Beers with Ben: Matt Hranek
Beers with Ben | Ben Levy sits down with Matt Hranek to discuss influences, traveling in style and the personality behind being well-dressed.
Beers with Ben is a series in which Ben Levy talks to some of the more interesting men of style about the art of living - while sipping his signature Campari soda.
This week’s Beers with Ben features menswear style editor and author Matt Hranek. Hranek recently penned A Man and His Watch: Iconic Watches and Stories from the Men Who Wore Them, signed copies of which are available for order here.
So, in your own words, tell me what you do for a living.
So I wear a couple different hats. I am first and foremost, and will always be, a photographer. In these last few years I’ve shifted gears. I got involved in television, content creation.
That transcended into the magazine world with Conde Nast traveler. There was a deficit in covering the men’s market: watches, style. So I became the men’s style editor there, for whatever that title’s worth.
So I would say in my soul, I’m a magazine guy: photographic, content development or otherwise. That’s a very long-winded answer.
What is the first piece of clothing that you can remember really caring about?
I was obsessed with Lacoste. I think that came out of a weird necessity because when Lacoste was purchased by Izod in the mid-to-late 70s, there was an outlet in my hometown in upstate New York.
I was a very, very aggressive preppy just by pure location, and I lived in that store. It was actually welcome for me to live in that store because everything was so cheap. Everything I owned needed to have an alligator on it.
I mean, [I had] the belt, the socks, the tennis visor, you know, I just had mounds and mounds and mounds.
I remember laying out clothes for the day before that were all choreographed, and it was really ridiculous. I have no idea what my parents thought.
But it was fun too at the time too.
I loved it, and also it was a part of the pop culture of the high school I was going to, too. Everyone was decked out in preppy.
Did you play tennis?
I wasn’t on the tennis team, but I immersed myself in all other preppy activities. I played soccer, I skied, I was a great watcher of tennis, and at that point when I was at school, I was the yearbook photographer.
So I was always assigned all those, and I really couldn't play that stuff, but I definitely aspired to that world. That was the epic; the best tennis style of a lifetime is from that period. From Jimmy Connors to Bjorn Borg, early 80s was my jam.
The almost hippie, preppy tennis style -
Hippie-preppy, but still thoughtful and tailored.
Short shorts, tailored shirts, very, very color coordinated and accessorized - we loved that.
Everybody had a look that was so well-defined for who the person was.
I think that happened in the tennis world as well as the ski world, and it didn’t feel all kind of mashed together. Where tennis looks like NBA, looks like running gear, every specific sport was so highly stylized. I don’t care if you were a long distance runner, you wore dolphin shorts.
I loved narrowing in on all those style notes of each of those sports.
Yeah, and that was the same era where even baseball players, football players, all had such a distinct look.
In terms of uniform.
The personality somehow like really shined through at that point.
I think that that was just the experiment - also with hair and beards. No one was really balking the uniform the way that happens today, with let’s say the Williams sisters. I saw Federer at the US Open, and I was appalled by what he was wearing.
So I loved that period, and I think it was so deeply affected by preppiness for me - living in Bean, living in Woolrich, living in Orvis. I had a Brooks Brothers charge card that I applied with my dad's name when I was in high school, and I still have that. I remember I used to get the New York Times in American Studies class, and all I cared about was that opening page because the Brooks Brothers ads were on the lower left.
When I would come to New York, that was just a couple hours away, the first place that I would go would be to Brooks Brothers.
Was that kind of the first time that the idea of clothing per occasion made sense to you?
Well my father was a sign painter, an illustrator. So he was a guy who would go to work everyday in Levi's and Red Wings with, you know, Clark’s desert boots and khakis - very, very causal.
The Levi’s jacket, or chore coat, but he was showing up at a studio everyday. He was a guy that loved clothes. It was a big Italian contingency up there, so we had Italian tailors. I remember the valet shop, Jimmy and Johnny at the valet shop. So my dad would go, and everything was well tailored. It was a big Harris Tweed kind of world. There were a lot more tweed chore jackets in my father's wardrobe than real suiting. Because he didn't wear them everyday, they became very special and thoughtful when he did.
Has that kind of shaped the way that you now, as an adult, shop?
Again, I don’t have to wear a suit everyday, and I’m always amused by people who are like ‘ah it sucks wearing a suit everyday’ particularly in this current world of men's style. I love wearing suits, I love wearing suits in the most inappropriate occasion. I love tailoring. You get to the point in your life as an adult male where you kind of hit your stride.
In terms of uniforms - and people talk about uniform all the time - I consistently buy safari jackets, I consistently buy navy blue polos, I consistently buy khakis, and I have all my life. Everytime I've gone off-piste, like lets say in a Prada moment in the early 90s, I’ve lived to regret that.
I lived to regret. I would say my wardrobe now is a slightly better made, better constructed version of what I wore in high school
It’s funny how your uniform kind of finds you without you really trying too hard. Your lifestyle really kind of determines what you wear, more than what you really want to buy. You find yourself buying the same things over and over again unintentionally.
Well to a fault - and my wife always gives me shit about ‘do you need another navy blue cashmere sweater,’ and I’m like ‘yeah.’
Why not? Yes I do.
I’m going to wear it.
You would consistently see in my closet the same color palette, and I think that it’s important. I think that it's important to reasonably stay within the same haircut, and the same wardrobe. First of all, you look at pictures, and very rarely can you date people who have stayed consistent.
Also, I would say my big hiccup was the early 90s, and I think that because I was working with all these design people. I was working with wallpaper a lot, and everyone was in head to toe shiny Prada suits and square-toed Hermes loafers.
It became very ‘fashiony’ at the time.
That was the biggest mistake I ever made. I’ve kept some of those ridiculous shoes to remind myself not to go back. But the bookend on those bad shoes are Weejun penny loafers from high school, and I’m wearing an Alden loafer that is not that much different.
Yeah, it’s just the better made version of the same idea.
Exactly. That's why I loved when menswear hit its stride with all this heritage stuff, because it couldn’t avoid that pocket of what I loved always about style, which was this kind of preppy, timeless...
Timeless well made thing.
That’s why I was a big vintage collector. I was in thrift stores every single weekend. I was looking at old stuff because I couldn’t afford the new stuff.
I mean, your area is kind of a gold mine for that stuff too.
It was. You would be able to walk into a Salvation Army in upstate New York, and walk out with piles of Lacoste, piles of Brooks Brothers, piles of great stuff, because some old geezer died. Now it’s all corporate polar fleece when you walk in there, and it's surprising.
I think Woolrich is a brand, where those Woolrich wool overshirts and chambrays - I have piles and piles and piles of them because I hate leaving them behind.
Well, it's a testament to what we were saying about the quality. The heritage thing is that if that stuff wasn’t so well made, you would never find it in a thrift shop, you would never find it in a vintage shop.
You know a lot of those guys were buying these things once. I have my grandfather’s Woolrich hunting coat.
That’s mid-to-late 1930s this thing’s from. It is probably like the day he bought it.
The thing’s bulletproof - he was only buying one hunting jacket. He was a first generation immigrant from Eastern Europe, and he was going to buy the best thing one time. All of these guys were in Binghamton. Both of my granfathers made shoes.
They came from Europe, and worked in the shoe factories. There was a big shoe factory there. It was 'buy the best quality you can afford one time.' That still sticks in my brain even though I may have four versions of that thing.
They’re still all the best version of it.
I try not to buy disposable things.
Granted, there’s a bunch of Uniqlo polos in my world.
It's a price for value thing too. You can wear a Uniqlo polo for five years, and it's still well worth the $30 you spent on it.
I just would never walk into a shop, and seasonably shop, just in a cheap place for its disposability.
That brings us into an interesting thing about travel. A lot of guys see dressing for travel as kind of a burden, or something you can’t really have fun with.
I think that is completely wrong. First of all, I spend a lot of time on airplanes traveling for the magazine and for work. Listen, I don’t prescribe to wearing a suit and tie on the plane. There is a generation that dressed for flying, and that was a very elegant thing. I think being comfortable is important in terms of getting from A to Z and working.
It does not have to be NBA shorts and sweatpants. There are plenty of options out there - pants with stretch. My uniform is this one pair of trousers that I have that have a little bit of stretch in them, that’s a Danish company, and always a dark cashmere sweater. It’s bulletproof, it’s a pillow - you spill stuff on it, it doesn’t make a difference. I love a safari jacket because I love buttoned pockets. The passport goes in there, boarding pass goes in there, it goes through security, nothing comes out.
You put it on, everything’s still there.
It looks great. You can throw a tie on it from the airport, go to the bar, and you still...
I am not into - very rarely will wear - an open foot anything on the airplane, unless maybe I’m in Greece going to another island. Never ever shorts, never ever shorts.
I was talking to an old stylist friend of mine who is much older, and when you’re presented well, you know you get treated differently.
The best end game of all that is an upgrade, but [it’s] just thoughtfulness. If you go on looking like a schlub, you usually get treated like a schlub.
I had this huge argument with my family one time - we were all going to Paris - and I took all these miles to put everyone into first class.
They walked down in pajamas, and I was like ‘I don’t know where the hell you think you’re going but everyone needs to go back upstairs and change.’
I said, ‘I know you have some gorgeous cashmere drawstring pants up there, and I know you have a beautiful cashmere turtleneck up there, which would be just as comfortable on that plane, and still look incredibly good.’
I do think that air travel has become less sexy because people have allowed themselves to become less sexy in the process of that.
I think that that applies to comfort in general in life as well.
I think you can be very comfortable in a suit and tie if it's what you enjoy wearing. I think [that’s true of] clothing a lot of the time regardless of the actual construction of it. Comfort is the most important thing in any piece of clothing regardless of how you're dressed.
You feel like the best version of yourself when it looks good and it's comfortable. The only exception to the rule that I make with that is that I would rather have suit trousers be slightly uncomfortable sitting, than looking bad standing.
But then again, I wouldn’t wear those on the airplane.
It’s such a fine line that you have to walk with tailoring, between the accessibility of it and the actual functionality of it, and how it looks.
I would wear a different jacket and tie situation on an airplane - actually I don’t wear ties anymore on the airplane. I mean, I love neck scarves, and I think The Armoury and Drake’s is a great example. A warm neck is so practical on an airplane, and it doesn’t have to be a huge scarf. You often look put together.
That’s kind of the unintentional result of it.
That’s right, and I do think wearing a nice version of that is really nice. I think that there's plenty of jackets that I have that are deconstructed out of nice materials.
Again, I love the idea that that bit of travel isn’t going to compromise what the garment is, and I’m going to have life when I hit the ground with it.
You can step off the plane, go do anything, still be comfortable, and still look good.
It’s as casual as you want it to be, or it's as kind of semi-formal and cocktail as you need it to be.
I mean you’re not going to go on a plane wearing a black tie full ensemble.
How did watches come into your life?
You know, I think with most influences in your life, it comes from your childhood. You're either gravitated to it - you gravitate towards it or you’re repulsed by it.
My father was a big lover of objects and well-made things, and watches were just one of them. It wasn’t just watches, it was Rolex. My dad was Rolex. Rolex was everything, it was the great tool watch, it was this level of you’ve made it, it had this elegance to it.
I think that that just became part of my DNA. Then when he passed away, a watch was left to me which was a very simple, beautiful Datejust, and it just kind of evolved from there.
I love many - there's not one watch in a big watch brand group that I don’t love, I’m talking from Swatches to Cartier. There’s something that connects me to that childhood experience and my dad when I wear that Rolex.
It’s cool, it was at that kind of time period that Rolex was accessible enough.
In the 80s -
From a price point standing, that he could go to work and get paint on it. He could beat it up and hit it on stuff, and not start crying when something happened.
Not be precious about it.
You know what's interesting when I was writing this book, you take Paul Newman, for example, these were tool watches for most of these guys. Even Eric Ripert talks about wearing this Vacheron Constantin in the kitchen, and getting it banged up. Most people would be kind of taken aback by that, but the reality is it's a tool watch.
I think at that point my father's generation was buying these things, of course you had Patek and things like that that were really, really expensive. These watches weren’t cheap, but they were just a part of your wardrobe. They were part of the accessory of who you were.
Well it was a tool the same way a suit was a tool, or a Harris Tweed sport coat was a tool.
Or my dad only bought Red Wing boots, like he was not going to buy another. I think first all these things like Harris, like Levi’s, were a testament of quality.
Do you think it still stands true today, the same idea that your Rolex is a tool just the same way that your sport coat is a tool, or your iPhone is a tool?
I think the watch has become something different in this digital age. Now I think that the watch becomes a little bit of a statement of who you are, or who you want yourself presented as, who you think you could be. That was a reason why I liked all those kinds of sport watches.
You know, I wear a Rolex diving watch, I’m like a Navy diver, I wear a GMT and I’m a Pan Am pilot. I now just fall into the romance of all that because we have phones that tell time, and I like the idea of accessory. I don’t wear - I don’t think men should wear lots of jewelry. It’s one of those things that, I think in terms of a jewelry piece, is an adornment piece I think is appropriate.
I think it's cool too - like a well-made watch really can tell the same story as a bespoke suit or a benchmade pair of shoes. It has an aspect of really interesting personality behind it, that the more you use it, it becomes actually more apparent.
It becomes, I think actually, a part of you, and hopefully a part of your signature style. I think what’s interesting is that you are a couple generations removed away from me, but what’s so great about the generation you are coming out of is that all this stuff has - you know - I think it skipped a generation. All of this stuff becomes thoughtful.
I think we, particularly in urban environments, can definitely judge the characters based on three notes - right - maybe it’s watch, maybe it’s shoes, maybe it’s eyeglasses, maybe it’s a sport jacket. We don’t have cars here, so it's hard to tell that here, but I’m sure in LA it happens.
I think that all this stuff is not necessary, but we make it a part of the fabric of who we are. That part, I think is fun.
It comes back to style in a sense that it’s really not a way of showcasing wealth or success, it is a way of showcasing that you care. You care enough to present yourself in a way that's both respectful to yourself, respectful to your environment, and the people you're around.
I would just have to say that you know this always comes in mind - I would have loved to be the guy that could have just wore a white v-neck Hanes t-shirt and a pair of 501s. But first of all, I’m not physically that guy. They were the fittest guys - with the best hair and the most handsome - you think about the guy that just walks in, in a t-shirt and jeans, and you’re like that guy looks fucking good. There's a lot of other shit going on, and as much as I always wish that that could have just been my closet, Hanes t-shirts and Levi's, I find that my clothes are hiding a plethora of faults.
I think a lot of guys feel that way. It comes back to comfort. You feel that you are wearing something that you truly exemplifies the ‘you’ that you want to put forward, and you feel that you look your best, whether that is a Hanes t-shirt or a bespoke suit - or somewhere in between. It all kind of comes from the same place.
It comes from confidence, and that is probably one of the best accessories. I think subtle confidence without arrogance is really, really nice.
It's so appealing to everybody because you don’t feel that somebody's being flashy, or trying to present a false idea of themselves. They just look good.
I have a Jack Russell.
When you’re walking with a Jack Russell - and I’ve owned several Jack Russells - It’s the one breed that I've ever owned that when you're walking down the street and your Jack Russell sees another Jack Russell, it makes a connection.
I don't know if they're super smart or they just think they're good looking, but there’s recognition of ‘were the same, we got it.’
You see that sometimes when you’re walking down the street in New York.
You kind of feel you’re looking your best, you have all those style notes we were just talking about - and all of a sudden you pass some other guy in the subway or on the street - this happens a lot - where you just kind of exchange that look of ‘yes we are, we are thinking about this stuff.’
It’s so funny the kind of person that is, and how you kind of continue to recognize that.
Personally, I would walk past any kind of very slick, Gucci loafer, Ferragamo belt, Hermes tie, very shiny suit guy and not have that thing, but I walk down Madison Avenue and see a kind of schlubby old guy in his Brooks Brothers oxford and oxford suit with old Aldens that he’s had repaired 50 times, and get such a connection to somebody that has - whether they know it or not - an appreciation for what they're doing. It comes from that idea of comfort and uniform: that that's just what they feel good in.
And that guy's been wearing that since he was 16, and nothing has changed.
It’s so cool that I think that's part of what makes a suit a suit, and I guess it brings us to a good place of why you think a suit is never going to go away.
I think that people like rituals. This idea of that, when I walk into Conde Nast, all those guys in security are wearing the most horrible cheap polyester suit, and someone in corporate has said you have to button both of those buttons. That is everything that's wrong with the idea of wearing a suit. I think we’ve all seen it with the banker, the security guard, the waiter, where it's just like no, no, no.
When you fall into this pacing of ritual and liking the style, interested in presenting that part of yourself, it’s 'I’ve thought about this in the best possible way.'
I think that when you know what this is and it's done by choice, I think that's a very thoughtful way to wear those.
Again, I found my stride with suiting. I used to just buy suits, and I was falling in line with the people that were doing it. I’ve always, always tapered my trousers, because I have a small foot, and I don’t like a big drop. A droopy break over a small foot is one of the ugliest things ever.
It just looks bizarre.
It looks weird.
So every time I had pushback from designers and suitmakers because they wanted to make their suit, that was the biggest mistake I ever made.
So now I know I want always half canvass, I want a tapered leg, I want the break to be like this, because that’s how I feel like the best version of myself. I think when you’re wearing a suit, you’re saying to people, ‘listen I’m presenting myself, I’m presenting myself differently, and I’m being thoughtful about it.’ I think that idea of the semi-formal is nice.
A friend of mine, David Coggins, is always in a jacket and tie. That becomes part of his signature ensemble, and I envy that because I can’t do that all the time.
But he looks so comfortable in what he is doing. He looks so good because he just exists as that, and it makes so much sense when you look at him.
I think when you find your pacing with suiting, if it’s bespoke, off the peg or otherwise, it becomes that you are wearing it, it is not wearing you.
Its interesting, there can be so much personality in a wardrobe that is nothing but navy suits, white shirts and black ties, you know.
I totally agree.
As long as you feel comfortable.
Also, there is each interpretation of that.
Exactly. You could line up 50 guys wearing that same scheme, and they could all look different and all look great.
Yeah, I was invited to this event not too long ago with Nat Sherman, and on the invite it was like navy suits, navy ties, white shirts.
Which, I love the idea of that. It was about leveling the playing field.
Right. When you went there all the labels were taken off cigars, there were no labels on the booze, so really it was about interaction. Regardless of the constrictions on that wardrobe, you could see the personality in each person based on the cut of the shirt, the cut of the jacket, the material of the tie.
I thought that was a very interesting thing to observe, and it was like guys of different financial backgrounds, guys of different ethnicity, guys who varied in what they did for a living.
So if you were a banker, a dj, an artist, a writer, [you were in] that uniform, that navy blue and white. Everything still was revealed in terms of the personality of who these people were, and I like that a lot.
I don't think a wardrobe needs to be about flamboyance and peacocking, unless that’s you.
I think a navy, grey, and brown suit is all I have in my closet.
Signed copies of A Man and His Watch: Iconic Watches and Stories from the Men Who Wore Them are available for order here.