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Why can’t I have nice things? How even a klutz can have great style

DRESSED WITHOUT MESS Charles MacPherson, founder of a Toronto-based butler academy, says the key to preserving quality clothing is care – from knowing not to rub a stain to opting against tomato soup for lunch.

Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

Lying in bed on a recent Saturday morning, I answered one of the great questions of my life. I was luxuriating, coffee mug balanced casually on my chest, scrolling through something or another on my phone when I shifted slightly, spilling the coffee all over myself. As the delta of hot brown liquid spread its silent tendrils across the sheets, it became clear: This, I realized, is why I can't have nice things.

It was not an isolated incident. In the preceding days I'd upturned a container of hot sauce, screaming like a wounded bird as it cascaded over both my new sneakers and my girlfriend's skirt. A few days later, eating chocolate ice cream in the car, I'd landed a big glob of it on the front of my favourite off-white button-down. One summer evening after that, I'd been lying on the grass drinking rosé when I spilled most of my glass over the neck of my white T-shirt. You say, "Maybe you shouldn't be balancing coffee on your chest while browsing Facebook or drinking wine while lying on the ground." I say, "Don't tell me how to live my life."

I am someone who likes nice things, clothes in particular. I am also someone who is, apparently, rather haphazard in my eating and drinking habits. As a result, I tend to acquire nice things – bespoke suits, cashmere sweaters, buttery soft suede jackets – and never wear them for fear of wine stains, coffee stains, grass stains and other stains of mysterious origin. It has become obvious, however, that as a grown-up human being who lives in a civilized society, something has to give.

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"For me it's a crossroads and you need to make a decision," says Charles MacPherson, the founder of Charles MacPherson Associates, a Toronto academy that trains butlers and household managers. "If you're going to go down the road of having clothing that is better quality, it actually involves care." Among the skills MacPherson teaches his disciples are the intricacies of fabric maintenance, from ironing sheets to how to pack a suitcase. The trick to garment care, he says, is a combination of regular maintenance and decisive first aid. For suits, MacPherson recommends steaming, followed by a once over with a horsehair brush. "Steaming kills bacteria, so you don't get any smell in the fabric and it keeps it looking fresh. You rarely have to dry clean a suit if you're regularly steaming and brushing."

For everyday spills he advises a few simple steps. "First, don't panic. Second, don't rub the stain." For coffee and red wine he advises first dabbing with a cloth napkin to remove the excess, then blotting with cold water. For oil-based spills, a sprinkle of salt to absorb the liquid followed by a dash of club soda to flush it out. If that's not sufficient, he says, take it to a reputable dry cleaner for professional treatment. Does he ever spill on himself, I ask. "The truth? Absolutely. I'm like every human being," he says.

MacPherson tells me that he avoids ordering soups and salads in public to avert potential spatters, which says a lot about his commitment to fastidiousness, but sounds awful to me. This, I accept, is part of the problem: I'm not willing to change my habits. Explaining my quandary to a photographer colleague who works the Queen's Park circuit, her immediate response was, "You should talk to Jagmeet Singh." Singh, an Ontario MPP, is rarely seen without a sharply tailored suit, a pair of well-shined shoes and a bright, contrasting-coloured turban. He's certainly one of the best dressed men in Canadian politics, if not Canada itself. "I don't like fine things that you can't wear every day," explains Singh; he cites a pair of Cesar Paciotti eel-skin shoes he bought and quickly wore out, discovering too late that eel-skin does not suit itself to frequent wear. An avid cyclist, Singh orders all of his custom suits with an extra pair of trousers in anticipation of saddle friction and grease stains.

While he actually enjoys polishing his shoes and brushing his suit jackets, Singh is committed to making his wardrobe suit his lifestyle, not vice versa. "I could be wearing a nice pair of shoes and if I want to climb up a rocky ledge with them, I'll do it," he says. "Sometimes we approach life so cautiously, but I think we need to live unapologetically and freely. Never let the things you own own you." Sure, I say, but what about when you spill red wine down your shirt front or drop a meatball on your lap? Singh, as it turns out, doesn't eat meat nor drink red wine. No coffee, either. Living unapologetically is a goal we should all strive towards. In fact, it may actually be easier to achieve than living without tomato sauce on my shirt.

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