An epidemic of predictions accompanied the covid-19 pandemic, about how it would change our lives, in ways ranging from the hollowing out of commercial capitals such as New York and London, to the end of business and leisure travel. Most have proved off the mark. But the drop in the primacy of the formal business shirt forecast by many looks like a trend that’s here to stay, with a lot of people working at least part of the week from home now. In March, the UK, a country whose Savile Row suits have long been a marker of style, dropped suits from the basket of some 700 goods used to calculate inflation.
One would have thought the steep decline in sales of formal shirts and suits would also have strangled the market for men’s accessories, such as ties, bow-ties, cufflinks and dressy socks, in India, as it has in the West. The opposite seems to be happening, in fact, with a wider variety of accessories on offer than ever before, ranging from underwhelming socks sellers mushrooming on Instagram to high-end launches of ties and bow-ties.
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In July, actor Rahul Khanna collaborated with the menswear brand Chokore to create a range of ties, bow-ties and pocket squares. The pocket squares, of fine Indian silk and linen, are intended to be worn with Indian formal wear as well. The ties are Italian-made. Khanna says the range seeks to provide high quality without the eye-watering prices many Western brands charge. Also included are quirky knitted ties that “once people start wearing, they will realise they are fun and make you feel as erudite as a professor”.
Unless they can demonstrate an IQ boost for the person wearing them, though, I remain sceptical about a resurgence in ties, especially in the workplace. I have given away most of mine. The last time I wore one, a richly resplendent purple and dark blue Audrey Buckner, was to a meeting with the committee of a club in Bengaluru I joined last year. My tie was loosened as soon as I stepped out of the interview at the otherwise informal Bowring Institute, which admirably even allows sneakers in the bar and dining areas.
Khanna and designer Kunal Rawal make a plausible case, however, that accessories will be used for evening wear, and to weddings, as a subtle accent. While office wear used to be more about fitting in, in recent years we are all dressing with a greater sense of individualism. “Today, luxury is for yourself. There’s a celebration of micro motifs. Cufflinks are making a comeback,” Rawal insists. When he began working in fashion a decade and a half ago, Rawal recounts, it was typical for an entire family to show up to “help” a man buy his own formal wear. Now, Rawal revels in “starting a conversation with the person wearing it”.
While suits feel like a carefully rehearsed speech for a formal occasion, accessories are the equivalent of a witty aside. They can seem like a punctuation mark, but a crucial one. Flying home on Vistara this week, I noticed that its male flight attendants wear a mustardy gold pocket square tucked into the breast pocket of blue waistcoats—far more practical than wearing ties while serving in-flight food.
Khanna’s new collection includes bow-ties one ties oneself; once done, though, it is possible to preserve the knot. With his impish sense of fun and Peter Pan looks, Khanna makes even wearing an untied bow-tie a fashion statement. Few others would be able to get away with it, however.
Yunus Ahmed, whose tailoring shop, Y&O, in Bengaluru makes the swankiest tuxedos I have seen in India, confirms that bow-ties are flying off their shelves. His sumptuous store even sells an Italian brand of luxury umbrellas called Pasotti.
There is an opportunity for consumers and retailers alike to mix and match fancy accessories to enliven today’s dress-casual codes. Last week, a friend’s mother in Delhi gifted me two silk pocket squares of her late husband’s. One, with a stunning suzani motif, was from Christian Dior and elevated an otherwise unremarkable Fabindia light blue cotton waistcoat the very next day.
Indeed, the other reason to believe a rebound in the demand for accessories may well outpace that for formal shirts is that they make perfect gifts. While living in Delhi, I bought half a dozen socks in fruit-bowl colours for my late landlord, then 92, who sold Indian-designed evening wear for women to American retailers Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor in the 1950s and 1960s. He coordinated them perfectly with his pink, orange or red turbans.
I usually give away shirts gifted to me because my cupboard is always overflowing. Cufflinks are by far the gift I am happiest to receive but as the Financial Times (FT) menswear columnist Robert Armstrong observed last November, “Most modern cufflinks are crass.”
An exception is the cufflinks of Shanghai Tang. I have two pairs, gifts from the then Asia editor of FT and another from a young Chinese reporter at the paper. Shanghai Tang is the luxury retailer that reinvented Chinoiserie for the 20th century—widely appealing, but also the perfect memento for someone leaving Hong Kong to work in Delhi.
One pair is a miniature dragon in silver. Hong Kong, whose blazing cityscape of skyscrapers would be lit up as if it was Christmas all year round, always seemed to me like an Atlantis rising from the sea, so it would be hard to conjure up a better metaphor for it in cufflinks than a mythical beast. The other looks like it combines Chinese symbols and Egyptian hieroglyphs, a miniature labyrinth of gold lines against a black background. Earlier this month, I wore the silver Shanghai Tang cufflinks with an ajrakh waistcoat and an off-the-rack English shirt with double cuffs.
Among the cufflinks I treasure most are a few pairs I discovered in my father’s chest of drawers, after his death, more than a decade ago. I had fallen into the habit of buying his shirts and socks after my mother died in 2004. He would graciously respond to compliments by remarking that his youngest son bought his shirts. Finding the antique cufflinks underlined that he had plenty of style of his own but indulged his finicky, foppish gay son because he understood that it made me happy. One is silver with a malachite-like green stone at its centre. People always remark on its elegance.
But it is also a humbling reminder that I ought not to unduly foist my notions of style upon others. I do anyway, but perhaps more diplomatically than I used to.
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Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.