Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Balloon's gone up

Denim insiders will know that Levi's in Europe is going going through another restructure: the principal change is that Maurizio Donadi, who created the XX division, but moved to the SF HQ back in the summer, is leaving the company in March. The Sportswearnet story linked here implies that XX is being folded within the current range, run out of San Francisco, but I'm hearing reports that the XX Division in Amsterdam will remain, but that Made and Crafted will be more integrated into the Red Tab line. If that's true it's good news, as otherwise both LVC & M&C might have ended up orphan brands.

Time will tell how this plays out. Any fan of LVC will know that it's a terrific range, plagued by inconsistencies, primarily with sizing. Let's hope these diminish, rather than increase, with another reorganisation. But, while we wait to see what happens, it's worth pointing out that the last few years saw some beautiful products from LVC; unusual, quirky items like the 333 range budget jeans, the Duck jumper and the 1915 501 using an especially nice Cone fabric. But today, I thought I'd bid farewell to XX with one beautiful item that never made it to the shops: the 1920s Balloon Pants.

This was a product that appeared in the LVC Look Book - but which was not ordered in sufficient quantities by retailers to make it to production. Fortuitously, I found a sample  pair, which I sent to my handsome friend Roy6 in San Francisco. Here he models them for our gratification:



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They are beautifully-detailed pants - it's a real shame they never made it to production.




Intriguingly, it seems LVC also considered releasing these in a distressed version. This is another sample pair I spotted recently. Everything that I like about the dry pair, I dislike about these - LVC have shown some terrific distressing, but both the finishing and the choice of subject on these seems off.
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In the meantime, those beautifully-detailed originals stand as a great example of LVC - great work, arguably too esoteric, definitely under-appreciated.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The William Lennon Factory, Stoney Middleton

 
Thirty years ago there were three shoe manufacturers in this beautiful village in the Peak District. Now there's just William Lennon and company. They were well worth the four hour trip up North. 

As anyone who's seen them will attest, William Lennon boots have a rugged beauty all their own (I'm wearing mine now, and I make a hell of a lot of noise running up and down the stairs). Several of the world's boot manufacturers market themselves as workwear brands: William Lennon do precious little marketing, but they're workwear good and proper, and in the last decades they've focused on mill workers, farmers and foundry workers. Lovingly crafted, they embody a distinctly British aesthetic: what used to be call Sit Up And Beg, un-styled, functional, quirky and timeless, like a Morris Minor or Land Rover SWB.



Most people here will be familiar with traditional British boot or shoe construction, like the Goodyear or military-style Veldtschoen. William Lennon offer something completely different, a unique construction which goes back to an old German style of boot, made with wooden pegs. Walking around the factory is like a history lesson – one that invokes dozens of names of defunct brands, as the world turns to cheap Chinese or Indian-made footwear. While the company – overseen by Les Lennon, grandson of the founder, and directors Dan Walker and Libs Slattery - is busy, you sense it's a constant struggle sourcing supplies. In the past their rough-out leathers came from Hull; now it comes from Switzerland. Zug grain used to come from the Bridge of Weir Tannery – now it comes from Horween in Chicago, as does nearly all of the waxy, chrome-tanned leather used for the uppers, which previously came from the Fitzroy Tannery in Australia. Sole leather is vegetable tanned, and still comes from a company in Northampton. Commando soles, a staple of British footwear, came from Itshide – a historic company, which apparently went through several owners in the last decade before moving to Bulawayo and ceasing trading. So now Lennon have sourced replacements from Viberg and Corinium. At the same time, this constant change represents an opportunity: Lennon picked up many new customers when they returned to making Shepherds' boots after the last major manufacturer, Tebbutt and Hall, ceased trading.

The company was founded by William Lennon, an orphan from Manchester, who moved to the area as an apprentice to Higginbothams, one of three boots manufacturers in Stoney Middleton. He set up his own company in 1899, with the Mason brothers, manufacturing and repairing; William moved into the present building, an old corn mill, in 1904, buying it in 1926. The factory was powered by paraffin until electricity came to the village in 1933, and throughout the firm's history it's specialised in miners' and industrial boots. 


 

Most of the machinery is over 100 years old. This is a Rapid Standard Brass Screw machine, made by British United Shoe Machinery in Leicester. This design, which evolved from the old wooden peg designs, appeared around 1905, and is the key to Lennon's distinctive construction. The machine clamps the leather sole to the leather outsole, and puts a threaded brass screw all the way through, sandwiching the upper in between and making a watertight seal – the construction, say Lennon, is stronger than the Goodyear welt for industrial boots. The world population of these machines numbers five; two here, one in Cornwall, one in Australia and one in New Zealand.



The boot comes out like this. Interesting to see Blake construction has such a rich heritage; I've always associated it with trendy Italian-made shoes that you can't get resoled (readers here might sense echoes of an old grudge, apologies, I'm a metal rat). You won't have a problem with these - Lennon will resole them for you. And as you will see later, their boots start coming into their own at a time when most boots are heading for landfill.



After the boot is put together, the Hercules Levelling Machine smooths off all the burrs. 
Here Les Lennon demonstrates a third machine, acquired relatively recently, which makes the heels. Lennon's own version had worn out - this machine came from Rice's, who made football boots, most notably for Derby and England centre forward Steve Bloomer. Les bought this machine, which had been rebuilt by Fred Hawkes Engineering, after Rice's owners retired, and acquired a scrapbook-full of memorabilia devoted to the footballer, who is still the object of almost religious devotion in Derby. 


We didn't discuss this machine; perhaps it's not unusual enough, I presume it's used to sew the uppers. 






























Lennon director Dan Walker with one of the older, maple lasts

Lennon Lasts


Lennon use just three styles of lasts; the 88 Shepherds last, the WWII Army Last, and the 2181, or B5 WW1 Service Boot last.

The 88 Shepherds last has a distinctive upturned toe – favoured by farmers and hill-walkers. The Hill boots have a beautiful, heavy configuration, where the laces extend to the toe and eliminate the flex point at the tab. These are boots made for serious wear. 




Les Lennon with the Hill Boot. 
... and the last itself. 


But as you can see, the last is also the basis for the Hill shoes which, but for the upturned toe, are quite trim. This is lovely zug grain, from Horween, and looks just as fine quality as that used by Tricker's.  Note that what looks like a quarter brogue toe cap is actually a kind of quarter brogue strip. Neat!
 


More hill boots. Not so much evocative of a Morris Minor - maybe a Churchill Tank or Victorian Steamroller is a more appropriate stylistic comparison. 





























The WWII or Army Last is used in several designs; in a black pebble grain, it is used for Ammo Boots, popular with WWII army re-enactors. And it also forms the basis of Lennon Derby boots. I own a pair of these; they have attracted more compliments from people on the street than any other boots I've owned. From the side, they look solid; from above, especially looking down on them, they look very chunky indeed. But at the factory I discovered that after 18 months of hard wear, the toe reinforcement softens and they assume a subtly different shape. It can be possible to order the boots without toe reinforcement, and again the shape is slightly sleeker – although this can only be done with thicker leather, or else the toe will collapse and look like a slipper!







































The last itself. Below, you'll see an example without toe reinforcement, plus a worn-in example, which look less chunky. Les proclaims that the toe protection on the basic Derby is excellent, nearly as good as a steel toe cap!






This worn-in example is back at the factory for resoling. Note how much more compact the toe looks than the new example, simply because the toe reinforcement has flexed or worn in with wear. Being a Blake construction, the sole on all these boots is fairly trim around the upper.


The 2181 Last, & the B5 WWI boot. 


A very distinctive, but compact shape. The lasts, by the way, were all made in Northampton, many of them by Whitton's.














There are many more details of Lennon's fascinating history to be discussed; but I think this will do for now. I'm looking forward to seeing my own Lennon Derbys wear in - for these are the epitome of shoes that look better with wear. I'm encouraged to see the factory looking busy; the company is at something of a crossroads, I feel, still producing cheaper boots with vulcanised soles for workers, while slowly expanding production of what they call the niche, retro products. I can't think of many boots that are as evocative, and if it takes urban hipsters to make them prosper, then bring 'em on, I say...










Thanks very much to Libs, Dan and Les for their hospitality. You can buy directly from William Lennon; their website is at www.williamlennon.co.uk

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How to size 1947 and 1955 Levi's 501... for Julian

Over at the superfuture website, I and the 1947 501 have become a standing joke; because there have been periods when I get one PM a day asking how to size them. Today, a friend who is blissfully free of SuFu asked about sizing the 1947, so I thought I'd return to the subject.

It's pretty simple. For the 1947 501, size up by one inch, going by measured size rather than tag size (because a pair of 1947 tagged 32 might come out a different size, depending on when it was produced). So if you're buying online, get your seller to measure the jeans by putting them flat, stretching them a little so that both front and back line up. For the 1947, that measurement, raw and unwashed, needs to be one inch bigger than the actual measurement of jeans that fit you well around the waist.

Levi's recommend you to size up by one 'size', ie two inches. But one inch is better for most models, as it allows for the jeans shrinking two inches in the wash - but it also accounts for one inch of stretch.

That's it. Some people obsess about how you shrink your 47 before you wear them - but most methods end up the same, after a wash or two. For mild shrinking, cold soak briefly; for maximum shrinking, put them through the washer, inside out, no soap, at 95 celsius. (Don't put them in the dryer, it will leach out resins and take some indigo with it). Don't add salt; don't add vinegar. Save those for your fish and chips, they have no effect on denim. 

For 1955 501, the issue is pretty different. The '55 is a distinctly different cut; it has more of a shoulder beneath the waistband, more generous thighs, and most crucially, it's bigger across the seat. Hence for the 1955, you should buy your actual waist size; then once you've soaked the jeans either put a piece of wood in the waistband as it dries, wear the jeans as they dry, or be prepared for a tight waist for the first couple of days of wear. Doing so will give you a classic, vintage fit. Buying actual size in the 1947 won't normally work because the thighs  and seat will be too tight.

The difference between the sizing for both pairs shows some of the subtleties of jeans design. The 47 and 55 are classic cuts (some people reckon LVC's take on the 1947 exaggerates the slimness of the 47, but no matter) which serve as a model, or shorthand, for countless pairs. Hence I know my Studio D'Artisan 103XX are a 47 cut - slimmer thighs, a straight line down from the waistband, whereas other models, like some classic Sugar Cane, have that higher rise, and that distinctive shoulder associated with the 55.

My main pairs came 34 raw (for the 1947) and 32 raw (for the 55). Compare them side by side and you'll see how, despite being nominally smaller, the 1955, on the right, is actually bulkier despite having a waist that started out slightly smaller.

What this photo doesn't really show is the difference in denim between the two pairs - both on the LVC reproductions, with denim made by Cone, and on the original. For fabric nerds, the two manifestations of the denim are as distinct as the shape. 

1947 501, tagged 34, on the left, 1955 501 tagged 32 on the right. The waists have shrunk/stretched to similar sizes, but the 1955 jeans, as you can see, are still more generous around the seat.

What about other Levi's? That's a story for another day; eventually I'll transfer all the info I've written on the evolution of the 501 design, and fitting,  to this site. For the time being, bear in mind that LVC models from 1901 and earlier use Japanese denim, made by Kurabo, rather than the American Cone denim, used for the models from 1915 on. The Japanese denim shrinks less. Ah well, time to check my SuperFuture inbox.

AS Montague

Running into John Rushton on Wimpole Street, one of London's best small shoe stores, to pick up some re-soled Lotus shoes, I noticed they'd just taken delivery of the new Alfred Sargent AS Exclusive Range.

Insiders will know of Sargent's troubled recent history; in fact, yesterday I heard talk they are owned partly by a French company. But these are a fine, new design, and although, at over £300, pricier than the old AS, they look to be lovely quality - nicer in the hands than some recent Tricker's I've seen. Note the lovely mahogany leather on the soles, sandwiching a rubber core. There were some fine Zug grain items too. I'll post better photos when I have a chance to take some.


Friday, 18 November 2011

RRL opening, Mount Street, London

I've always been impressed with the loving attention to detail lavished on RRL outlets, even since I first stayed round the corner from their Bleecker Street store in Greenwich village. Now they've teleported over a huge chunk of Americana, for it to materialise on Mount Street, in the heart of Mayfair.

I had time for only the briefest of chats with some of the people responsible, but it's obvious they've lavished a huge amount of care - and money - on the two storey store, which is so packed with stock and ephemera that it looks as if it's been in situ for half a century or so.


Interior: on the right of the second photo is Niall Maher, Vice President of Merchandising, who flew over from NYC for the launch.






RRL flew over several US craftsmen to construct the display shelves from English Oak, or to craft the beautiful Victorian-style mirrored signs. It looks like someone's been scouring reclamation years and antique stores for a long time. In an ideal world, my basement would look like this, and I'd spend my time smoking cigars and sipping brandy.


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I was impressed by the breadth, and depth, of what was on display. For the past decade or so, I have tended to notice RRL for their heavily-distressed repro denim. Even a decade or so ago, while some of their design was a little generic for my taste, it was obvious they were using some of the best American laundries (notably, I'm told, Bart Sights). Now much of the detailing of the design, too, is much deeper, with some very esoteric vintage references. Just a few weeks ago, I was exchanging emails with Roy Slaper about Cinch designs; he'd come up with what he thought was an entirely new one, only for an old patent to be discovered by Mike Harris, which looked awfully similar. Now this RRL design seems to take a broadly similar influence, combined with their own detailing - which takes some cues from turn-of-the-century (the last century) Neustadter Brother pants. Nicely done.








I love the suspenders (OK, braces, too).



























Yet what I liked best about this collection is the take on formal tailoring; the theme below is Deadwood, named after a defunct town in the West, and based on suits worn by gamblers and other shady types.

It's pretty authentic to 1890s tailoring - chunky but short lapels, the darts go way up toward the armpit, which gives a very distinctive, flattering profile. I saw this being worn by Edward, whom I know from Levi's but has moved to RRL, it looked terrific. Sadly I neglected to photograph him full length, but you'll get to see his bottom half in a minute.

On the left hand side of the shop is the second theme, Left Bank, based on the look of that ol' fashion icon, Ernest Hemingway. When he was slim, presumably.



































Now, the items that I was drooling over the most. Some of the RRL items have what is, to me, pretty rarefied price tags. But these babies should repay you with years of wear.

Firstly, Northampton-made boots; lovely half-broguing, with what I'd describe as an american-influenced last shape.  We weren't sure who made these - I'll amend the post if I find out - but RRL have a longterm relationship with Crocket & Jones, who have made some superb boots for them in the past. But for a Crocket & Jones design, this is very chunky. In a good way. My favourite C&J-RRL were Veldtschoen construction, but these are a conventional Goodyear Welt. Very nice waxy calf grain.





And finally, what for me was the most drool-worthy item, the Madison Boot. These are US-made in Horween Cordovan; my guess is they're made by Julian, hopefully someone will correct me if I'm wrong. Again, a Goodyear welt, with an attractive vegetable tanned calfskin lining, and a beautiful oal-tanned leather outsole. On the heels you'll find the now-obligatory Cats Paw. There are just 20 pairs made, to mark the opening of Mount Street. The price, at £900, might seem eye-watering, but it compares very well indeed with the Wolverine Cordovan. Below, you can see see them on the feet of the afore-mentioned Edward.




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I was impressed with the shop, which is arguably out of my denim comfort zone. But one last thing struck me, compared to some of the RRL stores I've visitedin the past: the staff. They're lovely, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and approachable. This is Jude, displaying the Madison. If you have £900 burning a hole in your pocket, hurry; only 20 pairs available.


The RRL store is at 16 Mount Street, London W1K 2RH. www.ralphlauren.com

Update: according to an industry luminary (whom I'd like to feature here at some point), many of RRL's classic washes were done by Bart Sights, a well-known figure in the industry, also responsible for, among others, the first (and best) LVC Nevada replica. Makes sense.  Merci to my source.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Loomstate


































 Loomstate fabric is fabric as it comes off the loom. Unsinged, raw, unsanforized, unstabilised, unskewed. For years, this type of fabric has been obscure, almost forgotten. When you wash it, it shrinks, it twists, it gets hairy. It is awkward, ornery stuff, and it fell out of use. Now, I hope, people are starting to love it.

The fabric shown here was spec'd up by me and a certain fabric genius called Ralph Tharpe, for use in a small run of jeans produced by Roy Slaper - you can find more about these, and photos of them around the world, at superfuture (if the site ever gets back up). I'm sure you'll hear more about them here soon, as you will about Cone, the company in North Carolina who made it. Loomstate means that there is no finishing whatsoever to the fabric after it comes off the loom. This is how all denim was produced up to the 1920s, but is unusual today, as even vintage-repro denim tends to have starching or stabilising treatments applied.

This called K87211, and uses a special, Pima yarn for the fill - the white part of the denim that you can see from the inside. This Pima yarn is a resonant, special quantity for fabric fetishists; it is related to Sea Island Cotton, reputedly the finest cotton of all time. The warp yarn, the blue one, was also specially developed, to emulate denim of circa 1915-1920 - tumultuous times in the denim industry, not least because of trade embargos and political upheaval. The warp yarn is dyed with indigo, and by the 1920s, synthetic indigo was fast becoming popular. But synthetic indigo was produced by a German company, and US manufacturers weren't supposed to use it. In 1918, the type of indigo you used was a political decision.

So this loomstate denim already has stories resonating through its warp, and its weft, even before we talk about how it got loomed, and what it got made into. I promise we'll come back to them.