“A peacock among pigeons” is the common refrain of a new book with the unwieldy title Turnbull & Asser: Made in England 130 Years. Authored by #menswear hack-for-hire James Sherwood, it’s the second vanity publication in 20 years about British shirt- and tiemaker Turnbull & Asser. And for once a firm’s self-ascribed appellation rings – or gloriously, sui generisly and raucously cries, as real peacocks do – true.
Vanity books can do no better than their subjects currently fare. In most cases, such as the vanity histories of the mysteriously diminished Swaine Adeney Brigg or today’s foundering Brioni, this means they are deeply disappointing homilies to celebrated pasts with little to show for the present.
In keeping with the menswear vanity books of recent years, this weighty tome of T&A is ambitious, far more so than its 1997 forerunner, authored by Sherwood’s fellow Savile Row scribbler Nick Foulkes. That pleasing booklet, written with Foulkes’ usual pleasant erudition, dutifully covered T&A’s founding as a hosier and shirtmaker, its early and longstanding connections to the Quorn hunt (whence the huge stylized “Q” featured on old T&A clothing labels), its 1960s fluorescence as a purveyor of memorably mad designs to Swinging London, and a circa 1990s present doing a roaring export trade based on its royal warrant as the shirtmaker to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, purveyors of luxury shirts made in England in such outlets as Neiman Marcus in the US, Old England (R.I.P.) in Paris, and Harrod’s (owned by the same family, the Fayeds, as T&A) in London.
All of that is in evidence in Turnbull & Asser: Made in England 130 Years, with much more: descriptions of the geneses of T&A’s signature ready-to-wear design features, such as its three-button shirt cuff and boldly large collar; anecdotal recollections in interviews with various T&A personnel, including Paul Cuss, until his retirement Prince Charles’ shirtmaker (royal warrants to custom tailors and shirtmakers are personal to the cutter, not the company) and Steven Quin (T&A Retail Director and current warrantholder); monographs on various articles of T&A clothing; and profiles of famous customers, including John Steed (according to the late Patrick Macnee, dressed in T&A ready-to-wear shirts), Richard Harris and James Bond. And far more – copious pictures of T&A’s glorious past, in particular its 1960s heyday, and its daringly gauche present, courtesy of Dean Gomilsek-Cole, T&A’s first Creative Director, in other words its first in-house designer.
Nonetheless, at various points in time the house must have had strong design direction: how else to explain the extravagant stripes that T&A has made its stock-in-trade since the 1960s, or for that matter the old silk robe with a hemp leaf pattern I saw at auction? Gomilsek-Cole has done the old house proud with new designs, admittedly ready-to-wear rather than bespoke: flamboyant smoking jackets with detailed woven playing card patterns, horizontally striped blazers, surreal ties that test the boundaries between refreshingly different and the pedestrianism of novelty ties, and handkerchieves that can be custom-printed with the image of one’s dog. In all, creative beauty staked on daring, and as such not at all timeless, for timelessness is the curse of the forgettable. To attain the iconic requires risk, the risk of dating oneself through indissociable attachment to a particular, gloriously magnificent and transgressive, time.
Turnbull & Asser has ridden high on the reputation it earned in the 1960s, not only for those stripes but for its many bizarre custom designs, for its association with flamboyant stylist and salesman Michael Fish, and for dressing most James Bonds from Sean Connery in Dr. No (thanks to the intercession of Bond director Terence Young, who tried to Mayfair-ize the young Connery with visits to his own tailor, shirtmaker and glover) through Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
Now that T&A have lost Bond (to the more trendily constricted, ill-fitting designs of Tom Ford), this new book’s only significant omission is that they’ve gained the virtual custom of a much more stylin’ secret agent, none other than Sterling “Danger Zone” Archer. Indeed, based on that, T&A are missing out on a killer collaboration, a new tactical turtleneck or (as Archer terms it) tactleneck, which could be the modern version of those bizarrely awesome silk satin turtleneck-collared formal shirts which they made custom for Lord Snowden, Warren Beatty, David Hemmings and others in the 1960s. I myself have reached out to my own shirtmaker to attempt an interpretation. Why not go back to the source, at T&A? I confess I'm too cheap to place their six shirt minimum order. And, while anecdotes are all we have to go on for evaluations of custom clothing, anecdotally, I’ve heard enough not to trust the fit and finishing of Turnbull & Asser’s current attempts at bespoke shirtmaking. The house is canny enough to know that catchy ready-to-wear design is where it’s at. Today, at least, we can treasure the moment, a snapshot of its current daring, thanks to its book.