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How I learned to stop worrying and dress like a 10-year-old

How I learned to stop worrying and dress like a 10-year-old

The moment that changed everything for me was when I found the shark jumper.

It was grey and made from acrylic and viscose, meaning it had a silk-like texture and draped beautifully: snug over the shoulder but loose around the middle (something which becomes rapidly more important in your 30s). It was from PSC, a nascent British designer already approved by a few notable celebrities – depending on your thoughts about Lily Allen and James Franco, anyway – and it cost £160, which though not the priciest one in the shop, was expensive enough to feel like an investment.

More important than any of that, though, was the fact it was swimming with pixelated black and white sharks that made me think: cool. And not ‘cool’ in the detached, shorthand of an adult diligently filling a gap in his wardrobe. It was the ‘cool!’ of a wide-eyed child who had just found his favourite player in a packet of football stickers. I bought it immediately.

Before we expand on the significance of this piece of aquatic knitwear, a little background is required – both of the shifts that have taken place in men’s style over the past ten years and my own personal, sometimes perilous journey through it. The shark jumper swam into my life around the turn of 2018, but my time as a fashion world interloper began far earlier, in the summer of 2013, when I’d landed a job at one of the most prestigious men’s magazines in the country. Excited to become the next David Foster Wallace or Hunter S Thompson (shouldn’t be too difficult, right?), the problem was that the magazine was, among many other great things, an authority on fashion, a subject I’d hitherto given little thought. Now, I was ostensibly on the inside.

What I quickly ascertained – partially from reading the parts of magazines I used to skip over, partially from watching the men who walked around the more stylish part of London in 2013 – was that tailoring was very much ‘in’. This, I learned soon after, was ‘the Mad Men effect’. Don Draper’s adventure in repressed manic depression was, then, in its sixth and penultimate season. In the UK, it had defined a clear aesthetic ideal. A trim navy blazer, worn with tan chinos and polished derbies, was somehow considered the ideal look for a 22 year old.

If I‘d made it through the doors a year or two earlier, when black skinny jeans and scoop-neck band tees still raged, I might have felt a little more at home. But instead I tried to dress myself like a 1960s New York ad executive on a Peggy Olson wage. I bought one beautiful (but very plain) navy suit from Paul Smith, for big occasions, and several awful blazers for everyday use, which a friend would confess, years later, looked ‘boxy as hell’ – polite code for ‘cheap and ill-fitting’.

My other big mistake was to pay scant regard to trousers. I thought a nice shirt and blazer, worn with the best quality shoes I could buy (I knew that much at least) would somehow obscure the fact I was wearing tatty, past-their-best chinos. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that trousers are, in actual fact, 60 per cent of your look (70 per cent if you’re tall) and pretending they don’t matter is, to paraphrase one my early style mentor’s analogies, a bit like fielding a decent goalkeeper and striker with nine donkeys in between.

The Mad Men era was particularly painful for me, because I am by nature scruffy, or to give it its more generous fashion name – and there is a generous fashion name for most things – rakish. That is to say: put me in a nice suit and within an hour my propensity to pull, pick and fidget will have dismantled the look from ‘smart, upwardly mobile man of the world’ to ‘ADHD-afflicted seven-year-old stuck at a wedding’. Structured tailoring never felt terribly natural to me, and nothing I tried – not the double monk-strap shoes or the tweed blazer or the sudden lurch into burgundy roll-necks – made a difference. A true rake, of course, would have been able to make all the above work just fine by crumpling a collar or adding a mismatched neckerchief or something, but such feats of nonchalance were beyond me. I looked – and felt – like a fraud.

Fortunately, a more forgiving era was right around the corner. I, like many other men, met it with a sigh of deep relief. It was the sweet months between 2016 and 2017 when everyone started dressing like an architecture student from Stockholm – the brief but important rise of ‘Scandi cool’.

A much needed corrective to the dandy affectations that went before it – which reached their nadir when men, suddenly, were rolling their trousers up and going for the ‘mankle’ (i.e. sans socks) in the middle of winter – Scandi style was all about understated, usually monotone ‘basics’ in more delicate cuts. Typified by suddenly cool brands Acne Studios, Wood Wood and Norse Project, this more sensitive, Northern European approach to dressing was liberating and suited me just fine.

It would turn out, however, to be a mere palate cleanser. Because soon after Scandi minimalism came the all-out assault of streetwear. Seemingly overnight, Supreme went from being the niche preserve of teenage Instagrammers to the place where all the grand fashion houses of Europe – and, soon, the high street – found their ideas. By 2018, incorporating streetwear elements into your wardrobe was something anyone with even a passing interest in fashion was expected to do, whether it was a pair of tissue box-sized trainers, a semi-ironic logoed sweatshirt or just some completely unironic carrot-shaped track pants, their slightly comical billow being a sufficient nod to the new spirit of loosening up.

As for me, I’d come to enjoy fashion as a subject to write about, and as something to recognise and admire in others. But my days of trying to keep up were coming to an end. Mercifully, age begins to insulate you from all this, as (usually) does some degree of professional success. No man walking into a senior staff meeting should look like he’d make a good Instagram post, after all (unless he runs an influencer agency).

But as a men’s magazine alumnus of slightly greater repute than I once said: “personal adornment is the only cultural form that everybody in the world takes part in… you don’t have a choice about fashion – you’re in it, whether you like it or not.” In other words, even if you decide to ignore fashion trends, you have to do something else instead.

This is where the good news – and my shark jumper – comes in. In the past, a man’s destiny was the suit and tie. Once he’d outgrown whatever affectations he’d enjoyed in his youth, it was time to button up and get serious. But those days are over. For one, the barriers between formal and informal dressing have been broken down, and the genie is now out of the bottle. Even in the City of London, you now see men in soft-shouldered suits worn with t-shirts instead of shirts and minimalist trainers instead of shiny black lace-ups. At the less traditional frontiers of big business: well, forget about it. If your CEO is a twenty-six-year old in a hoodie and Converse, you’re not going to be investing in a shoe horn anytime soon.

Not to say that this is some sort of requiem for the suit. Far from it. By relaxing what a suit can be worn with, tailoring, to me, seems more vital and interesting than ever. I just bought a double-breasted navy two-piece that fits like a pair of pyjamas, and I intend to wear it very much in that spirit. All it really means – this breaking up and merging of fashion tribes and codes – is that we can all start having a bit more fun.

Think back to your earliest days of choosing what to wear. When you’re a child, you just like stuff that makes you smile – whether that meant a certain colour, pattern or something as silly but pleasing as a pixelated shark. For the past few years, emboldened by the ostentation and attitude of streetwear, brands have embraced a sillier side, adopting animal motifs or adventurous colour palettes or just oversized shapes and silhouettes. Traditionalists may call this sort of thing infantilising – yet another case of millennial arrested development – but who cares? Being able to dress with joy – rather than because someone somewhere told you that trousers in a certain colour are ‘in right now’ – is something finally open to every man, whatever his job or age. If you ask me, it’s one of the few bright spots of in this time of ours.

Another fine example of 10-year-old dressing was the great Camp Collar Shirt Revival. You might have noticed that, suddenly, a billowing, unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt tossed over a t-shirt is the height of chic, and the reason you would have noticed was that they come in patterns and colours that were once the preserve of 70s cop shows and music festival fancy dress. Me? I’ve always struggled with summer dressing, even though it’s ostensibly the simplest time of year, partially because of the aforementioned anxious body language. I’d turn a crisp, white Oxford shirt into a crumpled mess within minutes. But the licence to flounce around in an open shirt with something silly on it, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet (minus the genes)? Well - that’s been just great.

Then there are the logos. Back when I was a kid, it was your shortcut to cool: a Nike swoosh on your shoes or Reebok in bold font across your chest. But then, of course, we got a little older and the whole ‘branded’ thing acquired an unpleasant whiff of drone unit capitalism. The ultimate aspiration was to spend six grand on an Armani suit that no living soul could know was by Armani, unless of course you volunteered it, which would be unthinkably crass. Lo and behold, thanks to this era of sanctified silliness, adults are now allowed to wear stuff that screams about where it’s from. Big logos are back on the high street, and consequently my wardrobe. It’s sort of ghastly, true, but at least it’s honest. And it makes you feel a bit like your favourite footballer.

We haven’t even talked about sportswear yet, the fact that now, thanks to athleisure, you can go to work in a pair of sweatpants, as I did recently, while secretly revisiting the high of long-gone summer afternoons playing football until your eyes hurt. As long as it's clean and well tailored and paired with something smartish, you can basically get away with wearing your PE kit to a board meeting, which is precisely how your 10-year-old self – or mine, anyway – would have pictured being an grown-up.

The first couple of occasions I wore the shark jumper, I was stopped by people who wanted to compliment it. Only, rather than in the mildly anxious or begrudging way people – myself included – sometimes acknowledge an expensive-looking suit, it was more in the manner one would greet a handsome dog. Since then I’ve tapped back into my 10-year-old self many times, from a shirt with a colourful Basquiat print on it to a pair of Gatsby-esque boating trousers to a shirt decorated with airplanes. While ‘fun’ ought never to slip into ‘whacky’ – easily avoided by buying quality and keeping the rest of your outfit nice and muted – how ‘on-trend’ any of these items are now feels beside the point. What matters is that they make me smile.

Words: Sam Parker
Photography: Jamie Stoker
Styling: Freddie Kemp
Styling assistant: Toby Standing