Real men wear massive checks
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Moments of true epiphany are rare, but one morning in the summer of 1995, at number 4 route du Champ d’Entrainement in the Bois de Boulogne, I had a life-changing experience. This Second Empire villa had been home to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and I was standing in the Duke’s dressing room. As the wooden door of the elderly wardrobe creaked open, I was offered, not exactly insight into the meaning of life, but a few handy hints as to how I might divert myself from pondering its futility.
The Duke’s wardrobe was crammed with lyrical checks – a swelling, sonorous symphony of quadrangles so loud I could barely hear myself think. Checks were, of course, the former Edward VIII’s signature; he once said: “I believe in bright checks… The louder they are, the better I like them.” He used to take the precaution of having an extra pair of trousers made with every suit, which inevitably led to the quip that “he needed two pairs of trousers to get the pattern in”. It was intended as an insult; for me, it was divine guidance. I left Paris determined to wear more checked suits and sportcoats, and if sufficiently vigorous checks did not exist, to have them made.
My first tweed made its debut that same year. Designed with Country Life, it was a sizeable heather-coloured windowpane over a lovat herringbone. I liked it so much that I had not only a suit made up but an armchair upholstered with it, so that I could give the impression of disappearing into the furniture. The cloth was made into suits sold by Hackett, where I made the acquaintance of cutter Terry Haste; when he moved to Huntsman, I followed him to Savile Row. This was good luck, since Huntsman has a reputation for checks that are measured not in square centimetres but hectares.
When Terry left to establish his own firm, he would take me on scouting missions beneath Savile Row to the old W Bill, a troglodytic treasure trove of checked fabrics from the ’30s (imagine if PG Wodehouse had done a collab with Piet Mondrian) to the ’70s (think Christopher Lee as the crazed Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man in a gun club check overlaid with red windowpane). Those years between cutting room and lightless basement were my university, as I learnt about proportion, high armholes, the difficulty of showcasing big repeats (the bigger the repeat, the more fabric you need). Also, how a skilfully manipulated rectangular check has a slimming effect.
In common with other of the world’s natural resources, the interesting tweeds at W Bill became ever scarcer. Yet it is not as though it was a world without checks: the pattern books of Scottish mills kept me going for a while. Mariano Rubinacci has a spectacular archive of fabrics, including some killer windowpanes; Husbands Paris always comes up with some pretty louche checked garments; and Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds (“Modern Urban Tweeds, Fabric and Fashion for the Creative”) deserves an OBE for services to bold checks. Even today, the catwalks and runways are awash with them, although I sadly am a thousand years too old to wear the checked and spotted trench coat suit from Casablanca or the pink, green, yellow and white check drape coat from Comme des Garçons. If Sir Paul Smith is best known for stripes, he well understands the power of a good windowpane for a summer three-piece of shorts, vest and drape coat.
I have always wanted something personal, though, and it became clear that sooner rather than later I would need to have it woven. When Terry discovered that the mill that had made the Country Life tweed a quarter of a century earlier was still in business, I took it as a message from a higher power.
The first attempt was more in the way of a warm-up, a piece of sartorial throat-clearing that involved a triple windowpane in blue, rust and blue against a lovat background. It looks very good, in a wearable, versatile, useful sort of way – which is not what I was after at all.
Next time I really put my mind to it. I magnified a standard Glen Urquhart check and then overlaid it with a massive blue windowpane so big only two can be fitted across the back. It was much more complex than it sounds and took two years to realise, not least because I needed to get planning permission for lapels wide enough to display enough of the pattern to make sense. The resulting sports coat is a singular creation best worn with a shirt collar that ends just above the nipple and a tie fastened with – yes – a double, or better triple Windsor knot. You can still buy “my” big check from Terry Haste, and it is the closest I have come, for now, to a masterpiece.