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K. Cooper Ray is on a mission to return menfolk to manners, one bow tie at a time. Find out how the local tastemaker teamed with Brooks Brothers to reinvent a wedding wear classic
“I didn’t set out to revolutionize men’s neckwear,” says K. Cooper Ray, “that was a by-product.” The Opelika, Alabama, native (and newfound Charleston resident) is only half-joking. Last year Cooper, whose career has included stints as the vice president of PR and events for Bottega Veneta and “ambassador of Dom Pérignon,” inadvertently found himself in the midst of a fashionable resurgence. Living in L.A. at the time and penning the “mind your manners, men” blog known as Social Primer, he opened an antiques pop-up shop in a friend’s design boutique. A smallish replica of gentleman’s library, the refined books, and paintings, staionery therein were priced to show how good style can be attainable for everyman. Rather than make the opening a black-tie event, Cooper called for a “bow tie” dress code, as it had long been his signature accessory.
An entourage of L.A.’s who’s who popped in for the fête, and Cooper was blown away to learn that the morning after, a Vanity Fair blog named it one of the hautest and hottest parties that night—in the country. When the Wall Street Journal followed with a piece on the comeback of the bow tie, they quoted Cooper as an expert, and soon Brooks Brothers knocked on his door. The fine clothier’s goal? Turn out his twist on the tie—a reversible, two-ties-in-one version—to the refined masses. “It was my design,” says Cooper, “their fabrics, and our pairings of patterns.”
The line, released last year, was a resounding success, hooking a new generation—even those North of the Mason-Dixon line—on the timeless men’s accessory while further endearing (and updating) its older fan base. These days, Cooper is excited about his new spring collection, Social Primer for Brooks Brothers, as “spring is really the season for bow ties,” he says. Expect gingham, seersucker, and “madras, then more madras.”
As for what follows madras, the possibilities range far and wide. There’s likely a book or five in his future (think Miss Manners for men), and he’s brainstorming a line of menswear that allows Southerners to be dapper without being damp, shall we say, in the summer months. Imagine breathable linen in classic cuts inspired by Charleston, “where it gets too hot to even put on clothing,” he says. But in the meantime, it’s all about bow ties. After all, “The only place where a man gets to be a peacock, really, is with his neckwear,” says Cooper.
What to Wear to a Wedding:
DEK:Before your gent dons his dapper duds, forward this Q&A to him
K. Cooper Ray, author of the SocialPrimer [link to www.socialprimer.com], sits down with Charleston Weddings to school us about what men should—and should not—wear to weddings in the South. He should know. A one-time “ambassador” for Dom Perginon, former vice president of PR and events for Bottega Veneta, Cooper was born in Alabama and schooled at Auburn University. Last year, his line of bow ties debuted at Brooks Brothers, after a 2010 move to Charleston, he scored a spot on the Charleston Fashion Week® Fashion Panel [http://www.charlestonmag.com/fashionweek/panel].
Charleston Weddings(CW):Any no-brainers you’d recommend for a warm-weather wedding in Charleston?
K. Cooper Ray (KCR):The number one “do,” of course, would be to wear madras, seersucker, and gingham bow ties from Social Primer for Brooks Brothers.
CW: What’s the easiest way to tie a bow tie?
CW:Can you talk about seasonally appropriate material for men?
KCR:Nothing gets on my nerves more than when I see a man in a nice white cotton sweater in January. Cotton is meant for the summer, it’s not meant for the winter.
CW:Wait a minute though. If it’s 75 degrees here in January…
KCR:Don’t wear a sweater! You’ll look like a fool. Believe me, I struggle with those transitional seasons, too. But I give a man to 24 years old to figure it out. He’s still got a post-college hangover at that point and is still finding himself, you know. But at 25 years old, he has to start dressing seasonally and appropriately.
CW:What about suits at a summer wedding? Wool, linen, cotton?
KCR:I’m inclined to say don’t wear any type of wool in the summer, but that’s hard to say because most men’s suits these days are three-season wool. So I say it depends on the time. If it’s evening, indoor, you can wear your three-season wool. If it’s outside, you’ve gotto wear linen, cotton, or seersucker.
CW:What about summer black-tie events—any tips for men there?
KCR:I was in Palm Beach last May. Black-tie. Six o’ clock event. Because you get dressed in the middle of the day if an event starts in the evening, I was in black-tie in the blazing Palm Beach sun. And my friend who had just flown in from Paris asks, “Why haven’t you broken a sweat?” I said, “Move slow. Follow the shade.” Because the minute you break a sweat it’s over. That’s the best advice I can give anyone at a formal summer wedding—move slowly and follow the shade.
CW:What hot-weather grooming and style tips do you have for men?
KCR:Keep cologne and hair products light. Nothing’s worse than having a bunch of goo dripping down your neck as you’re sweating to death. There are light products out there.
CW:Back to seersucker, what shoes are appropriate to pair with it as a suit?
KCR: White or camel bucks. But never a dark loafer. Never.
CW:Nantucket Red trousers are popular here, can you share your thoughts on them?
KCR:First of all, Southerners can’t wear Nantucket Reds in the summer because they are made for Cape Cod summers where it gets down to 50 degrees at night. You can’t wear them here or you will sweat to death. I mean, I’ve got a pair that I wear in the winter because they’re that heavy.
CW:And what shoes with them? We see a lot of chocolate loafers with them.
KCR:I live in beat-up, salt-water soaked Sperrys. But if I wore the Reds to a rehearsal dinner in Maine, I would do brown-and-white saddle shoes—never, never dark loafers with them.
CW:OK. Let’s stick with footwear. Thoughts on flip-flops? With suits? In beach or plantation weddings? To a bachelor party night out?
KCR:No. No. No. You should never see a man’s feet unless you’re coming out of the shower with him, or you’re at the pool, or you’re at the beach. In other words, you should only see a man’s feet if you’re in the water with him. That’s because, first of all, what man is going to get a pedicure? (Even though every man should get a pedicure once a year—every May.) Forget it. No man over 25 should be wearing flip-flops “out.” And to a bar? Oh my God.
CW:What about to a wedding?
KCR:No! It’s offensive and disrespectful to the bride. Definitely not. And I’m not a big fan of beach weddings.
CW:Are you serious?
KCR:You’ve got to have a place to sit. You can’t sit on the sand. It just… I get it…I mean I get why people have beach and outdoor weddings, but there’s too much left to chance. Wind? Rain? No thank you.