Does the traditional British gentleman still exist in today’s fast-paced cosmopolitan world? From balancing work, life, family and the strains of making small talk, BA (Hons) Fashion Promotion (now BA (Hons) Fashion Journalism) alumnus Alfred Tong explores this in his recently published ‘The Thinking Man’s Guide to Life’ to advise men on every aspect of their busy lives, how to de-stress, make friends and generally become a better man. He said the book “will show you how to be less selfish, less silly, and more considerate of the type of person you are”.
The author and contributor to GQ and Mr Porter used the latest psychology and neuroscience, combined with insight from some of history’s greatest philosophers to bring his book alive. He worked with illustrator Sarah-Tanat Jones on the book’s graphic identity to help create a narration that aims to allow men to overcome some of the challenges in their lives. We explore the results below.
The Gentleman’s Handbook is the essential guide to living the gentleman’s lifestyle. “There’s never been a tougher time to be a gentleman”, says the book’s publishers. In addition to the perceived vulgarity of the modern world, Alfred has to contend with all manner of things: the dramas of social media, the practicalities of being metrosexual and still taken seriously at work, and juggling his finances in these cash-strapped times. Alfred shares his insider tips with every aspiring gentleman, from what to wear and how to keep your clothes looking in top shape, to which jobs to chase after and how to plan the perfect romantic evening, all without breaking the bank.
Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood, upbringing and why you wanted to work in fashion journalism?
I grew up in London during the 80s and 90s. I was born by the River Thames, St Thomas’s Hospital, in the ward which overlooks Big Ben. My parents came to London in the 70s and were both in the restaurant business. We had a Chinese restaurant in Mayfair, and my dad was a kind of prototype Alan Yau figure. Because of its location people from Vogue, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the nearby record labels and Savile Row tailors were regulars. One of his heroes was Terence Conran, and so in many respects, he tried to make his restaurant like a Chinese version of that. The idea of a chic, fashionable Chinese restaurant was very new at the time. So I guess it was a very colourful and privileged childhood.
One of my early memories is of my dad picking me up from school in his Jaguar XJS, dressed in a Zegna suit, smoking a cigar, with our pug dog Tyson sat on his lap, and Bryan Ferry playing on the stereo. My parents started off very poor and made lots of money quite quickly in the 80s, and so lived that Thatcherite dream to the fullest. It was very silly really. But my interest in image, style, and just the all-around presentation of the self-comes from both my immigrant heritage which is all about aspiration and re-invention of the self and that very exuberant and crazy period of London.
I remember walking to Savile Row to check out the suits one minute and then into Soho record shops the next, before having dinner in the restaurant. So I had a chance to soak it all in at a very young age. Also, I think that being a person of colour makes you aware of your appearance. My early experiences with racism at school made me realise the power of fashion and style. Quite simply, there is no way that you can hurt my pride or make me feel inferior when I look this good. Clothes are a source of pride and confidence. Your outward appearance affects your inner confidence.
What’s the story behind ‘The Thinking Man’s: Guide To Life’ and why did you think the world needs this book?
The book is a collection of my columns from Mr Porter and features interviews with Peter York, Julia Hobsbawm, Mark Simpson, Jay Heinrichs, Catherine Blythe – just really clever, smart people, giving practical advice on everything from starting a conversation with a stranger at a party, to how to network, how to deal with your emails, how to recover from a professional set back, and how to persuade. It was very much inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and The Book of The Courtier by Castiglione. It’s about how to move through life elegantly and stylishly, and hopefully, with a bit of charm. Although that makes it seem much more high falutin than it really is! It’s a fun gift book, which contains some practical advice.
Note to self: make sure new book matches @slowearofficial trousers. Discover why you should read the Guardian less and hang out with builders more (you’ll be sexier for a start), and why using the words ‘creative’ and ‘authentic’ will make you seem very silly indeed, and lots of other tips from people much cleverer than me! Also includes some of my @mrporterlive advice columns alongside some new bizzle. Available at my beloved @dauntbooks and @waterstones All the best books have pictures and this one has lots of lovely ones by @sarah_tanat_jones
Life after graduation: What have you been doing since you’ve left LCF and what advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into journalism/writing?
There’s lots in the book about socialising. Most of your life as a writer should be spent socialising – listening and talking to people. Warhol said that parties are work. And he’s right. You are who you know.
Did you know that lunch is a subtle means by which power, knowledge and influence are transmitted? It shouldn’t just be a Pret at your desk. When you get asked for lunch by an important editor – whoop for joy! You’re well on your way. Just make sure you listen, and in return, have something interesting to say. And make sure your peers can see you.
Since graduating I’ve written 3 books, was a member of the team that re-branded The Times, and have written for GQ, The Telegraph, Guardian, The Face, and Mr Porter.
In a world of Hypebeast, GQ, Complex, Vogue, blogs and countless other platforms, why is menswear booming online?
The boom in menswear is because we now live in an increasingly visual and aesthetic world, both online and in real life. And lots of this has to do with feminism and the increasing acceptance of gay culture. Men today have to compete in a neo-liberal online marketplace for sex on primarily visual sites like Tinder and Bumble. It’s women who have the power to choose and so men need to look good. We pander to the gaze of women now. Look at that Boys video by Charli XCX or Love Island. We are increasingly comfortable with the objectification of men, and the idea of men as sexual objects. If you look at Love Island – the men are often tastier than the women and have more exacting grooming regimes. Everyone, men especially, seem very happy to objectify themselves on Instagram, and it’s this that is driving the men’s market. I find this both liberating and slightly disturbing. I’m old enough to remember getting beaten up for wearing pink at the bus stop, but also young enough to feel the frisson of excitement when someone I fancy likes my pic on Insta. It’s a lot to deal with.
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