January 4, 2013 7:36 pm

Peacocks on parade

A look into the strained relationship between male style and men’s fashion
Victor Deleon©Sophie Elgort

Victor Deleon

In the world of menswear, it has become the norm to say one is interested not in fashion but in style. It can be seen in journalism both venerable (GQ’s monthly column of clothes tips and advice is by the Style Guy, not the Fashion Guy) and modern (the influential magazine Fantastic Man describes itself as “the gentleman’s style journal”). It happens in retail, too – while women’s online store Net-A-Porter is tagged as a “fashion destination”, its two-year-old brother site Mr Porter is flagged as a “destination for men’s style”. Ask most men if they favour “fashion” or “style”, and a sizeable majority would steer sharply to the latter. It’s almost as if men wished fashion would just go away.

And yet menswear carries on regardless. From Monday, the next round of men’s fashion shows takes place, first in London, then in Florence, Milan and Paris, accompanied by announcements that the men’s luxury market is booming, often outperforming women’s; according to the consultancy Bain & Co, menswear sales worldwide are expected to have increased 10 per cent in 2012 from the year before, to €26bn. Men’s fashion shows, however, still sit at something of a remove, with men outside the industry unaware or uncaring of what’s happening on a catwalk in some European city. If ever there is any discussion of men’s fashion shows, it usually comes as ridicule: “Would real guys really wear that?” (the answer is, usually, no). What interests men is style, and that’s it.

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To understand this dichotomy between fashion and style, it helps to look far from the catwalk. Which is what the photographer Sophie Elgort does each week, as she photographs New Yorkers for Suits and the City, a tailoring blog on the FT’s Luxury 360 channel. To find her subjects, Elgort often heads to Park Avenue in Midtown. “There are good offices there,” she says, “and also certain restaurants which serve really well-dressed people: the Four Seasons, Michael’s.”

It was on Park Avenue that Sophie found Jacob Arabo, owner of watch brand Jacob & Company, in his Tom Ford three-piece suit, pushed back at the wrist by the size of his own-brand watch. Another time her eye was caught by Timothy Pope, in a custom-made casual jacket and no tie, still dressed up while dressed down because that day he was not seeing clients. One man on Park Avenue was in such a rush he only had time to pose and shout that his neat monochrome suit was “Armani”.

The men Sophie finds in Midtown frequently reveal their status through clothing. “A lot of people lower on the totem pole feel they would look silly if they were wearing a pocket square, or something out of the ordinary,” says Sophie; “that a boss might think they should be in the office, rather than spending time getting ready. I always ask people’s jobs, and about 70 per cent of the time, they’re pretty high up in companies. They’ve earned the right to express their unique style.”

Hamish Bowles©Sophie Elgort

Hamish Bowles

Men like Leonard Lauren, former vice-president of Ralph Lauren, photographed by Elgort contrasting a pinstripe double-breasted suit with a polka dot pocket-square blossoming from his breast pocket. Sometimes the men of stature come from other fields, like the Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, one of Elgort’s favourite subjects, whom she photographed wearing a blue double-breasted suit with a lilac mac resting in the crook of his arm. His shirt is gingham, and he leans on a bamboo-handled umbrella. Bowles told Elgort he buys his suits at auction.

And yet “fashion” is still widely believed to be terrifying for “ordinary” men, who can only cope by denying its significance. It’s one of the reasons why menswear is riddled with tension, about what can be worn, about what rules to follow. This paranoia can make short-term big business for some: a few seasons ago, bow ties were essential but that accessories fad has now faded, morphing into a trend for pocket squares. Elgort recently shot Di Mondo, a tech entrepreneur who matched his wide-lapelled but slim-fitted double-breasted suit with a neat pocket square, its flamboyancy purposefully constrained.

But hang on: if bow ties are passé and pocket squares are the thing, isn’t that a change of fashion? These changes in suit styling work in the same way that all fashion works, with men waxing and waning from one look to another just as women go from heels to flats, from embellished to plain. Men may say they hate it, but fashion is always there.

Julian Niccolini©Sophie Elgort

Julian Niccolini

For the men of style that Elgort captures, suits stand for pride and certainty. One arrives at a certain style. Fashion denotes change, with connotations of flippancy and shallowness. Fashion stands for uncertainty. For men, it means they are not in control.

And maybe they are right to be scared. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg demonstrate the billions that can be made in jeans and T-shirts. If the suits of Midtown have a wider significance, it’s the suits of Madison Avenue, not Park, and only the suits from an imagined world 50 years ago: the craze for the Mad Men look. The sharp suited silhouette is an easy style to access, a trend consolidated by the US preppiness adopted by Japanese designers then filtered back to its home turf, and by the nostalgic design language of 21st-century Williamsburg seeping into Manhattan and becoming the norm. It’s the sort of suit Elgort found on Ryan Finley, who works at auctioneers Phillips de Pury: thin-lapelled, single-breasted, skinny-fit, sleek and precise.

The industry is responding: last year, J Crew opened a Suit Shop in Tribeca specialising in this sharp neat new grey flannel suit shape. It may be stylish but it’s quite clearly a fashion. Try wearing a genuine suit from the 1980s today. Or even one from the 1990s. Its volume, length, cut would all seem old. New York has a particular relationship with tailoring, of which the commercial and critical success of J Crew can be taken as symbol.

Mory Kaba©Sophie Elgort

Mory Kaba

But there is also money to be made elsewhere in menswear. When Sir Philip Green last month sold 25 per cent of part of his Arcadia business for £350m, it was his Topshop brand that dominated the headlines. But talk to anyone inside Green’s company, and they’ll tell you Topman is just as profitable, if not more so. Topman’s market is rapid-paced fashion for young men. The buyers? Leonard Green & Partners, owner of J Crew.

Topman is based in London, where many wished the suit was treated with the same reverence as it is in New York. But walk down Savile Row today and you’ll mostly be struck by the smell coming from a branch of the American clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch as its in-store fragrance wafts its way into the neighbourhood. Buildings that once housed bespoke establishments are increasingly falling into the hands of ready-to-wear stores. The current looming threat is an Abercrombie & Fitch children’s store due to open at No 3 Savile Row, which the surrounding embattled tailors are fighting to prevent from playing music that can be heard in the street. It’s an undignified state of affairs for a street synonymous with constancy and old-world style.

Rob Kramer©Sophie Elgort

Rob Kramer

Yet in its prime, just as 200 years ago, Savile Row was all about fashion. The suit itself emerged through change, with Beau Brummell and his contemporaries encouraging tailors to morph riding costume into a more city-appropriate outfit. At the time, it was modern. Somehow in the past couple of centuries, the suit, once at the vanguard, has become a symbol of conservatism. It is assumed to be the endpoint of menswear, the pinnacle beyond which nothing else can be achieved. But just as the suit derived from change, then it follows that future changes will occur. And change equals fashion.

The menswear shows that start on Monday in London are only the second season that London has attempted such a schedule. A few years ago, London had no menswear shows, until Lulu Kennedy of the not-for-profit encouragers Fashion East, accompanied by Topman, started a platform for new men’s designers. Its alumni now fill the London schedule: James Long, Christopher Shannon, Shaun Samson.

One of the great successes of the new London schedule is how these young designers sit alongside traditional tailoring brands, as if an uneasy truce has settled between fashion and style: on Tuesday afternoon, the suits of Savile Row tailor Richard James will be followed by the sweatshirts and trackpants of Shannon, one of the biggest young names in London, who has pointedly stated that he will never design a tie in his life.

Eyal Tessler©Sophie Elgort

Eyal Tessler

But this doesn’t mean the present fashion system is the answer for ending male anxiety over fashion and style. There’s another reason for the general male disinterest for the shows: men do not share the female romance for the catwalk. Men might want to be model-thin or model-handsome but they do not aspire actually to walk on the runway – they are more interested in the peacock walk of the street, as seen in Elgort’s images. A man who did want to walk in a show is more likely to provoke suspicions than admiration.

Of course, it could be that the nature of fashion has changed anyway without anyone really noticing. It’s changing because of mobile phones, not PR stories about brands engaging in social media; it’s changing because of Instagram and street-style blogs such as Elgort’s Suits and the City, which allow a look to unify worldwide. It’s the paradoxically deadening effect of communication on the way we dress.

Today, young people no longer need to use clothing to communicate their tastes and allegiances. They can tell – or, even better, show – everyone what they like, immediately, on their smart phones. The result is that young men are dressing with what appears to be more conservative taste. It’s particularly galling for men in their thirties and forties to realise that they are dressed in exactly the same way – chinos, shirts, sweaters – as the manufactured boyband One Direction.

Elder generations of men mourn the passing of tribal dressing, and talk wistfully of the days of Punk, Mod or New Romantic. They berate young men today for having no defining look of their own. But for youth to shock, it does not have to do something shocking. This generation of young men is upsetting its elders by seeming to be exactly like them. That is, until they roll up the sleeves of their nice shirts and cashmere sweaters and reveal the random designs of their fresh tattoos beneath.

With all this divergence, anxiety and flux, the best way to approach menswear is to be as open as possible. The men who want just to wear suits are making a fine choice. Young designers who want to create only sweatshirts and trackpants? Let them. You might not want to wear it but they could well be the ones about to make serious money.

Charlie Porter will be covering the international menswear shows, which start in London on Monday January 7, on FT.com and in this section next week

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Vanessa Friedman on street style

Suitable men

Street style was one of the hotter fashion trends of 2012, propelling such blogger photographers as Scott Schuman and Tommy Ton to celebrity status, and making subjects such as Anna Dello Russo iconic. But they focused on the sidewalk as fashion show, and as a result an entire swath of dressing was ignored.

Sophie Elgort photographing a woman on the street

Sophie Elgort

Sophie Elgort, chronicling with her camera the sartorial style of the professional set, stepped in to fill the gap, revealing that suits need not be boring, and that there are subtleties to shirts and handbags and shoes (and socks) that should not be overlooked.

For a comprehensive look at Suits and the City, see www.ft.com/luxury360, which will also feature daily reports from the London men’s shows by Charlie Porter, the FT’s new men’s fashion critic.

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