Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lava Vomit...Wolfe Once More

Author Ray Bradbury wrote, “Tom Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava.”
Yep, I get the metaphor. Bradbury nailed Wolfe but for me the allegory is even more fetching, due to the incongruent visual of elegant white suits becoming spittle-flecked via emesis.
I said that I wouldn’t rehash the Wolfe white suit genesis story but I lied. Full man Wolfe has been orbiting my noggin since oldominion’s Wolfe-Keds spotting. And I think I’m on the cusp of a Wolfe reading jaunt…but the real old stuff…Tangerine...Mau Mauing…Pump House…that far back. I devoured Bonfire and A Man in Full. Charlotte Simmons…the setting wasn’t on strategy for Wolfe…so I struggled through it. Wolfe fares better when he vomits urban. Urban and adults.
Ok, so here’s a loosely paraphrased excerpt from Brian Lamb’s C-Span Books interview with Wolfe where he reveals the white suit genesis.
“…It happened by accident in 1962. I had only two jackets to my name. White suits in Richmond Virginia were not unusual, so I bought one in NYC but it was too heavy to wear that summer. So I wore it in the winter and people went nuts. People would say…“What an interesting man…he wears white suits”…it took the place of a personality for me for a long time.”
Wolfe shared with Lamb that he can generally wear one of his white suits for about six hours before having to change it. He travels to an event with three in tow. Three suits…I travel all week with one sportcoat. Then again, I’m not Tom Wolfe and I don’t wear white jackets. I’d be a mess within an hour. Vomit or not. I like the fact that initially there was no grand dandy-esque scheme regarding Wolfe’s white suit strategy. The young man just didn’t have the dosh to buy something and have it sit in his closet unworn.
And the shoes…Wolfe calls them…Faux Spats.
I’ve come perilously close to meeting Tom Wolfe on a couple of occasions. I missed him by thirty minutes at an Alan Flusser cocktail party in Gotham several years ago and had to decline last November, an invitation to a Richard Merkin tribute where Wolfe spoke.
But I have fingered…nervously…ever so tentatively…one of his white suits.

Most bespoke tailoring operations aren’t geared for nor do they generally seek the browsing public. You need to have some idea of why you intend to cross the transom before doing so and artisan Vincent Nicolosi’s lair is no exception. Nicolosi has been making Wolfe’s clothes for years, along with an occasional rig for Merkin and clothes horse attorney Eddie Hayes. Hayes of course, is the dedicatee of Wolfe’s first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. So when I decided to drop in on atelier Nicolosi unannounced ten years ago, I was already fully loaded with Nicolosi lore and back stories, courtesy of Merkin et al.
Here’s Nicolosi, Wolfe and Hayes. Eddie Hayes says this about Nicolosi… “He does all the work himself...He's a powerfully built man, and you feel that power in the suits that he makes.”
Having no intention of buying anything…we had a baby on the way…I screwed my courage up a notch or two and headed over to Nicolosi’s. I’d already darkened with measured confidence and humility, the doors of Savile Row’s Huntsman and Henry Poole as well as Anderson and Sheppard and was no worse for wear. And the Flusser minions were already swathing me back then, consistent with what I thought was to be my temporary professional and sartorial strategy … “fake it till you make it.” Unfortunately, that strategy remains mine today. So I was no sartorial rookie but Nicolosi’s den wasn’t even close to possessing the kilim-underfoot, stuffy, patinated, marrow coloured aloofness of Savile Row.
Harsh-ass fluorescent lights greeted me overhead as I opened the Nicolosi door. An infusion of early 1970’s midtown Gotham office building syntheticality. Not the oh so posh newly synthetic early sixties Mad Men ersatz-deco Bakelite-ness. We’re talking nothing short of the tri-colour pasta shag carpet a la Bunch Brady. Formica comes to mind as well. Ambiance wasn't a requirement.
When Anderson and Sheppard was on Savile Row they had tables and tables of cloth bolts for one to gander. A few other baubles were on offer as well…umbrellas, braces and the iconic A&S fleece lined bedroom slipper. In other words, there were plenty of things to dawdle about with until someone could assist you. None of those nerve settling distractions could be found at Lair Nicolosi…the sterile fluorescence alone sent me back to Dr. Monroe’s office. He was my pediatrician and every time my mom took me to his Formica-fied—colour draining office, I got a huge-ass shot of penicillin.
Nicolosi was with a client. Two other folks were riding needle and thread, copiously focused on sleeve-heads and collars. One guy looked up and in broken Pidgin English essentially said “wait on Mr. Nicolosi.” Ok…will do. But what will I do in this little box of a space that had no patina to set me thinking about all who might have darkened the doors. There was nothing to look at save a half dozen sun bleached cloth bolts. No Flusserish candy dish of crazy pocket squares and silly patterned socks to fake interest in. No long rack of finished clothing to thumb through for inspiration or tisk-tisking. I’m getting a bit nervous and my left butt-cheek is tightening because my history in this environment says that penicillin is on the way.
But in a corner I spied cream gabardine. Hanging on a bar alone…the corner space and the chrome rod seemed attenuated by the single duty of holding one suit. The paucity of line and pattern…paucity hell…the absence, accompanied by the monochromatic neutrality of cream gabardine made the suit seem delicate as well.
And on the hanger hook was impaled a scrap of paper…haphazardly thrust-through like you see checks at the diner cash register. “Mr. Wolfe” is all it said. Shit! This is Tom Wolfe’s suit. I love correlating inanimate objects to a greater significance but this was in reverse. I’d usually done so in museums where you gander at uniforms or other kit that was used by someone of historical import for something historically important. But those people were dead and Tom Wolfe was anything but dead. A Man in Full was being touted and was just about to be released. Maybe if I hung around long enough, Wolfe would come in for a fitting.
Sincere but heavily accented English interrupted my tactile ponderings of Wolfe’s suit. I felt like I’d been caught ogling Roxanne Burgess’ underwear in Mrs. Strickland’s fifth grade class. And there was a faint smell of rubbing alcohol…a prep swab for penicillin?
 “ ‘ow may I ‘elp you?” Nicolosi wasn’t necessarily brusque but I wasn’t necessarily Hayes-Merkin-Wolfe either. And it probably showed itself in spades. I remember meeting the Managing Director of Anderson and Sheppard many years ago. I was well dressed and it didn’t hurt that I had my gregarious little wife with me. Guardedly amiable, poised amidst their original Savile Row location that had accommodated Astaire, Beerbohm et al, he was generous with his time and deliberate in his articulation of the A&S house style. Nicolosi was deliberate. Nicolosi was not articulate. But he didn’t need to be articulate for me or anyone else. His expressions are manifest by way of needle and thread.
I felt juvenile as I awkwardly tried to query him about preferences for a sportcoat. My first couple of questions about fabric options met a brow furrowed  Nicolosi. The heck with asking about styling and cut—I’d already been outed as a poseur. I could tell that he’d already pegged me for a non-customer. A poseur in a double breasted Alan Flusser light gray nail head suit and tobacco suede perforated cap-toe shoes. It wasn’t like I’d sauntered in swathed courtesy of Robert Hall.
So I attempted a few more frail pleasantries before I eked out something similar to “Thanks and I’ll think about it.” Nicolosi graciously held the door for me as I exited his flouro-pantheon chez Merkin-Hayes-Wolfe. Nicolosi I’m certain, is a gracious and accommodating tailor and those in the know say that money for a Nicolosi garment is money well spent. I blame Dr. Monroe and the fluorescent lighting for my momentary and thank God transient obtuseness.
It was obvious that the source of Wolfe-white would not on that particular day, be a source for me.
Onward. Amidst the last week of seersucker.


ilovelimegreen said...

This really doesn't do your post justice and I hope you'll forgive me but I am just wild about the carpet in the second photo. I am too preoccupied with it to come up with a germane comment.

NCJack said...

There are indeed some establishments (of all sorts) that are "business only", but YOU...nonplussed? Say it ain't so, Joe!

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Thank you for specifying a NY tailor we should avoid.

Anonymous said...

Dear man - Please, please, please write another post soon, as that image of Tom's mug is just too jolting - 'specially for the waking brain. Thanks - Faithful reader

ADG said...

Anon...sit tight! I'll do another post later in the week. The startling picture I think, kinda plays to the emesis theme.

LagunaPreptini...I'm sure he is an excellent tailor...I was just out of my element ten years ago.

NCJacksonian...It was the fluorescence and my fear of the pediatrician...otherwise I'm formidable.

LimeGreenPeaceGal...all that twaddle and rhetoric and all you can see is Wolfe carpet.

Anonymous said...

OK, fair warning, this comment is going to have so many holes in it that it may not be of much use. I seem to remember reading on the internet an obit or tribute written by Tom Wolfe for a photographer friend of his from back in his Rolling Stone or Esquire writing days.

In that article, he credited the photographer as suggesting that he wear his one white suit to the photo shoot for the cover of his first book. I recall him suggesting that he did not want to do so originally, but that he quickly realized that the suit would set him apart from other aspiring authors. I also seem to recall that he said the suit was a poly blend (it was the 70s) that he bought on clearance.

If anyone knows what the heck I am talking about or where to find the article, I thought Maximinimus would enjoy reading it.

Anonymous said...

I have met mr. Wolfe on a few occasions. He is very polite and friendly and loves to talk about the next book he is working on.

Easy and Elegant Life said...

What a coat! Gauntlet cuffs. Half belted, darted back. You obviously had yet to give full reign to your sartorial fuzziness or you would have knocked over a bank to work with the guy. Interesting as his clientele from what I gather.

Mr. Hayes used to post on the London Lounge forum. Not sure if he still does.

Kathie Truitt said...

Okay, that first picture just scares me. Please remove it.

ADG said...

Kathie...sorry but I won't take it down!

Eleganto...Yes, that garment was as fuzzy as it comes no?

Anon...yes, after watching the C-Span clips I can tell that he's very nice.

AnonRe:Rolling Stone...I'm sure there's all kind of lore around the white suits. And I'm sure that his first few weren't expensive or too nice at all.

oldominion said...

Great post.

Was surprised to read Wolfe's claim that white suits weren't unpopular in Le Mond back in the day. By the time I came around--late 60s, 70s, 80s--Richmond had become (and remains) sartorially predictable; it was and still is, for the most part, a dark suit and shoes/white shirt/repp tie kind of town...My grandfather had a white linen suit but he lived in Hampton, VA., former home of Tin Tin.

Cannot believe I didn't stop to chew the fat with the old boy when I saw him in the bookstore. I am not setting a good example to my chirruns, tho' last night me eldest wished Cal Ripken a happy birthday when we saw him at a local watering hole...So maybe all is not lost.

Still, to reckon wife, chirruns and I may have missed out on being invited back to Wolfe's Southampton lair and downed some martinis and shot the breeze about writing, duds and RIchmond, well, I feel a bit weak.

Anonymous said...

You what I bet is one of the greatest challenges in the world today? Getting Tom Wolfe to pose for a picture.

Anonymous said...

!Holy ONE-HOUR-MARTINIZING MaxMinMan...a creased, !!CREASED?!! lapp-pel!


(somewhere in 'zine archives, probly NYT or NY, iza blurb 'bout the '60s Hardee's palatte carpet)

Anonymous English Female said...

ADG - Have to agree with Laguna Beach Trad/Prep on this one. I might even go one step further and say 'New York tailor' is an oxymoron but aside from the dubiousity of the suit's styling, Nicolosi clearly has no idea how to cut a sleeve, an armhole or how to join the two together. For me, the charm of Tom Wolfe is how he accessorises.

ADG said...

AnonEngFem...stop it with your Central St. Martins know-it-all-ness!

Ta'er ... Hardees...I used to order the Big Twin. We don't have Hardees up here.

Anon...he probably only poses when he has to.

oldominion....stop regretting stuff.And yes, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah...all sartorially predictable in ways that certainly could be worse. Ripken is a good guy. I watched him hug little kids and sign autographs for an hour one time while he was having ice cream with his family at, I think, a place called Windy Valley.

Unknown said...

I hate to think what Tom Wolfe's dry cleaning bills are like. Cream suits look great ... but how do you sit down in public transport, in cafes or restaurants without wiping down the surface with a cloth beforehand. It is not for those with any hint of OCD. Disaster is just one moment away Lol