A Menswear Memoir

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

Catch A Wave, You'll Be Sittin' On Top Of The World

Experience can be dangerous. It’s one thing to know a lot about something and quite another to have your knowledge be valuable. Right? “I know how to dance,” is not the same as “I know how to dance to this.”  To make experience count, you have to be flexible, sensitive to change. To know a lot, and yet to be open to learning something new – that’s the sign of real intelligence.

The once and future "look"

The once and future "look"

In my business experience equals authority, which is how we sell; but it can be a dangerous intoxicant. Here’s a story: I called on a highly respected local retailer in the late 70s, a couple of years after the shape of a man’s tailored jacket had been permanently altered (slimmer, longer,) in the mainstream mind by the likes of Pierre Cardin, Ralph Lauren and others. At the time, this venerable Eastern Establishment Clothier carried only the famous Ivy League (i.e., “boxy”,) three button sack jacket of the J. Press variety. “About time you started carrying some two button, shaped clothes, Mr. --,” I suggested. To this impertinent suggestion the Old Master sternly replied, “I owe it to my customers to remain loyal to the traditional look. That’s why they come here. They simply do not want anything new and different.” Case closed. No sale. I’d failed to convince him; thus it is wryly amusing to recount my next sighting of the O. M. – standing alone in a dim corner of the University Store, to which he had retreated, sadly unable to do enough business in three button sack clothing to afford the High Street rent. So much for great conviction.

Fashion trends are challenging because they are always coming, like the waves in the ocean. So we retailer dudes have to catch the right ones. Go too early and you miss the really sweet ride; wait too long and well… University Store, or worse. The trick is to be experienced enough to read the signs, to see human nature change; ignoring the fashion headlines and looking for Truth. That’s the difference between being gnarly and just a kook.  

Mr. Big: 9 Pages in GQ! And that's not a wig!

Mr. Big: 9 Pages in GQ! And that's not a wig!

There’s always a gnarly dude, a bellwether like Pierre Cardin in 1972. Thom Browne thirty years later. Both correctly predicted a swing to the shapely side in men’s fit. In the intervening decades there were other waves. Even I caught one, preaching the gospel of comfort, riding the swell: huge baggy pants, giant wide shoulders; all reminiscent of the late 40s styles of the legendary Giants of Jazz. This was all very big news in the 90s, and we're about to turn around to it again. There's hint of a swell out there: Suzy Menkes is covering menswear defiles in Paris where they're showing Wide Shoulders! Bigger shirts! And (OMG!!) Pleated Pants! You can see it coming, but it ain't here yet. If you take the wave at this point, Johnny, you'll be on the beach when the real ride shows up.

I will tell you I think you look positively stupid in baggy clothes in this day and age. But I have no doubt that there will be another swell coming in, this time to the easy side, and I am sincerely not looking forward to the day I am telling my customers that “Baggy is in, man.” Charlatan! Hypocrite!

It is ultimately a conversation between the professionals (us) and the amateurs (you;) a conversation about the perpetual continuum of style; about the changes that technology brings: stretch, wrinkle resistance, performance, etc.; and about the current trends in – dare I say it? – Fashion. Our job is to watch the trends and to arrange our product assortment so that we offer our customers newness that is appropriate, timely but not revolutionary, subtle but noticeable. We have to remain sure of what we know, but open to change. The O.M. was right,in a way. We do owe it to our customers to remain true to the timeless elements of good taste, but these elements appear in different shapes and guises as the continuum of style flows along.