The Heat of the Moment – Richard Benson Teaches Us About Resisting The Urge
Artist David Lock
A few years ago I was invited to a work-related-party thing that was going to be quite big and scary. So I decided to cope with the nerves in the only truly sensible way: by buying a new, expensive shirt to wear. I went to Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street, and somehow, in the process of looking for a shirt, I wandered into a small room at the back. Here, I came upon the item of clothing that, over several years, drove me madder with desire than anything I have seen before or since.
Please note that when I say “mad” here, I don’t mean “feverish” or “obsessive”, but “actually deranged”. If clothing dysmorphic disorder is a thing, then truly, that thing happened to me in that room. Because the item of clothing that hung on a reassuringly heavy dark-wood hanger was neither shirt nor tie nor even exquisite pocket square, but a full-length, red paisley dressing gown in a heavy silk, priced at some £860.
Why? How? I had no particular interest in dressing gowns, and I wasn’t planning to go to a fancy-dress party as Noël Coward. I don’t even wear dressing gowns around the house, not even on Sunday mornings. It was a preposterous garment, one that would have looked a bit de trop on Terry-Thomas in his prime. My wife works in fashion, so I thought she would understand, but when I got her to come and have a look, she said, “I don’t understand.”
The infatuation lasted about 12 months, and then I unexpectedly sold syndication rights on a piece of work and decided to buy myself an indulgent gift. I duly returned to the little room – where, of course, I found that now I could have the ridiculous robe, it suddenly looked silly, at best the sort of thing Philip Green might have worn in the 1980s to prove to himself that he’d made it. I left with the relieved yet deflated feeling you get when a “let’s split up” conversation you expected to involve a row ends up being all calm and adult.
Six years later, I realise the dressing-gown period taught me two things. First: nothing is ever as mysterious to you as the weird people and objects that your former self fell in love with. Second: it is often far better to desire than to buy.
The second point is the most useful, not to say consoling. To feel its fundamental truth, you need only to think of all those clothes you yearned for, yet never enjoyed wearing quite as much as you expected. In my case, I need only to go to my bedroom and peruse the Wardrobe of Regret and Lost Loves. Buongiorno, Zegna blazer, whom I once thought a perfectly timeless piece of men’s tailoring, except actually, you went out of fashion really quickly. Avast, Norwegian fisherman’s sweater from Arthur Beale, I know we tried to make it work, but I should have never deprived you of your rightful owner, who is 6ft 2in and slim. And good afternoon, electric-blue Cordings jumbo cords – all I can say is that we must both have been very, very drunk.
All of these things and more – so many more! – I desired, and enjoyed desiring with all my heart and wallet. They had an unsullied beauty as objects in themselves, and they mostly betokened great future pleasures. The jumper, for example, was lovely when it was imagined worn during an imaginary hike in the countryside, although I can’t now imagine what the fuck I ever planned to do in the cords, unless it was to open a naff hotel in the Cotswolds and/or become a Conservative MP. Note, please, that I am talking about proper desire here, and not bland, temporary sentiments such as “liking”, “wanting” or “needing”. Liking is for your basic friends’ boring pictures of sunsets on Instagram. Wanting is vague and all about lacking things (“I want a nice beige anorak I can wear to work”, etc, etc), and needing is worse. Anything you ever need, you can get from Uniqlo.
Desire is the real thing, the thing fashion was made for. It’s intoxicating, dangerous and dirty, and it makes you feel a bit irrational and out of control. This is why all religions want their followers to suppress it – if the members of the congregation are all buying £800 dressing gowns, who will pay for the bishops’ oh-so-desirable vestments? – and it’s precisely why desiring is so much more enjoyable than acquiring. Desire provides unrestrained, consequence-free indulgence in a world where life has become all about self-control. Fuck goal-setting, anger management, budgeting apps, daily step counts, giving up fags and planning ahead to get the best deals. Instead, break free and give in to your dreams, or the ads, or the shop or the thrill of the drop. Who cares if it’s manipulation? What isn’t? Let your mind break free and imagine yourself walking around in that Balenciaga cagoule. It’s never going to look the same on you as it does in that funny lift-interior Dover Street Market shop anyway.
It’s not just about imagination either, for the unrequited love of clothes can lead to real-life adventures, and even real-life love. In the Noughties I used to work on a magazine with a designer from Nottingham called Chris. He was a full-on Libertines/Camden Town/Julian Casablancas hair/ironic T-shirt indie, and very critical of “fashion”, until a high-end women’s mag moved in next door and he went out one night with the features editor, a very-well-dressed woman from the Midlands who I’ll call Sam. Somehow (foot fetishism?), she converted him to the worship of shoes – he literally came in the next week and said, in his thick, Sleaford Mod-like accent, “Women’s shoes are just fucking ace, though, aren’t they? I mean, they’re like fucking art. You can laugh, but if you can’t appreciate it, that’s not my problem.”
Chris finished with his lovely indie-kid girlfriend, had a very passionate relationship with Sam, and cultivated an ostentatious love for all women’s fashion. “I would love to own that dress!” he once announced to the office, holding up a McQueen lookbook. Obviously he came to desire Sam through her clothes, but I think there may have been something deeper and stranger going on. He seemed to like the idea of being a flamboyant fashion aesthete who lived beautiful clothes, darling. In short, he had come to desire desire itself. It turned out quite nicely for him in the end: he married a rich model and works for an ad agency in New York now. Sam moved to a well-known UK mag and then went to work in China.
There is another reason for sticking with admiration over acquisition, and it’s to do with how men buy clothes. Compared with women, a lot of us are drawn to pieces of clothing as objects in themselves, rather than for whether they suit us or not. Often we want something for the brand, the heritage and the design, rather than for what it looks like when it’s worn. It’s why, for example, you see discerning men in nondescript Patagonia fleeces (Patagonia being impeccably right-on), and otherwise-well-dressed men at the football shod in Adidas trainers in rare but weird colourways that clash with any imaginable garment.
This is fine if everyone understands why you’re wearing them, but it can go horribly wrong if the item is misread. A friend that I watch Leeds United with is a dedicated, old-school casual, who recently bought a CP Company Goggle jacket after wanting one for many years. He loved all the heritage, and when he bought it he was immensely proud. Unfortunately, when he wore it to the pub for the first time, entering hood up, goggles down, the first people he saw were his elder brother’s fashion-resistant mates, who just made jokes about him coming on an old motorbike. Not particularly funny, but then maybe he invited it by leaving that all-important hood up a moment too long because he wanted people to see it and was thinking about the impression it would make rather than what he looked like. Anyway, the bantz have stuck, and the reality of that coat never quite measured up to his hopes for it.
It isn’t just me who thinks these things. Georges Kern, the intellectual CEO of Breitling, pushes a theory that the defining task of a modern luxury brand is to instil desire in people. “Creating a need of the emotions, not a need of products,” he explained to me when I interviewed him last summer. He says “desirability” comes chiefly from “the brand, its values, its promise”. You can see his point here – it was reified in the Supreme brick – but it seems too reductive to me. It misses out the sheer, illogical delight that humans can take in beautiful objects, often regardless of brands, and smacks of that clinical feel you can sense in brands off the boil, the ones playing the game without having much fun. However clothes are sold, our desire for them cannot be captured by a business formula; it’s about strange, enjoyable feelings, and we should get them where we can – even if it’s with a weird dressing gown in a back room on Jermyn Street.
Taken from Issue 49 of Ten Men, on newsstands now.