“James Dandy” in 944 Magazine


Reprinted from 944 Magazine, Sep ‘08: http://www.944.com/articles/3231/


Designer Makes A Fine Mess of Things

Don’t tell James Kessler you wear a large. He doesn’t believe in sizes. In fact, he thinks it’s the worst thing to happen to fashion since the leisure suit. “It’s a dummying down of apparel for us to put it in these categories rather than informing consumers of what their true body dimensions are,” he says. His company, A Fine Tooth, offers custom-made, fitted men’s trousers (whimsically called Dandy Pants), as well as vintage luxury items for men. “I think vintage elements speak more, where the fashions of the day say one thing: ‘I’m up to date; this is what’s smart now.’” But, of course, true vintage style isn’t as easy as tossing on a throwback jersey.

944: A Fine Tooth sounds like a barbershop or dental office. It’s almost frightening. What were your ideas behind this name?

JAMES KESSLER: I get those two things all the time. It came from several different places, which is why it rang true and works on several different levels. I remember I was saying one time that a beer had a certain kind of tooth to it. And we had this conversation about a stout or a porter, something that would have a chunky tooth, and a pilsner would have a fine tooth. It was a method of describing the degree of granularity of something. That became a term that I used more often and when I would look at clothing, a pattern that was very dense would have a fine tooth as opposed to something that had fewer repeats and a larger pattern, which would be a wider tooth or a larger tooth. In addition to that, it was appropriate because finding a vintage collection — a good one — is like finding a needle in haystack, so that’s similar to using a fine-toothed comb to go through things. Finally, when I started I was mostly interested in the ’20s and ’30s era and there’s that Oliver Hardy thing where they would say, “What another fine mess he’s got me into,” and I could tell this was going to be a fine mess.

Production Still Fall Fashion Articles

If I were asked to describe your style, I’d say it looked like a marriage between the closets of Clark Kent and Max Fischer from Rushmore. How would you describe your style?

Those are pretty close approximations of the style. I am definitely inspired by Wes Anderson movies. His characters all seem to have fallen from grace somewhat compared to previous family generations, so in this way, I see them as uniquely American and therefore American vintage clothing figures heavily in their repertoire. Wes Anderson does a great job of storytelling with clothing, as he does on many other levels. I realize a lot of the credit goes to his wardrobe stylists and art directors, but I think all of those basics were already there in Bottle Rocket.

A lot of tourists come to Vegas, dress up and try to show off their style, and end up looking like clowns. What goes through your mind when you see people like this?

[Laughs] Well, I have an opinion and a response to all those people dressing exuberantly while they’re on our streets. I am happy that people come here and try to express something different from the day to day, and that’s mostly because I moved here from San Francisco, because I shop here more than anywhere else and got the most lucky. I would find classic wardrobes from men — because it’s a retirement capital and was for many years. When older gentlemen died, I would luck out at an estate sale or thrift store and get all of those great suits, you know, by Hart Schaffner Marx and Hickey Freeman or something for this one gentleman in this one size. Then I would find a crazy jacket. The guy that went to the Sy Devore, the Rat Pack’s tailor, and got his own jacket made for him. There are many, many fashion mistakes and some of those mistakes are more charming than any other thing that that guy would have worn. So when I see people dressing like that, I think that’s absolutely necessary for what I do.

What’s wrong with the way America dresses?

Apparel wise, I think we’re pretty far from another evolutionary course, which we could have taken and just didn’t. You know, we had this great boom mid-century, and we were the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. But when the post-war era hit, we became slaves to trends and fashions. And this happened in basically every industry, the auto industry being the best example with tail fins. It just became more important to be up to the minute and fashionable and to express cultural knowledge with brands and easily identifiable aspects of dress.

You’ve dressed many musicians.

Musicians are generally easy to work with, and fun. But when people refer to what I do as “dressing” musicians, I feel awkward about that and must demure because musicians can dress themselves. By and large, musicians have a strong sense of culture and usually a sense of personal style, especially musicians who tour and play a lot. The stage is a great testing ground for fashion. I’ve worked with Devendra Banhart and his cohorts such as Noah Georgeson and Andy Cabic, and the guys from Vetiver, OK Go, Of Montreal and the list goes on. I think of myself as simply supplying clothes. It’s a division of labor thing. While I’m out shopping every day, musicians have to tour and play and write new music. They appreciate what I do, which is nice, and I certainly appreciate what they do — as music and film are my big inspirations.

Do you ever slob around town in sweatpants and a wife-beater?

Yes and no. Never sweatpants [laughs]. But there’s that saying that the cobbler’s son has the worst shoes. It is 105 degrees here through much of the summer. So to put more than one layer on is absurd. I can be found in a T-shirt or a button-down and a pair of jeans. I try to keep something in there — a pair of socks or a watch — just to say I’m hanging on.

Artists have a bunch of rejections before refining their craft. Describe the ugliest pants you’ve ever made.

Wow. I would hate for people to know. I have both made stuff that I have rejected and have collected stuff where later I was like, “What the hell was I thinking?” There’s this book called Worst Fashions, which looks back at vintage eras and points those things out, like the leisure suit. How did we end up at the leisure suit? I have definitely seen things in that book that I have collected at one time or another. When we were first doing trials of our pants, during that premium denim era, I thought, “What would my style be translated into a jean pocket?” I made a few attempts at ornate back pockets and it’s just a joke. When I see it, it makes me cringe.

Why does your portrait of a modern man, at least when it comes to fashion, contain so many elements from the past?

Because I have a sense of my clients as smart, working individuals who are coming to terms with a new era in our country. It’s just a different time. We must be Renaissance men; we must address the constantly changing landscape in front of us. So, therefore, I see my client as someone who must constantly come to terms with their environment. Vintage is best when it isn’t used slavishly. You’re not just trying to look like the 1980s punk. You’re judiciously using elements from the past. William Wordsworth said poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” As far as dressing in vintage is concerned, I see it as a revisiting of the past with new knowledge.

- Mickey Glass