Mr. John Wilke

This story originally appeared on the Gents Cafe Newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Meet Mr. John Wilke (@johnwilke) from San Francisco, California. He is a software product marketing manager and the founder of Barnstormer.

John, how do you define your style?

My style is always appropriate for the occasion, but the fun of learning fashion rules is the freedom to bend them. I love wearing suede in the summer and white pants in the winter. If I know everyone at an event is wearing a black tuxedo, I want to be the guy wearing a navy one.

Growing up in the American South and living on the West Coast, I’m always drawing from both regions. The ubiquitous tech vest is a San Francisco staple that I’m totally comfortable pairing with Lucchese boots. Wherever I am, I’m thinking: what’s one piece of my outfit that originated from somewhere else? What will keep people guessing?

When adding to my wardrobe, Sid Mashburn’s design philosophy is a solid north star: “clothes that can take you from Mississippi to Manhattan to Milan—and back again—without looking or feeling out of place.”

I have yet to fully achieve this ideal. But, thanks to more than a few purchases from Sid, by dialing down logos, and by making an active effort not to chase trends, most of what I wear, my luggage, my shoes, and a couple of accessories I have, work well enough that I feel comfortable in just about any situation. Or at least I can pack without going on a shopping spree before every trip.

What does it mean for you to be a Modern Gentleman?

A gentleman has good manners which are most easily achieved by doing whatever puts the other person at ease. A gentleman is less concerned with being interesting than he is with being interested, particularly in people and especially people who look, sound and dress differently than he does. This means being as interested in someone you may only meet once as your boss or a well-known person in your field.

When it comes to style, where do you mostly get your inspiration from?

Inspiration is everywhere! Looking back, TV and film are low-hanging fruit. Tom Selleck in Magnum, PI is a great example. He wasn’t afraid of 5” inseam shorts and repped his hometown baseball team while living on the other side of the world.

For what’s current today, lookbooks from brands I enjoy like Drake’s and Aimé Leon Dore are great. There’s Instagram, of course, but I’m not a professional actor or athlete so it only goes so far. A businessman at the airport keeping a lost-button-shirt cuff together with a perfectly sized safety pin is way more relatable.

Looking around the corner to future trends, men can cheat a little by paying attention to women’s fashion. Women moved on to wide trousers and brought back the ‘90s ahead of J. Crew’s giant chinos and definitely before dudes wearing Polo was acceptable again. I already see women wearing early 2000s-inspired pieces and really beautiful Bengal stripe and awning stripe shirts. Maybe Charvet and Abercrombie are back – for real this time.

What’s your personal style signifier?

If you were to ask someone else, I think they’d say that I think of myself as intentional about my style, yet unintentionally I’ve found myself leaning into dressing monochromatically. Primarily in neutrals like navy, black and tan. I’m okay with this because professionals in San Francisco avoided bright colors or pastels in favor of conservative palettes long before social media made under the radar or ‘stealth wealth’ fashion a trending topic.

The main thing I keep in mind for my personal style is a high-low balance. For example, if I’m wearing a suit or blazer, I gravitate toward my bright white, plastic Swatch to dial things down. Or if a casual day in the office means jeans and sneakers, a cardigan, maybe even cashmere keeps me from feeling too dressed down.

If I had to pick specific things, I’d say what I avoid with my style is the most personal part of it. I don’t wear chinos of any color since I prefer dark denim or canvas in situations that call for chinos. I also have an aversion to zippers so I stick to button-fly 501s and a 10-year old leather messenger bag instead of the backpacks most of my peers in tech prefer.

What are your favorite wardrobe essentials?

I can’t believe guys are still sitting on thick leather wallets like they’re George Costanza. I switched to a money clip and have never missed the cafe cards and random receipts I can no longer make a place for. A money clip or at least a card case is crucial. In my front pants pocket, of course.

I can never have too many white button-down shirts and constantly buy more in different fabrics. Oxford cloth with a smooth collar roll is perfect in San Francisco’s climate the same way a thinner crisp poplin keeps me cool in warmer months. I have royal oxfords when I want to shine at a black tie or formal event. They’re all technically “white dress shirts” but each works better in some situations than others and gives me the flexibility to take a fashion risk elsewhere.

Finally, polarized sunglasses. JFK and Muhammed Ali looked timeless in Ray Bans. Steve McQueen and Anthony Bourdain enhanced their mysteriousness with Persols. I’m really enjoying a matte tortoise pair from Oliver Peoples, and I’m afraid I’m on the cusp of diving into the world of Jacques Marie Mage. If you’re worried about a bad habit of losing glasses, there are more great options than ever to look great at an approachable price. The San Francisco-based Sunski makes killer polarized sunglasses under $100.

What are your main passions and how do you cultivate them?

My parents were as good as anyone’s else’s at saying no to frivolous things I thought I wanted and needed as a kid, but they made it very clear there were two things they’d always support: music and reading.

I was fortunate to be born in and grow up in the middle of the “Hip Hop Capitol of the World” aka Atlanta and “Music City” aka Nashville. I went to college in a town that was the birthplace of REM, Widespread Panic and the B-52s during a time when bands like the Futurebirds were just taking flight. I attended innumerable live concerts as an undergrad and was bit by the festival bug in my early twenties. I think I have permanent hearing loss from Kendrick Lamar performing with a full rock band and still get goosebumps thinking about seeing John Mayer and Dave Chappelle together at a midnight show. I don’t ever see myself getting too old to seek out new music, find little 50-person weeknight shows in the back of a bar or sit at a piano to see if I still remember a chord or two.

In addition to music, reading was the real gateway drug to many of my other passions. I found a bit of a loophole in that car magazines “counted” as reading, so I’d convince my parents to get subscriptions to America’s Road & Track or the British CAR. I had thick aircraft recognition guides so I could look up (no pun intended) when a plane flew overhead. If you flip through old issues of car and aircraft periodicals from 20 years ago or today, they’re lined with ads for stainless steel Rolex watches and Porsche Design chronographs alongside action shots from intriguing destinations like Hawaii and Morocco.

These experiences early in my life led me to continue to be passionate about music, cars, airplanes, watches, business, food and travel as an adult.

In terms of cultivating my passions, striking up a conversation with others in an appropriate setting is hard to beat. Telling someone, “that’s a clean Targa” after they expertly parallel park or compliment a stranger’s watch, maybe their sneakers go over really well 95% of the time. One of my friendships I’ve had for over 20 years started because I asked another student about the football team on his shirt when I was the new kid in school and didn’t know anyone yet. We hit it off and, guess what, both share a passion for sports, even today. This advice holds true for commenting on an Instagram post, subscribing to a podcast or signing up for a newsletter from someone you think you share interests with. Put yourself out there and you’ll like what you get back.

What does your ideal Sunday look like?

My ideal Sunday starts with a double espresso and watching Formula 1. San Francisco is only 45 minutes from wine country. So, lunch somewhere unpretentious and delicious like Valley in Sonoma before a wine tasting with friends is a near-perfect afternoon. Ideally, we’d stop for a snack and watch the sun drop behind sailboats in Sausalito before ending the day at home watching whatever the latest release is on HBO. I’m guilty of feeling FOMO when it comes to pop culture, so I have a hard time starting the work week if I don’t know what happened on Succession, Sunday Night Football or whatever show has its claws in the zeitgeist.

Describe an interesting trip you have taken and tell us what’s the next destination on your bucket list.

Last summer, I presented at a conference in London that was coincidentally scheduled the week before Wimbledon and F1 at Silverstone. With the pressure of presenting behind me, I spent Saturday drinking Pimm’s cups watching American tennis rockstars like Coco Gauff and Taylor Fritz tear it up on grass courts. Then I woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to see Carlos Sainz win and Zhou Guanyu survive a bone chilling wreck. It was a bucket list 48 hours.

My next destination is for my friends’ wedding in Tuscany. A group of us are spending a few days in Sardinia beforehand. I can’t wait to be back in one of my favorite countries. I will fully channel Master of None Season 2 with plenty of pasta, linen and loafers.

Tell us what can never be missing in your liquor cabinet.

In the early 2010s, I ate at a restaurant participating in this brand-new concept called “Negroni Week,” and despite not being much of a gin drinker at the time, I was drawn to the novelty of the simple Campari cocktail’s big, spice bomb nose and bitter bite. I instantly fell in love with the Negroni. I’m a poor excuse for a bartender so I keep things simple at home for everyone’s benefit by sticking to Negronis and Boulevardiers, meaning Campari, Dolin vermouth and fresh California citrus are always close at hand.

For spirits, I keep it local. I’m a big fan of St. George from across the Bay Bridge in Alameda, and I like what Savage & Cooke are doing with their whiskeys and ryes just north over the Golden Gate Bridge.

What are your three favorite books?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s arguably the greatest American novel for a reason. And I mean, who doesn’t want “a man in London who buys me clothes?”. That’s the dream. I’m due for another read as we approach 2025, one hundred years after it was first published.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Speaking of great American novels, Cormac McCarthy’s disregard for punctuation and complete insouciance toward violence grabbed me from the very first page. This is one of my favorite books that I very selectively recommend to others since it is gruesome but so beautifully written. I say proceed with caution and don’t make the mistake I did of bringing a paperback copy on a Florida vacation. It’s the exact opposite of a light beach read.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain’s writing and TV shows were a significant influence on me. He’s the reason why I appreciate dining and travel the way I do. Kitchen Confidential opened my eyes to the service industry and introduced me to the idea that you can have a profession, a craft, while also channeling your creativity into a productive outlet like writing, while staying curious and still being a little angsty or snarky as an adult without hurting others. Bourdain was a modern Renaissance man and always a gentleman when he was a guest in someone’s home or place of business.

What are your three favorite movies?

There are really 3 defining movies in my life, roughly aligning with each decade as well as my sense of humor now and when I first watched them.

Toy Story (1995)
Hilariously, I didn’t want to see this movie when it was first released because I told my parents it was a “little kid movie.” I was, of course, a little kid myself and I’m glad they convinced me to see it in theaters. I still enjoy it as comfort food on a bumpy flight or as a hangover cure almost as much as when I saw it in theaters for the first time. Pixar knows how to make a kid’s movie for adults.

Superbad (2007)
Judd Apatow’s instant classic hit theaters when I was roughly the same age as the characters. I related to the humor so much at the time. Watching it now, the hilariously immature dialogue is still so quotable. Paired with fashion, the internet before social media and flip phones briefly overlapping with pay phones is pure nostalgia. Jonah Hill is one of my role models and this movie was my first exposure to his flavor of genius. Plus Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, Emma Stone before she really blew up. It will always be in my top 3.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Any movie that uses music, particularly radio stations and radio DJs well, is going to be a movie that I enjoy. Plus, if you’re into cars like I am, Hollywood gives you the opening scene in the MG roadster, Margot Robbie’s black Porsche 911, Brad Pitt rippin’ it in his Karmann Ghia and Leo’s Cadillac DeVille is in half the scenes as basically its own character. On the rare nights I’m home alone with nothing to do, putting my phone in another room, hitting the lights, and turning up the volume on Tarantino’s masterpiece is about as good as it gets. With a Negroni or Boulevardier in hand, of course.

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