Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Sartorial Sommelier

One of these two people goes on, many years later, to write style tips on his blog. Probably not the person of the two that you would assume.
It's entirely possible today to be a Wine Director or Sommelier at restaurant that allows for wearing sneakers and a t-shirt on the job. But it is also true that fewer Sommeliers these days wear the black short waisted jacket and black apron combination that I was once obliged to wear during service. In between these possibilities is the semi-formal business suit, which is still common apparel for Sommeliers in multi-starred establishments. Probably there is someone out there in the Sommelier world who has recently been promoted up from the server ranks, and who might find a few clothing tips helpful. It can be a big change, and expense, to go from wearing the waiter uniform to selecting your own ties. I thought I might provide here some of what I have learned about the subject. I'll be straightforward and say that this post is pretty much solely for the guys in the audience, because whatever you might imagine, I don't know anything about dressing as a female. I would encourage readers to leave any tips they may also have in the comments.

The Golden Rule: Dress as your clientele likes to dress when they like to dress dressy. What that means differs with the restaurant, and the season. But it is a good idea to have a sense of what it is before you go about laying out some serious dollars on clothes.

The Other Golden Rule: Remember, that is wine drinking money you are spending.

First Suit: Charcoal Grey
Second Suit: Navy Blue
Third Suit: Black
Fourth Suit: Navy Blue with Pin Stripe
Fifth Suit: Charcoal Grey with Chalk Stripe
Sixth Suit: Chocolate Brown
Seventh Suit: I am not going to tell you that you need seven suits. But I am going to tell you that if you are tall, you might consider getting one of your first 6 suits in a three button model. They hold in ties better. I will also tell you that in the service industry, light colored suits are a fantastically terrible idea.

Forget What I Just Said: Having a signature look can set you apart from the sea of waiters and wine directors out there in the world. When I think of Patrick Cappiello, I think of those great eyeglasses. Larry Stone? The bow tie. Cat Silirie has the flowing sheer fabrics. Tim Kopec? The long blonde locks. Francesco Grosso was one of the first in with the skinny tie. Inhabitating a look that is all your own is a special talent. If you already know what that look is, then you'll know if a Navy Blue suit is for you or for the other guy.

What Does Levi with an I Like?: Well, I like the wool tie. I think it says a little bit English Country, a little bit English Rock 'n Roll. And it says mature vintage. But that's just my view.

Developing Your Style: I tend to flip through high gloss fashion magazines when I am getting a haircut, just to sort of stay on top of what is hip in the fashion world. I look at the advertisements, really. People complain about fashion magazines being full of too many ads. I think the ads are the best part of a fashion magazine. They tell you what the new styles are. They give you ideas for pattern matching, or for wearing a pocket square differently. Plus, the paper smells nicely of fine cologne, which is a bonus. I don't understand why people don't like the ads in fashion magazines.

What To Consider When You Buy A Suit: Most of what you pay for with a suit is the quality of the fabric and the quality of the construction. Or at least that is how it should be. The style of a particular designer may fit your body type better or worse, but a lot of the actual fit will be determined by your tailor. I find myself purchasing suit fabrics that are not too heavy. Most restaurants are climate controlled for guest comfort, not for people actively moving around all night. A heavy fabric, although nice in the winter when you are commuting in to work, usually doesn't make much sense in actual practice on the floor. I recommend double vents, both because they make it easier to move and because that seems to be the style now anyway. Generally, I suggest skimping on the suit a little bit, in terms of financial outlay, and diversifying your look with more shirts and ties with that money instead. Shirts and ties are how you customize a suit, really. This is especially true if it is a single color, no pattern suit. And it is easiest to keep up with current styles through your tie choice. In terms of length of wear, I generally don't find a suit lasting much longer than a year and a half in actual practice. So you might budget on that. The guy who sells you the suit may tell you that its construction will last forever, but the restaurant reality of wear and tear just doesn't make it so.

Purchasing Resources: Designer consignment shops often are great resources, especially when it comes to purchasing ties. I really recommend searching through them from time to time. You do have to be extra careful about stains and the general condition of second hand goods, though. There are also several online sites that offer new and overstock designer clothing items at a discount. Some that I have used myself have included...

Virtual Clotheshorse: http://virtualclotheshorse.com/
eHaberdasher: http://www.ehaberdasher.com/servlet/StoreFront
Shop the Finest: http://www.shopthefinest.com/

The inventory of these online sites changes rapidly, so checking in frequently is not a bad idea. Also, if you are interested in purchasing an item, you might check out some of the online clothing discussion boards, such as the Ask Andy Forum or styleforum to see if a discount code for a particular site has been posted lately. In the past I have been wary of online sites that I don't know and the possibility of fake designer labels. But I have personally used and been confident of my purchases from the above.

If you like a particular bricks and mortar store, like Bergdorf Goodman, which has a fantastic men's department, then I suggest that you get on their mailing list. The people on the mailing list are let in on the dates of the private sales and promotions. It is not often that I buy anything at Bergdorf, because I am a sommelier, but you can bet that when I do, the item is on sale.

Custom Tailoring: If you really want a shirt or suit that is going to fit you well, and you plan to buy a largish quantity, then custom is always an option. If you get a number of pieces made, the price tends to go down over the course of the entire purchase. But that can be quite an outlay. One of the nice parts about custom is that you can easily add little features, like workable jacket buttons or brightly stitched lapel holes. Of course you might be able to get those done on an off the rack suit as well. Workable jacket sleeve suit buttons can be nice if you have metal racking that goes two bottles deep. But the reality is that maybe it would be easier to just take off your jacket in that case.

Dress Up for Your Tailor: When you go to the tailor to get a suit altered, you should be wearing a button down dress shirt with a collar, and the shoes you would wear at work. If you wear something else, the measurements will be off. In which case you may as well not go.

Conversing With Your Tailor: Keep in mind that there are two kinds of tailors, the kind you go to for help reattaching a button, and the kind you go to for real alterations. It is helpful to recognize the difference. You can tell a good tailor right off, because he (it is always a he, it seems) will look at you and pronounce something like "42 Long" right away, without having measured you yet. Also, a good tailor dresses simply. There is some kind of rule about this, apparently. If the guy looks like he just stepped away from some ancient Greek or Italian or Southeast Asian fishing village, that is probably the right guy to have take apart your clothes. I have found that being clear about the basics of what you want - cuffs or no cuffs, pleats or no pleats, overlapping jacket buttons or no overlap - is good. Don't leave it up to the tailor to decide. The tailor wants you to decide. If he knew what you should do with your style he would probably be a stylist, rather than a tailor. Remember that when you are quoted a week or two weeks to get your suit back, that is how long it is going to take to get it back the first time. When you arrive to pick up your suit, you should try it on before you leave the shop. If the pants are too long, or the jacket looks too fat on you, then back to the tailor's scissors it should go. There is an implied back and forth similar to what you might expect when haggling over a carpet. It might take more time to get everything just right. But the hope of getting everything right is why you go to a tailor. If you buy an off the rack suit, you might plan on wearing that suit a month from when you first drop it off with the tailor. If it happens before that, that is lucky for you.

Pockets: Pockets are a good thing in the restaurant business. Have your tailor cut your suit pockets for you. I like to buy a suit with extra inside pockets, myself. You always need pockets.

Tying the Tie: The Double Windsor may be a permanent in this industry, I don't know. I do know that the size of the knot has a lot to do with the lining of the tie. I also know that holding the tie out 90 degrees from your body, with the shirt collar up, and then cinching the knot, is a good way to keep your tie knot all the way up inside your collar.

The Versatile White Button Down Shirt: It may not be flashy, but you can pair it with any suit and almost any tie. In fact, some ties are hard to pair with any other shirt color. But usually the waiters wear plain white shirts, so a lot of Sommeliers like to go for the patterns, which are harder to match.

The Spread Collar Reality: Wine trends come and ago, but a Sommelier does not wear a button down collar unless it is his day off. Just my 2 cents. Feel free to prove me wrong.

The Reversible Belt: Sure, the really nice belts might be all one color. But who needs a really nice belt? Save money and purchase a belt that is colored dark brown on one side, black on the other, with a reversible buckle. Then you can pair the same belt to different shoes accordingly.

The Gig Line: If you were ever in the military, you know that you are supposed to line up your shirt buttons with your belt buckle and trouser seam, in a straight line known as the "Gig Line." Since no Sommelier has ever been in the military, I will go ahead and tell you myself.

Pocket Square or Lapel Pin, But Not Both: If you are wearing a lapel pin, as Sommeliers often do, adding the pocket square is too much. You are apt to fall over with all that weight leaning from the left side of your body.

The Pocket Square Dance: Pocket squares tend to shift quite a bit inside the pocket. To prevent this, some of the dapper dressers I know use a safety pin to hold the pocket square in place inside the jacket. Fumbling with your pocket square all night is not a good look, and it also tends to make a white pocket square look a bit dingy from all that finger contact.

The Tie Bar: Thankfully for the Sommelier set, choosing the skinny tie (with less material to stain) and wearing the tie bar (with less chance of your tie dangling into the dirty soup bowl) have come back into fashion.

Be Careful of the Scarf Lint: Ever wear a nice dark colored scarf to work on a cold day, only to find on arrival that you have a bunch of dark fibers all over your shirt collar? I have. Road test that scarf a bit in the shop before you buy it. Even the expensive ones shed sometimes.

Launder Your Own Shirts: Especially if they are the shirts with the fancy mother of pearl buttons which dry cleaners love to break. Collar and cuff damage from the dry cleaner can really hasten the decline of a nice shirt. Unexpected shrinkage can also be an issue. And it sucks to be late for work and suddenly realize your shirt is missing a button. It makes a lot more sense to wash your shirts yourself, in cool water without too much detergent, and to hang them to dry (lessening shrinkage). If you do employ a dry cleaner, I suggest no starch, and telling them in advance about the shirts with the nice buttons that you have.

Buying New Shoes: Try on both shoes, not just one from the pair, and walk around on a hard surface in the store, not on the carpet. Wearing comfortable shoes at work is going to have a direct effect on whether you believe your personal wine glass to be half full or half empty. Once you have purchased your new shoes, the first thing you should do is take them to a shoe shine and have them given a shine. That way the scuffs that you pick up from normal walking around will go onto the polish, and not in the leather. Also, always request an extra set of (free) laces when you buy a new pair of shoes.

The Shoe Shine: If you get your shoes professionally shined, you are looking for a gentleman who polishes by hand with a rag, not a guy who polishes with a spinning machine. And the person doing the shine should go easy with the spray on water. The water will give the shine a high gloss finish, but will also dry out the leather of your shoes in the long run.

Wearing New Shoes: Always road test a pair of new shoes on your night off before wearing them to work. Get them broken in a bit before you do a shift in them. Buying a new pair of shoes and then straight away wearing them to work can be a painful exercise. Also, you want wear down the soles a bit on the sidewalk to get rid of their natural slickness before you take on a set of stairs at high speed.

Wooden Shoe Trees: These can really help maintain the lifespan of shoes. They also help prevent visible creases from forming. Don't get the plastic kind, they don't soak up moisture like the wooden shoe trees do.

Socks: If you want to save money somewhere, sock purchases are the place. Really nice, expensive socks are often of the thin hose kind that don't hold up with a lot of use anyway. It doesn't matter how high class your socks are if they have a hole in them. But you do want to make sure the socks "breathe," or you will have smelly shoes pretty soon.

Hangers: I don't recommend hanging up a suit jacket on a wire hanger. Wood hangers are nice. The stylish Peter Liem once pointed out what would seem to be to Rolls Royce of available wooden hangers, those designed by Mr. Kirby Allison.

The Work Kit: I would suggest having a small collection of often needed items in your locker or work drawer, just in case. This kit should include dental floss (for the removal of staff meal sesame seeds), mouthwash (for the removal of staff meal garlic), a nail clipper, a lint removal roller, chapstick, hand sanitizer, and crucially, an extra pair of socks. It really does suck to get caught in a rainstorm along the commute in and find yourself working in wet socks. As regards Altoids and such vs. Mouthwash, I find that the mints can have a real effect on your palate. So I prefer mouthwash.

Don't Forget the Holiday Flare: If you are working St. Patty's, a green tie is expected. If you are pulling a shift on Christmas, don't forget the red.

The Exploding Wine Bottle: Ripping a cork out of a bottle very quickly can lead to wine coming out of the bottle as it might a volcano, and finding its way on to your shirt cuffs. Best to go a bit slower when opening that bottle of Cabernet.

Random Pens: Pens are often a valuable commodity in a restaurant. Waitstaff and host staff are always running out of pens. If you happen to come across a pen just sitting there, laying around, I suggest you leave it where it is. It has probably been left behind because it is leaking. And if it is leaking, it sure will leak all over that nice shirt you bought.

Keys: A tailor can reinforce your trouser pockets for you, but it is worth considering that a lot of keys (keys for the cellar, for the lowboy, for the office, for the front door, etc.) will quickly lead to a lot of holes, if you carry the keys around all the time. Be Zen about the amount of keys you carry. Less is better. Also worth mentioning: that heavy corkscrew you paid all that money for? It sucks to carry around. And you better have a pouch of some kind for it, or it will tear a hole in your jacket.

Be Careful Where You Sit: Entering a taxi with a ripped seat cushion? Better to sit on the other side. A seat coil might be sticking out waiting to rip your trousers, as happened to me once. Be careful of sticky surfaces on subway seats, too.

Wine Soaked Serviettes: I have a tendency to keep my serviette in an inside jacket pocket. You might do this as well. But if you do, be careful when that serviette gets damp with wine. Because you can stain your shirt that way.

Well, those are my tips. How about adding yours to the comments?


Michael Herklots said...

Let's not forget the importance of Collar Stays in your spread collar. The wrinkly fly away is not a good look either.

Unknown said...

Spectacular entry Levi. Highly comical and most useful. Your insight is quite valuable.

We all have lots to learn from you, but what else is new?

leviopenswine said...

Thank you for the kind and helpful comments.

Anonymous said...

Another option that helps with the heat... jackets that aren't fully lined. In addition to offering a more natural fit, there's significantly less material involved. Several Neapolitan makers offer partially-lined jackets. The downside includes price and a less durable (though possibly more elegant) jacket.

Cavolo Verde said...


@ADMIN said...

Well done Levi. Both practical and informative. I have found a bleach pen or tide pen to be an indispensable accessory to keep in the work kit. Especially for those white shirts.

Ben Wood said...

Brilliant!! I have a lot to learn in this catagory . . . The advice about shoes is great! Secrets from the master. Thanks Levi.

Unknown said...

thetiebar.com is the best site in existence for the dapper somm on the go, who needs a wide range of ties.