A Winter Coat
The old buttons of my new inky-black soft corduroy coat
I realised that I can count the number of winter coats I have had in my life upon the fingers of my hands. And I remember most as signifying different stages in my life – including, the first blue woollen coat my mother bought for me, the school duffel coat, the expensive gabardine I left on the train, the corduroy coat my father paid for when I went to college, the secondhand tweed coat that I got to go to Moscow, the pea-coat I found at the car boot sale and the only new coat I ever bought for myself, a grey worsted overcoat, five years ago. Unfortunately, the grey overcoat does not have much warmth in it and I wear a thick sweater or sheepskin waistcoat underneath in a vain attempt to keep warm. But the outcome of these layers is that I cannot close the coat, thus defeating my original intent.
So I was grateful when Richard & Cosmo Wise invited me to pick a winter coat from the vast stock of glorious old clothes that they have sourced from rural France and Japan, some dating back to the eighteen eighties, and I walked over to their warehouse in Hackney Wick yesterday to make a selection. Yet the array of interesting clothing and pieces of rare fabric woven long ago is so diverting when you arrive at their den that the possibilities can be quite overwhelming.
Cosmo was working with a seamstress, sewing on buttons and putting the finishing touches to his collection of new clothes. Inspired by the pieces that he collects and the traditional methods of their manufacture, Cosmo has begun creating new designs executed in old or rare fabrics. And the textiles in this collection included fishermen’s mosquito nets impregnated with an insect-repellent dye that Cosmo found in Japan, mud silk that he found in Beijing, and also a transparent metallic textile used to line aircraft wings – just to bring a touch of modernity.
That afternoon, Cosmo was off to show his collection to a few buyers from selected shops at John Singer Sargent’s former studio in west London, but first he generously took me down to the stock room to choose a coat. At first Cosmo showed me one of his own designs manufactured from that attractive loose weave net that Japanese fishermen use to repel insects, but he did warn me that it would be high maintenance to repair and possibly of little warmth and, reluctantly, in spite of its swagger, this had to be laid to one side. Looking for warmth, I tried a huge blue wool coat with an astrakhan collar. “It’s heavy,” warned Cosmo, and I almost crumpled to the ground as I pulled it on, realising at once that I did not have the figure for it or wish to look like an old-school East End gangster. Next up, was a sheepskin coat that was snug but suggested that I was off on a polar expedition – I might go back and borrow this one when the blizzard hits.
Recognising that something shorter would be ideal, especially as I walk around so much, I tried a short brown woollen double-breasted jacket that was the first credible possibility and then a braided Prussian officer’s jacket which was beyond the realm of plausibility for an undemonstrative dresser such as myself.
At last, I pulled on a French hunting jacket in a wonderfully faded inky-black soft velvet cord from the mid-twentieth-century which felt it belonged to me. With a woollen lining of blue stripe, natty lapels and buttons emblazoned with horses, this comfortable worn old jacket became my new winter coat – thanks to Richard & Cosmo Wise.
A seamstress works ceaselessly, repairing old clothes and making up Cosmo’s designs.
A handsome new coat made to Cosmo’s design from Japanese mosquito-repellent fabric – but perhaps lacking warmth and a little too “Fagin” for me?
Fine blue woollen overcoat with astrakhan collar, cosy but made for someone with more figure than myself and perhaps a little too “East End Gangster” ?
Attractive and snug sheepskin coat, but perhaps too “polar explorer” for me?
Attractive short woollen double-breasted coat from Canada – a near miss.
A Prussian Officer’s Jacket with magnificent braiding – if only I had the personality it carry it off in Brick Lane.
At Richard & Cosmo’s warehouse.
Richard & Cosmo Wise can be found in the Spitalfields Market on Thursdays and at Portobello Market under the Westway on Fridays.
Read my other stories about Richard & Cosmo Wise