Menswear revolution creates go-anywhere-anytime clothes
When the fashion industry first began to describe a style of dress that emerged in the 1990s among certain young men in places such as Washington, Los Angeles and New York, it settled on the words ‘street’ and ‘urban.’
The terms referred to a look that enthusiastically embraced athletic references, leaned to oversize silhouettes and had an undercurrent of defensive aggression. The clothes were not so much about status as tribalism. They were pricier than a Gap T-shirt or Champion sweatpants, but they were far from the realm of the rarefied.
With their choice of adjectives, fashion insiders pushed the distinctive look to the side. It was the purview of black kids, Latino teens and other young folks who commuted through their world. Though the aesthetic had been born on America’s vibrant streets and among its aspiring youth, it was not deemed “Americana.” That term was reserved for field jackets and buffalo plaid shirts.
Times have changed. The country is more diverse. Cities are ascendant. Washington, above them all, is a magnet for a new generation seeking density, walkability, vibrancy. And in response, designers are redefining the rules of dress so that the old ways and old terms no longer apply. Or at least their meaning has drastically changed. “Street” and “urban” “were bad words to use,” says designer Maxwell Osborne. Today, however, “street” simply means “it’s made for a big city.”
The direct descendants of that earlier aesthetic are more luxurious and higher priced — much higher. For fall 2014, Givenchy created printed sweatshirts that sell for well over $1,000. Sneakers modeled after classic Vans, which are about $55, are reimagined by Givenchy in embossed leather and carry a $750 price tag. High-top sneakers that, at a glance by the uninitiated, might be mistaken for old-school Air Jordans, are instead by Saint Laurent and will set a shopper back $675.
What’s the logic in this? A generation of men, who are excelling professionally and have significant financial resources, have no desire to spend their money on $6,000 Brioni suits because they simply do not wear suits, explained Jim Gold, president and chief merchandising officer of Neiman Marcus. Nonetheless, they want to express their prosperity through their clothes. What they love and what they wear are sneakers, sweats and other casual gear. So they seek out the most luxurious versions of their favorites.
Beyond status sweatshirts, streetwear is evolving in even more startling ways. It is being spliced with tailored jackets, stitched out of fine fabrics and reconstructed from the inside out. It is making menswear more vibrant and adventurous. The clothes have taken on a greater sense of personality, pushing robotic kowtowing to dusty rules toward obsolescence.
“I call it elevated active wear. It’s versatile enough to wear in the office and then go out with it,” says Bloomingdale’s Kevin Harter, vice president for men’s fashion direction. “It came from this whole street style, and you’re really starting to see it take off. And what’s interesting is you’re seeing it in all parts of the business. I’ve seen a lot of sneakers with suits and sweatshirts under blazers. … You see a navy pea coat over a fleece sweatshirt and sweatpants.”
Behind the scenes at the photo shoot
Propelling that change are young brands such as Tim Coppens, Todd Snyder, Alexander Wang and, closer to home, the District-born Durkl. They merged athleticism, skater attitude, hip-hop cool, the avant-garde and even the classics. They aren’t just tinkering around the edges of menswear; they are revolutionizing it. They have created a new ideal, a form of Americana that is embodied by cities. In the hands of these designers, American style is city style. It is “street” — reborn.
Public School is the most critically acclaimed of the menswear labels upending long-held assumptions. The brand was founded by Osborne, 32, and Dao-Yi Chow, 40. Osborne, who is tall and black with roots in the West Indies, speaks in a low murmur, a single slim dreadlock dangling across his forehead. He is single. Chow is married with two kids. He is Asian American, lean and angular, with a background in music journalism. Both are native New Yorkers who went to public school, thus the name of the collection.
“We’re part of a new wave of American designers. There’s a generation breaking out of that [classic Americana] box,” Chow says. “People are talking about a new America.”
He and Osborne are among those who have helped alter the definition of street with a philosophy Chow calls “convergence.” It is a collision of disparate cultures to create a look that is contemporary, pragmatic, urban and cosmopolitan.
“It’s like a musician that primarily is considered rock and wants to evolve and do a hip-hop album. Inherently, it would still be rock,” says Chow, searching for a metaphor to describe Public School’s relationship to early street style. “Our beginning was influenced by street. But that isn’t just confined to fashion. We grew up in New York; we grew up in a street-based culture.”
Today, the brand represents a “bigger idea of street,” Chow continues. “I certainly think there’s a casual element to ‘street,’ but it doesn’t define it. It’s really about being on the move. You need a certain level of versatility, ease and comfort, because you’re always moving around. You may not have the opportunity to change during the day. … The collection always has that top of mind.”
The Public School aesthetic is rooted in black and white. The brand includes leather jackets and cuddly angora T-shirts, crisp jersey track pants and suit jackets that have had their chest fronts, shoulder pads and other infrastructure modified so tailored lines remain but not the rigidity. Sometimes the jackets are cut without lapels.
Photos: The Public School shoot
See more photographs of the fashion shoot in and around Hotel Helix in Northwest Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
The clothes are styled with an emphasis on real and trompe l’oeil layering, with short-sleeved T-shirts over long-sleeved ones and paired with shorts atop trousers.
For fall, the runway models wore what looked like fancied-up do-rags or welder ear flaps under Amish-style hats. Some of it was pure runway hyperbole, but fundamentally, each piece is wearable and is meant to ring true to men — at least those who know what it means to make the walk from their home to the Metro on a cold winter morning carrying a heavy gym bag and dressed in an aesthetic state of limbo, somewhere between office attire and workout gear.
“It’s what we would actually wear and not look like we’re stepping out of a fashion shoot,” Osborne says. “It’s something we can wear from day to evening without looking FASHION — in all caps.”
The first men to embrace this look came from the world of music and sports. “I had dinner with [New York Giants wide receiver] Victor Cruz, and all he wanted to talk about is Public School,” says Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue. The style works for athletes, Jennings says, because “it’s casual, it’s comfortable, but it’s polished and dressy. These guys are under the microscope, and it can be appropriate for a lot of occasions.”
The sneakerheads were also early adopters; they came looking for something to pair with their fancy Givenchy, Saint Laurent and Lanvin high-tops. Other men followed, and retailers are convinced that more will come.
In Washington, the look can most quickly be spotted by looking down — at men’s shoes. Retro sneakers paired with work trousers and suits are the most obvious shift in style. That suit, by the way, is slim cut. And the pants are a little shorter than is traditional; they do not break over the shoes. In winter, men now pair technical parkas with their business suits, rather than standard wool overcoats. Messenger bags and backpacks have replaced briefcases.
Sportswear brands such as Vince and Theory have gently eased Washington men into this aesthetic. The Saint Laurent shop in Tysons Galleria stands ready to provide them with pricey sneakers and jeans. And as Saks Fifth Avenue increases the number of its stores carrying the full Public School collection, Chevy Chase is on Jennings’s expansion “wish list.”
Neither Chow nor Osborne went to design school; instead, they met at Sean John, the menswear label launched by hip-hop mogul Sean Combs in 1999. Chow was the creative director. Osborne began as an intern in search of direction.
“I did a semester and a half of fine arts,” Osborne recalls. “I didn’t have the greatest plan.” He was mentored and finally given the opportunity to design a pair of jeans. “They had all these seams on the back. I designed them for the ‘scuba’ collection,” Osborne says. “I never wore them; I held them in such regard.”
New York-based Sean John sowed some of the seeds for today’s changes in menswear, as did Paris-based designers Rick Owens and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, as well as Japanese popular culture. “Sean John was such a phenomenon. It was such an aspirational brand,” Chow says. Combs “was pulling references from high and low and combining them into a bigger idea. … He was introducing street to high fashion. The lines are a lot more blurred now than they were then.”
Chow and Osborne launched Public School in 2008. Not only was the economy tanking, but it was also the height of the heritage fashion movement. Menswear was enamored with legacy companies such as Carhartt and Red Wing, tweed and “Mad Men.” The looks spoke of gentleman farmers, country house tinkerers and company men. “We were so the opposite of that,” Chow says. “We were black and sleek. And retailers asked if we could do a lumberjack jacket. We certainly talked about it. Now, that would never be a consideration.”
After two years, Public School shuttered in 2010 — a victim of poor timing, overreaching and inexperience. Chow and Osborne did time in the Fashion Incubator, a two-year mentoring program sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. They emerged with a better understanding of the business and stepped into a culture that had begun to shift. Those trendy heritage brands were now looking dated on city streets. Since the brand’s 2012 relaunch, it has grown from a two-man operation to one with a dozen employees and Garment District headquarters.
“These kids are like rock stars,” says Bloomingdale’s Harter. When the store’s New York flagship recently hosted the designers, “300 guys showed up. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Public School has also received a stream of industry accolades culminating with the 2014 CFDA’s menswear designer of the year. The win marked only the second time a black designer has been honored by the group with one of its two biggest awards. The first was Combs in 2004. “It’s hard in this country to escape thinking about race. Certainly we think about it,” Chow says. “If you look at Max and me, we’re not the traditional designers who have [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour sitting at their show.”
The awards are a “welcome-to-the-Establishment — as who you are. If there was no room for someone like you before, there is now,” Chow says. “And hopefully, we’re making room for more.”
Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion writer. She reported from New York.