March, two years ago, hanging in my tailor's workshop was the best tweed coat I've ever seen. A rich thornproof with a large district check, it was entirely worked by hand. A flap over the breast pocket, ordinarily fussy, was perfectly executed. It belonged, I was told, to a guy in a driver's cap standing quietly by the window, as if apart from the scene. He invited me to try it on and we discussed cloth for a while. It was clear he had strong opinions. During the conversation his hands moved constantly, as if by habit, stitching for his "customer." Later a vendor, come to show his new books, joined us. He seemed to know the guy in the cap well. Called him "Frank." When it got late, the three of us went down together in the elevator, parting in the street. Frank was wearing the coat fastened at the collar like a tunic. The next day a brief search yielded the phone number of F. Shattuck.
THE COMMISSION: A sturdy but elegant tweed coat for protection against the weather: functional rather than fashionable, able to stand a good beating. It would remind me of some coats I owned in my youth, only be much better.
THE CLOTH: We looked at Johnstons, W. Bill, Bateman & Ogden and others. But nothing elicited real enthusiasm. Then a great coincidence: Frank was able to purchase a length of the same cloth he had used for his own coat, a classic Hardy Alsport, long out of stock.
FIRST FITTING: We met near the end of May at the upper eastside shop of a tailor friend of Frank's. Frank brought the Alsport and it was as beautiful as had I remembered. Still we had doubts, the plaid being very large and I small. I decided, however, that it would wear like a solid and was happy; and Frank concluded that, with careful planning, the cloth could be cut to accommodate the size of the coat. Next we discussed the shoulders; mine are square and, to avoid emphasizing their shape, I wanted no padding. Frank agreed, but said he would need to build a haircloth scaffolding to hide my prominent shoulder bones. Style details: classic three button at Frank's suggestion, high gorge, which is what he does, side vents, ticket pocket, a flap over the breast pocket, and a loop on the underside of the lapel to fasten the coat at the neck. Frank wanted the coat a half inch longer than I'm used to and ended up getting his way. In exchange, he reluctantly agreed to forego a moderately roped sholder. Finally high armholes for ease of movement, but enough room for a warm sweater.
BETWEEN FITTINGS: Following the first fitting, emails and phone calls. Frank sent lining samples; we chose deep brown bemberg to blend with the subtle green of the tweed. I got cold feet about the three button, thinking it would look severe and suggested 3 to 2 1/2 instead. Frank countered with a high roll two. I felt an extra button might be useful against the cold when I buttoned to the throat. Frank hated the idea, said he wouldn't love the coat. We left the buttons for later and went on to the lapels. I wanted 3 1/2" while Frank wanted 3 3/4"; we went with 3 1/2". Frank told me, despite our earlier agreement, that for the good of the coat there must be some roll in the sleeve caps. I decided to trust him on that.
MUSLIN FITTING: During the summer, Frank became occupied with stone masonry, so the next fitting wasn't scheduled until early fall. The logistics for our meetings were complex since neither of us lived in New York, although my habit is to visit once a month. This time we met at a Japanese clothing store in Soho where I am a customer. Frank brought the muslin, made from heavy brown corduroy, for me to try. After fiddling with it for a while he concluded that the balance was off. Because the coat would have a pleated hem, Frank wanted the pattern to be spot on before cutting. There would have to be another muslin fitting.
SECOND MUSLIN FITTING: The following month we met at Frank's gym on Madison Avenue in the twenties. He greeted me by the side of the ring, sweating from his workout. This time the balance was perfect. For the buttons, I decided to go with a high roll two.
PICTURES: One day pictures began to to appear in my email, one after another. Construction had begun. First, the guts of the coat, horsehair hymo, black multitude of stitches, some straight, others slanting, crisscrossing, small and close on the lapel, all by hand; my thoughts drifted to an old tailor, dead now from Parkinsons, great old man remembering for me when he was a young apprentice in Italy; next the cloth side, bold plaid check quietly confined by the chest, then, breaking with convention, going straight to the edge of the lapel; and the pockets, flaps slightly convex, gently curving inward towards the body; now the lining, hand stitched, could see that even in the pictures, covering the facings that would cause the coat never to lose its shape; and finally, two pictures of the collar, like lovely miniatures, tweed on each side of the canvas.
FORWARD FITTING: We arranged to meet at a midtown hat shop. Frank, feeling confident, had decided, except for the button holes, to finish the coat. I slipped it on and looked in the mirror; after all this time I was actually wearing it and the fit seemed perfect. The strong forward shoulders looked nothing like those on my previous coats, but that didn't disappoint; neither did the shape of the collar, which seemed old world. The plaid, as I had hoped, was subtle, made more so by Frank's tailored cut. And there were some surprises: the hem, like the pocket flaps, curved inward, preventing any flair, giving the coat an elegant vintage look, and the wide sleeves were cupped at the elbows, allowing my arms to move freely, even with a sweater. After the try on, I examined Frank's work close up; Frank reported more than 5,500 hand stitches, to fully appreciate, he said, I must feel them with my fingers. To this day, my favorites (perhaps this shows my crudity or lack of knowledge) are the rough black crosses at the collar. We then walked up Lexington to tender Buttons and chose dark brown horn. Frank promised delivery the next day.
UNEXPECTED CALL: By the time I returned to my office a voicemail from Frank: The coat was wrong, needed work to be right, the collar must be ripped to do the work, and it would take at least half a day. There would be another fitting.
SECOND FORWARD FITTING: The next month we met in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. Frank gave me the old ripped collar for a souvenir. Then the try on. The difference was subtle yet at the same time startling; the coat now had great charactor. It was ready for button holes and buttons.
DELIVERY: A couple of weeks later we met again at the Waldorf. Frank handed me the completed coat to try. It was exactly as I had imagined (or would have had my imagine been that good): rustic but elegant, shaped but with plenty of room, natural but more structured than any previous coat of mine. Frank took some pictures with his phone. The best, we agreed, was of the coat buttoned all the way to the collar. We shook hands and went our seperate ways. Working with Frank had been great fun.
UNEXPECTED EMAIL: About a week later, the following email: "Send me the coat. There's one small thing that needs to be done." I called Frank and asked him; he said he wouldn't tell me until afterwards, but he had seen it in the pictures. I had no choice. It was his coat as much as mine. But I would wear it for a while before sending.
SECOND DELIVERY: The package arrived in late spring or early summer, I can't remember which. Upon opening it, I saw that Frank had raised the collar and perhaps tightened it. The coat felt like a vise around my neck; when I moved, it moved, it didn't matter in which direction. I called him up. "Does it feel like a vise," he asked. "It does," I answered. "That's what I wanted to hear," he said.
Generally, I dress not to be noticed. The other day I visited the grand old building where my office used to be. I approached a grey haired woman in a blue uniform, long a fixture at the security desk. "Haven't seen you for a while," she said, "but you're really looking good. And she looked me up and down. "Where did you get that jacket?" I guess with this coat I was kidding myself.