The question now is, what makes a man today?” Ermenegildo Zegna said last year when asked to describe what’s driving his family’s third-generation fashion label. “We know the static traditional notion of masculine identity no longer works.”
Clothing, etiquette, protocol – there was a time when a fellow could follow the rules his grandfather passed down. A gentleman didn’t wear brown shoes with blue suits. Athletic shoes were for the tennis court or ball field. Then a perfect storm hit our culture. Thom Browne shrunk the suit. Sneakers became art. #MeToo made everyone rethink gender relationships. And the actor Billy Porter turned the ballgown into a man’s chicest red-carpet look.
How does one get dressed in the morning when the traditional notions no longer function and seem to shift beneath our feet? Shrugging on a Tom Ford suit could be a power move, but in other situations it could signal its wearer plays a junior role at a table where the decision makers wear Loro Piana cashmere hoodies. The choice is no longer when not to wear a necktie, but when it might be appropriate to don one (so legions of men keep ties mouldering in desk drawers, just in case).
The signals of power aren’t so much the choices as they are the presentation and vibe. Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, is such a dandy that he wears Tevas with white socks under his all-black shirt and slacks. And power dressing was much on display last year at the cult-like annual Dreamforce conference, in San Francisco, where Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff was joined by Gucci chief executive Marco Bizzarri. Both chose to wear dark business suits, but on their feet they donned sneakers. Bizzarri went sock-less with his. The rule book is gone. It’s every man for himself. Conveying authority is complex in an era when pinstripes can send all the wrong signals. Yet the new options are many and varied.
For wisdom on the new sartorial authority, I turned to someone intimately familiar with the old look of tailored power: Norbert Stumpfl, designer of Brioni. Worn everywhere, from Wall Street to Mayfair, the Italian label is synonymous with power dressing. It has dressed James Bond and still suits up Donald Trump today. “I don’t want to make a powerful man,” Stumpfl said. (Perhaps don’t tell President Trump.) “I don’t want to make a cool man – because cool is cold.” Instead, Stumpfl is diving into deeply luxurious fabrics and accommodating fits that will make a tailored jacket feel like a sweater. The idea is that power is ease – and ease is power.
What does a man do when the CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, is also a DJ named D-Sol, who favours black T-shirts on weekends and arrives at the office without a tie? The investment bank loosens its ties, that’s what. Goldman issued a new “flexible” dress code last March, asking 36,000 employees to “exercise good judgement” in fashion’s regard. The firm learnt in a Twitter poll that 38 per cent of people preferred “hoodie and sneakers” for a professional wardrobe. They eschewed the ubiquitous “Midtown uniform” that’s anchored by a grey Patagonia fleece vest. (That fuzzy-vested look will never be powerful. For a vest with a power upgrade, go with a down Kjus or Moncler puffer.)
There was a time when advertising-agency executives kept their top button buttoned and their neckties crisp and silk. Andrew Sacks, founder of New York’s AgencySacks, has developed a different concept of the power look. “My uniform is dark denim, an Eton dress shirt with a cutaway collar, and a Uniqlo merino sweater with either a crewneck or V-neck,” Sacks says, noting that he hasn’t purchased an expensive sweater in years. He owns 100 ties, but on the very rare occasion that he wears one, he chooses an Etro navy blue with a periodic white stitch or a knitted style.
Bastions of manhood have been reconsidering power lately: political, sexual, cultural. Yet a power look can be useful, even necessary. It’s the definition of what’s appropriate that has changed, not the wish for a look that suggests authority, grace and a keen sense of style that is unique to the wearer. “Men have been coming to terms with their inner weaknesses and strengths and are willing to take risks to embrace their own view of what masculinity is,” stated a recent Zegna campaign. “Even if this means going against traditional notions of men.” For next season, Zegna has collaborated with Fear of God on a capsule fusing tailoring and streetwear – continuing the conversation around which clothes make a “man”.
Which brings us to ruffles. They are not for every man, but Virgil Abloh used them generously at Louis Vuitton on tailored trousers, coats and men’s blouses for his upcoming autumn collection. It’s a look that fashion people call “directional”, which means it’s not for most offices, but the message is strong: rebel, rebel against the traditional notions of masculinity. The directional look now is Armani-esque, taking its broad shoulders, pleated slacks and fluidity from the 1980s.
Femininity has been a vibrant theme in menswear of late. Some runway romps are pure trickery – the tutu that Thom Browne proposed in his opening look for spring is a ridiculous option for every day, but that’s just the attention-grabbing appetiser for his meticulous tailoring. An easier approach that will draw attention in the boardroom is florals and loud patterns – in evidence at Dolce & Gabbana. At Brioni, Stumpfl is seeking the new look of authority in fabrics previously reserved for haute couture. He created dinner jackets from jacquard made in central Venice using 17th-century methods and coats with cashmere from Inner Mongolia. The cut is classic, the fabric is la dolce vita. “When it touches you, you get goose bumps. It’s a personal luxury for a man who is super-busy.”
For his spring Balenciaga collection, Demna Gvasalia took the tropes of the 1980s power suit and twisted them into something political. Setting up his own version of a parliament along the runway, he broke the tenets of power-broker clothing to deliver cartoonishly broad shoulders, short-sleeved impeccably tailored jackets, and mash-ups of streetwear, strict tailoring and denim. Politics aside, his fashion dictates were clear – pump up the volume and relax into structured fabric that serves as both armour and cloak.
There will always be an appetite for the classical man. New York-based Alessandro Pallaoro, the managing director of global real-estate firm Bizzi & Partners Development, says his power look eschews logos entirely. He avoids neckties when working in China, where they can signal junior-employee status. And he’s a stickler for custom-made suits – his tailors are in Naples and Milan – made with Loro Piana or Zegna fabrics. Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director for the department stores Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, would concur. “The hallmark of affluence and achievement in the business world is all about custom-made clothing,” he says. Tom Ford. Kiton. Brunello Cucinelli. Loro Piana. Even sweaters can be custom in colour, neckline and body length, offering customers something that no one else has.
But what about the real power players? Iron men, for example. “To truly power-dress is to express your individuality,” says Jeanne Yang, stylist for Hollywood clients such as Robert Downey Jr. She sent client Jason Momoa to the Golden Globes in a tailored jacket with a tank shirt underneath, because it fit his inner man. Real power dressing, she explains, is both comfortable and unique. “Everyone has their own individual tastes,” Yang says. “It’s like a Spotify playlist.”
The demise of the longtime ban on brown shoes with blue suits epitomises what’s become of traditional fashion dictums. Far from banished, brown shoes are now practically de rigueur with a blue suit. Wingtips, brogues and monkstraps, in sand or deep chocolate brown, add warmth to a look and a subtle nod that their wearer knows what’s what. In January, US Representative Adam Schiff, manager of the impeachment of President Trump, made his closing arguments to the Senate while wearing brown lace loafers and a crisp blue suit and pale-blue tie, stamping a seminal moment in history with a fashion statement. Andrew Sacks is in agreement. “I don’t own any black shoes,” the ad man says. “I think brown is so much more elegant and natural. Black is just so… politician.”