A few months ago, I drove past the cor­ner of 5th and Pike in the evening and saw some­thing new, a shopfront that flash­ing by looked like some sort of Bab­bagesque mechan­i­cal com­put­er, brass machin­ery grid­ded in glass and lit gold­en­ly from behind.  I would have cir­cled around the block to take a clos­er look, but was run­ning late as usu­al.  This was how I first expe­ri­enced what is per­haps the most beau­ti­ful­ly designed win­dow shop dis­play I’ve ever seen— and, shock­ing­ly, in Seat­tle!

Although the hun­dreds of vin­tage sewing machines in their win­dows did hold my inter­est for many min­utes when I went back there to explore on foot, I was com­plete­ly unin­ter­est­ed in what this shop actu­al­ly sold, once I under­stood that it involved cloth­ing.

This is because for more than a decade I’ve worn noth­ing but jeans, black T shirts, and black shoes.  Fam­i­ly, friends and col­leagues will con­firm that this is very near­ly not an exag­ger­a­tion.  The shirts are fea­ture­less, with no logos, writ­ing or tags.  The shoes are fea­ture­less too, with no laces.  Their main prop­er­ty is that they slip on and off eas­i­ly in the secu­ri­ty line (Mer­rell World Trav­el­er).

Why such a joy­less appar­el diet?— well, I just didn’t want to think about it.  I find triv­ial choic­es dif­fi­cult.  Much bet­ter to just round down these aspects of life to their func­tion­al min­i­ma: pull a black shirt from the top of the stack of iden­ti­cal such shirts, dit­to the jeans, and step into the shoes on the way out the door.  In fact I felt very smug about all this, the smug­ness of out­smart­ing one­self by set­ting one’s watch just the right num­ber of min­utes ahead.

But I’ve been wak­ing up, slow­ly and by small incre­ments, to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of clothes as a valid means of self-expres­sion.  (Yes, I live under a rock, bla blabla.)

In fact I began wak­ing up a few years ago, when Adri­enne dis­cov­ered Eileen Fish­er.  (Not that she has ever been cloth­ing-chal­lenged like me.)  This women’s clothes com­pa­ny makes real­ly beau­ti­ful things.  Their use of col­or is both spar­ing and intense.  The fab­rics are won­der­ful­ly tex­tured, and the pat­terns bor­row lib­er­al­ly from the visu­al lan­guage of oth­er forms, things like scarves that fall like torn petals, wispi­ly knit­ted jer­seys that cling and bil­low like iri­des­cent jel­ly­fish, coarse­ly woven jack­ets that some­how feel like Japan­ese but­ter­fly books.  Yet unlike the dis­tort­ed inhu­man art­works one sees in fash­ion mags, these clothes some­how feel made to be worn by real peo­ple in the real world, by women who live and work sub­stan­tial lives out there in het­ero­ge­neous envi­ron­ments that include peo­ple like— well, like me, in my jeans and black shirts.

I’m not entire­ly sure how this effect is achieved, but I think one key ingre­di­ent is a sense of tan­gi­ble work­man­ship and solid­i­ty in the fab­rics, the seams and the fas­ten­ing sys­tems.  From this per­spec­tive, Eileen Fish­er clothes are per­haps draw­ing from the same well as jeans.  Jeans are so endur­ing­ly, uni­ver­sal­ly pop­u­lar, I think because their entire nature and con­struc­tion empha­sizes a sense of secu­ri­ty in their integri­ty of form and func­tion, in the con­text of a wide range of social and phys­i­cal inter­ac­tions with the world.  In a good pair of jeans, one feels unfussy, ruggedi­zed, ready for life.  This is what is real­ly meant by “com­fort­able”.  The effect can be achieved with more del­i­cate fab­rics too, if the work­man­ship is robust and the con­text well suit­ed.

The ele­gance of the leop­ard, both func­tion­al and beau­ti­ful, is more com­pelling than the fop­pish­ness of the pea­cock.  Aside from my own issues, my dis­com­fort with fash­ion comes from two inter­twined evils, I think: first, that like pea­cocks, we’ve large­ly reserved exter­nal beau­ty for one gen­der— the oth­er one; sec­ond, that the way we express beau­ty in women’s cloth­ing seems so often to tend toward the pea­cock end of things.  Trans­gen­dered pea­cock.  Girl-pea­cocks make me uneasy because I men­tal­ly mir­ror their dis­com­fort and lack of bal­ance, rather than enjoy­ing their fragili­ty and the dubi­ous sense of con­trol that’s sup­posed to give me as a male.  On the oth­er hand social­ly accept­able beau­ty in (social­ly accept­able) male clothes is of such a sub­tle and con­tin­gent char­ac­ter, it makes me think of a bunch of hens cri­tiquing each oth­ers’ dull brown plumage.  Is James Bond’s suit and tie so much bet­ter than Dilbert’s?  I sup­pose so, but it’s all shades of tedious, if you ask me.

The Asian jun­gle fowl, now that’s more my kind of chick­en:

How mag­nif­i­cent is that.  My own exper­i­ments along these lines began in earnest with this pair of orange shoes.

I’ve found them to have a real effect on my sense of self and well­be­ing in the world.  Peo­ple— strangers— smile at me more with these on.  Even with no oth­er ele­ments, or per­haps espe­cial­ly with no oth­er ele­ments.

Bet­ter jeans fol­lowed (Adri­ano Gold­schmied Pro­tégé, for what it’s worth), and oth­er small things.  Final­ly, All­saints was brought back to my atten­tion.  The inside is as appeal­ing as the out­side, con­tin­u­ing in the same prewar/postpunk vein.

This store very much cap­i­tal­izes on the val­ues of den­im cul­ture.  Hol­lis Hen­ry sure­ly shops here— though a turn-off for us both would be its fetishiza­tion of the “authen­tic”, includ­ing chem­i­cal treat­ments lov­ing­ly designed to mim­ic skate­board trau­ma, or the pati­na of sev­er­al con­sec­u­tive nights’ sleep in the gut­ter.

Still, All­saints is as charm­ing­ly asperg­er­sish in its approach to clothes as the shop dis­play sug­gests, sort of like Bloc Par­ty.  Even the safe­ty pins are cus­tom-made.

The palette ranges from dirt, through cer­tain oxides, to the neu­tral grey­line, to blue, to just shy of white.  The design lan­guage is con­strained enough, and the mate­ri­als and work­man­ship appeal­ing enough, to make it pos­si­ble for me to shop here with­out over­load­ing my deci­sion cir­cuits.  There’s a solemn­ly play­ful sense of “hood­ie cou­ture” about some of these things, e.g. the fol­low­ing object:

Although at first glance it might appear to be made for anoth­er species, in fact that tubu­lar head struc­ture piles up into a sort of hybrid between hood, turtle­neck, scarf and.. ruff.

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