A Look Back on Menswear in 2016

It’s not just fashion writers who have a tendency to look back at years-in-review and make sweeping statements about the State of Things. Of course not – it’s human nature to place events into patterns, to try to make usable information out of a god-awful amount of noise. But fashion is interesting in that, despite the protestations of those who’d like to think themselves above the swamp, it’s nearly impossible to insulate oneself from trends that tend to suck all the air out of the room. There are always trends or events that seem to give shape to periods of time, and in that regard, 2016 was a year like any other.

Streetwear, already an all-encompassing term, grew to encompass even more. Athleisure has gotten its grubby little tentacles into everything, and along with the ferocious return of everything that’s even vaguely 90’s in style, that meant a lot of hoodies and track pants, and a lot of sweatpants masquerading as trousers. But in addition to the revival of teenage mall style there were, of course, a few Really Big Things that happened.

First of all, that whole Vêtements thing totally happened, in which there was this brand called Vetements that got super popular super quickly, and then one of the designers got hired to do Balenciaga, and now we can’t stop hearing about how Demna Gvasalia and Vetements are disrupting fashion, which is exactly the sort of statement that means precisely nothing.

Along with Vêtements’ re-packaged and re-branded clothing (labeled “cheeky” by many, or “cheap knockoffs” by collectors of Maison Martin Margiela), the logo has made a triumphant return. Nike has always been somewhat of a special case, but brands such as Thrasher, Palace, and FILA have emerged – or re-emerged – triumphant, laughing like cartoon villains in grey hoodies.

Most importantly, all the myriad fashion microcosms that we love, some of which – like “street goth”-bloom and die in the space of months, and others – such as Scandinavian minimalism, or heavy Japanese denim – that seem to be relatively immortal; can coexist effortlessly due to the proliferation of small boutique e-shops, online re-selling marketplaces, and the dominance of social media as a method for consuming fashion.

Love it or hate it, we have to talk about it. Grailed has become the go-to source for on-trend menswear, accompanied by all the headaches of dealing with a consumer base that really wants things but has no clue why it wants them. That’s not a knock on the idea of a marketplace for niche men’s fashion, nor is it a complaint about the democratization of said fashion, but it is true that Grailed’s easy-to-navigate grid marketplace, and sales concept based on always-frustrating offers and counter-offers, reduces covetable – and occasionally, historically important – objects to bullet points on the wish-lists of kids who don’t care about anything but accumulating “Fire.”

That’s been bookended somewhat by bite-sized “features” geared mostly towards given potential purchases some context, but the core experience remains the same: buy, wear, flip, buy more. I see a link between this kind of consumption – which I don’t necessarily think has to be negative – and a new kind of cynicism that has arisen from the combined forces of overconsumption and the over-saturation of social media accounts devoted to #fashion.

#Fashion was, in fact, the 9th most popular Instagram hashtag of 2016 (source: Shortstack), and Instagram itself continued to prove itself as one of the most influential mediums of fashion consumption. Alongside that rather broad keyword you’ll find words like #vintage, #instafashion, and #fashionblogger. You’ll also note that these sound equally broad, and they are, as with almost everything related to the internet or to finding things within its tubes, fashion has become a search for long-chain keywords that will distinguish the wearer. It’s just that they’re visual – choker, crop-top, denim jacket, and column skirt, for example; or a long coat, Palace hoodie, pin-rolled denim and ultra boosts; creative black tie – it’s all shorthand and worn to be searchable, all designed to stand out, both to internet algorithms and fellow tribespeople.

In fact, perhaps the most notable feature of the online community has been the continued fragmentation of fashion’s tribal subcultures. Due in part to the continued rise of Instagram personas and the free-trade-dream of Grailed, it’s possible to be wearing late 90’s band tees underneath Balmain dinner jackets with whatever-the-fuck-else-you-want and no one – on the internet – bats an eye.

You’ll remember that I mentioned cynicism. There’s a movement, among people who engage with fashion on some level beyond its consumption (and again, that’s not meant to be pejorative) – be they writers, photographers, designers – to disengage visually from these very empty signifiers by wearing whatever the fuck they want. And yes, there is a difference between “curating” your daily look to draw from your three favorite online subcultures, and looking into your closet and thinking “The hell with this.” What I’m getting at is that there are a lot of people these days dressing to look “not like that” rather than “like that.”

Cynical consumption of fashion doesn’t just mean following trends with no attempt to align them to your interests or personality, it means that you know what you are doing and yet you are doing it. Savvy consumers – including savvy internet personalities – are buying across a spectrum of brands and trends that largely defies buying conventions, always with an eye on engagement, on riding the crest of the wave, of adopting early – but not too early – and leaving just as soon.

This, of course, has the equal and opposite result of driving the die-hards deeper into their bunkers. The devoted Raw Denim Dudes are, if possible, even more into raw denim. The guys on Styleforum obsessed with the work of Maurizio Altieri have hunkered down with their collections of Continues pieces. Others are just as unabashedly prep as ever. On Instagram, tagging your post with those more specific terms – such as #acrhive, devoted to fans of ACRNM – labels you as a member of the in-crowd in a way that #fashionblogger doesn’t. Because a cohesive look, even if it’s calculated, implies authenticity – a word that means less every year, but that we, as hobbyists, can’t seem to shake.

Fashion has always been as much a matter of class and politics as any other measure of taste, but to me 2016 felt like the year when wardrobe choices stopped meaning anything. We talk about the organic growth of trends as though One day may call for one collection of brands, and the next may call for something completely different. The repeated refrain of “Wear what you like” (and I’ve been shouting it as loudly as anyone else) nonetheless means that all that raw visual data – that god-awful amount of noise – that we try to package into easily-digestible patterns doesn’t quite fit right.

On the other hand, smart companies and e-commerce sites have done just that, and have broken down our buying and wearing habits into rows and rows of data that’s used to decide everything from what goes up on an e-tailer’s website to what’s included in the newsletters they send out. When Mary Choi complains that dressing has become algorithmic, that’s because we are, in part, fighting against an algorithm. Fashion is another useful datapoint, and the lie we tell ourselves is that by “wearing what we want,” we’re somehow above all that.

Next week, I’ll be returning to Florence for Pitti Uomo 91. Just looking at the exhibitor list tells me that the trend in menswear, for the foreseeable future, will be to embrace all trends. Lucio Vanotti is showing. So is Tim Coppens. So are FILA and Tommy Hilfiger. All of this against a backdrop of brands as storied as Kiton and Cucinelli – and yes, it makes sense to have a spread of brands at a trade show, but I can only imagine that many of them will be worn by the same person, at the same time. Although a part of me would love to complain about the inappropriateness of it all, the rest of me revels in the nonsense. Because that’s what style is, and to pretend otherwise seems to me both a lie and a disservice. The only conclusion to make in 2016 is that we’re all participants in the same grand circus, and my sole resolution for the new year is to stop lying to myself about it.

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Jasper Lipton

EIC at Styleforum
Jasper likes indigo, flight jackets, and boots - but he likes his dogs even more. He dreams of buried cities and the spaces between the stars.

4 thoughts on “A Look Back on Menswear in 2016

  1. Nice write-up. Hope you will visit with Paul Smith while in Florence. I read that Pitti made a special invite to him to appear this year and to meet the show’s attendees . Looking forward to your Pitti feed.

    • Thanks, Gus. I’ll see what I can do with Paul Smith – I know it’s a brand that remains quite popular on the forum.

  2. I had to read this a couple of times to fully grasp what Jasper said about the cynical nature of the whole thing, not because what he said didn’t make sense, but because the concept of “wearing what you want” can be both meaningful and meaningless depending on the context and the self-awareness of the wearer. The “wear what you want” of an urban fashion victim and the “wear what you want” of the suburban dad are starting to look startlingly similar for dramatically different reasons.

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