Just dandy

Pub date January 21, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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Men dress up. Yes, we do. We dress like animals: peacocks, roosters, cats. We dress like weapons: blades, pistols, and straps. Men dress up. Always have. Always will.

Something has been happening in men’s fashion lately, an evolution that’s taken place underneath just about everyone’s noses. For the longest time it was assumed that men’s fashion was about function over style, resulting in an array of boring, drab clothing. Sexy, exotic, or provocative was taboo.

Hywel Davies’ Modern Menswear (Laurence King Publishers, 208 pages, $40) is a beautifully illustrated book that challenges this stereotype, introducing the new dandy or aesthete in the process. It also covers a lot of territory — geographically and intellectually — through interviews with the designers. "Menswear is no longer status-led or solely rooted in tradition," Davies writes in the book’s introduction. "It is driven by the personality of the consumer. Men will take elements from a range of designers and create a distinct personal style." And that is precisely what Modern Menswear inspires a reader to do.

I would like to take Aitor Throup’s military-inspired pants, please, along with his skull accessories and his tagline, "When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods." Let’s top the ensemble off with one of those baseball-cap masks.

Sadly, Alexander McQueen’s men’s collection hits at least one disappointing note. Apparently the bad boy can’t dress himself with as much verve as he does his models.

I will take the Blaak double-breasted suit. That label’s mix of western, eastern and African influences, its use of natural fabrics, and its fusion of hedonistic street style and subdued anarchy is new. Blaak believes in "The working class hero, The Poet, The Outsider, and Edwardian Pomp and Ceremony with a whispered subversive punch." The label’s ideal customer "is a person who understands the riot of anarchy, the need for the whimsical, and the hidden fine lines bound in society." Damn, these boys speak my Afro-surreal language.

So does John Galliano, whose eclectic mix of nearly every fashion innovation since the fig leaf makes him a patron of the new aesthete. A derby hat and a kimono can be fly, especially with a sturdy pair of boots. "It’s like giving men a bit of what they’ve seen on women without taking away their masculinity," he says, "allowing them to dream more." Savage refinery — ah, nothing like reconciliation!

The book draws to a close with the rich, opulent colors and decadent accessories of Vivienne Westwood’s MAN label, and Yohji Yamamoto’s sublime understanding of the silhouette. There are some outrageous pieces, but Davies’ book isn’t geared toward gawkers.

Fashion is an opportunity to expand possibilities — to dream, as Galliano puts it. Do I have $5000 to spend on a Yohji coat? No. But I may be inspired to modify a pea coat or mourning jacket from a secondhand store after seeing one. Will Vivienne Westwood ever see a dollar of my money? Probably not, but I can borrow her sense of adventure and create a little magic of my own. "If you dress up," says Westwood, "it helps your personality emerge — if you choose well." Modern Menswear makes that process a bit more exciting.