Not so long ago, only a small elite was attuned to trends in Paris and Milan. But the long boom decade of wealth has changed this irrevocably. Now many more mark the change of seasons in the shift of cut and colours, rather than spring flowers or the monsoon. Following fashion is, well, the fashion.
As much as fashion changes us, this nouveau demand has also changed fashion. Where once designers ruled and families owned, now multi-brand conglomerates dominate the industry. Many who were once small-scale craftsmen crank up production and flash their ‘branded’ insignia.
Some get off their haut horses and stoop to conquer, with diffusion labels for the aspiring classes, and designer outlet stores. On their part, high street labels have stepped up their game with “fast fashion” that mimics the latest runway looks at lower prices.
Some men too have caught the bug: first with the metrosexual and now with the male fashionista. The fashion industry now looks to male consumers to push up revenue and fashion houses have ramped up their offerings and publicity. There’s a notable change, even for the Singaporean male.
In the past and for many still today, the near universal uniform for the office or even an evening out comprised dark trousers and a plain, long sleeve shirt – with neither jacket nor tie, and often with sleeves rolled up. Some relied on old gentleman tailors but, more often, the items were of passing quality ¬– items grabbed during some lelong department store sale. There were few specialist, stand-alone men’s shops and, until recently, no men’s fashion week that many noticed.
Why? Blame NS and notions of uniformity, or else hierarchy at the office. A junior does not want to outdress his boss, or even stand out from his peers. And if the old boss flaunted wealth, he did that with a Merc and gold Rolex (or even gold teeth), rather than this latest designer suit.
Today, even if the trend among men is palpable, substantial change may come slower than advertisements. Part of the delay is that, even if a man wants to dress better, not all know how to do it. Nor have the patience to learn.
With time pressures and that male emphasis on results rather than process, few men will admit to roaming the shops and malls. Few delve into male fashion magazine titles (unless there are also cars and babes). In New York and London, some CEOs retain a personal shopper or style consultant.
Here, perhaps some corporate affairs departments should put up memos to the senior management on how to present themselves. For our political leaders, there must be some process to advise what colour shirt to wear during national ceremonies or F1.
But, otherwise, change in menswear tends to be incremental. Take the seemingly minor matter of suit buttons. It took years to shift the norm from three-button to two. And, despite designers deciding that it is a hot trend, double-breasted jackets are still rare.
Few men aspire to look like a model in the Pitti Uomo parade. But more of those who are successful – and those aspiring to success – want to be up to date and well presented.
That’s not entirely a bad aim. More and more fashion is not always a good thing. Blindly following the trends can lead to another kind (and altogether more expensive) of uniformity. Cultivate your own sense and sensibility. Here are three things to consider, somewhat inspired from a recent visit to Italy.
First, develop a sense of time. Resist the relentless diktat of the fashion industry to change from one season to the next season. Instead, pop into vintage stores. Yes, second-hand clothes but not the Salvation Army (although those with time and the right eye might find many treasures there).
Vintage stores curate what others have collected over time and run out of space to keep. No less than Kate Moss, fashion icon, is known for her vintage pieces and is just as likely to be seen wearing a carefully selected old favourite, as something just off the runway. Many designers raid the classic catalogs to revamp and recycle past years and some design houses have their own museums, like Gucci’s global headquarters in Florence.
Although this was under renovation when I was there, there was a vintage store just a block down. Looking in, there were some pieces with a sense of rich history – like a classic evening handbag in alligator leather, with chunky and real gem stones as clasps.
It need not only be the items that are vintage. In Italy, you can see men and women in their 50s, 60s or older, who dress with elan. To be older need not mean to be dull and ultra conservative. Instead, you might free yourself from conventions to develop your own style and expression of sprezzatura – style that is achieved with nonchalance.
Secondly, look out for that single item of quality. A focus on quality will take you beyond the name on the label, to really look at the materials used and how well made it is. Setting a limit of one item can discipline your taste, as compared to the idea that things will change every season.
With that sort of criteria, quite a number of Italians, especially in Milan, will turn not to brands are more famous, flashy and readily available, but to Valextra. The products are almost all hand-made in Italy, along spare and modernist lines and with only a discreet label. They were used in their heyday by Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy, as well as by Italian male fashion icon, Agnelli, and still hold cachet. Valextra bags are – I am told – what a stylish and well-to-do Italian woman might buy and relish for herself and then bequeath to her daughter or granddaughter.
Third, consider that our weather is humid and tropical. Equatorial fashion is no small challenge as designers presume a spring and autumn, and often use two or more layers for more variety. Say the word, “tropical fashion” and chances are you think resort beachwear, and dress bermudas (which is an oxymoron which makes anyone not from Bermuda look quite the moron).
Fashion for hot weather can take a lead from the Italian streets in summer. Most doft their Prada blacks for something cooler and lighter. Part of the answer will be in materials. Not only natural linen and poplin cotton (other cotton can be extremely warm), but also unlined, long weave wool and treated materials that wick away moisture.
Another factor will be in our habits and what we consider appropriate in the office. The habit of wearing socks may have to be questioned, and suede loafers worn sockless may be the cooler, acceptable option (but not rubber slippers). Rather than only the fully lined, wool suit, the unlined jacket could serve.
Historically, fashion was monopolised by a small aristocracy that had the time and means to worry about what to buy and use. Sceptics regret that fashion has invented many things that everyone who is anyone must have and yet no one really needs (not compared to say drinkable water, which many globally still lack). By my very scientific calculation, there may now be enough branded handbags so that, if they were tied together, they would circle the width of the planet (about 12,756km or about 77milllion handbags, assuming a medium sized bag of 16.5cm).
More fashion is not always a good thing. But even if we don’t want to be addicted to fashion, there is no need to be blind to it. To pick what you want, rather than have it picked for you. To open your eyes to what others wear. To judge what is offered to you, and make up your own mind with discernment.
Fashion can be part of that sense of style that we develop, with what we consider luxurious and true to ourselves.