Once glimpsed, the widely circulated picture of David Cameron and Lex Greensill enjoying a cup of Arabian coffee in the desert beside a blazing camp fire is impossible to unsee. Greensill looks into the middle distance with the air of a man to whom some eternal truth has just been revealed and which he is about to elucidate for the benefit of his eager companion.
From now on Cameron’s career, possibly his entire life, will be bookended by two images: one from the 1980s as a tailcoated member of the Oxford dining club the Bullingdon; and this one a generation later showing a jowly former statesman filling his metaphorical boots. But rather than figurative footwear it is Lex Greensill’s actual ankle boots that have been troubling me: filling the foreground, their fabric pull tabs clearly visible beneath trousers that have been rucked up the calf.
These boots by Australian heritage brand RM Williams are almost indestructible thanks to their single-piece construction, and are as central to the rugged masculine mythology of Australia as Levi’s denim is in the US. Designed for life in the outback, billabong, sheep station and so forth, these boots should not have been out of place for a fireside dinner in the dunes, but Greensill gives a masterclass in how to make the right footwear look wrong.
I felt saddened that a blameless boot had been sucked into the lobbying scandal surrounding Cameron’s enthusiastic proselytising of the now-collapsed financial services business founded by Greensill. As well as approaching the UK chancellor and health secretary on Greensill’s behalf, he accompanied him on such business trips as the meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia whence this picture originates.
It may be an Australian oligarch thing — not moving in the exalted circles of our former PM I cannot say — but the whole blue suit in the desert thing doesn’t do it for me. It is not even a particularly nice blue suit; you could fly one of the Greensill private jets down the gap between his suit collar and his neck while the voluminously knotted dark tie imparts the air of a delegate at a regional sales conference who expects to be called away at any moment to attend a funeral.
I thought maybe I was reading too much into what was after all just a pair of boots, but then this paper’s esteemed Whitehall editor Sebastian Payne tweeted that he too had trouble banishing this image from his mind’s eye. “About twice an hour, I remember this photo exists” he tweeted. “The more I look, the more questions come to mind. Mostly disappointed that I have the same boots as Lex Greensill”.
Other commentators felt Greensill’s literal interpretation of suited and booted should have raised questions in Cameron’s mind. But who can blame Cameron for focusing on the bigger picture of a few tens of millions in share options? After all Cameron’s own shoe choices have raised questions in the past: his attempt to get with the Sprezzatura in Siena by wearing stout black loafers suited to office wear without socks (better to display his pale English ankles) gave substance to his claim to be “not really interested in clothes”.
Greensill has reignited the debate about Chelsea boots and whether they can be worn with a suit. On the whole the professional advice would appear to be not to try the Greensill at home, but to pair the boots with more casual trouser styles, such as jeans.
But it can be done. According to James Fox of Crockett and Jones it is all about thoughtful combination of last, the foot-shaped form upon which shoes are shaped imparting the silhouette, and fabric weight. Describing Greensill’s look “as an interesting one most of our customers would try to avoid,” he adds cautiously “boots and suits can work, it depends on the last that they are made upon”.
I would also add that the fabric needs to be heavy enough to have a bit of drape and I tend to overcompensate with what many would regard as too much break in order that I minimise the chances of doing a Greensill and exposing the fabric pull tabs; alternatively, you could always use the old tailoring trick and sew lead fishing weights into the trouser bottoms.
For an example of excellence, one has to return to the 1960s when Avengers star Patrick Macnee’s mastery of suit and elastic-sided boot was a thing of beauty, putting them together in a way that united the dandified neo-Edwardianism of Bunny Roger with the brash youthful energy of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He managed this with a narrow, but not skinny, cavalry-cut trouser with a slanted hem longer at the back than at the front and Chelsea boots made on a narrow last.
The RM Williams Instagram account demonstrates that there are plenty of other ways to wear them. Take meteorologist Josh Holt, who on assuming his role on Australia’s Channel 10 sported a pair of RMW’s Santa Fe boots with their exaggerated Cuban heel and decorative Tex-Mex stitching, wearing them with a grey suit with narrow legged trousers featuring a commendably generous break. He showed how a little thought and care can create a (pleasantly) memorable style statement while making the weather in Wagga Wagga a lot more watchable.
RM Williams is another Greensill victim; after all it is hardly like the company invited him to do a collaboration. Far from it. Instead, the brand asked Marc Newson, a design deity who has done more than anyone to reverse the Fosters-guzzling Crocodile Dundee stereotype, to riff on its 1950s Gardener boot. The result is the one-piece Yard Boot 365, the second capsule of which has just been released in three new colours.
I did try to talk to RMW’s designer but was told that the brand was “in a transition period so a new creative director will be announced in August”. Even though Greensill may find himself with time on his hands, he probably need not apply.
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