For Philadelphia pocket square specialists Ontario Armstrong and Clifton Wilson — better known as Armstrong & Wilson — the holiday collaboration they launched this month with Men’s Style Pro blogger and creative consultant Sabir M. Peele does not mark the end of 2018, but the kickoff of 2019.
“This is definitely the beginning of our next phase,” Wilson, 38, said on a recent Monday morning. The check on Wilson’s three-piece Hickey Freeman suit was purposely fly, but it didn’t outshine his Armstrong & Wilson accessories: a plaid pocket square, a tiny red flower lapel pin, and a gold tie bar shaped like a pair of glasses affixed to a deep burgundy tie. All those accessories, as well as several styles of suspenders, will land in stores in the spring.
“We spent the last several years building pocket squares as our foundation,” Wilson said. “Now we are ready to grow."
Can we get back to the pocket squares already? I ask.
“OK, OK,” says Armstrong, Wilson’s 36-year-old partner in fashion and best friend. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses, a look that’s more beatnik than banker. Armstrong’s pocket square, an olive plaid, is popping. Peele wants it. All three laugh.
The Armstrong & Wilson Men’s Style Pro collab is easy, like this friendship. It includes three plaid and two solid squares in cotton and wool, each with a signature Armstrong & Wilson button. When the duo debuted their line — nine years ago — they were bucking the rules of the pocket square when they added a bold button. But they wanted that extra something to turn a classic accessory into a mod must-have.
All the squares in the Men’s Style Pro collab are named after a Philadelphia neighborhood or street. My fave is the navy-and-green tartan aptly named Spruce. A cozy gray wool is called Germantown. Armstrong and Wilson chose the fabric; Peele obsessed over buttons and piping. (In keeping with Armstrong & Wilson’s price points, these squares cost either $55 or $80. They are available at the Armstrong & Wilson website, armstrongandwilson.com.)
Collaborations have been a driving force in the fashion industry for more than a decade, but the partnerships are starting to morph from celebrity-focused to influencer-focused. Celebrities, it seems, don’t drive brands with the same vigor they once did, because we are finding it increasingly harder to relate to people who appear perfect.
Although bloggers these days also claim model good looks, they usually speak more directly to their customers’ needs and in their language. Their followers are likely to be into their products because a similar ethos has already been established. In addition to designing, these influencers often consult. To companies — big and small — constantly looking to expand their customer base and save money, these collaborations are basically a win-win.
In September 2017, Arielle Charnas, lifestyle blogger behind the popular blog Something Navy, released a collection with Nordstrom’s in-house label Treasure & Bond that sold more than $1 million in its first 24 hours online. This year, the company gave Charnas her own line at Nordstrom, granting her complete creative control. Lane Bryant tapped blogger Tanesha Awasthi for its first influencer product capsule collaboration. Girl with Curves, named after her blog, was released in September during New York Fashion Week.
Under the Men’s Style Pro moniker, Peele has more than 62,000 followers on Instagram, making him one of the most sought-after lifestyle bloggers in the area. Recent collabs include two sellout capsule suit collections with Center City custom suit clothier ModaMatters. Peele also designed several shoes with West Norriton’s Cobble & Hyde.
Armstrong and Wilson met as fashion design students at the Art Institute in the early 2000s. They worked together in the Nordstrom menswear department; both were named Esquire Magazine’s best-dressed real men (though in different years). Armstrong and Wilson launched their brand in 2009, on the cusp of the era when slimmed-down menswear would lead millennial men into a dandy phase of fashion.
“We wanted to give men something that popped, that made them stand out,” Wilson said. “We went for bright colors, and that’s why we opted for the button.”
Over the years, Armstrong & Wilson partnered with Chris Bosh for a line of pocket squares. And in 2012, the duo lined a selection of men’s totes from Connecticut luxury leather accessories company Ghurka. They also designed pocket squares to match the linings.
These days, Armstrong & Wilson is sold in select specialty stores and 15 Nordstroms, including the one in King of Prussia, where they both worked in the men’s department. The Roots (Armstrong’s cousin plays keyboard) are often spotted on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in Armstrong & Wilson, and TV weatherman Al Roker is a tried-and-true fan.
No wonder they say it’s time to expand.
“We want to do those collabs that don’t speak to celebrity or players. Their fans don’t connect with our clothes," Wilson said. “It’s time we speak directly to our fashion-minded customer.”