The Old Oxford: The Lady in the Suit

(All photos by Jesse Untracht-Oakner)

When you see a woman truly wearing a suit it catches your eye, and she is an image hard to forget.  When Balzac wrote that “If clothing is the whole man, it is even more so the whole woman,” in 1830, he probably didn’t envision Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Grace Jones, or Patti Smith transforming garments traditionally made for men into something subversive, iconic, and beautiful.  Amber Doyle is in that school of women who can wear a jacket and tie better than just about anybody–regardless of gender.  The suits she favors are a tactile embodiment of Balzac’s words, especially considering that she designs and sews her jackets and pants.  In lieu of models and mannequins, Amber wears her wares around the two bespoke ateliers she owns, Against Nature and Doyle Muser

In retrospect, opening a boutique that specializes in bespoke suiting—starting at around $2500 dollars—in the thick of a recession seems cocky and rings of nearsighted youth.  A shiny new diploma from FIT helps explain Doyle’s foray into the tailoring business with friends, but it doesn’t account for the whole story.  Along with partners Jacob Muser, Ryan Matthew Cohn, and Simon Jacobs, Doyle bravely hoped that no matter how dire the financial climate, people would still seek out handmade suits. “We’d mostly just been making suits and accessories for ourselves and our friends,” Doyle says of the initial idea to open a shop.  “We were excited about getting our work and ideas out in the open.”  It didn’t take long for clients, drawn mostly through word of mouth, to boost the quartet into a Chrystie Street space.  They decorated the shop with leather couches, Persian rugs, and a large oak desk with a ledger.  They finally printed business cards.

There were suits, but they also peddled leather belts, jewel-toned tuxedo slippers, silk ties with skulls, and an attitude that was something entirely new to the world of New York menswear.  While designers like John Varvatos tout relationships with aging rock stars (Alice Cooper, Joe Perry of Aerosmith), Doyle and Muser’s aesthetic is drawn from how those rockstars used to look.  The brand is profoundly inspired by post-war subcultures and genres, from Mod to Teddy Boy, and Bowie’s Young Americans phase.  Rock n’ roll in spirit, but not always form, is as crucial to Doyle’s process as fabric and thread.  “There will always be a certain percentage of rock and rollers wearing leather and studs, but that’s the cliché, and some of the greatest bands have been more interesting and transgressive by putting on suits.”  You won’t hear music from the Classical era coming out of the speakers when you walk into Against Nature or Doyle Muser; instead, expect Iggy pop or 60s garage rock.  And every now and then, you might even get the chance to sip some vino at one of the infamous parties held in the store, “Sometimes, thanks to Ryan’s collection, our friends even end up drinking wine out of human skulls.”  Cohn, the tattooed star of the television show Oddities, is also an avid taxidermist, and his work is always on display at Against Nature—something else you won’t see at most bespoke ateliers.

The thing most out of place at either of the stores isn’t the stuffed varmint under glass, the interesting body art, or “Ballroom Blitz” playing as you get fitted for a suit; rather, it’s Doyle herself that may be the most compelling component of the Against Nature brand.  As a woman who co-owns, operates, and designs most of the stock in stores that specialize in suiting for men, Doyle is helping to break into a club that’s been made up of boys since Beau Brummell was polishing his boots with champagne.  It’s something Doyle doesn’t pay much attention to, but she mentions that “Some people are skeptical of being fitted by a woman.  They think it’s as dangerous as having a woman shave their face,” but also stands by the fact that her work speaks for itself.

Against Nature/Doyle Muser aren’t your grandfather’s tailors, and now as they branch out into new terrain, you can say they aren’t your grandmother’s either.  Even though Doyle has made her name stitching coats for the opposite sex, she studied women’s fashion in college, and her natural interest in dressing women is a main driver behind Against Nature’s recent collaboration with the goth-affected label Imitation of Christ.  The brands have produced an arresting collection of tailored suits for women, “I wasn’t happy with what little tailored womenswear I was seeing in the shops and on the runways. There wasn’t much of it to begin with, and what there was wasn’t of a very high quality.”  Doyle’s experience making her own suits, along with a few select female clients, made the transition an easy one, and while there isn’t an immediate plan to open an Against Nature store strictly for women, it’s definitely something they’re going to keep considering.

In London, which shop you get your suit from is a source of pride, and just like football clubs or political parties, it’s also a life choice that defines your social standing.  If you go to Henry Poole, you’re aligning yourself with Winston Churchill’s brand, and the tailors who dress the Lord Chamberlain’s office.  If you get your suits done a few minutes down the road by Anderson & Sheppard, you can claim to have something personal in common with titans of arts and letters, from Charlie Chaplin to Isaiah Berlin.  Although that same obsession with specific bespoke brands hasn’t become a priority in the States, there’s certain exclusivity to wearing one of Doyle’s suits.  While she’d rather not reveal her list of clients, just a quick glimpse at the Against Nature lookbook reveals some familiar faces, like the DJ from the Lower East Side bar who was spinning rare soul 45s you were at last week, or indie label honcho Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones Records.  Doyle may also be suiting Wall Street power players, but she’s more at home making tastemakers look good.

It’s obvious that Doyle and her co-conspirators have a mutual respect for the past, but also an equal amount of disdain for stuffy traditionalism.  They have deconstructed the experience of purchasing a custom suit by playing against the average expectation of the kind of person you should be buying that suit from.  The suit is subversive in that is has an atypical creative process, but it will also look different, a triumph in a corner of the fashion world that hasn’t allowed much in the way of evolution.  As fantastic as it sounds, Doyle is un-phased.  She just goes about her day, more concerned with fabric and measurements than politics and pomp.

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