I didn’t start this blog with any sense of mounting a crusade but, if I had any sort of a mission, it was to celebrate the people who bring genuine passion and authenticity to a vintage scene often plagued by those eager to sling a ‘vintage’ label on something because it ‘looks old’ and turn a quick profit. One of these vintage heroes is Chester Cordite, designer and purveyor of classically styled and tailored men’s suits and, a couple of years after first encountering him at one of the Spitalfields pop-up fairs, I finally cornered this eponymous character in his new Cordite studio in leafy Muswell Hill.
There is, of course, a real person behind the Chester Cordite label – an immensely modest and industrious one in the shape of Stuart Emmerton who has single-handedly grown the concept from a realisation of just how difficult it was becoming to find original suits in the classic film noir styling: wide shoulders and lapels, ventless jackets snug on the hips, paired with high-waisted, wide-legged trousers, pleated at the top and with turn-ups at the bottom. If you don’t recognise that description, watch any crime movie from the late 1930s or early 40s and you’ll find that the sharpest, fedora-toting villain is sporting just that look, usually set off by a wide silk-tie loud enough to set off every burglar alarm in the city. By the turn of the century, the supply of originals was drying up fast, leaving only threadbare and greasy examples or bad 1970s Gatsby-revival copies. Even if you could find an original, and were prepared to live with the moth holes and disintegrating stitching, the chances of it fitting anyone other than the most common sizes were slimmer than some of the waist sizes and, if you did get really lucky, would you really want to wear it out to a crowded venue and – God forbid – dance in it?
With a background in the arts, a five-year fashion design course under his belt (a 40s original belt, of course), 15 years in the garment industry, and the boldness of someone who’s worked on everything from historic building renovation to guitar building in China, Stuart set about the task of deconstructing the noir look and nailing down the essential attributes.
Revelling in classic film noir for its visual style, atmosphere and a record of incredible garments, rerunning the films in detail became a rich source of material for research. He quickly became the master of the video freeze-frame as every likely example that flitted across the screen was minutely examined for the details that would go together to create the quintessential outfit. Anything by Bogart or Mitchum was high on the list of ingredients, with Alan Ladd supplying the model for the more diminutive versions. Cary Grant and David Niven added an element of class to the mixture, which distilled itself into a six button (four working, two for show), peak-lapel, double-breasted outfit, until Stuart was ready to create the master model. With that came the name, evocative, and with the hint of mystery – who was the Chester Cordite who inhabited the sharp suits that now bore his name?
So, with a great concept and a definitive pattern, surely the hard part’s done. Not so – and here’s where my admiration for Stuart and Chester really grows. Finding suitable fabrics was the first challenge, as nothing would ruin an authentic design quite so fast as creating it in some dreadful polyester derivative, or in a cloth without the weight to make the suit hang as it should. Then the very hard bit – finding a factory prepared to take on the manufacture of small quantities of suits to demanding standards and Stuart’s refusal to compromise on details. Some candidates fell at the first fence when all they were prepared to offer was one of their standard patterns with a bit of adjustment. In other cases, after long waits for prospective manufacturers to produce a ‘toile’ – the calico mock-up – the result was too often something that bore little resemblance to the pattern. Cue intense negotiations, another long wait, and eventually the arrival of a sample that just wasn’t what was ordered. Offers of visits to factories to work with the cutters were baulked. Giving up on one fruitless negotiation led to another which, no matter how careful the instructions, produced only variations on a 1970s Roger Moore Bond era ensemble. To cap it all, the Chester Cordite range had to come out at a price comparable to a decent off-the-peg suit – something that the wearer would value as a quality item, but that wouldn’t be so expensive as to reduce quantities to the level of the bespoke item, turning Chester Cordite from a concept to a personal tailor.
Finally, thanks to endless patience that saw lesser imitations nibbling away at the market, Chester Cordite was ready for launch – offering not only the classic two-piece double-breasted but also a more pre-War three-piece single breasted variation, both in a range of authentic fabrics, and only tiny concessions to post-War tailoring innovations such as the zip fly (which, frankly, just makes the suit that much more comfortable for everyday wear). Building on the experience gained, the range quickly expanded to include a range of shirts with the spearpoint collar essential to set off the suit and display your carefully-sourced piece of original neckwear. New designs continue to follow: a sports coat with action back, with that variation finding its way into the suit jacket, and a growing range of authentic and high-quality fabrics to choose from. Many are limited edition fabrics, guaranteeing a certain exclusivity, and the original American look now blends into some classic British cloths, like tweed and hopsack, reflecting the growing reputation of the Chester Cordite brand amongst customers from all over Europe and across the pond to USA, Australia and Japan. Research doesn’t end, either, with the video freeze-frame evolving into the screen grab, and some exciting new ideas cooking on the Cordite design desk.
With Chester Cordite, you get the whole package, with everything from buttonhole to business card reflecting the vision of one man who has dedicated the best part of 16 years to realising the dream of being able to buy the kind of suit the sharp-dressing Briton or American of the 1930s and 40s would have snapped up off the peg if he had the ill-gotten cash to do so. You’ll find him at a number of events throughout the year – which, along with full details of the range, a gallery of photographs and a link to the eBay shop, you’ll find on the excellent website and Facebook Page. However, if you want to see the full stock for yourself, it’s worth making an appointment to visit the studio. Be warned, though, once you step into the 1940s private eye-styled office, and glance at yourself in the period cheval mirror in your potential purchase, set off with the addition of a violently-patterned silk tie and a snap-brim fedora to set off the suit, with an inside pocket just begging for that .38 Police Special, your determination to limit yourself to just one purchase could be in jeopardy when you realise just how sharp you look. Surely there’s room in the wardrobe for just one more suit…
This article first appeared in The Chap magazine.