I LOVE A MAN IN UNIFORM

Nick Sullivan is the dapper fashion director of US Esquire. He also has an enviable collection of militaria. (But ‘It’s not as if I go about Brooklyn wearing it,’ he insists.) Here he talks us through his collection, his inspirations and his eBay tricks of the trade…

First featured in Issue 02
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When did you first start collecting?
It started at school, migrating from Airfix kits to real bits of plane when my brother got hold of an altimeter from a Bristol Blenheim. That’s what started it.

Is there a family connection to your interest?
We had the usual flotsam and jetsam of family military history in cupboards. Nothing illustrious but – in an era where war movies outnumbered anything else two-to-one – resonant. My grandfather’s RAF patches; Dad’s Sam Browne belt and cap from his National Service; my great grandfather’s WWI dog tag and Distinguished Conduct Medal, kept under lock and key. In those days there was a lot of it about, even though it was 30 years after WWII. My chemistry teacher, ‘The Major’, still wore his battledress to do the gardening.

What is your favourite find?
A 14th Hussars attila (the navy, gold-frogged jackets worn by officers) and its accompanying breeches and busby. Dated around 1910 and made in London by E Tautz, a brand recently reborn as a fashion label.—

Do you collect any particular periods?
I have two parallel interests I think. First is the sort of ancillary clothing – not actual battledress but, say, a big waterproof coat I found that was made for cavalry officers by Belstaff (to strict MoD specs, dated 1952). It’s something I can actually wear, provided it’s both wet and cold in New York (a surprisingly rare combination). Instead of buying expensive new leather gloves I look out for officers’ Cold War MoD issue gloves – rarely worn, much cared for and a pop at £15. The flip is the › really OTT Footguard, Hussar and Artillery parade uniforms, which reached their apotheosis in the latter half of the 19th century, all swimming in gold braid and olivets and acorns. I was as much fascinated by the way these things were put together – for the most part in Savile Row, and entirely by hand – as I was about their showiness. In my day job as a men’s fashion director, the military heritage is never terribly far from the surface. The Boer War and World War I killed off all the peacock instincts, as it was found that prancing around in gold braid was less effective camouflage than, erm, camouflage. But the handiwork is stunning.

What do you wish you owned?
I once narrowly missed a full dress uniform from the 1930s for Skinner’s Horse, a cavalry regiment that began as a privately funded outfit in India. It’s bright, Coleman’s mustard yellow and black mostly, and all kinds of embroidered craziness, turban and all. Bonkers.

Where do you seek out items? 
The easiest has to be eBay. More serious collectors will have many avenues, like dedicated auctions and other collectors. But online sales generally put the whole world within reach, which is good enough for me. Plus it throws up anomalies, great finds that people miss simply because the listing is either ill-informed or even misspelled. Bingo!

Any tips to winning bids on eBay?
Auction Sniper has to be the easiest way to go. It will put in a bid three seconds before the end (provided you’re not outbid). You don’t always win, but at least you can set hard limits beyond which you don’t want to go beforehand; and at least you don’t lose just because you were down the pub.

What do your wife and family make of your collection?
For a long time I kept it all in my office. They look at me with the side-eye thing occasionally. But it’s a legitimate interest. I mean, it’s not as if I go about Brooklyn wearing it!

Is it a hobby or an affliction?
I don’t think it’s an affliction. I don’t have lots and lots of pieces. I had certain target pieces I wanted. I still do. But a new dishwasher will always get first dibs. I don’t have the room or really the inclination to fill my house with it.

What’s been your best bargain?
An Hermès Pilot’s watch circa 1935 for $200 plus postage from Latvia. I figured it may well be a fake at that price and was prepared for it. Turns out it isn’t. The folks at Hermès told me they’ve only ever seen one in an auction catalogue.

Finally – what is your favourite military motto?
The Royal Artillery’s ‘Ubique! Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt’, which translates as: ‘Everywhere, where right and glory lead’!

Words by Nick Sullivan