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June 17, 2011 10:05 pm
The fact that Father’s Day coincides with the start of the men’s wear shows in Milan might be fortuitous but, somehow, I’m not surprised. I feel that, lately, everywhere I turn I keep hearing about the importance of men.
Whether it’s web retailer Mr Porter telling the world that guys will buy adventurously online, or Hermès opening men-only stores, or various China-watchers pontificating about the majority of Chinese consumers being men, the XY set, it seems, is having a fashion moment.
It took them long enough.
After all, pretty much ever since fashion has been an industry, as opposed to a mom 'n’ pop grouping of names, its prevailing focus has been female. There are many more women’s fashion magazines than men’s; there are more women’s stores; the narrative is all about changing trends in women’s clothes, what women wear on the red carpet and so on. The reason why is understandable: there’s simply so much more choice, so much more room for evolution and rebellion and seduction in women’s wear than men’s. Plus, the received gender stereotypes are almost overwhelming.
Men, the story goes, wear suits. Men on the red carpet maybe get to go all tonal (black on black on black) or debate the merits of cummerbunds versus vests but that’s as far as it goes. As a result, men don’t shop (if nothing much changes, nothing much needs to be bought), ergo there’s no point in putting too much emphasis on men’s shops or ad campaigns. Women, of course, like stuff – and they love shopping. If you’re going to seduce anyone, cherchez la femme: seduce the woman who might buy presents for her man.
Hence the endless Father’s Day suggestions that have been running in every women’s mag for the past month, and the focus on socks, ties and cufflinks. But once you’ve written a few stories on socks, where do you go from there? Hemlines and sleeves, prints and purple, by contrast – now, those are subjects!
Or, to be accurate, those are easy subjects. They lend themselves to pictures, if not deep socio-cultural analysis. Evolutions in men’s wear, of course, are generally more subtle and less visually enticing (some would say boringly unidentifiable) – an inch difference in a lapel is radical change; the question of one vent vs two, or two buttons vs three, on jackets can provoke puzzlingly heated debate. These are issues many of us find hard to get excited about or, frankly, make interesting. (I seem to be the only journalist who thought it mattered that, for example, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was wearing a raincoat when he was indicted for sexual assault, or that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange changed his look twice during his time on the lam.)
. . .
But, it seems, soon we might not have a choice. I think this is a good thing. First, because it corrects an imbalance – what men wear is as important as what women wear. We make the same snap judgments about men as we do about women. Wouldn’t it be nice to have commentators spend as much time analysing the look of male candidates for office as female?
Second, because it might open up new professional avenues in fashion. Recently I was having lunch with the chief executive of a large luxury group who asked why I thought more brands didn’t give men’s wear equal weight as women’s wear, given the situation in Asia. He found it odd that fashion had in effect divided itself between specialist men’s wear brands (Zegna, Brioni, Pal Zileri) or tailors, and women’s wear brands that created men’s wear as an afterthought. There were exceptions, of course (Ralph Lauren, Armani, Lanvin), but they were in the minority. As far as he was concerned, it was a huge missed opportunity.
Companies, like people, I said, tend to do what has already been proven to work. Many brands were revived on the back of their women’s wear, hence the continued emphasis. The chief executive agreed but said that, nevertheless, men’s wear should be seen as equivalent to women’s wear. And it should be understood that it can contribute just as much to the bottom line.
Which brings me to the last reason I am pleased about the men’s wear moment: hopefully it will explode the myth once and for all that men do not care about clothes. Maybe they don’t care about fashion but every guy (every dad) has to get dressed; every guy (every dad) thinks about what he is wearing and why, and it is about time we all admitted it. Equal rights is not just about voting and salary; sometimes it’s about attention too. Happy Father’s Day.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman
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