Above: Thom Browne / Anchor image: Getty Images
Menswear has gone soft.
Not that the Spring/Summer 2020 collections weren’t impactful, just that they were a little laidback, even somewhat feminine. Yet it should be noted that this about-turn in masculinity didn’t happen overnight.
In 2012, rapper Kanye West wore a black pleated Givenchy skirt during his performance, launching an arsenal of think pieces on the role of generically female clothing in the context of menswear. A few years later, Palomo Spain took the world by storm with its brilliant fusion of traditional menswear and hyper-feminine details, churning out pieces like a blue cotton shirt festooned with oversized hanging crystals.
But when it comes to subverting red-carpet dressing for male celebrities, actor Billy Porter leads the way with ensembles such as a marigold bias-cut gown by Calvin Klein to last year’s American Film Institute Awards, and a Christian Siriano tuxedo-dress hybrid to the Oscars in the same year.
An antithesis to the usually dull menswear palette, pastels ran the spectrum from barely visible pale yellow to saccharine shades of pink, cyan and lilac. Prada showcased outfits in one colour from head-to-toe as well as in several hues. Other notable examples came from Hermes and Jacquemus.
While men clad in gender-neutral or even feminine clothing isn’t new, the fact that the collective fashion industry has finally caught up and is pushing out myriad styles, colours and silhouettes means fashion fans can look forward to a more colourful sartorial vocabulary.
“It comes down to confidence in men and women just being able to be themselves,” Thom Browne declared after his Spring/Summer 2020 show in June 2019. “If a guy wants to wear a dress, then he should be able to wear a dress and not care about what people think.”
Browne is one of the designers leading the conversation in gender-bending fashion. At his show in Paris, James Whiteside, principal ballet dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, opened with an awesome performance, clad in a tutu. His performance heralded a bevy of models strutting out in looks that riffed on the similarities between football players and ballet dancers. Make no mistake: this was an appraisal of what “manliness” means today, represented by rugby shoulders and hip-jutting pannier hoops.
Browne is hardly the only designer to re-evaluate the concept of gender through clothes. For Spring/Summer 2020, other brands, from contemporary label Bode to big names like Loewe and Lanvin, all took swings at the new “masculinity”. Even Alessandro Sartori at Ermenegildo Zegna, an Italian stalwart esteemed for its strait-laced, traditional suiting for men, had something to say.
Nothing reflects the happy vibe of spring like a well-placed floral accent, so imagine the joy of oversized ones. At Thom Browne, they served as a feminine counterpoint to masculine jock-inspired silhouettes, while MSGM, Marni and Dries Van Noten reaped lush blooms.
Launched last September, Zegna’s new campaign, What Makes A Man, sought to ignite a conversation with customers on attributes or actions that constitute “being manly” today.
In a press statement, Zegna noted that masculinity is about perception rather than appearance — a response that may stem from society having to confront ideas relating to masculinity and the toxic patriarchy that is inadvertently attached to it.
We have arrived at a point where clothes are perceived as representative of its wearer’s inner facets — no matter how vulnerable he may feel, or how far it deviates from the generalised image of masculinity. Clothes are about projecting one’s identity, and that includes nuances of your mental and emotional personality.
“I have noticed more of a sense of wanting to dress yourself in a way that shows who you are,” Sartori noted in a conversation in September 2019. “It wasn’t always like that.” He continued: “After a long time of presenting men without fear, I became more interested in a man who can talk about his emotions, his personality… All of this is super important because we don’t dress machines. We dress humans.”
TREND: SOFT SUITING
Consider this your gateway trend to a less rigid look. For Spring/Summer 2020, tailoring went softer with designers recommending lighter fabrics like jersey and silk (cross-reference Emporio Armani and Ermenegildo Zegna). Also on the agenda were roomier suits, like one in dusty blue from Bottega Veneta.
So how does that relate to the transposition of menswear in the new season? For Spring/Summer 2020, it’s about acknowledging that as males, we are made up of many different nuances; and fashion offers various tools to showcase those innate qualities.
The things that define or interest us will fall on various points and ends of the “manliness” spectrum. Some like roughing it out in nature, others enjoy a sappy romantic movie — and even more guys may fall somewhere in between — but it shouldn’t mean that one group is thought of as more masculine than the other. As such, fashion designers are out to prove that you can wear a pink satin suit or sheer floral coat without having your manhood questioned.
Hence, expect a proliferation of aforementioned satin suits, the use of varying tones of pink (a colour historically linked with females) and swishier hemlines and tunic dresses for the lads.
Fashion retailers have come on board too. Buyers from major retailers such as Mr Porter, Bergdorf Goodman and Printemps mirror this newfound enthusiasm for gender bending.
“Men are more open to trying new things like different colours and patterns,” Justin Berkowitz, Bloomingdale’s director of menswear, reasoned. “[They are] may be picking up some things that they would not have historically touched, which I think is really, really exciting.”
Another way to flip the script on masculinity was drawing on gender- bending rock stars like Mick Jagger and Prince. Cue the lush, satiny surfaces at Dries Van Noten, sumptuous draping at Balmain and sequinned asymmetric tops at Saint Laurent.
His viewpoint was echoed by Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Harvey Nichols, whose top trends for the season all embodied “romance, a softer approach, a softer colour palette and a more feminine twist on tailoring”. But just because department stores are co-signing this shift, one wonders if consumers will readily embrace these changes.
“Does it matter?” was Dr Adrian Ng’s response, when we asked him about menswear’s new look. “There is no correlation between being a man and being masculine. While certain traditional symbols of masculinity, such as tailoring, will remain, it’s how designers reinterpret them creatively that makes the difference. In this case, it happens to be florals and pastels.”
Dr Ng, who works as an anaesthesiologist, is excited by the changes in menswear. “I know I will be adding a few of them to my wardrobe in the upcoming season.”
It’s all about confidence. Virgil Abloh’s man-tunics at Louis Vuitton were styled with louchely cut trousers, while JW Anderson opted to go sans-pants.
And he isn’t alone. Private investor Kimihisa Abe also liked what he saw at Spring/Summer 2020. “The practice of genderless design is increasingly popular, and the differences that separate menswear from womenswear will one day cease.”
Perhaps the best way to look at these trends is to take Porter’s approach — with a certain blend of defiance, moxie and individualism. “When you look at most of the men, they’re boring. It’s a suit, it’s a tie. Everybody does that. I want to use clothes as another expression of myself.”
This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of A Magazine.