$1Million Suit and $8k Shoes: Bespoke Threads & Handcrafted Treads
If Jake Mueser isn't the best dressed man in New York, then he must be the custom clothier dressing the chap who is. His shop, Against Nature Atelier in the Lower East Side, is a modern boulevardier's hideaway with apparel to upgrade any gentleman's life in a meaningful way. You know the sensuous thrill that comes over you upon arriving at the farmers market: redolent mint, eye-popping heirlooms tomatoes, suede-skinned peaches? Here, senses alight to the smell of craftsmanship, the luster of handworked silver, and the light fleecy feel of eight-ounce mohair. A cluster of off-the-rack seersucker suits stands summer ready in traditional blue stripe plus red and pencil grey along with custom denim jeans. Mueser, who could pass for Roger Federer's runway-ready younger brother, identifies fabrics like a sommelier naming grapes in a meritage: cotton, linen, worsted wool, cashmere.
We tour the shirtmaking as well. Against Nature fancies the wide spread Windsor collar, but there's a house version of the club collar with its rounded points too. Damn handsome. Mueser's wearing a waistcoat with a ticket pocket (a smaller third pocket above the right pocket) and the pinstripes are expertly cut to create a seamless flow like woodgrain from torso to trousers. But there's more to this ensemble; think sleeveless suit: "A lapel on the waistcoat," he explains. "It's nice, especially if you're not going to be wearing a jacket." His trousers have a small watch/stash pocket and in lieu of loops there are side-strap adjusters so that you don't need a belt. Against Nature's bespoke designs have full tab adjusters with elastics so that your pants fit right whether you've just run a 10k or finished Thanksgiving dinner. In their line of suits, the A.N. team's impeccable interior design shows. "It's in the linings and pipings or contrasting pick-stitches. It's those little details we try and embrace when we're designing suits," he says. Bespoke suits start at $3,250, a bargain considering that's a 99.99675% discount off the million bucks you'll look like.
Mueser's own outfit is finished with custom monk straps and sublime accessories made by Ryan Matthew, A.N.'s in-house silversmith. Matthew's line of zodiac-themed lapel pins, feather pendants, skull rings, bracelets set with semi-precious stones, and leather belts with dramatic metal buckles add urban cool to a classic shop that wears its Victorian roots with tailored fit.
Many women admit that the first thing they notice about a man is his shoes. Martyn Gibson, Finance Director for a global pharmaceutical firm, has a small room in his Richmond, VA home devoted exclusively to his cache of shoes. While I own more hats than footwear, this Beverlonian has got the lower latitudes covered: "Everyone in my business world knows me for the shoes." Tired of my foot envy, I tracked Gibson's fetish straight to their UK source. Well, almost. Jeffrey-West Shoes is a boutique British cobbler whose killer treads are finally available in the US. As teenagers, Mark Jeffery and Guy West worked in the Jeffery family shoe factory. To get their own feet wet, the boys started buying old shoes and rejects, customizing and then reselling them in in Northamptonshire and Kensington Market. They brought in their own leather and paid workers to stay an extra hour. Jeffrey-West Infamous English Shoes was born in a shed, but thirty years later the gents have carved out a well-heeled segment of their own. Gibson joined me as I rendezvoused with Monroe Robertson, J-W's US Director, at Against Nature, the first store in the States to carry Jeffery-West. How perfect is the partnership? Check out the atelier's online look book...that's Robertson in the velvet-trimmed sport coat and jolly roger cufflinks.
New York City's blend of Wall Street class and rock-and-roll street culture fits Jeffery-West's tradition-meets-mod mode. J-W's rogue designers re-imagine the classic British cobbler's line of monk straps, gibsons, Oxfords, brogues, loafers and moccasins with flamboyant and cheeky twists: leather-suede two-tones, pointy Chelsea boots with Flashman spirit, Jack the Ripper boots with blood splatters, iron cross accents, protective toe taps, hoof-shaped heels, green crocodile skins, and Rolling Stones lyrics burnished into the sole. No shock then that the cobbler who crafted a special edition Union Jack shoe for the Euro Cup is working on a limited run for Against Nature. A slim Brit in his thirties living in the East Village, Robertson adds perspective: "Our generation is back into bespoke. Now is a good time. The aesthetic here is right." As for any ladyfriends eying your kicks, good news: J-W used to do women's shoes and they're talking about bringing back a line for the US market.
The broker who still plays in a band...C-level officers with an edgy side...artists who've broken the always-broke mold...city dandies whose sushi and neo-speakeasy budget eclipses their rent...these are the men extending their cool well beyond designer jeans. "Our clientele are gentlemen who consume consciously: what they eat, what they drink, what they smoke, what they wear," says Robertson. "Cufflinks, shoes, hats-these are the things guys can do." That perfect marriage of suits and shoes, this Against Nature/Jeffrey-West synergy fits men who exert influence over every inch of their lifestyle. From devilish red liners to progressive punches on wing tips, each J-W shoe offers subtle surprises while maintaining formal standards. And with an entry level price tag of $550-ish, you'll need a little scratch to build a Martyn Gibson–sized oeuvre. Jeffery-West USA launched in May, but there won't be a dedicated storefront for at least another year. Until then, instead of squandering quid on tickets to Heathrow, suits and soles galore await you right in NYC, though you might just find Gibson and Robertson in the Piccadilly showroom should you visit the motherland.
The London Cobbler
If Defense contractor Russell Brown lived in New York, he'd give Jake Mueser a run for his money. His closet in historic Middleburg, Virginia houses a sharply edited wardrobe that's inspired my own. At the foot of it, punctuating monogrammed shirtcuffs and enough 15-micron Australian merino worsted wool to host a Zegna trunk show, elegant pairs of custom-made shoes. While two manufacturers might have access to the same materials, it's the bespoke hand and custom touches that elevate compliments from "Sick shoes, dude," to "Wow, who are you?" After cutting your teeth on Jeffrey-West, Paul Davies, The London Shoemaker, is the man to see about slipping into the supremest foot joy.
It starts with the lasts (or lahhst as it sounds from a Brit), hand-carved forms of a client's feet. From extensive measurements, the cobbler produces wood models so that every shoe is made exactly to the unique contours of each foot. "I have trunk shows in DC and NY," says Davies. "If I get a chap who wants shoes, I'll collect measurements and cover the style, color, lining, and materials all in about an hour." While bespoke shoes are the capstone upon the footwear pyramid, they also serve a practical purpose when tender bunions or arch/instep issues render mass-made shoes uncomfortable. Whatever the impetus, a stroll into the cobbler's shop satisfies above all else a meticulous appetite for craftsmanship. Davies has been in the shoe trade for 30 years, with 10 of it spent as an apprentice last-maker. "Tell me what sort of shape you like," he says. "Pointy, square, or round?" He'll build whatever you fancy, but he advises clients on which shapes suit them best. "Those with a narrow foot are quite blessed, they can have any toe shape they like." The latest commissions can be found on his blog.
Most of his clients stay classic, but there are occasional requests for outrageous touches like different color stitches or contrasting liners: lime green in one shoe, red in the other. "So much handwork goes into a pair of shoes," Davies explains, "punching out by hand, stitching them together...." Turnaround time is 8-10 weeks for a first fitting and the shoes generally run $2,900-3,500, including handmade shoe trees for each pair. Yet, when Davies walks me through the anatomy of a shoe--insole, vamp, toe puff, heel stiffener--and describes a step-by-step process that requires at least two transatlantic crossings and enlists several artisans' (the last-maker, the closer, the bottom maker, the tree maker) it's amazing that they don't take longer and cost much more. "Customers have their bread and butter lines--Oxfords and Brogues--but they also have something fun like purple buckskin or a black and white Correspondent shoe." Davies's designs incorporate traditional calf skins and suede as well as exotics like ostrich skin. Alligator, he says, is a very soft skin and the most expensive: "We only use the baby skin and since we're dealing with a very small skin-it's measured in centimeters-it might require two or three alligators." Expect to spend around $8,000. Slippers (aka Velvet House Shoes) are fun, too. It's all in the embroidery. And at a comfortable $450-500, you can dip your toes into bespoke shoes without footing a huge bill.
Once you've invested that kind of money in shoes, there's a responsibility of care. "If you drive a Rolls Royce every day and don't service it," he adds, "it won't last." Sweat rots leather and shoe trees absorb moisture, but the best way to make shoes last is to own several pairs. "The worst thing you can do is wear the same pair of shoes everyday. It doesn't give them time to breathe. Acid from the feet can burn the inside of a shoe." Ideally, well-heeled gents polish their best shoes after each wear, but a busy life precludes such diligence. One quick tip is to leave shoes on their side after an encounter with puddles to let the soles breathe and dry out. And if you wear them out, Davies brings shoes back to life: "We can change the soles, replace the welt, and keep the shoes looking the way they ought."
The Next Step
Are you wearing your clothes...or are they wearing you? If you're ready to step into threads and treads that speak to your style and charisma, start right here. And tell 'em The Modern Gentleman sent you.
Against Nature Atelier
159 Chrystie Street
New York, NY 10002
The London Shoemaker