All of men’s desires can fit in a matchbox. They might meander and slither but eventually, it distills to one thing; respect. They seek it, consciously and unconsciously. The more gung-ho of them demand it. Or fight for it. The dreamers think they can buy it. Some even confuse it with admiration. I mean, I admire the BMW 7-series, but I don’t respect it. Franco sang gushingly about the strongman Mobutu in a song that lasted 20 grinding minutes but I doubt he respected him. A woman can call you a dirtbag, an irretrievable idiot, a good-for-nothing hobo, douchebag, and it will be water off a duck’s back. But if she says, “I have lost all respect for you,” that will cut like a blunt saw on a cold day. Respect is a man’s opium. What good is a boatful of money if not even your own children respect you? What good is driving a Maybach if watchmen at the gates of buildings won’t even give you parking? However, before anybody respects you, you have to respect yourself and a big part of respecting yourself is never to keep a long pinky nail. Or iron your jeans.
Which brings us to what I’ve been getting at this whole time: clothes.
You can tell how someone views themselves by the way they dress. Whenever I see a guy wearing white pants I think they are the sort of guys who don’t care what others think of them. Men who wear white pants are also prone to carrying combs in their pocket. I’m no woman but I think men who wear white pants might be difficult to love because they already love themselves more than you could ever love them. I also think men who wear white pants love the mirror. Maybe even talk to their reflection, and they talk about themselves in the third person. I once watched a documentary on The Les Sapeurs who live in the rumbling slums of Kinshasa. Men who wear Gucci and Prada and Louis Vuitton to sit outside the doorways of their hovels, at the doorstep of poverty but exuding a supreme confidence and respect for themselves that renders the poverty around them irrelevant because they don’t see themselves through that prism. I read a quote somewhere that went something like, “when the Sapeur expresses himself through the harmony of his clothes, he is returning his admiration to God.”
Which brings me to this friend.
He’s a businessman, not the characters who say they are in business as an allegory. No, this guy runs a bonafide business. I have been to his office; it has doors and desks and tea is served and the meeting room is occupied by people with notepads and laptops talking shop. He’s as intelligent as he is shrewd. A risk-taker, an all-or-nothing kind of fella, he’s the kind who wouldn’t mind crossing a line if it offered a good payday. We catch drinks every so often and when he drinks he gets louder and more boisterous. He always has a packet of cigarettes in his coat pocket. He sucks his lemon and he chases his whisky with tequila. Which is to say he’s a character, never a dull moment around him.
While I was running on a half-tank in the thick fog of Covid early last year, he – on the other hand – seemed to be blossoming. He’d occasionally call and say, “Biko, are we meeting at the bar?” and I’d say, “No. It’s winter; I’m hibernating.” He’d then offer to buy me a drink. He’d always buy a bottle of something not too cheap and I’d ask him, “How are you even making money now, during Covid?” and he’d just turn his head to the side and blow smoke away and mutter, “You just drink.”
This year I noticed that his wardrobe was undergoing a transformation. He no longer had those tacky khakis that belonged in an abattoir. He was scrubbing up better. Maybe he’s making much more money, I thought. Maybe he met someone new. I don’t know, but his clothes were getting sharper; his sports jackets suddenly had silk lining. He was now wearing shoes I wouldn’t have imagined him wearing two years ago. His pants were becoming slimmer, even though he hadn’t. And somewhat shorter. I don’t know why chaps nowadays want their pants to disassociate from their ankles. But what do I know? He now uses a bloody money clip, as if he’s Bumpy Johnson from the Godfather Of Harlem.
Then he started stitching his name on his shirt sleeves. Not his initials, his whole name. I never understand the whole name thing on sleeves. It reminds me of how our sweaters would be stitched with our initials in primary school. In case you lost it and the pimpled-faced fat bully from class 4-B insisted it’s his. Unable to help myself, I eventually asked him “What’s with stitching your name on your sleeves and all?”
“It’s Ot Kotuo,” He said.
“Ot Kotuo, haven’t you heard of it?”
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s a French phrase for high-end fashion,” he said gently, surprised we are friends.
“Spell that for me.”
He did. I chuckled. Turns out he actually meant “haute couture” but since he’s Luo from the very armpit of Kwoyo Kochia (don’t bother Googling it, it’s not even on the map) he pronounces it like it’s a Luo word.
“You can’t pronounce it like it’s Luo!” I cried.
He said he can, “you have to own it, personalise it.”
“But you can’t own what isn’t yours; it’s French!” I said.
“Who said I can’t?” He asked.
Last week, someone, a hotshot I interview for Business Daily, asked me to meet him at a shop at Adlife to “see if we can do an interview.” These are chaps who are highly private but they want to further an agenda yet they are wary of publicity, of being put on a pedestal by the public so they are struggling to agree to an interview so they usually say, “let’s sit and chat first” so that they feel your energy against their own to see if your chakras align, before they can take the plunge.
So I went.
I was once invited to interview this master tailor from Italy who sneaks into town twice a year to fit suits for the high and mighty in Kenya’s politics and business. A suit costs something like 250K. I met the tailor twice; first in a heavily carpeted private room in Serena and again under a shimmering chandelier at the Tribe hotel. The clients came in and they were treated like royalty, their every whim catered to. There were beautiful hostesses at hand serving champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Everyone tiptoed around these men who would order five or so suits amounting to a million bob and a shirt going for a month’s rent in an apartment in South B. They came at their appointed times and most asked for absolute privacy so I wasn’t allowed to be in their rooms. I waited outside, eavesdropping on the conversations of the hostesses standing discreetly on the fringes of money, hands held behind their backs. It struck me how important clothes are for these men.
So when I arrived at Adlife with these expectations, I was struck by how…normal it seemed. How understated it all was. The shop – Redthorne – sat on the Mezzanine floor between an empty shop and a bank. If you walked out and jumped over the railing, you’d land on a bed of rye bread at Bbrood bakery shop on the ground floor below. The name REDTHORNE is a story in itself, it turned out when I asked the owner. The HORN in it represents horns from the Ankole cows. The owner’s wife – Shan – is from the Ankole heritage. The THORN is like a needle, the primary tool of trade for tailors. RED represented power and influence. (Explains the gaudy red carpets in Gava offices.)
The man was already there, in jeans and shirt, bent at a high table pursuing a fabric sample book called the Bunch Book. This one was titled Premium Stylebiella 2021. They have 20,000 fabrics for suits, overcoats, bomber jackets, shirts, chinos, polo shirts and suits from renewed millers like Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana, Scabal, Cavani, Modesto Bertotto etc. Later I recall I asked the owner if they also do sports jackets and he said in polite correction, “We do, but it’s actually called a sport jacket, not sports jacket.” My Bad. I have this habit of putting ‘s” where it doesn’t belong. For the longest time I’d say, “Are you having your periods?” Turns out it’s ‘period” not “periods” which confuses me that period doesn’t have a plural.
Anyway, he looked up from his Bunch Book and said, “Biko?” I said, yeah. We fist-pumped. “Finally nice to meet you,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind hanging around while I do this? Won’t take long. Oh and this is X,” he gestured at the owner standing next to him who also didn’t look anything like someone who sells high-end suits and shirts. You’d expect a suited gentry, with a cravat and who proclaims to only smoke Arturo’s Fuente Opus cigars. He owns the shop with his wife – Shan – who was also as understated as the husband. These are people who didn’t like hoo-ha, it occurred to me.
There were no pretty hostesses fussing around the man. No canapes. No table at the end with freshly squeezed juice or well-polished imported apples. There wasn’t a long-nosed tailor, with a tape measure hanging around his neck, studying how long your arms are or how stooped your shoulders are. A solemn man wearing a shockingly purple shirt stood silently at the corner. I never learned who he was, whether he was a bodyguard or a representative of the Kenya Workers Union. He could have been anyone, a ghost, a figment of my imagination. So we will call him the Mysterious Man and we shall never refer to him again in this story. I said hello to Shan and nodded at the Mysterious Man and he nodded back.
The shop was just small enough to swing a rabbit in. There was a small sitting area; table and low slung chairs, a shelf with tens of fashion tomes, a reception with a bright logo above it, a display window featuring suits, one that seemed undone to the uninitiated, shoes that just looked expensive before you asked, a black mannequin, a flight of stairs going up to where perhaps the gods of fashion resided in an old leather armchair. You couldn’t imagine that this shop sells suits ranging from 80K to 450K and shirts from 15K to 100K. It was discreet without being hidden, you know what I mean. Like hiding the truth in plain sight, that kind of thing. Later, the owner would tell me simply that the kind of men who buy clothes from his shop are understated. They don’t like blitz, fanfare, and fireworks. They don’t like the red carpet at the shop even though some of them might constantly be on it on official duties. They also know what they want. They will not walk in there to browse and ask you what you have. They will walk in and say, ‘show me all your blue fabrics for suits and your chinos.” Most importantly they don’t ask how much things cost. They don’t haggle. There is no “hatuwezi kosana bei” language there. They pick and then run their cards or sign a cheque or tell you to call their assistant called Linzie for payment. They don’t want you to kiss their ass, they just want you to give them what they want. They want good clothes. Some clients can’t come to the shop so they have to go to their offices or homes.
“Do you wear suits, Biko?” He suddenly asked me, eyes still flipping through the bible of fashion, feeling the fabric between his thumb and finger, almost as if he’s listening to the temperament of their texture.
“Nah,” I said, “I have one suit that I wore to my brother’s wedding. I have never worn it again.”
“Is it a good suit?”
“It is a suit.”
He was silent for a while, bent over the book, studying the fabrics.
“Everyman needs a good suit,” he said.
I wanted to disagree but I was wooing him for an interview. A suit, for me, evokes the feeling of a bomb disposer waddling in a heavy boubou-esque bomb suit. It makes me walk like Tinky-Winky of Teletubbies. I can’t be free in a suit, maybe a sports jacket…sorry, sport jacket.
The gentleman conferred with the owner about the fabric in different books. He was having a Made-to-Measure done, which I learned is different from bespoke. I don’t want to get into it but just know that bespoke suits are made from scratch, based on the customer’s specifications and are far more detailed and use multiple fittings and take a long time to stitch because they are done by hand. Made to measure is custom clothing that is cut and sewn using a standard-size base pattern. I learned of this difference at the shop and I couldn’t wait to see my friend and rub his ignorance in his face because he always shouts that his suits are bespoke when actually they are Made to Measure.
“I was once interviewed by this journalist,” the man said, picking another booklet, “and he did a cockup job of it. He put words in my mouth.”
“Oh, that won’t happen in this case.”
“How can I be so sure?”
“Because I’m not a journalist. I’m a writer.”
He laughed and when moneybags laugh the room normally laughs with him. Wealthy people are funny because money is funny. But to be fair, some folk have so much money it’s not even funny.
“What do you intend us to talk about in the interview?”
I told him I didn’t know. Life?
“That’s pretty wide,” he remarked.
“Life can be pretty wide.”
“True.” He nodded. “But my life is so boring, who would want to read about it?”
“You are here going through fabrics for a very expensive suit, I don’t think your life is boring.”
He was quiet, suddenly entranced by a fabric he had seen. “Can I have this but in a Super 180?” He was referring to the thread count of the wool. If you are wearing a suit as you read this, chances are it’s a super 100 or super 120. Which means it’s the Toyota Corolla of suits. Anything from super 150 is some fine shit; fabric so fine it whispers and blows on your skin when you wear it. The thing about that Super 160 fabric is that everybody will somehow know it’s a fine exquisite suit. If you carried a toddler while in that suit, they’d never even dare throw up on it. Because everybody can tell a good suit.
“I like this Baby Blue,” he told the owner. I quickly Googled Baby Blue on my phone. Oh, it was the colour of a sky that had gotten wet and dried out. As they fetched him another booklet of buttons, he said, “I’m very wary of interviews. They just attract the wrong sort of attention. Suddenly people will think I have money. You know, I’m scared that it might create problems for me, rather than help me. You understand where I’m coming from?”
I said I did. And I did. They brought me tea from a cafe downstairs. Outside, Nairobi was shivering under 19-degree weather. Pedestrians walking outside on Ring Road stooped to create as small a surface area as they could for the cold to bite. I sipped my black tea as he pored over tens of suit buttons. I heard words like, flat buttons, shank buttons, toggle buttons, claw style button stitching…I thought a button was a button. I inched closer to the table and looked at the buttons from a safe distance and boy, were those buttons beautiful? I understood the expression, cute as a button. He was then handed another stash full of silk Italian fabric. Redthorne’s suits are distinct by what the owner would later call the Milanese Lapel buttonhole, arc breast pocket and a red bartack on the sleeve of the jacket. A shirt normally comes with a standard of seven buttons but theirs come with eight, “with the seventh cut horizontally and a placket that is a minimum of 3cms.” I didn’t know what the hell he was saying. “Have you ever seen someone seated and you can see his belly through the lower buttons of his shirt? That minimum 3cms is meant to ensure that there is no “peep” on the belly.”
Aaaahhhh, I said. [Or they could go easy on those big late dinners]
Done with the business of choosing fabrics, the man then stood against the big window overlooking Ring Road and the owner ran the tape measure against his length, his torso, his shoulders, his neck, under his groin saying loudly after each fitting; sleeve length right 66, outseam left 104.5, highest point of stomach, 90.5, seat 107.6, back waist height 11, shoulder 50R watch on left, right-handed…The wife entered all these on a sheet of paper.
Then he was done.
He came to where I was standing and we conferred. He said he thought the interview should focus more on business and not on him as an individual; not that he has anything to hide, his nose is clean, but he just didn’t think that he was brave enough to take on the glare of the spotlight. I said I understood. “If I ever change my mind, I will reach out, yes?” I told him “don’t take too long, though. I might get so important as a writer, one day you will have to go through a layer of people to reach me. If you reach me.” We laughed.
He then asked the owner how much the suit was, and I heard him answer discreetly, as if they didn’t want me to hear; 2,650 dollars. He didn’t faint. Or stagger back. Or say, “ngai fafa!” Or start patting his pockets for his wallet that he suddenly forgot at home. He retrieved a thin wallet from his back pocket and they ran a card as down payment. It was all so nonchalant, how he looked away, through the window, as they ran his card, one hand casually in his pocket. The fabrics and measurements will be sent abroad where aging men with hooded eyes will make the suits and shirts and ties and send them back in a month’s time.
“Sorry, I wasted your time,” he said with an apologetic grin as he bade me goodbye. I said, “No, this has been exciting. I now know a Super 100 suit is a shit suit.” He smiled broadly, we fist-bumped and then he stepped out and joined the footfalls in the mall and suddenly he became just another nondescript man in the streets, a social chameleon. I liked him. I liked that.
The next time I met my friend for a drink he was wearing a black shirt with his name on it. He was on whisky, I was on a cocktail called H. Bloody Pylori which meant I was in the right mood to cause anarchy and disrepute. I said, “Do you know what this is called?” I tapped his name on his sleeves, stocking the fires. He said cockily, “it has no name, bwana.”
I said it did.
“So now you want to teach me about bespoke shirts? Me? I wear suits and shirts daily, not jeans!”
“Do you know what it’s called or not?” I pressed on laughing.
“Si you say if you think you know.”
“I don’t think I know. I know. I want you to admit that you want to learn.”
“Oh, please. You might teach me about nouns and verbs, not about suits and shirts,” he said.
“It’s called a monogram, you punk.”
“Yes. I know it’s news to you.”
He grunted and lit a cigarette.
“And where did you learn that from?”
“Doesn’t matter. And those sport jackets you wear from your tailor in Kenyatta Market, do you know their thread count?”
“600.” He said.
He said that with such confidence I almost believed he knew what he was talking about. Six hundred, like it was some bedsheet. I realised then why some people make it in life and others don’t. Confidence. Half the folk in this town who are who they are just bullshit their way through, man, saying shit without blinking in their nice suits and their beautiful shoes. It’s true what they say, clothes indeed maketh the man.
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