At a glamorous supper I recently attended, my choice of shirt – a crepe hibiscus-print Western number by Saint Laurent, unabashedly trimmed with gold piping – inspired a feisty Scottish country music singer to deliver a colourful discourse on Nudie Cohn, the legendary “Rodeo Tailor”. I’d heard tell of this Cohn, a Ukrainian-born immigrant to the US who gained fame for his decorative Western tailoring, deploying appliqué, rhinestones and embroidery on fine fabrics of all sorts. Johnny Cash and the bouffanted Porter Wagoner were clients, and Cohn was the man behind the gold-lamé suit Elvis Presley wore on the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans album. He also made bespoke suiting for John Lennon, Elton John and The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith.
Cohn’s Westernwear marriage of machismo and ornament has strong resonance in the current men’s fashion collections. Take Missoni’s – inspired, so the press release tells us, by Guatemalan cowboy shirts from the Sololá region, but with shades of Cohn’s flamboyance. It showcases Missoni’s unique, harmonious colour palette seen in killer-cool shirts (£1,650) in cotton jacquard yarns with embroidered details. “They are hand-embroidered with metallic yarn,” Angela Missoni tells me. “The inspiration came from Sololá shirts, which we then wefted with ‘space-dye’ yarns, overlaying a quetzal motif.” The national bird of Guatemala also features on zipped blousons (£1,650) with gold metallic embroidery. Over at Bally, meanwhile, the brand’s Swiss roots provided inspiration with sprigs of edelweiss embroidered onto substantial viscose/silk-twill Western shirts (£775) – they’re particularly cool in black, very Johnny Cash, and also look great left open and loose over T-shirts.
This crop of ornamented shirts is arguably the clearest way into this story: think Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman wearing bejewelled Nudie Cohn. Slightly less challenging versions come courtesy of Bruta, with its drapey shirts (from £120) in understated hues. “I always loved Western shirts; they have the right mix of decorative elements and masculinity,” says founder-designer Arthur Yates. Bruta’s playful motifs are inspired by Florentine families, with food, classical art and World Cup football heroes as references. “Like Nudie’s Americana, we celebrate Europe with ours,” says Yates.
The debut menswear collection from Stella McCartney also embraces the Western trend with an ink-blue collared number (£485) with a pastel swallow appliquéd on each chest plate. “It was inspired by a shirt my dad used to own that I absolutely loved,” says McCartney.
South American flavours mix in with the old Western ones in Umit Benan’s summer collection, called Los Bastardos, which sees soft touches worked into super-wearable men’s casual pieces, like a striped linen-mix grandad shirt (£497) with embroidered pockets. Other shirts (from £436) with ornate collarwork have bold floral motifs across the back. These also appear on a pair of denim jackets (£751), one in white and another in blue with suede detailing for knockabout style.
Utilitarian clothing elevated by ornate, sometimes whimsical, embroidery is also on show at Paul Smith, where a khaki cotton jacket (£700) is patterned with paisley and flora, and a psychedelic field jacket (£530) features rabbits and monkeys. The designs, inspired by the illustrations of British Victorian naturalists, are remarkable motifs that appear on everything from sweatshirts to pocket squares. McQueen also nods to its British heritage with embroidery motifs of the wild flora that might be found in urban settings. An ivory wool/mohair shawl-collar tuxedo jacket (£4,675) is embellished with black silk/satin thread and jet beading, while a white cotton shirt (£695) is enlivened with black silk/satin embroidery. These are potentially newsmaking dinner party dress ideas, in an era when black tie has become rather monotonous (witness the endless parade of poorly styled red-carpet habitués).
Indeed, embroidery and appliqué are offered up frequently as formal dress statements this season. Gucci, in particular, distinguishes itself with outlandishly decorated showpieces with animal, insect and flower motifs, highly reminiscent of Nudie Cohn’s elaborate work for Porter Wagoner and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons (circa his Flying Burrito Brothers days). I’m especially taken with a tailored rosebud duchesse-silk jacket (£1,450) and a taupe satin jacquard number (£2,350) festooned with melon and pink flowers. While this stuff isn’t for the conventional, Gucci’s wing-collar shirt (£2,030), with hibiscus and Japanese dragons playing down the front, could work for an unstuffy black-tie event. It might seem de trop for some readers but they said that about jacquard evening jackets – now commonplace. Relaxed outerwear is getting the Western treatment at Gucci too: a parakeet-green leather collegiate bomber (£3,650) has sequin flower embroidery, as does a watery-blue duchesse-silk version (£4,850).
A strong 1970s/hippy take imbues the Western look at Cavalli with much Native American-inspired fringing and beaded Navajo embellishment. A fine leather jacket (£6,855) with long fringes and a shorter suede number (£2,835, main picture) both feature beautiful turquoise and coral beads. A tailored embroidered jacket (£5,735) in cotton, styled with flared stripe trousers, perfectly channels the Stones circa their Exile on Main St period – ideally accessorised with one of the seriously hip Western-influenced hats by LA designer Nick Fouquet: his Seminole Dancer (£1,135) and La Liberation (£1,210) designs aren’t slavish remakes, but streamlined 21st-century interpretations.
But the biggest sartorial revelation came after the shows on the day of the Hackney half-marathon, when I came upon a trio of Pearly Kings and Queens near the finish line, their brilliant ensembles a reminder that some have been working the fearless embellishment game far longer than Gucci – or, indeed, dear departed Nudie himself.