English Heritage – Barbour and Belstaff

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As an Englishman it is sometimes difficult for me to find much clothing of the “made in England” variety which is really my thing, though part of me feels that I should, I have always preferred denim (fairly obviously), American style work boots and Japanese styled and detailed work and street wear. The main reasons for this being that American styles have always suited my rather awkward frame better than the English which have a tendency to be a little more delicate in my opinion. Add this to the fact that I favour utility over aesthetics having never really followed fashion to any degree and you will see why brands such as Iron Heart, White’s and Wesco hold such a strong pull for me, I have in the past tried English footwear from luminaries such as Trickers and Grenson, but always found myself going back to my White’s SD’s or Bounty Hunters. There is one particular garment though, which is both English designed and English made (until recently), and it happens to be one of my all-time favourite pieces of utilitarian work wear.

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Call it what you will, a moto jacket, a trials jacket or a vintage styled biking jacket, what the two best known examples are called is the Barbour International and the Belstaff Trialmaster, and they are a different as night…..and later that same night. Both companies have a long a distinguished history of producing tough jackets and trousers for the military, motorcyclists, and outdoorsmen of many a persuasion, both are famed for their liberal use of heavy ounce waxed cotton to provide a breathable waterproof garments and both are genuine English heritage brands. Barbour stake a claim to the patent of the first waxed cotton jacket in 1924, they also supplied deck suits and jackets to the British military in the second World War which bore a startling resemblance to the later itineration’s of the bike jacket for which both brands would become famous.

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If Barbour’s history begins with military hardware then equally it is Belstaff who can claim genuine racing pedigree, producing jackets for such esteemed riders as Trials legend Sammy Miller, still racing today at the ripe old age of 75. Belstaff partnered with other well regarded iconic British brands such as Lightning zippers, and even had their wares produced under license in Australia by the bushman’s brand Drizabone. Both brands lay claim to the man who, perhaps more than any other, personifies real man’s style, the illustrious Steve McQueen. The story goes (and I have seen no actual proof of this), that McQueen wore Barbour jackets to ride in as they had a sponsorship deal with him, but his personal preference was for Belstaff, with the story even going so far that he once failed to turn up for an evening appointment with a Hollywood beauty because he was waxing his Belstaff (not a euphemism). As a result of these dual claims both brands have at one time or another produced a Steve McQueen tribute jacket, with the current Belstaff S Icon being based upon the jacket which they provided for “The Great Escape”.

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Unfortunately the stories of the two companies have diverged in more recent times, whilst Barbour have become the standard for the faux landed gentry in the UK, and come in a variety of colours to co-ordinate with their Land Rovers, Belstaff have declined at an alarming rate to the point where they are now almost exclusively bought by reality TV stars, footballers and minor Hollywood celebrities who are eager to show their love of all things “heritage”. Barbour are now the standard for waxed outdoors wear, Belstaff are owned by a Swiss fashion conglomerate (after a few years of Italian ownership), and manufacture things which would not look out of place in an auction of Michael Jacksons 1980’s stage costumes, a truly sad decline. The beginning of the end for Belstaff came when, feeling the economic pressure of the late 70’s/ early 80’s in England, many of their key suppliers (including Lightning) went to the wall, quality dropped off and so did orders. The original Longstaff plant was closed and moved to a much smaller facility, sensing blood in the water and before the brand name lost all its value, they were ripe for takeover and reimagining into the vacuous fashion oriented brand which they remain today. Barbour themselves have also been through a minor reboot, from being the standard working garment of the agricultural set they now firmly pitch their tent on the well-manicured lawns of the rural middle class, with a price point matching their new ambitions (although nowhere near the daylight robbery which accompany the fashion conscious Belstaff offerings).

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This tale of woe particularly resonates with me as I really love the trails jacket style, it is a perfect piece of iconic British design combined with true sense of practical usefulness, so to see them being poorly made for movie product placement (see Will Smith in I Am Legend sporting the Belstaff Trialmaster Legend edition), or underused by Essex housewives taking young Theodore and Jasmin to their private school in the Bentley really irks me. This is a piece of clothing made to be used, abused, waxed, worn and kept for life. It is not an accessory for your Prada jeans and Gucci bag and I believe that the time has come for this jacket to be reclaimed by people who will use them properly, the only problem being that the new offeringsfrom Belstaff are awful and ludicrously overpriced, and even Barbour have priced their International jacket at about £100 more than it should be for a “proper” version. What this has led to is the creation of a second hand market for well used jackets which can also be priced disproportionately high, but there are still bargains to be had if you have time and patience.

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The main body of the pictures for this article are of a pair of vintage Belstaff Trialmaster jackets which I have acquired in the last 12 months, the first jacket proved to be much too small for me, but as it only cost £35 and I auctioned it for over £300 it certainly proved its worth. The second and most recent purchase is a pre-1974 Sammy Miller edition Belstaff Trialmaster Professional, complete with fully working Lightning zipper, in short it is my idea of the perfect example of this jacket. I paid £89 for it from eBay and have sent it away for some much needed restoration on a few small rips and tears, but when it comes back I am extremely confident that it will continue to perform its job for a further 40 years, probably outliving me.

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Not this !
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This!
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DHQxDWC – Choose Your Weapon

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The DWC is a mere three months away and still there is much debate about what kind of jeans people will be rocking for the worlds greatest denim competition. This seems like a good opportunity to think about what kind of jeans best suit a two year contest, and what factors can affect that choice so that you can start narrowing the field when choosing your jeans.

Weight, does it matter?

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The previous contest have been solely based around heavy denim, the new contest welcomes any weight of denim. The weight of your denim will more than likely not have a huge effect on how your jeans wear and fade unless you live in a very hot climate when the additional thickness of the material will cause it to hold much more sweat and dirt, and therefore increase friction and the rate at which indigo is lost from the denim.

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Having said that, if the weight is achieved through weaving more strands tightly (such as the case of the Self Edge x Iron Heart 23oz collaboration denim), then you will more than likely find that the denim will fade quite easily, and with much higher contrast. Looser woven denim, even heavy denim, tends to fade in a more vintage manner, being slower and with a more even contrast tone than the much coveted sharp lightning bolts on the lap and the reverse of the knees.

Weave, consider your comfort !

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The weave of a denim has an enormous bearing on comfort, tighter weaves inevitably produce a denim which is less breathable and could be quite uncomfortable in warmer climates. It is also worth thinking about if you are planning on using a raw denim, as if you do not get the majority of the shrinkage out straight away then you could find that future washes lead to further constriction of the denim, making it far less breathable than you may initially have thought.

Certainly for warmer climates in Asia or the Southern United States you may wish to consider something with a low tension, loose, slubby and inconsistent weave pattern. Brands such as Trophy Clothing, Oni and Pure Blue Japan have many offerings which fit this bill in various weights and cuts.

More than a feeling…

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Talking about the weave of denim brings us nicely into tactile contact with your two year project, as it is directly linked to the weave of the denim. Tightly woven denim tends to have a smoother surface texture, perhaps even with a slight sheen, I have found that smoother textured, tightly woven denim will begin to surrender its colour much easier but may require more washing through the 24 months (for hygiene reasons) than rougher loose woven denim. The trade being that denim which is heavily textured will probably prove to be a much more stubborn fading project, and you might find it a little tougher to force high contrast, sharp fades from a rough denim, as the texture tends to favour a vintage wear pattern. This is the appeal to the majority of people who favour this type of denim, and the authenticity it provides.

Making the cut…

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In my opinion the single most important factor in how your denim wears and fades is down to how it fits you. A well fitted denim will always fade quicker and with more contrast than a looser fitting denim, simply because the material will be stretched and flexed more, and see more wear at the points of high friction (lap, back of knees etc…). A cut which is too fitted however can suffer from premature wear, and require a lot of maintenance and repair in a two year period due poor fit and excessive wear, striking the sweet spot on fit is super important for your comfort and the durability and wear of the jeans.

Lifestyle

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Some weights, weaves, cuts fits and even colours simply will not work with your lifestyle, if you are super active then a tight, restrictive cut is not going to be much good to you, if you live in one of the hottest places in the world then maybe 25oz isn’t the way to go….you get the picture. Some workers in the more relaxed office environment may be able to get away with smart jeans, but your jeans won’t stay smart for two years, and if they did then you would probably be pretty disappointed. Over a contest of this length the most important factors are comfort, and not to get bored with your jeans, so find something that fits you well and that you love is the best advice you will ever get on choosing contest denim.

Pitfalls

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It’s so tempting when you sign up for a contest like the DWC to take one of two paths, either to pick something really different to what you would normally choose in terms of denim and cut, or to go safe and pick a pair that you know you will like as you have had them before, both of these ways have their pitfalls. There is a reason you haven’t chosen a skin tight cut in wild, neppy denim before…..because it would probably look like crap on you, that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t move outside the box with your choices, but there is a difference between out of the box and out of your comfort zone.

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Boredom is an issue with keeping any item of clothing in regular wear for 2 years, so choose something that you feel will age well and look good with your current wardrobe and style as this will keep your interest peaked. The temptation to go for a “gimmick” denim is always strong, but the ones at the top of the tree are there for a reason, and it isn’t because they were woven with 35% mountain lion pubic hair.

2013-09-14 14.21.06So there you have it, some food for thought from someone who is pretty familiar with the 24 month denim contest. I am genuinely excited to see all the various cuts and denims in this new contest, seeing how they are and progress and seeing the inevitable development of the stars of the DWC. Choose your weapon and let’s see it.

Denim HQ – The Skin We’re In

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We don’t just love denim, we love duck canvas, chambray, hickory cloth and most of all (after denim), we love leather. Leather is the perfect accompaniment to denim, it faultlessly accompanies our jeans, shirts and jackets in a variety of forms because, much like raw denim, it wears, ages and fades in a completely natural and unique manner. There is an argument that due to the longevity of good quality leather that we should perhaps hold it higher in our affections than denim, but that is a matter of personal preference. Our choices and options in our leather wear are far more complicated than our denim choices, and the relationship between item and wearer is much more symbiotic, without care the leather will dry and crack, caring for certain leathers in the wrong way will yield similar results. Leather items require their owner to invest themselves into getting to know them, what will hurt and what will heal them, not to mention that the sheer volume of variety of leather clothes, shoes and accessories used by people on a daily basis. My personal collection of leather items includes quite a variety, most of which see extremely regular use and some of which has even begun to take on some nice wear and patina.

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My leather EDC is made up of 9 separate pieces, 5 bracelets, a wallet or card case, my phone case, a belt and my footwear, additional to this I have also owned quite a few leather jackets over the years and am currently awaiting delivery of something I have come up with myself and is being made in collaboration with Alexander Leathers and Iron Heart, which I am hoping will be quite special. My bracelets are all made from untanned cow leather and are a mixed bag collected from my travels and from my friends, two from Iron Heart events in New York and Gosport, two from a brand called Voyej who I met in Indonesia and one from my friends James and Johnny at Obbigood. I have never been much of a jewellery wearer but I do love a nicely evolved leather band, they are the only item that I wear without purpose, purely for adornment, and they never leave my wrists.

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For my cards and cash I have a choice of two items, the first is a black mid length wallet by Obbigood which I have had for many years and usually accompanies me when I travel abroad to contain all the extra things that I don’t need when I’m at home (health insurance card etc..). Over the past year or so I have found that carrying a large wallet effects my seated posture and gives me lower back ache (a sure sign of getting old), so I looked for a solution and found it in the humble, and tiny, card case by Tush leathers. The card case is hand made in Japan, from Japanese cow leather and while it may not be cheap I would doubt that there is a better card case available anywhere.

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Both my phone case and belt were made by a personal friend of mine, and one of the most talented up and coming leather craftsmen out there at the moment, Zach Brown of ZeeBee Leathers. All ZeeBee products are hand made by Zach in San Diego, California from the best American hides, using tanneries such as Horween for his steerhide and cordovan. Zach selects, patterns, cuts and stitches every item by hand, meticulously matching up thread and sinew to the exact specification of his customer. The phone case I have is the second one I have owned from Zack (after swapping my iPhone 4S for a 5S), both simple sleeve cases made from good quality vegetable tanned leather and hand stitched with a thick gauge yarn. Through constant use and an initial treatment with Huberds boot grease they quickly take on a lovely, natural patina of wear.

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My belt is a true lifetime purchase, it is double layered with Horween steerhide and natural vegetable tanned leather with are bound together using the immensely time consuming but unfeasibly secure saddle stitch method. The plate brass buckle is hand cast in Washington DC and attached with Chicago screws to allow it to be exchanged as my tastes may dictate. It is literally the most incredible belt I have ever seen, I know that we all have a tendency to describe the things we love with meaningless superlatives but I would defy anyone to find me a better belt anywhere.

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When it comes to boots I think that I have recently documented enough about my rotation and choice, suffice to say that a good quality leather boots should be an essential for every man, woman and child walking the planet in my opinion. A great pair of boots will last a lifetime with proper care and repair, they will certainly prove that they are worth far more than whatever your initial outlay on them is and the only cautionary advice I would give on boots is get ones which are versatile and hold long term appeal for you. A lifetime is a long time to be stuck with boots that you don’t love.

Denim HQ – Denim And Sneakers

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I love my work boots, and I wear them most of the time, but occasionally I need a change, sometimes I need the bouncy comfort of sneakers or maybe I feel like revisiting my youth with a pair of vintage sports shoes to make me feel more than a little pang of nostalgia. So what sneakers go well with our denim? Are you the kind of person who compliments their cuffs with some Chuck Taylor high tops for that 50’s teenager look, or do you hark back to your hazy, crazy days of youth by sporting some shell toes or boots named after your favourite basketball player? We all have some kind of sneaker nostalgia, but does it work with your denim?

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As a kid I skated ….. a lot….but I could never get on with skate shoes like Vans or Vision Street Wear due to the ridiculously high instep on my feet, so I always wore Nikes and managed to get through quite a few pairs of Air Max much to my father’s wallets disappointment. Through my early teens I always had a pair of sneakers for skating and another pair for showing off, which invariably ended up being whatever Air Jordan model was out at the time. Even today I have a strong affinity for retro Air Jordan’s, and still sincerely believe that the Jordan III is the greatest pair of sneakers ever made, so good that I still own 2 pairs. Getting older and more mature I got into the British Indie music scene, which invariably meant wearing Adidas Gazelle’s, Campus or shell toes as that is what all the bands wore. I owned all of them, I wore them, but I never really felt over comfortable with them. The brand with three stripes always seemed a little too rigid, plain and more than a little dull. For me Nikes were always cooler, always more comfortable and always had the better designs, they also had more associations with the things I liked, The Terminator, Basketball, and The Fresh Prince Of Belle Air (sorry, I was young).

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Traditional denim sneakers tend to be the ones which best compliment the retro/ repro look of so much of the raw selvedge denim scene, by this I mean the ones which echo the trends of the 1950’s when raw selvedge denim first made large strides into the casual wear of American youth, and no other sneakers better fit this mould than my arch (deliberate pun) nemesis, the Converse Chuck Taylor. Apart from my high instep issue with these shoes, and not to mention that they are about as comfortable as walking on rough wood barefoot, I do have a couple of other issues with the denim scenes darling sports shoe. Firstly, they are boring, you might describe them as classic but to me they are plain, dull and common as dirt, even the 70’s Chucks (touted as the CT you always wanted) are hardly a massive departure, secondly they are made from just about the cheapest materials going by a company which is touted as evil by just about every man and his dog in the clothing industry….until they turn out your good old Chucks. That’s right folks, Converse is owned by Oregon’s finest, Nike.

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The thing is, I do actually own some Converse Chuck Taylors, I have a leather pair with a massively padded tongue from their Skateboarding line up, I expected them to be a little more supportive and comfortable and they certainly look a little less boring, but they are just simply awful to wear, I honestly believe when I hear someone tell me that CT’s are the most comfortable thing for your feet that they are either blatantly lying, or completely insane in a masochistic kind of way. So what do you do? What are the alternatives if you want something traditional, retro and in keeping with your 50’s greaser aesthetic which doesn’t give you Hobbit feet? Well, you could buy some Vans. Skateboard sneakers of the masses since Skateboarding began, but they are also hilariously uncomfortable, cheaply made and about as interesting as a TED talk. There has to be an alternative right? Something which has genuine retro value, without being boring or uncomfortable, well there are a couple of contenders.

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I must stress that I am in new territory here, I don’t own and have never owned a pair of either of the following shoes that I am going to discuss, I am merely suggesting them as a viable alternative to the more ubiquitous options already mentioned. I have listened to the opinions of people I know who own them, and share some of my thoughts on Cons and Vans, and I have ordered a pair of each of the brands so I can see for myself if Converse are being deliberately spiteful by making their most popular shoe as much fun to wear as nipple clamps. The brands and shoes I’m thinking about are PF Flyers High Tops and Palladium Pampas, both have been around for decades, both share certain design features with the better known CT’s and both look much less boring to my eyes. I feel a pair of reviews coming on…