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Dress Code

Fashion suits Clarence Davis — Burlington’s best-dressed dude


Published June 10, 2009 at 9:29 a.m.

Clarence Davis stands in front of his closet, as he does every night, and gazes at its hanging contents. He has to plan out his outfit for the following day before he goes to bed.

Taking into account he’s traveling to Hardwick and will be traipsing outside in the rain, Davis foregoes his usual suit and tie in favor of more casual apparel. He chooses a pair of dark blue jeans and pairs them with a brown-and-white windowpane check shirt and a light gray V-neck sweater.

Davis then selects a chocolate moleskin jacket to top the ensemble. Last, the footwear. Most of the shoes in his sizeable collection are not meant to be worn in inclement weather, so he goes with a pair of tawny leather boots with lugged soles. You might call them “gentlemen’s hikers.”

Davis’ wife, Sandy Bermanzohn, is familiar with her husband’s routine. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes as she finishes the stir-fry she’s making for dinner. In the years they’ve been together, Bermanzohn has come to accept that her husband is an unabashed style maven.

You could say that Davis, 37, is the best-dressed man in Burlington.

Davis cares about clothes the way other men care about box scores. But he’s quick to point out there’s more to him than double Windsor knots and cordovan loafers: He’s a Progressive member of the Burlington City Council, representing Ward 3, and the director of state relations at the University of Vermont. In his free time, Davis sits on a number of nonprofit boards, practices Aikido, and is an avid motorcyclist.

But his sense of style and refinement might be noticed before his other attributes. He’s an anomaly in Burlington not because, as he jokes, he’s “an articulate black man,” but because he disapproves of down parkas as overcoats, thinks fleece vests should be reserved for camping trips, and has no compunction about wearing ridiculous overshoes to protect his fancy brogues.

Davis cuts an imposing figure — he’s tall and lean, like a college wide receiver. His bald head is supple from the almond oil he applies to it every day. He uses real shaving cream and a badger-bristle shaving brush, so the skin on his face is as smooth and unblemished as ebony. When approached about being profiled as Burlington’s most fashionable man, Davis can’t hide his excitement. A smile spreads across his face and his eyes light up. He is the rare man who is genuinely interested in talking about clothes.

The Uniform

To understand Davis’ love of fashion and why he is so well turned out every day, you have to know something of his family history, his 12 years of Catholic education and his service in the military. Each of those has contributed to what he wears.

Born to Antiguan parents, Davis spent much of his childhood in the Bronx. His father, also named Clarence, worked on Wall Street and was “always dressed to the nines,” Davis says. “I’ve always known him to wear a suit.”

In addition to his father’s influence, Davis’ two stylish sisters inspired him, as did his mother, whom Davis calls “a bit of a fashion queen.” This is not a family that wears sweatpants on airplanes or jeans to the theater.

Davis figures his love of classic menswear could also be chalked up to genes — nature as much as nurture. His paternal grandfather owned the first general store in Antigua and went to work every day in a jacket and tie, despite the island’s often-sweltering heat.

Davis’ maternal grandfather also knew his way around hound’s-tooth check and Prince of Wales plaid. A lifelong tailor, he outfitted many Antiguan men in the latest styles.

It wasn’t just his family that helped build Davis’ bespoke bona fides. During most of elementary and middle school, he wore a uniform with a shirt, tie and plaid blazer. At high school in Westchester, N.Y., he wore nearly the same thing, minus the blazer.

“It didn’t bother me to wear a uniform to school,” Davis says. “The fact that I was comfortable wearing it made it better.”

After high school he entered the U.S. Navy, and found the transition to military fatigues an easy one. He’d been wearing a uniform of one kind or another for the majority of his life; he felt comfortable in predictable clothing.

Post-Navy, Davis earned his B.A. at Norwich University, where he continued his formal fashion approach. Davis seems as relaxed being “dressed up” as many men feel in mesh shorts and tank tops.

The Rules

Davis lives by a certain sartorial code, which sets him apart from the average heterosexual male in Vermont.

The essentials of his style rules include:

  • Shoes and belt must match.
  • Shoes should always be well polished.
  • Dress shirts should be shades of white and blue, with the occasional pink thrown in.
  • Outerwear should befit the clothing underneath.
  • Socks must be the same shade as the rest of the outfit.

On the socks point, Davis is particularly emphatic. “I’ve seen guys wear white socks with a suit,” he laments. “How does one arrive at that place?”

In addition to his fashion do’s, Davis also has a list of fashion don’ts:

  • Never wear a belt and suspenders together.
  • Never wear hiking boots with a suit.
  • Never wear a dark dress shirt with a suit and tie.
  • Never wear a novelty tie or novelty socks.
  • Never wear a half-Windsor knotted tie with a spread-collar shirt.

The last no-no is a more recent addition stemming from an actual fashion faux pas Davis witnessed: “I saw a guy wearing a spread-collar shirt with a half-Windsor knot who was somewhat jowly, and the tie looked like it was strangling him.”

Davis fully admits he’s opinionated when it comes to clothes. He has an idea of how men should dress and, more often than not, they fall short of his expectations, especially in Vermont. Davis just shakes his head at men who pair their collared shirts with a fleece vest, or wear Crocs with their suit trousers.

But fashion isn’t about showing off or being stylistically superior to his male brethren. For Davis, it’s about personal expression.

Joe Speidel has known Davis for years and works in the same office with him at UVM. Speidel, who also has a love of haberdashery, sees his friend as a throwback to a bygone time when a crisp shirt and polished shoes meant something.

“When you think about how men used to dress, they took care of themselves,” Speidel says. “Even outside of his job, Clarence has always taken great care of himself.”

It’s the little things that make Davis’ style stand out, he suggests. Whether it’s skull-and-crossbones cufflinks or a dapper silk pocket square, the attention to detail make Davis’ outfits pop. “He expresses his personality very well through his clothes,” Speidel says.

Davis’ tailor, Csaba Rigo of Rigo Bros. Tailors in Burlington, says when it comes to style, Davis is peerless in Burlington. “He’s more well-dressed than most people in Vermont,” Rigo says. “He wants everything perfect.”

The Closet

Opening Davis’ closet in his modest apartment is like entering a foreign land with its own language and customs. All his suits, shirts and casual trousers are arranged by color and occasion: dress shirts in the middle, bracketed by going-out shirts on one side and sport coats on the other. Trousers hang on a rack below, organized from light khaki to dark charcoal. Everything is arranged just so.

Davis’ hats are stacked in neat towers off to the side; the shoes sit side by side in prim rows. All of the shoes are fit with shoetrees, those relics from a time when men kept their Oxfords and their Derbies for decades.

Davis’ silk ties hang on the back of the closet in color order. Surprisingly, there are only about 20 of them. He recently downsized his collection.

You can’t help wondering, when peering in this exemplar of order, where Davis’ wife’s clothes are.

This is a sore point for the pair.

To the far right of Davis’ casual tattersall shirts, a few small dresses hang sadly against the wall. Most of Bermanzohn’s clothes occupy a few shelves in a tiny room off the couple’s bedroom.

Davis justifies this inequity, saying he has to wear suits and ties to work and she doesn’t have to look so “dressed up” for her job at the HowardCenter. This elicits an eye roll and a snort, but Bermanzohn actually loves her husband’s passion for clothing.

“He enjoys shopping. We’ll go to Montréal and he’ll want to buy hats and shirts, and that’s fun,” Bermanzohn says. “I like that he can dress up and go out for an evening.”

Davis admittedly has a weakness for shopping, particularly if he gets a good deal. He doesn’t spend a lot on his clothes, he says, but he does like to shop. He’ll hit the chain stores for basics, but Montréal and New York are his favorite places to pick up essentials such as dress shirts, and accessories such as fedoras and flat caps.

All this frippery and dandyism might suggest that Davis is a person of little depth. But he’s equally conversant about city-budget issues and low-income housing concerns as he is about French cuffs and cashmere sweaters. And get him talking about the latest science-fiction novels he’s devoured and he’ll never stop.

Fashion is one of Davis’ great loves, not only because of his deep appreciation of the craft of tailoring, but because being dressed well just feels good. He likes the tightness of a tie around his neck, the snugness of a suit jacket under his arms and the sonorous click of his heels on the pavement. Wearing nice clothing suits him.

“He feels more comfortable in a jacket and tie,” Speidel says. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and thin and good-looking, either.”