FA2L is for anyone who cares about beautiful things–clothing, shoes, accessories, home furnishings–and the interconnected tribes of those who make, sell, market and desire them. If something speaks to you, buy it now or hold your peace: there are links in each story, so the item you want is just a click away. I'd like to hear from you, too: please view my profile, use the email button and send me your comments.MG

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bracaletti: A Brand Name Driven By Perfection

   Roberto Sacal is the creative force behind the Bracaletti collection of fine leather goods and jewelry, but he (along with his team, Shawn B, David A, Rafael A, Guillermo A. and Charles G.), are also caretakers of a legacy that stretches back decades and spans generations. Bracaletti "was the name of my father's jewelry store when he was 27," says Sacal. "It was meant to be a pronounceable portmanteau of the Italian words for "bracelet" and "cuff links" – bracialetto and gemelli." In fact, I first met Sacal, in New York, at his debut presentation  of what’s come to be a signature collection of exactly those items, bracelets and cuff links (plus a spectacularly handsome money clip). I also learned that Sacal's Mexico City factory is home to an extended family of artisans, some with links to an older brand known as Casa Aries, which Roberto's father, Rafael, once owned and helped make world-famous. At its peak, Casa Aries was known for luxurious leather backgammon sets (the Kennedys owned one) but, by the first decade of the 21st century, its scope had been reduced to the manufacture of office products. At which point, Roberto stepped in, and picked up where his father left off.

   Despite his pedigree, the younger Sacal hadn't planned on designing accessories. True, he spent much of his childhood running around his father's factory; but when it came time to choose a career, he majored in political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and parlayed his passion for technology into a career at Apple Computers. Then, in 2012, a new idea took hold, as Rob sought more creative forms of self expression. In partnership with Shawn B. (his neighbor at the time) and the Mexico City factory team, he founded Bracaletti and – working late nights and early mornings in his spare time – designed the silver cuff links and bracelets, made in New York, that still form the core of the collection. "I wanted my business to pay homage to my dad's," he says. But this concept quickly morphed into something grander, based on Rob's observation of the marketplace. "Women have more adventurous taste than men," he says, explaining his expansion into handbags, clutches and other small leather goods (in addition to the fine men’s belts and other accessories he was already producing). “If I'm going to pour my heart and soul into something, I want to do it in the most powerful arenas.” This meant turning to his factory's team of artisans – and going back to his roots.

   Today, the Mexico City atelier is still the heart and soul of the company. Rob works with his craftsmen to develop three stages of prototypes for every design, and he relies on their knowledge and expertise to help him realize each element, including all of the brand's signature hardware. This “ah-hah” quality of uniqueness – of recognizability – is important to Sacal: his favorite childhood memory is of visiting the Houston Galleria with his father, and spotting a woman carrying a handbag designed by his dad. “At Bracaletti, I’m CEO, designer, bookkeeper, accountant and importer," Rob explains. "This company is my full-time hobby, and it's something that I love doing. I'm happy selling my designs to family, friends and anyone else who truly appreciates them." Rob pauses, as his thoughts shift away from his musings to the business at hand. "I never want that to change. When you divide things up too much – become too big – you lose the soul of the company." I suspect there’s no danger of that ever happening: in the years I’ve known Rob, I’ve seen his collection expand in ways that can only be described a organic, with one product giving rise to the next. Meanwhile, thanks to Sacal’s perfectionism, Bracaletti remains an insider's secret, passed from one connoisseur to another. Consider this your invitation to join the club.

Photographs by Noël Sutherland.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I'm embarrassed: I let an entire year go by without posting on Fashion As a 2nd Language. This is partly due to the fact that I'm writing about fashion elsewhere, but that's not the only reason. I've also become an avid Instagrammer, enamored of social media's immediacy –– but, again, that's only partly to blame. The real problem is much simpler: I've felt overwhelmed by too much information about mediocre products, interchangeable brands, overhyped fashion events and ludicrous "celebrities." For someone who loves beautiful, unique and/or handmade items (like my gorgeous John Lobb shoes, above), this era offers some very slim pickings.

That said, the optimist in me (not to mention the die-hard fashion editor) knows there are always wonderful new talents to be discovered –– I come across them practically every time I venture forth on a showroom appointment. Which, in itself, is part of the solution. Too many people these days have their eyes glued to a screen, large or small, as they tap or scroll their way from one digital soundbite to another. To really find the goods, you've got to hit the streets, and encounter the latest products, and their designers, in what's still called "real time." In fact, it's time to revive a great old expression (with a passing nod to Fran Leibowitz), and reconfirm the mantra, I cover the waterfront. Which means a hell of a lot more than just reading emails.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Latest Name In Shoes Belongs to Obi Cymatica

Obi Cymatica has been obsessed with fashion for as long as he can remember –– he spent much of his youth sketching one ensemble after another. But around his 18th birthday, it suddenly hit him: he spent far more time working out details of the footwear than the rest of the outfit, and shoes were always the most exuberant part of the finished sketch. It was at that point, as a Forest Hills high school student in Queens, that Cymatica made up his mind to become a shoe designer.

Obi Cymatica was born in Madagascar, to Nigerian parents, and spent most of his childhood in Nigeria. When he was 16, he moved with his family to New York. As a designer, he's self-taught, but extremely determined: barely out of his teens, he started his own label, established a relationship with a factory in Florence, and landed a retail account with the online designer shop, Saxa. Even now, at the slightly-less-tender age of 25, he still makes every decision about the design and manufacture of every pair of his boots and shoes. 

Cymatica's idols include Christian Louboutin, whose "attitude toward making shoes" he particularly admires, along with how Louboutin has managed to maintain the aura of an atelier-based shoemaker, while growing his business by leaps and bounds. But Cymatica's ne plus ultra is Manolo Blahnik. They met, once, and the young man found himself almost tongue-tied as he tried to express his admiration for his hero. "I said, Mr Blahnik, you don't understand –– it's because of you I'm a shoe designer. Because of you! I think he just smiled. But it's true."

As for what inspires him, Cymatica says he turns to music. "I put on music, and sit down to draw. It might be Eartha Kitt, or house music, Amy Winehouse or a movie soundtrack. I envision a woman in that musical environment, and start sketching. If it's romantic, maybe the shoes reveal a little more skin; if the music is strong, the shoes become stronger, too. I like strength. After all, shoes are armor for your feet."

Photographs by Noël Sutherland. Leg model (and muse): Faustina Rose. Produced and styled by Mark Grischke for Fashion As a 2nd Language.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Refresh Yourself With a Dash (or Two) of Hermès

   Back in 2006, Hermès debuted Terre d'Hermès, a crisp, flinty, masculine fragrance created by the label's celebrated in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena. We here at Fashion As a 2nd Language were practically present at the birth of Terre (you can read our account of it here), so we perked up our ears when Hermès announced the arrival of a sibling with a strapping big name: Terre d'Hermès Eau Très Fraîche. Translated loosely from the fullsome language of French perfumery, that simply means "refreshing water from the realm of Hermès." Refreshing water, indeed –– with a delicious smell.

   Having written about fragrance ad nauseum for many years (including the general cheapening of many formulas, and the lamentable rise of so-called "celebrity" perfumes), we now make it standard practice to discount press materials that attempt to conjure olfactory poetry. Instead, we apply the simplest and most basic of criteria: Does a perfume (or cologne, or eau de quelquechose) smell good? In the case of Terre d'Hermès Eau Très Fraîche, the answer is, yes, it smells very good. Even better, it smells distinctive –– a bit like its brother, Terre d'Hermès, but with bursts of grapefruit, orange, something woodsy, and, best of all, something salty, like the warm skin of a man at the beach. If you still need a Father's Day gift, this would make a nice one. And, if a bottle happens to find its way onto your bathroom vanity, so much the better. As always, we suggest visiting your nearest fragrance shop and trying it for yourself. Happy spritzing!

Photograph by Mark Grischke

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

New York Shopping at LetterJ – It's All In a Name

   Men in New York have a new shopping destination, with an unusual name – LetterJ. It's housed in an airy former gallery space on West 23rd Street, near the Chelsea Piers and the High Line; but once inside, you could just as easily be in Santa Monica, or on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. Sunlight streams through floor-to-ceiling front windows, lighting up a want that, need that selection of (mostly) casual clothing, plus accessories, bags, even candles and books. 

   Fashion As a 2nd Language visited LetterJ recently, and marveled at the range of unusual brands and reasonable prices. Here's a short list of names we saw on the shelves: Burkman Bros, Boy London, Gant Rugger (and Gant by Michael Bastian), Save Khaki, Mason's and Psycho Bunny. There are bracelets by M. Cohen, bags by Herschel Supply Co, and colorful skull candles, above, by D.L. & Co.

   LetterJ is the brainchild of Jason Somerfeld, an expert retailer and buyer with a big-picture understanding of what men want. He's stocked the store with products that create one aha moment after another: and he's priced them so an entire weekend's worth of gear (jeans, shorts, a couple of tees and a great-looking linen shirt) don't cost an arm and a leg. He's also chosen goods that appeal to all types of men, from skateboarders to retired lawyers. On the day we visited, we saw 20-somethings, 30-somethings and one particularly stylish 50-something shopping in the store – and each guy left with more than one item.

   And what's with the name, LetterJ? Somerfeld says, "It's in honor of my mother, JoJo, who always inspired me. It's also the first letter in my nephew's name, Jake, and in my own, of course – Jason." And don't they say, the family that shops together stays together? We're sold!

Photographs by Noël Sutherland

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Tani Underwear – Luxe Comfort For Today's Man

   There's a new brand of luxury underwear in town, and it's all about comfort. In fact, Tani may well be the most comfortable underwear you ever put on. It also perfectly demonstrates our cherished belief in the power of understatement –– you'll find no silly gimmicks, no bells and whistles, here. Instead, Tani trunks, briefs, boxers and loungewear are designed with both technological subtlety and extraordinary attention to detail. And, as should always be the case with great clothing, Tani underwear begins with great fabrics, like Micro Modal Air (made from Austrian beechwood), superfine Tencel, and high-grade Swiss cotton.

   Here at Fashion As a 2nd Language, we are freakishly obsessed with how clothing is designed and constructed, even (perhaps especially) when it comes to underwear. Extraneous seams or design elements are no-nos; so are things that itch, scratch, pull or snag. And while we're perfectly willing to dry clean more complicated garments, we firmly believe that underwear should go in and out of the washer and dryer and not suffer for it. With Tani, that's not too much to ask.

   The story behind Tani is interesting, too. It's a Chinese brand, with significant distribution (some 300 stores in Asia alone), but it's only now being introduced to America. The man behind its US launch is Adam Dinkes, CEO and president of Tani's wholesale business in Europe and the Americas. Dinkes and his partner, Yarden Gagnon (former VP of Design at Calvin Klein Underwear), know precisely what they've got, and who will crave it. For example, this Tuesday, April 8, Tani will be among the sponsors of New York's Jeffrey Fashion Cares, which is one of the industry's great parties, benefitting charities like the Hetrick-Martin Institute and Lambda Legal. Tani is even part of the event's online silent auction: take a look, bid on a week's worth of Tani underwear, and offer your support. In turn, Tani underwear will support you, in style and –– of course –– considerable comfort.

This portfolio: Photographs by Noël SutherlandModel: Eric Bryant at Ford ModelsHair by Davide Marinelli for MUZE Salon. Produced and styled by Mark Grischke for Fashion As a 2nd Language.

Fashion credits, from top to bottom: 1) White brief by Tani. Vintage watch at Beth Frank. 2) Striped boxer brief by Tani. Tank top by Levi's. Sneakers by Maison Martin Margiela. 3) Slim boxer by Tani. Eyeglasses by Lafont. Vintage watch by Verdura. Leather flip-flops by Rainbow sandals. 4) Lounge pants by Tani. Vintage watch by Tissot. 5) Boxer brief by Tani. Sneakers by Brooks Heritage. Bath towel by Missoni.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Corporate Suit, or Rocker? John Varvatos Tells All

John Varvatos at the 92nd St Y. Photograph by Joyce Culver.
     Last night, John Varvatos sat down with Fern Mallis on the main stage of Manhattan's Kaufman Concert Hall (at the 92nd St Y), to participate in Mallis's on-going series of friendly-and-informative interviews known as Fashion Icons. On the table was an in-depth conversation about his "crowded" childhood in Detroit (his Greek-American family of seven lived in a tiny house), his early interest in rock & roll (from Iggy Pop and MC5 to Peter Frampton and Kiss), and, perhaps most important, his extensive training inside the corporate structure of two powerhouse brands: Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

   We've known Varvatos for many years, but some of his revelations were entirely new, including his story about working on the sales floor at Fitzgerald's, a men's clothier in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We knew the store well –– and we're pretty sure we bought a Polo Ralph Lauren linen sport coat there, which we subsequently wore to a (successful) job interview at VOGUE. In other words, our paths crossed with Varvatos much earlier than 2000, which is when we formally met him, previewed his eponymous collection, and photographed a handsome sheepskin coat for a "10 Best" story in ForbesLife magazine.

   Varvatos is a quintessential American designer –– his menswear hits all the right spots for average guys who want to look cool, but not too close to fashion's outer edge. As he's matured, he's turned more and more to his early loves, to the point where he now operates a store-cum-shrine on the premises of the former CBGB, and rubs shoulders with the same rock & roll icons who show up in his advertising campaigns. He's even launched John Varvatos Records, in conjunction with Republic Records. He plans to use the label for re-issues, compilations, and presenting new talent. And to think, it all began in Detroit, with a Buco leather jacket, "Sam's Jams" record store, and a dream.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Move Over Guys: Antonio Azzuolo is Talking to Her

Arthur D, of IMG Men, wearing Antonio Azzuolo Fall 2014 and eyewear by Warby Parker.
At Fashion As a 2nd Language, we've been fans of Antonio Azzuolo since 2009 (see our first story about him here). He hails from Montreal, but his career has taken him around the world, from Milan to Paris and, ultimately, New York. Along the way, he's worked for some seriously big designer brands, including Hermès, Kenzo and Ralph Lauren. He's also honed an eye for detail that's become more distinctive with each season's menswear presentation––and, for Fall 2014, he's finally taken the jump and introduced a woman's collection as well.

Part of Antonio Azzuolo's lineup in the Warby Parker shop.
The show's notes drew attention to what we've already come to expect from Azzuolo––specifically, his sharp, sartorial silhouettes, deftly infused with hints of the avant-garde. ("Savile Row meets the Lower East Side," according to the press release.) What this means, in real-world terms, is clothing that's both wearable and, perhaps, a bit too much, depending on how many pieces one opts to wear together.

Extreme texture, shown as an option for both men and women.
Azzuolo tends to keep his palette simple––black, white, grey and navy are his staples––but this season, he also wove in shots of pale pink, dark rose and deep purple. Pieces were often layered, resulting in turtlenecks tucked inside shirt collars, with sweaters, tunics and jackets adding additional fabric to "frame" the face and neck (perhaps that's why Azzuolo chose to show at the eyeglass store, Warby Parker).

Boy, girl, boy, girl––good-looking clothes, all the way down the line.

Men's boots by Antonio Azzuolo for Giuliano Fujiwara; women's sandals by Santoni.
As much as we liked the clothes, we were also impressed by the shoes. The women's sandals and pumps were by Santoni, but the men's military-style boots and handsome lace-up oxfords were part of a collection Azzuolo designed for Giuliano Fujiwara (a name we haven't heard in a while). They literally grounded even Azzuolo's most ethereal looks, and added a few more "must-haves" to our Fall 2014 wish list.

Antonio Azzuolo, center, with models for his Fall 2014 men's and women's collections.
Azzuolo brings a unique sensibility to New York Fashion Week, one that occupies a niche outside the boundaries of classic American sportswear. His clothes suggest everything from Parisian chic to Williamsburg cool, with dashes of British propriety, Japanese quirkiness and Milanese rigor sprinkled throughout. Combining sweeping gestures and careful details, Azzuolo takes us on a trip around the world. And, like any good tour guide, he leaves us wanting more.

Photographs by Noël Sutherland