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Family Cruise: Paul on Style

HONG KONG – I've never dressed myself in a tuxedo, and I have 20 minutes to do so. It's the first formal night of the cruise, and I'm standing in my stateroom with a handful of what look to be cufflinks. I waste five minutes before realizing they're actually studs.

Luckily, my bow tie clips on. After a spritz of cologne, I smooth my hair and jump into my jacket. I'm James Bond. I'm in Monte Carlo. I'm on the red carpet.

Within seconds of meeting my parents, I hear: "Your bow tie is upside-down and your cufflinks are backwards"—and from my mom, no less. I'm Woody Allen. I visit the Poconos. I'm off to junior prom.

At 6 feet tall and 145 pounds, I've always had an issue with buying clothes. My ideal pants size is an oddball 30x33. Shirts bunch. Sport coats hang like drapes. Since I'd always liked the phrase "a-jeans-and-T-shirt-kind-of-guy," that's what I’d become. But tonight, I realize it's time to learn the basics of style.

But I need an advisor. I briefly consider my father, but no son wants to dress like his old man. (Plus, you've never seen my dad in cruise wear.) No, I need someone much cooler. After all, style isn't learned, it's stolen.

His name is Robert, the ship's most eligible bachelor—tall, wealthy, with a full plume of ivory hair. On formal nights, Robert wears a white scarf and a flower in his lapel.

My first lesson comes when I run into Robert outside the Crystal Dining Room. His pleats almost slice off my finger as I reach to shake his hand. The perfect vertical lines draw attention to his shoes, which are so highly buffed I could shave in them.

I spend the following weeks ironing my pleats and collecting more tips, unbeknownst to Robert. Rest your wrists on the table to display your cufflinks. Wear short collars with no tie on informal occasions. And I notice a change in myself. Fewer people ask if I'm 15. My female steward catcalls me. And Robert, one night in passing, says, "Hey buddy, looking sharp."

And despite the impression I give at Baron Kay's, it's my kind of place. With rolls of fabric everywhere and a carpet looking as if it hasn't been vacuumed since the Year of the Pig, it's everything the Gap is not. And when I finally try on my shirt, the difference is amazing. I wonder how long I can go without taking it off. No bunch. No sag. I once wore, now I own.

I come to an understanding at Baron Kay's: It's not the lack of options that have made me hate shopping; It’s the lack of service. I've only ever known shopping as an experience in which I pick from a preordained line. The "service" consists of marketers preselecting my wardrobe, right down to the fit. Style, subsequently, became what everyone else was wearing.

I wonder what the trend-chasers at school would think of Baron Kay's. No doubt many of them would feel intimidated, as I had, at being so involved in the final product. It's not his clothes the Baron is selling; it's your clothes.

But I can now say unequivocally that I feel better when I look better. I am a different man. My shoulders roll back. My spine straightens. I am Robert.

As I exit the store, my tailor notices this change and smiles. "First a customer, then a friend," he says, patting me on the arm. I'm back to being Bond, back to Monte Carlo, back to the red carpet.

Now I'm not sure there's any turning back.

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