Habilitate Talks to Carlo van den Broeck

Carlo van den Broeck

When I started writing about menswear, one of the very first people I got chatting to about the subject was Carlo van den Broeck

Carlo is a real Jack of all trades in the business, although, unlike his proverbial counterpart, Carlo seems to have a habit of mastering everything he turns his hand to. Among the many metaphorical hats he wears (there are, as you’ll discover in our interview, many literal ones too) he can count those of photographer, artisan, entrepreneur, and all-round style afflatus. In his capacity as the latter, you’ll no doubt have seen his photos on Instagram where he is a prolific menswear contributor and regular feature in places like Put This On and Style Forum. Since 2019, he has also been the proprietor of the brand Atelier de Corium.

In my own conversations with Carlo, I have always been struck by the depth of his interest in menswear and the generosity of spirit with which he is willing to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about the subject. I’m grateful to have benefitted from all of this in our personal exchanges and feel doubly so to have Carlo share some of his insights, tips, and personal experience in our conversation below.

Carlo van den Broeck in a black turtleneck, white pants and brown jacket

Thanks for talking with me, Carlo. To start us off, how would you describe the kind of thing you like to wear?

It’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you for considering me for this interview.

It all honestly depends on my mood and the weather. I would say that the clothes I wear are a way for me to represent my style and my journey in life. Besides my love for colours, my style has evolved over the years as I’ve lived in different countries and have had different life experiences.

An example is my hat collection: I started wearing hats in Australia because the summer sun was really harsh on my commute back home. I decided to buy a Panama hat since I was already regularly wearing sportcoats. That eventually led to me considering a hat for the colder months as well. Of course, being in Australia my next hat had to be the appropriately named Stylemaster from Akubra.

After the move to the UK, Christy’s Hats was across the street from where I worked and one of my colleagues was already a fan. It was only a matter of time before I’d purchase a few hats from them. I also got a hat from Ca4la in Tokyo as a souvenir and, of course, my first Borsalino had to be purchased directly from a Borsalino store during my first visit to Italy.

Another example is my love for waxed jackets: Prior to moving to the UK I was aware of Belstaff and Barbour jackets but I never really saw them out in the wild in Australia. That all changed when I was working in London. I remember waiting for my bus on the corner of Jermyn Street and a guy on a Triumph motorcycle stopped at the traffic lights. He was wearing a zipped-up Belstaff Roadmaster with gloves, jeans, and brogue boots and he looked so cool. He looked like David Beckham modelling for Belstaff. That basically made me fall in love with waxed outerwear. I love how it ages over time and how functional it is for those annoying showers.

Carlo van den Broeck holding a Panama hat

On your Instagram account, you often talk about experimenting with different looks — a novel spin on a classic menswear combo, say, or trying out a new colour, pattern, or texture. How do you go about assembling an outfit like this that feels like it’s breaking some new ground for you? Does it differ at all from how you get dressed on a day-to-day basis?

I actually come up with my Instagram outfits on a day-to-day basis. It’s more involved and time-consuming but I find that this way my outfits actually represent how I feel at that particular time and day. Sometimes I’ll feel creative and try something new and sometimes I am tired and just stick to the true and tested basics. I usually come up with them in the evening, take photos and then wear the clothes the next day. Maybe I’ll forgo the jacket and wear my red velvet slippers instead of my shoes if I am just staying at home.

I have made plenty of mistakes in the past and I’m sure I will make more in the future. The only difference is I don’t post them on Instagram, haha.

Most of the things you post about tend to fall on the more formal end of the spectrum — suits, ties, dress shoes, that kind of thing. What is it about a more formal (vs. a casual) wardrobe that appeals to you? How did you first become interested in this kind of clothing?

Growing up watching old gangster movies definitely started my interest in sartorial menswear. Watching classic American and Italian movies just solidified that interest.

Carlo van den Broeck in the menswear uniform

For people looking to get into the more formal side of menswear, what essential items would you suggest they start with? And where would you turn to if you were purchasing this stuff for the first time?

Before you even look at purchasing something, you need to understand how menswear is supposed to fit. You can buy from the biggest and most luxurious brands but if the clothes don’t fit, they will look sloppy and cheap.

Cover the basics first and buy quality over quantity.

Start with a navy hopsack sportcoat, grey wool trousers, two pairs of shoes and a few ties. As long as your job or the job you are interviewing for doesn’t require a suit, you should be fine. I have worn that exact combination to interviews and no one has said anything about it.

The navy sportcoat will go perfectly with a pair of chinos or jeans. The grey trousers will nicely dress up a crewneck knit T-shirt or dress shirt. Two pairs of Goodyear welted shoes so you can alternate and let them breathe (don’t forget the shoetrees). All three together with the ties and you’ve got the ‘menswear uniform’ covered. From my experience, the shoes will always be the biggest investment when you are starting. My first pair of Goodyear welted shoes were vintage Crockett & Jones.

If you are on a budget, opt for vintage and second-hand clothing over fast fashion. Understand how you like your clothes to fit and use their measurements as a guide.

For jackets the main flat measurements I use are:

  • Shoulder to shoulder
  • Armpit to armpit
  • Jacket and sleeve length

For trousers, the main flat measurements I use are waist and inseam only. I tend to buy vintage pleated trousers and I can tell from their styling alone that they will need slimming down.

Carlo van den Broeck wearing Crockett and Jones loafers

Where do you typically go to buy clothes?

I don’t really look at the store. If it’s not from a fast fashion store, if the material tag doesn’t contain any man-made materials (except for the lining) and if the styling isn’t too short and trendy, then I’m happy. Extra bonus points if it’s made in Italy and has the usual sartorial details. Otherwise, I enjoy finding some serious deals online. There is so much quality out there on the second-hand market if you have the patience and know how to look.

You’ve mentioned recently that your measurements changed during the pandemic owing to you exercising more. What was it like being forced to part with some of your old garments and having to buy new ones? What were the things you were most anxious to replace?

Yes, that is correct. I used to wear 34UK/ 44EU jackets and 28 UK / 44EU trousers. I have since moved up to 38/48 for jackets and 32/48 for trousers.

I have gone to the gym before but never really had a drastic size change. So I thought surely my home workout program wouldn’t cause a size change either. I don’t know if it’s the workout program or the fact that I am older and my metabolism has slowed down enough for me to actually put on some bulk. I have always been the same weight for years and now it seems being 10kg heavier is the new normal. 

There was one particular jacket I was anxious about replacing and honestly, I haven’t found my one-to-one replacement yet. It’s an unlined navy hopsack wool jacket. Funny story: when I showed my wife the jacket prior to the purchase, her reaction was “Blue again?” while rolling her eyes. That jacket ended up travelling with me everywhere and probably got the most wear.

For the rest, I have come to terms with the fact that most of these items have more than paid for themselves in terms of value over the years. I understand that clothing is utilitarian and it is only a matter of time until you either rip something, spill something or outgrow something (be it size or style preference-wise). Wear it while you can and enjoy it while you can.

The silver lining is that I understand my wardrobe and style more and know what I like and what works. I’ve used it as an opportunity to broaden my horizons and try something new like Hawaiian shirts, knit shirts, and double pleated trousers which have all become staples in my wardrobe.

Carlo van den Broeck in summer clothing

You work, among other things, as a leather artisan. How did you first start working with leather? 

The interest in leather all really happened while working for Crockett & Jones in London. Being surrounded daily by quality leather shoes and handling them every day just made me appreciate leather more and more. I knew I wanted to do something in leather but I wasn’t sure what yet.

The wife and I visited the Florence leather school during a holiday and that further pushed my interest. I always had this idea of coming back to do a short course just to get a feel for things. After my visit to Florence, I tried learning leather crafting myself from books and the internet. I had a pair of vintage braces I really liked and the leather tabs were worn out. I knew having them repaired would cost me more than what I paid for them so I decided to try it myself.

First attempt: The straps were sewn too close to each other on the back so they didn’t sit right.

Second attempt: I accidentally sewed on one of the straps on the reverse side.

Third attempt: I was starting to get frustrated from all the unstitching and cutting new leather tabs that the result wasn’t as clean but I eventually got it right. It was extremely gratifying.

I continued making small things like a coin purse, card case, etc. I also enrolled for a leather tanning course at the BLC Leather Technology Company in Northampton to see if I might be interested in the supply side of leather. It was quite funny being there voluntarily and not being sent by the company. The rest of my classmates during that time were already working for big brands on the leather supply side or quality control.

After that course, I realised that final products are really where I wanted to be and I started thinking about the leather school in Florence again. Did a bit of research and found out they actually offered a six-month intensive course. Long story short I quit my job and finished that six-month intensive course.

We had this initial idea of creating leather goods that target women. When I think about it now, it’s actually funny. Neither my wife nor I know how to target women. My wife barely uses a bag. We still have a few women’s bags on the website but I will slowly be removing them and focusing on menswear and men’s accessories. Something I am a bit more familiar with.

I also know you’re looking at getting into selling second-hand menswear. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on?

I’ve had a few people ask me about the vintage and second-hand clothing I find. While looking for clothes for myself, I kept finding really good deals in other sizes. Either people weren’t labelling them correctly or were leaving out the actual size. Most people would move on, but I tend to be persistent. Some might say it’s the luck of the draw, but there is a lot of back and forth between me and the seller to make sure I know what I am buying.

The idea is to personally inspect these items, get them dry-cleaned and pass on the deals to others. It’s basically what I wish was available when I was starting my menswear journey.

When I think about your wardrobe, the first thing that comes to mind is your impressive hat collection. What was the gateway for you into the world of fedoras, Panama hats, and the like? What do you look for when buying a new hat?

What I look for: Is it a fedora, does it fit my head, do I like the colour, do I have that colour? Hehe, that’s pretty much it.

I really believe it’s the stories of my grandfather smoking a cigarette, wearing a hat and just looking cool that started my fascination with hats.

There is one particular story that really stuck with me. My dad told me this story about my grandfather when he was a kid. My grandparents used to live near the Dutch border. They used to smuggle butter in from the Netherlands during WW2 since the local farmers either didn’t want to sell the family butter or the prices were just too high.

One day my dad and his brother were sent instead. Mind you, my father was a young teenager back then. They bought the butter from the Dutch farmers and made their way to the border to smuggle it in and got stopped by the border police. The border police then called in my grandfather.

My grandfather arrived wearing his felt fedora, walked into the border police office and started chatting about how it was a stupid mistake etc while handing out cigarettes. Long story short, the border police let them go with a warning.

I was lucky enough to find my grandfather’s hats recently boxed up in the attic of the family house (the house he actually built as well). It is just unfortunate that his head was much bigger than mine (61cm vs my 57cm head).

Carlo van den Broeck wearing cream trousers and a blue jacket

That’s a lovely example of the influence clothing can have. I know you’re based in Belgium and have lived, worked, and travelled in a bunch of different places around the globe. How does the Belgian clothing scene compare to some of the other places you’ve been.

My area is not really known for its clothing scene. You occasionally see someone dressed up more than others but it is not an everyday sight. Brussels also has a few big menswear stores but it doesn’t really compare to London, Florence or even Amsterdam. I’m guessing the interest is not really there for the majority of the public.

I can’t speak for all of Belgium though. Antwerp is home to the Antwerp Six, Belgium’s most influential avant-garde fashion designers. Antwerp is also the fashion hub of Belgium. Let’s just say I don’t feel as out of place in Antwerp as I do where I currently live.

Apart from clothing, I know one of your other main interests is coffee. Do you have a go-to order? If you and I were to go out in search of some great coffee, where do you reckon we should go?

It all depends on the weather and the time of day. In the mornings I like a cappuccino, after lunch I prefer a macchiato or a ristretto. If it’s a warm day, I prefer a double espresso on ice regardless of the time of day.

If you are talking about the current trend of speciality coffee, also known as the third wave coffee movement, then we definitely have to go to Melbourne, Australia. I have never seen so many well-rated coffee shops in such a small dense area.

Carlo van den Broeck wearing a perfecto jacket

One last thing I wanted to ask: You post a combination of both still photography and video content on your Instagram page. Do you have any preference between the two?

I personally prefer photography over video content. Photos really give you the time to appreciate all the texture and details of the fabrics. On the other hand, video content does show off the weight of the fabric and how it drapes.

I was shooting professionally back in the day. I did corporate portraits, weddings and product photography. I’d like to believe that I am competent as a photographer when it comes to taking my photos and the post-production involved. Videography is a whole different game.

Just recently I decided to learn how to actually colour grade my videos and it felt like I was thrown in the deep end. Was I shooting in LOG, how do I convert that to Rec 709, what LUT do I use for colour grading? These were just some of the questions I had to figure out.

I do like the challenge of learning a new craft though especially now that Instagram has unfortunately decided to prioritise video content over photography.

Carlo van den Broeck in grey pants and blue jacket

All images courtesy of Carlo van den Broeck

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