When Sacha Baron Cohen crashed a runway show in Milan back in 2008 disguised as Brno, his Austrian alter ego, the audience barely blinked. Dressed in an absurd Beyond Thunderdome pastiche of layered fabrics and dangling tassels, the comedian emerged onto the catwalk with an expertly executed strut. It was only after security stormed the stage and escorted him away that most spectators realized they'd been had.
If industry cognoscenti have a hard time distinguishing between fashion coup and fashion joke, it's easy to see how a mere civilian can, with just a few daring wardrobe choices, stumble into punch-line territory. Extreme style infractions are less forgivable in men than they are in women: Since they have fewer opportunities to blunder, guys must almost willfully court catastrophe. Train-wreck dressing isn't all about egregious misjudgments, like showing up at work in Boy Scout shorts. Even the simplest misstep can make you look like an asshole: white plastic sunglasses, an "It" man bag, or a scarf worn indoors. The well-dressed man knows his limits, and though he might occasionally test them, he never attempts to make a statement he can't back up.
Sure, there are guys who can pull off a madras-shirt/bow-tie combo or oversize Elvis Costello frames, but for every man who manages to look cool in a cowboy hat and chaps there are a thousand who'd look like rodeo clowns. Clothes can be transformative, but they have to correspond to your personality. You know you've spotted a fashion victim when you notice what a man is wearing—those metallic patchwork high-tops, the skinny-fit women's jeans—before you notice the man himself.
"A fashion victim is literally a slave to fashion," says Tom Ford, who has seen his fair share of casualties during his 25-plus years in the business. "The clothes wear him instead of the other way around." Dean Caten of Dsquared takes it a step further, seeing victims as junkies fiending for the latest fad. "Addicts overdose," he says.
There are degrees of victimhood. The least offensive is probably the Logo Whore, the guy whose self-esteem is pegged to the number of designer labels he's promoting. Next in line is the Mannequin Mimic, who dresses from head to toe in a single brand. Still worse is the Character Actor, whose wardrobe is based on a theme, whether it be nautical or early Bowie. And finally, there's the VMAN Subscriber, the fashion devotee who is always trending. Right now he's most likely wearing a shawl-collar cardigan, a quilted vest, two-tone wing tips, electric-blue jeans, and a gaggle of Thai bead bracelets. "He has to have it all at one time," says Dan Caten, the other half of Dsquared, "and it doesn't make any sense."
For the better part of a decade, fashion houses have treated men as the new women. They've built them their own boutiques and encouraged them to play with jacket lengths, patterns, and even jewelry. But with all that choice comes a greater potential for error.
There are those who believe there's no such thing as a bad sartorial decision. "If you love what you're wearing and you're enjoying it, that's really all that matters," says Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York. Sadly, that doesn't apply in all cases: Fashion sense might be subjective, but only to a certain point. Embracing seasonal fads is often the first step in a journey that ends with bondage trousers and a jauntily doffed fedora. Men who adhere to the classic and timeless can stay current without having to make risky leaps into the abyss. "Let one thing you're wearing speak," Dan Caten recommends, "and everything else be quiet."
Ironically, the very people who are paid to dispense such style advice often turn out to be the worst offenders. For proof, look no further than Phillip Bloch, the mustachioed stylist-to-the-stars who rolls around L.A. in a backward Kangol hat.
In the end, you can only really trust the guy in the mirror. Ask him if he'd wear the same outfit to brunch with a date, drinks with clients, and a family reunion in Bush country. If he answers no, make him change.
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