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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Fashion

Seattle Style: A Timely Tradition

Custom tailoring for men is a measure of our new sophistication

Scott Kuhlman's boutique on First Avenue in Belltown wasn't even open at 10 a.m., and most of the lights were still off. But he was already on the sales floor flipping through swatches of striped shirt fabrics with one of his regular customers, a dapper Seattle businessman dressed in a light-gray suit.

He wanted Kuhlman to custom-make a replica of a cherished white-with-green-stripes dress shirt he'd bought in France years ago, and with hundreds of fine Italian and vintage Japanese textiles to choose from, he was bound to find a close match.

"In the '80s, you could find green stripes everywhere," the man said nostalgically as he settled on a gingham white shirt with "cool green" stripes. Psyched about all the swatches Kuhlman was showing him, he ordered several more shirts at about $225 apiece, adding to the electric-green corduroy jacket with horn buttons that Kuhlman made for him last year.

For customer service, it doesn't get much more personal than this.

But the sad fact is, custom tailoring for Seattle men has almost gone the way of typewriters, the Tom Collins and green-striped shirts.

A generation ago, Kuhlman says, half a dozen or so custom tailors catering to men were in Belltown alone.

But Kuhlman has found a way to render a traditional idea like made-to-measure tailoring — especially of shirts — relevant to a generation of stylish guys weaned on one-shape-fits-all chain stores and athletic wear.

"It's really nice wearing interesting shirts because you don't wear a lot of suits in Seattle," says Kuhlman, who opened his First Avenue store about seven years ago. "So you express yourself through your shirts, not your tie."

Kuhlman was ahead of the curve in his retro vision of a men's store, which also manifests itself in the Original Penguin golf polos, Sinatra-esque fedoras and vintage cufflinks he's been selling in recent years to designers, musicians, DJs and other creative professionals around town.

But today his aesthetic no longer feels like a novelty. More recent additions to the city's fashion scene have tweaked the customer-service formula but generally strive to satisfy men who expect a few extras — a true "experience" — when they walk into a clothing store.

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Blackbird men's store in Ballard offers hard-to-find indie designers in a setting accented by pinball machines. At Oslo's on Queen Anne Hill, a barber cuts hair and gives hot shaves right in the midst of all the elegant casual wear.

These stores put a Seattle spin on an idea given new life in the past few years at luxury men's boutiques from Milan to New York. Former Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent designer Tom Ford's new men's shop in Manhattan, for example, is a clubby wonderland with suede walls, a velvet-lined elevator, beaver-skin rugs, $3,900 silk dressing gowns, uniformed butlers and private fittings for everything from suits to socks.

There are no velvet-lined interiors at Kuhlman, but the owner, an admirer of traditional English tailoring who learned to make clothes by modifying his own garments in the 1980s, once made a black-velvet suit with silver pinstripes and peak lapels for a customer who needed something to wear to his wedding.

One of the store's repeat customers is Jason Finn, drummer and singer for Seattle band The Presidents of the United States of America, who this spring ordered a charcoal suit with navy pinstripes and Western-style pockets on the slacks.

"I've walked around Carnaby Street in London, and there's shop after shop and everybody's making suits there," says Finn. "But I can't think of anyone around here who does it the way Scott does, one suit at a time. I thought, 'I'm gonna get a suit made — this is so cool.' "

He says the experience — customers need to come in two or three times for measurements and fittings — is rewarding "as long as you're willing to make some tough decisions up front." And pay up. Finn's suit set him back more than $1,600, but part of what he paid for was an outfit that perfectly conforms to his body, and his taste.

Finn's the type of customer Kuhlman often finds asking about tailoring services. The 39-year-old describes himself as "vertically challenged" and doesn't like the bagginess of many off-the-rack suits. But it's the whole vibe at Kuhlman, the sense you're in a unique space, that he finds gratifying.For Gabriel Sedgemore, a professional high-rise window cleaner, Kuhlman's vision for men's clothes hits the bull's-eye, while other stores veer to either side of cool with clothes that are too stodgy or too flashy.

"My favorite style is looking good but not looking like I tried," says Sedgemore, who's 27. Sedgemore's is a familiar complaint among fashion-conscious Seattle men who like their stores with a little soul and a lot of class.

John McDowell, Jr. was feeling that way when he opened Oslo's: A Men's Store, at the top of Queen Anne Hill a year and a half ago. The former administrator at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland was frustrated that guys in their 40s — he's 46 — didn't have many options when it came to stylish clothing stores.

McDowell says one of his early mantras was, "Finally, a place where your lady has to wait while you try on clothes."

But he went a step further with Oslo's, pairing well-crafted designer dress shirts, cashmere sweaters, tailored khakis and vivid-hued sportswear (think John Varvatos, Theory and James Perse) with barber services.

"The 30-, 40- and 50-year-old guy is dressing differently and is interested in how he looks," says McDowell, who worked for Brooks Brothers in New York during the 1980s. "But he doesn't want to do it like his nephew or cousin."

"He wants to have his own style," McDowell says. "And he doesn't mind paying $50 for a haircut."

Haircuts at Oslo's are actually $35, and shaves are $30. But for an experience equal parts retro-cool and metrosexual, barber Chad Oringer offers a $50 "royal shave" that includes a clay-mask treatment.

One afternoon, Oringer deftly administered a pre-graduation shave to a Seattle Pacific University student, swiveling him around in the leather barber chair and somehow managing to make the space feel entirely appropriate for its dual functions. Oslo, McDowell's golden retriever, lazily observed the goings-on from his mat near the seersucker jackets and snazzy dress shorts in the window displays. The whole scene was a throwback to more gentile times, and that's exactly what McDowell intended.

McDowell, dressed in a flowing white shirt streaked with purple, the top two buttons undone, is the embodiment of this classic cool. His pressed, cuffed slacks were dusky Nantucket red, his shoes, whisky-colored Cole Haan driving loafers worn with no socks.

It's a look that requires Daniel Craig's James Bond confidence, coupled with Johnny Depp's winking sense of humor. McDowell says part of his job is to educate his customers and make them feel just as confident organizing a wardrobe that reflects their own tastes, while embracing things, like color, that may be new to them.

McDowell started out writing thank-you notes to good customers, and even today keeps files to help him remember details about them. "It's about building a relationship," he says. "If I can touch somebody and make them feel good about how they look, it's worth it."

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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