EPISODE ONE: THE STYLE GENE
Some dads get teary when they read the scene in The Story of Babar where a hunter shoots Babar's mother. Not me. I start crying a few pages later when a kindly Old Lady hands the refugee elephant a purse full of money and sends him shopping. Why do I weep? Because every sharp-dressed man needs someone like the Old Lady in his life - someone to bankroll his sartorial education; someone to teach him the fine line between stupid and Cleverley.
In addition to being my son's Old Man, I'm also trying to be his Old Lady - his Obi-Wan Kenobi. Part of my motivation is that you play the hand you're dealt. Sadly for Nicholas, age five, his dad is not gifted when it comes to sports or chess or the Moog synthesizer or magic tricks. Or any of the kind of stuff that would help him to impress his peers. Of my core competencies - drinking martinis, eating huge quantities of grilled meats and tying a tie - only the last one seems useful to pass along while he is young. I'm not the only factor in his development, though. Style is in the drinking water around our house thanks to my wife, Honor, who is the editor-in-chief, e-commerce for the designer Tory Burch. In a way, we're lucky Nicholas' first word was not "swatch".
So ever since Nicholas started walking (and my wife graciously stopped dressing him as if he were one of Velázquez's velvet-covered courtiers), I have been buying him miniature versions of the kind of thing that I would wear: gingham-checked shirts, corduroys, a tweed jacket from Hackett.
I started Nicholas out with the classics for two reasons. First off, I suspected that some day he would rebel and want to create his own looks, so the best thing that I could do was to give him a solid foundation. If he were going to be an artist, I'd want him to have mastered life drawing before he became an Abstract Expressionist. Same thing with clothes.
Secondly, I had seen the delightful results of the 'We Allow Our Son To Dress Himself' school of parenting. Cowboys, firemen, superheroes, skate punks and pirates are all noble role models, but seeing pint-sized versions during our morning walk to school makes me want to call the child welfare authorities. We have a saying in our house: "Gym clothes stay in the gym." If only the average mall shopper would follow this adage, what a beautiful world it would be.
Honor and I have been incredibly fortunate in that Nicholas has always possessed two of the essential qualities for becoming a gentleman. He is both sensitive and switched-on aesthetically. I remember one summer Saturday back when he was four. Most of his friends had vacated Manhattan for their beach houses, so in lieu of a play-date, he chose to keep me company as I shopped for a dinner party. He was the navigator and could choose the route we walked. As we neared William Greenberg's bakery, he led me off course and we were soon standing on a corner of Fifth Avenue, staring up at an apartment building as if it were some shrine. We stood there for a minute or two in silence - a man and a boy holding hands, tilting our faces skyward - until my four-year-old explained what we were looking at.
"My wife, Emily, lives here," he said. "She's in Southampton for the summer. I miss her." The simplicity and the depth of his feelings touched me. I knew then that he would grow up to have his heart broken as many times as he broke someone else's heart. He has always had the gentle part of gentleman down.
And he has always had definite opinions about style. We're in the middle of renovating our apartment, and when my wife and I jokingly asked him if he had any ideas about the décor for his new room, he told us, "I want the wallpaper from Gino's [a recently shuttered Italian restaurant where we often ate dinner as a family]." He's in good company as Gino's zebra-patterned wallpaper was on Gwyneth's wall in The Royal Tenenbaums. It also covers the lavatory walls at the Waverly Inn. Some things you can't teach.
Indeed, at age five, Nicholas' unique personal style is really starting to assert itself. His look is reminiscent of a mini Jimmy Page circa The Yardbirds. Nicholas puts his weekday outfits together using a different set of criterion than me. While I stare at the mirror and think, Hey, Carb Face, wear a spread collar because it will make your chipmunk cheeks appear slimmer, Nicholas will tell me, "I want to wear a blue shirt because I know Chris is wearing a blue shirt, and he's the best at sports in our class, and if I wear blue, we'll be on the same team, and I'll win." His sartorial logic now trumps mine.
There have also been a few mornings when he's actually out-dressed me. I certainly expected that Outfit Envy would happen some day, maybe 15 or 20 years from now. But, lately, the guinea pig has become the mad scientist. He has put together some looks - a shirt and tie with a shawl-collared cardigan or dark-blue jeans with desert boots and a button-down shirt - that have prompted me to ditch my Wallabies for desert boots and search out a dark, unwashed pair of Levi's.
The only real argument we've had over clothes recently concerns my first necktie, which my late mother lovingly saved in a box. It now hangs on Nicholas' tie rack. The tie - a red and white regimental stripe - dates from 1973 (a tragic moment when men's ties were as wide as tablecloths). Nicholas wants to wear this relic from the Telly Savalas Collection, and I keep telling him, "No". Considering the way he can sense which way the fashion winds are blowing, I should probably stop arguing and start shopping for a fat tie before everyone else is wearing them again.
By day, John Brodie is an executive editor at the Hachette Book Group in New York. By night, he battles the forces of incivility as the superhero, Mr. Moleskin. He has also found time to write for GQ, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Fortune.