Member Focus: Urban Composition

By now, you’re probably familiar with Journal contributor Peter Zottolo, otherwise known as Urban Composition, whose expertise in the realm of classic menswear is second to none – although we’re sure he’d claim otherwise. Here, he talks a little bit about his past, his interests, and the birth of his own style.

Fortunately there don’t exist too many pictures of me in coat and tie as a teenager, otherwise I’d have to worry about blackmail.

It’s around that age that parents allow their children some autonomy in their choice of clothes, and the blame shifts squarely on the one who doesn’t know any better.  This is probably when parents begin to have fun with their kids, because the ridiculousness that children inevitably dress themselves in is not only entertaining, but responsibility can easily be waved away with a shrug: “Well, you know…I let them pick their own clothes, and there you go.”

When I was 13 I wanted a leather tie.  I already had the triple-pleated pants in that speckly/slubby fabric so popular in the 80s, the skinny suspenders, and a pair of black faux-alligator shoes with pointed, metal-accented toes. Shirt collars were impossibly small – at least one had a contrast collar – and all of my ties that weren’t solid knit had an iridescent sheen.  Sleeves were always rolled up.  In short, I probably looked like the unwanted, illegitimate son of Gordon Gekko and Duckie Dale, but so did all the other kids in the hall, except the ones that were still young enough not to care and so wore our old hand-me-downs of when our parents still dressed us in washable polyester suits.  Finally, after much pleading, my parents partially conceded me a small victory and allowed me a leather bolo tie, which I totally rocked for about six months straight, before it fell apart.

A few years later I really got into vintage clothing, specifically from the late 30’s and 40’s. Any earlier and you could get some obnoxious triple-colored stripe; any later and you’d hazard the atomic era with its shiny Dacron flecks.  For some reason, this 15-year period that happened two generations before my time resonated with me in the early 90s – different yet unimpeachably classic.  Old geezers and young chicks thought you were cool.  Grandpa dug it; the Bettys loved it.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Turns out the late 90’s revolted against the oversized trends that preceded it, so I sold my beloved Hollywood suits and exchanged them for Mod-era sharkskin to keep apace.  By this time I was married and fortunate enough to have a wife with common sense where I lacked.  “That hugs your butt too much,” I would often hear, and I was wise enough to listen.  Even now, when I see the throngs of well-meaning dudes that strive for the perfect fit and err on the side of sausage-cases and yoga pants, I wonder if they are as blessed as I (or are too obtuse to mind).

By the time I entered my 30’s I had experimented with the Ivy look (the more plaid, matte, chino’d version of Mod) and after acquiring what I estimated were the best vintage suits of the 60’s and their accompanying winklepickers, I wondered about the origins of square-toed shoes.  My online search led me to StyleForum, and before long I was suddenly entranced by stories and pictures of hand-wrought suits made with cloth woven from ancient looms in plaids only available in archived books tucked away in dusty rooms.  Users paraded their fully-canvassed good-taste bespoke suits, seven fold soporific ties, and hand-rolled ancient madder pocket squares from London, Naples, and Thailand (!), and I was hooked.  Suit and tie went from being a haphazard mishmash or decade-specific cosplay to a classically-based idea of proportion, fabric, color, season, and formality.  Clarity ensued.

I would be remiss to dismiss the knowledge of the old guard, such as Vox, Manton, RSS, Doc Holliday, and others that I am too lazy to remember, but if it wasn’t for them and the forum’s knack for attracting both the pedantic and the visceral, I would not be returning as I do.  Whereas there will always be throngs ready to ride the next trend – slim or roomy, tight or cartoony – personally I have benefitted from those who steadfastly bear the torch of classic menswear, as did many before them.

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How to Jump Into Bespoke

Today I’m in a salon in San Francisco with my wife.  The stylist asks how she wants her hair, and as she responds, she’s also using her hands almost like paintbrushes, drawing invisible lines here and there to indicate bob and bang length.  Then she points to a picture of a model on a wall.

“Like that.” 

Getting a bespoke suit follows a similar path.  We have an image in our mind and say to ourselves, “I want to look like that.”  Getting to look like that can be tricky.  Where to begin?  The following steps should help you on your way.

Decide what style you want. This cannot be overemphasized.  When you look at a picture of a suit you like, what exactly about it attracts you?  Is it the roping on the sleevehead, clean chest, and precise lines?  Or maybe you’re drawn to the roundness of the shoulders, gentle drape and curves, and soft tailoring.  Perhaps you like them all, but what do you see yourself in?  Nail that down, and proceed to step two.

Find a tailor that makes what you like as the house style.  This can be tough.  Generally speaking, there are three types of tailoring: British, American, and Italian.  The tailoring houses in the respective countries roughly adhere to the local style, but even within there are differences.  There are several threads on Styleforum that focus on various tailoring houses and geographical particularities; peruse them to pinpoint the one that most appeals to you.  These will get you started:

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Decide if you are willing to travel.  If so, you can go to any tailor you want, with only time and your budget to hold you back.  If not, you need to limit your choices to traveling tailors.  Here are a couple threads on StyleForum with tailors that travel to the US:



Plan the logistics of your travel.  Earlier this year I went to Sicily and wanted to try the tailors there.  When planning for the trip, I started to look for hotels and rental car agencies.  Many of these are available online in English, and email communication is also in English.  ProTip for car rental: InterRent is reliable and crazy cheap, often $20 a day or less for a car.  Their offices are sometimes located away from the airport but they do provide shuttle service.  Hotels usually speak English, and depending on your pocketbook, Sicily can provide unforgettable accommodations.

Set900x900px-ll-2505fe4a_tumblr_mltkm24ltx1rf1jvro1_1280 up an appointment. Many Italian tailoring shops don’t speak English, so along with other useful questions such as “Qual’è il miglior vino della casa?” you need to learn simple phrases to set up your appointment.  In this regard, utilize the many online translation sites, or language apps to use on your smartphone.  Or try this:  “Buongiorno, mi chiamo Peter. Voglio venire alla sua sartoria il diciannove ottobre alle 3 di pomeriggio. Va bene per lei?”

Since I speak conversational Italian, I called to let both tailors know the dates and general time of day I would be coming, which I did again about a week before my departure date. Most tailors will not discuss prices over the phone, so while it’s good to have a ballpark figure, be prepared for a somewhat fluid policy.  Allow at least a week for the first visit, first fitting, a possible second fitting, and the finished product.  If staying for less time, most tailors are willing to ship to you at cost. 

But what do you do once you get there?  What can you expect?  What do you ask?  I asked venerable StyleForum members to share their experiences, and next week’s Journal will reveal their responses.