Dedicated ignorers of fashion: Have British men become more stylish in the last 10 years? Andrew Tuck asks around

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MALE fashion is like a pantomime horse. The front part charges bravely onwards - these are the 'directional' shoppers who know the difference between Dolce e Gabbana and Dolcis - while behind is dragged the big-bottomed, droopy-tummied uncritical mass. In fashion circles these are what is known as men.

At this time of year, in the wake of the designer menswear shows in Paris and Milan, it is tempting to ignore the fashion-phobic majority and believe the style writers, who have swooned over clothes they claim point the way forward. These include collections such as Versace's 'rent-boy chic', with tight singlets displaying washboard stomachs and jeans cut alluringly low on the waist. It is a look unlikely to have great impact on many British men. Like the amateur art critic, British men know what they like and there's no budging them.

'Men don't go shopping for fashion, they go shopping for quality,' says Clive Vaughan, analyst for market research company Verdict. 'The companies that are doing well, such as Marks & Spencer, Next and River Island, are all doing it on quality, and if you go against this trend you are in trouble. Look at Burton's, which during the recession started to discount and sell mainly on price. Men just thought it meant the quality must have dropped and stopped buying.'

Worse, Vaughan believes the market for men's clothes is actually in decline. 'Certainly we saw a surge in the late 80s, but it has been downhill ever since because as soon as the recession hit men willingly deferred buying clothes. Now they spend about pounds 2bn per year, but the figure has been the same for ages.'

And there's more gloom. Demographic changes, which are swelling the ranks of the over-35s, will force designers to focus on an older customer who, instead of having pecs he wants to display, is likely to have a paunch that needs hiding. 'I'd be very surprised if the market for outsize clothes doesn't prove to be one of the few growth areas,' claims Vaughan.

'We have an in-house menswear team and they go to see all the shows and travel abroad to keep up with changes in fashion,' explains Carol Richardson of Marks & Spencer, the UK's biggest menswear retailer. She agrees that over the past decade the store space donated to men's clothing has failed to increase but thinks in subtle ways what's on offer has become more fashionable. 'For example with the suits we've been able to move into softer tailoring and we responded very quickly to the granddad shirt look. Men are becoming more responsive to trends.' Richardson adds, however, that the 'fashionable' ranges tend to be stocked only in major cities.

'The biggest change over the past 10 years hasn't been about a shift from formal to casual but about a change from dressing to look respectable to looking sexy,' insists Martin Raymond, editor of the trade paper Fashion Weekly. He believes that men may have stuck with their conservative suits but now wear them for sexual effect. 'It's ever since that Eighties Wall Street look, when men in suits were like buccaneers and women were so attracted to that image. Now designers like Dries Van Noten and Helmut Lang are making clothes that leave you looking like you've just been ravaged, with ties askew.'

Perhaps the suit is a symbol of virility and cash but most men wear them in the Nineties as a sign of stability and reliability. Although sales of suits have slumped because of their relatively high prices, there are plenty of companies that grow rich offering the classic look.

Paul Smith's regard for British tailoring has made him Britain's most successful designer. Timothy Everest, who runs a bespoke tailoring service in the East End of London is also watching his business flourish despite charging his city hotshot and celebrity clients a minimum of pounds 495 for a suit. 'Most of our customers come from a ready-to-wear background and while they are aware of style and fashion, fundamentally quality is what they are after. They want clothes that will improve with wear, something that's personal. In a way they are anti-label.'

He thinks men are getting better at exercising their taste. 'They are more open to talking about clothes, whereas even in the late Seventies when I started in tailoring men would basically take what I recommended because they thought if they pushed too hard for what they liked they wouldn't be seen as very masculine.'

There's another high hurdle that menswear designers and retailers face: the majority of men hate shopping. Victoria Clive, spokeswoman for fogeyish mail-order fashion company Boden, which now has 30,000 customers, says it has cashed in on this fear. 'We get quite a few men who spend pounds 1,000 because they just want to get it all over and done with.'

Yet at the front end of the fashion horse, men are increasingly informed about clothes. Educating them have been the men's magazines such as GQ, Esquire and Arena. This taste triumvirate has now been joined by Arena Homme Plus, which is a pure fashion magazine aiming to lock in to what it sees as a new confidence in a diversity of menswear styles.

'Yes, most of our readers are young and yes, in a non-patronising way, we are involved in an education process,' says Arena's editor, Kathryn Flett. 'There will always be men who want to buy a classic Armani suit for what they used to call 'investment dressing' and other men who buy the more directional styles. We think it possible to present both looks.'

Will she ever reach the men who like their clothes to be comfy and low-key? It seems unlikely. Too many British men are content to look like the back end of a horse.

Andrew Tuck is consumer editor of 'Time Out'

JOHN WILKINSON - Head teacher, aged 41

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago (pictured right)?

I have to now I'm head, but for outside work I don't have expensive casual clothes.

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

I have suits for work but sometimes cheat by wearing a polo shirt to be rebellious.

What do you spend on clothes?

I used to be man at Millets; now I'm man at Next. I'm working my way up to man at Armani.

What are your favourite clothes?

Anything loose-fitting and floppy, shorts, and 501s.

What or who influences the way you dress?

Compo and Clegg. No, sometimes I see other men wearing something and think that would suit me but to be honest I don't think about clothes.

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

Never] Not in my job.

STEPHEN LEWIS - Fabric manufacturer, aged 42

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago?

Definitely, although there's a great difference between how I wish I looked and how I actually appear.

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

For work half the time, but I'd rather wear chinos and a Brooks Brothers shirt. Two years ago I had a standing order with a tailor so I had a bit of a buying burst.

What do you spend on clothes?

The most was pounds 1,200 on a suit with two pairs of trousers. On average pounds 600 a year.

What are your favourite clothes?

Flannel trousers, a tweed jacket, a pink shirt.

What or who influences the way you dress?

The fact I hate shopping. I don't read magazines.

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

Frankly, I would look ludicrous.

RICHARD JOHNSON - Conference production company partner, aged 37

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago?

No, my interest in fashion hasn't increased.

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

Until a year-and-a-half ago I worked for an agency and looked very formal. For first impressions I still wear suits.

What do you spend on clothes?

The most I have ever spent is pounds 750 on a suit.

What are your favourite clothes?

Jeans with holes in. I'm still wearing a T-shirt I had 10 years ago.

What or who influences the way you dress?

My wife Alison will buy me something that galvanises me into action. I'll think 'I could do with more of them.'

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

No. Those things are for men who spend all day in the gym.

JOHN NASH - Self-employed window cleaner, aged 47

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago?

No. But I still like to wear clothes for work that say 'He knows what he's doing.'

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

Funerals. I used to have a job where I wore a suit.

What do you spend on clothes?

About pounds 400 a year. The most I've ever spent on a suit was just under pounds 200. I pride myself on looking smart without spending a fortune.

What are your favourite clothes?

If the weather is right: shorts. Otherwise soft clothing but not tracksuits because they feel like you're dressed for bed.

What or who influences the way you dress?

Now I just buy things that feel comfortable.

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

I don't like to stand out too much from a crowd, so no.

SEAN MATHIAS - Writer/theatre director, aged 38

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago?

No, I've always been too vain for words.

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

Rarely, formal occasions.

What do you spend on clothes?

In real terms about the same as 10 years ago. I bought an Antony Price suit 13 years ago and then it cost pounds 500.

What are your favourite clothes?

Ten years ago it would have been something camp and bordering on drag. Now? A Nicole Farhi pea-jacket.

What or who influences the way you dress?

It's my own style. I look at magazines but the models are so young you think you'd look silly in the clothes.

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

I've got sarongs but only wear them in the flat. Yes, I'd wear a kilt. In fact I must go and buy one tomorrow.

STUART LOCKYEAR - Law firm partner, aged 31

Do you take more care over your appearance than 10 years ago?

It hasn't increased, but I have always been unusually interested in fashion.

When do you dress in a suit and tie?

Every day for work but never outside.

What do you spend on clothes?

It has increased but I am quite choosy and would rather have a lot of clothes for variety than a few quality pieces. The most I have spent was pounds 300 on a suit.

What are your favourite clothes?

My Ally Capellino suit and an Antoni & Alison T-shirt. Ten years ago it would have been a second-hand zoot suit with a kipper tie and braces.

What or who influences the way you dress?

Just my own taste.

Would you ever wear a sarong or a kilt?

It's so removed from my life. But that's a big shame.

(Photographs omitted)

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