- By Amanda Waite
What are the signature emblems of high-end fashion? Maybe the red sole of a Christian Louboutin heel or the patterned monogram on a Louis Vuitton bag come to mind. But beyond brands and logos there exists another echelon of luxury clothing, unknown to all except the most discerning, where items bear virtually no outward sign of their origins or value. This is the world of bespoke tailoring; its motto: “knowing, not showing.”
Although the clothing might not speak its pedigree at first glance, that’s not to say it doesn’t have a story to tell. Meg Lukens Noonan ’79 knows this better than anyone. Her new book, The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat, traces the story of the making of one of the finest bespoke garments, the impeccable materials of which—from vicuña wool to water buffalo horn buttons—were sourced the world over.
Before beginning the project, Noonan didn’t know much about tailoring or the centuries-old, meticulous bespoke tradition (referring to the most custom of custom-made clothing). The spark for the book was one of her assignments as a freelance writer, her profession for more than twenty-five years. For that fateful story, Noonan traveled to a remote island in Norway and worked alongside the fifteen or so people who live there, hand-picking from duck nests eiderdown feathers destined to become the stuffing of $8,000 comforters. “I was fascinated by the idea of people working in incredibly remote places doing very intensive work for a product that might ultimately end up in a penthouse suite somewhere,” she says.
Back from the assignment and intrigued by the idea of a book on the subject, she turned to Google, searching for terms like “best in the world” and “most luxurious product.” She found John Cutler, a preeminent bespoke tailor and creator of the $50,000 coat. That was the beginning of an adventure that would take her from her home in New Hampshire to Australia and Canada, England and Peru, France and Italy in pursuit of the story of the people and places that originated this garment and have kept the bespoke tradition alive.
Why care about the frivolity of a coat with a price tag that’s roughly equivalent to what the median U.S. household earns in a year? “It’s very easy to say, ‘Well, that’s obscene that someone would spend that for a custom overcoat,’” she says. But in a world of mass-produced, buy-one, get-one disposable clothing (which Noonan admits she and her two daughters certainly partake in), there’s value, she says, in the made-to-last. “And it’s keeping the tradespeople alive.”
That’s a value near to a journalist’s heart. Noonan was thrilled a book concept like hers, which involved so much travel and research, could draw the interest of a publisher today. It’s a different world from when Noonan began writing at UVM, inspired, especially, by classes with the late professor of English T. Alan Broughton. “He really got me to think of myself as someone who could write, and that’s a huge mental leap to make—to feel like you might be good at this.” After graduation, her first writing gig was an internship at the Burlington Free Press.
“I definitely saw parallels to my own life,” she says of the tradespeople working in this rarified textile industry, “and to most of the writers I know who are of a certain age who have seen things change so drastically around them.” It’s those many artisans and patrons that bring The Coat Route to life. “Great, wonderful, funny people who sort of saw the humor in what they were doing,” she says, “but still took it seriously, believed in it, and took a lot of pride in it.”
Amanda Waite ’02 G’04
Slip Sliding Away
Barking Rain Press
Sean Mulcahy ’09
At a time when college graduates face one of the most difficult job markets in decades, a new novel by alumnus Sean Mulcahy ’09 puts a face and a story on the issues facing so many Millennials: unemployment, student loan debt, moving back home with mom and dad. But the novel isn’t only for the young. Each chapter comes with recommended playlist of Baby Boomer songs, bridging the generational divide.
Wounded Warriors: A Soldier’s Story of Healing through Birds
Potomac Books, Inc.
Robert C. Vallieres with Jacquelyn M. Howard ’81
When doctors, pill and behavior modification couldn’t help, nature did. Alumna Jacquelyn Howard ’81 helps Persian Gulf War Veteran Robert Vallieres tell his story of how birds and bird-watching aided in his recovery from war wounds, including a traumatic brain injury. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and this book offers hope to thousands of military personnel struggling with mental and physical injury. Howard, who majored in agriculture at UVM, is an environmental management specialist, naturalist, avian field biologist, and writer. She lives in Arlington, Virginia and works at the Army National Guard Readiness Center, where she supports sustainability of the landscape needed for soldier training.