Why you should care

This style guru might hold the secret to male suaveness — not to mention future success.

The author is a former fashion reporter for The New York Times and the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine.

Men have always been interested in how they look. But they’ve had to keep that information tucked snugly under their stylish hats unless they were, for instance, a flamboyant entertainer, along the lines of, say, Liberace or Prince. Style-watchers are now seeing something new, and exciting. Fashion isn’t just femininity and adornment; eschewing it isn’t a mark of manliness.

Listen closely, men: It’s now bro-cool to take an obvious interest in your appearance.

Sure, “Hey buddy, what’s that you’re wearing?” may not yet be office water cooler talk. But ignore style and you risk career advancement and romantic opportunity. It’s a logical calculation: your panache outweighs the slight embarrassment many men feel at entering their first chic dressing room. And it’s all part of a general societal craze over plastic surgery and fitness. It’s no longer about vanity. It’s a necessity to make it — from your career to your relationship. Behind it all is a complex history: a roller coaster of up-and-down style trends through the 1980s and 1990s; a quiet struggle for men’s designers to create clothes that appeal to women; and for women’s designers to do the same for men.

This is a watershed moment for the industry.

Peacocks walk the streets all over the world these days. Men’s fashion photography is now “as interesting as Paris Fashion Week,” observed Kenneth Richard, owner of TheImpression.com, which tracks street styles — in particular, there’s Pitti Uomo, a men’s trade show in Italy and the new hot thing. The shift, said Richard, started about seven years ago with a palpable dip in sales of hip-hop signatures like XXXL T-shirts and baggy pants. They were replaced by a new fervor among men for “mixing attention-grabbing colors, tossed-on fedoras, added dramatic pocket squares, ties, patterned socks, cuff links and so on,” said Richard. And it’s not just gay men, the traditional stereotype of effete fashionistas. It’s actually the straight, butch professional athlete who may love style the most: Dwyane Wade, David Beckham, Russell Westbrook. GQ, Conde Nast’s Bible of male style, has put more sports stars on its cover in unorthodox fashionable duds in the last two years than they have models.

This is a watershed moment for the industry. Women traditionally have held the purchasing power in fashion. Yet most top designers — even of women’s wear — are men. For many years, these men have nurtured an interest in building their own men’s fashion labels. Trendsetters like Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld and Michael Kors all tried to push their men’s lines over the years. But such projects flailed. Ahead of their time, they were forcing style upon a population not ready to break out their inner fashion freak.

 U.S. designer Marc Jacobs at Paris fashion week  2013.

U.S. designer Marc Jacobs at Paris Fashion Week 2013.

Source Benoit Tessier/Landov

Compounding the plague of poor dressing were iconic successes like Silicon Valley tech kings, who torpedoed the suit as a marker of success. The (pre-hipster) geek style of accomplishment dressing prevailed: khakis and a polo shirt. And it even spilled over to women’s fashion. After all, who was sartorial Meg Whitman but a female Valley CEO with wavy blond hair? No doubt this is a simplification, but the heart of it is the quiet, seismic shift that bubbled up and continues, as teenagers witness what success dress looks like and how wonderful a medium fashion is for self-expression.

Now, the tables might be turning. Female designers may not be able to occupy the space that men designing for women long could. Wisdom and experience show us that a man will rarely buy a suit with a woman’s name on it. There were some exceptions — high-end Jhane Barnes and more affordable Liz Claiborne. But more common were designers like Donna Karan, who virtually defined the women’s power suit of the ’80s but could not crack the boys’ club, despite the fact that her men’s line included a forward-thinking stretch component, molding it to the body.

The fashion industry’s bemoaning of this unwinding of style may be at last over, though. Men in the creative class of corporate America have today borrowed from Silicon Valley and hip-hop to fuse a stylish look anchored in sneakers. A look that sells. Especially sneakers — once designers started making sneakers, new dandies inherited the familiar alongside the fresh.

An inevitable swing of the pendulum happens every couple of seasons or sometimes every decade. You can see it everywhere: the move away from pants that are four sizes too large to super skinny trousers and pants; away from eyeglasses worn by prescription-only to glasses worn just to make a statement. So cheers to a bold new style lexicon.

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