Open a newspaper or log on to its website and, chances are, you will find a story on war in Syria, the posturing of North Korea or the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. Then (without so much as a knowing wink) turn to the glossy pages of the men’s style magazines and what do you see? “Camo Whammo!”, a lyrical piece about the virtues of camouflage print.
Walk into almost any clothes shop and it seems there is nothing you can’t buy that isn’t, well, camouflaged. There are Valentino’s sporty jackets (£1,030), cashmere cardigans (£740) and trainers (£440), Comme des Garçons’ natty camouflage jacket (£189) or short-sleeved shirt (£219), Jimmy Choo’s “Camden” holdall bags (£1,150), ponyskin printed slippers (£495) and wallets (£325), and Topman’s blazers (£120), T-shirts (£18) and sunglasses (£12).
In fact, from beach (Orlebar Brown’s swimming trunks, £135) to black tie (Lanvin’s jaunty print bow ties, £75), you can kit your whole life out in “camo”. The American brand Jack Spade has even launched a watch (£90) in the print. Not only is camouflage one of the biggest trends of the season, it is also one of the fastest-selling, says Darren Skey, head of menswear at department store Harvey Nichols. “Camouflage print has been creeping back into the male wardrobe for a while but it has suddenly hit critical mass,” he says.
For something that is supposed to be the latest thing in style, it could appear distasteful in the extreme to dress up as a soldier. So how do we reconcile these two realities? Is it even possible?
“It was purely decorative and in no way political,” says designer Dries Van Noten of his use of the print on just about everything in his latest menswear collection. “Camouflage can be transformed in so many ways, and that’s exactly what we tried to do: push its graphic potential, distorting the pattern, printing the motif on various fabrics to create an overall optical illusion. We didn’t focus too much on its usual military associations. We wanted the print to stand on its own.”
Tom Kalenderian, an executive vice-president at department store Barneys New York, says: “Camo is the quintessential print in menswear. It conjures up images of hunting and camping, apart from the obvious military associations.”
Joshua Brown, a 28-year-old City consultant, says, “It is an easy way to look cool. Camouflage print instantly adds a bit of an edge to casual clothes but not in a scary way. I guess it’s a rock-style statement that has become mainstream in the way that going to Glastonbury or having a tattoo has.”
Humberto Leon, co-designer with partner Carol Lim of Kenzo’s camouflage-heavy collection, says: “We live travelling between New York and Paris, and wanted to combine those urban sensibilities in dressing with the sensory immersion of the south Asian jungles we recently visited.”
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, who, with co-designer Maria Grazia Chiuri, also put camouflage at the heart of the brand’s latest menswear collection, says: “The starting point for the collection was the combination of different materials, textures and colours. The camouflage pattern came from layering all of these combinations of fabrics together. The design is traditionally a very male pattern, and will always be seen as a symbol of strength and masculinity. Our take on the print was to make it modern and wearable in everyday situations.”
Still, as Kalenderian acknowledges, head-to-toe camo look should probably best be avoided, lest one be mistaken for either a Vietnam veteran or a relic of the counter-culture wars. “For me, camo is best as an accessory, just as one statement piece,” he says.
Harvey Nichols’ Skey agrees. “I think the trend can span all age ranges depending on how much you wear,” he says. “For the brave I think it works well mixed with other prints but for most men I think camouflage print is best kept to a single piece, whether a bag or a pair of shoes – and mixed with more neutral colours.”
On the other hand, says Dries Van Noten, “For me, if it looks and feels right ... why not?”
Blast from the past: Flights of fancy
It’s not just about camouflage; this summer’s military obsession has also brought back the bomber jacket, last seen circa 1989 in the form of the padded nylon MA 1 flight jacket. This time it’s been updated with bold prints, luxe fabrics and, in many cases, a distinctly 1970s twist. Also known as a flight jacket, the bomber has been around since the first world war when pilots wore them to keep warm in exposed cockpits. Traditionally made from leather or sheepskin, the original bomber was a heavy-duty affair unlike the current crop, which are midseason jackets with easy appeal.
They’ve come a long way since the 1990s padded nylon days too; think bold patterns and light, luxurious materials, such as Alexander McQueen’s statement dragonfly print bomber (£1,775) or Miko Spinelli’s 1970s inspired style (£375). Not ready to embrace retro? More conservative souls might be swayed by the low-key offerings in a cool cotton and linen blends from Hentsch Man (£295), or Missoni’s classic knitted style (£920).
“Bomber shapes are incredibly versatile and can look really strong as a layer under a tailored overcoat as well as being the perfect spring cover-up when the weather gets warmer,” says Reece Crisp, menswear buyer at department store Selfridges.
Designer Jonathan Saunders says: “The bomber is such a classic piece, but with a more tailored approach, like those in my summer collection, it can make a whole outfit look sharp and will really complement a slim tailored trouser or pair of shorts.”
Is there an age limit on this style? Toby Bateman, buying director at online retailer Mr Porter doesn’t think so. “You just need to adapt the style with age. An older guy can look great in a suede bomber. Younger men can experiment more with print if they want.”
By Aine Carlin