The writer Jared Diamond keeps presenting the evidence: no matter what doom and gloom you read in the papers, statistically these remain the best times to be alive – ever. We live longer, healthier, more secure lives than at any time in history.
Not to trivialise such a thought, but the same might be said of menswear – sure, there are those little voices who remind us of, for example, the wastefulness and environmental impact of fast fashion; who question the dictatorial nature of seasonal trends; or who point out that the high street seems to be slowly disintegrating, taking local communities with it. But, nevertheless, when it comes to dressing well, men have never been in a better place.
The UK men’s clothing market, for instance, is now worth £15bn a year, according to market researchers Mintel, and is expected to grow by 11 per cent over the next three years. In the UK at least, that growth pattern outperforms the (admittedly much larger) womenswear market. Globally the market is predicted to grow by even more, 14 per cent, over roughly the same period. Around the world we already spend well over £300bn on menswear.
There are multiple reasons for this. Men have undergone a style education, first via magazines and latterly via websites and social media; that has generated an acceptability among men in having an interest in clothes – much as the grooming world has fostered an acceptability in looking after yourself – something that not long ago was considered suspect. Colour, pattern, a mix of the tailored and the technical, the high brow with the historical – everything goes, often in the same outfit. There’s a confidence to men and their clothing now, even among men who aren’t that into clothes.
But it’s certainly easier to be into clothes now. The overwhelming influence of street and sportswear – notable even among the designer names – has made menswear both more urban, more approachable and, importantly for men, more comfortable too. Dress codes have softened drastically – which means there’s more sense in investing in clothing you get to wear more than at the weekend. And men are investing: almost a fifth of men will have spent over £100 on their last shopping trip – only 12 per cent of women will have done so.
The market has broken away from its dominance by expensive designer labels as well – the very 80s, anti-democratic idea of which seems out of keeping with the times now – and seen a boom in quality-driven, more affordable brands pitched right in the middle; 70 per cent of men say quality is important in their clothing, against 64 per cent of women. The market has also pushed an ever-growing breadth of ideas to meet any number of interests or tastes – from the functional to the fanciful, from flash to sober. Menswear no longer means a small set of typically rather sober styles. It’s a giant dressing up box.
That new diversity is part of the slow but ongoing breakdown of the notion not only of seasonality but of there being dominant trends. Really, a man can dress how he wants now and fit right into his group – and look good with it too. That, arguably, suits the male mindset: not only the pack mentality, but that nerdy interest in the specifics of make and history too.
The explosion in online retailers – without the crippling overheads of bricks and mortar stores – has at least allowed these different tribes to be serviced with a steady trickle of new, upstart brands, which in turn have been able to launch, market and distribute their wares affordably thanks to the internet. Big name brands sit alongside completely obscure ones. Where the latter would not have survived long perhaps just a decade ago, now they – alongside many a capsule collection and collaboration – can offer men freshness and bragging rights.
All of this might not necessarily paint a rosy picture for anyone selling menswear – on the one hand, they now have a willing, even sometimes fanatical, customer, but they also have a much more discerning one, and the competition is only going to increase. But all of this is good news – very good news – for us men. It’s never been easier, or more rewarding, to take pleasure in clothing.
To offer some proof, we asked influential figures from across the fashion industry to give their perspective on men’s style. They point to a new confidence and the choice and quality of what’s on offer, but the overall message is clear: menswear has never been so good.
For a long time, menswear has spoken about ‘fashion’. But ‘style’ seems a much more relevant, more modern word to apply now, it seems to me. That’s in part because I don’t like extremes in menswear, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be strong – there is a difference. Naturally, men can be interested in fashion, and I think more are than have ever been. But they’ve also grasped the idea of style as being something deeper and are moving around that idea.
Menswear is, of course, much more casual now – men surely dress more in chinos and easy-to-wear shirts now than they do like me, in a suit. And even I want a suit that feels more like something I’d wear to jog in now. But that’s all great – there’s real freedom in what men can wear. You’re free to like what you like, to mix it up. You don’t have to wear a uniform. There’s this new emphasis on comfort, performance, fun, which is great for menswear. I think for a long time the industry has been too serious, too sober. We’ve moved beyond that.
The modern menswear industry is in flux. Menswear today is fantastic, but business isn’t always easy. Two years ago I’d have said it was in the best condition it’s ever been, but now I see a lot of sportswear taking over. Some men have started to wear big logos. Others aren’t wearing proper shoes. The ‘suit’ has become a bad word. But this is all a fashion moment of course. Looking at the wider picture the variety of clothing men have now is amazing. Our sense of dress is improving: we dress up now to go to parties, and we dress more individually for work too. It’s not all grey suits.
I’d still prefer if men bought less and better though and I think that’s the next evolutionary step for our attitude towards clothing. After years of ‘fast fashion’ on the high street, we need to take on board that clothing has an environmental impact, that we should all be looking to more sustainable fabrics the likes of organic cotton. We all have too much clothing. We all need to think about investments. A lot of clothing around is crap. But we’re getting smarter at identifying that, and that’s the first step to buying well. Sure, that tends to cost more – but then you have to back your virtues.
Off-White is officially the hottest brand on the planet. For Q3 2018, it crowns the Lyst Index, our quarterly ranking of fashion’s hottest brands and products based on analysis of online shopping behaviour of more than 5 million shoppers a month. With Gucci and Balenciaga having jostled in first and second position for a while now, it’s so exciting to see Off-White move into first place. Given that Off-White was in position 34 this time last year, it’s symbolic of the pace, energy and shifting grounds in the industry that a brand can move so far, so fast. This quarter Nike and Yeezy have made big jumps up the list too, propelled by viral social moments and hero product launches.
It’s tricky to define what ‘streetwear’ means right now. It’s not a ‘trend’ for which we can plot a line with data and look at what’s happened – more like an energy and a design approach that has really grown and evolved over time. What we’re seeing now is that luxury and streetwear and sportswear have all merged to become the dominating aesthetic driving fashion forward. The prominence of streetwear-influenced brands and products in the Lyst Index reinforces that the streetwear customer is global, hyper-engaged and extremely powerful. Customers expect quality construction and fabrication from a luxury item, but the branding is what’s driving the demand.
My daughters talk a lot about gender fluidity and say I can’t use the term ‘menswear’ any more. It has to be just ‘swear’. I listen to that but do think it’s an interesting idea. The fact is that men are confident enough, cool enough, to wear, say, a skirt now – and I don’t mean a kilt. The fact is that women have had all the fun in terms of clothing and men have had to dress ‘appropriately’. Now they can dress just for the joy of life. That’s a massive awakening.
To have an outward projection of confidence you have to understand clothes, and when you do, and you can be playful with it, you understand just how powerful that is. It’s much more than that Pitti Uomo dandyish niche. You can see it in that overlap between menswear and art now too – people are playing with proportion, texture, shape and colour because they’re interested in those qualities. It’s not about looking in the mirror at all. That’s exciting. I’m 61 now, and 20 years ago I was a middle-aged man. Back then my kids didn’t want me to look ‘odd’ at all, and they were strict about it. Now I’m not beholden to them I can wear what I like, and I love it because there’s a kind of permission for that. I’ve been wearing boilersuits for the last three months. I’m looking forward to getting more eccentric.
We live in more open-minded times, and men now have this much greater breadth of product available or them to wear without being judged for their choice. You don’t have to think back that long to times when putting effort into what you wore was considered not cool. That attitude has gone. Yes, I have an issue with fast fashion’s environmental impact, but that shouldn’t mean you have to go to high-end brands to get quality clothing – and you don’t need to any more.
There’s a great middle market of products now that does last, and which are affordable. That’s really opened up the opportunity to dress well. Personally, I like the idea of quality meaning that you don’t need to buy a lot – you can wear the same thing year after year, even if there’s always a lot going on in menswear. Womenswear is so over-saturated it’s hard to add much to the conversation.
Menswear has, of course, had moments of excellence through history, when a particular look just seemed to come together and become more the mainstream – the way preppy did in 1950s and ’60s America, for example, or the way certain tribes the likes of the Mods defined a style that still influences dress today. But what has brought radical change to the way men dress today is, inevitably, the internet. Not only is it a bottomless source of esoteric information, but of proper nerdism too – if there’s a specific facet of menswear that interests you, you can explore that ad infinitum.
More importantly perhaps is the fact that the internet has connected makers and consumers. It wasn’t that long ago that men were limited by powerful store buyers to a rather conservative – or at least commercial – way of dressing. Or to what was being sold by the shops in their town. Now ever more niche brands can find their niche consumer. That works for us – if you want to put the effort in, the chances of you wearing something that nobody else you’re ever likely to meet is wearing is almost nil. But it also works for the makers – it’s not easy, but they now have a way of selling direct and building a business. That’s nothing short of revolutionary.
Menswear has never been as diverse – whatever you’re into you can find clothes you like, and even if you’re into the mainstream, that’s as good as it can be. Just as importantly, it’s more widely available – good, cool stuff isn’t only found in those traditional big menswear hubs of London, New York, Paris and so on.
That doesn’t always mean you can get it. There’s huge desirability for things, which can go global overnight. Menswear moves at an incredible pace. Providing the actual product can be a challenge because things can sell out in a minute – but that’s the pace we have to work with. The good news is that if something sells out, that’s room we can then fill with more new products – and if we get it right with the big brands, we can champion the small ones people haven’t yet heard of. And that excitement in the new is what drives business. You have to be really aware with menswear now. Buying has come to be about being culturally relevant – you have to travel a lot and meet a lot of people because the inspiration for menswear can come from any angle. As Pusha T said, ‘If you know, you know’. The thing is in this work, you have to know.
The big change in menswear is that whatever your age, whatever your style, whatever your budget, you can find good clothing for yourself now. You can buy a double-breasted suit for £150 or for £4,000, depending on what you want. But it’s not just the industry that has changed – men have too. We’re much more conscious about taking care of ourselves, striving to be ‘better’ men, whatever way that might come in, for the sake of our careers, our relationships but also for ourselves. We have more self-esteem, I think.
Of course, there are all the well-dressed, gym-honed men we might aspire to be, but actually, we now hear about real men going through a process of transformation and find that inspiring too. I suppose we’re all going through that process in some way – and not just aiming for some kind of advertising industry idea of ‘perfection’. We’re thinking bigger – dressing well is a part of educating ourselves, expanding our minds.
Markets around the world have opened up and given new approaches to menswear and product. The opening up of Japan over the last decade, for example, has been a real leap for menswear especially. It had such an inward culture and buyers here perhaps didn’t look too far for new products, and now we’re all doing more to meet in the middle. What’s interesting about a lot of these brands is now seriously they take what they do – they really make menswear at a new standard of quality and, because small factories are perhaps able and willing now to take on small production runs, they can do that too. Some brands aren’t as secret as some people might have preferred they stayed but on balance that’s a good thing. It’s not just quality that’s improved either – that’s much much better than even 10 years ago – but design as well. It has to be because men are much more design-conscious now – often they even have an understanding of the technical side of clothing.
What’s most exciting now is that there is this generation of young creative people injecting new life into menswear, and that’s as it used to be, and as it should be, but hasn’t been for a while. Menswear design is exploring new paths. It needs a revolutionary approach to put creativity to the fore because it’s that which is seeing menswear sales like never before.
It’s also important to feed a new individuality. We turn now to, say, bloggers and other commentators to inspire a more independent way of dressing, rather than the old media institutions that tended to tell us how we had to wear a tie or roll our shirt sleeves. The style advice is still there, but now it’s about suggestions and offering choice, rather than giving direction. It’s a different tone of voice. You see that in the models being used too – it’s all more real, more authentic, rather than chisel-jawed, good-looking stereotype. Men just aren’t persuaded by that any more. I see it in styling as well – now it’s less about telling the subject what to wear as working with their own ideas of style. And there’s so much more variation in what those ideas of style might entail. That’s the key point: menswear now is properly about style, rather than fashion. Anyone can wear an expensive suit. But it’s about how you wear it.
Men have become a lot more conscious of what they are buying when it comes to fashion. There used to be this idea that a man would buy the same T-shirt in every colour and rarely change his wardrobe, however nowadays you see more and more instances of men experimenting. This has given others the confidence to try something new, choosing clothing that makes them stand out rather than blend in.
Such clothing has become more accessible too. It used to just be designer brands that did something different, now the high street, including ourselves, are creating more adventurous looks for the mainstream audience. This allows men to mix and match different price points in their clothing, for instance paring a designer jumper with high street jeans. Men also want to change their look up often, just as much as women always have. They’re incredibly quality conscious too which is why guys have taken a while to get into online shopping, they’re used to touching product as part of the decision-making process as they don’t like things to feel ‘cheap’.
It does feel as though menswear is in a great place – you only have to look at the huge variety of offer there is now. And it’s not just the high street or designer clothing, as it used to be – but everything in between as well, and from all over the world.
But just as importantly there’s been a change of culture – the restraints once put on men as to how they dress are now much more relaxed, especially in that old distinction between formal and casual clothing. Look at the designer brands that would traditionally have been considered tailoring brands and they’re more about streetwear now. All the boundaries are being blurred, and that means there’s more play and more experimentation, mixing high end and low end. Men can have more fun through their clothing. They can be more expressive. In a way, they’ve been given permission to be flamboyant without it being something others will point out.
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