano and Takahiro Osaki is incredibly valuable. Antonio has taught me classic appreciation for fabric and colour. His ideals of cloth, and the pieces that constitute a classic wardrobe are becoming my new foundations. I write this in a Smith Woolens Herringbone Solaro, a suit that Antonio has said is part of every elegant mans wardrobe. He has driven home constantly what I shouldn’t do as a man of my size, and what I can do effectively. He has given me blinkers and allowed me to focus on what is right for me. I break his rules often, and I suspect this is also part of that education. He reminds me that I am a fat man and dresses me accordingly.
Salvatore, who is a friend first and foremost, teaches me the opposite. He reminds me that I am young, and lets me play. He cuts me trousers tighter than I am used to, and urges me to enjoy dressing. And he is an Artist. His work is impeccable, the detail the best in the world. I owe him much, not least for trying to make me look slim.
One of the most fortunate friendships I have made of late is with an author of great skill, a man who has dressed beautifully and written about it for more years than I have lived, and then some. But from the too spare and too seldom letters we trace with each other, the greatest lesson I have learnt from G.Bruce Boyer is not to take it all so seriously. Here is a man who has forgotten more over the years than I could hope to know, and he takes it all with a grain of salt. He rejects the obsessive nature of the current menswear scene, and enjoys dressing. He has boundless enthusiasm, but he knows the place of clothing – to stop us from being naked. We can do it in any number of ways, but at the end of the day, they are just clothes, and should be enjoyed.
Finally, the lesson taught me by my father – to appreciate people first and foremost. Don’t chase money, or fame, or power. Enjoy cultivating friendships, earn respect by showing respect, and be happy. A business is only as strong as its people, and it is in relationships that life finds true value.
So with that in mind, the advice I can offer, after 33 very fast years of life, is to cultivate friendships. Earn mentors, respect them, learn from them. If you want to know about clothing, put down the book, turn off the computer. Find a great tailor and commission what you can. Ask their advice, with humility, and keep your ears open. Be a patron of these great artists that still exist, and what you will get back for your hard earned dollars will be much more than cloth and thread, leather and nail.