I looked like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins: whats it like to have a signature prop?

A cane. A necktie. A beret. Having a thing can transform an outfit and make its wearer stand out or so the fashion theory goes. Two men try it out

Teo van den Broeke, style director, Esquire magazine

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, wore the same blacksweater, mom jeans and dad trainers every day for years. Tom Wolfe has worn a white suit since 1962. The list of greats who have a thing an item of clothing, a look they return to day after day is a long one.

The reason? A thing allows master-of-the-universe types to build a visual identity and, in some extreme cases, bolster their cult of personality. (Just look at Chairman Mao. Everyone in his Peoples Republic wore Zhongshan jackets, but theyre for ever known as Mao jackets.) Having a thing helps you stand out from the crowd.

Personally, as the style director of Esquire magazine where style is valued as highly as substance Ive made getting dressed for work easier by adopting the same uniform as Mr Giorgio Armani. Easy to wear and understated, navy blue is a shade that speaks of authority and elegance.

But to say that navy blue is my thing is like saying that wearing underwear is my thing. Most men wear a lot of navy. So I decided to try a definitive, unusual prop that would stand out from the crowd.

Teo
Sticking his neck out … Teo van den Broeke on the front row of the Christopher Raeburn show. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Ive been wearing a red cotton neckerchief from British tie and shirting manufacturer Drakes, finished with a faint smattering of white polka dots. The reason? Not only was it easily absorbed into my wardrobe of blues, whites and occasional greys, but I also thought it might add a sense of Gallic insouciance to my look and who doesnt want to look Gallically insouciant?

Whats more, although neckerchiefs are a regular fixture at Parisian brands such as Herms and Louis Vuitton, labels from further afield have also shown neckerchiefs for spring. Brit duo Agi & Sam teamed tightly wound gingham styles with patterned pyjamas, while Milanese tailoring powerhouses Ermenegildo Zegna and Giorgio Armani had silk neckerchiefs with slouchy pastel suits.

I was surprised to find that its difficult to remember to wear the same thing every day, particularly if you take pleasure in selecting a different outfit like I do. I initially had to set daily reminders on my phone to remind me to wear it. (Maybe thats why Steve Jobs added that function to the iPhone: Dont forget your mom jeans.)

For my scarf I went for a sailors knot tied tightly around the neck and looped over twice, a style favoured by Bergdorf Goodmans creative director Bruce Pask and fashion designer Stefano Pilati. In my mind these scarves are rakish and elegant, the kind of thing Czanne would have worn while lunching on coq au vin with Van Gogh.

In reality, Catherine Hayward, the fashion director of Esquire, described me as Alfred P Doolittle in My Fair Lady and sang, All I want is a room somewhere every time she saw me. I thought I looked more like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but there you go.

At a friends get-together, I was greeted with, Bonjour, monsieur chimney sweep, It makes you look creative and festive and divine and, Are you going to paint us? in the space of five minutes. Although the next time I bumped into one of my friends, she said, Oh God, youre not wearing your fucking cravat again, are you?

But the neckerchief lifted my usual uniform of blazer, crew neck and grandad shirt, and added a sense of je ne sais quoi to more simple outfits. It also encouraged me to try new clothes. I even bought a frock coat. It would normally have felt a bit too Doctor Who for me, but with the scarf it felt intellectual and mysterious. Ive also started wearing more suits, as the scarf adds a raffish touch.

In terms of a cult of personality, its probably too early to tell. Its taking a little while for people to get used to it myself included. What the neckerchief certainly does is speed up the process of getting dressed. Having a sartorial anchor simplifies things, and for someone who takes an average of 57.3 minutes to get ready every morning (Ive been timed), thats no bad thing.

Now, where does one find a Zhongshan jacket in south London?

Niru Ratnam, commercial director at ArtReview

Niru
Sticking with it … Niru Ratnam and cane at Whitecross Street market in east London. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Art loves a fashion thing as much as a creative thing Gilbert and George have their tweed suits; theres Grayson Perry and his cheerful dresses so it was easier for me to adopt an Alexander McQueen skull cane as commercial director of ArtReview than if I were a car salesman. Ive had to use crutches following an operation to fix a dodgy knee, so I wanted to know if a cane would feel more debonair. It was also a homage to Prince, who carried a beautiful silver cane in the last few public outings before his death. It had stuck in my mind for some reason. The way, I guess, things are meant to. Though clearly my name is not Prince and Im definitely not funky.

When I first unveiled it in the office, everyone was worried my knee had got worse, but after I humorously shook the skulls head to indicate no, it was fine. When colleagues came to my desk, I would look quizzically at the skull head before replying (Talk to the skull!). I was mercurial, expressive with it definitely more Willy Wonka than Notorious BIG until the moment when I poked an editor in the midriff with the business end. Too far, apparently.

My first outing was to the local cafe that also has a thing theres a bicycle repair counter next to the coffee bar so I felt it would be a safe space. However, the first person I passed on the way there was an elderly but robust man using a walking stick. As I passed, he spat on to the pavement. I tried to brush this off as coincidence, but I was shaken as I ordered my americano. This was not helped by the realisation that a cane is no use when you need both hands to pull out your wallet and pay. Trying to slip quietly back to the office, I realised the cane, unlike a standard-issue walking stick, had no rubber tip. So while the old fellow had glided silently down Old Street waiting for the right moment to gob at my feet, I clattered across the pavement. Although I guess if you do insist on carrying a cane topped with a silver skull, youre not after anonymity.

Back in the comforting embrace of the art world, a post of the cane on Instagram got a lot of likes. I was pleased to see a gallerist from a prominent West End dealer subsequently send a picture to a WhatsApp group of her trying out the cane in the Alexander McQueen shop. Although she wore a furry hat which made her a tad too Napoleon Grande Arme, I felt.

The cane came into its own at the private view of Bedwyr Williams exhibition at the Barbican Curve gallery. Williams is a very tall, Welsh performance and installation artist. One of his early works was Bard Attitude for which he dressed in a flowing white wig, robe and beard, and assumed the persona of a medieval orator. I figured brandishing a skull-topped cane would be an understated look for the show, and I was correct. I swished dramatically through it, banging a drum in an artwork as my finale (at least I assume it was there as an artwork). And everyone seemed to happily accept my behaviour.

Sadly, the art-world echo chamber extends only so far, though. En route to the Barbican, Id stopped off at a pub filled largely with City workers. There were a number of less than enthusiastic looks. One bloke loudly suggested to his friend that I might be Saruman from The Lord Of The Rings. Better than looking like Gareth out of The Office, I thought.

After the exhibition, I headed to Catford with my colleague Oli Basciano. My ability to win a seat on the Thameslink train by waving the cane and limping won over Oli, whod been rather cool about my thing. I think because hes the only staff member at ArtReview who also has a thing: thick jumpers irrespective of the weather. We headed to the Blythe Hill Tavern, where an unfailingly polite barman refused to let me approach the bar and served me at a small table in the snug, urging me to stay seated and winking knowingly at the cane.

Perhaps it is the response that the cane gets from the public that ultimately confirms its suitability for the work I do. After all, isnt generating alternating moments of hostility, curiosity and occasionally kindness and sympathy what contemporary art is supposed to do?

This article appears in the spring/summer 2017 edition of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observers biannual fashion supplement

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/mar/16/what-like-have-thing-cane-necktie

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