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Our fearless fashion director, Alex Badia, summoned a few experts on men’s style for a roundtable discussion. It took place on a recent morning, in an elegant private room at Aretsky’s Patroon restaurant on Manhattan’s East Side, and it touched on everything from the death of the dress-down look to the influence of digital culture on the menswear industry.
Those who took part were Nick Wooster, the former fashion director of Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman; writer Michael Williams, of the influential Continuous Lean fashion blog; and the designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, founding partners of the New York City label Public School, who won this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America Swarovski Menswear Award. Ken Aretsky, the restaurant’s beautifully tailored owner, joined the discussion in progress.
This story first appeared in the October 1, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
ALEX BADIA: Let’s start with you, Nick. Where are we in menswear right now?
NICK WOOSTER: In the almost thirty years that I’ve lived in New York, the menswear business has changed completely, partly because of the influence of the Internet and social media. It’s more democratized and so much more accessible. Thirty years ago, it was very segmented.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Now men are more comfortable expressing themselves through clothing. A lot of the stigma has been withdrawn—guys are more at ease.
DAO-YI CHOW: To Nick’s point about the democratization of fashion—Max and I are perfect examples of that: two kids with no formal training from a design standpoint, yet we have the platform to make a difference now in helping the shift of how men look at themselves as it relates to fashion.
ALEX BADIA: Has the recession had an effect on design?
MAXWELL OSBORNE: Maybe a little bit. Now we make everything here in New York. Before the recession, it was overseas. We took the brand back. We wanted to create the Public School guy’s everyday wardrobe, and we weren’t doing that before, when it was a little more item-driven. We want to dress this guy from day to night, even in separates and changing outfits. Our Public School guy can go anywhere, from breakfast to the opera. The recession made us look into this guy a little bit more.
DAO-YI CHOW: I think menswear, as a whole, is having a moment. And I think fashion, in general, has become more important at an earlier stage. When you think about menswear, traditionally it’s always been sort of this older thing. When you get into your second profession or the latter part of your career, you have to think about how you’re dressing, and menswear was synonymous with tailoring for a very long time. I don’t think that that’s the case anymore.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Tailoring is still important, though, right?
DAO-YI CHOW: Tailoring is being introduced earlier than it has been, so it hasn’t lost its importance; it’s just more important to people at an earlier age.
NICK WOOSTER: It seems that the idea of casual Friday is what fucked guys up for a while. All of a sudden, they were given this idea of choice, and it really fucked with their heads more than it helped them, because the uniform is the perfect answer to a guy’s life. It’s: problem solved! All you have to do is choose a color and stick with it!
ALEX BADIA: So the uniform is liberating?
NICK WOOSTER: It’s absolutely liberating. Thom Browne talks a lot about that, and it’s true.
KEN ARETSKY: We opened this restaurant—it was 1995—with a vision very much in mind that it wasn’t dress-down Friday. The vision was more “tie and jacket.” Not that I ever required a tie and jacket. My assumption was, out of respect to the place, people would get the idea.
NICK WOOSTER: How’d that work out for you?
[Laughter around the table.]
KEN ARETSKY: Dress-down Friday became dress-down Thursday. Then it became dress-down Monday. By the way, these people had tons of money. We were selling bottles of wine that we had no right to be selling. In my view, you don’t go to a restaurant and buy a $1,500 bottle of wine like it’s a $100 bottle of wine. These kids came in dressed like they were taking out the garbage. They had on the same thing: khakis. I never saw such a variety of khakis! And really bad polo shirts. It broke my heart. Then the bubble burst, and suddenly it’s the complete opposite now. What I’m seeing in a restaurant like this is, there is no more dress-down Friday. That’s gone, and thank God! That was a horrible moment for everybody.
ALEX BADIA: So do men care more about fashion today than they did before?
MAXWELL OSBORNE: Men’s fashion is definitely on fire. I think women’s fashion has always been under the spotlight, and women have been more in tune with what’s going on, but with the Internet and everything going on, it has made guys more aware. Look at how music is distributed now. Artists put out more, knowing that they’re putting it out for free, but they do it to stay relevant. I think fashion is the same way. Now you show things online six months prior to shipping.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I don’t think men care more. I think more men care. There are more people making it a business. I was reading an article about Woodstock and the music industry, to Maxwell’s point. When Woodstock happened, and they got 300,000 people to upstate New York, the record-label people said, “This is a huge business. There’s an ocean of money out there.” And that’s relevant to what’s happening in menswear. People are looking at it and saying, “There’s money there. People are interested in this.” Women’s fashion was a huge business, because women are more interested. They’re more into shopping, and they know their designers. Now men are starting to catch up.
NICK WOOSTER: Ultimately, everybody wants to look appropriate for whatever the occasion is. Maybe twenty years ago, they came up with this idea that it was casual, and nobody knew what that was, exactly. But now people understand, “Oh, there’s an occasion where I actually need to wear a suit.” Or, “There’s an occasion where I can get by with a sweater.”
Or, “I can just look cool,” whatever that is to you. That, I think, will help the business more than anything else, because now you need all kinds of clothes, not just casual or dressy. There’s a whole range of things in the middle.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The casual-Friday movement is separate from the dot-com people. That’s another form of rebellion. They’re like, “We don’t need to get dressed at all! We’re captains of industry, making all this money, doing these amazing things. I refuse to get dressed up!”
ALEX BADIA: The dot-com people are terrible. They’re barefoot! It’s horrible.
NICK WOOSTER: But then you see the bankers—the elevator doors open, and it’s a sea of blue, oversize, perma-cotton, stay-pressed shirts with nasty chinos. The entire elevator. One guy might have lavender.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Bankers always dress differently, though, because a lot of these investment bankers have to dress the way their boss dresses.
ALEX BADIA: Correct.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: It’s like, “He wears Ferragamo shoes? I wear Ferragamo shoes.” Pretty amazing.
NICK WOOSTER: It’s funny, though—that’s how I learned how to dress. I dressed like the guy who owned the clothing store I worked for. He was a traditional, classic, Ivy kind of guy.
KEN ARETSKY: I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want my banker in a T-shirt. If I have to borrow money, I want a suit!
NICK WOOSTER: All that was before the Internet. The casual-Friday thing happened as early as the late eighties—let’s say the mid-nineties. The difference today is, you know, there are millions of Web sites, and you do it as well, Michael.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I’m scared to hear what you’re going to say.
NICK WOOSTER: No! I mean, they didn’t have access to the information. It used to be that you would go to a clothing store and you would talk to the salesman, who would tell you how to dress for a wedding, how to dress for a party, that kind of thing. That phenomenon is gone, and guys look to blogs or YouTube.
KEN ARETSKY: Do you know Freemans Sporting Club, down on Rivington Street? They started with a bar-restaurant, then they opened up a barbershop, and then they opened up a men’s clothing store, all in one unit. And I go there. I’m fascinated by it, because what they’ve done is, they’ve made it accessible. A guy can go there and get everything done. It’s a wonderful thing, because a lot of men need help in terms of putting themselves together.
ALEX BADIA: Fashion was traditionally a feminine topic, and I think that men seem to be less afraid of that now. I personally think that your collection at Public School is very masculine. It’s raw. It’s helping define what is masculine today, but at the same time, it’s very fashion-y. How do you work that balance
DAO-YI CHOW: The intent was to make it feel masculine but still style-oriented and detail-oriented, taking risks stylistically. I think, traditionally, menswear has never been about emotion. Like Nick was saying, it served a purpose; it solved a problem: “This is where you go, this is how you dress. You work at a bank, this is what you wear—wear a navy suit with a white shirt.” So I think the emotion was taken out of that, and some people might confuse emotion with being feminine, but it’s not a feminine thing. That’s what we try to do: inject emotion and attitude into the collection. And men are reacting to that.
NICK WOOSTER: To me, it’s not masculine or feminine. It’s cool or not cool. I mean—you guys are totally cool. [He gestures toward Chow and Osborne of Public School.]
ALEX BADIA: Yeah! It’s a little annoying, by the way.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: To go back to masculinity, I think straight people and gay people have come together to form this very similar group of people. It’s not about being straight or gay. Almost no one seems straight or gay anymore, because everyone wants the same things. We want a happy life, to look good, to have some money, to be able to send your kids to school. So I think everyone is getting to that point where it’s OK to take all of these costumes aside and join it all together.
KEN ARETSKY: By the way, you look fantastic, and if you guys came to my restaurant dressed like this, I’d be thrilled to have you! What’s really interesting is, Who can pull it off? The one thing I’ve learned over the years is what I can’t wear. Like, I would never wear shorts in New York City, because I don’t think shorts belong in New York City.
[Laughter and slight uneasiness around the table: Nick Wooster is wearing a suit that comes complete with tailored Bermuda shorts, which are unnoticeable to Aretsky.]
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I think that’s true. If you’re going to wear a polo shirt, wear a polo shirt at the beach or when you’re playing tennis.
KEN ARETSKY: I think Thom Browne is brilliant. I would have never had a thought like that in my entire head! But at the same time, you have to be the right kind of person to pull that off.
NICK WOOSTER: I feel like I owe everything to Thom Browne, in terms of style—like, a starting point, because I am wearing shorts today!
ALEX BADIA: Awk-ward.
NICK WOOSTER: But you’re a hundred percent right. Like in London, you don’t wear brown in the city. You wear black shoes. And, traditionally, you don’t wear shorts in New York. That’s been something I grew up with, but that’s why I do it—because you’re not supposed to!
ALEX BADIA: On the runways this season, I saw insane flower prints all over the place, and I wondered, Oh, my God, is that really going to translate? Do you know what I’m talking about? Are the designers aware of what’s happening?
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I think the designers make people come to their houses as opposed to going over to other people’s houses.
ALEX BADIA: Oh, my God, that’s genius. [Addressing the Public School duo] I think that’s what you do. You make people go to your house!
DAO-YI CHOW: I wish!
ALEX BADIA: But there were florals in the street market long before there were florals in the design market. And now the street and the runway seem very much connected. Look at Jay Z doing his performance art at Pace Gallery. There is a marriage of these two worlds—a cross-pollination of ideas.
DAO-YI CHOW: I think it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. The street’s going to survive, and high fashion is influenced by the street. You don’t know where it started or where it stops. So it’s really continuous, and I think now it’s probably just more accepted than ever. Jay Z talks about it in that video—in the prelude—about how the art world and hip-hop have always been coming up together. There are not walls set up to separate the two. And when you look at street versus high fashion, that wall doesn’t exist. Right?
NICK WOOSTER: What I see is that the influence is womenswear, more than high versus low. Prints have been driving the women’s business for years. You know, multicolored florals and animal prints. And what’s happening in womenswear is going to be happening in men’s.
ALEX BADIA: Absolutely.
NICK WOOSTER: It’s just a question of whether it’s one season, two, or three.
ALEX BADIA: You were talking about Freemans Sporting Club, and I think that has something to do with what happens in Brooklyn as well—the Brooklyn hipster. Do you think that’s still relevant, the hipster look? Is it only a New York-centric thing? In my mind, I hate it right now.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I think it’s funny, the way you describe it like a condition. You know, I think somewhere in Brooklyn, they’re talking about people like you, Alex! I’m interested to hear what Dao-Yi and Maxwell think. Correct me if I’m wrong—you both live in Brooklyn?
MAXWELL OSBORNE: The people who are in Brooklyn now, in Williamsburg—I knew it growing up in the South Side, and now it’s called Williamsburg. It was a totally different neighborhood. Now the whole “Brooklyn hipster” thing is kind of weird to me, because none of the people are really from New York. It’s mostly Ohio, and they created a community inside of New York, which became this hipster thing.
DAO-YI CHOW: We look at New York as a whole, and not maybe breaking down the boroughs independently. I went to school in the city, which were really my formative years, so I’ve always related to city style more than to how Brooklyn feels at this point. It’s not really what we do. It doesn’t relate to us, in a sense.
NICK WOOSTER: It’s very suburban. I mean, it’s Portland, it’s Austin.
ALEX BADIA: It’s like the cool kids from the Midwest got together.
MAXWELL OSBORNE: That’s what it feels like. They have a similar sensibility about coming to a big city from somewhere else, and then they created their own little community, which became the hipster community, or whatever it’s called.
ALEX BADIA: But it has had a huge fashion impact.
MAXWELL OSBORNE: Huge.
NICK WOOSTER: My father is a mechanic, and when he hunts in Salina, Kansas, he wears chambray shirts, 501 jeans, Red Wing boots.
ALEX BADIA: Major. Major.
NICK WOOSTER: This is what I grew up with. It is. If you go hunting in Minnesota, it’s buffalo check.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Come on, no one hunts in buffalo check!
ALEX BADIA: Do you think it’s on the way out, that look?
NICK WOOSTER: It’s an archetype.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: It’s going to stay. They’re just going to keep getting pushed out to another borough!
ALEX BADIA: Astoria is next. Everybody is moving to Astoria. I don’t know why. I have no idea if I should go.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Public School makes everything in New York, and people think about “Made in America” as an archetype. But “Made in America” is not just this artisanal buffalo-check thing. It can be very progressive and modern.
ALEX BADIA: Thank God.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: “Made in America” is not all white people and buffalo plaid. You know what I mean? America is a very diverse place. The more people understand that, the better it is for everyone.
DAO-YI CHOW: When you break it down by category and look at denim, you think about “Made in America” denim—it’s always been this sort of Left Coast, San Francisco-L.A. thing. There’s a strong subculture around that. We wanted to do denim, but with a New York sensibility. Our version of “Made in America” is “Made in the Garment District.”
ALEX BADIA: And I think we are done. Thank you, everyone, for taking part.