One of my favourite Instagram entertainments is Luca Rubinacci’s series of small informative films. If one is hoping for insights into the mysteries of the human condition, you might want to look elsewhere. However, if you are after advice on matters of etiquette (how to eat a sea urchin, perhaps, or the most gallant way to open a door for a woman) and dress (how to roll up a trouser leg is a personal favourite), look no further – they are far more fun than any TED Talk and full of unexpected nuggets of wisdom, one of which struck me the other day.
A couple of months ago, Rubinacci was instructing his 122,000 followers on the subtler aspects of wearing a scarf, and there, between advice on the different knots you might like to try, came his bombshell: “You have to know that a scarf is an accessory. It does not have to be worn just because it is cold outside, but because it can be very cool.” Yes, at last men are discovering the scarf’s decorative value and it’s not just attitudes to neckwear that are changing. The scarf itself has undergone a monumental shift: the once functional strip of wool or cashmere of a metre or so in length has metamorphosed into something that, until recently, would have been regarded as a blanket or bedspread.
We are living in the age of the man shawl.
I was given a personal lesson in the art of the shawl by Luca’s father, Mariano, a few years ago. He had come across some 18th- and early-19th-century Neapolitan engravings, which he had printed onto 1m x 2m lengths of cashmere (£580). The subjects and colours he used appealed to me and I found that the gossamer-like cashmere folded up into the dimensions of a book. The scarf-blanket-shawl quickly became my permanent travel companion.
As one of millions of international nomads migrating ceaselessly between airport terminals, my experience of climate is largely seasonless and artificial: the ambient temperature of aircraft cabins, departure lounges and hotel rooms is punctuated by severe bursts of aggressive air conditioning and, occasionally, the elements themselves as I move from taxi to office or wait on a railway platform.
In such a world of perpetual mobility, where the need to travel light must be balanced against the need to stay warm, the man shawl is the perfect partner. Its practicality is such that those with schedules even more itinerant than mine have been able to dispense with coats altogether: Zaim Kamal, the creative director of Montblanc, cannot remember the last time he wore an overcoat, instead he has a wardrobe of man shawls, and is a particularly early adopter. “It was born out of the shahtooshes my grandmother used to wrap us into in winter and I have a whole collection of them. Last winter I never once wore a coat” – impressive given Montblanc has its headquarters in chilly Hamburg.
And as Kamal indicates, there is a historical precedent, and not just in the shahtooshes of Pakistan and northern India. The term plaid is derived from the Gaelic word for blanket: traditionally a plaid is worn slung over the shoulder and wrapped around the upper body in readiness to be used as everything from a cloak to alfresco bedding. “Plaids and shawls were in use long before overcoats were invented,” explains Ann Ryley of Scottish scarf maker Begg & Co, which does strong business with a cashmere travel blanket (Voyage Rona Sand in faun and Voyage Rona Urban in grey, both £425). However, the modern revival did not, she says, come from the chilly Highlands of Scotland, but rather the sunnier lands of the Mediterranean. “I guess I noticed it at Pitti Uomo January before last, and then at shows or when people were travelling.”
Emanuel Ungaro is among those who have embraced the man shawl, with bright, breezy takes in a linen/modal mix in its spring/summer 2017 collection. Designs range from a fluid, painterly leaf print to a graphic lozenge effect and a bold zigzag (£130) against a blue or white background. Alessandro Sartori, the artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna, confirms that there is a shift in thinking in terms of scarves. One of his first actions on taking up his role last year was to launch a full scarf collection. He finds that customers want “special weaving, fancy selvage, bright colours” and size. “Little scarves don’t work so well any more.” Instead flamboyant monster dimensions of up to 1.5m x 2.4m are appreciated, as are increasingly inventive fabric blends. “In summer, what we see is that mix of animal and vegetal fibres working particularly well: cashmere warp and cotton weft, say, and wool with linen.” Striking examples include a blue and grey microcheck (£275) in silk, cashmere and cotton; a brown linen, cashmere and silk blend (£185); and a dark blue cashmere and cotton blend with herringbone tone-on-tone stripes (£415).
Michael Hill, creative director and co-owner of Drake’s, agrees that the male shawl was reborn, or should one say experienced its rinascimento, south of the Alps and that, practicality for modern lifestyles aside, it is increasingly worn to add a dash of colour and swagger to an ensemble.
“We are selling scarves all year round. We have done that in Italy and Japan for a while but what is amazing is that we are even doing it in America; that is pretty new for us and for a lot of Americans and northern Europeans, whereas maybe it comes more naturally to Mediterranean friends.” He also cites advances in fabrics as another factor that has boosted year-round wear. For summer, he offers a blend of cotton, cashmere and bamboo-derived modal: “It is a newish fabric, a lightweight cloth with a cooler touch. It is very fine, but you can print cleanly on it.” I am particularly taken by a geometric-print scarf (£145) and a painted stripe version (£145), both in cotton/silk.
Drake’s has had to totally rethink the way it makes its scarves. “We used to make a scarf that was bagged out [with the edges sewn together]. Now we print and leave it open, it is much wider but, thanks to improved fabrics, much lighter.” Moreover, as Drake’s core business is as a manufacturer of ties, Hill has noticed that in some ways scarves are replacing ties: “I look at it in the context of the gentleman who used to get a lot of decoration through the tie,” he says, but with ties worn less frequently, “you can still show some personality with scarves and I think that the rise in popularity of big bright scarves is due to chaps still wanting to express themselves.”
Certainly, that is the experience of the ebullient François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. He seldom wears a tie these days but is almost always seen with a scarf around his neck. Last year when he collected an award at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève he bounded on stage, a large billowing blue silk scarf with white spots fluttering around his neck.
Benhamias has assembled a wardrobe of about a dozen different large-format scarves. “I dress simply in a navy suit or a grey suit. My shirts are very simple too, white or blue, so the scarf is a great tool to give a bit of style and spice. It is a nice decorative object. I have got more formal ones that are dark with small spots and then casual trendy ones in orange, purple and pink.” Interestingly, he says that “9.9 out of 10” of his statement scarves come from Hermès, another house known for its ties now making a name for itself in man shawls (silk Caducée Rock Tie and Dye, £355; wool/silk Route 24, £530).
Indeed, the man shawl is no longer a fashion statement or an eccentricity; it is fast acquiring the status of a menswear staple. Both Connolly and Anderson & Sheppard, which face each other across Clifford Street, do brisk business with man shawls.
“It was not the sort of thing we sold in the old days,” observes Connolly’s owner Isabel Ettedgui who reopened the cult shop last November after a break of six years. “Occasionally you would see a man with a pashmina but it was a rare sight. This time round it seemed completely natural for us to make them in cashmere for winter and in linen and silk mixes for the summer.” A particularly desirable example is a super-light cashmere spotted scarf (£495) in navy and white that has a hand-teaselled eyelash fringe finish.
“I have noticed them becoming much more popular in the past couple of years,” says Anda Rowland, director of Anderson & Sheppard, who sees the man shawl’s increasing popularity as part of the wider “trend of layering”. She describes it as “a nice way of adding colour that you can easily shed.” Even her older, more traditional customers are coming around to them: “Initially it was people in their 30s wearing them; now we are selling them to people of all ages,” – styles range from the bold, colourful red and taupe small check (£395) made by a small familly business in India and a dark grey check (£365) handwoven in Nepal.
And she is quick to lay to rest any stigma that may be lingering in more conservative minds. “From my point of view they are very masculine; it is not an illegitimate thing to wear – there is nothing feminine about the way that people are buying our shawls.”
That said, there is evidence that the man shawl is another example of a new evolution of gender fluidity… but not in the way you might think. Rowland has observed that new converts to shawl-wearing soon return to the shop to buy a replacement. “They come back saying they never got to a chance to wear theirs before their wives or girlfriends stole them.”