A generation after a recession led guys to raw denim and double-monks, coronavirus will reshape the way we get dressed once again.
I bought the pleated trousers and the double-breasted blazer (with its gold prep-school buttons) as something to look forward to wearing once the pandemic quieted down. But then they arrived, and I found that I couldn’t wait to molt my sweatpants and loungewear. So this weekend, I put on my new clothes, added a tie, and I stayed home—dressed for the future in a slippery, unknowable present. I may be pathologically overeager, but I’m not alone in imagining the ways the coronavirus pandemic will cause a complete rupture in the way guys dress. Men entered quarantine dressing one way and will likely leave it entirely different—our apartments or the rooms we’re holed up in serving as the cocoon for metamorphosis. The result may be men in nice tailored jackets, “hard pants,” beautiful woven shirts, maybe even a tie. “People will want to start dressing up again,” 18 East founder and designer Antonio Ciongoli told me a couple weeks ago.
Which got me thinking. Menswear entered the age of coronavirus in the throes of a no-limits game of style. Want to pair your drop-crotch joggers with a leather blazer and Vetements hoodie? Fair game. A horny sex watch paired with an elegant black turtleneck? Sure. Great big trousers with knit sweaters and a newsboy cap? Why not! The defining style rule of this new decade was the same one that defines, say, our current president: we make the rules up as we go along. But after talking to a few designers and people who were there a decade ago, I started to think that the pandemic, and the economic depression it’s brought with it, may even precipitate an embrace of the values that dominated the #menswear movement of the late 2000s and early ‘10s.
Even in the shutdown’s early days, the pandemic was already radically morphing men’s ideas of clothes and style. On Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice forum, a repository for fit pics and style 101 questions, one user queried the group, “Has this pandemic made you rethink your outlook on fashion and materialism?” They added, “I still like fashion and pride myself on looking presentable but I’ve realized I have more than enough clothes.” The group mostly concurred. Not a good sign: the users of the subreddit, who are bound together only by the very idea of clothing and shopping, were starting to have second thoughts about exactly those concepts. It’s the same frugal attitude that dominated the first wave of #menswear. “If you go through a recession when you’re entering the job market, like millennials did back then, it permanently alters your perception on the world,” says Michael Williams, a forefather of #menswear and founder of A Continuous Lean, the website that converted a generation of style-conscious men into heritage-obsessed, made-in-America acolytes.
The first #menswear movement courted men coming out of the other side of the ‘08 recession with a certain type of style. Clothes were prized because they were trend-immune and well-made enough to last through seemingly every style mutation. Brands touted their heritage—a badge that proved they and their clothes had been, and would be, around forever. Customers wary about spending money on apparel justified purchases by convincing themselves they were buying for the long term. In fashion, though, everything eventually loses relevance. #Menswear died, we were told, but now it’s back—a reanimated zombie wearing a soft-shouldered blazer and ready to ravage the globe (The skin is decomposed, the hard-worn raw denim has sick fades). “This will probably have a lifelong effect on anyone getting into fashion at this moment,” Williams told me, referring to the pandemic. So: Could a #menswear 2.0 era be in the making?
The effect of coronavirus will manifest itself in a variety of ways. The first is that design will have to change. The garish, maximalist designs of the past couple years that emphasized status through logos or obvious brand symbols, and were welcomed with open arms in economic boom times, will likely no longer fly. They might even be thought to be in bad taste. Williams remembers that 10 years ago luxury brands operated with much more trepidation. “There was a lot of behind-the-scenes talk of, ‘We’re trying to be tasteful with how we navigate this stuff.’” Take for example Gucci, the poster child for 2010 maximalism, which explicitly noted in the notes of its spring 2009 menswear show that the collection was an exploration of “the new way in which youth and luxury can seamlessly coexist,“ as if they were two estranged brothers. Jake Mueser, who founded his bespoke suit company J.Mueser in the middle of the last recession, wonders maybe biasedly if customers still eager to shop will try and get away from big-name brand. “Do you want to be in a flashy suit?” he asks rhetorically. “You can be spending the same amount on a bespoke suit—but it’s from a small tailor. It’s not just me, it’s any kind of independent brand where you just feel like, ‘Okay, this is like a place where I want my money to be.’’’
This more modest philosophy is already seeping into other, menswear-adjacent industries, too. “Minimalism is about to enter our world, which means for watches the days of wearing bells-and-whistles complications are about to end,” John Reardon, the founder of Collectability, a platform specializing in Patek Philippe watches, told me. “When we actually can go to a dinner party again, do you want to wear a Richard Mille that screams you just spent $1.2 million on a watch?” Mueser is finding that while his clients unaffected by the recession are still buying new toys, they are pivoting their purchases. The flashy sports car they planned on buying is replaced with a Land Rover re-engineered by a company in Brooklyn, one that makes the buyer feel good about supporting local artisans. When so many people around the globe are suddenly struggling to make ends meet, people shopping for watches, cars, and clothes are going to be more careful about the symbols that may rub their market invincibility in other people’s faces. People will still buy their luxury brands but the luxury brands will almost certainly look different. Consumerism won’t grind to a halt, but as a point of comparison, think of how differently our $500 kicks look now compared to 10 years ago: blank-slate Common Projects gave way to loud-as-hell Balenciaga Triple S sneakers. Which might look a little weird these days.
The #menswear 2.0 movement won’t be a photocopy of what happened a decade ago. You can stop digging for the double monk-strap shoes in the back of your closet, but while you’re back there maybe grab the Pitti Uomo starter kit: the Stetson hat, Gitman shirts, and American-made denim. Williams believes it will be unlike any fashion trend that’s come before it: understated and minimalist, yes, but new in ways we can’t quite understand yet. The shutdown has caused the almost total loss of all of the information that’s typically created new trends and design. Celebrities walking the red carpet, NBA player tunnel fits, and even the stylish person walking by on the sidewalk who makes us think differently about how we roll our sleeves or layer a shirt under a sweater: those are all gone now. “We’re going to be way less affected by all of that stuff,” says Williams. “This is almost akin to if a forest fire came through and now we’re going to see the new growth.” Like that already tired Twitter joke: the pandemic is giving men’s fashion the space to recover. Fashion is healing. Prayer hands.
But design is only the surface-level way the pandemic will cause us to reconsider our clothes. The message bubbling up in menswear even before the pandemic was to shop thoughtfully, to really consider the brands we were purchasing from and how they were making clothes in the midst of an imminent DEFCON 1-level environmental crisis. The first #menswear movement already fetishized the idea of made-in-America clothing, but the coronavirus pandemic makes it clear supporting local manufacturing is less a stylistic choice than a life-or-death proposition. When state governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, asked for help resolving the face masks shortage, local fashion brands were eager to help. But even the best-intentioned brands were confronted with endless hurdles involving sourcing and manufacturing medical-grade materials.
Actually, the first harbinger of a #menswear 2.0 movement was a new post from Williams on A Continuous Lean, which had otherwise been dormant since 2015. In his post, Williams railed against America’s inability to respond to the crisis because brands had spent years outsourcing production to other countries and sacrificing local manufacturing for next quarter’s profits. Now, the bill was coming up. “When you look at making face masks, this was a pretty fucking stupid simple thing,” he says. “And we can’t even do it because of the lack of manufacturing in this country.” Decades of neglect means our ability to make things in America almost completely atrophied—and with it disappeared the chance to employ people in traditional manufacturing hubs. “When things get offshored, it’s not just that a factory closes,” Williams says. “Like when they stopped making shoes in New England, all the suppliers, the tanneries, all the people that make the machines, they all go away, too. So you can’t just open a factory, you have to rebuild the whole sector.”
Mueser is hopeful that if anything good can come out of this recession, it’s that clothes go through the sort of revival food underwent the last time the economy tanked. The new phase of #menswear might not lead to a new visual identity but a brand new way of thinking about our clothes. “After the recession we saw in food this general the idea of understanding everything [we were eating],” he says. Mirroring food’s farm-to-table would do wonders for clothes, especially now. A new enlightened, more considerate customer won’t be able to just choose the brands they’re supporting but also see who the artisans are making their fibers, supplying their buttons, and ultimately manufacturing the clothes. At this point, restaurants can basically tell you the name of the cow you’re eating and what he ate for breakfast that morning. Clothes, which require the participation of a massive global supply chain and are bad for the environment even when made in the most sustainable ways, would benefit from even a fraction of that transparency.
Even without a recession forcing us to rethink what we’re buying or a crisis that holds a flashlight to the dark corner America tried to shove its dilapidated manufacturing system, the idea we’d come out of the pandemic with the same clothes we went in with is laughable. Already, suits and tailoring were encroaching on streetwear as the dominant force in men’s fashion. Virgil Abloh put suits down the runway at Louis Vuitton; Kim Jones, now at Dior, did the same just a couple years removed from teaming with Supreme at LV; even Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God collaborated with Zegna on tailoring. One reason for the suit’s revival was that it no longer rank of corporate scabiness. “As more and more offices make it something that you don’t have to wear, it becomes an elected choice,” says Mueser. “Your average guy who doesn’t care too much is wearing khakis and a Patagonia vest, so if you’re the guy in the suit it’s a style choice.”
A second coming of tailoring and suiting was already well on its way, but now getting dressed up might feel like an urgent necessity—if not now, in our early days of Zoom, than in a few weeks or months, when your sweats start to feel a little cramped. “No one wants more of this loungewear bullshit,” says Williams. “They don’t want to think about being home on a Zoom call. People want to think about when they can wear a nice jacket and go to an event or be at a nice restaurant again.” In that way, buying suits, pleated trousers, and double-breasted blazers again won’t just be a way to help local businesses, a method to tone down cranked-to-11 fashion, or a sign of an impending new era of style—it’ll be a symbol of hope, too.