Thursday, December 4, 2008

Drinkwater's Cambridge

Gary Drinkwater looks the part of a seasoned veteran of Boston's menswear scene. With a grey beard that brings to mind Ernest Hemingway and an elegant, understated style, he fits in perfectly at his Porter Square store, Drinkwater's of Cambridge.

The quirky, studio-sized retail space is the result of four years of what Mr. Drinkwater calls “bootstrapping” - he built the business with his savings and turned it into a profitable enterprise with the sweat of his own brow. He runs the store without employees and relies on a loyal, “quietly affluent” customer base.

A heavy antique table dominates the center of the showroom, covered in a glittering array of 4-fold ties from makers like Robert Talbott and shirtings from Hilditch & Key. In fact, the store has a partnership with the antique shop “Room With A View,” so if you need to buy a 19th century French armoire or a gilded lamp when you pick up your suit, Drinkwater's is prepared. Despite this, the prices are affordable – Mr. Drinkwater says he's appealing to people who want to move up from brands like Banana Republic and Bennetton while staying beneath the stratospheric expense of a Louis Boston or Ermenegildo Zegna.

A local company from Lawrence, Southwick Clothing, cuts all of the suits and odd jackets for the store. Most of them are from a fairly conservative but sleek 3-button profile called Nicola, although Mr. Drinkwater's fondness for checks and Prince of Wales patterns is displayed in the window. Indeed, dressing and arranging mannequins is where he got his start in the clothing business over 25 years ago, and his experience in the area shows. One of the suits will run you between $700 and $1300, while a sportcoat goes for $600 to $900.

The other half of the store holds the streetwear lines from new brands like Engineered Garments and European companies such as Wellansteyn. Again, the emphasis is on quality construction and reasonable, although not cheap, prices. All the bases are covered – you could build your entire wardrobe here. Shoes come from Paraboot, a French company that became famous making boots for paratroopers, and there is even a selection of pocket squares in silk and Irish linen($18). Details are important, and a well-folded pocket square or proper cufflinks can set clothes apart.

But the greatest attraction is Mr. Drinkwater's personal attention to detail and encyclopaedic knowledge of men's clothing. From Louis Boston to the now-defunct Stonestreet's in Harvard Square, he's seen most of what there is to see in Boston's sartorial world.

Behind the register where he hand-writes credit-card charge slips, a pair of patched, frayed, hippy-era bell-bottom jeans hangs on the wall. They are a reminder of his younger days as an art student, a partly ironic and partly nostalgic symbol of another era of clothing.

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