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A man in his early thirties relaxes outside a barber shop on Crosby Street one humid New York afternoon. He scrolls intently through his iPhone, the square ice cubes in a cup resting by his elbow tinted brown by what little remains of his coffee.
He looks great: thick black dreads piled in a haphazardly perfect manner atop his head, an off-white linen shirt that's both stylish and functionally appropriate for the unrelenting heat, baby blue pants that hug — not squeeze — his body, canvas sneakers, no socks. He's the modern man, cool and comfortable and aesthetically aware.
The other guys wandering down Crosby Street look similar, many with skinny black jeans rolled at the ankles, the better to show off bright new Nikes. The coolest dude pairs pants that have huge holes in the knees with an oversized white tee under button-down chambray, plus a flat-brim hat. He disappears into a building that's under construction. Even the worst-dressed men — five bros loudly recounting the previous night's exploits — look pretty good. They make their athleisure tracksuit pants work with the simple shirts and sneakers they chose after waking up hungover that morning.
Yes, this is Crosby Street, one of the most fashionable blocks in New York City, where signs herald the imminent opening of a Rick Owens boutique and idle stoop-sitters could be professional models. Guys should dress well here. But the focus on clothes has spread far, far beyond Soho.
We're witnessing a fascinating, exciting, very specific moment, a "choose-your-own-adventure time of menswear, where guys are letting their freak flags fly."
We're witnessing a fascinating, exciting, very specific moment, a "choose-your-own-adventure time of menswear, where guys are letting their freak flags fly," in the words of Jian DeLeon, senior menswear editor for trend forecasting company WGSN. Information has never been more readily available, and online shopping has lowered the barrier to entry significantly.
As GQ's Style Guy Mark Anthony Green observes from a 1 World Trade Center conference room that overlooks the Financial District, Wall Street warriors are wearing skinnier, better-fitting suits as they buy their lunchtime salads at Chop't. Exceptional men's stores are popping up across the country. Beam a dozen guys from any major (or even nonmajor) American city to Crosby Street, and at least a few would fit in seamlessly. Everyone is getting in on the fun.
Men caring about how they dress isn't new. Consider Charles the Bold's robe in the 1400s, the three-piece suits of the 1700s, or the 1930s elegance embodied by Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant. Look back a few decades and find the disco-influenced 1970s, the power-suited '80s, and the grungy '90s, each vibe simultaneously new and borrowing from the past. Men's fashion, like all fashion, has always moved in cycles, with the bleeding-edge kids adopting looks that then ripple outward.
Traditionally, conversations about men's style have been quieter than the ones about women's, constantly happening only if you know where to look. In the last decade or so, though, they've become easier to find. The discussion moved online in the midaughts when forums like Ask Andy About Clothes and blogs like The Sartorialist started to enter the consciousness of a certain type of man. Guys geeking out about fashion could find each other, sharing tips about designers, history, whatever. Age mattered less than disposition. On the message boards and in the comments sections, no one knew or cared who was a teenager in Iowa or a thirtysomething in Manhattan. The only thing that mattered was that the poster had a smart sense of style, which meant focusing on timeless quality rather than of-the-moment trends, and offered an intelligent opinion.
Fast forward a few years, and the menswear conversation shifted to Tumblr, where you could find an endless stream of guys dressing to impress, often to the point of absurdity. This became known as #menswear, a reference to the Tumblr hashtag, and was epitomized by images of wannabe tastemakers peacocking at Pitti Uomo. (The mockumentary The Life of Pitti Peacocks features garish paisley suit jackets, absurd floral-print pants, and more in just its first half-minute; it illustrates the see-and-be-seen insanity perfectly, as do so many Instagram photos.) In response, satirical Tumblrs like Kevin Burrows and Lawrence Schlossman's Fuck Yeah Menswear cropped up, injecting a bit of fun into the increasingly self-serious #menswear movement. It was, after all, just clothes.
The ultimate distillation of this scene came with Four Pins, the Complex-owned site headed by Schlossman and his team of rabble-rousers. They took aim at anything and everything, mixing biting commentary with long explainers that placed trends in historical context. Readers had their laughs while learning about the clothes they were wearing, or at least aspired to own.
When Four Pins shut down in January, it felt like the end of an era. "It wasn't like someone was going to make their own Four Pins," says Schlossman, who now works as a brand director at the resale site Grailed. "It was more like if Four Pins can't succeed, then maybe this movement is done. It wasn't that the door was open. It was like the door was slammed shut."
Green agrees. "If ever there was a menswear punk-rock era, where it was like the Wild, Wild West — a bunch of uncool dudes talking shit and building this following that no one had ever really seen before, having fun, and making fun of these designers and men's clothing — that was it," he says. "As annoying as some of those guys are and as corny as some of them are, I think a lot of them are really witty and really smart. We made fun of it at the time, but I gotta say, I think it was special."
While #menswear might be dead, menswear has never been bigger. Online menswear sales in particular grew faster than every other category between 2010 and 2015, and show no signs of slowing down; research firm Euromonitor International speculates that the global menswear market will rise from $29 billion in 2015 to $33 billion by 2020. (By comparison, the women's clothing market actually declined by 0.9 percent annually between 2011 and 2016, according to research company IBISWorld.) One-third of men reported they'd like to spend more money on clothes in 2016 than they did in 2015, according to Rupa Ghosh, a retail analyst at Mintel.
Menswear is moving to the masses. While the average man won't become a Pitti peacock, go to Pitti, or even know what Pitti is, his style is influenced by what sells there and what shows well at the other men's fashion weeks, like those in London and New York, that have become buzzed-about events in recent years. More guys care about their clothes than ever before, full stop. "I think you're seeing a generation of men who are defined by a sensibility," says Michael Hainey, Esquire's executive director of editorial. "It's not an age thing or a generational thing. Men have integrated style into their lives in a way that we haven't seen in a long time." There's a strong throughline from the #menswear originals to today's man on the street.
The reason is simple: "Once you develop a taste for something, you don't go back," explains Brian Trunzo, founder of the brand Deveaux, which he left in May, and the now-closed Carson Street Clothiers. "Guys will not trade down." After a man spends $400 on a pair of jeans or $4,000 on a suit, he won't buy clothes at lower price points. According to Trunzo, even during the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009, his clients didn't downgrade; they simply stopped purchasing new wares.
"Once you develop a taste for something, you don't go back. Guys will not trade down."
This holds downmarket, too. I didn't spend very much on clothes until a few years ago, and, in the grand scheme of things, I still don't, but the average cost of what I buy has increased. I'm still not going to pay $815 for navy pastoral shorts or $2,600 for a raincoat, but I'd consider $250 for a pair of jeans and, maybe, $90 for a T-shirt. My path to a point where I'm wearing $200 selvedge denim from a company based in Sweden — the slow realization that more expensive clothes hold up better, fit better, and look better, combined with an increase in disposable income — has been like that of many guys in their 20s and 30s. It's not like men want to dress poorly.
As menswear grows bigger, though, it's fracturing into a number of separate spheres. "The average guy looks better than five or 10 years ago," Trunzo says. "As a result, he's going to experiment more, and that's why these segments have become more visible." Flash back half a dozen years, and old-school tailoring was the hot trend. Then, Riccardo Tisci's Givenchy melded streetwear and high fashion, outfitting Kanye West and Jay Z with luxe jeans and T-shirts on the Watch the Throne tour. More recently, athleisure was everywhere with athletes, entertainers, and guys on the runway wearing tailored sweatpants.
No one style dominates the current moment. It's a bit of a Kumbaya period, where people are branching out in new and interesting ways, encouraged by a relatively welcoming space. The tailored-suit guy respects the effort of the man who's into streetwear, and neither is offended by the athleisure dude. Of course, it's possible to find vitriol and negativity, comments like "LOL AT THE BLOKE DRESSED LIKE A CONSTRUCTION CONE" and "Wrong letters dummy this shit been around long before cholo letters. Medieval Blacklettrr and gothic fonts. Go kill urself," by spending more than a few minutes on Hypebeast and its ilk. For the most part, however, even though the menswear world feels more fractured than ever before, it also feels less angry.
The larger pool of people interacting with it is one reason. There's enough space for all tastes, or at least all good taste. Tribes are big enough that individual members don't go out looking to pick fights. At the same time, the vicious humor of the past gave way to a more professionalized world, with the original crew of menswear bloggers growing up and landing corporate jobs. More money means less opportunity to take chances. The fringe softened as it morphed into the mainstream, and a fresh class of shiny menswear personalities has sprung up as a result.
Instead of acerbic blog posts, the new menswear star produces inoffensive Instagram photos. The type of content that works on photo-focused social media, which has overtaken blog platforms as the medium of choice for so-called influencers, is different from what worked before. Instagram is full of good-looking dudes focused on imagery and brand partnerships instead of diving deep into trends or a brand's origin story. "It became like a beauty contest," Schlossman says. "I don't say that in a disparaging way. If I was way more fucking handsome and in shape, I would have been doing that too. I just didn't have that luxury."
Menswear Instagrammers can easily make five figures off of a single post. Tommy Lei, the 27-year-old proprietor of blog My Belonging, has 58,000 followers on his @Mybelonging Instagram and a bio that last month read, "Agenderist. Epicurean. Fauxtographer. Hotel hopper. Sole searcher. StyletellerTM all day." I don't mean to pick on Lei. There's more intelligent substance on his site than many — hell, plenty of Instagram influencers don't even have websites — and he learned plenty growing up with a father who was a tailor and a mother who was a seamstress. He tries to contextualize the clothes he's wearing, and he does it well. Lei is more than just a pretty Instagram account. But also, I had to go through his "influencer management" for an interview, and Lei describes what he does like this: "It's very multihyphenated. I'm an extension of marketing and digital media efforts that brands are looking for. It's someone who is not only a talent, but is also producing deliverables."
So many in the menswear world are playing the same game now. Lei again: "There has become this insurgence of heartthrobs, people who are just popular for the way that they look. It's reflective of every generation that we've been through. Celebrity culture is the same. YouTube culture is the same. It's become more about how you look and less about how you do or what you do." There's little correlation between someone's popularity and the quality of the work they produce. Adam Gallagher has 1.8 million people that follow his wistful looks over Lake Tahoe at dusk and like dramatic overhead shots of him holding Acqua Di Gio by Giorgio Armani on the Croatian coast. Fans comment "Beautiful!" as he stiffly stands with Montblanc's Urban Spirit collection in front of the Eiffel Tower, all part of his #partner #linkinprofile lifestyle.
"There has become this insurgence of heartthrobs, people who are just popular for the way that they look."
But influencer marketing is cresting in many industries, and perhaps nowhere faster than menswear. Clayton Chambers, one of the Brothers & Craft brothers, says they are pivoting away from being an "ad page on Instagram" into something more sustainable, a company that helps brands create content and strategize. In recent months, they've worked with 7 for All Mankind, Ford, Shinola, and more.
After all, how much success can influencer marketing have in the menswear world, a world that prides itself on individuality? Blake Scott, who has 430,000 followers, says brands tell him that he has good ROI, or return on investment ("I had to Google ROI," he tells me) and there are other anecdotal success stories, but little actual proof when it comes to these personalities moving product. And the higher you go in terms of a product's price point, the more difficult it becomes. "I don't believe that influencer marketing works for elevated product for men. Men want to look like rock stars. They don't want to look like other men," Trunzo says. "No one is buying Brunello Cucinelli because some 25-year-old kid whose parents give him money to travel the world is taking photos of it in China. No one's buying Rick Owens because there's an 18-year-old brat taking photos of his feet in the back of an UberXL."
Let's talk about men's fashion weeks, specifically the New York version. The Council of Fashion Designers of America continues to try to make it a thing, a destination where the important people and the people who think they are important gather, where brands break out, and where menswear can grab the spotlight. This July's Amazon sponsorship gave the four days some cachet, as did the participation of many of menswear's biggest players. "There are a lot of conversations about creativity that happen there," says Esquire's Hainey, "and you can figure out where the trends are going."
And yet, it comes at the end of a long season, after the majority of buyers have spent the majority of their money. New York isn't Pitti, a trade show frequented by 1,222 brands and accounts (along with Tilda Swinton and a 6-year-old with a New York Times feature). Even if you're a smaller, newer brand, the type of line that could get a boost from a breakout show, does it make sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars on something that will be almost immediately forgotten when the next starts in five minutes? Wouldn't that money be better spent elsewhere, or not spent at all?
"Everything is becoming seasonless," says designer David Hart. "It's figuring out what items are selling where and going after that market." Scott Studenberg, one half of Baja East, agrees. While his company does draw a lot of eyes during its fashion week show, he and his partner John Targon stress about balancing the runway shows with the consumer's growing need to buy now. For their resort 2017 collection, Studenberg and Targon decided not to do a lookbook. They held press and sales appointments as they would with a traditional collection, but only released public photos of the six looks that were available to purchase on their site immediately. The rest of the images won't be available until those clothes are ready to be sold. "People get sick of it," Studenberg says. "We have to get people excited to be in stores and to shop."
This tension of timing is something all designers, not just those in the menswear sphere, are contending with. But most people I spoke to said it's more pronounced in menswear because the men who are starting to pay attention to clothes now are coming of age in a world that's been dramatically altered by the immediacy of e-commerce, and because men are typecast as more impatient. (Guilty.) Online shopping will continue to change the landscape of menswear as we're nowhere near the penetration that's possible. Rupa Ghosh, the Mintel retail analyst, says 54 percent of men have purchased clothing online, but only 22 percent did so via mobile or tablet. Small screen size, absence of smart search features, and the poor sensory experience of phones are holding back what she calls "a very powerful e-commerce device whose potential has not been harnessed."
E-commerce strangles retail stores both large and small, making buyers rethink what they offer. "For years, Barneys was a high-end designer haven," says Complex deputy style editor Steve Dool. "But now you have these Burberry suits that are merchandised not that far away from Vetements oversized hoodies, which couldn't be further apart in terms of aesthetics, but it's what you need to do to have the versatility, to speak to different consumers."
Department stores only have so much flexibility. There's a delicate balance between appeasing their traditional customer — the older gentleman who wants to get in, buy a suit, and get out — while trying to bring in new shoppers as well. And there's only so much floor space, requiring creative solutions. Last December, Bloomingdale's partnered with men's concept store PHM Saints Pères to produce shop-in-shops in its New York and Los Angeles locations. The pop-ups carried half a dozen brands PHM offers in its French outposts, including items that were a bit more specialty than the typical Bloomingdale's fare. The experiment was a success.
"We saw brands that resonated with the customer," says Justin Berkowitz, the men's fashion director at Bloomingdale's. "They were not only shopping the pop-up shop, but areas adjacent to it. It was a pleasant surprise to see the other parts of the store helped." Still, Bloomingdale's and other large retailers won't see something on the runway on Tuesday and sell it on Friday. The scale they operate on is too large, the mechanisms too slow, the risks too large. New brands will never be a priority; they can't be.
"People get sick of it. We have to get people excited to be in stores and to shop."
Speed is a major factor in another growing section of the menswear space. "Guys, at their core, are going to remain a pretty lazy species," says Andy Dunn, the founder and CEO of Bonobos. "They are going to do whatever is in the path of least resistance." The combination of short time to market and ease of consumer use has helped online menswear brand Bonobos sell more than a million pairs of chinos and reach $100 million in revenue in just eight years. The company successfully married the observation that guys wanted slimmer, less boxy clothing with a tech startup ethos (clothing algorithms! customer service ninjas!) that attracted customers who have money but lack time.
Direct-to-consumer models also allow companies to skip wholesaling, saving a third on the margin in the process, and completely control the creation of the product, freeing up another large chunk of cash, according to Vishaal Melwani. Melwani founded Combatant Gentlemen four years ago because his banker friends weren't making the money they thought would be due to the recession, but going to Men's Wearhouse wasn't cool. He was right. The company started with suits, expanding into other pieces of men's wardrobes. Bonobos, a company that originally only sold pants, now makes a minority of its revenue from bottoms. (Bonobos does have a wholesale account with Nordstrom, but it's a small part of the bottom line.)
The ambition of Bonobos, Combat Gent, and brands like them extends beyond the online world. Dunn calls his company's "guideshops" a "really humane experience," noting that they are expanding from 21 to 32 physical spaces by the end of the year. Melwani, a third-generation tailor from a family that owned and operated Versace stores on the West Coast, moved into the brick-and-mortar world too. His shops have on-site tailors. Buying a suit becomes as simple as entering a store, getting measured, then walking out 30 minutes later. This new model of men's shopping sure looks a lot like the old one, even though there's still some newness out there to explore.
The latest frontier in menswear is the trend toward unisex or agender style. Two seasons ago, Acne Studios' Jonny Johansson put his 11-year-old son in heels for an advertisement. Acne's clothes feature egalitarian silhouettes, and a recent men's collection included items that had patches reading "gender equality" and "radical feminist." The Baja East guys notice that their harem jumpsuit sells both to middle-aged women who live in Miami and young men who shop at Maxfield in Los Angeles. Jaden Smith and rapper Young Thug wear dresses and shop in the women's section. Even Zara produced a genderless collection. It consisted mostly of jeans and sweatshirts, but the mere fact of its existence is a sign of something.
"Modern masculinity is knowing yourself enough to know what you value and carving space out for that style," says WGSN's Jian DeLeon. GQ's Mark Anthony Green agrees: "Men want to be comfortable and men want to wear what they like, but I think that men might like some weird shit."
Still, most require a little push. "The majority of people in the fashion industry need the permission," Studenberg says. "People aren't ever ready for anything until you show them that it's there, so you have to show them that it's there." That could be Nick Jonas in a jumpsuit, Jussie Smollett in a velvet scarf, or Justin Bieber in a simple tee. Or it could be Studenberg or Targon reimagining a piece they showed on a woman by wearing it to an event themselves. Photos hit the internet, imaginations expand, permission is granted.
Menswear is more accepting now, propelled by the softening of attitudes and an increasing diversity of opinions. "If we're getting to a place where you just get to be yourself," says GQ Style editor-in-chief Will Welch, "what an amazing outcome that is of menswear blogging and all these little things that can seem silly or trite but actually might be part of the cause or a symptom of something cool going on."
It's about you, and that's not a bad thing. "We lost David Bowie and we lost Prince in the same year," says Green. "Not to get too philosophical, but if anything, everyone with some sort of style platform needs to be pushing people toward individualism, period. For the next 10 years, the only wave any of us should be on is individualism."