The Luxury Agenda vs. My Agenda: A Clarification

The way I present myself usually lends a bit of understandable confusion. There is often a presumption that a guy like me – a guy who likes tailored clothes and puts some care into his appearance – is on the luxury spectrum and prepared to talk about or even relate to matters of luxury, designer clothes and other expensive things. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I’m probably more anti-luxury in terms of the common notions of “luxury,” particularly when the word and the concept of it have been so relentlessly shoved down our throats. Luxury is everywhere now. It’s become so ubiquitous that it is no longer special. Commonplace, almost.

We’ve gotten so wrapped up in the idea that if something is expensive or “designer,” it’s better. With a handful of exceptions, it’s nothing more than hype, which one can choose to believe, get wrapped up in and pay for or not.

I look at it like The Matrix: you can take the red pill or the blue pill. Taking the red pill meant accepting reality and seeing through the illusion. Taking the blue pill was to blithely ignore reality and live in the illusion. When it came to looking good and living well, I made a decision several years ago to take the red pill.

So what does that mean? I don’t buy into the notion that more expensive stuff is necessarily better, and I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that luxury goods grant me “look what I have and what you don’t” status (which is what the pursuit of luxury is about).

Tim Gunn, one of my heroes on this, is a wearer and fan of suits from Suitsupply, a fantastic resource for handsome, well-made and affordable suits. Gunn is a huge proponent of shopping on a budget, advocating the idea of buying the best you can afford. As a popular television star, best-selling author and a revered fashion authority, he’s rich now. But just because he’s got money, he’s not ditching the less expensive stuff and running over to Bergdorf-Goodman. Gunn is sticking to his guns, and I love him for that. He took the red pill.

I don’t have any problem with people of means buying luxury goods when they can easily afford it. If you can easily afford Savile Row or a Tom Ford suit, by all means go get one. They’re gorgeous, exquisitely crafted garments. Can you afford an Hermés wallet or bag? Then get one! Not only are they beautiful, but their handmade quality is uncompromising, with rigorous craftsmanship standards that produce goods that last a lifetime.

During a period when I was making a little more money, I treated myself to a couple of pairs of Alden chukka boots. Alden isn’t a loud “look at my label” brand of footwear, but it is one of those quiet, low-on-the-radar heritage brands worn by discerning men in the know. Handcrafted in Massachusetts with prices ranging from $300 to $800, Aldens are expensive by some standards, with my chukka boots costing me $700 per pair. But they were investments. I loved and admired them from afar for a long time, and I promised I’d buy them when I could afford them. So I did, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice. I treat them right (cedar shoe trees, regular shines and well-tended heels and soles), just like I treat my $200 Florsheim Kenmoor Imperials. They’ll last a lifetime. (I also think that “affordability” can also include the occasional splurge or oneself.)

***

Maybe I’m a bit of a contradiction: a non-rich guy who looks – to some – like a rich guy. But it’s not about looking rich or “luxury” for me, and it never has been. It’s just about looking like something. Looking nice. Remember that idea?

Maybe I am a snob. But I’m a snob about things that are within reach for most people, not just for the rich. For me, it’s about having standards, it’s about appreciating beauty and detail, it’s about giving a damn and taking pride and ownership in how things look and work. Such concerns are not the exclusive privilege of the wealthy.

We’re all designers. We’re designers of our own lives, and each of us – consciously or subconsciously – creates a design for living for ourselves. It’s a level of sophistication that separates us from creatures on four legs. And every time we step outside our homes, we make a contribution to the greater design of the world around us. I am of the mind that we owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to make that contribution a positive one. It makes life better and – bonus – it feels good.

I cannot stress enough that this is not about spending a lot of money. With the relentless bludgeoning from the luxury sector, there is a lot of pressure to spend beyond one’s means in order to feel validated. Stop. You can drop $240 on a great suit from CombatGent or $5,000 on a great suit at Barneys (which was originally a resource of affordable suits for regular men), or anything in between. A little tailoring, regardless of where it’s from, and you’re unstoppable.

There are a lot of ugly Rolexes, hideous oversized McMansions, obnoxious Escalade car-buildings and other ridiculous displays of wealth, all designed to signal to the world that you’re something. “Get a load of me,” it all seems to say. Look at Donald Trump. The signals are off the chart. To me, the perceived need for such trimmings are clear signs of insecurity and feelings of crippling inferiority. Or maybe it fulfills a need in someone to get noticed by his parents, helps someone get laid who couldn’t otherwise, or offer some petty revenge on the kids who were mean in high school. I can only speculate. Whatever the cause, I remain unimpressed by the display.

Here’s the thing: Anyone with money can acquire. Boring. Things get far more interesting when someone does something fabulous with limited resources, or even when someone has the resources and exercises restraint, like Tim Gunn. And the kind of people who make something happen with constraints are really more my crowd.

So go forward, be bold and look good and live well. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Designer labels and expensive things won’t save you or make you more interesting. Trust me. I’ve done the research.

15 comments

  1. Agreed George – my closet set with aged but useful and still sound style examples, most bought for half (or well less) than retail (Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Syms, even Target). I have an Italian sport coat, Barneys, raglan sleeves – killer salt & pepper wool mix. Paid maybe $150 10 years go – retailed at 600. Still going strong.
    Granted, I am tall and slim, so remnants outside the normal “40 regular” are long gone before I hit the racks. If one shops smart, knows what works and what doesn’t – it is possible to maintain and add the occasional piece to the matrix every season. Winter stuff on sale every Feb., fall on sale every Sept. Shop smart and look sharp.

  2. George,
    A few months ago you recommended a shirt resource in Manhattan. I cannot remember the name but you raved about the slim dress shirts.
    We miss you in NYC!

  3. Iris Apfel documentary was this exactly…. Not expensive, but well made and unique. A truely awesome show. Visually stunning…. On netflix if you haven’t seen it!

  4. I’m in favor of being inspired by/learning from bloggers like Simon Crompton of ‘Permanent Style’ … then translating to what I can afford. The vast majority of my wardrobe is second-hand eBay stuff. Admittedly 20% doesn’t work out, but still far cheaper than new. (Besides, the selection is infinity greater than new retail.) Requires knowing what usually looks best on one; a knowledge of cut, fit and measurements, paying attention to details, and reading the fine print. If one shops online judiciously, and has access to a good tailor, one can do quite well.

      1. Yes, John C. – that is the strategy – and it actually can be fun once you spend time immersed in it. Finding a piece that you KNOW will work for modest coin is a great bonus. Huzzah!

  5. Hi George,

    Discovered the podcast in mid-December and caught up with it by listening to several episodes a day and going through the blog. Great stuff!

    As for luxury, I think most luxury companies discovered about 20-25 years ago that most people have poor knowledge as to what good quality is and how to spot it in an article of clothing or accessory. So they began slowly cutting quality while keeping the prices high and spending more on marketing instead of quality construction. I obtained a B.A. in Fashion Merchandising in the late 90s and still didn’t know what a Goodyear welt was until menswear blogs came about 10 years later.

    I’ll conclude this rambling with something I heard on a college field trip from a coat manufacturer. He told us that “good quality doesn’t always have to be expensive, but poor quality always is.”

    Thanks for proving style and substance can co-exist.

  6. Hello George

    Having a flair for style is pretty uncommon, much more than having disposable income. So the cohort of people who have money to spend will pay the extra money for brands, because it is already validated by others and (they think) removes the question whether it looks good on you or not.

    Personally I find it really hard to know what fits if you were never educated. Luckily now with internet you can read blogs or show pictures to get an unbiased opinion. But buying ‘luxury’ is still much faster.

    As a very ‘cheap’ person, I have rules before spending extra money :
    – never buy on first view, go back home and think about it;
    – what will it bring me ? If it brings more creative opportunity or if it makes me feel good on the long run, it is probably a good investment. If it is just a statement, I pass. So that would mean a good Mac is an acceptable buy, an iPhone is just a distraction.

    Still everyone has his own limits. Even if I can afford it, I would never buy 700$ shoes, it is just too deeply ingrained in me that it is a lot of money. + I am not good at taking care of things. the 2 probably go together.

  7. Yesterday I mentioned Simon Crompton’s blog, ‘Permanent Style.’ And look what just showed up on his site… seems relevant: ‘Heritage [luxury] brands’ vs the real deal: “Most obviously, the brands that push this hardest often have the least to shout about. They may well have been founded as a little workshop in Italy, but today there is little connection to the founders in terms of craftsmanship, philosophy or even design.” — Simon Crompton

  8. Hi George (and everyone else),

    I absolutely love this article. Finding stylish clothing for me is already an experience as I avoid items with wool, silk, and leather (no judgment to you guys, that’s just me). To that point, I’ve never really “cared” for my shoes actively, though I’ve always been careful with them and they’ve lasted years. My question is about the shoe trees. If I am wearing faux leather shoes, would the shoe trees still be a worthwhile investment? And any other “shoe care” advice for materials like that? Thanks, for this and all the work you do!

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