Make(over) me a man... with the help of a personal shopper
Clothes shopping can be a daunting task for anyone, but a man facing 40 with no idea whether to go older, younger, cooler? Shudder. John Meagher ventured where few blokes have gone before – the personal shopper's lair
I don't really care about fashion, so why am I stroking the delicate leather of a Paul Smith holdall bag as one would a favourite cat, or savouring the way the softest Japanese "selvedge" denim feels against my leg, or marvelling at the slimming properties of a super-light Canali suit?
I'm in Brown Thomas's luxuriously appointed menswear department and being made over by one of the store's personal shoppers. And I'm enjoying every moment of it.
I'm now of an age – I've just turned, gulp, 39 – that presents all manner of problems when it comes to clothes. Do I pretend I'm younger and dress like a bloke in his 20s or do I embrace encroaching middle age? What do guys who don't have footballers' bodies wear when they're about to hit 40?
I'm confused – and my carelessly assembled wardrobe is a model of confusion as well. Think frayed coats, woollen jumpers that have been unwittingly shrunk in the wash, jeans wearing so thin in the crotch I'm afraid to wear them outdoors in case of arrest, mismatched, mothballed socks, shapeless t-shirts, trainers with soles that are clinging on for dear life. The list goes on.
There are only a handful of items I like and think look well on me and I wear them time and again. And now they're looking worn and past it too. But those brogues I got from Ted Baker some years ago? They still look great, albeit a resole or two later, so maybe I'm not a total fashion klutz.
Yet, when I think about that unflattering Breton shirt and those comfortable-but-awful-looking sandals and a certain corduroy jacket with felt elbow patches I realise I probably shouldn't be left alone when it comes to clothes shopping.
Ann Finn, BT's aforementioned maven, reckons she can sort me out. She's been working in the trade for years – and was part of the Switzer's team when it used to occupy this very building way back when. Although the title of Personal Shopper has a Celtic Tiger ring about it, Ann insists that the typical client is a hard-working man who might want help in picking out the wedding suit, or want to add classic, timeless piece of formal wear for a new job. There's no fee – and no minimum spend.
Such a mundane revelation quashed my notion of perma-tanned, Ferrari-driving Loadsamoney sorts, accessorised with glamazonian girlfriends. Ann does have some celebrity clients, though, including a rather dapper veteran Irish actor – but it's not the Brown Thomas way, apparently, to talk about famous customers.
So what can she do with me – a six-foot, one-incher with a difficult-to-shift gut and only a tenuous idea of what sizes actually fit best?
Quite a bit actually. She picks out a grey Canali suit that, she says "takes stones off you". That's it, I think – the diet begins as soon as I leave this store. But my, the suit does look good, especially when teamed with black Prada shoes, a white Canali shirt and a brilliant orange Charvet tie. Isn't Charvet the brand that Charlie Haughey used to love? It certainly is, and if it's good enough for a disgraced Taoiseach, it's good enough for me.
Our photographer El quips that for women, a well cut suit on a guy has the same effect that a lingerie-clad female has on a man. Suddenly, I feel very self conscious in the suit: are those women loitering in the near distance undressing me with their eyes?
Before I can ponder this further, Ann ushers me into the dressing room – replete with sofa, enormous mirror and scented candles – for the second look. And it's an outfit that fills me with horror.
Hanging from the rails are clothes that a gone-to-seed Ross O'Carroll Kelly might wear – light blue chinos, a check shirt predominately in shades of purple and a navy blazer with white buttons. It's teamed with a pair of frighteningly expensive Lanvin runners. It's the sort of preppy look I thought I wouldn't be seen dead and now I'm going to be photographed in it for a national magazine.
I feel like throwing a hissy fit and refusing to put it on, but Ann reckons it will work – and it does. It all comes together in an unexpected and pleasing way although I'm not sure I could handle the ribbing if I turned up in work sporting it. And – frankly – it's the sort of ensemble likely to attract the wrong sort of attention on the Luas Red Line.
The third outfit (main pic, left hand page) is my favourite and features jeans from a brand previously unknown to me, Jacob Cohen. They're the selvedged ones I mentioned earlier and having done some research on the word I now realise I had mis-read it for years: it's something to do with stitching, and nothing to do with, as I had thought, old denim being "salvaged".
The jeans are much baggier than I like, but they feel super-comfy on: as they should considering they cost about 10 times more than my denim of choice – the tapered leg varietals on H&M's rails.
Ann has selected a burnt Zegna orange polo shirt for me to wear with it. It's a colour I normally avoid – like most Irish men, I gravitate towards black, navy and grey – but as soon as I've put it on, I'm smitten. It seems to work really well with my complexion and injects a lovely splash of colour into my world. Navy jacket and Prada runners complete the look and there's a noticeable spring in my step when Eleanor is encouraging me to strike a pose.
It's then that I spot the Paul Smith holdall and I begin to understand just what it is that women covet about handbags. Fashioned in the loveliest shade of navy, it's made for the sort of weekends that feature five-star hotels, nouvelle cuisine and cotton sheets of the very highest thread count. It looks – and feels – beautiful. I'd love to sniff it – I can't be the only one who adores the scent of leather – but reckon such an action might seem a little untoward among the black-clad staff and the well-heeled customers in this air-conditioned space.
With many Irish men – myself included – happy to strip to shorts and T-shirts when the weather gets good, I was hoping Ann would be able to show me how to achieve this and still look stylish. But neither she, nor the Brown Thomas publicist, seem keen to go there. Is it that my legs won't look good enough in the photos, or is it beyond the realm of possibility that such an outfit could be deemed fashionable? I'm not sure I want to know the answer, actually.
So what did I learn? Ann says it pays to take your time while shopping, to take advice from shop assistants about the size that fits best and to consider colours that are normally not on your radar.
It's sound advice. All too often, I've strode into shops with an idea in mind, avoided the offers of help from staff, selected size L from the rail (when XL might have been better), not bothered with the changing room, and made sure to buy colours that don't draw attention to themselves.
In future, my wardrobe is likely to improve if I take my time to get the fit right and experiment with looks I've hitherto avoided. Oh, and it's likely to feature orange – lots and lots of orange.
To book your complimentary Menswear personal shopping appointment, call: 01 617 1161
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent