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Publication:The New York Sun; Date:Jan 6, 2004; Section:Style; Page:19 


Best of the Vest 

Vibrant Nigerian Fabrics Meet Traditional British Tailoring At London’s African Waistcoat Company 

By WILLIAM GEORGIADES 



Calum Robertson, the owner of The African Waistcoat Company in Camden, London, wore his first waistcoat, British for vest, at the age of 13. It was plain, black, and traditional — part of his school uniform at Eton. At 17, his father gave him a peach-colored waistcoat and Mr. Robertson has tended to wear either two-piece suits or three-piece suits with particularly colorful waistcoats ever since. 

Having gone on to Merton College at Oxford to study Latin, Greek, and French, Mr. Robertson went on to become a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” He has worked variously as everything from a truck driver to a property developer to a tailor’s “dogsbody” (apprentice) before finding his calling as a waistcoat maker. Now 67, and with three grown children, as Mr. Robertson puts it,“I am just starting my great career.” 

In March, 2003, Mr. Robertson opened his waistcoat shop. Located in a passageway off a narrow road, The African Waistcoat Company headquarters sits between antique shops and stalls in a former cobbler’s shop. Inside the space is both tight and expansive — there’s little room to move but the colors on display vibrate. 

The process of having a waistcoat made begins with a measuring followed by some rather serious decision-making, as dozens of patterns and swatches, of increasing vibrancy are brought out. For now all waistcoats are custom made, though in the future there are plans for off-therack items. African beads and cufflinks which recall Ghanian Adinkra designs are also available, along with textiles. 

Once the decision has been made, the materials and measurements are constructed within two to three weeks for an average price of about $300. 

What makes these waistcoats particularly interesting is the quality of the materials and their construction. All of the items are made from Nigerian handwoven aso oke cloth. Aso oke connotes high status among the Yoruba peoples of southwestern Nigeria, a part of the world Mr. Robertson has come to love since his first visit there in 1974. After his first visit, Mr. Robertson returned every year for five years to visit friends and returned in 1999 and again last September when the idea came to him to open a shop. He looks forward to returning once a year to keep his stock updated. 

Seeing the material on display renders my question of what attracted him to Nigeria rather redundant. “I like the country,” he says “and I saw this material and I thought it was amazing. I’ve always liked men’s clothes, though I tend to be a bit scruffy and eccentric myself. But I saw this material and I thought, ‘Why does the world not know about this?’ I thought for a long time about the best application for it in European countries and concluded that it could be either bedspreads or waistcoats.” Recalling his schooldays and his own sartorial splendor, he went with the waistcoats. 

The centuries-old tradition of aso oke consists of silk and cotton cloth woven on a “dragstone” foot loom with pedals, a type of loom which has been in use in West Africa for over a thousand years. The resulting product is long strips of fabric between 4 and 6 inches in width. Given the dimensions of the strips, which must be stitched together lengthwise to make a fabric suitable for sewing, the fabric doesn’t lend itself, as Mr. Robertson points out, “to fancy cutting and shaping.” Traditionally, the fabric was used to make robes and wraps with rather simple construction that showed off the drape and texture of the aso oke.For centuries and still today, Nigerians dress in aso oke as a sign of respect for weddings and chieftan ceremonies. 

Mr. Robertson becomes most animated when talking about his excursions to Nigeria visiting the weavers in the weaving towns and taking them old patterns to copy. He particularly enjoyed the wrangling about yarns, weave details, and the price. “I know they do quite a bit better out of me than with their local customers,” he says. 

Such a serious and longstanding history is not lost on Mr. Robertson, who treats his craft with great reverence. The actual material is left quite alone, with all the shaping done to the side seams of the garment. 

Mr. Robertson began making waistcoats for friends about a year before opening the shop and the response was such that a shop became inevitable. On a recent visit he was wearing a blue waistcoat, which he refers to as his “soberest” piece. “This is an old traditional pattern, only to be worn by people of high status. In Nigeria this would be rather like wearing a top hat and tails.” 

Between Mr. Robertson’s time at Eton and now, gentlemen’s fashion tends to have eschewed the waistcoat. This began in earnest about a decade ago when the shirtmaker Thomas Pink began to introduce lively shirt-and-tie combinations to spice up two-piece suits. The waistcoat, however, is a far more practical item, lending more shape to the suit and figure, and, as Mr. Robertson points out, “Apart from ties, waistcoats are the one formal garment with which one can show off.” The brilliance of Mr. Robertson is that he allows a gentleman to show off, as he puts it, without being garish. 


Times Literary Supplement 18 June 2004 

COMMENTARY: Waistcoats always interested me at school. I vaguely supposed them to be on the side of poetry - symbols of anarchy and colour half-obscured by everyday sub-fuse. Like poems, waistcoats had a func­tion, but their principal purpose was to amaze. Now I can only wonder which is the less popu­lar, and whether for the same reasons.

I don't know whether it was a rush of fellow feeling that prompted me to enter the African Waistcoat Company, a tiny lock-up shop in Camden Passage, Islington, or the fact that, according to a newspaper cutting in the window, the owner went to Eton, where, as everyone knows, waistcoats, if not poetry, play a part in the value system. I had seen him before: a military-looking elderly man with a white moustache, sitting in his cubbyhole, sur­rounded by sumptuous stuffs, but had never dared to go in. Had he been in Pop, I wondered. Was his occupation a strange regression to privi­leged schooldays? As a thirteen-year-old school­boy, I remembered having crushes on particular waistcoats, rather than particular boys. I had a certain sympathy for their gaudy defiance. There was something heroic about these ves­tiges of a more confident masculine world. They appealed to the Teddy Boy in me, the future Carnaby Street man. But, if I had imag­ined discovering in the African Waistcoat Com­pany some superannuated prefect engaged in a form of personal therapy, I found something quite different. Calum Robertson had been a scholar at Eton, a Colleger, a "tug", a breed apart, which had its own contrary snobberies. 

He wasn't in Pop and so never wore brocade waistcoats and spongebag trousers. At school, he had been happy in a world of his own, winning the drawing competition two years running. His present concentration on waist­coats was an expedient: to sell the hand-woven Nigerian textiles he loved. With a lifetime of searching and failure behind him, he tells me: "I am just starting on my great career". Calum Robertson was born in 1936, near Brand's Hatch in Kent. His father was a regular soldier and businessman, whose overbearing nature set his son on a gently downward gradient - something I recognized. On another scholarship, this time to Merton College, Oxford, he became fed up with university life, and after a year, applied to do National Service. He was soon made an officer, which naturally embarrassed him. He later gained a pass degree at Oxford and wondered what to do next. "I was aimless and immature. Still am to some extent." His father thought he should be a museum curator, but Calum went to work for British Road Services (what the long-distance haulage industry became after it was nationalized by the Attlee Government). He left after three years to become a transport supervisor with British Oxygen. "I was misguided and a mess. I never did any job very well." In an effort to make himself useful, he got his Heavy Goods Driving Licence and went to work for Telfer's Meat Products. Following the 1980 Housing Act he became a small-time property developer -"I was slow and indecisive" - and worked out a complicated method of preventing people who had bought their council houses from selling them before five years were out. 

He opened the African Waistcoat Company in 2003 in a tiny shop which is almost in the saloon bar of the Camden Head, the nextdoor pub where he goes to wash his hands in return for their use of his fax machine. His waistcoats cost nearly £200 a piece, so he needs to sell only three a week to break even, and has just started to make a profit. He buys the cloth in Nigeria where it is woven on open-air dragstone looms. A picture shows women work­ing on a loom, the dragstones on strings stretch­ing out in front of them to keep the warp in ten­sion. The complex, three-dimensional weave can only be cut horizontally, so any shaping has to be done in the back panel of the waistcoat. Some stuff, more holes than fabric, is popular with Nigerian women for making dresses which are worn over white bra and pants. Calum sends each order to a man who does the stitching for him, then they go to D&M Buttons in Wardour Mews, a father and son team; the old man, who is over ninety, does the buttonholes, charging £4 for six, while his son covers the buttons for 30p a button. Calum stitches them on himself.

As Calum related his life story, bringing it up to date with his "big idea" for the waistcoats, I found myself sympathizing with his search for the smaller life. He could have been a museum curator, just as I could have been a hotelier, but our fathers' ambition for us caused us to slip a rung or two, and here we were, happy as grigs. It was ironical that his quest for a more demo­cratic life had steered him towards such a hierarchical symbol, but the status of waistcoats is changing. They have lost some of their conno­tation of the silly ass, that faint echo of "wast­rel". Waistcoats today have issues. They have time rage. "Are you looking at me?" they seem to ask, hoping you will make their day. Perhaps poetry and waistcoats both exist in a state of suspended animation, waiting for a comeback. Will it happen? I tell Calum that there is supposed to be a poetry revival going on at the moment, so it may happen for him too. A waistcoat's four pockets would surely be use­ful for those with many mobile phones - offer­ing elegant compartmentalization for compli­cated lives. About the future Calum is resigned: "Since shirts have become more fancy, brightly coloured waistcoats have gone out". I suggest making fancy ties for the cutaway collar brigade, but he says the material cannot be cut on the bias.

I visited him a few days later just as he was shutting up shop. He looked around his beloved establishment with an ambivalent air, and for a second I saw the place through his eyes, momentarily drained of all its fun and sparkle.  HUGO  WILLIAMS

 Mayfair Life & St.James's  June 2004 - extract from "From there to Modernity" by Robin Dutt

Accessorize wisely and a little wildly if you must. Why not alleviate the density of the one-colour statement with a little number from the African Waistcoat Company which offers classic styles but made out of beautiful and textured, hand-loomed fabric, often with complex patterning or the shiver of a sliver of metallic thread, to glitter in the sun or glow by candlelight.

Barbican Life Sep-Oct 2004

The AFRICAN WAIST­COAT COMPANY Writing about Leo-linda's new shop reminds me to mention the occupant of her old premises. The African Waistcoat Company is a real one-off, offering gorgeous bespoke men's waistcoats made from hand woven Nigerian 'aso oke' textiles. The designs are subtle but stun­ningly intricate on closer inspec­tion, some are centuries old and passed down through the genera­tions of Yoruba weaving families. These waistcoats would look really great worn under a morning coat for weddings. 

 


The African Waistcoat Company, 33 Islington Green, Camden Passage, London N1 8DU, United Kingdom.     

Tel/Fax: 44 (0)20 77049698 Mobile: 44(0)7877286425   Email: miripyne@gmail.com