Velvet has long been considered the apogee of a certain kind of louche formal dressing for men. It is Lord Byron, Albanian style, in gold-laced crimson; it is Oscar Wilde dandyish in a braided smoking jacket; and it is Truman Capote “promenading the piazza” in a handmade Florentine suit.
If velvet fell rather out of fashion following the glam-rock excesses of the 1970s, it has seen its star rise again in recent years, appearing in smart – if somewhat predictable – formal guise throughout the menswear collections. But this year sees a fascinating shift in the treatment of the fabric towards a more casual, dressed-down look.
Designers such as Paul Smith, Hermès and Dior Homme have produced suits in velvet, favouring a double-breasted cut for the jacket. But, crucially, they’re easier and slouchier than anything that might be worn to the office, and look good teamed with polonecks, T-shirts and sneakers.
“I learnt how to tailor in the 1960s and ’70s, which was a time when experimenting with fabrics and trims was fairly new,” says Paul Smith. “I took inspiration from many things, including London boutiques like Granny Takes a Trip, leading me to use everything from curtain fabric to crushed velvet in my designs. And so for the new collection this year, the time felt right to revisit this ethos, but with a very modern twist.”
This season designers have used velvet in simple, single-pleat trousers, as at Hermès (£460), in a pale-grey, loose‑fit jeans style at Giorgio Armani (£740) or, at Dolce & Gabbana, as a decorative detail on trousers (£550), teamed with an embroidered velvet blazer (£1,800). There are also dramatic wide‑sleeved unconstructed coats in burgundy velvet (£2,990) from Yohji Yamamoto; jackets, including a quilted blouson in blood red (£2,560) from Berluti; and a slim-fit zip-up shirt/jacket in navy blue (£345) from 3.1 Phillip Lim. Other designers playing with velvet include Astrid Andersen, with navy, grey and camel velvet tracksuits (£700), and Gucci, with an embroidered velvet hoodie (£1,370).
“These sportswear-influenced pieces in particular are helping to spread the word that velvet can look good dressed down, while retaining an appealing feeling of indulgence and lavishness. It still looks and feels expensive,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear for Matchesfashion.com.
Oliver Spencer has for the past 25 years regularly used velvet in a dressy way for his Favourbrook brand, but for his eponymous label’s latest autumn/winter collection has embraced a more laid-back vibe. “We’ve been using corduroy for a while and velvet felt like a natural extension, especially when used in a more casual way,” he says. Among the highlights is a patch pocket, military‑inspired bomber jacket (£349) in rust and in olive green. “Its relaxed drape is just right for casual clothing, and if it’s cut pile up, velvet looks dense rather than shiny. It makes even bright colours seem deep.”
Paul Smith’s double-breasted velvet suit (jacket, £630, and trousers, £310) is an example of how velvet’s play with light allows for the use of the kind of shade – here a muted blue – that would be harder to wear in, say, a flannel or even a cotton. The way the fabric changes as it moves gives a single colour a range of tones, from navy blue to violet in this instance. Another suit, a three-piece from Berluti (jacket, £3,250, waistcoat, £600, and trousers, £870), comes in a deep claret – but doesn’t shout the colour in a way it might in another cloth. Hermès’ cotton velvet suit (jacket, £2,480, and trousers, £460) is described as “verdigris”, but shifts between various shades of grey.
Dark shades make the dipping of one’s sartorial toe into velvet that much easier. At the casual end of the velvet spectrum, Paige, which this year launched velvet five‑pocket jeans for men, has found that the bestsellers have been those in black and dark midnight-blue velvet (£275). So much so, in fact, that founder Paige Adams‑Geller is now planning to use velvet to replace suede in her bomber and trucker jacket styles. “When it comes to casual clothing, men just need to think of velvet as being softer than denim, less ‘edgy’ than leather, and the cooler alternative to corduroy,” she says.
Velvet is also surprisingly hard-wearing – which is why it was, up until the 1950s, commonly used to line the collars and cuffs of all-weather waxed jackets, before being replaced with corduroy. “Common ground for all wearers of velvet, I think, is that they rarely like the velvet garment in question when it’s brand new,” says Spencer. “Like denim, it’s one of those fabrics that needs some wearing in, and that just gets better the more wear it has.”