Alfred Dunhill, a century-old company with an impeccable pedigree, is well-known for making quintessentially British clothes. But do not believe everything you see: nothing is quite what it seems in contemporary menswear.
Alan Duddle, the company's merchandise director, is refreshingly upfront about his intentions. The Dunhill look, he says, is 'MGM English - as the world perceives this country, not as it necessarily is.'
'MGM English' means combining a nostalgic, Hollywood- tinted vision of ye olde England with modern advances in design and manufacture. Dunhill makes country tweed jackets which look similar to the sturdy versions worn by our forefathers. However, they are considerably different in construction for they are lighter and softer, with wider armholes and a broader and more sophisticated palette of colours.
While the image evokes a timeless British heritage - historic and untouched by the vagaries of the modern world - the truth is rather different.
At the top-priced end of the market, all classic menswear now represents an international blend of qualities. The best combines a British sense of tradition and emphasis on quality, an American- style sportiness and freshness, and an Italian delight in colour and softness.
The nationality debate stirs up passions in the menswear trade. For example, Joseph Abboud, a leading American menswear designer, contends that most Italian menswear is a plagiarisation of US sportswear concepts. Some designers even argue that the unstructured jacket, which Giorgio Armani has claimed as his creation, has its roots in American sportswear.
The debate gets more complicated, as Abboud acknowledged when I once questioned him at length on the subject. For example, Abboud himself admires traditional British clothing, particularly the knitwear and tweeds of the Scottish Borders. In this he is at one with Ralph Lauren, who has had a long-running love affair with British heritage. Both have reworked it to give it a thoroughly modern American twist.
Lauren puts it like this: 'Of course, my dream of England is romantic, but I have pulled the essence of the dream out of the real thing.'
At Alfred Dunhill, Alan Duddle remains a staunch defender of the British contribution to menswear, but acknowledges that the Americans have had a strong influence.
'Modern men's clothing is influenced by a more casual approach to life, and that approach is summed up by America,' he says. 'In a sense, all our lives have become Americanised. What we try to do at Dunhill is to keep that casualness but establish it within an English tradition.'
The beautiful irony is that many of Dunhill's clothes are made in neither Britain nor the US, but in Italy - a country blessed with a plethora of fine, upmarket, ready- to-wear menswear manufacturers.
In essence, Mr Duddle's aim is to internationalise the British look. The Dunhill breed of Brit, he says, is a man who 'translates far beyond these islands'.
Alfred Dunhill originally made accessories and clothing for motorists, then moved into smoking accessories in the Edwardian era. The first full collection of menswear is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the early Seventies. For years, the clothes were bought by men who loved classic English tailoring and had the money to buy the very latest in luxury knitwear (cashmere, camelhair, cashmere-silk mixes). In design terms it was less than exciting, although the tie designs were always popular.
Now Dunhill is making sterling efforts to pep up its menswear collections. Other classic British names such as Austin Reed, Aquascutum and Daks-Simpson are doing much the same, albeit at a slower pace. There is an intrinsic acceptance of the fact that internationalisation is the only way forward for the British look.
The British hope that by drawing on continental and American menswear they are making their clothes more accessible, particularly to younger customers. There is a school of thought that scorns this approach, complaining that every time a British tailor removes an interlining or chooses a slightly lighter weight of cloth, he is sullying a proud tradition.
Times change, however, even in Savile Row. Thirty years ago, cloths in Savile Row averaged around 16oz a yard in weight, with a few lightweights touching 12oz. Today, a 12oz cloth is more likely to be average weight. And why not? The modern man lives in well-heated buildings and drives well-heated cars; he has no need of the heavyweight fabrics of his forebears.
Dunhill's design studio, led by Alan Duddle and headed by former Jaeger designer Peter Tilley, is working out how to preserve the best of British but make it acceptable everywhere.
So the team are softening up casual jackets, making polo shirts in a broader range of colours, loosening sweaters so that they are not tight around the shoulders, and introducing a touch of humour in the silk tie prints (everything from teacups to keys and playing cards).
Much of the secret of dressing in the modern idiom, however, has to do with the way the clothes are put together rather than with the actual garments themselves. The tie now becomes an option rather than an essential; the chambray shirt now earns itself a place in the working wardrobe, while a smart jacket and trousers are considered a respectable alternative to the suit.
Mr Duddle does not believe the new attitudes are only being picked up young men. 'It's a taste level, not an age level. Everyone likes the idea of wearing a polo shirt in our new soft cotton rather than the shiny mercerised stuff we used to use.'
Ironically, in the company's centenary year (when one might expect it to indulge in some heavyweight branding exercises), Mr Duddle is toning down the branding on the menswear collection. 'It's a lot more subtle,' he says. 'I don't like logos splashed all over the place.'
Nor, it seems, do his customers. British menswear may now be internationalised, but the good news is that this is happening ever so discreetly.
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