Celebrating James Bond on Screen

I always get excited when museums unveil new costume exhibits. So I’m quite jazzed that 007, my favorite secret agent, is getting a swarm of attention on both sides of the Atlantic in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his silver screen debut.

The Barbican Centre in London just opened its exhibition on James Bond’s “stylistic flair” (as the Wall Street Journal put it) curated by fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave and Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, who worked on five Bond films. Ms. Hemming told the Journal that the early Bond films “established the unmistakable aesthetic – the stylistic template against which all others are measured.” Indeed.

Bond aficionados love to argue over which film has the better wardrobe. I wrote a piece on men’s style in the movies a while back, and I said that “Goldfinger” may be the definitive James Bond film because  Sean Connery is the personification of suave and manages to look impeccable without trying too hard. For style observers, the quintessential Bond scene is when he strips off his wetsuit to reveal a white dinner jacket with a red carnation. Yes, it’s a little campy — but you can’t help but smile.

It’s notable that every bit of Connery’s tailored wardrobe in this 1964 film looks remarkably contemporary: like his office attire of a slim navy suit with a white French-cuff shirt and skinny tie. I’ve always loved the country look that Bond wears while driving his Aston Martin in Switzerland: a tweedy tan jacket with angled flap pockets paired with a knit tie and slash-pocket trousers. According to Ms. Hemming, Savile Row tailor Anthony Sinclair’s “Conduit Cut” was narrower in the body, softer in the shoulder and chest, and featured slimmer trousers. Mr. Sinclair made clothes for both Bond creator Ian Fleming and director Terence Young, and he subsequently gave former bodybuilder Sean Connery — the original Bond — a more sophisticated look. To wit, the silk turn-back cuffs on his tuxedo in the first Bond film, “Dr. No.”

Here’s a Vimeo clip posted by the Barbican in which Italian master tailor Checchino Fonticoli, a character in my film, “Men of the Cloth,” is fitting actor Pierce Brosnan (a former Agent 007) for a Brioni suit.

In a separate exhibit, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pays homage to the iconic opening title sequences of all twenty-two James Bond films.

Here’s a great clip in which costume designer Jany Temime discusses Daniel Craig’s suits from designer Tom Ford in the upcoming Bond film, “Skyfall.”

Dressing Up is Cool Again

For the longest time I’ve been remarking to anyone who would care to listen that I could never understand why people think it’s OK to wear the same thing out to a restaurant  for dinner that they would wear doing their laundry. I really don’t think everyone needs to go out dressed to the nines — far from it. But I think, frankly, I’ve absorbed the Italian dictum of dressing for the stage, so to speak… And I mean whatever stage you find yourself on.

To take a little care in putting yourself together shows a respect for yourself as well as those around you. That’s what I learned from my mother and her Old World European sensibility.

This article comes from my favorite section in the Wall Street Journal, Off Duty, which runs on the weekend. I’m always clipping interesting stories about menswear and this one really hit home for me. It’s called “Jacket (Not) Required” and it’s about how despite the fact that practically every restaurant under the sun has dropped its jacket-and-tie requirement, “a new generation of formality-loving dandies is choosing (not being told) to dress up.”

According to Tyler Thoreson of the web site Gilt Manual, it amounts to “a rebellion against our fathers, and the casual baby-boomer generation.”

Photo by David Field for The Wall Street Journal

My favorite quote comes from writer Gay Talese. I have to laugh when he says (with characteristic forthrightness) that when he sees people around him at a  restaurant dressed like hell, he thinks “why aren’t you at a  baseball game, or eating popcorn somewhere? Anywhere but here.”

He summarizes my thoughts perfectly: “Dressing conscientiously is exalting in the act of being alive. When you go out on the town, it’s an act of celebration…that you’re here.”


Bill Cunningham: New York’s Indomitable Street Fashion Photographer

If you Google the words “Bill Cunningham living legend” you will get tens of thousands of results – and with good reason. I went to a screening recently of the new documentary film, Bill Cunningham New York, and found it mesmerizing. Cunningham, as some of you may know, is the incredibly humble yet eagle-eyed street fashion photographer at The New York Times. Now 82 years young, he comports himself like a man who retains a youthful enthusiasm for a job that consumes him. He lives like a proverbial monk, devoting all his time to capturing the sartorial zeitgeist.

Cunningham is most interested in the subject of his photos — in the information it imparts about that person — rather than in the photographic image itself. “I don’t really see people—I see clothes” Cunningham said in a 2009 New Yorker magazine profile. Through his marvelous photos of creatively attired individuals in his Sunday Styles column, On the Street, Cunningham aims to subvert the “cookie cutter sameness” in the culture at large. Rather than seeing fashion as a superficial pursuit (as some would have us believe) I’m in total agreement with Cunningham, who maintains that fashion “is the armor to survive the reality of life,” as he says in the film.

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street

Cunningham remains fiercely independent and owns all his own work, despite being an employee of The Times. And he continues to shoot in film when everyone else has switched to a digital format.  Here’s a 2002 article on Cunningham in which he describes his experience working at the old Bonwit Teller department store and as  a hat designer when he first moved to New York from Boston.

Bill Cunningham photographing Vogue editor Anna Wintour

Director Richard Press said it took him eight years to convince Cunningham to participate in the film and two years to shoot and edit it. In pursuing this project, Press wanted to capture Cunninghams’s “essence, his joy, his way of being,” and he certainly succeeded brilliantly. Producer Philip Gefter admitted that Cunningham “brought me back to my innocence.”

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Cunningham gives a short and humble acceptance speech in Paris when he’s being decorated with an award as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. He says quite simply, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”

As soon as the screening ended I immediately thought of one phrase to describe the man: “pure of heart.” I, for one, hope he lives forever.

Bill Cunningham photographing a fashion moment

The film Bill Cunningham New York opens this Wednesday March 16th at New York’s Film Forum (click to see the trailer) and will be playing across the country thereafter. See the screening schedule here.

The Quandary of the “Made in Italy” Label

Two recent articles published in the New York Times are like bookends on the Made in Italy label and the economic malaise in the Italian textile industry.

In August journalist David Segal reported from Biella, Italy, at the foothills of the Alps, where he interviewed Luciano Barbera of the famous Carlo Barbera fabric mill for a widely disseminated piece titled “Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth.”

This piece brought back memories of my visit there in 1999 when I was working for the men’s wear newsmagazine DNR (WWDMens). I was thrilled that Carlo Barbera, who was in his ‘80s at the time, gave me a personal tour of the mill. He took me to the grotta, the subterranean cave cooled by the waters of the River Strona, where the yarns sit and rest in wooden crates for six months to a year, in a sort of natural aging process. The theory is that the yarns need time to recover after the stress of the combing and dying process, and they absorb the river’s humidity as it seeps through the grotta’s brick walls. In the Times article Carlo’s son Luciano calls it “the nobilization of the yarn.”

The clothier Luciano Barbera in his family’s “spa for yarn,” where crates of thread rest for months. Economists fear that such small-scale artisanship cannot sustain Italy’s economy forever. (Photo by Dave Yoder for The New York Times)

The mill supplies fabric to dozens of luxury brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Armani and Ralph Lauren. An executive that I interviewed at Hickey-Freeman for my DNR article said “Carlo Barbera is the premier family of Biella. It has been and continues to be one of the very select mills of the world noted for innovation…. They would rather be very, very good than very, very big.”

But the firm is now struggling financially and its orders are down. Luciano Barbera has been focusing on the “Made in Italy” label and claims that “a growing number of clothing designers have been buying cheaper fabric in China, Bulgaria and elsewhere and slapping “Made in Italy” on garments, even if those garments are merely sewn here.”

He’s now fighting against a new law taking effect in October which would allow manufacturers to use the label if at least two stages of production (out of four) occur in Italy. He maintains that the law “will wreck the national brand, which has long been built on the skill of its craftspeople.”

Barbera advocates for a label “that simply lays out the origins of a garment, stating where its fabric was made, where it was constructed, and so on.” David Segal writes that “Mr. Barbera says he has no qualms about globalization. In his opinion, Italy can’t compete when it comes to low-skill labor and shouldn’t try.” He is hoping that the European Commission will overturn the law. Meanwhile, garments in the collection that he designs are labeled “Entirely manufactured in Italy.”

More recently, Times reporter Rachel Donadio visited Prato, another textile hub located further south in Tuscany. The title of the piece says it all: “Stitched in Italy, by Chinese, Newcomers Redefine a label.” Having been familiar with the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission and its “Made in Italy” promotions, this article was almost painful to read.

The first few paragraphs set the scene:

Over the years, Italy learned the difficult lesson that it could no longer compete with China on price. And so, its business class dreamed, Italy would sell quality, not quantity. For centuries, this walled medieval city just outside of Florence has produced some of the world’s finest fabrics, becoming a powerhouse for “Made in Italy” chic.

And then, China came here.

Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.

The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.

It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.

In Prato, Italy, the Chinese manager of a textile factory closed it down after a police raid. (Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times)

And the following description brings to mind a sweatshop in China:

The work — long hours at sewing machines — takes place in back-room workshops with makeshift sleeping quarters. The heart of the “fast fashion” sector is an industrial area on the outskirts of town, Macrolotto, filled with Chinese fashion wholesalers.

Here, vans from across Europe line the parking lots as retailers buy “Made in Italy” clothing to resell back home at a huge markup. By buying in relatively small quantities and taking advantage of the fluid borders of the European Union, most manage to avoid paying import tariffs.

On a recent afternoon, a couple from Montenegro loaded racks of cotton summer dresses into boxes in the back of their van. The wife wielded a label gun, tagging each dress “Made in Italy.”

Needless to say, the aforementioned scene has little in common with the rarefied fabric production of the Carlo Barbera firm and high-end collections designed by the likes of Luciano Barbera. Simply put, it’s night and day – and a perfect illustration of what Italian designers and fabric mills are up against.

Gucci Spotlights its Artisans

Several weeks ago I noticed a Wall Street Journal ad featuring the craftsmen behind the Gucci label — and I thought ‘What a great idea — and a clever marketing approach, to boot.’

This storied Florentine label has long been associated with status handbags and shoes, and sexy globetrotting clothes. So it’s refreshing to see an emphasis on its heritage with a program the company calls its “Artisan Corner.”

Gucci's Artisan Corner

Throughout this year, Gucci’s artisans will travel to select Gucci stores, where they will be stationed at custom-built workstations with their sewing machines, leather stand and metal tools. Customers get to observe them assembling some of the house’s most iconic handbags.

An accompanying video will highlight the fact that these artisans’ skills are handed down through a family’s generations. Founder Guccio Gucci would be proud!

So far, they’ve been featured at Gucci stores in Tokyo, Osaka, Rome, Paris, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York. Visit the Facebook page for more photos.

Glovemaker Keeps Dream Alive in New York

Another story that caught my eye a few days later had a more inspiring tone, if a bit bittersweet. The New York Times Style section ran a feature (Heir to a Glove Town’s Legacy) with  a Gloversville, NY dateline. The town in upstate New York was once the center of the glovemaking universe, home to countless craftsmen.  Now, virtually singlehandedly, glovemaker Daniel Storto is keeping the dream alive.

(Photo by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

(Photo of Daniel Storto by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

The president of the Gloversville Chamber of Commerce pointed out that “When the last of the old-timers retired, their skills went with them.” Then seven years ago, Daniel Storto, a Seventh Avenue designer (born to a family of immigrant Italian tailors) transplanted himself to Gloversville. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles calls him “the haute couturier of gloves.”

Storto worked for many years with the late legendary designer Geoffrey Beene, and with the likes of Dries Van Noten and smaller labels like Duckie Brown. The Times piece said that “He makes beautiful unlined lamb suede gloves that connoisseurs order by the half-dozen, apparently undaunted by prices that start at $450 a pair.” In 2007 his L.O.V.E. gloves were a cover feature story in American Craft magazine.

Here’s the emotional heart of this story: Storto said “I thought I was a glove maker, but I wasn’t a glove maker at all until I met the old-timers. Until I came here, I had no idea what you could do with the craft.” Those old-timers were  so “inspired by his efforts to elevate their craft” that “many of them made him a gift of their tools.”

And my favorite anecdote: “The maul he uses daily to make die cuts on leather once belonged to Joe Pagano, a craftsman from one of the Neapolitan dynasties that trace their history as glove makers to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.”

“I wanted to pay him, but he wouldn’t let me,” Mr. Storto told The Times. “He told me: ‘That’s the history. The tools get passed down from glove maker to glove maker, and you’re it.’ ”

And Storto apparently enjoys the laidback lifestyle in Gloversville. “There really are more important things in life” than making money, he said. Spoken like a true artisan.

French Artisans Struggle to Stay Afloat

A couple of stories in the news recently highlighted the state of craftsmanship on both sides of the Atlantic. One piece, in the Wall Street Journal, was titled “Couture Artisans Seek French Aid.”The lead paragraph stated that “France’s specialized embroiderers, seamstresses, tailors and hatmakers — once the backbone of a thriving fashion business–are today among the hardest hit victims of the global slowdown in luxury-goods sales.”

It’s sad to say, but the famous “petites mains” of the French luxury goods sector are struggling mightily and  the French government may have to step in to provide economic aid to these craftsmen. This sector is so intimately ties with France’s image and longstanding reputation as a fashion mecca, that it’s troubling to contemplate what would happen without the existence of these artisans. The number of “highly skilled” artisans employed in the country has reportedly dropped 80 %.

France is now considering tax breaks and new labeling rules that would highlight “the origin or artisanal nature” of a product (which  I think is a great idea). And then there’s Chanel, which has wisely been buying a number of these artisans in an attempt to preserve its ability to create those most elaborate couture gowns.  It’s interesting that Chanel actually requires that its own products be sourced in France.

HBO’s “Schmatta” Film is a Must-See

The opening scenes of “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” are set to George Gershwin’s incomparable “Rhapsody in Blue,” as the screen fills with a visual symphony of spinning spools of thread and images of a once-glorious garment industry that was the biggest single employer in New York City.

dress forms_web

Airing on HBO tonight (with repeat broadcasts through November) this HBO documentary directed by Marc Levin is filled with a nostalgia for a bygone era of American clothing manufacturing, sidewalks crowded with workers pushing racks of clothes down Seventh Avenue, showrooms bustling with department store buyers and garmentos driving a hard bargain….kind of how I remember it all when I was a men’s wear market editor.

The black and white archival footage of sweat shops, Ellis Island and the Lower East side neighborhood of countless immigrants is unforgettable. And listening to Stan Herman (past president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America) recount how all the tailors would literally stream out of 530 and 550 Seventh Avenue is hard to imagine when they’ve now been reduced to the barest trickle.

Against the backdrop of unprecedented losses in U. S. manufacturing jobs, Bruce Raynor, the former General President of the labor union UNITE HERE, reminds us in “Schmatta” that “the garment unions provided for an entree into the middle class. So many lawyers and doctors and politicians and Supreme Court justices — they’re one generation out of the garment factories in New York.”

Ladies Union_web

And as we find ourselves in the middle of the Congressional debates on health care reform, Raynor tells us that “the garment industries were really precursors to many of the programs in the New Deal. Social Security, pensions were adopted by the New Deal on a societal basis. It was the lifting of those workers from poverty to the middle class that revolutionized America.” Indeed.

Even though I worked for years at Fairchild, the media company covering the fashion industry, watching this film is the first time I’ve seen a history of the U.S. garment industry that synthesizes so many major turning points: the the strides achieved by the labor union movement; the beginning of the government’s move toward deregulation and the breaking of unions in the Reagan era; the uproar over the conditions in sweat shops abroad; the signing of NAFTA during the Clinton years (and the devastating effect on domestic clothing manufacturing); the rise of celebrity designers; and the financial meltdown of recent memory.

Renewed Attention on New York City’s Garment District

In the last month I’ve noticed a string of New York garment center-related news. First the New York Times reported that NYC’s garment district “is in danger of extinction,” which many designers say could jeopardize the city’s status as a world fashion capital. The biannual Fashion Week shows “generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.”

And here’s a sobering statistic: it’s estimated that only 5 percent of the clothing sold nationally is made in the U.S. (mostly in NYC and LA). But because those products are more high-end, they represent 24 percent of total national sales.

“If you don’t have production in the garment center, there would be no reason for designers and suppliers to cluster in the district,” said Barbara Blair Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “We’re down to 9,000 jobs.”

The Bloomberg administration is now considering designating one or more large buildings in the garment center solely for clothing production, the Times reported. And a group of “industry shop owners” have formed a group called Save the Garment Center. Designer Yeohlee Teng summed it up: “Access to manufacturers is profound. After all, fashion is about timing.”


CNN joined the chorus with a feature on NYC’s garment district and the loss of American manufacturing jobs. As in the Times piece, it credited the recession, rising rent and cheap labor overseas for destroying jobs in the garment district. And it cited an even lower percentage (3 %) of clothing sold in the States that is made here. The conclusion: “Manhattan’s apparel manufacturers see their future in high-end small batch production that designers don’t want to send overseas. It’s work that would preserve the 9,000 manufacturing jobs in the garment district.”

And then earlier this week I attended a panel during Independent Film Week here in Manhattan that was titled “Made in America: Putting a Human Face on a Changing Economy.” It featured the filmmakers of two HBO films: “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” and “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.” The latter film (airing October 19) covers the decline of NYC’s garment industry. One of its subjects is Joe Raico, a fabric cutter who is president of Local 10, the cutters’ union. He reiterated that “the garment industry was once one of the biggest employers in New York City. Most of those jobs are gone….How do I compete with someone who makes $5 a week? It’s impossible.”

036_52_Garment_District Needle & thread

Regarding his involvement in the film, Raico said “I was very happy to be doing something for working people.” Director/Producer Marc Levin added: “We used to admire working people…there were movies about them…We’ve got to redesign and refashion our values.”

Designer Nanette Lepore echoed Levin’s sentiment in a passionate piece she wrote last spring for The Huffington Post (which I wholeheartedly endorse) titled “Save the Garment Center.” Here’s an excerpt:

“I often think about the impact my family craftsmanship had on me. It gave me the tools I need to create and be fearless without limitations. Knowing that one has the potential to build something from a pile of raw materials is empowering. It’s a gift that our children might not receive.

Eighty percent of my products are made in America in a 10 block radius from my office in New York City’s Garment Center. They are assembled by skilled craftsmen who also immigrated here with a trade just like my family. I treasure being able to watch my product develop from a roll of fabric into a beautiful garment hanging in a shop. That garment was designed in my studio on 35th street, the pattern digitized on 38th street, then passed to a cutter around the corner, then bins of cut work trundled to a factory on 39th street, to then be sewn together. All the while each step being closely monitored by my staff.


My company alone keeps about 10 factories busy. Those factories make up about 300 jobs in New York City. However, the landlords, the restaurant and hotel union, and the developers want to annihilate our 100 year old Garment Center. Their vision is one sprawling, mall-type maze, from Time Square to Macy’s. The homogenizing and “mall-i-fying” of our city continues. The landlords are pushing hard against the city to free up the New York City Garment Center zoning.

But what of the pride of a nation that can create its own goods? What of the fate of the designers, manufacturers and tradesmen who set up shop in the Garment Center? Who decides these businesses are not important? Fashion and its spin offs are important to the NYC economy. There has never been a more critical time to buy American made products.

Let’s show the politicians that we are invested in saving our country’s manufacturing system! Send your comments to Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Take a stand!”

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