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Photo by Jon Anderson.
Carl West is known for his sharp-dressed and traditional sense of style and fashion.
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Photo by Jon Anderson.
Carl West, at right in the chalk-striped suit, blue shirt and red tie, chats with Hoover Councilman John Lyda just before the May 9 meeting of the Hoover Planning and Zoning Commission, on which both men sit.
Ever since he was a young boy at age 6 or 7, Carl West has had a keen interest in clothes and fashion.
When other kids’ parents went on trips, they would bring their children typical souvenirs, “but I always got clothes,” the 60-year-old West recalls.
He distinctly remembers his mother coming back from a trip and bringing him a green V-neck pullover sweater with a stripe in the middle of it.
“I just thought it was fantastic,” West said.
As he grew up and matured into adulthood, West always kept an eye on what people were wearing and watched people he thought were good dressers, whether it was celebrities or historical figures, he said.
So that helps explain why the Hoover resident typically is one of the best-dressed people in the room wherever he goes. It’s common to see him in a three-piece suit when he goes out for dinner or to a meeting of the Hoover Planning and Zoning Commission, on which he serves.
West said he doesn’t really care for the trend toward more casual dressing these days. He sees it as a lowering of standards in America.
“Friday casual became business casual became sloppy casual became wear whatever you want to wear,” West said. “Maybe that’s OK, but it’s not my style.”
Casual dressing in certain circumstances is fine, he said, as long as people are dressed neatly and professionally.
“When I walk into a business where people are dressed professionally, I think it’s a professionally run organization,” he said. “It’s better than somebody waiting on you with a golf shirt and a pair of wrinkled khakis.”
If you look at pictures of Birmingham in the 1930s, you’ll see men wearing hats and coats, but not anymore, West said. He named a few businesses in the Birmingham area that stand out as still having professional attire: the Von Maur department store, Wells Fargo and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, from which he retired about five years ago.
West said he does like three-piece suits, but he’s into all kinds of classic, traditional styles of clothing.
“My general philosophy is always go with the basics and stuff that’s been around forever,” he said. “I think the worst thing you can do is trend-hop.”
People can spend a lot of money on a new trend only to see it fade, he said. “The classics never go away.”
He recently saw a picture of the actor Humphrey Bogart from the late 1930s, wearing a chalk-stripe gray suit. “You could put it on today, and everybody would think you were the best-dressed person in the room,” he said.
Other famous men whose fashion he admires include Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
West said he and his wife, Jennifer, travel a lot, and he feels the only places where men still regularly dress stylishly are London and Italy.
“London is the men’s fashion capital, in my opinion,” he said.
West said for the past 15-20 years, he has gotten all of his suits, trousers, sport coats and dinner jackets custom-made at Hong Kong Tailors in Homewood. “They’re master tailors,” he said.
He subscribes to fashion magazines such as The Rake. “It has really cutting-edge stuff, very traditional, too,” he said. He also gets Esquire’s “The Big Black Book” that comes out twice a year.
He typically likes to buy suits made of wool or a custom wool mix, he said. A lot of the fashions he likes are not mass-manufactured anymore, so he brings pictures of things he likes to tailor Ramesh Kirpalani and asks what it will cost to make them.
“I like it because it gives me flexibility to use the types of fabric I want, the way I want something designed,” West said.
He probably has about 30 suits, 10 of which are three-piece suits, he said. Some cost $500 to $600, but others can run $3,000 to $4,000, he said. “It all depends on the quality of the material and the fabric,” he said.
Kirpalani said West’s suits probably average about $850 to $900. West said some people may think his suits are expensive, but he buys quality material that lasts. “I’ve been wearing some of those suits 20 years, and they never go out of style,” he said.
Kirpalani said West has an awesome sense of style and is probably the best-dressed man in the area.
“Nobody dresses like the way he does. He’s very, very particular about his clothes. He wants to be one of a kind,” Kirpalani said.
The first time West came to Hong Kong Tailors, he looked around so much that Kirpalani thought he was never going to buy anything. He left but came back four or five months later and has been coming ever since, Kirpalani said.
“He wants quality, reasonable price and good workmanship,” Kirpalani said.
West stays conservative with his suits, trousers and coats, but he steps out to distinguish himself a bit with his shoes, ties, pocket squares, tie braces and cologne, Kirpalani said.
West said he likes to get his shirts from the Golden Fleece line at Brooks Brothers. For ties, he likes Brooks Brothers, Robert Talbott, Dion and Brioni. For shoes, he favors Alden, Crockett & Jones and Peal & Co.
Kirpalani said West is very confident about what he’s going to wear. He said West never brings his wife in to get approval before he buys, and he respects West a lot for that.
West met his wife when they worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama together, and she noticed his fashion sense from day one.
“He has an impeccable style. He has a very defined way of thinking about how he wants to look,” Jennifer West said. “He’s very polished, very classy, very traditional, and he always looks fabulous.”
Jennifer West said she loves clothing, too, but she doesn’t consider herself a fashionista. It’s hard to buy gifts for her husband, and she probably has bought him only a couple of things to wear in the 11 years they have been married, she said.
“I will never, ever go buy him a tie or buy him a shirt,” she said. “He probably wouldn’t like it, and he does such a good job.”
West also does most of his own ironing and steaming. He knows how to take good care of his clothes, she said.
Carl West said the worst thing people can do with a suit is take them to the cleaners. The cleaners treat them with chemicals that break down the fabric, he said. The only time he takes a suit to the cleaners is if he gets a stain that won’t come out, he said. He prefers to steam his suits immediately after wearing them, before putting them back on the rack in the closet, he said.
“That’s probably overkill, but that’s just the way I do it,” he said. “I want it fresh-looking when I’m ready to go.”
West said he got some of his fashion sense from his parents.
“My dad — he always looked sharp,” West said. “We grew up on a farm, but if we ever went into town or went to dinner somewhere, he always looked sharp and squared away. My mother, too. She was old-school — if you went somewhere, you dressed up.”