In honour of Father's Day, I sought out New Westminster author JJ Lee to chat about fatherhood, fashion and death and how those topics actually intertwine.
Lee wrote The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit - a compelling book that has received much praise and numerous accolades, including being shortlisted for the 2011 GovernorGeneral's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Lee writes a monthly menswear column for The Vancouver Sun, which is syndicated across Canada, contributes a fashion column for CBC Radio and his personal essays are published in ELLE Canada.
Not only is he one of New West's most-noted authors (he lives here with his wife and two boys), he is likely its best-dressed father.
Niki Hope: What compelled you to write about your troubled father and your relationship?
JJ Lee: The book came out of the very simple experience that everybody has of having a garment in their closet that they don't personally own, and it holds mystery, and you can't let go of it. It belonged to someone important to you for good or for bad, and eventually I bit the bullet and decided to sort of interrogate my father's last suit, and that became the launching point for that journey.
NH: What single item would you leave your sons to remember you by?
JL: If it were a single (item), I'm currently working on a book that, because my sons will turn 18 the same year I'll be 52, which is the age my father passed away - So my boys will be men, and I think the thing I would want to leave them, and what I'm working on, is the current book I'm writing, which is my message to them - if need be, through the veil of death. If I do pass, that book will exist in lieu of me, if I reach that strange, weird time when they are 18 and I'm the age that my father passed away. (His twin boys, Emmet and Jack, are eight.)
NH: As a member of the fashion police, what are three mistakes men make that make you want to hand out citations?
JL: The number one thing that I still see, even among the English, who I was shocked to find this - never to button the bottom. You're not supposed to. Never button the bottom button. Another thing is, never shop with a woman. It impedes a man's own sartorial development and also begins to skew the style language in a direction that has nothing to do with male dress customs, for example, buttoning the bottom buttons.
The third thing I would say is when you buy a shirt, alter it. Too many people have shirts that are too blousy and too long in the sleeves. It's the cheapest thing in the world to take a $25 shirt and give it a $125 fit by spending a couple of shekels at a tailors.
NH: What will you do on Father's Day?
JL: We have no plans. Ideally, we'll go for a bike ride and play catch.
NH: You live in New West. What brought you here?
JL: The rent brought me here, and the fact that it was close to a SkyTrain line, but what keeps me here is the community. I know dozens of store owners by name. I know where to get good meat. - I love the people in the town. I tell people outside the region, back east, that New West is like having a village in the middle of a metropolis, and I haven't been able to find that anywhere else.
NH: Your book was nominated for several awards, including being shortlisted for the 2011 GovernorGeneral's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Did you expect such a favourable response?
JL: I intended to write the best non-fiction work I could, and I wanted it to reach people. I knew that I wouldn't be happy with a book that couldn't make a difference. That was always my intent - to make a book
with impact. I tried to muster my writing abilities and my own deluded ambitions and put it into the writing. I definitely wanted a book that had a quality to it and took the best of what I learned at the CBC and being a print writer for the last 10 years.
NH: Your book goes beyond being simply about a "suit." In my opinion, it's a deeper meditation on how one fashions their life. Unlike your father, who seemed to struggle to find contentment, are you content with the life you've fashioned?
JL: Unfortunately no, but I'm fabulously happy with my family. I wish, in many ways, I too were a better father. As much as I asked too much of my own father, I too think that that's my next project in life - to be a better father.
NH: Who is the best dresser in your immediate family?
JL: The best dresser in my family is my son Emmet. He's gifted.
He's prodigious. Emmet, when he wants to, has the ability to dress with an elegance and a stylishness - in an entirely unselfconscious way, which I had to learn. I had to learn before I could forget.
Emmet has learned nothing and doesn't need to. He needs to avoid learning anything in some ways, so that's fantastic.
If he decides it's time to dress up, he can do anything. He has cowboy boots. He has the coolest denim jacket in the world. He looks great in Bretonstriped shirts, and he stole my fedora.
NH: Suit you want to be buried in?
JL: Oh gee, I don't know if I have one yet. I thought I did. I would like to be in a bow tie, more importantly.
I would like to be wearing a bow tie and be cremated, and I expect to be buried in Mount Royal in Montreal.
NH: Mount Royal is that the cemetery where -
JL: My dad, my grandpa, my great-grandfather are buried.
For more on JJ Lee, visit his webpage at www.jj-lee. com or follow him on Twitter at @jj_lee.