The differences between men’s and women’s clothing say a lot about society, but one of my favourite man-vantages is the freedom that men’s clothes give us to adapt a generic “default” outfit to wide range of different situations.
We can all demand clothes that look good, but men can also specify that these good looking clothes offer a degree of performance, and of practicality, that doesn’t exist in a lot of women’s clothing. Whilst I wouldn’t wear my nicest business suit to the gym, it’s entirely possible to tweak my everyday outfit in such a way that I can look smart enough for casual Friday and wear most of the same clothes to hike from Grouville to St Ouen without too much trouble.
My wardrobe is high quality, albeit anonymous looking, so I usually avoid using the word “fashion”, but if you shop the right brands a man could still put together a high fashion outfit that will be as water-resistant as hiking gear and as tough as a workman’s trousers. It’s thanks to a trend in men’s clothing that is often referred to as techwear, which uses experimental fabrics and advanced design to create a new kind of button-down shirt – one that can miraculously stop me stinking up business meetings, even after a few hours on my bike.
Business at the front, party at the back.
Consumers have always been able to purchase practical clothing, but it’s generally been designed for manual work or leisure. This has lead to most “performance” clothing skewing towards the utilitarian or purely sporty. Nonetheless, some of the most enduring trends in 20th century style evolved when people adopted workwear or sportswear as part of their everyday outfits – like miner’s denim jeans as a casual trouser or the popularity of athletic shoes outside the gym. Jeans aren’t just popular because they look good, but because the fabric is strong, and a good pair will soften to the shape of your body over a lifetime of wear. Trainers are often more comfortable than formal shoes, and come adapted to different types of foot shape or posture. This seems common sense, so you’d expect this would mean that all clothing development would balance looks against more practical qualities, but fashion doesn’t follow a logical path.
I love my denim jeans, but they have a lot of shortcomings as a default men’s trouser. Denim is stiffer than other fabrics, retains a lot of moisture, stains easily and can shrink in the wash. If I wanted something more practical for a long time it seemed the best alternative was a pair of hiking trousers that made me look like a middle-aged German. The cotton shirt is the same – it’s adaptable, comfortable and stylish, but hopeless when you’re sweaty. The practical alternative? Something that looks as though you should be giving a guided walk in St Catherine’s woods. The first brands I found to offer an acceptable compromise of practicality against style were North Face, Carhartt and more recently Patagonia. They draw from fields that require high performance, such as adventure sports and skateboarding, but where the participants are young and don’t necessarily want to look like a presenter from Springwatch.
Carhartt in America makes clothes for men who build roads, but the European spin off uses similar fabrics to make trousers that can comfortably transition from the skate park to a nightclub. The North Face began as a brand that offered technical clothing for demanding Californian climbers, and somehow grew into the default outfit for the Jersey middle-manager who needs a new fleece to watch the rugby. Patagonia is the hip new kid on the block, with a commitment to repair and recycle its clothes wherever possible. These brands are great, but I wouldn’t say they fall entirely into the tech-wear niche because they aren’t truly adaptable. I have Carhartt chinos I wear to the office, with a North Face jumper, but I wouldn’t wear them to ride a BMX, or to climb any rocks. For this flexibility, you need to go further.
The sweaty boy’s mail order catalogue
The best-kept secret in men’s clothing is a small company that barely advertises, sells most of its clothing through mail order and operates out of a small location in New York City. It’s unbranded and distinctly understated, but inspires ferocious loyalty in its customers – many of whom say they’d be happy to wear nothing else. It’s name is Outlier, and the purest example of its design philosophy is the brand’s bestselling product, the Slim Dungaree. On first glance they look like a nice pair of jeans, but beneath the surface they’re made from a tough, technical fabric that stretches, repels stains and is lightly water resistant.
Outlier grew from the demands of NYC’s famously hardcore bike messenger scene, so even their chinos are cut for movement and wick sweat away like something you’d wear to the gym. I bought a pair that came packaged with a t-shirt made from high-quality merino wool, often touted as nature’s finest performance fabric, and would be happy with this default outfit for almost any situation. It folds up small and I can wash it in a hotel sink to dry overnight.
They also make formal shirts cut from experimental nylon, which look business casual but perform like something worn by a climber. One day last year I left work in this outfit, caught a bus to L’Etacq and did a two hour circuit around the headland – I’d mostly dried off by the time I got home and the shirt didn’t even need ironing.
For business techwear, and a brand that bucks the trend by catering to ladies too, there’s also Ministry of Supply – again available online. They sell business casual and formal clothing using fabrics developed by NASA – blazers and work trousers designed not to wrinkle, to machine wash, and to wick away moisture. You can bundle them in a suitcase and they straighten out after ten minutes in your body heat. They’re not cheap, and some people might balk at buying clothes via mail order. If that’s you, the best alternative is to hit up Uniqlo next time you’re in London – their Heat-Tech, Airism and Blocktech lines use technical fabrics to offer a selection of affordable fashion that ranges from casual to businesslike. It might not be as cutting edge as Outlier, but it significantly outperforms standard clothing and won’t break the bank.
On the other hand, if money’s no object, the high fashion end of techwear is represented by the cult Japanese brand Acronym, where most pieces sell out in hours but make you resemble a futuristic ninja. I also dream of one day having enough money to buy some clothes from Stone Island’s Shadow Project, the urban techwear spinoff of the luxury Italian brand. As our lifestyles become more demanding, it’s likely that this trend will become more prominent, and it also offers an alternative to the environmental and social problems caused by disposable fashion.
Most of the clothing I’ve described here is double or triple the cost of mass-market brands, but I’d prefer to support companies like Patagonia, who’ll try and repair a broken jacket rather than sell me a new one, or Outlier, who’ll sell me a T-shirt I’ll probably be wearing for ten years. I might even wash it a few times before wearing it to work.