Well Worn
Arnold Wong’s Mythical W.F. Mealli Jacket
By Alexander Esmail
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Before Arnold Wong and I sat down for our scheduled interview, I gave him a quick call – just to make sure we’d both be comfortable on the day. I need not have worried, even over the phone he came across as warm and approachable. When I asked him what he intended to present for this ‘Well Worn’ deep-dive, he told me he’d be bringing a vintage sports coat purchased in Florence during one of his bi-annual visits to Pitti Uomo in 2019 – a promising start.

Then, a couple of weeks later on a balmy and humid afternoon in Hong Kong, Wong presented his beloved jacket, and I discovered it had been made by near-mythical Florentine tailor, Vladimiro Fosco Mealli. Much like the recent news of a lady in Canada who discovered a covetable Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ 6241 Daytona down the back of her sofa, Wong was also initially unaware of the provenance of this jacket and its maker. Despite not being tailored for Wong, when he found it he was delighted that it fit him almost as it had been made bespoke. The jacket’s heavy brown tweed provided ample drape, which coupled with its dart-less front made for a timeless Florentine silhouette.

Said jacket was acquired on a whim during his final day in Florence. Wong had reserved five minutes to browse in one of his favourite vintage stores before dinner with a friend. As he was leaving the shop empty handed, he spied the cuff of a jacket peeping out from a rail packed with dusty garments. The jacket’s visible handwork was tidy so Wong purchased it with little hesitation.

As it happened, his dinner companion that night was a certain veteran Florentine tailor, who noticed the distinctive shape of the buttonhole on Arnold’s new jacket. He was convinced that it was crafted by the same woman that now sews their buttonholes – only decades earlier.  It was this realisation that prompted Arnold to check the jacket’s inside breast pocket to reveal the name ‘W.F. Mealli’ on the label.

Wong’s friend explained this reclusive man, no longer with us, was a gifted tailor whose work has been tirelessly examined but never replicated. Folk tales of Mealli tearing up commissions that didn’t pass muster have long circulated the streets of Florence. An offer was made for twentyfold what Wong paid on the spot. But, armed with this new knowledge of the lore of Mealli, he politely declined. Despite this, Wong wears the jacket seemingly without a care.

“To me, beating up clothes makes them look even better. If something looks too pristine, I get an urge to break it in and give it some edge; whether that’s fading around the cuffs or fraying around the collar.”
— Arnold Wong

Even by Wong’s standards, though, this jacket has taken a pummeling. “I can only wear it for a few months when Hong Kong turns cold in the winter,” he says, “so I like to really get into it. A flecked tweed like this can take it.”

Wong began to connect with clothing when he was around 15-years-old, and he began to watch films by legendary director Wong Kar-wai, and movies from the golden age of Hollywood. Stars like Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper were an infinite source of inspiration. As a student on a tight budget, Wong would sift through vintage racks searching for pieces that would help him channel a certain mid-century flair. “I wanted my hair to match the aesthetic too, so I visited an old Shanghainese barber – I just wanted to wake up like I was in a movie!” He says, blithely.

This fascination for tailored style has followed Wong throughout his whole life. As our conversation continues, he starts to wax lyrical about the foibles of defunct French tailoring houses. A few years ago, vintage French workwear served as the springboard to transition Wong from robust American military garb to fishtail trousers in heavy washed linen synonymous with nineteen-twenties Paris, “their generous lines lend themselves to be paired gracefully with sartorial tailoring,” he explains. “Vintage clothing has always had a particular value to me; each piece takes on a story of its own.”

Today, Wong works at Asian menswear institution, Attire House. It’s allowed him to explore different traditions of tailoring, and different menswear aesthetics – giving him the chance to slide between different clothing cultures. His style today is both eclectic and considered; roomy trousers with double-pleats, louche rayon shirts, and oversized Art-Deco motif ties. “Most of my colleagues wore cropped flat-front trousers and jackets with spalla camicia shoulders,” Wong says of the daily uniform at his first job. “I tend to go against the grain and had always favoured full cut trousers with pleats. Initially, I took some flak for it, but unexpectedly my boss pulled me aside and advised me never to let anyone change how I wear my clothes.”

Day to day, he’s a man who wears many hats – both figuratively and literally. In addition to running the shop, Wong has also been tasked with inventory buying and has worked to slowly introduce more casualwear to the store’s offering. A wander through the newly renovated space reveals a stock of high-waisted trousers by Italian maker, Rota, as well as hard-wearing chore jackets from Le Mont Saint Michel, all of which sit comfortably alongside the traditional elements of this menswear microcosm.

Over the course of our conversation, Arnold is animated and engaging. In Hong Kong, he’s known for his own distinct brand of boyish charm, and when we photographed him he cracked jokes and chatted away, keen to downplay the sobriety of the shoot – “the creasing in a linen jacket is the sexiest thing about it,” was one of many throwaway pearls of wisdom that made me smile. For a man so committed to clothing, it’s great to learn he doesn’t take himself all too seriously.

Follow Arnold on Instagram here, and shop Attire House at attire-house.com

 

(Photography by Amanda Kho)

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