An interview with famed clothier Herb Melton of the Tom James Company
With more and more employers opening up their offices, I became interested in how men’s style may evolve in the coming months and years. To discuss that topic – and much more – I sat down with Herb Melton of the Tom James Company. Herb has served as my clothier or tailor for nearly 30 years – since my father couldn’t find me an off-the-rack suit that would fit my 5’ 9” and 105-pounds body to wear for college admissions interviews. Since then, Herb – and his Tom James colleagues in Washington, DC and Denver – have made me terrific-looking and comfortable clothes to fit my still-odd-body-shape. Let’s dive right into my conversation with Herb.
One thing that has always interested me: in the 30 years we’ve worked together, you have always called yourself a clothier. What does that mean?
It’s really an old, old term. Even before I got into the business, it pretty much had fallen into disuse. A clothier is somebody who provides quality clothing, specifically to men. A clothier is the equivalent of your stock broker, your attorney, your accountant, or your real estate agent. They all provide advice and service in a particular area where men need expertise, but generally don’t have either the inclination to have it or the time to have it.
When you say it’s an old term. Your company makes custom clothing and you deliver a particular service. Would you say that in the old days the salespeople at, say, Brooks Brothers or places like that would also view themselves as clothiers?
As a rule, I would say yes. The even older term which you still hear occasionally, although I think for me is a little pretentious, is haberdashery. Clothier just seems to fit. In my case, I don’t sew other than being able to sew a button back on for somebody. I really don’t sew, so I’m not a tailor. But I do take the measurements and style the clothing for my clients so that they look the way they want and need to look. Clothier just seems to be most appropriate.
At some point, you made the comment that folks coming up behind you -- younger folks getting into the clothing business -- don’t view themselves as clothiers. Now, do you still agree with that and if you do, what do they view themselves as? How do they view their jobs and their roles?
Well, it seems to me that today most – now there would be exceptions to this – yes they would want to consider themselves clothiers. But generally, younger people coming into the business seem to be more interested in fashion than style. And, as you know, I’ve always made the distinction that style is what’s right for you and fashion is what some guy in New York wants you to wear. And fashion is driving the clothing business more and more and more and more. There are exceptions to this in Louisville, I would call The Fashion Post the lone exception to this these days, but the stores are driven by fashion. Even Brooks Brothers has gone a long way to succumbing to the fashionista look rather than doing what made it great.
In your view what made Brooks Brothers great?
Classic styles and quality pieces that one could invest in and keep with proper care almost literally as long as they wanted to. Investment clothing versus turnover clothing.
Would you say that more and more purveyors of clothing today are more and more about that sort of turnover clothing? That’s true in broader society, right? I mean we have these iPhones, computers, TVs and they aren’t meant to last for ten years. They are built to last for two years and then we throw them out and get a new one, right?
Disposability dominates our culture and from my perspective is ruining our culture.
Let’s take this in a slightly different direction. Right now you and I are wearing blazers, which is somewhat uncommon, right? The world has gone casual. Part of that’s Covid and part of that’s staying home and so on. But a lot of it is a larger trend of the world going more casual. Tell me about your business – how has it evolved? How is it doing in an increasingly casual world?
That’s a good question. Early on – during the dot-com phenomenon of the late 90s and early 2000s -- when the casual things first started to appear on the scene, that kind of caught us off guard. Immediately at that point suit sales dropped and sport coat sales zoomed. They went way, way, way up. It put us in the position where we were forced to and were able to get into providing a lot of knit shirts and more casual pants. Eventually, we got into jeans. If you had asked me when I started if Tom James would ever sell jeans, I would have said no. But we sell a lot of jeans. In fact, we have a separate company that partners with us based in Mississippi which sells custom blue jeans that are amazing.
The trend today – especially with younger folks – people don’t wear a suit everyday. So they don’t buy three suits. But they may spend the equivalent of three suits for one suit that they will wear when they need one. They will invest more in a nicer cloth and a nicer make of the suit than they might have done previously when they bought three suits at a time because that’s what they had to wear to work.
And so if you have to buy only one suit, what’s your recommendation for that one suit?
It will never be anything other than a navy or charcoal plain. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean a complete solid, because something like a tick weave or a nail head or even a birds-eye can function in that role and have a little bit more interest. But with a plain charcoal or plain navy suit. I call them “Marrying and Burying suits;” if you accessorize them properly, you can wear them at almost any occasion – from a semi-formal evening like cocktail reception or political reception to just a change of pace day when you wear them with a tattersall shirt or a check shirt and a fun tie or even a solid knit tie or something like that.
Are knits a new thing? I read about knits all the time now and I don’t remember that growing up.
You’re not old enough to remember. When I was in high school we wore square-bottomed knits rooster ties. And I just happened to be on the J. Press website today. And they had some of the most beautiful striped knit ties I have ever seen. So you know, I’m like wow those are cool. But this is about the third time around for knit ties.
The first time around was like the 50’s, 60’s?
The first was in the 50s and early 60s. Younger friends of mine used to say you’re channeling your 80s today. I don’t remember it at the time. Because at the time, I probably would not have worn a knit tie.
Yeah, I don’t remember knits in the 80s. But I was a little kid.
Now I have every color I can get my hands on because I live in sports coats more and more, and knit ties are great with them. And they’re great for wearing with patterned shirts and you can be dressed up because you have an event or meeting that requires dressing up. But if you’ve got a knit tie and a cool shirt on you can just unbutton the collar and loosen the tie a little bit and go in someplace that you need to go that’s much more casual without looking totally out of place.
Who are people today and you think, “that guy nails it. That guy’s got his own sense of style he knows who he is”? And he just looks great in whatever setting he’s in. Can you think of anybody?
This is this is very limited sample and I’m going to alienate several of your readers, but I think Tucker Carlson dresses great. He’s very dressed up preppy.
I saw him at the airport once. He’s a tall guy. And so I recognized him, but he was not wearing his tie so strange to see him without a tie.
You know, I think for his role and I’m reasonably certain he doesn’t choose his clothing, but I think Joe Biden always looks great. I don’t think much of him, but I think he looks great. By the way, he always has a perfectly tied tie with a nice dimple in it.
Yes, he does. I noticed that too.
That’s one of those little things that for lack of a better way to put it, separates the men from the boys and the well-dressed from the not so well-dressed
I have never been able to get the dimple right.
We can have a practice session.
What are some trends in men’s style today you do actually like, that you applaud?
I like the continuation of wearing a jacket. One of the things that I enjoy doing more and more myself as I transition in my career, is wearing a jacket with jeans. I have jokingly said for a long time that if you’re traveling you either have to wear a jacket or bring a man-bag. And I am not a man-bag kind of person. I never get on an airplane without a blazer – it may be the oldest blue blazer in my closet, but I never get on an airplane without a jacket.
That is so rare. I remember the first time I flew on a plane. I wore khakis, a blue shirt and my tiny little blue blazer. Now, it’s probably been 12 years since I’ve worn a blazer on a flight.
Habits are hard to break and it’s not one I want to break. For lack of a better way to say it, wearing a blazer on a plane is a way of life for me. It depends whether I’ll actually put a tie on and if I do, it’ll probably be a knit. But I always wear a blazer when I fly.
Here’s your chance to pull the arrows out of the quiver. What are the things in men’s style today that you don’t like?
Just the general sloppiness. Anytime I go out to dinner, it’s impossible to go to a restaurant anymore – like the English Grill – and see people dressed properly. It’s most illustrated in two things. One, it’s very frustrating to go to the ballet or the orchestra and see people show up in blue jeans – and I’m talking about the 8 o’clock show. Likewise, I mention this going into a restaurant and I’m not talking about a 5-star, white-tablecloth situation. I’m talking about just a semi-casual, nice place. And invariably, the lady in the couple has taken the time to dress up in an appropriate way. It may be dressy casual but nevertheless, she looks nice. Regrettably, more often than not these days, the man with her looks like she picked him up on the corner on the way. Or she was backing out of the driveway and he turned off the lawnmower and hopped in the car with her. I have been in places where it has taken all my willpower not to go ask her where she picked him up because he does not look like he belongs with her. I think it’s totally disrespectful both to her and to the people in the kitchen cooking the food. When I go to a musical or theatrical performance, the people putting on the performance have worked hard to give me their best. I feel like the least I can do is give them my best in return. That doesn’t necessarily mean black tie – although sometimes that’s kinda fun too – but to look like you belong there.
These two writers I read – Michael Williams in Los Angeles and David Coggins in New York – have this sense about style. Their view is that style is about making an effort. I think what you said echoes some of the things they have written about. A lot of men today, especially men, are not trying. Not trying to put forth the effort.
My partner, Dougal Munro, operates the U.S. division of our company, Holland & Sherry. Dougal says this: the way I dress for an occasion is a reflection of the esteem and the affection in which I hold the event and the people in attendance.
Yeah, that’s well said.
That has become my iconic statement on that. Put another way: when I dress up, I dress up for others. I don’t mean that I’m trying to impress them. I dress up so that they see that they matter to me. It’s just like table manners are virtually non-existent these days. The things in our society that expressed interest in and respect for others are being whittled away little by little. To me, dressing properly and helping others do so is one of the ways I can fight back.
Let me move to a different set of questions so. I’m a pretty oddball body type. Very narrow legs, thin arms, narrow hips, no butt, very narrow shoulders, average height. For somebody like that, what are some styles you can offer that person to look his best?
I’m going to say this and then work my way back into that. Okay? I think that one of the most important things any gentleman can do – and this is equally true for women but that’s not my area of expertise – is find someone who understands your sense of style and is willing to take the time to understand your life where you go, who you see, what you do, and knows enough about colors and patterns and styles to take you where you are and help you look the way you want to look and need to look for whatever you do. So, my answer is: find an expert and then let that expert try to get clothing on you that isn’t so tight that it makes you look like a scrawny waif, but also doesn’t like you’re wearing your big brother’s clothes.
It seems like that same advice would be true for the opposite of me too. He should find an expert who understands him, his life, his life situation, where he goes and what he does – and help him dress accordingly.
Simple little things matter. My caveat is you can always say I don’t care what is going to look best on me – I like it this way or that way. For instance, you and I are about the same height. I really like cuffs on trousers. Most guys these days don’t wear cuffs. A cuff, in the sense, can be a small hitch that can make you look slightly shorter, but I just like the way a cuff finishes a pair of trousers.
You know, on you, a two-button coat looks much better than a three-button coat because it allows you a little longer opening. We make three-button coats for you but we rolled it through the middle button so it has the appearance of a two-button coat. It’s a classic traditional style. But by placing the button at the ideal point, we help to make you look as tall as possible, to make your shoulders look as wide as possible, and to make your waist look as slender as possible. Those kinds of things.
Another example is the height of the shirt collar. Depending on the height of a neck and how large a neck someone has, the proper shirt collar both in height and in spread makes a difference. Again, this is one of those places where fashion seems to have run amuck over against what really looks good on people – because everybody wants to wear big wide spread collars.
My family used to laugh at me. During presidential debates I would literally be sitting there during the debate, saying “That guy looks like a clown. Somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing put a shirt collar on him that’s three times too big for him.” In fact, I remember one time when Mitt Romney was running for president, I actually sent an email to his campaign. “You people are screwing up. Those collars are too big for him, you know he looks like a fast-moving fat cat.” And the next time I saw him in a debate they had changed his collar and it was just right. Now whether that had anything to do with it or not, I have no idea. I make no claim, but it was really funny that it happened that way.
That’s amazing. That’s so good.
Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, wore these big huge collars and he had a small neck and he just looked stupid.
What is an accessory a man should have that’s heirloom quality and that he could pass on to his son or son-in-law? He uses it during his life, but that isn’t the point Really, the point is it carries on in the family beyond that. Maybe that’s an outdated idea.
No, I don’t think it’s an outdated idea. I’m not a watch guy, but in many cases that would be something that would be a legitimate item to fall in that category. I’d be more inclined to say a nice pen. If I didn’t destroy my briefcases so much and be so attached to them I would say a nice briefcase. But my 35-year-old Atlas is about destroyed and it’s just hanging on to finish my career with me.
I’ve had some amazing briefcases that my father gave me. I had one from Levinger that I loved, and I was crushed when a piece of it got stuck on a rental car shuttle at LAX and tore. It ruined the briefcase. I had one from Coach that I loved. And now I’ve got one from Colonel Littleton that I love. But 10 years with a briefcase puts a lot of wear and tear on it. I agree, a briefcase is a tough item to hand down to the next generation.
I’m going to put a twist on it and go back to clothing. One of my now-deceased clients was from Paducah. Both sons are clients of mine and now the three grandsons are clients of mine so it’s a third-generation legacy kind of thing. One of the grandsons called me up and he said his dad had outgrown his tuxedo and he’s giving it to me. Well, my original client, the grandfather, was in the Army Air Corp and was stationed in England in the 50s. He had a dinner coat made on Saville Row. Absolutely one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I’ve ever seen in my life. He had passed it on to his son who happened to be the same size. So we did some small alterations and he wore it. And then when he quit having any interest in dressing up for black tie events gave it to his son. So now the third generation is wearing this absolutely gorgeous dinner coat. To replace it on Saville Row today would cost $7,000 or $8,000.
My favorite thing at this point in my life is when I get a legacy client, especially third generation. Pretty much all my third generations, and a lot of my second-generation clients, are in Paducah. The grandfather was a friend of my dad’s. I knew him as a little kid. The kids were more my contemporaries and now their kids are also my clients.
I think that’s great. That’s wonderful.
Same thing for me. Both of my sons are relatively close to my size and so we can interchange clothing back and forth. When John’s getting rid of stuff, he’ll send it over to the house, mostly casual stuff. And I’ll go yeah, I could use those khakis. And then Aaron’s whole closet, except for a couple of things I’ve made for him, is recycled clothing of mine that’s 18 or 20 years old.
I have stolen this idea from a podcast I listen to called Conversations with Tyler, hosted by Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University. Its called “Underrated or Overrated.” I’m going to say something and you’re going to tell me whether it's overrated or underrated. OK?
Allen Edmond shoes.
Regrettably, currently becoming overrated. The company has changed hands numerous times since we started selling them. I’ve just watched the quality slip and perhaps as importantly the shoe designs just go off the rails. It’s very hard for me now to find shoes that I would really like to buy on the Allen Edmonds website. Alden is a shoe company that hasn’t changed what they do. Alden is it’s probably rated correctly – it’s just far too unknown. Alden is a great shoe company, as is a certain company called Crockett & Jones.
Ralph Lauren’s impact on American style. Overrated or underrated?
I don’t know how to answer that way, but he has had such an amazing impact on the prep world mostly. You know the Purple Label sort of gets into the fashion world, but for a guy that started out as a tie salesman, he has really, really had what I think is generally speaking a positive impact on dress culture in America.
So would you say underrated or overrated? It seems like he is so pervasive. He does the Olympics, he does sports teams. He’s so out there in the culture
That’s why I was having — I’m struggling to answer. I’ll say underrated, but that’s just because I think his impact is so extensive, that it may not be fully appreciated.
How about online clothes shopping?
Definitely overrated. If you go back to what I said earlier, the single most important choice you can make about your appearance is putting yourself in the hands of someone with whom you can have a good relationship where he knows you or she knows you well and therefore you can work together to build what you want.
Overrated or underrated, fountain pens?
Definitely underrated. Well, I’m 72. I grew up in grade school writing with a fountain pen and I still think there’s nothing in the world that’s as enjoyable an experience. Well, I mean in the realm of communication, there’s nothing like sitting down with a nice piece of paper – maybe to write a thank you note or something like that – and a good pen and just writing the note. I never got good grades in penmanship. I had to spend summers sitting at the kitchen table practicing my writing because it was so bad. But I love writing with a pen.
Alright, overrated or underrated, LSU football coach Bryan Kelly?
In his own mind, he’s the most underrated. In my mind, he may be the most overrated. And I think within the next two years, we’ll know that.
Overrated or underrated, baseball hats when you’re not at the ballpark?
Well now, I have to ask you a qualifying question. Bill forward or backward?
I usually wear mine with the bill forward, but not always.
If you’re not catching the baseball game you don’t need your cap on backward.
What about a cap on at all?
Well, I love wearing baseball caps. I need to cover my head from the sun and sometimes I’m just too casual to wear my lovely straw hat. But I hate flat brims with a passion and the old caps that you could curl and shape are getting virtually impossible to find. Especially the ones that I would like to wear.
So wait, let’s go back to Allen Edmonds and Alden. What’s another great shoe brand, American or otherwise, besides Alden and Crockett & Jones? And I’m talking men’s shoes here. Something I haven’t heard of
The iconic is John Lobb. The shoes, if I’m not mistaken, are made in Northampton. Interestingly enough, the British shoe-making industry, at least at one time, was centered in Northampton, because they raised cows and there were lots of oak forests. You have the oak bark to use in the tanning and you have the leather right there. Most American shoes, Alden may be an exception, but I don’t think so. But most shoes these days are chromium-tanned. It’s a much faster process, but it doesn’t build the durability and quality into the shoe.
Again, it’s sort of like we were talking about: have something for 2 years and throw it away.
My shoe repairman went out of business. One of the reasons he closed down after being in business for 25 or 30 years is that the shoes are no longer made to keep and repair. They’re made to wear and dispose of. So the number of shoes he was getting just wasn’t worth keeping the doors open you know. But for instance, the Crockett & Jones shoes, I didn’t change the sole on any of them until they were between 15 and 20 years old – because the oak-tanned leather, especially in the soles, is durable.
This talk about shoes reminds me of another example of the decline in men’s care about their appearance. It seems no one shines their shoes anymore, especially, younger guys. Some of that may be tied to the quality factor we just addressed. It also may be due to their never being taught how by their fathers.
It is a daily occurrence, when I’m out seeing clients, to see a man, often with a suit on, and shoes, that in all likelihood, have never been shined. It totally destroys any attempt to look professional they made in putting on the suit. It seems particularly bad when the shoes are the lighter shades of tan and brown that are so in vogue today.
What about Church’s shoes
I heard they were sold. Surprise, surprise — quality has declined. That’s what I have heard, at least. I haven’t dealt much with Church’s for a while.
Alright, Herb, a couple of last questions. So, I’m curious: you’re entering this phase of semi-retirement, and working only three days a week. How long have you been a clothier?
What have you learned about the world or human nature because you’re a clothier, that I or others who are not in that role haven’t learned?
I’m going to put a slightly different twist on it. Because of what I sell, my relationship is different. In some respects, it’s a more personal or more intimate relationship than the fellow who sells them their car or whatever. And I’ve been in a lot of guys’s closets; I’ve been in a lot of people’s homes. I’ve always been an observer and try to watch and try to learn. The lesson that I feel like has been most important to me is this. Because I sell expensive clothes, I deal with people who have some money – maybe some have new money but a lot of generational money folks. I always watch and see over time what happens. I watch and try to get a view of how they raise their children. Then I try to watch and see what happens with those children. And whether the values that made me respect the parents so much get properly passed on, or sadly, sometimes the values that I observed serving them, aren’t necessarily passed on. Kids don’t necessarily turn out well. I’ve seen all the different things. I see families where the second and third generations are great people. I have intense respect for that and have tried to learn from them what I could. The other thing is just watching people and just seeing how they care about how they look. I loved seeing people who care about others – who are givers and not takers – and obviously in this business and in the various circles in which I move I’ve seen it all.
Right. Okay. Last question. So, 46 years and now going into semi-retirement – what are you looking forward to most?
I would be not telling you the truth if I didn’t say hanging out with Ian, my grandson. Yesterday was the first day I really didn’t work. Barb texted me and asked if I wanted to go to the zoo today and I said heck yeah. We met at the zoo at about noon and stayed until about 2:00 pm. And I had a blast. But I have a lot of things that I would like to read and many cases re-read. There are a lot of books I read in college that I dipped too hard into the cliff notes and need to go back and actually read the book cover to cover carefully.
What’s one that comes to mind?
I don’t know if this is because of the whole Russian-Ukraine thing or because I actually heard a gentleman talk about it at a classical school conference, but The Brothers Karamazov. It’s going to take me a while. Also The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. He writes it from the perspective of being a young 13th-century monk. It’s a weird book but it’s fascinating. I had always wanted to read it. When I got Covid I pulled it off my son’s shelf because I was sleeping in his room to stay away from Barb. I pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. It took me two months to finish it, given the amount of time I had. You know the old joke is education is wasted on youth. Well, I was blessed to have the education that I had, particularly, in retrospect, to be in the Program of Liberal Studies, which is a humanities major at Notre Dame. And it gave me the desire to be a lifelong learner. I want to go back and start digging back into books but I also have a lot of things I would like to get down on paper too. We helped start our school 26 years ago and have been an emeritus director for three years now. I don’t want them to have to reinvent the wheel and I want to give it all the time and effort and money I put into that I want what moved us to start it in the first place. I want that to be known and hopefully at least attempted to be lived out. I want to have fun.
That’s awesome. You should. Forty-six years. You should.
It will be a little easier to go to Notre Dame football games.
Wait wait. Is semi-retirement going to make it easier to go to Notre Dame football games? Or is the fact that Brian Kelly’s not the coach going to make it easier?
That never stopped me, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would enjoy it. However, I am planning to meet Aaron at Auburn the first weekend in October when LSU comes to Auburn so we can cheer against him. I know that’s a lot of trouble to go to, but I’m really looking forward to it.
Alright Herb, thank you so much.
It was awesome. Great.