Men's Fashion

Military fashion

Military influences are a force to be reckoned with this summer, as menswear designers experiment with the style’s drama, machismo and sharp cuts, says Mark C O’Flaherty

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Military fashion

May 27 2014
Mark C O’Flaherty

Men’s tailoring may have become more relaxed over the past 50 years, but there’s still something about a man in uniform. Which is why suited and booted lieutenants, slick-haired RAF idols, officers and gentlemen are a constant source of inspiration to menswear designers – and never more so than this summer.

“Military clothes were developed from the cloth up to provide soldiers with protection from the elements and harm’s way. Vintage clothes are major influences on fashion today, and what better finds could there be at a Paris flea market than a great uniform?” says Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president of menswear at Barneys in New York, explaining some of the style’s appeal. “Some military designs are timeless influences on modern-day apparel, such as the pea coat, the fishtail parka, khaki pants, trench coats and bomber jackets.” Key pieces in the Barneys buy this season include Balmain’s deconstructed military-style blazer with raw edges and epaulettes ($2,805, fourth picture), and Saint Laurent’s army-green, fishtail-back hooded parka ($2,290).

For many designers, it’s the serious functionality of military clothing that is captivating. British designer Nigel Cabourn has borrowed from the details of classic uniforms for decades. “I started in 1979,” he says. “I found an RAF jacket that had a slide button and tape, designed to keep you bound to your jacket in case of disaster. I am inspired by military ideas because they have a clear purpose.” While few, if any, of Cabourn’s customers will be spending time in a looping Spitfire, the construction of his garments is second to none. He reworks ideas from old uniforms, creating fresh fashion with an eye to longevity and craft. His new-season Aircraft Sealed jacket (£775, second picture) merges elements of a USAF bomber jacket and a 1940s RAF flight jacket in one lightweight wind-resistant garment made of L34 Ventile, a textile originally developed to keep pilots alive after their planes ditched into open water. It’s an impressive piece of apparel that will last a lifetime. Similarly substantial is Manchester-based label Private White VC’s 100 per cent waterproof single-breasted SB4 unlined Ventile raincoat with a hidden-zip front (£575, fifth picture).

Rag & Bone’s spring/summer collection also includes a variety of zip-front closures and pocket details with military influences, while its Precision trousers (£370, sixth picture), produced in collaboration with Crye Precision, the Brooklyn-based company that supplies the US armed forces, takes things a step further. “There are Velcro cinches to alter the tightness around the leg, articulation at the leg for streamlined movement and reinforcement patches for durability,” says Rag & Bone designer Marcus Wainwright.

Yohji Yamamoto has taken inspiration from historical uniforms ever since he first showed a Pour Homme line in Paris in 1984. At the end of last year he launched his Regulation label, which references various aspects of uniform reworked in typically Yohji fashion, with plenty of voluminous shapes and dandy-like peaked lapels, as well as utilitarian cotton twill. Standout items include a blazer with buttoned shoulder straps and uniform-style breast pockets hidden beneath fabric flaps (£1,240) – but where there might be army green or navy blue, there is black, black and more black.

While Yamamoto pores over history books for inspiration, Gieves & Hawkes can turn to its own archives. Its ongoing military business – in evidence via the numerous ornate uniforms on display at its Savile Row flagship store – remains a significant part of its tailoring output. This spring, uniform styles appear in The Grand Tour collection, in the form of a luxurious brown nubuck-leather safari coat (£1,995, first picture). “It has a slightly wider belt and antique brass hardware,” says creative director Jason Basmajian. “Paired with crisp khaki cotton trousers and a knit tie, it gives a stricter, more military feel, but it remains chic and elegant.” The key is not to create something that’s too literally “uniform”, but rather something that captures the style’s drama, machismo and sharpness.

The look and feel of the spring/summer collections is one thing, but another compelling aspect of these garments, for both designer and wearer, is the backstory. Cabourn researches his work in the kind of depth usually reserved for film production. His team studied images of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War for the current collection, and specifically the uniforms of the British volunteers who fought in the conflict. The result is a focused colour palate and set of tailoring shapes. “In that era, everything was very fitted and waisted and done in stones, greens and browns,” says Cabourn. “So we’ve used a heavy brown linen and also printed camouflage on denim.” The new-season Tunic jacket (£400, seventh picture), in sand-coloured boiler linen, looks as if it has sprung to life from a Robert Capa photograph from the 1930s, but its shape and finish speak of a modern, meticulous approach to design. Likewise, young British designer Christopher Raeburn based his spring Sandstorm collection on the wardrobe of the second world war’s Long Range Desert Group, which has resulted in, again, a prevalence of sandy tones. Raeburn has produced pieces using actual vintage desert-camouflage bivouac fabric, including his Remade field jacket (£895, third picture), which features contrasting army-green sleeves, pockets and collars, a drawstring element to shape to the wearer’s waistline, and comes in a limited edition of just 50.

Camouflage is a major part of the men’s collections. “It’s actually what’s called camo-fusion,” says Eric Jennings, fashion director of menswear at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. “We have seen designers create new versions of camouflage. Burberry has a floral-inspired take, ‘florage’, and Isaia called its coral-inspired version ‘coraflage’.” The offering at Valentino is particularly strong and, as with Cabourn and Raeburn, fixed firmly in the tropical-leaf and Arabian-sand end of the textile spectrum. Trousers in a camouflage print (£790, eighth picture) show how sophisticated the look can be, mixing subtle florals with the usual abstract foliage, accompanied by a canvas jacket (£970, eighth picture) with black leather breast pockets that put a futuristic twist on classic uniform styles. And the trenchcoat with concealed buttoning (£3,750) might be the most luxe expression of camouflage this year.

As well as functionality, uniforms have an inherently dramatic, even aggressive, attitude that offers more than the confidence of a shoulder pad to give a suit a certain power it would otherwise lack. But this season, refinement is at the core of military-influenced tailoring. “The classic military aesthetic that we’re familiar with has a more polished and gentrified spin,” says Terry Betts, Selfridges’ director of menswear. “There’s a dandy‑esque style, with rich navy tones and brass buttons.” New York designer Thom Browne’s spring collection is the epitome of the style. His catwalk show at the Ecole Militaire in Paris was pure theatre and – as is often the way with directional fashion – served merely as a hint of what would actually end up on sale in stores. Browne is known for truncating the proportions of his now-iconic grey suits, but for spring he supersized his silhouettes and turned his models into wind-up-toy naval officers, with shoulders and waists falling in the exaggerated muscular line of an inverted pyramid. The look was accessorised with mirrored aviator shades and Joan Crawford-style red lipstick. Such is the carnival of Paris Fashion Week. “I’ve always been interested in uniforms and uniformity,” says Browne. “I wanted to convey how the strength of tailoring is emphasised in them. It is about function and emotion.” While the collection he showed was pure fantasy, it’s been pared back to sell at his stores in New York and Tokyo, and at Selfridges, Harrods and Dover Street Market in London. Kalenderian calls the edit at Barneys “very wearable”. As well as Browne’s distinctive trademark suits and navy anchor prints, a tuxedo double-breasted Uniform sports coat in black cotton canvas (£1,790, ninth picture) is a standout piece of intelligent contemporary design.

Perhaps what makes military-inspired clothes especially appealing is the fact that the essence of a uniform is a refreshing antidote to the frivolous nature of fashion trends. As Basmajian says: “Masculine tailoring, detailing and functionality are all traits that are timeless and give a person stature, elegance and a commanding presence. The old saying, ‘Every man looks good in a uniform’, holds true.”

See also

Coats, Trousers, Jackets