Why are so many men (Americans and their Pacific counterparts, Australians, especially) so sartorially -backwards? Or, to put it bluntly, fashion retarded? The response is obviously a multifaceted and complex one, and therefore not one we’re going to get into in here.
For starters, culture i.e. “civility” and the trappings thereof, have relaxed quite a around the world, but especially in the land of the free and the home of the brave ( see the morons in pajamas on any domestic airline)—standard uniforms that once set a person aside from his or her neighbor became increasingly homogenous, goods became cheaper and consumers reacted by simply wanting them to be cheaper still (bless us). Add to that our good-ole American nature to be a bit slobbish and you have a recipe for disaster. Enter cheap retailers selling square-cut baggie clothes with absolutely no respect for style, size or dimension. I’m thinking of Gap and Old Navy, Target, etc.
But does that mean a man has to spend a week’s salary on a pair of pants and a shirt? No. There is a big difference here, and that is the difference between fashion and style. Fashion and style go hand in hand but are not mutually exclusive.
Fashion is shaped by the world around is, it is trends and runway shows while style is an inherent part of who we are. It is inside of us and cannot be marketed (the way the penchant for young men in white belts running amok in Italy in 2004 became a global sensation in 2006 when every fashion house had half-naked models in white belts strutting their stuff and made billions in sales of white leather belts). The fact that perhaps you could pull off a white belt tastefully PRIOR to that attests for a certain sense of style.
I belive most people (MOST) have a sense of style. For some of us it is bubbling right at the surface, for others it is buried deep within. For most men its somewhere in between. But if you have always work sneakers/trainers, shirts that were two sizes two big and baggy jeans then it doesn’t all come naturally to shift into proper-sizes and slimmer silhouettes. For this a man needs to know a bit about fashion. By this I don’t mean knowing whom John Galliano is or that Mr. Burberry invented the trench. But he does need to know some basics and that knowledge is informed, not inherent.
Many of today’s sartorial laws (not rules, they can be broken) have been passed down to us from a long line of history’s quirks, needs and hundreds of years of, mostly, English men’s sartorial wisdom and tradition. Of course, Italians have made a big impression on the fashion landscape as of the last twenty years and that cannot be ignored and moreover Italy has bequeathed to Italian men’s fashion the ability of a man to be sexy and still dress like a gentleman (not a dandy).
To develop your own sense of style one must understand certain basics of a “Gentlemen’s Style” as well as the basics one must live by (i.e. how to tie a knot, the idea of pocket squares, types of shoes, the proper blazer etc etc etc. )
This is what Italian men called “Sartoria” the art of dressing like a gentlemen. In the year 2009 that certainly doesn’t mean a three-piece suit (although current runway shows and a Madmen hysteria would say otherwise) but it does mean donning a look that is classic yet modern and up to date, flattering, and unique.
The ultimate goal? To look good and dress well because it feels good and allows you to express your sartorial individuality (plus the girls like it!).
You may just be coming out of college and need a wardrobe updgrade to get you knee-deep into the adult workd of an ovvice and real responsabilities. Perhaps you are a late-bloomer and want to trade in your baggy grunge look for something more sophisticated. Maybe, you;ve started to read GQ and Details and your girlfriend likes the rsults. Whatever the reason this small top-ten is for you.
If you had NOTHING in your closet and a bit of cash to burn then the following are a gentlemen’s must haves as basics to his primordial wardrobe. They key here is “classic” and therefore timeless.
Keep in mind: for the young man ‘cut’ is everything, this means higher armholes, slimmer arms and legs, lower rise on pants etc. no baggy, no square. If your hefty, such touches actually makes you look slimmer, so chill.
Ten items a man needs in his wardrobe (in no particular order):
1) A plain white oxford (a white button long-sleeve shirt)
Why– because it is and will be the most versatile piece of clothing you will ever own. Wear it with shorts, jeans, slacks and a blazer you name it you got it… it’s also easy to accessorize (which isn’t a bad or “gay” term, think of it as “pimpin” your look) with a vest, jacket or sweater. Remember, no logos!
- The Basic: J. Crew, Zara or Topshop
- The Classic: Brooks Brothers (slim-fit), Hugo Boss, Banana Republic
- The Upgrade: Lanvin, Zegna, Charvet
- The Next Step: Other colored shirts
2) A Navy blazer (sans the brass buttons)
Why– because it is a classic and never goes out of fashion and adapts to a million different styles. Remember that oxford above? With a slim cut plain one or two-button navy blazer and jeans, with white or khaki pants and a polo or simply with a t-shirt and shorts, whatever the style or occasion the navy blazer has a place.
There are some things to keep in mind: thin face, thinner lapels, rounder face, and bigger lapels. Keep the first navy blazer a simple basic one; i.e. single-breasted, little to NO shoulder pads, slimmer cut so that there is a just a bit of tension in the middle button (the one that aligns closer to your belly button) and is of a material that can be worn year-round. Nothing fancy on this one. Most blazers come with brass buttons, but they are meant to replaced, do so.
- The Basic: J. Crew, Zara or Theory
- The Classic: Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger
- The Upgrade: Dunhill, Burberry, Tom Ford
The Navy Blazer
- The Next Step: Slim double-breasted as well as lighter cotton-versions
3) Kakhis (the non-pleated or baggy type)
Why– They are the quintessential pant-on-jeans in America. Because you need something that’s less scratchy and a bit more “breezy” than jeans. Kakhis can come in two ways; relaxed and washed as well as dressy; you’re better served, initially, with a casual pair that you can throw on with a t-shirt and sweater or with a button shirt, whatever you do goes well with khakis as they are versatile and get better with every wash. AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD forget pleats, no pleats, ever at all.
- The Basic: J. Crew, Gap, Dockers (they have a new slim fit, flat-front line)
- The Classic: Ralph Lauren, Seven for all Mankind, Rogan
- The Upgrade: John Varvatos, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace
- The Next Step: White chinos, cords and other pants…
4) Brown loafers (without tassels)
Why– because a man needs good brown shoes and more often than not brown shoes are more cutting edge and cool than staunch and dressy. Leave the “fancy” shoe category for black shoes (and for the evenings), at least initially, and use your brown shoes to show a bit more of personality and flair. Loafers or drivers are perfect for this, they’re relaxed and casual but can be dressed up with a brown or blue suit (not drivers through) or worn with kakhis or jeans in the summer (and ditch the socks)
- The Basic: J. Crew, Aldo, Zara
- The Classic: To Boot, Kenneth Cole, Mezlan
- The Upgrade: Tod’s, Gucci, Berlutti
The Brown Shoes
- The Next Step: Berlutti custom made shoes
5) Black Oxfords
Why– because you need proper shoes. I adhere to the standard that brown shoes are for the day, black is for the evening. While sleek slip-on black shoes seem quite stylish your first true pair of shoes should/need to be black. The “oxford” happens to be the most popular style (we can get into what makes an oxford an oxford versus other styles, but that’s another post). Black, leather, laces. That’s it, no bits, no bling, no pebbled or snake-skin finishes. Black, leather, laces. Avoid square and chunky, particularly if you have small feet.
- The Basic: Zara, Kenneth Cole, Bruno Magli
- The Classic: Gucci, Peal and Co., Church’s, Allen Edmonds
- The Upgrade: Vogel, Zegna, Jon Lobb
The Black Shoe
- The Next Step: Pebble-grain and other leathers as well as pricey black slip-ons and patent leather for when you need to wear a tux
5) Nice Jeans
Why– because most guys don’t have “nice jeans” they have either dad-jeans or a torn mongrel version that was undoubtedly “weathered” off the peg and pricey. By nice I also mean a straight-fit cut (even if you have big thighs or are on the heavier side, it’s ok, they stretch and make you look slimmer). By nice I do not mean: designer, pricey, welted, worsted or full of bling. Personally, go to the denim guys, I will never wear a pair of jeans that’s not Levi’s; they’re the denim people, jeans is what they do. Oh, and by nice, I mean dark-ish blue and fairly even wash (you know, they type you’d wear with a nice grey jacket, a white oxford and a tie).
- The Basic: Gap
- The Classic: Levis
- The Upgrade: Diesel, 7 for all Mankind, Dolce & Gabbana
6) A Grey Suit
Why– because this (and a navy one) are really the only suits you need (initially). A grey suit is incredibly versatile as you can use just the jacket as a blazer with jeans (See above) or the trousers as grey pants should you want to not get too dressed up. A grey suit works for the day (light blue oxford, a tie and brown shoes) as well as for the evening (white oxford shirt, slim black tie and black shoes) and so it is extremely versatile. It really does not get any better. I belive in paying for suits i.e. upwards of 500USD but alas there is hope. Treat it nice and keep it away from the dry cleaners! Steam if you must and give it a day’s rest between each use. Light wool for all seasons is a best bet, not too light a color however.
- The Basic: Zara, J.Crew, Banana Republic
- The Classic: Brook’s Brothers, Massimo Dutti, Hugo Boss
- The Upgrade: Phineas Cole, Freeman’s Sporting Club, Zegna
The Grey Suit by Freeman's Sporting Club, NYC
- The Next Step: Custom: Tom Ford anyone? As well as other fun stuff like Prince of Wales check.
7) Linen Pocket Square
Why– because it’s all in the details. Okay, this one seems a bit foppish (i.e. gay) but really it’s not. A nicely folded pocket square sends a message, you care about the details, you neat, clear, organized and understand what you’re about… and because it’s not some pink and blue polka-dotted mess pouring out of your jacket pocket it does not say that your vane and affected.
- Where to find: Brooks Brother’s, Nordstroms, J.Press
The White Handkerchief
8) Four Well-thought-out ties
Why– because there are still places that call for proper decorum and a tie does not have to be a hassle nor an afterthought and can be a reflection of who you are. With the exception of black or white, ties should never be a solid color especially if they are of a similar shade to the color for the shirt you are wearing. Forget dumpster diving for ties, a huge selection of great ties exists at most specialty retailers and vintage stores are also a great resource. If ties are a new thing for you, avoid prints or anything too fancy and start off with stripes. Repp (stripes) ties hearken back to the regimented days of prep-school for a small percent of the population but for most of us they are nice, easy to wear and match easily to a wide array of situations and looks. The overall width of a tie, like lapels, have to be in relation to the overall width of your face so if your’re a skinny dude a huge and wide tie that covers your entire mid-section is a bad idea! Too slim a tie and you look like a druggy rocker or Hedi Slimane’s midnight fantasy, somewhere in the middle is good.
- The Basic: Gap, Gant, Zara, American Eagle Outfitters
- The Classic: Brooks Brothers, J Press, J Crew
- The Upgrade: Alexander Olch, Phineas Cole, Ralph Lauren Purple Label
The Tie(s) by Alexander Olch
- The Next Step: Bespoke ties by Alexander Olch. Cool prints, and cashmere numbers…
9) A V-Neck sweater (okay two)
Why– because it’ll be one of the most reliable items of clothing you own. Jeans and a white shirt is one thing but throw on it a v-neck sweater and it smartens the look considerably. While traveling it becomes a useful go-to companion for cool airplane cabins and can add quite a bit of looks when packed with a suit, kakhis, jeans and a couple shirts as it can be works with a suit for a formal put together look in chili weather and yet can be worn with chinos and or jeans. Merino wool and above, anything else will levae a ton of ‘stuff’ and lint on your shirts, wear it around the house a bit so it looses a lot of the fiber’s filaments and doesn’t put you in an embarrassing situation when a lint-brush is nowhere to be found. Cashmere is nice if you can afford it but plenty of reliable merino wool and cashmere-cotton blends are available. Have fun with colors although initially stick to grey and navy, or black and navy (but remember, black at night only and not with another black jacket or shirt, unless you are going for a dot-com millionaire artistic look) and stick to non-chunky sweaters.
- The Basic: Zara, J. Crew, Gant
- The Classic: John Varvatos, Burberry, Gilded Age
- The Upgrade: Zegna, Hermes, Dior
The V-Neck by J.Crew
- The Next Step: colors, prints, chunks etc; and cashmere cashmere cashmere.
10) A Cotton Polo Shirt (or 20)
Why– Because it’s timeless and about the most versatile item in your wardrobe… ever. There is nothing better than a polo, they come in short sleeves, long sleeves, light cotton, warm cotton, pique, plain, clean, vintage and in every color imaginable. Personally, should you have $80 in your pocket I’d say go for the all-time classic Lacoste Polo (they guys who invented it) as a good old fashioned Lacoste can go with anything, shorts, jeans, chinos, linen pants, swim trunks, under a jacket to dress down a suit or with trousers with a blazer for a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the occasion nothing beats a polo. Moreover they pack easily into a small carry on and are the perfect thing to go into a weekend bag. It doesn’t start an end with Lacoste, there are hundreds of Polo Shirts out there but I like the original. Buy them, buy a lot of them, in as many colors as possible and rotate them well, dry clean if you want to keep the colors bright or in cool water to develop a soft patina.
- The Basic: J. Crew, Gap, Polo by Ralph Lauren
- The Classic: Lacoste
- The Upgrade: Zegna, Brook’s Brothers, Etro
The Lacoste Polo