Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A crusader for classic men's fashion

Andy Gilchrist is on a mission to make guys dress well again

By Bruno J. Navarro

Are suspenders in style? Should dress socks match shoes or slacks? What’s the difference between chinos and khakis?

For the past five years, Andy Gilchrist — founder of Web site Ask Andy About Clothes — has fielded such questions from thousands of fashion-conscious readers.

“I’ve always been interested in clothing,” he says via telephone from Manhattan Beach, Calif. “Out of my wife and I, I’m the one who likes to shop.”

Gilchrist, 62, built his corporate career in occupational safety. But it was a part-time job at a Polo store near Redondo Beach, Calif., that caught his fancy.

“Probably that’s the most fun I’ve every had,” he says.

For most of the 5½ years he worked there, Gilchrist was the store’s top salesman — probably not surprising given his enthusiasm for the details of clothing. “I think it’s always been an interest of mine, even in high school,” he says.

Growing up in Kingman, Kan., Gilchrist says he would look forward to his family’s regularly scheduled back-to-school shopping trip to Wichita.

Early inspiration came from his dad, who would consistently strive to look his best, a trait Gilchrist laments as having largely faded from modern life.

“We’ve missed maybe a couple of generations there,” he says. “I’m not sure what happened.”

However, in the past few years Gilchrist says he has noticed men becoming more interested in dressing well.

“Now these guys have realized that clothing makes a difference on how people perceive you,” he says.

These days, Gilchrist spends about four hours a day on the site — “but it’s for fun,” he says — and enjoys help from volunteer moderators to handle queries and make sure things are running smoothly. The online forums, where visitors trade advice, ask questions and discuss the merits of men and women’s fashion elements, boasted 40 live members one recent afternoon.

The site has garnered enough of a following that users voted on an official Ask Andy tie pattern. An official pocket square and cufflinks are also in the works, Gilchrist says.

“Maybe I should go into licensing,” he says with a laugh, adding, “It actually pays the bills and provides a little extra for the official Andy wardrobe.”

Gilchrist says the most asked question is likely: Should dress socks match the shoes or the trousers?

“The answer is they should match the trousers so they can keep that continuous look,” he says.

(Naturally, other schools of fashion thought espouse “freelancing” socks of different hues for a more colorful approach — lending weight to the idea that all style is personal and rules are meant to be broken.)

Gilchrist usually takes a traditional tack with his advice, eschewing the fads for a more sophisticated look.

“The philosophy is a very conservative look so that it lasts for a long time, not just something that’s going to be in this season,” he says. “If you buy a suit, buy something that doesn’t have ruffles on the edge — or charteuse velvet — so it lasts a couple of years.”

One challenge for men is the casual look, to which Gilchrist devotes an entire page on his Web site defining.

“To pull off the casual look and to maintain an air of authority and professionalism is really, really tough,” he says.

All the advice he offered to customers eventually prompted him to produce a photocopied pamphlet, which three years later grew to become “The Encyclopedia of Men’s Clothes” ($19.95). The self-published CD-ROM volume — aptly named at approximately 800 printed pages and for sale on the site — includes a comprehensive approach to achieving the look.

Yet a main feature of Gilchrist’s advice is his emphasis on style and fit over price tags and designer labels.

“You can buy at Marshall’s or Ross or J.C. Penney or department stores,” he says. “You don’t really have to have money to look good. A lot of it is knowing what to look for — knowledge is power.”

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