Three models walking the runway in Valentino Haute Couture AW21, GmbH SS22 and Fendi SS22

Is menswear the queerest it's ever been?

Recent menswear runways have been filled with proudly flamboyant, Hot Boy Summer-ready looks. But are men on the streets ready for them?

by José Criales-Unzueta
25 August 2021, 8:13am

Three models walking the runway in Valentino Haute Couture AW21, GmbH SS22 and Fendi SS22

Over the last decade or so, menswear has evolved from one trend to the next. It’s fallen in and out of love with tailoring, it’s embraced casual-cool through style icons like Kanye -- whose Haider Ackermann era is required reading -- A$AP Rocky, and Pharrell, and in more recent years it’s welcomed ‘soft boys’ and what has widely been dubbed a ‘new masculinity. For SS22, though, this ‘softness’ has bloomed into something altogether more brazen: a no-holds-barred, ostensibly queer flamboyance. While previous trends — whether they started on the runways, social media, or through celebrity style — have migrated into stores and people’s wardrobes, the jury remains out on whether the man on the street is quite ready for the emboldened body-baring silhouettes we’ve recently seen on the runway. 

Still, while the season’s collections were certainly less dictated by conventional menswear norms, they nonetheless tapped into an undercurrent of flamboyance that has always existed in men’s style -- you only need to look to Prince, Sir Elton John, or Dennis Rodman for proof.

At Fendi, this resulted in a departure from their usual codes, typically heavy on tailoring and focussed on classic men’s silhouettes with quirky twists, presenting ultra-cropped jackets and waist chains instead. Over at Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton’s womenswear motifs were welcomed into the house’s menswear repertoire, with her signature ruffles exploding from the seams of tailored pieces and an embroidered tank dress thrown into the mix. At Saint Laurent, Anthony Vaccarello leaned into the flamboyant aesthetic of Monsieur Saint Laurent himself, while Acne Studios embraced on-trend Gen Z styling, and brands like GmbH continued to keep queerness at the core of their aesthetic. So there you have it -- the boom in the popularity of the trend is an undeniable fact. But what’s driving it? 

A modeel walking the runway in Fendi SS22
Image courtesy of Fendi

The simple answer is that as our definitions of gender expand and evolve, so does fashion’s remit. As stylist Tabitha Sanchez notes, “menswear today is heavily inspired by queer people who have been using fashion to step out of gender binaries for as long as fashion has been around,” and as queer people continue to discover and express facets of their identities through fashion, people take notice and adopt these as aesthetics, ultimately turning them into mainstream trends — all the crop-tops and halter tops we’re currently seeing for hot-boy summer, for example.

For Iolo Edwards, founder of Facebook forum and publication High Fashion Talk (HFT), much of this can be attributed to the crumbling of certain boundaries in fashion over the past few years, many having “a lot to do with the re-calibration of dressing in relation to gender.” 

Further proof of this cultural shift can be found in the renaissance in queer celebrities such as Lil Nas X and Troye Sivan, who are more overt and playful with their styling, as well as Gen Zers’ uptake of genderless style trends in the wake of a Y2K revival. As such, now feels like the ideal time for brands to embrace a similar approach in their menswear. Not only is there market appetite, but there’s also a real opportunity for brands to present more adventurous menswear in the same way they do womenswear for celebrity marketing. It’s something that brands like Giambattista Valli, Fendi, and Valentino are cashing in on by offering exuberant men’s couture looks that were all but made for a Harry Styles red carpet moment.

“It is well worth contemplating why queerness and flamboyance are the aesthetics brands lean into when deciding what their ‘free’ and ‘risk-taking’ modern man should be wearing.”

Beyond that, though, it also speaks to the overarching mood for freedom and risk-taking in post-pandemic dressing, something that also characterised the AW21 shows. From Iolo’s perspective, while comfort was the focus in the collections presented early on in the pandemic, there has been a “full 180”, with people now wanting to look their best after being cooped up for so long. This seems to have been on the mind of Silvia Venturini Fendi, who told Vogue that she wanted to “give a sense of freedom to this man” this season, and that “it’s the time to break boundaries.”

Still, it is well worth contemplating why queerness and flamboyance are the aesthetics brands lean into when deciding what their ‘free’ and ‘risk-taking’ modern man should be wearing. This is especially pertinent when we consider the very real risks that visibly queer-presenting people put themselves at when they choose to style themselves out of line with heteronormative expectations.

A model wearing Alexander McQueen SS22
Image courtesy of Alexander McQueen

Nonetheless, that doesn’t detract from the fact that the shift we’re seeing take place on runways is an encouraging one. A question that begs asking, though, is: Are people actually buying it? The short answer is apparently yes. Federico Barassi, Vice President of Menswear Buying at SSENSE, says that while this trend is still “niche in comparison to core or commercial offerings, there’s momentum, opportunity, and openness to more experimentation within menswear.” Categories they’ve seen particular growth in include skirts, heeled footwear, and accessories like smaller handbags, all of which the Canadian e-commerce platform has offered for many seasons and is “happy to see being increasingly embraced.”

That Federico is able to offer such a confident endorsement of this open-minded turn in menswear makes sense. SSENSE is, after all, a favourite retail destination for Millennials and Gen Zers to find on-trend pieces often from smaller designers -- in fact, the demographic constitutes the majority of their business, with over 70% of their audience being between 18 and 34 years old. He also notes that, while larger brands are continuing to embrace a more liberated approach in their menswear, there’s a keen interest in “supporting emerging designers who have authentically and always embedded this aesthetic as a core part of their DNA,” offering Dion Lee, Phlemuns, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, and Telfar as examples. 

Of course, even among names like these, what we see on runways and in editorials isn’t always what makes it down to store floors. Fashion has a habit of showing one thing and selling another, and while trends trickle down to social media –- or in cases like this one, trickle up from it -- what we see URL is not always what we get IRL. The ways in which we socialise have drastically altered over the past two years, with our interactions shifting to online spaces that naturally facilitate self-expression. “People aren’t [physically] entering spaces where toxic masculinity can restrict what they feel comfortable or, sad to say, safe wearing”, says Iolo, citing TikTok as a noteworthy example. 

So how does this boom in the more daring takes on menswear seen on the runway and on our screens translate to what your average guy on the street wants to buy? Iolo argues that “only a small minority decide what to wear from a catwalk”, a fair fact -- but this is where influencers and celebrities come in. It is, after all, what we see on the runway that determines what we see them wear on red carpets and in media appearances, and “people want to buy the clothes they see on their faves. That has a huge impact. [On social media] you can find someone whose identity and gender you can identify with, which is often what a lot of people need to give themselves permission to self-actualise,” he continues, adding that “there’s always been play and distortion of gender in fashion, but what was once caveated with a tentative no homo is now much more self-assured and confident.” 

It’s a shift he’s observed in the outfits shared on HFT. While not everyone is suddenly dressing “more flamboyant or femme”, those who want to certainly feel more comfortable doing so. In his opinion, however, this has a lot to do with the second-hand market's increase in popularity amongst Gen Zers and Millennials, as people who once felt priced out of fashion can now “make more adventurous purchases” and then resell them. It’s something he’s noticed among people with larger followings, who wear something and then sell it on to one of their influenced followers. 

“There’s an undeniable cultural shift to embrace fluid approaches to gender and sexuality. It's important [that brands] acknowledge this shift — whether subtly or unapologetically.” — Federico Barassi, Vice President of Menswear Buying at SSENSE

Whether all of this will result in SS22’s more out-there collections being commercialised as they first appeared to us remains to be seen. As Federico notes, “some styles are presented solely for the purpose of runway shows or editorials and sometimes never make it into production” while “brands like Dion Lee that take what we see on the runway and ensure it’s part of their retail offering.” What he remains confident about, though, is that the trend will gain further traction and become more commonplace as customers become more familiar with the styles and silhouettes. 

“There’s an undeniable cultural shift from both brands and customers to embrace fluid approaches to gender and sexuality,” he notes, adding that “as the Gen Z buying power grows, it's interesting to see if brands will adapt and dispel gender binaries through their collections. It's important they acknowledge this shift — whether subtly or unapologetically.” Of course, only time will determine whether or not the trend becomes the next menswear evolution, and as lockdowns and social distancing restrictions give way to IRL socialising, it will be interesting to see how this seemingly general interest in flamboyance affects the way men dress every day. The bottom line, though, speaks to one of fashion’s fundamental truths. “Regardless of gender and how you identify, clothing is for everyone,” Tabitha says. “Fashion is fun, getting dressed is fun.” Or in other words, fashion is all about having a gay old time.

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