What is a Gentleman? And how do you dress like one? That’s a question many men would like to know how to answer. In today’s interview we talk about it with Bernhard Roetzel, who is the author of the most popular book on the subject. His book, Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion, has sold over 1 million copies and has been translated into many languages. We’ll also discuss his new book, Bespoke Menswear, wardrobe basics, and much more. Enjoy the interview!
Sven Raphael Schneider: Bernhard, welcome to the Gentleman’s Gazette!
Bernhard Roetzel: Raphael, it’s good to be here.
SRS: Wonderful! Thank you for joining us, Bernhard.
BR: Thank you.
SRS: Before we start, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got into men’s clothing.
BR: Well, I am by profession, a copywriter. I used to work in advertising. I have studied graphic design in the 1980’s. Menswear was always my passion, my hobby, my pastime, and since I was a schoolboy — when other young guys went to Spain or the South of France or vacation — I traveled places like London or Paris, which is fortunately very close to Germany, and educated myself by walking around the streets, by looking at menswear stores, by looking at vintage shops. I went to flea markets. I hunted clothes like other people hunt souvenirs in Spain or Italy. I never ever thought of making this a profession. I am passionate about clothes and especially hand-made clothes. I found that hand-made clothes from days gone by were much more fascinating than what I found in the stores in the 1980’s.
SRS: Okay, you did this at a time when the internet was really not around, that was the late 80’s-early 90’s. Where did you learn about that stuff and hand-made clothes?
BR: Well, I learned like people had learned many hundred years before. I learned by reading actual books. I learned by walking around and going to places and by speaking to tradesmen, to craftsmen, to tailored shoemakers. This is how I gathered my knowledge, you know. It’s not like where today, where you can just go on the internet, and you can go to fantastic websites like the one you run, and find everything out. I really had to go to places, I really had to go to bookstores, to antique bookshops and find all these wonderful books that were around, or had been around, for a hundred years.
SRS: Once you knew all of this — and it sounds like clothing was a big hobby for you — how did you come up with the idea to write a book?
BR: Writing had been my profession since 1992 when I started working in advertising, but I never wrote about menswear. Until one day, I walked around in a museum in Bonn, which was then the German capital, and I found a book on European cuisine and it gathered everything from France, to Spain, and all the good things from these countries and I thought, well, this could be done with menswear as well. I could do a book that gathered the best from every country. This was my basic idea and then I just looked inside the book, I looked for the name of the publisher, and then I went home, I wrote a letter with a typewriter — which is something that not many young people are familiar with anymore, they’ve seen in movies you know, you actually type with physical effort. I wrote a letter, sent it to Cologne, which is near your hometown, I believe. I sent a letter to Cologne, and I was invited, to my surprise, by the publisher immediately. He said, “Come to my office, I want to speak to you about this project.” To cut a long story short, or to make a short story even shorter, he said, “It looks great, your concept. Go ahead.” I had sold my project probably by my clothes, which proves what I always say — what probably you would agree with — that good clothes open doors. You know, he had never heard about me, he just saw me walking in his office, and he probably thought, “This guy is crazy but let’s give him a chance.”
SRS: Because your clothes made a statement and spoke your message, that was believable basically.
BR: If I wore a hoodie, and track pants or an ill-fitting suit, he might have thought that this guy has no idea what he’s talking about. The publisher was a very well-dressed man, I must say. He has a very, very nice double breasted Italian suit and hand-made shoes from Hungary.
SRS: So, how would you define Gentlemen Style?
BR: That’s a very good question and a very complicated question at the same time. It’s very difficult to define. Last week I was in Vienna, and asked the same question when I spoke to a tailor, and he said: “A gentleman dresses in a way that is never exaggerated.” It’s not too much color, not too many loud patterns; it’s always well-proportioned. He gave me an example of a gentleman that he knows from Vienna who still wears suits from the late 60’s, and even suits from the late 70’s, when off the rack suits have wide lapels and so on. If you have a well-proportioned suit and if the cloth is not too thin, you can really wear it for a long, long time. You can even apply this principle of not exaggerating to the behavior of the gentleman. I really agreed. I think a gentleman is someone who doesn’t have fits of anger in public, who doesn’t laugh too loud, he’s always you know, he gives an air of being in the middle of, emotionally in the middle of the road, if you can say this in English, I don’t know if you understand me but he’s always in the middle which makes it nice to be with him, and it’s the same with clothes. Imagine, you could wear a tie that’s really loud and bright red, but you’ve got a tie on which is slightly toned down because it would draw away the attention from your face if you had a tie that was too loud. This is all that it is about.
SRS: A gentleman is more than just his clothes. Other than his mood, what other aspects do you think are an essential part of a gentleman?
BR: Well I think good behavior again is not only about knowing rules. Many people think that they attend a cause, and they learn how to eat oysters or how to taste wine in a proper manner … yeah, embarrass themselves or their wives or date or colleagues, whatever … But I find that men who really are gentlemen sometimes do not know these things. If you know how to behave yourself or if you are a polite person, you can always ask the waiter and say “I’m sorry, I’ve never had this dish before, could you please explain?” Or you could watch people how they do it, but there’s nothing embarrassing about not knowing how to eat an oyster if you never had one before. I think it’s not embarrassing, it’s much more embarrassing if you sit at a restaurant, and the lady approaches the table and if you do not get up. I find it essential to get up for a lady, I find it essential to open the door for anyone who comes after you, I find it essential to be polite to the person who cleans your room or the one who cleans your car, and real gentlemen are polite with everyone and not polite only to people that are superiors. You know, that’s one of the secrets. Everything else can be learned. It’s a very difficult task to be a gentleman, and I think it’s also human. Even a gentleman is sometimes not a gentleman — because we are all human beings, and nobody is perfect — but at least trying is a good thing and I find it very sad that nowadays, many young people are not educated this way because if you don’t educate people, they don’t know what you know.
SRS: So, when you wrote your book, when it’s titled the Gentleman, who was your intended audience at the time?
BR: Again, a very good question. To be really honest, I never thought about an audience at that stage. I just thought that I want to show whoever looks at this book later how fantastic this world of classic menswear, because I find it so interesting that every piece or every single item has a history, and every product is useful, you know. It’s 10% fashion and 90% usefulness, but when the title came up — and again, I have to admit, that I didn’t make it up. I must admit that people at the publishing house, they said almost jokingly, “The Gentleman Book,” this was like a project name, and I thought well, maybe Gentleman will be a name for a book, which creates a distance to someone who looks at the book and he reads “Gentleman,” and he might think … it may be old-fashioned, but somehow, everybody seems to create something in his mind about “Gentleman” and it seems that many more men tried to or would like at least, to be a gentleman, even if they do not succeed every time, but I think it’s, as you say in English, you must give your dog a good name, I think there’s a saying like that.
SRS: Sounds good.That’s a great perspective. So, in an old interview I read with you the other day which was just about 2000-2001, you mentioned that your dream was to write a book about custom and bespoke clothing, and then it took a little over 15 years to actually publish this book. Why did it take so long to write the second big book?
BR: Well, it’s not that I switched from using a computer to handwriting. It’s not that my speed of working had slowed down over the years. It’s just that the publishing house was really a bit cautious about the subject, you know. There were some technical things as well regarding my publishing house. Basically, my publisher said “Well, Bernhard, I like the idea, I like the subject, but I’m not sure that people will buy this subject” and then I said, “Well, you publish a book about Ferrari cars and people buy it even if they only own a bicycle.” So this was my point and in the end, we finally decided to do it, and my publishing house decided to publish the book, and this is the reason why it took so long. I also did smaller books in the meantime. In this case, the book was photographed by a photographer from Berlin, and it took some time for him to travel around and to visit all the stores. Sometimes we went there together, so we really took the time but as I said, initially, it was not as easy to sell the book as Gentleman.
SRS: Yes, I think, you can never know enough, and even if you can afford something, knowing the fine details will help you to identify things, and the process of seeing is really something that evolves over time, because you can show two people the same picture and the experienced eye can point out all the flaws, whereas the other person just sees a suit, and that’s it. So knowing more simply educates you and helps you to make better decisions in the future.
BR: Not every man is made to be a customer of a bespoke tailor. I personally love the whole process of fitting, but I also love to go to a store and buy something that I can wear immediately. I know many bespoke tailors who just admit that this is also great, you know. It’s two different worlds, sometimes you go in a place and quickly eat a burger or a sausage or whatever, and then you go to a restaurant and have a five-course meal. It’s something for different occasions, and both seems to have their value, and both things can be nice. You can go around on a bicycle; you can go around in a Rolls Royce car.
SRS: Two different ways to get from point A to point B.
SRS: So, I’ve read that you are now a big fan of Eduard Meier shoes, which is a famous shoe house in Germany that is not so well-known outside of Germany. Tell us more about them and their lasts.
BR: Eduard Meier is, I’m not very good at dates, but I think they founded in 1589 or something. It’s the oldest existing shoe house in the world, still, belongs to the same family. I think 13th generation, always the same family. They are very well known in Munich and around Munich and fairly well-known in Germany, but you’re right, they’re not very well-known outside these places, which is a shame because they are in my opinion, one of the best places to find off-the-rack shoes that fit very well because they have different shapes of lasts, plus up to four different types of shoes so when you go there. First of all, your feet will be measured, and they look at your feet, and I have seen several times when the shop assistant says “No, I’m sorry, but we have no shoe for your feet.” Sometimes people insist. Of course they will sell it to them, but usually they insist on selling well-fitting shoes. I was introduced to these lasts about 15-16 years ago by Peter Eduard Meier. His shoes are different because usually, they’re narrow and longer than the shoes you usually wear, and they have a slight banana shape. I had a friend from Japan who tried these shoes and he said jokingly “I go bananas” which was a good joke, in my opinion.
BR: When they first started with these banana shapes of shoes, people said they’re ugly shoes, and many people from clothing or shoe industry said Peter, “These shoes are ugly. Who wants to wear these banana shaped shoes?” Now, in the last ten years, I’ve noticed many traditional companies have also adopted a slight banana shape. The whole idea of the banana shape is that your big toe, if you look at your feet, it should always have the freedom to be straight and the other toes go like this. This is the whole idea. If your big toe is forced to the left or to the right, the weight of your body will press it to the inside which is not good. It’s always important, and this is why many doctors also agree that your big toe should have the freedom to be straight. It sounds a bit technical, but it’s very important.
SRS: Makes perfect sense. It’s kind of funny that the Germans invented that, because there’s this kind of stigma that German style is unstylish or not elegant and you know, that function is more important than form. How would you say or what’s the state of classic style in Germany today?
BR: Well, I’m very happy about young people, you know. Young men between 13 and 20, they’re very much into classic clothes, that’s what I noticed when I’m meeting young people at book signing sessions or when I do lectures or speeches. I’m very positive and optimistic about classic style whenever I look at the young people, but of course, we have the big majority of people who are between 60 and upwards, many of them have no interest in classic clothes at all, which has various reasons. Some people say it’s caused by the 1960s revolution, the changes in society which also took place in America in the 1960’s. They had long hair when they were young, and they had blue jeans on all the time and a t-shirt and just cannot picture themselves in a dark suit or even a navy blazer with gold buttons. It symbolizes something that they just don’t like, but I see a lot of men between 30 and 50 who grew up with my books, many of them, and they are really very much into classic clothes but the young people are the future, and they are sometimes not classical than myself nowadays. They sometimes quote from my book, and they say “Well, you said on page 26 … blah blah blah …” and if you look at the internet maybe you have a similar impression that young people are very much into this, you know. I just remembered the interview that you did the other day with Ethan Wong, I believe is his name. What’s his age? He’s so classical, you know, it’s unbelievable, and I watched this interview, and I was really amazed at his enthusiasm, and I think a lot of young people out there are really interested in this because it makes them look so much different.
SRS: Alright, Now we talked a lot about Germany style in general. But tell us a little bit more about you, what does a normal day in the life of Bernhard Roetzel look like?
BR: Well I live in the country outside Berlin, and I have family, I have five children and a wife. We live in the country because it’s so much for the children and I work from home, my office is in our house. We live in a house which is rather spacious because we need the space for our family and of course for my office, I also need the space. So, I get up in the morning and as most people do, most men do, I go to my desk which is rather early in my case, around 8 in the morning and I usually start writing at around 10. Telephone calls start coming in because most people that I work with are journalists, people in publishing houses and they start working a little later. A lot of telephone calls go on but usually, it’s 80% writing and researching. And then once or twice per week, I travel, I go around to do lectures or workshops or seminars. And so this is 2 days a week, or sometimes it’s half of the week, sometimes I have weeks or months where I travel for a complete week, but it’s traveling and writing, speaking and writing about style is what I do most of the time.
SRS: Tell us a little bit more about what you do when you don’t work?
BR: I must admit that I’m not very much into exercise. My exercise is cutting weed in our ground or cutting the grass or feeding our own chickens. I live in the country as I said, and this means we have our own chickens which are great for children. My eldest son, he has the task to look after the chicken — of course, I have to check what he is doing — but he does a very good job of this. I like doing carpentry work and similar things, we have an old house and a lot of things have to be repaired. I’m a bit of a do-it-yourself craftsman and for some of my readers, it’s difficult to imagine this, but you could see me in work clothes a lot if you came to my house without an appointment, because I like to do handwork. I think handwork is something that fascinated me in different ways. I like to watch a carpenter work and I like to even watch a brick layer work, because if somebody does a good job of what he’s doing, it’s always fascinating to watch and probably because my work is something that you cannot touch unless you see a finished book or see an article in a magazine. I’m probably fascinated by things that I can do with my hands that are visible.
BR: I’m just an ordinary family man. I like simple activities like going on a bicycle ride, which is again something that my readers cannot imagine me doing and maybe don’t want to imagine me doing. As a father, you just have to keep your children moving, and so I rarely go on holidays, I like to go to the Baltic Sea in summer, but I travel so much professionally that I must admit, that I’m not very much for traveling in my spare time. I like to be with my family in my spare time and be at home because I stay a lot in hotels, you probably know what it’s like. Even the best hotel is not like your home; this is my opinion. I like cooking, wine, a good glass of gin and tonic in the afternoon or in the evening before dinner and I like German beer of course. I like also beers from other countries. I like food and drink a lot, I like cooking for my friends, I like to invite friends over to stay. If you live in the country, you do not go out to restaurants so much. restaurants are, for me, associated with work. Usually, I go for business lunches; I meet people over lunch or over dinner. So I like to invite my real, close friends to my house and cook for them or visit friends in other towns. This is how I like, and this is what I like to offer my guests, a nice, home-cooked meal, good glass of wine, and just good conversation.
SRS: Yeah, I know. I love that too, entertaining, it’s kind of a lost art form but on another note, what would your readers or our readers be surprised to know about you?
BR: One thing that might be surprising, I like to play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is surprising, in the United States, there are so many people who play the guitar and the best guitars in the world are made in the United States. I remember saying to a man that I play the guitar and he gave me a CD with classical guitar music. I mainly play rock and blues guitar, and I play the electric guitar. This is my hobby, and you could even see me on stage playing with bands. I wouldn’t want to compare myself with someone as famous as Woody Allen. You could see me sometimes on certain clubs in Berlin or Cologne; sometimes I take my guitar with me, and then I join a band, and I sit in and play with them ,which is something I really enjoy because I love to have the opportunity to meet people for a change or sometimes professionally. I love my job, and I love to meet readers, and I love to meet colleagues, but sometimes I just like to meet people who just think or judge me by what I do at the moment. Just they guy who sits there and plays the guitar. This is really relaxing and fun for me.
SRS: Perfect, thank you. So, we always do kind of a little series, quick yes or no questions, so I’m just going to run through them, ok? Oxford or Derby?
SRS: Flannel or Worsted?
SRS:: Belt or Suspenders?
BR: Can I say both?
SRS: Sure, absolutely! Undershirt or no Undershirt?
BR: No undershirt
SRS: Off-the-rack or Bespoke?
BR: Depends, both.
SRS: What do you think we can expect from Bernhard Roetzel in the future?
BR: Well, I will keep writing books. I’m talking about another book on shoes, I can’t tell you this because it’s nothing definite so far, but this is a project that I would like to do. I would like to do a bigger book on shoes, the one single subject that fascinates men the most. I always find that when you speak about shoes, handmade shoes or Goodyear welted shoes but also other types of shoes that most men are really interested in. You can really trigger the interest for classic clothes through shoes, and that’s how many men, at least in Germany, start to get interested. So I would like to do another book that focuses on shoes. This is a subject that I haven’t dealt with in a way that has satisfied me, so far. In Gentleman, there’s a big chapter on shoes and in my book, A Guy’s Guide to Shoes, I’ve done that, but I would like to do a bigger book on shoes and after I’ve seen some fascinating bespoke shoemakers in the last weeks, I think I’m trying to sell this to my publisher at the moment, but don’t tell anyone! (laughs)
SRS: Thank you very much for being out today Bernhard, I really appreciate it! There’s very good perspective and very unique and different.
BR: Thank you, Raphael. It was great talking and keep up the good work.
If you now want to follow Bernhard Roetzel, please like his Facebook page where he posts updates and pictures regularly.