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A Gentleman's London

Living the life of an English aristocrat--dressing, dining and drinking as a man of means and class is meant to do.

July 08, 2001|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell, a frequent contributor to The Times' Travel magazine, lives in New York

LONDON — Perhaps it was the early chill of a London morning that awakened me; the very thought made me burrow deeper under the crushed-velvet bedcover. I was staying at Home House, a private club that accepts nonmembers like me for lodging and meals. The previous evening was still a pleasant blur of conversation, claret and crackling roast duck in the club's dining room overlooking Portman Square, London's most fashionable address in the early 1800s.

I turned to the night table and focused myopic eyes on the book I was reading when I fell asleep: "Can You Forgive Her?" by Anthony Trollope, the 19th century novelist of English aristocratic manners. Then, with superhuman effort, I staggered down the corridor and drew a bath from two lion head spouts that quickly filled the 6-foot-long marble tub. As I floated in the hot water, I remembered that Madonna had stayed in this very room not long ago. Yes, I can forgive her.

I was in London in May, pretending to lead the life of an English gentleman, an admittedly declasse ambition in the progressive era of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. During four days of fantasy, I confined myself mostly to Mayfair, the 40 square blocks bounded by Hyde Park, Piccadilly, and Oxford and Regent streets, home to London's most traditional clothing shops, private clubs and restaurants. This meant lodging in premises that date at least to the Edwardian era, getting measured for custom-made clothes--"bespoke," to use the British term--and dining and drinking at places of which my grandparents would have approved.

Of course, paying for that experience, especially in expensive modern-day London, would amount to financial folly--$7,000 or more, by my calculations. Instead I adopted the approach I use at antiques shops: browsing to my heart's content but disgorging my wallet on only a few objects. This may mean staying for only one night at a grand hotel, then moving into more affordable premises (as I did, moving to 8 York House, a B&B bargain at $50 a night for one, $70 for two); deciding whether to purchase a bespoke suit or shirts but not both; and turning tidbits at a well-known bar or tearoom into a full meal.

For my first day in London, I put up at the Ritz. Among its many virtues is its proximity to the clothing establishments of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, where I would spend much of my time and money. Another big plus is the hotel concierge, Michael de Cozar, a font of information on anything to be bought, imbibed or visited.

Of the two shirt makers he suggested, I chose New & Lingwood, at 53 Jermyn St. Turnbull & Asser, just across the street at 71 and 72 Jermyn, is better known but requires a minimum order of six shirts. At New & Lingwood, a quiet, two-story establishment next to a shopping arcade, Sean O'Flynn, the chief shirt maker, assured me I would have to buy no more than four.

"Our hallmark is a generously cut shirt," he says. "Something to let you put on a few pounds over the years." Given my weight trajectory in the last few decades, it's a hallmark that makes fine sense.

After mulling over scores of fabrics, I made four choices: two cotton poplins ($196 each), the first a narrow blue stripe and the other a blue and red gingham; a white, double-layered cotton voile ($210) that can be worn with a tuxedo; and a navy-blue Sea Island cotton ($235) that feels like cool satin. After selecting collar and cuff styles, I let O'Flynn take 10 measurements of my neck, torso, arms and wrists (including the thickness of my watch). A Hollywood producer, the only other client at the moment, was making impatient sounds in the background, but to no avail: My shirt maker would not be rushed, even for American royalty.

In three weeks, O'Flynn would have a sample ready and send it to me at home in New York. I was to wear and wash the shirt twice, and if I was satisfied, O'Flynn would make the three other shirts, which I would receive six to eight weeks later. The cost, including mailing charges and import taxes, was about $950. I bought the shirts this time but made suits a browsing experience for this trip.

I mulled over the rest of my shopping strategy during lunch next door at Wiltons, a clubby, wood-paneled restaurant dating to 1742. The high quality of the service and food have remained unchanged for decades. Waiters in black suits and waitresses in white nanny uniforms move about at the pace of a slow waltz. Some of the heavy wood tables were hidden behind curtains to accommodate patrons who wanted privacy. I ordered a half-dozen succulent oysters ($15) and a grilled Dover sole ($38). They needed no seasoning other than a squeeze of lemon.

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