Ever since I started stealing my dad’s Polo Ralph Lauren pocket tees in sixth grade, I’ve been into clothes. Years later, when I got my first “real” job as an adult, I realized I had no idea how to dress like a grown-up — or at least know what was considered “adult” attire at the time. Naturally, I turned to the internet to help me out.
This was the mid-’00s, the era of style forums and nascent menswear blogs. On the former, everything from Nike sneakers and Supreme tees to Charvet shirts and Incotex trousers was discussed at length (and hem, cuff, and that all-important shoulder measurement).
That is to say, I’d found my people: other clothing-obsessed dweebs who fawned over the details and absolutely had to know which brands made the best version of just about anything.
In menswear, the 2008-09 global recession manifested in a return-to-roots approach to dressing. You had your would-be lumberjacks and workwear fiends in Filson, Engineered Garments, RRL, and even a smattering of visvim and Kapital on real heads like Eric Clapton. You had your European tailoring nerds going off about unstructured shoulders, L.B.M. 1911 sport coats, Isaia suits, and Brunello Cucinelli.
Finally, you had your prep stalwarts, who were singing the wonders of Brooks Brothers’ new extra slim fit offerings, Ralph Lauren’s Rugby label, and what Frank Muytjens was doing at J.Crew — which was somehow channeling all these archetypes into wearable, affordable gear.
Given he honed his craft at Ralph Lauren, Muytjens’ eye for nailing the collective consciousness of the era’s men’s style archetypes is a testament to the man that originated it all. I had a ton of sport coats and trousers, several topcoats, boots, Oxfords, wingtips, and, of course, polarizing double monks.
In a way, dressing was a little easier then, back before I got into designers and runway pieces became as fleeting and recognizable as memes. The modus operandi wasn’t putting on cool shit, or wearing covetable items that could be spotted from a mile away or liked on an Instagram feed. It was about putting clothes together in a way that made you feel “handsome.”
Stella Bugbee, editor-in-chief and president of The Cut, wrote about this from a woman’s perspective in her March 2018 editor’s letter. As she admired a two-tone Marni dress on her phone, she noticed a passerby with an especially striking sense of personal style.
“She wore all black, which wasn’t particularly remarkable, but she had such composure,” writes Bugbee. “Everything about her outfit was flattering, yet easy.”
That’s why I come back to the word “handsome” in relation to the so-called prep revival of 2018. Labels including Gucci, Prada, and UNDERCOVER are putting items such as corduroy suits and rugby shirts alongside more directional items in their collections. Meanwhile, a slew of younger brands such as Noah and Rowing Blazers are at the forefront of a trend championing a more youthful approach to the American trad aesthetic.
Even Ralph Lauren is speaking to both ends of the style spectrum, reissuing past collections that have been a hit among streetwear fans for decades while elevating London skate brand Palace’s offerings through a sold-out collaboration that included silk pajamas, patchwork flannel shirts, and luxe slippers.
“For a while now I’ve been prioritizing ‘interesting’ over attractive,” Bugbee writes in her letter. It’s a note that feels particularly relevant in the era of Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, a cornucopia of KAWS collaborations, and oversized Prada camp shirts emblazoned with flames and bananas.
There are times when I find myself retreating to the simplicity of a well-fitting, unadorned Margiela crewneck sweater, Noah corduroy trousers, or the same Polo pocket tees I hoarded as a kid. In some ways, the fashion game feels like an unending marathon of covetable product, so it’s refreshing to take a break and go at a pace that feels comfortable.
“Handsome” is a much better adjective to describe this way of dressing than the derided term “dapper.” It’s a humbler way of stating that something looks good, and its second meaning implies that it’s substantial. To me, that’s why menswear is dipping its toe back into classic style tropes.
It isn’t a paean to the “good old days” of prep and the privilege it connotes, but more a subtle form of rebellion against today’s ever-churning trend cycle. It lets us opt out of the hype every now and then, and dress in a way that’s appropriate for holidays in the middle of nowhere. At the same time, it communicates to both strangers and acquaintances that you know a thing or two about what makes you look good.
In this way, classic menswear is something of a palate cleanser, giving us license to wear the crazier stuff elsewhere. To some, prep style is the be-all and end-all of clothing, an ideal for uniform dressers who see their closet as a problem to be solved. For others, though, it’s a mere starting point before taking a deep dive into everything else out there.
Suits, topcoats, rugbies, button-downs, loafers, and their ilk will never truly go away. Instead, they’ll be remixed, repurposed, and re-contextualized to fit into whatever trend comes next. And the most avant-garde dressers will continue to have fun working them into their wardrobes in new ways.
For more on prep style minus the privilege, check out the latest Noah x Rowing Blazers collaboration.