Plain or patterned, buttoned or pullover, snug or loose-fitting – a new affection for knitwear is weaving its way into the male pysche this deep midwinter. Casting an eye over this season’s collections reveals an unprecedented array of styles: V-necks, roll necks, shawl necks, cardigans, hoodies, even blazers and jackets, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s – an era when girlfriends, wives and grannies still knitted for their menfolk.
While every occasion is catered for, there is a general trend towards the manly, chunky and traditional, sometimes with toggles and golf-ball buttons in that reassuring, Bing Crosby kind of way. Knitwear, in other words, that has an air of nostalgia and dependability.
Is this a sign, perhaps, that the 21st-century male wants to project a softer image? British menswear designer Jeremy Hackett certainly thinks so. “Whenever I see a man in a sweater or cardigan, I think that he is more likely to engage me in conversation about books or theatre,” he says. I slip into one of Hackett’s double-breasted, cable-knit cardigans (£225). A woollen jacket in effect, it is handsome whether worn with a collar or tie, plaid trousers or jeans, and incredibly warm – though it’s too early to say whether my conversational gambits will take a more cultured turn.
The theme of cardigans as jackets is a strong trend this winter. Drawing upon an archive stretching back to the first world war – a time when, most importantly, woollens had to perform – the latest Heritage line from Barbour includes a raft of cardigans that are substantial enough to be worn as outerwear. Items like the Burdock (£199.95) with patch pockets, in black or “trench”, and the Osprey Zip Thru jacket (£139.95) in lambswool with tweed arm- and shoulder-pads, have an air of the military about them, and look warm enough to weather a cold day on a northern moorland. “Wool jackets are a great alternative when the need for rain protection is not primary,” says Barbour’s design and development manager, Andy McMillan. “The Burdock and the Osprey are perceived by our customers in the same vein as our quilted jackets – practical, warm and smart.”
As if to underline how elegant a knitted jacket can be, Ralph Lauren has included two styles in its flagship Purple Label collection this winter: a belted, double-breasted cardigan in caper green heather with a removable shearling collar (£2,470), and a classic grandfather cardigan (£1,385) in a wool and cashmere blend that’s elevated by details such as four buttons at the cuff. The brand has long been cross-pollinating East Coast elegance with Native American and Nordic designs. But if its vintage frontiersman woollens came across as perhaps a pattern too far just a couple of years ago, they are perfect today. Whether it’s the Polo Ralph Lauren red, tan and blue Indian shawl-collar jumper with toggle buttons (£695), or the striking merino wool version in black and green or black and yellow (£675), these huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ woollens were made for windy weekend walks.
My own passion for knitwear began with my first Polo Ralph Lauren crew neck in a cashmere cable knit (£370). If there is a better pullover I’ve yet to see it, and for years this simple jumper has rightly been at the core of every Polo Ralph Lauren collection. Freshly laundered and well fitting, it looks terrific worn on its own, or, for that signature, preppy casualness, paired with a button-down-collar Oxford shirt. Mine is in navy, but among this season’s palette are powder blue, forest green, grey, pink and yellow.
The crew neck is also at the heart of Alfred Dunhill’s aesthetic. A blend of cashmere, silk and chinchilla, its cable-knit crew (£550) epitomises the brand’s understated style.
With their predilection for scooters and for promenading, whatever the weather, the Italians know a thing or two about elegant ways to keep out the cold. Brunello Cucinelli made his name producing knitwear for women, but has since diversified into menswear, using fine cashmere wool. All of his designs are produced at a mountain factory close to his home and headquarters in Solomeo, a medieval hamlet near Perugia, Italy. The standout of a collection that encompasses sleeveless vests, double-breasted cardigans, Fair Isle sweaters and roll-necks is the Yule cardigan (£2,153). “This kind of chunky garment is perfect as an alternative to a jacket, and is suitable for more formal occasions or for work,” says Cucinelli. The Yule is down-filled, with slit pockets and a high neck fastening. It comes in either a classic twisted cable, or the flat, tight-knit shaker, which creates a ribbed effect with vertical lines.
Ermenegildo Zegna has a strong track record for confronting the elements with an elegant swagger, and the label has some smashing heavy-knit jackets in its winter collection. The most substantial is a hand-knitted cardigan made from melange alpaca and wool, with a shearling lining (£3,290). Or there’s a cashmere mouline jumper with a fisherman-style collar (£950); my favourite comes in russet brown. And there’s no need to fold away the knits just because it’s party season; Zegna also has a handsome black chevron knit evening jacket in silk and wool (£7,305).
Fellow Italian brand Angelo Galasso is also embracing this new affection for woollens. This season, it has introduced a characterful merino wool cable-knit jumper with python details (£4,350).
Meanwhile, Massimo Dutti has button-up and toggle cardigans starting at an affordable £65. And, taking its design cues from the 1970s, Rake’s three-quarter-length grey wrap cashmere cardigan (£1,300) has something undeniably Starsky and Hutch about it – albeit with a certain air of refinement.
Another dominant thread running throughout the latest designs is shawl collars. Rather like built-in scarves, they look smart folded down with a blazer or jacket, but also terrific layered and turned up against the elements. Burberry Prorsum has embraced this look in a big way, the finest example being the simple and wearable cashmere shawl-collar sweater, featuring a distinctive open-stitch neckline and arm seam (£595). There are others with animal motifs (£995), an intarsia geometric pattern in red, black and white (£995), and wool-and-silk-blend shawl-collar cardigans, in dark clove with three patch pockets (£1,195). The brand can also lay claim to producing the cardigan with the most attitude: the funnel-neck bomber knit is a short, woollen jacket with a wool-embroidered overlay and an equestrian-inspired leather “throat latch” – making it possibly the world’s first rock’n’roll cardigan (£1,995).
Lastly, amid a fine Paul Smith selection of winter woollens – shawl collars, Fair Isles and double-knit roll-necks – is a striking cable-knit cardigan from the PS by Paul Smith range, with bold damson and navy vertical stripes (£160). With so much good design on offer, this could well be the year when a clichéd Christmas present comes good – and unwrapping a woolly jumper elicits genuine delight for a change.