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.

Men's fashion in Philadelphia is experiencing a renaissance. Illustration by Tim Gough.

It was one of those long-awaited evenings in April when it finally felt like spring had come, the type of night when the whole city emerges from its musty winter cocoon. By some small miracle, my husband and I had landed a coveted table by a window at Parc, which meant we could enjoy both our roasted chicken and the parade of people fluttering by us on the sidewalk.

And oh, what a parade! What a procession of finely clad asses walked by, hugged in shrink-wrap denim! Long legs were emphasized by slim-cut pants in periwinkles and mustard yellows; hair was carefully styled to look effortless; bare, slender ankles peeked sassily out from rolled-up trousers; and the handful of lightweight sweaters was so streamlined, you could almost make out anatomical details through the cable knit.

And you should have seen the women.

Nice weather doesn’t bring out more fashionable male plumage, necessarily—it’s just easier to take it in without all the coats. Nor would I say these sorts of fashions are limited to rich Rittenhouse prepster types. No, the men who are out there looking good seem to span all classes and genres. Hipsters, skater dudes, jocks—they’re all finding ways to buck the old Philly norm. (The old Philly norm, as defined by a girlfriend: “You could guess that pretty much any well-dressed man in Philly was either gay or worked at Boyds.”)

But now? Slim-cut selvage denim, retro statement glasses, custom-designed (or at least tailored) suits, thoughtful details like cuffed pants and man-scarves and pocket squares … pop into Pub & Kitchen, or Johnny Brenda’s, or Alla Spina, and you’ll see all sorts of male chic once reserved for devotees of Details magazine. What’s more, you see it on the same 20- and 30-something guys who not so long ago lived and died by the hoodie. It’s a fascinating transformation to behold.

And I’m hardly the only woman who’s noticed. A friend who attended the opening of Locust Street’s new Suitsupply marveled at all the “cute straight men” meandering around a shop known for fashionable suits and excellent tailoring. Another pal—a fantastic dresser—admits to having asked her husband on more than one occasion to please take his outfit down a notch: “He puts on his skinny jeans and his perfect blazer, and suddenly my jeans look dumpy.”

It sounds a little braggy, but we 20- and 30-somethings are credited with driving a lot of change in this city right now, from revitalizing the restaurants to jump-starting Center City’s real estate boom. Is it possible that we’re also responsible for a new masculine metamorphosis of citywide proportions? Considering the average age of all those natty straight guys strolling our sidewalks in their salmon-pink skinny chinos, the answer looks like an emphatic yes.

But before we deem this a new era of male sartorial splendor, it bears noting that there are some other guys who look really good on the sidewalks of Philadelphia: the old ones. Some of the most fetching ensembles out there are on older men who pay attention—have always paid attention—because in their day, it was not just ungentlemanly but also unmanly not to. Sure, this generation’s pants might be tighter, their colors brighter and their styles more diverse, but today’s guys aren’t so much forging new fashion paths as finding new, modern reasons to return to their gender’s once-stylish roots.

In other words? Modern men are just reclaiming their masculinity, one tailored blazer at a time.

“Do you have to align good dressing with being gay?”

This gripe comes from a fashionable colleague I’ll call Will, when I observe that the traditional demarcation between straight and gay dressers in this town has faded. Will, 30, thinks it’s dated and irrelevant to connect sexuality and style: “Dressing nicely is dressing nicely.”

Will, for the record, is straight, and at the moment is wearing dark-wash fitted jeans rolled once at the ankles, a fitted black button-down shirt rolled slightly to display a glimpse of the full-sleeve tattoo on his forearm (vaguely evocative of David Beckham’s), thrift-store brown wing-tips, and hair parted on the side and slicked down.

He attributes his sense of style to an awakening he had in his late 20s, when he was living in New York and grew tired of his typical jeans/Vans/t-shirt look: “I just wanted to stop dressing like a kid.” He noticed that a friend, a fellow t-shirt devotee whose wife worked in fashion, had started wearing clothes that she brought home. “And it was like, ‘Damn, you look cool,’” Will remembers. “It sort of hit me: I wanted to dress to look good. And so I did.”

Will’s right that fashion as gay men’s territory has become passé: The ’90s metrosexual thing feels about 100 years old, and even back then it wasn’t very progressive, mostly just dancing around how many grooming tips a straight guy could take from a gay one before he primped himself out of Real Man territory. And there are plenty of gay men who can’t dress, and straight guys who have always been able to. But none of that changes the fact that the probability of finding a non-gay, non-European, non-industry Philly man who’s knowledgeable about style has doubled since I moved here six years ago.

“When I was growing up, wanting to look like a Ralph Lauren model was code for being gay,” says Todd Vladyka, a physician who lives in Center City (Alexander McQueen blue suede Pumas, pre-shrunk Levi’s, A.P.C. crew-neck sweater, Glashütte Panorama wristwatch). Now, Todd, 44, is gay, which gives him extra credence when he talks about the murky overlap between fashion and sexuality. “I think for straight men then, there was enough discomfort and homophobia that if you went too far emulating the look of another guy, it was sexual territory.”

Steve Duross (purple checkered button-down, fitted turquoise t-shirt, slim-cut jeans, Stacy Adams shoes) came of age at roughly the same time. The 50-year-old owner of Gayborhood bath and grooming store Duross & Langel thinks the stigma surrounding fashionable guys only blossomed post-1970s. “Before then,” he says, “all men tried to be natty dressers. They wore suits, hats, shined shoes. It’s a man’s birthright to look good. Like peacocks and cardinals—it was always the men who wanted to attract women.” Just think about all those manly clotheshorses of yesteryear: Joe Namath, Frank Sinatra, F. Scott Fitzgerald … all the way back to Henry VIII. (The codpiece, for God’s sake!)

Anyway, Steve theorizes that the sexual revolution and a breaking-free of social constraints in the late ’60s and ’70s allowed various groups to shed convention and celebrate distinct identities—gays included. By the ’80s, “There was much more visible
differentiation—an us vs. you that translated to clothes.” Looking too dapper became suspect, since gays had always enjoyed more of a reputation as arbiters of style. This led to the fork in the fashion road that endured into the 21st century. (“Though you know what really seems gay to me?” Steve asks. “Grown men who wear jerseys with another man’s name on the back.”)

Today, though, guys everywhere are coming back around to style. Coach’s men’s-only stores quadrupled sales in their first two years; stiletto god Christian Louboutin told Forbes that men’s shoes are approaching 25 percent of his business; online retailers saw menswear grow by more than a third last year. (Gains in women’s wear slowed.) Here in Philly, Todd and his partner, Jim Hinz, have launched a men’s jewelry line likely to appeal to the same men who’d buy those Louboutins; it’s carried by the Egan Day jewelry boutique.

So what spurred this return to men’s peacock roots after a few anachronistically sloppy decades? Nothing short of a cultural evolution. It’s like Todd says: “The slow progression of gay iconography into the mainstream media changed things. There’s just a whole new generation of people who haven’t known the sort of homophobia that was out there and don’t fear the repercussions of being called gay or seeming gay.” (Todd on the first time he walked into an Abercrombie & Fitch: “The music! The homoerotic Bruce Weber photos! I thought: I’m in a gay nightclub in 1998! There was even a cologne called ‘Fierce’! I knew then that something had changed.”)

What’s more, he adds, these days, nobody—gay or straight—cares to be pigeonholed. “I think we’ve all moved to the middle ground, where we won’t be defined by how we dress. I see young straight men playing with clothes in a very theatrical way, with their super-American-heritage things, their waxed mustaches. And I see gay men in their 40s who have moved toward cargo pants and t-shirts, and tank tops going on in places where there shouldn’t be tank tops.

“In some ways,” he continues, “the straight men are beating us.” And he laughs.

“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.

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