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by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Simon Crompton’s latest book is better than I had feared. I came to it on the heels of Best of British, a book whose creators appear to have forced him to write abbreviated hagiographies of a bunch of putative heritage brands.  Opening The Finest Menswear in the World, I confess I had doubts. After all, its title suggests a far more ambitious take than the promised premise of Best of British. The finest menswear in the world? And while Crompton acknowledges (in his introduction) that some degree of subjectivity is inherent in making his determinations of the finest tailors, shirtmakers, shoemakers and other makers in the world, he goes on to state his “methodology”: makers in each category must use the best materials technically possible and the most demanding standards of make. Crompton further assures the reader that his judgments of quality based on his extensive industry contacts and exhaustive personal experience with the main competitors in each field. Crompton thus lays claim to coming as close as possible to an objective determination of the very best. Is this hubris?

Crompton has blazed trails, especially when left to his own devices to explore the history of various menswear totems or to venture afield from the usual cities currently associated with custom menswear (London and Naples). He’s visited and interviewed some of the last quality English tiemakers, and reminded his readers of the (comparatively unknown) quality custom tailors and shirtmakers in Paris and Madrid. What exotic, hitherto unknown names would The Finest Menswear in the World unveil?

As always, Crompton’s writing is reasoned, engaging and informative, unlike that of more superficial books of this nature. Nonetheless, I was rather surprised to see so many well-known heavy hitters of the clothing world named as various finests, including Loro Piana (one of the more recent acquisitions of luxury conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) as best knitwear maker, Dunhill as best leather bagmaker, or Kiton, the largest and best known Neapolitan ready-to-wear menswear brand, as best shirtmaker. Still, certain of Crompton’s picks, such as Brent Black (Panama hats), Talarico (umbrellas) and Zilli (leather jackets) are relatively obscure names known mainly to enthusiasts. Zilli in particular has very little coverage or discussion online or in other media. Yet, having visited its shops in the nabob’s stomping grounds of rue Marbeuf in Paris and oligarch-friendly Schwechat Airport outside Vienna, I’m inclined to agree with Crompton that it may very well might make the finest, most luxurious leather jackets around. And Crompton’s profiles of each brand he cites are persuasive and interesting, even when he makes a case for the finest sockmakers, Bresciani (who allegedly make the infamously expensive William Abraham sock brand and, Crompton insinuates, at one time made the socks for Hermès). That I can find the history of a sockmaker interesting perhaps says more about me than about Crompton’s writing, but he succeeds in making each chapter personable, personal and clear.

As a fellow clothing bore, I admit to a few quibbles – do Cleverley really make the finest custom shoes? Even as a fellow satisfied customer, I’m not sure.  (Has he tried any of the French custom shoemakers?) And given Crompton’s focus on custom, on garments carefully made to the individual proportions and order of each customer, it’s surprising he chooses a ready-to-wear brand, Kiton, as the finest shirtmaker. Crompton makes his case based in part on certain of Kiton’s construction details (such as how the collar is attached and the sleeve positioned), but mostly on the prodigal amounts of hand stitching Kiton lavishes on each shirt. Still, all the handwork in the world can’t make an off-the-rack shirt fit better, and as Crompton himself noted in a prior blog review, Kiton’s custom offer involves apparently limited manipulations to its ready-to-wear patterns, so there’s little chance of achieving a truly customized fit. If good handwork really does elevate a shirt, I know of a custom shirtmaker outside Toulouse who appears to do at least as much hand stitching as Kiton, and any good custom shirtmaker would have access to cloths comparable to those Kiton uses.  Ironically, one of Crompton’s most unhinged Internet critics is a fellow who claims to be a shirtmaking trainee at Kiton.

Nonetheless, I recognize perhaps greater room for subjectivity than Crompton himself does, because each of us makes our own bests up based not just on supposedly objective criteria like quality of materials or stitching, but on some sort of personal resonance. After all, Crompton names Savile Row tailor Anderson &amp Sheppard (a tailor as often maligned as he is) as the maker of the finest sportcoats. Like Crompton, I’ve used good tailors in London, Paris and elsewhere yet must admit that I like the way that my A&ampS sportcoats look and feel on me more than those of any other tailor I’ve used, despite knowing that other tailors are objectively better - cutting with more precision, making with more technical skill, or, especially in the case of some of the good French tailors, finishing with much better attention to detail and luxurious handwork.  We cannot reduce any judgment of the “finest” men’s makers to a set of criteria any more than we can appoint any one fellow arbiter, whatever exalted biography, or industry connections, he may claim in his book. Of course all of us know before we open a book like this that there can’t be a definitive guide to the finest or best of anything… or at least I hope we know. The thing is, many, if not most of us do willingly swallow the pill and look for someone who seems more experienced and knowledgeable in a given field to tell us what to think. It saves worry and time… and it gives enthusiasts something to argue and sputter about. The Finest Menswear in the World is still worth the read. But I remind the reader that there are, still, both undiscovered treasures and undiscoverable emotional connections, all of which may change how each of us perceives the clothing that thrills us most.