The finest men's underwear, tops, bottoms, socks, and a stunning pair of performance shoes.
Starting to write this article has forced me to confront a few truths about myself with respect to my clothes, the largest of which is that I'm a creature of habit. Immensely, and profoundly. Subsequently, there are some habits I love and protect passionately, and some I'm eager to kick. There are no free lunches though, so loyalty is earned, not freely given. Let's start with Timberlands, I love Timberland boots and they have earned my adoration, they've been a staple of my wardrobe for years. In fact, I've bought a new pair of the same Timberland boots when they’ve worn out every 18 – 24 months for nearly 27 years. They're hands-down, the shoes I wear most often. I've never found better, more comfortable and sturdier boots whose aesthetic I like so much. Other habits though, I'm chomping at the bit to relegate to the history bin. Mostly, these habits are due to two predominant factors, I don't like shopping for clothes, and I'm frustrated by expensive stuff that is either or both poor in function or longevity.
So I decided to put together a smattering of new companies tilting at the fashion giants, doing things unmired by the way they’ve been done for years, with novel production methods, fabrics and ideas. Let's get cracking.
Calvin Klein underwear has been a fixture of my wardrobe, almost exclusively I now realise, for around 25 years, and this is not uncommon amongst my friends. In fact, I've heard the need for new underwear referred to by a friend as the need for new "Calvins." This is surely victory on a huge scale for the CK marketing department, like Sony convincing us that personal cassette players are referred to as Walkmans, or Hoovers becoming the catch-all name for vacuum cleaners. Well this ends here for me. Every single pair of Calvin Klein underwear I currently own, or have thrown away in the last few years, has a hole in them in exactly the same place, and it's nothing but the size of the hole that determines its time left in service. Calvin Kleins are a habit I'm keen to kick. Thinking about the economies of scale they must be achieving, how is it that such a simple cheap pair of cotton underwear is so offensively expensive, and for me, they just don't last. The underwear must cost pennies to make, not pounds, which leaves an awful lot of money being swallowed up by billboards in Times Square, supermodels and extortionately expensive marketing and advertising campaigns, offices and thousands of worldwide employees. If I'm going to spend a reasonable sum on underwear, I'd much rather that the majority of the price went into the cost of the physical product. Caring about the branding and label on a garment so few actually see (speaking only for myself of course… ) is an anachronism it's time to outgrow. Calvin Klein have barely iterated, let alone innovated on my underwear in practically 3 decades, and I'd much rather wear something new and clever, made by a plucky upstart. I tested a lot of new stuff, here are the two best:
Started by a husband and wife team, Ricky and Georgie Knight, (not Randy, though wouldn’t that be great?) I came to them with a mixture of trepidation and high expectations. If I want to kick the 'brand' habit, it's perhaps a weaning off, rather than going cold turkey, so I needed a brand that fostered trust, I have loyalty to give. I needed a brand that felt like it was for me and not aimed at tweens. Immediately, Randies succeeded. The design aesthetic and branding, coupled even with their choice of models and the style of the photography told me I was in good hands; these were people like me. The trepidation came from them being one of two brands I tried that used horizontal flies. What were they thinking? Vertical is how it's always been done, it makes sense, running along the same axis as you do down there …
Well thank God Randies never asked me about their fly orientation. To put it simply, I've gone horizontal, and I'll never go back. What seemed to be a schoolboy error turns out to be a revelation that makes you question why it was ever done the other way. Or the Wrong way as I shall now call it. With a vertical fly, there's a gap or a seam to rub along your… entirety. Moving the fly to the horizontal position removes this rubbing potential, and also all fear of an unwelcome … 'escape.'
Now on to the material: Cotton's served you and me well for years. But now it’s time to upgrade. There's better, there's better in every way. Randies use a Lenzing™ Modal fabric made from sustainable Austrian beech wood, that's 3 times softer than cotton, wears better, is at least 50% more absorbent than cotton, far less hospitable to bacteria, drapes nicely and doesn’t wrinkle. It breathes better, and is vastly better for the environment, and uses a closed-loop production process in which almost all production chemicals are re-usable. It makes cotton look (and feel) like a dinosaur.
If Randies were nothing but better iterative design, and much nicer fabrics, they'd probably still be head and shoulders above almost all others. But they stacked some serious and bold innovation on top. They created the Tacklebag™. Yeah, talking about 'equipment' and 'support' in this area is a nightmare. The Tacklebag is a clever engineering affair to support and 'swaddle' (their word) you. It provides a cooling wicking separation of some bits of you, from other bits of you, whist also bordering and surrounding and supporting. Phew. It's clever, and not something I've ever tried before. It made me think, was this what women first felt when after millions of years someone came up with underwire bras? The initial sensation is odd, there's just a bit more material down there. But they do their disappearing trick rapidly, and the claim is they seismically reduce the need for 'adjustment.' It took a few days, but what was amused novelty, has blossomed into proper love. They offer a full money back guarantee if you don’t like them, and they wont even ask you to return the pair if you’ve worn them. At the time of writing, which this will probably jinx, (sorry Ricky,) they’ve got a 100% five star trustpilot rating.
We've all got our favourite pair of underwear. Don’t we owe it to ourselves guys, to not just have one pair of good underwear? So buy a pair of Randies, give it a few days, and when you fall in love too, get rid of all your old cotton rubbish, stock up on Randies, (they offer bulk discounts) and make every day, your favourite underwear day…
This is another plucky new brand tilting at the entrenched giants of the underwear business, and these guys are going to do very very well. They also use a modern Lenzing fabric and I'm a big fan. I planned to only feature one brand of underwear in this review, but the Arlo Hudsons were so good they muscled their way onto the list with redoubtable sustainable credentials, and a great product. They share many of the same traits, properties and benefits as the Randies above, but are sufficiently different to make their inclusion here a way to have the best of both worlds. The Arlo Hudsons are made from Tencel, itself made from Eucalyptus. They too have a horizontal Fly, and once again I'll say how infinitely superior this setup is, and how suspicious and disdainful I was until I tried it. There's a 'eureka' moment you'll have yourself, once you see how this setup turns the former twisting shimmying wrestling match of old, into a simple, shall we say, 'dive and extract' manoeuvre. Vastly better, simplified, and more comfortable. The fabric is, as we've already discussed, superior in every facet to cotton. Arlo Hudson also goes the extra mile in terms of sustainability (an oddly unapt metaphor perhaps given the subject) by sourcing every component in their manufacture from sustainable sources, they're produced in Portugal by 'third-generation artisans' and all aspects of their supply chain are transported via road, avoiding freight and shipping. Double tick there. They're currently keeping the range simple, which I really like, they have 3 styles, a trunk, a boxer and a brief available in white, black and maroon, with a new Space Grey incoming around the time you'll be reading this. I've been a trunk man these last few years, but found myself probably marginally preferring the longer boxer, which it turns out is the second thing I've discovered I was wrong about in the underwear arena. Anyway, they’re supremely comfortable, very similar to the Randies, but without the enclosing Tacklebag. The Arlos are the finest iteration of effective modern simple underwear, they’re light and breathable, and the modern fabrics are comfortable and wicking. In practice, I found it impossible to choose between these and the Randies. I love them both. The fabric on the Arlo Hudsons is perhaps a little thinner, but this is neither a good thing nor a bad. It means they're a little lighter, perhaps marginally airier and more breathable, but to the blindfolded touch, it's all but impossible to feel the difference between them. As they don't have an internal 'pouch' like the Randies, they're a little simpler to manufacture, and use a little less material. This translates to them costing a little less than the Randies. Like the Randies the Arlo Hudsons are awash in nothing but 5-star reviews from customers, over 1,000 as far as I can see. The things I love about both, is how much more premium they feel than my Calvin Kleins of yore. I know that substantially more of my money with these two brands goes to the actual unit production cost and you can really feel that. They both do bulk discounts, so for the love of God, don’t just buy one pair.
Spoke are a very clever company, they make men's trousers, shorts, and tops, but they’ve become especially known for their trousers. They've converted me utterly to their system of shopping, which seems to have been tailor-made to suit me. I don't like shopping, traipsing through shops to winnow an infinite number of jeans down to the pair that fits best and aesthetically I dislike the least. I get frustrated that nothing fits properly, and even after you do find a pair that fits well one year, when it comes time to buy another pair next season, the brand has inevitably discontinued that cut / style / fit, and the new fashion is now for a man differently shaped from me, so their 'new' style never fits and I'm back to square one. Spoke take all the frustration out of shopping for me; they are, like their name, very nearly bespoke. You spend a little time with their clever algorithm finding your size, which gets stored on your profile, and then you can browse the trousers they have in exactly your size. If you want to tinker with the algorithm's suggestion, of course you can, or if you simply know your size you can input this directly too. But here's the kicker; the reason these trousers fit so very well, is that they do up to 400 sizes per pair of trousers. Yes you read that right. All the different combinations of waist size and leg length of course, but they also stock each pair, and each variation of each pair, in three different cuts, characterised roughly by the build of chap they fit. So yeah, four hundred sizes per pair. I tried their chords, and am about to order some more chinos, so won over was I by the quality of the product, the service, delivery, and the incredible ease. I used their algorithm, and tweaked the fit a little, to be more conservative in the waist size, and when the gorgeous pair of trousers arrived, it turns out my conservatism was unwarranted; I needed an inch less in the waist for perfection. So they went back in what was probably the easiest returns process I've encountered. I was saddened to see that unfortunately, they were out of the exact size I needed, and I thought I'd have to find something else. But then, in crowning customer service glory, they reached out to me to say that they were going to tailor the leg length for me on a very slightly too long pair, so that they would be a perfect fit, and they sent them along to me a couple of days later.
They're stunning. They're about the most comfortable trousers I've ever worn, soft soft chords, with just a little stretch to them, and cut perfectly for me (a regular cyclist). A better fit also means they flatter me into looking leaner, upon which my girlfriend immediately commented, thank you Spoke. But most of all, they solve trouser shopping for my ape brain. Instead of traipsing now, I know my fit is locked in at Spoke, and I can browse the styles they have on hand in exactly my size, (boatloads of trousers, in a multitude of colours), and with a few clicks, a new pair is winging its way to me. I relax, secure in the knowledge that fit frustration is consigned to my past. This is shopping I can get behind. Spoke has just like that, become my trouser supplier. The quality is so high, I can't imagine ever needing or wanting better, and the styles and colours are multitudinous and varied. Colour me delighted.
Oh, and for the faint, the returns period is a ridiculously generous 200 days and completely free. Now about price. It's a tricky needle to thread, you've got to appear good value, whilst also being what Stellar Artois coined beautifully, as 'reassuringly expensive.' They're premium products, luxury in terms of being practically bespoke, and the quality supports those benchmarks. They're between £79 and £160, mostly congregating around the lower to mid-point there. To me, they've really found the sweet spot. Oh, and they do a wonderful referral program too, if you've got an unseemly number of friends to point their way, you could earn yourself a lifetime's supply of trousers.
What Spoke are to trousers, Son of a Tailor are to men's tops. Except they go fully bespoke, and individually made to order. They too have an algorithm that'll determine your size, or you can input it manually. I don't love shopping as I've said, and partially this is because I'm not an off-the-rack shaped man. I'm too broad at the shoulder for my height, that 99% of manufacturers work from, so tops that fit me across the shoulders, tend to descend well past my waist. Years and years ago, I found a brand of t-shirts that were cut fabulously for me, really wide in the shoulders, and I ended up buying 20 white, and then going back for 20 black. They're a wardrobe staple, they go under all my jumpers, I sleep in them in winter and wear them a few times a week in summer. But slowly, they’re disintegrating, and replacing them has been exasperating. Until I found Son of a Tailor. They don't keep any inventory on hand, so when you order a t-shirt, or a jumper, it's made to order. Your size is determined, and one is made. Now fit is crucial, and if it's not right, each item comes with a free remake guarantee. I used their algorithm, and then tweaked the results by measuring one of my 'perfect fit' existing t-shirts. A few days later, a new one arrived. And it was 99% perfection. An inch off the length, perhaps an inch more in the neck, and an half an inch less material around my waist would I thought, be bang on. This was done in collaboration with one of their fit experts. Now let's be clear, if I were in a shop, I would have bought this t-shirt, it was near enough. But Son of a Tailor hang their hat on a perfect fit, and a new one was dispatched to me. Upon enquiring how and to where I should return the original, I was told this was not necessary, it had been made for me, and they don’t re-sell t-shirts, such is the exact tailored nature of their product. Wow. So a few days later, a 100% fits like a glove t-shirt arrived, and it's all the way there. Furthermore, they make their t-shirts in various different materials; there's a lovely soft cotton, at a weight of 150 grams / m² and if you want even finer, they make a Merino wool t-shirt that's even lighter at 136 grams / m², and lastly a Tencel fabric I've gushed about variously above, softer than cotton, stronger, harder wearing, more sustainable… all the good words.
How much more luxurious can you imagine, than pressing a few buttons on your computer, and somewhere in Italy or Portugal, machines and artisans leap into action to craft your bespoke and perfectly fitted garment?
Finally, my next purchase with them will be for one of their new, zero waste Merino jumpers. They use an innovative 3D knitting system to offer the first made to order pullover in the world. Bespoke, knitted Merino wool, that produces less than 1 percent waste. (compared to an industry average of around 20%.) Amazing stuff. And what do you think a bespoke custom sized Merino wool jumper should cost? £120 seems ludicrously cheap right? Buy yourself a few before they see sense and dramatically raise the price. They come in 5 different styles and weights, and 8 different colours, made to order, and of course, they come with that free remake guarantee as well. Luxury and value don’t often go hand in hand so appealingly.
APL is possibly most bang-on what this article and this magazine is seeking to illuminate and furnish to our readers; a combination of a smaller brand taking on the giants, with a very strong luxury character. APL are those things in spades.
There's a line in The West Wing, where the president comments that "NASA's great at naming things," they came up with the most practical name for their cutting-edge research lab, that is to my mind also the three coolest words ever put in order: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It was with a wry smile of admiration and hope, that I discovered Athletic Propulsion Labs, trading on the explosive nature of the name as a parallel with their performance shoes, and the cutting-edge technology (pun fully intended) shoe-horned in there. Based in LA, APL was founded in 2009 by identical twins Adam and Ryan Goldston, two college athletes who saw a niche at the intersection of performance and luxury footwear, and they pried it wide open. Their first basketball shoe, the Concept 1, become the first shoe banned by the NBA for providing an "undue competitive advantage" to the wearer. Can you think of a better endorsement for their performance that this? The twins have since won an embarrassing glut of awards for innovation and entrepreneurship, and been featured in numerous '20 in their 20s', Forbes '30 under 30' and many other similar articles. Oh, and October 12th is officially APL day in the city of Los Angeles...
I came to APLs from a lifetime of Nike and Adidas, and I was happy with both to be fair. I have no brand loyalty to one or the other that trumped either's comfort or innovation, I went where the offering was best for me. Most recently, that was with Adidas' Ultraboost, with which I have to say I've been delighted. Supplanting those, I thought, would be an almost impossibly tall order. And then the APLs arrived.
Immediately, they look and feel a level of premium higher than any sports / activity shoe I've ever held, the quality of materials and workmanship is exemplary. To my mind, they're also the best-looking sports shoe I've ever seen, (the ones pictured, are the ones I went for, their range topping Techloom Wave). Despite the laces, these shoes are completely slip on, and the surprising firmness of the 'high elastic 3D stretch rebound upper' holds the shoe firmly on, whilst allowing it to move with your foot. The visible waves are I believe, not just for aesthetics, but I noticed when I run in them, the gaps between the waves really channel air through, cooling your foot dramatically more than any other shoe I've worn. This is perhaps indicative of the balmy LA climate that birthed them, where good airflow is paramount.
Now being an LA sports shoe, they come complete with an obligatory proprietary compound that aims to add a touch of the scientific to the marketing hype, portmanteau-ing "propel" with an elemental 'ium' to arrive at 'Propelium,' which is just tongue-in-cheek enough to elicit a smile. It fondly reminds me of that incredibly rare and hard to get metal in Avatar that some writer right at the end of his shift inventively named "unobtanium." How do they do it?
The fit is much like my previous Adidas and Nikes, perhaps a hair narrower and longer, but I'm in the same size. The durable rubber outsole has great grip, really confidence inspiring, and the 'propelium' makes for a comfortable and firm base of support. My Ultraboosts are softer and squishier, but I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I can see that a lot of the impact force may well be lost in the cushioning, and that not a lot is coming back to my foot by way of rebound. The APLs are far from stiff, they're comfortable and compliant too, but they feel more like the tight suspension on a Ferrari than the wallowing sag of a Range Rover. In fact that's an apt metaphor, these guys clearly know what they’re talking about when it comes to rebound and propulsion, and the APLs feel constantly eager to break into a canter or a gallop. I'd also throw a ton of praise at the designer who came up with the heel and ankle support. Whilst the entirety of the shoe's upper encases your foot in basically a structured elastic knit, there's only minor shape holding structures employed, until you get to the back of the ankle and heel, where there's a very firm bit of support. It's very clever, and novel to me. The best way I can describe the effect is that it directs you to plant your foot straight, and supports and corrects you when you don't. It encourages and facilitates straight lines, and strongly curtails rolling. This makes you feel faster, and I bet channels off-centre imperfections into forward motion, making you materially faster, or at the very least, spurred forward. I drew the line at timing myself, but if I had to run for my life, these would be the shoes I'd reach for.
Now for the second part, the luxury. Well, they're super comfortable, but as of yet, still more new shoes than broken-in slippers. But as to their premium and luxury credentials, they're well heeled. Cast your eye over the places at which they're available, and you'll recognise nothing but the finest stores: Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Net-A-Porter, Mr. Porter, Barneys New York, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Here in the UK, they're stocked by commensurately high-end retailers, Harvey Nichols & Selfridges. (The full range is available online at www.athleticpropulsionlabs.com and they ship internationally.) If you’re after the zenith in performance, I’d say it's these. If you're after something premium, exclusive and new to the UK, then these are expensive enough and hard enough to come by, to put them at the very top of the pile. These really are the gold-standard of luxury performance shoe.
There are pros and cons to most things, life is giving and taking, cost and benefit. Swole Panda seem to be defying these laws though, their socks are all pros, no cons. Actually there's perhaps one. But we'll come to that last.
Chances are, as you're reading this, you’re wearing a pair of cotton socks. Swole Panda makes Bamboo socks. Here's how their material compares to cotton. Bamboo is way faster growing, and 10 times higher yielding than cotton. It only requires a third as much water as cotton, it never requires replanting, and it doesn't need pesticides (cotton requires up to a 1/3 of a kilo of pesticides to produce a kilo of cotton). It's better at moisture wicking, it's more friendly to your skin and the environment. In fact the only thing bamboo is less friendly to than cotton, is bacteria. Providing a three times less habitable environment for bacteria means the socks just don't smell like cotton does. In fact, I had no problem wearing these socks for 3 days in a row (all in the name of science you understand), they just didn't smell. It's better at temperature control and to cap it all off, it's much softer and nicer to wear. But soft here, doesn't mean weak. It's actually a little more durable than cotton. So a lot of ticks in the 'win' column for bamboo. As far as I can see, there's only one tick for the cotton: Cotton's cheaper. It's cheaper because despite being harder to produce, more thirsty, more labour intensive and chemically so abhorrent (up to 25% of the planet's pesticides are estimated to be deployed to produce cotton.) it's ubiquitous, and everywhere. So we need to redress that. Start boycotting cotton, it's practically contained in the word itself, and kick off this habit by buying some bamboo socks. Your feet and the planet will thank you.
Swole Panda makes the finest socks I've tried; you feel the softness and quality every morning when you slip them on, and feel your mouth widen to a smile. I don't fully understand how they do it, but they also manage to make your shoes more comfortable. Perhaps it's the lack of friction between your foot, the sock and the shoe, or the moisture wicked away faster, or perhaps they're more cushioning? Softer? Though that doesn’t sound right. Either way, they do, my shoes are more comfortable wearing these socks than wearing cotton socks. They've got stellar artisan credentials too. They've got a reinforced toe and heel, as well as hand-linked seams (they're essentially invisible and undetectable / 'unfeelable' whilst on). There's one downside to them though, at £10 a pair, they’re quite pricey. Years ago, I threw out all my socks and started again, with 21 pairs of identical black socks, and a few brighter ones for when the occasion demanded a splash of colour. I evangelised about this practice to anyone who would listen, and to several quite against their will. But make no mistake, it was life changing. No longer was I a slave to favourite socks, or less-than-perfect socks, or even socks I hated on laundry day. No longer was I forced to pair my socks. This has probably saved me hours over the last 2 decades… I would love to do the same again, bin all my cotton socks, (figuratively I mean, I'd try and recycle them /donate them of course,) and start again with Bamboo, with Swole Pandas, they're the best I've ever worn. Swole Pandas, can you do me a deal on 21 pairs please
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