For The Discerning Few is proud to present you an exclusive interview with Michael Alden: actor, entrepreneur, creator of The London Lounge and of Dress With Style, bespoke specialist, polyglot, and last but not least a true gentleman.
For The Discerning Few: When did your passion for clothes begin?
Michael Alden: I have never had a passion for clothes. I am deeply interested in people, people who radiate elegance, be it in their everyday lives or on stage. Being elegant has very little to do with the clothes themselves. It is all about the way you wear the clothes and how you carry yourself. What matters is radiating style.
I grew up in Beverly Hills in the fifties and was a fan of movies from the thirties and the forties. At the time, actors such as Cary Grant or Fred Astaire had real charisma. This strong influence in my youth has stayed with me.
In those days, film stars would go out at night and mix with everyday people. Things were different than they are today. We were so impressed by their presence. When they walked into a room, people would just stop talking. For instance, I remember being in a Hollywood restaurant with my grandfather and at one point the whole place turned silent. I asked my grandfather what was going on and he whispered to me: “Orson Welles just walked in. Orson Welles!” A room full of two hundred people was in awe. We do not have people like this anymore, it is a shame.
FTDF: How can we acquire this aura you are talking about?
Michael Alden: I believe we all have the capacity to acquire it. It is in ourselves, but we have to set it free. In order to do this, I think the first step is for young men to find their own style. You have to ask yourself some questions such as: What is my style? Who am I? Where am I going?
Answering those questions is crucial to me. Actually it is the main theme of the videos you will discover on Dress With Style. It is very important because many people spend a huge amount of money buying ready-to-wear or bespoke clothes, but in the end, they do not have the power of attraction that Balzac described as “magnetism”.
I believe we are born and physically endowed to be attractive. We are men. We have to be attractive otherwise the future of mankind would be in doubt!
FTDF: Can clothes be of any help to develop this magnetism?
Michael Alden: Clothes are only a reflection of who you are, they are the frame of the picture that is you. That is why once you find your own style, choosing clothes becomes easy. Being comfortable allows you to be more confident. And once you have confidence, you do not feel the need to follow costly trends and if you are truly gifted you can set the trends.
FTDF: When did you become interested in bespoke tailoring?
Michael Alden: Both my grandfather and my uncle were customers of Savile Row. They introduced me to bespoke tailoring when I was young. But in spite of their advice, like many young men, I ventured up many dead end roads before finding the path to my own style.
FTDF: Did you also make mistakes when you picked some tailors?
Michael Alden: Indeed, I have. But you learn from your mistakes. Today, however, things are much more expensive than they were back then. Therefore, mistakes can be more detrimental to a young budget. That is why I would advise young men to take their time in order to find what suits them.
In Italy and in England, bespoke tailoring is still affordable and you can get something decent for about 2 000 or 3 000 Euros. However sometimes prices can exceed 5 000 Euros. That is why bespoke tailoring is difficult in Paris. Even though Cifonelli and Camps De Luca still make great garments, their prices are a challenge for young men.
FTDF: Some people say that classical clothing is back in style. We do not agree. Do you?
Michael Alden: I do not think that classical clothing is in vogue. But I think that people are becoming more and more interested in “custom, bespoke tailoring”. Actually, over the last two years, Savile Row’s turnover has increased by 30%; it must be because people realize that the custom, hand crafted clothing may not be available very much longer.
But I do not see a resurgence of interest in classic clothing. There is no going back.
FTDF: Do you think that people are interested in the work of craftsmen or are they buying the whole made to measure and bespoke act put on by mega brands, such as Hugo Boss, who pepper their commercial campaigns with scissors and tape measures when in fact they could not care less about bespoke tailoring?
Michael Alden: Indeed, to them it is just about selling more garments. They have no history. That is why many tailoring houses on the Row have complained about these marketing tactics.
FTDF: Some people think that the Row is “dead”. Do you?
Michael Alden: I would not say that. Some tailoring houses on Savile Row are doing quite well, but for how long? No one knows. It is already hard for them to find young tailors.
FTDF: Is that why many historical houses of the Row aspire to become brands like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng?
Michael Alden: You are right. This is the future of Savile Row of they cannot find a new guard of craftsmen.
FTDF: Which tailoring houses still maintain the tradition of Savile Row?
Michael Alden: There is a handful of them: Huntsman, Anderson & Sheppard, Henry Poole, Richard Anderson and a few others which are still genuine.
FTDF: You live in Italy, what can you tell us about Italian bespoke tailoring?
Michael Alden: I am fond of Italian tailoring. Over the years, I have worked with many tailors in Naples, in Rome, in Florence and in Sicily. I love their creativity and their craftsmanship. Every town has its own style and specificities, it is truly amazing.
However, Italian tailoring has the same problem as English tailoring which is the lack of young tailors. I recently met a very skilled 80 year old tailor in Naples but there is no one he could pass on his knowledge to.
FTDF: As far as style is concerned, do you prefer Italian tailoring or English tailoring?
Michael Alden: It depends on how you wear the clothes. You cannot buy elegance; it is not in the clothes. It is all about the man who wears them.
My style tends to be English even though I love Italian tailors. I like the English cut because of its sobriety and its simplicity. Italian tailors are usually very good for their handwork and finishing, but when it comes to the fit, English tailors have the edge.
Italian style is sometimes a little too much for me. For instance Kiton sells clothes which are a bit loud, with very wide, long lapels. It is not really my thing. I prefer the old Neapolitan style which was inspired by Frederick Scholte’s Drape Cut. I think the line is elegant.
FTDF: You put to the fore that, be it in Italy or in England, bespoke tailoring will soon disappear. Do you think that the Internet, with blogs such as yours, can help preserve this craft by getting young people interested in it?
Michael Alden: Absolutely. The Internet can really help young men understand what bespoke tailoring is about. Especially because nowadays, the terms “Made to measure” and “Bespoke” are often used in a misguiding fashion. As a result, beginners are sometimes a bit lost. The problem is that the real tailors suffer from this. That is why we must use the internet to put them to the fore.
FTDF: Like what you did with Ambrosi? We know you played a part in their development. Could you tell us about it?
Michael Alden: About ten years ago, I was strolling in the tailors’ district of Naples. Back then, you could see tailors at work because they usually had their windows open. So I knocked on doors and I talked to some of them because I was looking for a tailor who could make me trousers with a cut suitable for my height. I was given some addresses and this is how I got the chance to meet the Ambrosi family who at the time only made trousers for other tailoring houses.
I began working with them and was satisfied with their work. That is why I thought that other men could be interested in their ability.
Now, they are developing well. Salvatore Ambrosi often goes abroad in order to meet new clients. An article about them was published in The Rake and I also made a short video about them for my blog. As a result, people are now more and more interested in what they have to offer because provided you like the cut of Neapolitan trousers, for 450 Euros, you will purchase an excellent bespoke trouser.
FTDF: You have worked with many tailors and craftsmen and continue to do so, what kind of obstacles did you have to face?
Michael Alden: I could write a book about the psychological aspect of working with tailors. As a matter of fact, although they are very talented some are equally stubborn and closed minded. They do not want to go further than what they were taught and resent any sort of evolution.
That is why you should choose a tailor whose style suits you. But there are exceptions. For instance, I work with a 70 year old Sicilian tailor who learned his craft from a Roman master tailor. And with the influence I brought he now makes suits that have more of an English touch because he immediately understood my expectations, was curious and willing to test his ability.
It is a privilege to work with tailors who are just as passionate as we are.
FTDF: How would you describe your personal style?
Michael Alden: My style is eclectic. I have numerous influences. I love fine fabrics and beautiful cloth. Tweed, flannel and linen are my favorites. I am not very keen on worsted wool unless it is required for a business suit.
The problem nowadays is that beautiful cloths are hard to find. As a consequence of the decline of tailoring, cloth suppliers tend to produce fabrics that cost less to make and are made to be sewn by machines in factories. They cannot afford to make cloth destined to be sewn by hand.
FTDF: What can you tell us about the mills in Scotland and in England?
Michael Alden: With the decline of tailoring their situation was becoming precarious. There has been much consolidation on the business. But with this new interest in bespoke tailoring, the mills seem to be on track.
FTDF: Most people believe that tailors can only cut suits, but we know you are very fond of bespoke coats. What can you say about this?
Michael Alden: That is right. Tailors should not be reduced to cutting three-piece suits only. I love coats and I am having a Pea Coat made for me by my tailor, in Sicily. I also had a leather jacket cut for myself recently. I am now working on pair of jeans in Japan which will be worn at the natural waist in order to suit tall men.
Tailors can do all kinds of things, not just traditional clothing.
FTDF: We feel that nowadays when it comes to fine clothing there is no place like Japan. Do you agree?
Michael Alden: Indeed, Japan is now the number 1 market. I tell the tailors I know that their talent would more appreciated in Japan than it is in their own country.
Japanese men at the Pitti Uomo are often really elegant. They like fine fabrics and are true connoisseurs.
One of my good friends is Yukio Akamine: a very elegant man. His website and his blog inspire many young men in his country.
FTDF: How many people, would you say, care for bespoke tailoring?
Michael Alden: The world of bespoke has always been very small. It is a very small club. I imagine there are about 20 000 people worldwide who are regular clients of bespoke tailors. The funny thing is, thanks to the Internet we are getting to know each other.
FTDF: Do you think someone can wear casual clothing and remain elegant?
Michael Alden: I do. Elegance can be achieved through many styles. For instance, I recently put myself up to a challenge to wear a pair of jeans with a leather jacket even though my style is usually very classical. By doing this, I wanted to show young people that whatever your style, the important thing is to do things right.
One need only study the fifties and actors like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando who would wear jeans and leather jackets and still looked amazing.
FTDF: When it comes to classical clothing, how relevant are codes and rules as far as you are concerned?
Michael Alden: I think that balanced proportions are crucial when you want to look your best. However, I am not a big believer in rules because they tend to restrict creativity and to scare off beginners.
Surely, knowing the rules cannot be a bad thing but you have to quickly develop your own judgment, your own eye. I believe instinct is the key to developing your own style.
FTDF: What tips would you give a young man who wants to create the perfect wardrobe?
Michael Alden: He should have five suits made out of good fabrics by an Italian or an English tailor. He will have them for twenty years and he will not need to buy anything else. And if he wants to have fun on the side, then he can do that knowing he already has the suits he needs for his professional career.
In the long run, it will cost him a lot less than if he had bought ready-to-wear clothes every two years.
FTDF: We agree but one needs to be mature to think like that in order not to get tricked into following the latest trends…
Michael Alden: Exactly. That is why I created my blog. I want young people to avoid making the same mistakes I did.
FTDF: Most of the men you see wearing suits in Paris cannot get it right. There seems to be a problem with this particular garment. How can you explain this?
Michael Alden: It is sad but true. Paris used to be one of the most stylish cities in the world. I remember style icons such as Noiret, Belmondo or Gabin who had incredible charisma.
I was lucky enough to meet Philippe Noiret several times. He was very subtle and had amazing magnetism. I learned a lot from him.
FTDF: Do you think there is something inherent to French society which prevents people from having their own style?
Michael Alden: It is true that dressing well and paying attention to how you look can be perceived as arrogance by some people. However, life is too short to think like this. I love dressing myself in the morning to shine all the day long; it is just like getting on stage.
We are here to attract people and we must do it every day. You never know who you are going to meet so you have to be ready for anything because life is a short adventure.
People who are not in that state of mind might as well rush to retirement homes or get out of the way of those who want to live!
FTDF: Many people in France seem to dress in order to get recognition from others. They try hard but they are not themselves, they seem to be other people. They have no personality…
Michael Alden: Yes, it must be because of social conventions…
FTDF: Do these social conventions really exist? Or is it not that people misinterpret them? People seem to create their own problems…
Michael Alden: You are right. People put too much pressure on themselves. That is why to me we all have this magnetism within ourselves but very few of us let it free. People tend to complicate things. They create their own problems and their own prison.
But anyway, we have always been a minority and even back in the sixties, most people did not have style either even if they wore suits
FTDF: Yes, but back in the days, you could get advice from salespersons whereas today that does not seem to be the case anymore…
Michael Alden: You are spot on. The quality of customer service nowadays is not what it used to be. Salesmen now go from selling washing machines one day to selling suits the next day!
FTDF: What do you think about fashion nowadays?
Michael Alden: Fashion is followed by people who are not capable of developing their own style. They piggyback on trends. People with no magnetism wear brands to stand out. They have to wear gaudy clothes in order to be noticed.
A charismatic man does not have to follow trends. He only has to dress to make his presence felt.
FTDF: We have mostly been talking about fine clothes. What can you tell us about fine shoes? And what are your thoughts on bespoke shoes?
Michael Alden: I own a few pairs of bespoke shoes. But I mainly wear ready to wear shoes made by Edward Green which age beautifully.
Even though I need bespoke clothes, I do not feel the need to wear bespoke shoes. Nevertheless I often go to Cleverley’s because I love to see their work.
I believe shoes should be as simple as possible. I am not a big fan of eccentricity. I do not want people to be looking at my feet. A woman must look into your eyes! You have to look in people’s eyes in order to get their full attention. In the words of Jean Gabin: “It is all about the eyes! You have to look people in the eye!”. That is how you make a connection.
FTDF: Which tailors do you recommend?
Michael Alden: To tell you the truth, I work with a few retired tailors who only work for a few lucky men. Out of respect for them, I would rather not disclose their identity.
I know and respect the work of many tailoring houses and their styles, but I am not a customer anymore.
I would advise people to go to London and in Italy to discover things by themselves just like I did. It is, after all, a great adventure.
FTDF: There are many blogs and websites dedicated to bespoke tailoring; do you feel it has any negative effects?
Michael Alden: Yes, the internet had some negative impact on bespoke tailoring; it led some tailors to become brands and to advertise.
Moreover, some people call themselves “experts” on the topic but nobody knows what they look like behind their computers. That is why I often post pictures and videos of myself on my blog. People can either like or dislike my style but at least they know what I look like. Plus I am not trying to sell anything.
FTDF: You travel a lot. In which city do you think people are most elegant?
Michael Alden: To be honest I only see a handful of elegant men every year, most of the time in London and in Italy. The main thing with Italians is that they know how to wear a suit, they look comfortable. It looks natural and that makes the difference.
FTDF: Do you want to add something?
Michael Alden: I have always wanted young people to get interested in a craft that will soon disappear. And if they want a career they should learn the craft from an old tailor or artisan so we can still enjoy bespoke tailoring in twenty years.
For The Discerning Few wishes to thank Pierre-Paul-Marie Hofflin of Talon Rouge for his warm welcome and Michael Alden for his wisdom, his elegance and his kindness.
This interview© was conducted by PAL & VM for For The Discerning Few®. Paris, December 2010. All rights reserved.