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New York Bespoke Wedding Suits | Natty Adams & Lee-Jon Ball of Secret Empire

New York Bespoke Wedding Suits! CCCW Creative Partners, Mr. Natty Adams & Dr. Lee-Jon Ball know their way around a Man’s Closet…

Get to know Natty & Lee a bit better…
{Source: | By: Crystal Davis | Photos: Greg Pallante}
I met Natty Adams a little over a year ago at his book signing event at Another Man’s Treasure. Natty, a Jersey City resident wrote “I am Dandy” which is a book about “The return of the Gentleman.” Natty and Rose Callahan, an amazing photographer, traveled the world to interview and photograph “Dandy” men from all over the world. It’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it if you are interested in fashion.
At that event, I asked Natty for his card as it was apparent that I needed a one-on-one interview with him. He is incredibly stylish and “dandy.” It took a year but I was finally able to get him and his colleague Lee-Jon for an interview. Natty is not only a writer, he runs a bespoke menswear clothing label along with Lee who currently lives in London.
What are your names?
Nathanial Adams—Natty Adams. Lee-Jon Ball.
And what do you guys do?
Natty: We run the Secret Empire, a bespoke menswear clothing label. So we make custom suits.
Lee-Jon: Both in here, New Jersey and in London, England.
How long have you guys been doing it?
Natty: Year and a half.
How did it start?
Lee-Jon: In a pub called Filthy McNasty’s in London, England where we were racking our brains. We set up a business just because we wanted to work together, but also we don’t see each other enough.
So I had no idea that you owned a menswear company.
Natty: Yeah! It’s all custom.
So how does it work? Like how do people find you?
Lee-Jon: It’s by recommendation, although we just launched a lifestyle newsletter for our clients. It’s nothing to do with menswear [and] more to do with what we’re doing. But yeah, people will most exclusively recommend us or they’ll be at a wedding like, “Where did you get that suit?” They’ll say, “Oh, we got it from Secret Empire, Natty or Lee-Jon.”
Natty: It’s a personal business. We meet with someone; we don’t have a storefront or showroom. We meet with people at their offices, their clubs, their homes. In England [there’s] a lot of clubs. Like member’s clubs and we measure them up, pick out a fabric, make the suit, come back, fit them again, alter it.
How did you guys meet?
Lee-Jon: At least this is a good story other than just like, “We we’re drunk in a bar.”
Natty: We were drunk in a bar, but it’s better than that. It’s more than that.
Lee-Jon: Both Natty and I, before we knew each other were invited to a friend of friend of a friend’s birthday party. And we turned up, we’re the only guys in the room wearing suits and we were the only guys in the room that didn’t know anybody else. It was one of those kind of funky hipster parties where there’s a lot of games, like drawing games.
Natty: Yeah, we didn’t know anybody there. Like we we’re friends of friends, so we both like friends of each other’s friend of the party and yet we won every game. Nobody else was winning.
Lee-Jon: We were kind of hated by everyone in the room.
Because you looked so great right?
Natty: Yeah and we didn’t know the birthday girl at the time, she’s now a good friend. But yeah, that’s how we met, by annoying everyone in the room.
Lee-Jon: And then we’ve been annoying people in rooms ever since.
Do you dress like this all the time?
Lee-Jon: Yes, technically.
Natty: Apart from when we go swimming.
Do you ever wear jeans?
Lee-Jon: I own a pair of jeans, but I haven’t worn them for about three years.
Natty: If I clean the house I wear jeans.
How did it start? We’re you always this dapper?
Natty: No, but I was always interested in dressing, it wasn’t necessarily dressing up. But when I was in high school, I was into subcultures and punks and mods and that kind of stuff. So that was my introduction to the idea of sort of radical style. And then when I was in college, I took a more sort of academic approach to it. I started studying the history of subcultures and I ended up doing my thesis on the history of dandyism. Then when I was in grad school, that turned into a book proposal and that led to the book that I published with Rose Callahan. So I came into it from an academic standpoint, neither of us went to school for tailoring or fashion. But I learned about it through that and as I said I worked for a couple different menswear companies—
What were you doing for them?
Natty: I was a salesperson and a manager, eventually, of a shop. So that’s how I learned a lot about the ropes of production. I’m not as good a business man as Lee-Jon—
Lee-Jon: I count the money.
When did dressing start for you?
Lee-Jon: Similar to Natty, I’ve always been interested in wearing something different to what everybody else is wearing. If you go on Facebook, find my name, it’s a unusual name so you will, you’ll find pictures of me with queer Japanese haircuts and long hair and sort of Goth hair. So I’ve always been interested in digs slightly different it’s slightly an English extension thing as well.
But the thing is that it’s not just suit jackets. You’re wearing a vest, you’re wearing a tie, you’re wearing a pin, it’s the details.
Natty: For years, the idea is if someone wanted to dress differently they would dress down. And that was the idea of sort of being counterculture was to dress down and very recently that’s changed. I’d like to think hopefully I’m not just doing it as a trend because I’ve dressed like this for a long time. I think the trend just happened to happen at the same time where we’ve got more men dressing up now, we’re part of that.
Lee-Jon: I think that’s the difference. If I was wearing some ripped jeans and leather, I would stand out from someone wearing a blue suit on Wall Street or in London’s financial area. So I think part of this is about standing out from people who just wear suits because they have to. I say, “No, we wear suits because we want to and this is why we want to,” we can actually do things with suits you can’t go and buy off the shelf. I think that’s why people come to us and we sit down and coach them through getting their first suit, it’s like, “Let’s make you look different.”
Natty: When our clients come to us, we tell them the big advantages of getting a custom suit. I mean when people talk about getting a custom suit you know, it’s gonna fit great, it’s gonna be much higher quality than anything you get, but almost most importantly or at least as important is the fact that you get to design it yourself.
You get to design it yourself with us sort of guiding you through the process which is interesting because it teaches a lot of guys about what they’re wearing and why it is the way it is. They’ll learn about the details that they never even thought about.
Aren’t you hot in the summer though like with all these layers?
Natty: Well, yeah and then you make suits out of linen and I mean you do half-lined jackets. If it’s blistering hot out and I’m going to the park, I’m not wearing a suit but I’m usually wearing a button-up shirt like a linen shirt, sleeves rolled up, slacks, khakis.
Lee-Jon: Well despite the fact that it’s always raining. This is one great thing about London, is I can wear a suit every single day because it’s never above 24 Celsius.
Yeah the weather in London is perfect to rock a suit.
Lee-Jon: Exactly. So I got here and my wardrobe doesn’t work, it’s amazing. It’s like, “Oh! I can’t wear anything.
Natty: All his suits are heavier than mine.
Lee-Jon: Yeah, that’s right.
So can you tell me a little bit more about I am Dandy?
Natty: So I was working on a book that I had written the proposal for when I was at grad school at Columbia. I had written the proposal for a book about the history of dandyism. While I was doing research for that I meet a lot of people who were sort of contemporary dandies and I met a photographer named Rose Callahan who has a blog called Dandy Portraits. So we start talking and we eventually teamed up on a few projects and then Gestalten, which is German publisher, got in touch with her and said, “Look, we love your blog, we’d love you to put a book together,” and she said, “Sure, but I don’t want it to just be a coffee table book with just photographs, I’d like Nathanial to write the profiles.” So that’s what happened and it’s been a huge success, we’re already in our third printing. We’re talking about doing a second volume and we’re talking about doing a documentary.
It’s kind of what I do on my blog, I interview stylish people and I ask them what they’re wearing and what they do because I’m so interested in that. So seeing that in your book from men from all over the world is so interesting to me.
Natty: Well one of the big things for us was that we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just fashion plates. It wasn’t just a photo of someone with a list of what they’re wearing, it wasn’t like a magazine editorial. We wanted know why people were dressing the way they do because these people put so much effort and time, like we do, into what they wear. We wanted to know what was the motivation behind it all.
Lee-Jon: “Why is that your life?” that’s always the question that we ask.
Why is it your life?
Lee-Jon: That’s my question!
Natty: We ask the questions like, “What did your father wear?” “What was the first suit that you ever looked for? That you ever bought for yourself?”
So why do you do it?
Natty: It’s partly selfish and partly it’s a desire to dress apart from other people. I mean you know, a lot of people say, “Oh I can never dress like that.” It’s not much effort to put on a tie once you put on a shirt.
Lee-Jon: It’s not that much effort to put a pin in a suit once you’ve got a suit on.
Natty: You are sticking your neck out a little bit, you know, you get jeered at by some people—
Lee-Jon: You do?
Natty: Yeah. Who are too boring to dress up themselves or people will surreptitiously take your photograph on the tube.
Lee-Jon: I get that.
Oh really? People will try to take pictures of you guys?
Natty: Yeah, if someone comes up to me and says, “I love your look; can I take your picture?” I’m flattered, but if we get someone who’s like because obviously they think that I look weird because otherwise they would come up and ask me.
I love it.
Most people do, most people are positive about it.
Lee-Jon: Is there a thing for you, because for me, elegance and aestheticism matters in my life. I like things to be pretty or beautiful or well-crafted, do you have that same thing?
Natty: Yeah, I mean if you can get away with doing something more elegant or in a pretty way, why not?
Lee-Jon: Yeah.
Natty: It usually doesn’t take that much more effort or money, it usually takes a little ingenuity or cleverness.
Lee-Jon: That’s something weird that a lot of people don’t realize that wearing custom suits is actually a lot cheaper than people think. If you get into like one of the big brands in Manhattan, you’d be paying way more than it costs to get a suit from us.
Absolutely, it’s not about the brand or the money, it’s how you put it together.
It’s your look and how you put it together. And actually if you design your own suit, you love it more because you made those decisions and we don’t ever force a decision like they will. We will help go like, “Maybe not that, but maybe you should do this.”
Natty: I think men also have a slight innate nerdiness in them where they like to talk about details. They want to know what’s going on, you know?
Lee-Jon: Yeah, it’s like I’ve got two buttonholes, you’ve got one buttonhole.
So let’s discuss—so what are you wearing?
Natty: This is a woolen-linen blend, three-piece, grey suit. It’s got a crazy paisley lining that I like.
Where did you get it?
Natty: Secret Empire of course.
Lee-Jon: We made it. That would be really bad if we said someone else’s suit.
Are you also wearing it?
Lee-Jon: Similar style.
Do you sell accessories too or is it just the suits?
Natty: Right now it’s just suits and shirts.
Lee-Jon: We’ve thought about it, it’s a lot of work for something that’s less. So I don’t do it because I want to sell suits to make money, both Natty and I have other things that we do to make money. I do it because I love working with people and I love that look when you know that you’ve made someone look great.
It’s so satisfying.
And when somebody comes out and then you can see it on their face, it’s like, “Oh my god, that’s great.”
Natty: When someone wears your suit at their wedding, you know? It’s like the biggest day of their life.
Lee-Jon: That’s like my favorite thing- when I see suits at weddings.
When you dress up you feel good about yourself, like it changes the way you are. I worked in the tech world and I would show up in dresses and people we’re like, “Where are you going? You realize you work for Cisco, where are you going?”
Lee-Jon: That’s interesting; I do work in tech now so I do a lot of software as well, my other face I guess. I refuse not to dress down. Did you have Dress-Down Fridays?
So we’ve instigated Formal Friday, because my idea is at the end of the week, go out with a bang.
Natty: When I was doing I am Dandy, is one of the people on the interview was the famous journalist Gay Talese. He said, “Don’t dress down to people,” like don’t talk down to them. He said, “Show up dressed professionally for your profession; don’t try to look like you’re down with them.” I think the natural instinct for a lot of people especially if they’re doing journalism or if they’re doing something where they’re gonna go out and interact with people is they think it’ll make the other person comfortable if you’re doing the same thing. You can learn that people, I think, appreciate it more if you’re doing what you do.
Lee-Jon: If you are what you are. That’s a natural psychology, that mirroring, using the same way. I’ve been in a bar in New Jersey before; people come and talk to me in my accent. First, they don’t sound like a British person and second, it’s quite insulting I guess, or funny.
You can always spot brave people when they decide not to do that.
Is there anything else you guys would like people to know about you or your work?
Lee: So firstly, we just launched a newsletter. So the brand is really about me and Natty and some of the things we do in that newsletter. There’s a lot of things in menswear that are like, “How to tie a tie” or “How you should buy a suit.” It’s totally not about that, it’s about us not taking ourselves too seriously. Writing about something we may have found in London or New Jersey; saying, “Hey, we’ve found this cocktail place, we like this cocktail.” Or we like this website or we went and brought the bow ties from North Carolina and we thought they were really, really cool.
Natty: And like we said, we don’t have to do this to survive, we do other things; we do this because we really like it. This is how we get our kicks in once sense.
Lee: Some people go fishing; we just make people look great.
What are your future plans for the brand?
Natty: We’re growing at a reasonable pace; we’re not looking to suddenly try to scale up and become Ralph Lauren. I would like to get to the point where we’ve got other people working for us.
Lee: We want to do that in a really natural way where we’re not spending a lot of cash, we’re not getting an investment, we’re spending our own money. We’ve got to be very, very careful not to scale too fast where it just damages our other work. Between the work that I do and the work that Natty does outside of menswear, that’s important to us as well. I don’t know if I’d want a store. I think we’ve toyed around the idea of accessories for a long time and I reckon, sometime towards the end of the year we’ll probably start kicking that off as well.
Natty: I think at some point in the future I would like to have a showroom or a studio of some kind. That would be nice.
Lee: Just with a statue of you in it.
Natty: Yeah, that would be the only thing in the showroom.
Secret Empire


Cheers! CCCW