Friday, February 27, 2009

The Obama Man

This post serves to introduce Stuart Hotchkiss as a guest columnist for The Crane Insider. Stuart is the owner of Capital Ties, a privately owned neckwear design and manufacturing business in Washington, DC. Prior to his life as an entrepreneur, Stuart served as President of Time Inc. Home Entertainment, a $200 million enterprise of mail order, retail and licensing businesses, all brand extensions of the Time Inc. Magazine Group. Stuart also was in charge of Time Inc.’s in-house advertising agency. We first met Stuart here.

By Stuart Hotchkiss

“He’s definitely a fashion icon. He’s brand new, he’s a black president, and he’s so handsome.” – Haute Couture Designer Guillermo Mariotto

Other than Harry Truman’s sartorial distinction stemming from his humble beginnings as a haberdasher in downtown Kansas City, no U.S. President has ever created such a fashion buzz nor made as important an impact on the clothes worn by his countrymen as President Barack Obama.

Several events in the 2008 presidential election campaign helped bring Barack Obama’s wardrobe into focus. Plenty of references were made to Mr. Obama’s conservative outlook on suits and his tendency to wear an open collar without a necktie.

Indeed, Mr. Obama's fashion preferences still carry an uncommonly high media profile. Like other industries looking to project our new President as their icon, the men's fashion industry is perfectly justified in creating new designs for “The Obama Man.”

For starters, sales of the dark-navy custom-made suit Mr. Obama wore on Election Night in Chicago have risen dramatically. The suit, made by Chicago’s Hartmarx and sold under its Hart Schaffner Marx label, is a sensible two-button model, with clean lines and made from a worsted wool and cashmere fabric. Hartmarx also made a tuxedo, a topcoat and a suit for President Obama’s Inauguration. Photo by Associated Press.

Of course, the fact that the candidate in question had a youthful, vigorous appearance probably didn't do any harm. Mr. Obama's air of confidence and slightly casual mannerisms are also likely to have been of some influence. In any case, it seems that the American male has definitely taken notice.

So what about other elements of the wardrobe? One reads that suit jackets are no longer mandatory in Oval Office meetings; suits are being worn without ties; and the President conducts interviews - for instance on the night of the Super Bowl - in a mere dress shirt. NBC Photo.

For the record, the practice of wearing a suit without a tie has been acceptable in casual to semi-formal situations for decades. It's common, in fact, for a man to loosen or remove his tie after the more formal portion of an event or function.

The President's formal public appearances have included very tasteful and fashionable neckties. Whether he's more comfortable with or without the tie, Mr. Obama knows when and how to look his best.

To get a true Washington perspective on the matter, I spoke with Craig Fox of Wm. Fox & Co., a haberdasher located a block from the White House who has helped dress Washington’s most powerful men since 1965.

“President Obama is definitely influencing the way men dress,” says Fox, “and it has already had an impact on what I am ordering from my suppliers.” Keep in mind the role of a bonafide haberdasher like Fox is to advise his customers what to buy, not the other way around. Fox sees a new curve and he is trying to stay ahead of it.

Neckties? Fox says the look is getting “ultra conservative – simple designs, and solids,” and “if a tie has a pattern, it’s so tiny that it looks like a solid.” Dress Shirts? “Real clean and crisp,” says Fox, “mostly blue and white solids.”
Photos on the right, top, President Obama's tie worn to sign the Stimulus Bill and, bottom, on his recent visit to Canada. Photos: Neck of State dot com.

Fox carries a nice selection of ties from labels like California-based Robert Talbott and Drake’s of London ; he carries a similarly nice selection of dress shirts from Pennsylvania-based Gitman Bros. and Hilditch & Key of London’s Jermyn Street fame; he is one of the oldest suppliers of Samuelsohn suits and sports coats, a Canadian brand.

Will “Made in America” trump European fashion? “At the end of the day,” says Fox, “it’s more about what a customer can afford to buy these days.” Perhaps it’s great timing that President Obama’s influence on fashion has been conservative, both in terms of styles and budgets.

One sad footnote to this story is that despite President Obama’s desire to avert further economic doom amongst America’s retailers, Hartmarx Corp. and its U.S. subsidiaries filed for Chapter 11 protection on January 23, 2009.