People: Ignatious Joseph

Mr. Ignatious Joseph understands clothing, customer care, and the many aspects of style. He delivers his IGN. Joseph products to his clientele personally, wears his signature red shoes religiously, and speaks wittily. Mr. Joseph took time to talk to A&H about style (more than dress), color (something he believes men shouldn’t be afraid of), and the future of his company and its new developments.

A&H: You were born in Sri Lanka. Did Sri Lanka have any influence on your sartorial beginnings?

Ignatious Joseph: The Sri Lanka in which I was born was still a British dominion. Of course the British, who had governed the country since the 19th century, could not remain unaffected by the differences between my island and theirs. The gentleman’s attire of my youth was shaped by the mixture of British and Sri Lankan institutions in which I was raised. My sartorial beginnings were certainly shaped by the climate of the island of my birth, the richness of colour, and the leisure conditioned by the heat. As you may know Sri Lanka, like India, gave Europe much of what it understands today as its own textile tradition. The European gentleman would never have developed today’s form of dress without the knowledge and craftsmanship that followed the Silk Road.

A&H: When did you discover your passion for style?

IJ: I guess the easiest way to date that is from the time I bought my own clothes. As a schoolboy I wore a uniform like most children in the British Empire. When I came to Europe to study and later to work I found I just could not waste my hard-earned money or that which my parents had given me on “standard issue” clothing.

A&H: How would you describe your personal style and what does the word mean to you?

IJ: You know the word style has many aspects. We talk about styles of painting, in Britain even styles of beer. The word is so abused that it is really quite difficult to utter it without some inner cramp. I think the easiest way to describe the word is with another comparison from the country of my birth: tea. Now everyone knows “Ceylon” tea. But how many people really understand the origins of that beverage? The finest Ceylon teas, the silver tip or Ceylon white tea, it is produced entirely by hand. As a “mere” agricultural product one might be tempted to see the price of this tea in combination with its rarity. But what most people so easily forget is that picking tea leaves is an arduous skill that must be learned. When one has learned to understand the work that lies behind every cup of tea, and the enormous differences between tea and tea, then one can start to understand the origin of what so many people call style. I would use the word taste—the kind of taste that a tea connoisseur acquires through many years of contact with the beverage in all its forms.

A&H: You’ve become well-known for your signature red shoes. Tell us about this.

IJ: One could say it was a “religious experience.” When I was a young boy in Sri Lanka I used to wear my white cricket boots to mass. One day it had been raining quite a bit and upon getting to church my boots looked horrible, covered with mud. I began to clean them while the priest was saying mass. My mother gave me a whack on the head and said church was not the place to clean one’s boots. From then on I decided to wear coloured shoes that did not show the dirt so much. I painted my white cricket boots red.

A&H: Many men, believe it or not, are still afraid of too much color in their dress. Do you have any advice on how to ease bolder garments into the gentleman’s wardrobe?

IJ: At the risk of seeming harsh, let me say that many men are still afraid of too much of an opinion on anything. They look to the left and to the right or above and below to find what they ought to think or say or wear. There is always a risk in having an opinion. Having a bit of colour in one’s wardrobe is relatively harmless. In the 18th and early 19th century, well-dressed men had no fear of colour whatsoever. Then came the sack suit which by the beginning of the 20th century had become a uniform.

It is hard to make a uniform exciting—although most people find the scarlet tunics of the British Guard regiments quite stunning. The question for me is not only why one dresses but for whom. If one dresses for oneself in the first place, that does not automatically mean flamboyance. If one looks at the bold people in the world today, they are also not afraid of the colours in their wardrobe. If I may draw on another military metaphor—respect for the colours is part of every regiments culture, but that respect comes from the way the colours were earned and the traditions of the regiment’s own battle record. Taking one’s colours is always a sign of maturity.

I feel my best… on the verandah of the Galle Face in Colombo. That is to say if one can grasp the essence of that experience, then the staid yet sensuous environment is unforgettable.

A&H: You personally deliver your IGN. Joseph products to your clients. How important is the idea of building a quality relationship with your clientele?

IJ: This is not bespoke tailoring. Nonetheless, IGN. Joseph shirts and accessories are made for specific customers. They are the customers I have come to know in more than ten years in the clothing trade and many years before in the hospitality industry. I am a creature of both traditions. I deliver what the customer has ordered personally because that service is part of what makes IGN. Joseph special. Anyone who has been to a truly excellent hotel knows what the value of a concierge is.

A&H: What is a memorable moment you’ve had with a client?

IJ: Once I had a very odd situation when I had to bring a bit of theatrics to bear. I was visiting a shop to introduce my shirts some years ago. The owner kept talking about how expensive men’s shirts were and how difficult it was to sell them. He just would not let me show him anything. Finally he ended his diatribe and asked me whether I was going to show him some shirts. I told him that I had given up selling shirts because they were too expensive as he had said. Instead I was selling washing powder in various categories, including luxury washing powder. I told him that all those customers saving money by not buying shirts would still need to wash the ones they had. I explained the virtues of this luxury washing powder with great seriousness, resisting every attempt by the proprietor to get me to show him my shirts. I offered to sell him washing powder but he was not interested. He kept asking for my shirts. I refused, saying I no longer sell shirts. The next time I was in his town, I called briefly at his shop. He asked me about the washing powder and then placed his first order. We never discussed the price again.

A&H: You’re known to use some of the finest materials in the world. Where are most IGN. Joseph fabrics sourced?

IJ: Most if not all the materials come from Italy—at least that is the case with the fabrics. Italy is still the last place in Europe with artisan mills producing high grade cloth and fabric.

A&H: How important is sacrificing quantity for quality?

IJ: How many lives does one have to live? In my case, I can only count one. That is a very low quantity. There is no way to increase it. Therefore I concentrate on quality.

A&H: What’s next for the IGN. Joseph company?

IJ: This year I have launched “Spirit.” As I already said, I find style an imprecise and overworked word which can be found on anything from jewelry to domestic cleaning products.

Yet I feel there is more to my understanding of gentlemen’s clothing than just shirting. So I want to offer my clientele the possibility to grasp other aspects of fine clothing beyond the shirt. I am not aiming for an “IGN. Joseph look.” That would be absurd; there is just one of me. On the other hand, I want to appeal to those who share my understanding of clothing as an expression of one’s soul.

A&H: Running a business is hard work—it takes patience and time. How do you slow things down? What do you do to relax?

IJ: I grew up in the midst of a cricket-playing country. In Kandy, where I was born, there is the only test ground in the world that belongs to a school. International, school, and club cricket were indispensable to us. Back then it was the radio and not the television that brought us the results of matches around the world. Today I still enjoy radio broadcasts of cricket matches and on those rare occasions that I find myself in a cricketing country, I may pop ‘round to watch. There is nothing better for learning patience, concentration, and relaxation than cricket. It is not a game for people in a hurry.

A&H: What is some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

IJ: Respect and dignity is paramount. It is what I learned from my parents. Everyone is entitled to basic respect, and without dignity, it is impossible to face the world. Clothing and the attitude one has toward it is just one sign of that respect, but a visible and hence important sign, for oneself and for others. This advice, this element of my education, prohibits me from measuring things by price or fame alone.