The first time I met Nathaniel Adams or Natty as he is often called, was when he came to interview me at my studio. He came with the wonderful photographer Rose Callahan. Then, they were in the process of putting together their widely acclaimed book, I am Dandy, (2013,Gestalten Press, Germany).
He arrived, rang and rode the lift to my floor. I opened my studio door; he walks in with an indefinable swagger, a sort of strut but effortlessly so and certainly unaffected. In time, it became apparent to me that Natty is a brilliant aesthete and gentleman—a rarity in our generally discourteous, unwashed age of rough mannerisms, uncouthness and monosyllabic language.
To boot, I was also struck that he was and is evocative of the suave, late Hollywood personage, Clark Gable of yore, and in addition, Natty has such a winning intellectual and cultured sympathies.
Since then, each and every time I’d spotted Mr. Adams at various events, he is invariably exquisitely attired. His actual sartorial mode is a cross between a firm nod to dandyism and the honnête homme and I use the Gallic phrase as a noun, not in its mid 17th century French origin.
In a sketch, Nathaniel Adams was born on Christmas Day, 1983 in New York City. He recalls that on that very day, alas, “his mother went into labor after biting into a hot pepper.”
An American-Raj, say, Natty was raised, for the most part, in Greenwich Village. His mother, a professor of English at New York University is from a military family in India. His father, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a professor at the New School hails from a small town in Texas called Bonham.
He went to elementary school at P.S. 41 in the West Village; junior high school at Wagner on the Upper East Side and high school at the Bronx High School of Science.
Says, Natty, “while I was in high school I was a part of the nearly-dead New York punk scene, or at least what remained of it. I was in a few bands, and my first live performance was at CBGB’s when I was 15 years old, playing guitar in a band called Homer and the Sexuals. Punk probably first introduced me to styles and subcultures – punks, mods, skinheads, hippies, ravers, hardcore kids, etc. That definitely had a big effect on how I viewed clothing—style suddenly had meaning, if only as some kind of tribal identifier.”
He got his Bachelor’s degree at the Gallatin School of NYU, and started wearing suits regularly early in his freshman year, shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Continues Natty, “I’m not sure whether the two things are related, but it is possible. While at NYU I discovered dandyism as an academic subject. I did an independent study on dandyism in the 20th Century and my final colloquium defense was on the history of dandyism. I think I was originally intrigued by the discovery that there was a historical, artistic, and literary precedent for what I’d just begun to understand in my own life – that the pursuit of masculine elegance can be a powerful force. And it was good to learn that there were at least 200 years of men with the same obsession as me.”
And he received his Master’s Degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Fast forwarding, after his managerial position at the bespoke clothier, Against Nature, his friend Lee-Jon Ball in London proposed that the two of them start a trans-Atlantic bespoke label, keeping it small and dealing with clients on a very personal one-on-one basis, he agreed.
Natty, “We started the Secret Empire label, and now I spend half my time selling, designing, and producing custom suits for a select clientele, and half my time writing. It’s an ideal situation – by keeping the label limited and exclusive, we have more control over the quality of the clothes we produce and more control over the time we spend on the label versus our other projects. We’re not dreaming of being some hulking, mass-produced label—we make unique clothing for people we actually like around the world.”
I had a great pleasure in interviewing and photographing Mr. Adams in his varied sartorial fluency and manifestations. I trust that you too will relish them as much. Now, Natty, his no.1 in 13 acts commences!
May 27th. 2014
interviews/photographs: iké udé
NATHANIEL “Natty” ADAMS
Capricorn, although I don’t believe in astrology. (The fact that I was born on a very cold Christmas Day has probably had more influence on my life than the position of the stars at the time).
Downtown Jersey City, New Jersey
Favorite Fashion Designer:
Other than myself? Paul Smith at the moment, but my tastes change as often as the styles do.
Favorite Shoe/Accessories Designers: Scarlet Fever Footwear, Charvet, Glendon Lambert, Paul Smith, Post Imperial, Drakes, Hermes, and Digby & Iona.
D.S. & Durga. I love all their fragrances, everything they make. Brilliant stuff.
Favorite Stylish Films:
Anything with a young Michael Caine in it. Watching Fred Astaire dance in tails is always a treat, as is watching young Elizabeth Taylor do pretty much anything. Marcello Mastroianni was always stylish, and when I first saw “City of Women,” I aspired to be a handsome, bespectacled, salt-and-pepper lecher when I reach middle age. I also hope to discover an actual city of women.
My apartment, Butler Library at Columbia University; Raines Law Room cocktail bar; the Frick Museum; Burp Castle Belgian beer bar; The Morgan Library; Van Vorst Park in Jersey City; 69 Colebrook Row cocktail bar in London; Central Park; Highgate Wood and Highgate Cemetery; a walk through crowded midtown Manhattan on a spring day when I have nowhere in particular to be (really.)
New York and Jersey City, obviously. London feels like another home to me – I have as many friends there as here. New Delhi, Venice, Uganda, Amsterdam, Nice, Monument Valley, Shimla
A Gibson or a full pint of Black Velvet, depending on my mood.
Who is your style icon?
It probably changes quite often depending on how I feel at any given time. At various times it’s been Lord Byron, James McNeill Whistler, Jack Johnson, Brian Howard, Lucius Beebe, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hamish Bowles, and Bryan Ferry.
What item of clothing would you rather starve for?
I might cut back on my food budget a little bit for a truly great Charvet necktie, but I’m not quite obsessive enough to starve for one.
What is your overall impression of how people dress in general?
It’s true – as people never seem to tire of pointing out like they’ve discovered it themselves – that young men are dressing better these days, but very few of them are doing anything radical or terribly original. For all the macho talk about “personal style, not fashion,” it seems to me like there are an awful lot of very similar-looking young guys walking around sockless in monk strap shoes, stubble, and short double-breasted jackets. Other than which magazines they subscribe to, those looks don’t tell me much about the man. As for women, I find dressing rather a disappointment when compared with the alternative.
And what do you recommend that they do otherwise? Cliché though it may be, I think that people just need to take more chances. One of my great hopes for “I am Dandy” is that men who would normally be timid take heart and inspiration from the confidence and audacity of some of the men in the book. I want them to look at men who dress with extreme style and say “if that man can walk down the street with his personality crawling from each seam, glowing from each color, and humming through every line in every pattern of his outfit, then maybe I can try wearing something I’ve never seen on a blog.” Although they’d probably put it in less purple terms than those.
PICTURE: #1 IN THIRTEEN ACTS
SPECIAL GUEST INTERVIEW:
NATHANIEL ADAMS TALKS ABOUT HIS 1st OUTFIT:
What items did you use to compose this particular outfit?
This outfit consists of a three-piece:
White 11 ounce herringbone linen suit with rounded peak lapels and a double-breasted waistcoat
A shirt with horizontal navy and purple stripes
A purple, black and silver diamond jacquard woven tie
A cream colored straw panama hat
A pair of white and light brown spectator shoes
A violet cotton pocket square with daisies embroidered on it.
How did you find the various items that you are wearing?
The hat is from J.J. Hat Center; the tie is made by Drakes for Domenico Spano; the pocket square is by Hackett and was a gift from my friend the blogger Barima Nyantekyi; the shoes are an Allen Edmonds limited edition, and I designed the shirt and suit myself in my former position at the Against Nature atelier.
How did you arrive at the decision to compose such an outfit?
My friend the artist Peter McGough was going to bring me as his guest to Hamish Bowle’s Gatsby-themed 50th Birthday party at Anna Wintour’s house on Long Island. Obviously I was thrilled, so I bought the hat and shoes and had the suit made with the occasion in mind. Unfortunately, Peter got sick the day before and we couldn’t go. I don’t wear it often, because it’s hard to keep clean, as you can imagine, but I’ve worn it to the Governor’s Island Jazz-Age Lawn Party and I wore it when Rose and I gave a book presentation at Dapper Day in Disneyworld a couple months ago.
Where do you normally shop for clothes and accessories?
Because I was the manager at Against Nature and am now the co-director of my own label, Secret Empire, I design all of my own suits and shirts. For hats I usually go to JJ Hat Center or Pork Pie Hatters, most of my shoes are Allen Edmonds, Jeffery West, Cole Haan, and Paul Smith, I pick up pocket squares all over the place (one was even mysteriously left outside the door of my apartment once.) Most of my squares are vintage, but I also like the selection Fine and Dandy shop. I often get ties and cufflinks as gifts – my dad likes to get me cufflinks from the Met Museum gift shop – many of my ties come from sample sales or places I’ve worked in the past like Doyle Mueser, Against Nature, and the Canali Showroom.
How much of a role does money or the lack thereof play in one’s endeavor to dress very smart or beautifully?
Writing doesn’t pay very much. So I spend the other half of my time working to pay the bills. Fortunately, my job is making clothes for people so I get to design and make my own clothes at cost. I’ve made sure that part of my career helps me get custom clothing I couldn’t otherwise afford. When it’s something I can’t make I try to get it on sale. I think that if someone really cares about dressing a certain way they’ll find a way to achieve it.
What special recommendation would you give somebody who admires your style but don’t know where or how to start?
First off I’d say don’t copy me – or anyone else for that matter. I always find those “how to get the look” guides in magazines that break down where to buy a celebrity’s outfit rather ridiculous. Of course I understand that it takes time for someone to arrive at something like a personal style, and that at first some mimicry is necessary, until one learns to take inspiration without aping or plagiarizing. One of the reasons I like custom suiting so much is because each suit is unique. But this is vague and unhelpful advice. The first thing I’d recommend doing is reading about clothing. Learn the vocabulary. Learn about materials, construction, colors and patterns, the history of what people wore and why. Then take a look at the people around you, the ones you admire and the ones you don’t. If you study the composition of music, you begin to listen to music differently, analyzing the component parts and appreciating how they relate to one another. In the same way, if you learn about the fundamentals of apparel – how it’s made, how it’s evolved, what has and hasn’t looked good in the past, you’ll be able to appreciate the complexity and variety of dressing you see around you in a much more profound way. Of course, you can drill pretty deep with your sartorial education – studying textiles could lead to studying the mechanics of different looms or the characteristics of different breeds of fiber-producing plants and animals, but for most people, a general knowledge of material, construction, and history will make the experience of dressing more rewarding and make you a more confident dresser. Just don’t waste too much time listening to people who try to prescribe hard and fast rules about things.
Name six famous personages—past or present—who you would invite over for dinner/drinks because of their impeccable individualistic elegance?
Lord Byron, Duke Ellington, Dita Von Teese, Yukio Mishima, Kitty Fisher and Veronica Franco.
In what order would seat them?
I wouldn’t assign seats. I think it would be much more interesting to see who my elegant guests preferred to sit next to (or preferred to avoid.)
As a result of your style, what is your impression of how you are generally perceived in public?
Most of the reactions I get are positive. Lots of people compliment the way I dress. But if I’m dressed particularly flamboyantly some people can be rude – the sort of idiots who are made uncomfortable or confused by what other people wear. People probably assume I’m wealthier than I am. They may also think that my handwriting is elegant and that I’m a very neat eater. They’d be wrong on both counts.
And how would rather the public perceive you?
I hope that when all is said and done I’ll be known as a well-dressed writer and not a designer who writes on the side.
Presently, what do you think accounts for the poor appearances in how people generally dress or don’t dress?
I would guess that laziness has a lot to do with it. If people aren’t encouraged to make an effort they usually won’t. If the only consequence of wearing flip flops and sweatpants in a restaurant are that people like me will think less of you then why not do it? I think that these days people have a “fuck it” attitude about a lot of things – take me as I am or not at all. Noble ideas about confidence, equality, self-esteem and feeling secure in your own body have mutated somewhere along the way and emerged as ideas that nobody should ever be judged or evaluated at all based on how they look and that nobody should be encouraged to dress any way they don’t want to. I’m conflicted about dress codes. When I go to the opera, I’m sad that it isn’t the picture of elegance it once was – part of the magic of the total experience of attending a performance was the fact that everybody had made an effort to look their best. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the people at the opera in jeans and t-shirts are very often the people who know more about the music, the singers, the sets, the history, and the people than those of us in tuxedos. For them the opera is all about the performance and not about the event. I can appreciate that – they love the opera as much as I love clothing. But surely the average person can love both equally and to a higher standard than they currently do?
In retrospect have you ever worn something that you now find particularly regrettable?
Of course! I’d be suspicious of anyone who claimed otherwise. Aside from the many styles and subcultures I stumbled through during my youth, my style is still evolving. Evolution means mutation – some mutations are good, and you keep those, others are bad, and you never wear that tie with that shirt again. But you’ll get nowhere if you stay fixed. This isn’t to say that you can’t settle into a fairly consistent personal style, but in order to arrive at that you’ll probably have to take a few risks.
In the end, do you dress to:
a. please others
b. please yourself
c. hopefully be in agreement with everybody?
A little of column a, a little of column b, and none of column c. I like dressing, and I like it when other people are pleased by how I dress. But I’m just as pleased when people are annoyed or bent out of shape by how I’m dressed, because it’s such a stupid thing to get worked up about. As Kingsley Amis said: “if you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” I think the same can be said for dressing – if everybody loved it you’d be doing something wrong.