Men’s Fashion is Back in Philadelphia

Thanks to a new generation of men's clothing stores, Philly's millennial men are returning to their gender's once-stylish roots—without looking all, you know, gay.

“Part of our problem with fashion is that we forgot our history,” says 30-year-old Ed Hamler (thrifted oxford shirt, denim trucker jacket, Marc McNairy oxford creeper shoes, J.Crew slim-fit trousers, colorful plaid tie, and a bracelet made of tiny yellow skulls).

Ed is a super-bright born-and-bred Philly (straight) guy who studied design in college, worked in politics in D.C., decided to return to fashion, and is currently working at Chestnut Street’s newish Mettlers American Mercantile. He’s talking not so much about Philadelphia history (although, yes, Philly was once a fashion hub) as about men’s history.

“Now men are finding inspiration from it in modern ways,” he says. “They’re watching Boardwalk Empire and saying, ‘Wow, that’s a good look. I like that actor, and he’s got a cool style.’” Those Esquire-endorsed, super-hot Thom Browne suits—clingy fit, ankle-­baring hems—are Browne’s take on ’60s style, Ed says. You know, à la Don Draper.

The pop-culture influences aren’t limited to TV: Look at the band Mumford & Sons, Ed says, who are always stylish (vests, blazers, hats). Look at LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. “These are very masculine dudes, really well-dressed dudes,” Ed says. “Guys in my generation see these guys, and we like the way it looks. It’s different than the way we grew up—in the Gap era of dressing down.”

Men looking to modern celebrity-types (celebrity-types who now all have stylists) for style cues is a common theme: Will cited the moment in the mid-2000s when the NBA instituted a dress code as a major cultural shifting point. Craig Arthur von Schroeder, a founder of Philly’s made-to-measure suit shop Commonwealth Proper, credits the media. “They’re putting on shows where the guys dress well. Our business is a by-product of that—of guys wanting to dress better,” Craig says. (He’s wearing Levi’s made-to-order jeans turned up at the cuff, Cole Haan ankle boots, a Commonwealth shirt and a blue blazer, with a blue-and-white pocket square.)

Of course, not everyone pays attention to pop-culture prompts. But plenty do; that’s why it’s popular culture. “I think middle-aged white males will be the last to embrace fashion,” says Mettlers’ middle-aged white co-owner, Robert Chevalier (suede shoes, dark-wash jeans, striped Mettlers button-down, round-framed tortoiseshell glasses).

Robert is a stylish man—although even he is a little incredulous at just how short this season’s swim trunks are. (Think Sean Connery in Thunderball.) In any case, he’s spot-on in observing that fashion in Philly right now belongs to the older gentlemen who have always dressed, the African-American men who have also pretty much always dressed, and, most recently, that new, young wave of Philadelphians that is changing the city in so many ways. In the end, it is exactly that—Philadelphia’s evolution—that’s managed to elevate the male dress code of a city that has, in the past three decades, landed itself on more worst-dressed lists than Courtney Love. All sorts of more global cultural influences pushed the shift along, but the fact is, Philly, filled with a new crop of men whose lifestyles have helped modernize it in so many ways, was especially ripe for the pushing.

“There’s a young energy in the city now that just wasn’t there in the early ’90s,” Steve says. “Much more energy.” “More urban” is the phrase Robert uses. There’s also: more foot traffic, more diversity, more New York transplants, more reasons to hang out in Center City, and—maybe most importantly—more places to shop. Because no matter how much online shopping has opened up whole new worlds of resources for everyone, a city with nowhere to buy good clothes isn’t going to produce many good dressers.

Following in the steps of companies like Coach and Louboutin, retailers seem to have adopted an “If you build it, they will shop” attitude toward Philly men. Guys here have been rolling in a whole new embarrassment of fashion riches that cater to their diverse preferences: Commonwealth Proper, Mettlers, Barneys Co-op, Suitsupply, Sugarcube, Briar Vintage, Duke & Winston, Ps & Qs on South Street (South Street!) … and who knows what’s next? Frankly, it’s hard to keep up.

And so when I click through the style section of Esquire online and see the model wearing a robin’s-egg blue Isaia blazer, or the BMX biker in his pale ballerina-pink Zegna trousers, or the sort of shorti-short swim trunks Robert was talking about, I don’t even wonder if I’ll see these things on the sidewalks of our city, in this new era of the post-homophobic, pro-throwback, quality-focused, fit-conscious, dapper model of the Philadelphia man … but when.

Except for the swim trunks. Please. Not on the sidewalks, at least.