Style: Links to the Past

  • William Kissel

Menswear designer and avid golfer Luciano Barbera criticized the colorful, casual clothing that had come to define golfwear a decade ago, suggesting that a proper gentleman would not wear anything less formal than a crisp cotton dress shirt and classic necktie while navigating the greens. “Don’t forget that golf was invented by men who wore jackets and knickers while playing a fantastic game,” said Barbera, whose sophisticated and very limited golf collection, introduced in 1994, remains faithful to this creed.

Although Barbera’s highbrow fashion doctrine seems like a holdover from another era, his advice is right on par with the modern-day game. Consider the elegant retro-inspired pieces being introduced by Como Sport, Tehama, J. Lindeberg, Bobby Jones, and other select golf brands. The plush new looks include fluid wool and cashmere pleated trousers, microcashmere jackets, wool/silk/linen checked sport coats, and sumptuous baby alpaca sweaters.
 

With their latest collection of novelty-striped pima cotton sweaters, tropical worsted wool trousers, and preppy cashmere vests, the makers of Fairway & Greene golfwear outfit their customers to look more like Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, and Walter Hagen—dapper golfers who ruled the greens more than half a century ago—than Tiger Woods.
 
On the other hand, Chris Rosaasen and David Kasischke of the recently launched Rosasen golf label usually prefer the hip fashion edge of contemporary young golfers such as Charles Howell III, Aaron Baddeley, and Jesper Parnevik. Still, the California duo’s Graduate collection—for those “ready to graduate to a more elegant sartorial level”—includes preppy cotton V-necked vests and plush Peruvian baby alpaca cable-knit pullovers inspired by a previous generation of golfers. But even if the styling harks back to the past, the performance is thoroughly current. “Alpaca fiber is extremely thin, so it makes the sweater lightweight, which is important when you’re playing golf,” says Kasischke. “But the yarn has a hollow core, so it traps body heat to keep you warm.”


Making retro relevant is part of the design challenge facing golfwear companies, explains Nancy Haley, CEO of the Tehama (pronounced Ta-hay-ma) brand she co-owns with actor Clint Eastwood. “A lot of what we’re doing is reminiscent of the fashions of the 1940s, when guys like Bobby Jones were playing in elegant sport coats and pleated pants that draped on the body,” says Haley. The easiest way to breathe new life into such looks, she says, is by rendering them in technically advanced performance fabrics such as microfiber, which has the look of wool gabardine, and synthetic microcashmere, which is softer than the real thing. Not only are these fabrics wrinkle-resistant (an important consideration for golfers who travel from one resort to another), but they also draw moisture away from the body and disperse it throughout the fabric to keep the wearer drier.

Blending high tech with high style is just one strategy for golfwear makers faced with stagnant revenues in the golf industry. Those who have successfully weathered the storm of the economic downturn have discovered that the key to survival is catering to a select group of hard-core golfers by cranking up luxury and exclusivity in their products. “We’re offering a lot more silk, silk/cotton, and silk/Lycra blends than ever before,” says Como Sport co-owner and designer Susan Pressler, whose fall collection features slimmer shapes reminiscent of the 1960s. “In pants we’re showing wool and cashmere, which is pretty luxe. And for spring 2004 we’re even adding silk-and-cashmere pants. They’ve got a texture and a lightness that is just unbelievable—with no ‘stickiness’ at all. The cashmere takes that right out.” Peruvian alpaca and silk sweaters in form-fitting shapes are in keeping with the retro resurgence, adds Pressler.

Likewise, Sunderland of Scotland recently unveiled two new technical cloths: a whisper-quiet, ultrasoft waterproof laminate similar to nylon and a new stretch Gore-Tex, which co-owner and President Paul Sunderland calls the Rolls-Royce of waterproof golfwear fabrics. “Both are incredibly soft, quiet, water-resistant, and breathable, but the second also contains Lycra, which we place across the shoulders, back, sides, and elbows of our jackets so there is no restriction while swinging.” Sunderland’s new rainwear collection also features details that serious golfers will appreciate: zippered front pockets, a cinched waist to keep the jacket from billowing in the wind, and an open bottom with extended tail so water never touches your trousers. An exterior scorecard pocket with a front flap lets you access your scorecard without having to unzip the jacket and expose your body to the elements.

While the Fairway & Greene collection may strive to resurrect the stylish elegance of the past, owner Rick Martin says the superior performance features are what ultimately appeal to die-hard golfers. “The perfect yarn size for a golf shirt is a double-mercerized two-ply cotton lisle that is a little thicker and absorbs sweat better,” he explains. “I realized this from constantly having to pull my shirts away from my skin.” The company solved the “stickiness” issue by singeing the tiny hairs off the cotton to expose more of the yarn to the chemicals during mercerization, a process in which yarns are impregnated with a caustic solution that stabilizes shrinkage and colorfastness. To ensure optimal results, Fairway & Greene performs a second mercerization process before the shirts are made. “That is what double-mercerized means, and it is the most critical step,” Martin says. “If it’s not done properly you get different finishes [on various parts of the shirt] or a very shiny shirt.” Furthermore, he says, the company does not produce a dolman-style sleeve because the diagonal stitching across the shoulder does not allow unrestricted arm movement. 

This attention to small details—extended tails on polo shirts that remain tucked when you pick up a ball or special tabs on slacks to hold extra tees—is the hallmark of the most successful golfwear collections. Their appeal is also based on their ability to blur the stylistic lines between street clothes and golfwear.

This is certainly the case with Gran Sasso, a 50-year-old Italian knitwear company that launched a 10-piece golf collection two years ago. The specialty label met with only moderate success until it was recently picked up at the green grass level—in pro shops.

“We’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to have a serious golf look,” says Sandra Greaves, the company’s U.S. national sales manager, adding that the draw for many golfers is the ability “to wear these clothes when they’re not playing golf.” Among the collection’s best-sellers are a wool/cashmere merino V neck and a baby alpaca–and– wool blend sweater, both with strong retro flavor.

“You used to be able to tell by the pleated khakis and oversize polo shirts who bought their wardrobes at the pro shop,” says Kasischke, co-owner of Rosasen. Now, more refined designs make it difficult to peg the golf aficionado. “The retro trend is our way of revisiting the history and fashion traditions of golf. And there is definitely a guy out there who gets into that.” Nevertheless, adds Kasischke, “all of these looks are designed so they can still be worn in a very modern way as well.”

Como Sport, 800.693.COMO, www.comosport.com;
Fairway & Greene, 800.926.8010, www.fairwayandgreene.com;
Gran Sasso, 212.969.9683, www.gransasso.it;
Rosasen, 800.273.3011, www.rosasen.com;
Tehama, 800.955.9400, www.tehamainc.com

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