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Fashion April, 10 2014

Highsnobiety Op-Ed | Sexuality, Clothing and Hip Hop

Around a decade ago the rise of a supposedly positive term left a bitter taste in the mouth of a generation. “Metrosexual,” which was by all means coined and popularized by older white men running morning talk shows, became a descriptor of the moment. It’s was suddenly deemed socially acceptable for men to enjoy dressing well, or to use hair products or take care of their body through exercise without being referred to as homosexual. For a few media cycles, the term seemed to gain popularity in America. It offered the ignorant a vocabulary that they could apply to something they still didn’t readily accept. Yet no one who actually fit the description would be caught dead self-identifying as a “metrosexual.” The reason being was basic yet apparently ungraspable by the masses at the time – that the way a man dresses has little to nothing to do with his sexuality.

In the last ten years or so, these “metro” men have grown up. They’re editors now. They’re designers. They’re marketers. As a result of this, the concept of whether a man “looks gay” or is buying clothes designed by a gay man or a woman hasn’t resurged in the youth culture conversation – it has completely exited it. Simply put – no one cares who you’re fucking. This is progress,

Let’s take a step back. Millennials – the generation that currently hovers around 30 and younger and which I am a member of – are the most diverse, liberal, accepting, well-educated and digitally native group of consumers ever (in the USA at least). 74% support legality for same-sex marriage. Only 60% are white. Despite a rough economic reality, we’re exceptionally optimistic and open to change. Our buying power is rising with our prominence. As a consumer segmentation, we’re more numerous than Baby Boomers and are projected to outnumber non-Millennials by 2030. Our estimated current consumer spending power is around $1.3 trillion. That’s expected to grow significantly.

As the old adage goes, money talks. The zeitgeist is beginning to shift towards millennial control, both in terms of spending and starting businesses. With this has come a resonant indifference towards men defining themselves through fashion without the stigma of projecting a “gay” or “feminine” aura.

Clothes used to mean something to men. The dandy of the 18th Century, for example, placed heavy importance on appearance. Their garments carried philosophical weight. Dandyism was a movement of leisure – one emphasizing an aristocratic embrace of the five senses. It offered an escape from the world, a form of self-expression and an elevation of aesthetics to the spiritual realm. Beauty, not politics or money, ruled the dandy’s life. It’s also worth noting that some of the world’s most infamous womanizers were dandies. Sexuality never came into play.

Nonetheless. Americans have always had a puritanical approach towards dressing. American men’s fashion is historically subdued and functional. Yet innovation has occurred rapidly in the US. It’s the birthplace of Levi’s, Nike and Ralph Lauren. It’s a place where tradition and utility is displayed through dress and where we look to role models to dictate our trends. Whether they’re true or not, stories of Clark Gable killing the undershirt market by foregoing one in his starring role in “It Happened One Night” or JFK contributing to the decline of hat sales by skipping a fedora at his inauguration are intrinsic to the American mythology of menswear. Cultural paragons rule general opinion. It’s certainly not debatable that more straight men have been wearing skirts and leather pants ever since Kanye donned them.

Today’s millennial trend factory is undoubtably the hip hop industry. Inextricability linked to the music is streetwear, which is the dominant garb of our generation. As artists like Jay-Z have transitioned from spewing homophobic slurs in cyphers to becoming brand consultants donning bespoke Tom Ford, a new class of artist has served to embody the more emotionally open, socially accepting modern male. Kanye West, a master trendsetter whether you like him or not, brought this movement mass with his 808’s and Heartbreak saga – during which he almost exclusively wore a Thom Browne tweed suit embellished with a blinged-out heart-shaped pin. Since then, designers from Riccardo Tisci to Alexander Wang have all gained massive hip hop credentials, followed by extensive endorsements amongst the even more macho professional sports world. The fact that these designers are all homesexuals is of little consequence to their ultra-masculine (and famous) fanbase. Tom Ford even playfully “knocked off” Jay-Z’s bootleg tour jersey with his own set of glittering jersey dresses – once again bridging the gap between fashion and hip hop.

Figures like Jay and Kanye, and to a lesser extent ASAP Rocky, will always be known for sophisticated taste levels. Yet as other artists and streetwear connoisseurs got older, their tastes matured to a new level. In some ways, we’ve reached a golden age for mid-level design, wherein the emphasis is on product over personality. Two of the moment’s most popular streetwear brands, for example, Marcelo Burlon’s County of Milan and Shayne Oliver’s Hood by Air, are both run by openly gay men. It’s unclear how educated the bulk of consumers are on this, but a positive sign nonetheless that most seem not to care. When asked by GQ what his favorite design in his debut collection was, Burlon replied “the wings because they represent freedom. I’m a free person; everything that I do is done with my heart, with total freedom.” He’s clearly unburdened by his role as an unorthodox streetwear maven.

Then there’s the #menswear movement. A kind of boy’s club decked out in Comme des Garcons tees, double breasted blazers and vintage Nike kicks, these bastions of taste are a diverse lot including editors at major publications, bloggers, art directors and graphic designers. They have their own vernacular (“rare hemline bro”) and, despite a solid amount of groupthink holding back their progression as an entity, generally have their finger on the pulse of what’s trending. These men’s icons are sourced not from the gilded realm of celebrity but rather the Tumblr-verse. Nick Wooster is their style messiah. They are apostles of Tommy Ton. They care little that gay men shape the fashion they utilize so adamantly to express their masculinity. In fact, with his penchant for camouflage, habit of smoking like a chimney and appendages full of tattoos, Wooster is more “manly” in appearance than almost anyone else in street fashion today.

Our culture still has a long way to go towards total acceptance, but it’s reassuring to see fashionable adult men be lauded for exactly that – pure style – rather than scrutinized for what their manner of dress means. Realms like fashion and art, in particular, need to remain progressive. As dictators of mass culture, celebrity acceptance is also key. By ignoring the private lives of our favorite designers and focusing on how clothes can help us define ourselves as men, the millennial generation in particular is breaking down boundaries for fashion as a means of discourse. As with all social movements, consistency is key. Let’s make sure this isn’t just another passing fad.

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