Welcome back to the Gentleman’s Gazette! Today, I interview Simon Crompton, founder of Permanent Style where he focuses on bespoke and craftsmanship in Britain and around the world. Welcome, Simon! His website just got a makeover, so definitely take a look!
Simon Crompton: Hi! Nice to meet you.
Sven Raphael Schneider: Thanks for making time. I really appreciate it. So, Simon, you studied Philosophy, politics and economics but you’re a journalist today. Can you share with us the journey that took you from the university to where you are today?
SC: Yeah, sure. So, I studied PPE as you said, at Oxford, I went to Trinity College. I didn’t really have any ambition to be a philosopher or a politician or economist. You know, a lot of people go to Oxford and become politicians. It’s more seen as a general arts course, I think people do it before going into lots of different professions. I also was quite a big traveler and writer and writing was something I always really liked doing, and so Journalism was always one of the areas I wanted to go into and try, first of all.
SRS: So, when did you know that this is something you wanted to do?
SC: It was kind of what I applied doing and what I started out trying for as a career and I think the big thing with careers a lot of the time, certainly I would say, is that you already learn the kind of things you like about a job when you’ve been doing it for a while.It’s very hard, in the beginning, to assess exactly what you want to do. Major Journalism isn’t probably the kind of thing you’re going to be doing but at the same time, there are things that you would enjoy about it and can really appreciate.
SRS: Of course! Did you do an internship or did you just apply somewhere and stayed there all your career? What were the different steps that you took?
SC: Yeah, well, I did do a couple of things during university. I worked in Boston. Did a couple of placements at a newspaper here in London, the Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian. Different kinds of work experience but I was quite lucky to..I applied age 21 or whatever.. applied to the same company I work at now and got a graduate journalism position.
SRS: Oh, wow! So how long have you been with the company then?
SC: Thirteen years, now.
SRS: Wow, okay. So, what’s your day to day work there?
SC: So, I started out as a graduate journalist. I was a writer and reporter. Writing mostly about finance, capital markets. After a few years, I went to work for another magazine then I came back, worked on another magazine about patents and trademarks.. and then about two years ago, I kind of transitioned into a head of product role so we have a group of magazines across and I lead new product launches, product development, that kind of thing.
SRS: Very Interesting and very different from Permanent Style. So it sounds like Permanent Style is just a side gig. How would you describe the relationship between legal patent stuff and Permanent Style?
SC: Yeah, I think, I would say that I really like both jobs. The things I get out of them are very, very different to each other. I was talking to a friend recently actually, works in the fashion industry as well, but also does kind of like a real estate investing on the side. I actually was saying, it often makes a very good partnership because fashion and crafts for starters, it’s very visual, it’s very tactile, it’s very emotional, but frankly, you don’t meet many companies in this industry that you kind of be excited to work for from a professional point of view. The big fashion companies are often very conservative. More, kind of, crafts based companies are great places to work but often horrendously disorganized and not really businesses from that point of view. So I think, from the day job I worked with, incredibly intelligent, driven, highly-educated people, a very different stimulation to what I get from watching about fashion.
SRS: Okay, I can totally see that. So, how do you split the time between Permanent Style and the other stuff? Is it like 50/50 or is it 30/70?
SC: It’s probably 70/30 with more on the day job. So, I work 9-5 and I mostly write my blogs on the evening and then I kind of take time off if I’m doing traveling or bigger projects like writing books and so on.
SRS: How would you describe the state of print menswear journalism versus online men’s wear journalism?
SC: I think print menswear journalism is having a tough time. A lot of old magazines that people used to read like GQ, and Esquire, are struggling to stay connected to a more intelligent and craft based kind of audience, and we have some new, kind of interesting start-ups and people like Port, Gentleman’s Journal, and other magazines that are looking far more on the craft side and the quality side but they always kind of hampered and because of the high print cost to doing that kind of magazine and because of the high margins of some of the luxury products and advertising spend available, they often end up becoming basically just luxury magazines filled with expensive cars, expensive watches, and expensive whiskies, which don’t really connect to most people.
SRS: This is just like, they reach out to brands and say “Hey, do you want to be featured? We charge you X amount for it”, it’s not like an ad, it’s just a round-up with pictures of things that looks very editorial, but it’s in fact, an ad.
SC: Yeah, it’s quite depressing. You see some of those kinds of contract in the magazines and a brand in return for X thousand of advertising this year will be promised X pages of “support” this year, and it’s just saying we’ll basically write about you if you pay this amount, I mean, it’s just quite depressing as a reader, being what I’m paying to read, no curation or no kind of input into it. It’s just got the most money, so it’s going to be featured in a magazine.
SRS: Let’s switch more to style-based questions and I think, I’ve read that you described your style often as British style sold to the Italians which is kind of a phrase coined by Micheal Drake, he always used that. Can you describe your approach to that and what it means to you?
SC: I suppose there are a few elements to it. I think, I tend to be fairly conservative in terms of color and pattern. I wear a lot of navys and grays. I think it’s, for me, it goes back to that kind of initial period where you’re getting into tailoring, and it was about, I think what really struck me was the beauty of a great cut and great line and fit, that’s the thing I’ve always found most attractive rather than outrageous colors or unusual fabrics or kind of, bright things going on so, it’s always been quite subtle and conservative from that point of view but I think that means that it highlights kind of, fit and quality aspect more.
SRS: Tell us more about this Italian-Brit thing?
SC: I think English people kind of envy the Italian’s kind of suave and kind of swagger and kind of attitude. Whereas, a lot if Italians really envy the kind of, what seems like a very kind of quiet, confident, English people that dress well, you know, to not care necessarily about immediate impression you make and be very comfortable in your clothes and comfortable in yourself. I think it’s interesting when you see other kind of countries talk about… I remember talking to some guys in Stockholm about kind of Swedish style and things somewhere between Italian and English, and they were saying that Swedish guys dress really well and often kind of in English style but unfortunately, unlike the Italians, they’re all so kind of very, very, self-conscious and very insecure and kind of therefore, want to procure themselves as confident to what they wear and so I think at midpoint between those two is kind of very attractive where you have your attitude and character. You’re not quite as meek as the English stereotype but at the same time be very comfortable in kind of what you wear, you don’t need to kind of impress people in kind of how you wear things, so you’re comfortably wearing old clothes, things that are worn and loved. I’ve been talking to a friend a couple of days ago about this interesting example of analyzing how royalty is portrayed, particularly, that kind of Northern European..but if you look at how, say, an Italian would portray themselves, is often a lot of circumstance, often a lot of gold, finery and drapery whereas, in this particular modern period, most of the, if you saw a Dutch family or German family portrayed, there’d be much less of that kind of going on. Their interior is more somber and conservative but a very high quality. Somebody of the time, looking at it would know this person was rich because they had lots of books, all the things that signified wealth. It was a very kind of subtle indication of wealth and knowledge and education rather than kind of Spanish-Italia which is a bit more kind of over the top.
SRS: Alright, good! I think one of the big words in craftsmanship and clothing today is handmade, and if you look what’s described as handmade, there’s this huge kind of area, right? Like sometimes, I would think it’s abused or misused. What’s your definition of handmade? When is something handmade and where’s the line?
SC: I think, unlike a lot of words, I’m not sure handmade should have a clear definition necessarily because it’s very hard to say..you’ve got, say, bespoke shoemakers who are sewing by hand, sewing the welt of the sole by hand and you’ve got people making very, very, high-level bench made shoes where they can equally say it’s a handmade garment, handmade shoe. All they’re doing is very carefully guiding the product through a machine.
SRS: Exactly, right! You have a person sitting there on the machine, the sewing machine. Like, is this handmade or not?
SC: Yeah, I suppose when someone thinks handmade, they just mean something which is not sort of 3D printed and just being… but if you try and say that bespoke shoes have to be handmade, that kind of bench made shoes could just be called bench made, bench made is never going to mean anything to anybody, but if we’re trying to convince young guys to get something decent that’s bench made, I don’t have a problem with them calling it a handmade shoe, frankly. You know, it’s already just a very broad term in itself, and maybe something like bespoke is actually quite a narrow term which is being kind of stretched down to its original meaning.
SRS: Where is the point sometimes where you think a machine actually provides a better result? Where would you say “Actually, more handwork doesn’t make the product better but worse?”
SC: I think the problem with handwork is that it’s very volatile. You get good handwork, and it’s very bad handwork. I can sew but it’s awful, it’s still a handmade garment or whatever. I suppose one clear clarification to make would be things that physically can’t be done by a machine, so things like the saddle stitch cannot be replicated by machine because a machine can’t go in and out, so the needle doesn’t overlap itself. But almost everything else, I say hand sewing is never necessarily better than machine. You know, I’ve seen some really, really badly done handsewn tailoring, and I’ve seen some machine-made garments that are incredibly done.
SRS: I think, you know, when it comes to bespoke, a lot of times, people talk about the jacket and many things have been said, and you’ve written about the importance of the floating canvas and the cut, individually cut pattern for you but what I find that’s often neglected are trousers and pants. So, in your opinion, what are the important things to focus on with trousers and pants?
SC: I think trousers and pants are a lot simpler. I have no problem with somebody who has even a ready to wear line he really likes. A decent quality, a decent material, as long as you get trousers which have a good line that you like through the leg and fits you well on the waist and that’s kind of not much more you need. A little bit like shirts, as well, I think in trousers, you want kind of consistency, and you probably don’t really want that many different styles of trousers. You want, most of the time, the same style with lots of different weights and colors and materials to choose from. Whereas a jacket, you want to vary more shoulders, the sleeve and so on, because it makes much more difference and impact.
SRS: I agree! A jacket is much more complex.. at the same time, you know when I had my first pair of bespoke trousers, I could really see the difference. Just the way the crease fell on the front and the back, it was just clean and straight, it was something that I never had with ready to wear or made to measure product and I thought, you know, it really makes a difference when you look at it but most people kind of neglect that, basically.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. I suppose, it’s kind of, there are finer details and small differences and as a result, they’re less likely to make an impact and people are less likely to notice, but you’re right! It also makes a difference when you, if you like braced trousers, which I don’t usually wear, then that’s very hard to get ready to wear. A good, braced trouser with a tailored jacket can be, can look incredibly elegant. Makes a huge difference.
SRS: Well, you know, you can either find now, even ready to wear, they sometimes offer the high waisted trousers for braces but then they’re usually a little wider cut. If you, let’s say you want like a slimmer, narrower, cut at the leg, more modern but a high waist, that’s very difficult to find off the rack.
SC: That’s true! I suppose the only thing I’d say is that you can narrow the trouser fairly easily and kind of alter the style of the trouser quite a lot whereas if you try and make that kind of degree of change to the style of a jacket, it’s a lot harder.
SRS: True! I read a few years back, you were a big fan of Turnbull and Asser bespoke shirts. Earlier, you said, you know, the difference between a less expensive shirt fabric and stuff doesn’t feel that different to me. I’ve also seen that you kind of went to different shirtmakers and what’s your take on shirts today versus a few years ago?
SC: I think there’s two definite phases there. I had bespoke shirts, and they’re great, the fit was good but most English shirtmakers cannot make a shirt to be worn open necked, and they’ve never been taught how to do it. By contrast, most Italian shirtmakers know exactly how to make a button down shirt that will roll beautifully around a sports jacket and stay open and sit properly. I think when I first had an Italian bespoke shirt made, I had the collar work perfectly. Actually a lot of handwork around the collar and around the sleeve and so on.. It was just incredible, and I don’t, I’ve never looked back. I’ve often said again, which you’ve probably picked up on, I don’t think there’s a bigger difference in the area of clothing between English and Italian bespoke shirts because it just seems to be incredible that English shirtmakers do absolutely no sewn by hand exactly the same as a ready to wear shirt and I just don’t think it’s important.
SRS: So, would you say that handwork is much more important than the machine work? How can you feel the difference?
SC: It is important. I wouldn’t say it’s important as shoes or jackets, for example. But there are quite a handful in this area that does make a difference. Attach the collar by hand for example, when I first saw somebody doing this, if you watch somebody attaching a collar to a shirt by hand, they put it around like a collar stand, a wooden stand, button the shirt and then attach the collar by hand and then unbutton the collar and of course, when you unbutton it, the collar stays round whereas, if it’s done by machine, you do it flat, like that, let it go and it’s still flat, and it just seems so obvious that one that’s sewn round, is going to stay in shape better on your neck, particularly when it’s unbuttoned.
SRS: So, you just mentioned you got new shirts and stuff so, do you keep all the old things and add on to your wardrobe or is it kind of a one in and one out? What’s your approach to that?
SC: I try to do one in and one out when I can, increasingly difficult but not for a long time, that was my policy. Beginning with replacing ready to wear clothing with bespoke clothing, that was my policy. Now harder, I’ve got rid of a few old of my first bespoke suits but most of them I still have. Shirts are easier because shirts wear out or just get dirtier in time, as well in a way that suits don’t necessarily, that’s easier.
SRS: So, what does your wardrobe look like? How many suits do you have? How many shirts? English and Italian? What’s the ratio?
SC: I don’t know what the ratio is, I don’t like to think about it, it’s too much but I have one wardrobe of suits and one wardrobe of jackets, and then I have a whole bunch in storage mostly for between seasons so I have stuff in storage for winter and stuff around for spring and summer .
SRS: Oh, wow. So do you change them seasonally then or are they the ones in storage?
SRS: Okay, alright! How about topcoats and overcoats? I saw you had one made by Edward Sexton, it’s very nice. How many overcoats do you keep in your wardrobe?
SC: I think I probably have five now that I wear regularly.
SRS: In terms of colors and patterns, what would you say is predominant for you with your suits, jackets, and your overcoats?
SC: Hmm. I don’t wear very many patterns, I tend to prefer interest in the kind of weave and material so, I really like Harris and Donegal tweeds, for example. Different kinds of variation.
SRS: Do you wear things like a sharkskin pattern or small herringbone pattern or do you purely prefer solids but like a Donegal tweed which is very bold and doesn’t need a pattern at all?
SC: I wear small patterns as well, yeah. I have a few herringbones, a couple of Prince of Wales which I quite like but it’s fairly plain, I think I tend to, I like playing with slightly varying colors and tones rather than a lot of pattern.
SRS: Okay, alright. So, knowing what you know now, if you had to start building a wardrobe again, what would be the first sportcoats and suits that you would acquire?
SC: oh, big question. I think that depends a lot on when you’re going to wear them, what kind of work environment you have. Say if you’re going to a job which requires a kind of a jacket. I’ll start with a navy, worsted suit, I’d have a gray as well, charcoal as a third one, some black and brown shoes, probably plain white shirts.
SRS: What about sportcoats? Suits are easy because they are like the standard, right? With the sportcoat, you can have different patterns and colors.
SC: Yeah it’s true. I think that kind of environment that’s fairly professional, I think I’d definitely have a navy sportcoat, cashmere, and hopsack for the summer.
SRS: When you’re out casually on the weekends, what would you wear when you’re not in the office?
SRS: Professional is one thing, and casual is another. I quite enjoy it, to choose some bolder patterns or different patterns that you may not wear to an office but perfectly fine on the weekend. Okay, what would you say are your hobbies outside of your job and Permanent Style? Is there much time for anything else?
SC: Not a lot of time. I have two small daughters, so there goes the rest of the time. I’m a big reader, a lot of literature. I do a lot of cycling and running, and I do a lot of endurance sports for my sporting activities. Yeah, hard to combine all of them.
SRS: Oh, I believe it! especially with a day job and another full-time job, basically. So, one of the series of questions we always ask, some of them are just a number of short questions so you can just answer quickly, alright? Oxford or Derby?
SC: Probably, Oxfords most of the time.
SC: Probably flannels.
SRS: Necktie or Bow tie?
SRS: Braces or suspenders?
SC: Neither.I’d probably say braces.
SRS: Okay, so you always go with side adjusters, then?
SC: Yes, a lot of reasons. I find wearing braces fairly uncomfortable as wearing a belt, so I never wear belts either. I don’t understand people that say that they wear suspenders, so they don’t have to wear a belt. I think high waisted trousers with braces can look great with a jacket but often look a bit silly when you take your jacket off, and I don’t wear a jacket all the time, so I think often, that’s not a great look with your jacket off.
SRS: Okay, double cuff or French cuff?
SC: French cuff.
SRS: Undershirt or no undershirt?
SC: No undershirt.
SRS: Off the rack or bespoke?
SRS: Alright! We just ask everyone the same questions, so I had to include that. Okay, so what can we expect from Permanent Style in the future? Are you working on new books? Tell us more.
SC: Yeah, we’ll be working on some things on the website which hopefully comes out soon. Also, there’ll be probably one eBook this year, not exactly sure what, either another kind of Permanent Style publication or another hardcopy publication.
SRS: Well, yeah. You should definitely go over there and check out Permanent Style and thank you very much, Simon, for your time. I really appreciate it.
SC: Yeah, no problem.