fashion and the normal boy
Fashion is given so much weight by its critics and writers but does that actually influence how a regular guy chooses what to wear? We investigate whether fashion is more influenced by the "normal" boy, than the normal boy is by fashion...
Even the briefest look through this month's crop of fashion magazines reveals the quiet codes that once dictated menswear are changing. It is a reaction to what was seen, and talked about, over the course of last season's shows - ideas that are now crystallised on the printed page or photographed on the bodies of models - heralding a new aesthetic, an altered mood. Gone are the strict boundaries that men used to plan their wardrobes by, replaced instead by clothing that questions the fundamentals of gender, and what it means to be, and dress like, a man.
It was Alessandro Michele's Gucci reimagining that set the zeitgeist - whether in think pieces, editorials or their Glen Luchford-shot campaign - it is undeniably the brand of the season. Michele's menswear sits on a spectrum between man and woman, childhood and adolescence - clothing where both the idea, and the silhouettes are looser, made with plenty of space for changing ideals.
Fashion magazines and runway shows are fuelled by fantasy, trading on the improbable and the impossible. Even the most dedicated follower of fashion would be reticent to wear a designer's full look, a feeling that this season's shows have proved more than ever - as Matthew Schneier of the New York Times recently wrote, "Fashion lives on the runway… reality sits in the stands."
It is a contradiction that comes up again and again. Is there a relation between the prevailing mood at shows and what people actually want to wear? How far does the influence of the menswear industry actually stretch? This was the question I originally set out to answer. The method? Find the regular guy and talk to him. How does he relate to fashion? How does he choose what to wear? Is he influenced by the changes that are given so much weight by those who write about fashion?
Finding the 'normal boy' was a more difficult task than I expected. Looking to London and to places outside of it, like my suburban Berkshire hometown, the boys didn't fit as easily into categories as I imagined. Instead, they were a complex web of interwoven tribes and styles - skater boys, gamers, guys who were into sport. The normal boy, I soon discovered, was a fantasy of my own. Friends of mine found him similarly difficult to pin down. "Normal boys just wear like Stussy and shit," my boyfriend, a menswear designer, said in an email. "But like, I think there is a norm boy who like, really cares about how basic his norm stuff is, you know?" A friend who works in menswear PR said, "I guess they are like the boys I went to school with." And what do they wear? "The men wear chinos and shirts. Boring. Young guys wear like… sports stuff?"
My first thought was the type of man who wears Superdry and Bench - those everyday, faceless brands that the people who work in fashion look at with a certain amount of disdain. "In London, you are never meant to be more than 6ft away from a rat, even if you can't see one," Imogen Fox once wrote in the Guardian. "Today in the UK - by my scientific reckoning - you are never more than six feet away from a bit of Superdry."
I, however, was fascinated by the thought of a brand that had quietly taken over the country to become a major force in British menswear, making millions of pounds of profit in the process. However, when I ended up looking for those who actually wore Superdry, I found very few, certainly not enough to constitute the norm. The boy I thought I would find didn't really seem to exist.
It was at that point that it became apparent that just as much as Gucci, J.W. Anderson and all those others who challenge menswear boundaries, the normal boy is as much of a fantasy, albeit the opposite end of the spectrum. The normal guy as fantasy is a pervasive ideal. Especially of late, fashion has been fascinated by the archetype of the 'real boy,' one that works in opposition to Gucci's genderless effete. Think about Prada's subverted take on normality; that deceptively banal form of dressing that has defined Miuccia's menswear collections of late, or Raf Simons, whose eponymous label continually draws on the everyday boy, incisively commenting on youth and adolescence in the process.
British designers have also long referenced this archetype, mostly because they grew up alongside him - like Christopher Shannon, who continually looks at British youth for inspiration. His latest collection was based on the idea of the Brit abroad - that normal guy let loose on a lad's holiday. For Shannon, normality has almost become a form of protest, "I am kind of repulsed by lifestyle aspirations," he once said to Interview. It's an ideology that newer British designers also work from, and around - like Liam Hodges, who is inspired by the people of Walthamstow market, or Cottweiler, who take on the tracksuit as a uniform, reinterpreting the garments of everyday life for dystopias. Even Astrid Andersen or Nasir Mazhar, whose designs ostensibly fall on the more boundary-pushing side of things, still find inspiration from that fantasy of the boy on the street.
And it's not just the designers; the visual imagery of fashion has also been grounded in an attempt to depict "the normal", "the authentic". Gosha Rubchinskiy, before he too became a fashion designer, made his name by photographing post-Soviet youth and defining an aesthetic of normality - creating the archetypal skater boy. Alasdair McLellan's brilliant book, Ultimate Clothing Company, also trades on this depiction of normality, a kind of fetishised reality - the photographic images of boys inscribed with a homoerotic undertone. Models like Michael Morgan and Danny Blake, who have both been shot by McLellan, make their living from this 'normal' boy stereotype - their masculine, British appearance making them just as popular with high street retailers as they are with fashion photographers.
Why is the normal boy such a recognisable pillar in fashion? Somehow, normality has become a provocation, a rejection of the excesses of the industry; the regular guy working as a kind of Yin to Gucci's Yang. After all, those who push the boundaries need a boundary to push against. At times like this, fashion can seem to be full of contradictions, swinging back and forth between excess and minimalism, masculine and feminine, youth and age, black and white. But somehow it finds a balance in these binaries, like a pendulum moving back and forth. Even as the thrill of change has electrified fashion, the normal boy remains deeply lodged in the consciousness. Am I right lads?
Text Jack Moss
Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans