Dude, Where’s My Garb? Boston Beau to the Rescue

Calling all label queens! Drably attired left-wing loonies are insisting that the invasion of Iraq was instigated by President Bush for the purpose of distracting our attention from the dire state of our nation’s economy. Who knows? They’re right about one thing: The invasion of Iraq was definitely a distraction-a distraction from the utter naffness of this season’s men’s fashion!

While bombs were dropping on Baghdad, the strangest designer merchandise in history was insidiously making its way into the boutiques and specialty stores across our nation. Now that the war is over, the shifting spotlight is illuminating these goofy guy clothes.

The haunting gnarliness of the spring 2003 men’s designer offerings is hard to put into words. But I’ll try. Gucci: 1980’s GoSilk redux, with a “do-you-like-piña-colada?” sleaziness recalling the nasty Eric Roberts character in the Dorothy Stratten biopic, Star 80 . Balenciaga: more wearable, but boringly so, and the prices-600 bucks for a pair of lightweight wool Brooks Brothers–ish pants-are embarrassingly ungroovy. Dolce & Gabbana: more affordable pants, but where are the Steve McQueen jackets and sweaters that made this design duo famous? Prada: David Hasselhoff Hawaiian shirts tucked into woolly schoolgirl gym knickers?! Sorry, Miuccia, but your models just looked like total prats. Runway theatrics aside, what ended up getting delivered to most Prada locations lacked the nifty magnificence of the fall 2002 offerings, e.g. the unbelievably fab pinstriped suiting-fabric jeans.

In all the collections, the desire to “conceptualize” has trumped the desire to create spiffy, wearable clothes. It’s easier to be recklessly creative than to try and resolve the horrifying disconnect between who the designers would like their customers to be (skinny 19-year-old skateboarders) and who they actually are (middle-aged fags). The main goal seems to deploy heavy-handed European craftsmanship on garments that look as if they came from the schlockiest 1970’s, hetero, Hi Karate American mail-order catalog. Maybe that was the point, but where is the nifty, sporty Italian luxe of yore? What’s a label queen to do?

Don’t despair! You’re in luck, because Bobby from Boston is coming to town. Robert Charles Garnett III is quite possibly the spiffiest, nattiest dude in America. This purveyor of vintage men’s wear lives in a sartorially obsessed, sneakerless world of French cuffs, polished shoes and center-parted brilliantined hair. “Puffy doesn’t know who I am,” said the publicity-shy Mr. Garnett, who rarely visits New York, “but he recently started doing my suave, elegant look-so it’s only a matter of time.” This Friday and Saturday, the glamorous Bobby will be selling exquisitely edited 20th-century men’s wear at the New York Vintage Fashion & Antique Textiles Show (New Yorker Hotel, Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., admission $20; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission drops to $10). Get there early on Friday and battle it out with all the Ralph Lauren design assistants who are already hip to Bobby’s jive.

I caught up with the jet-lagged Mr. Garnett by phone as he frantically prepared for the upcoming show. He was cleaning and repairing the haul from a recent trip across the pond: Anglophilic Bobby procures the bulk of his merch by meticulously criss-crossing Old Blighty by train. I began by asking his 52-year-old nattyship about the subtitle of his company, Vintage Outfitters for Modern Adventurers (19 Thayer Street in Boston, 617-423-9299). He told me the idea sprang from “the early Abercrombie stuff in the 1920’s. They would outfit Teddy Roosevelt when he went on African safari.” Bobby sees his roster of clients-which include tough-talkin’ playwright David Mamet and artistic duo David McDermott and Peter McGough-as adventurers both urban and urbane.

Mr. Garnett’s sartorial genetics are an adventure in themselves. Grandfather Robert Charles Garnett Sr. ran away from home at age 7, found work as a cowhand, and ended up as one of Boston’s first black policemen. “He was always dapper, especially in his uniform,” Bobby recalled with pride. “And my grandma was crisp and well turned-out, too. “She was Dr. Jesse Garnett, one of the first African-American lady dentists in Boston.

The baton of rigorous, nifty style was passed to Bobby’s Duke of Windsor–wannabe father, a naval architect. But it was Bobby’s mom, a classy lady with a penchant for dressing the whole family in matching Dalmatian-print resort wear, who taught Bobby how to pick. “She was the ultimate shopper,” he said. “Goodwill or Bonwit, she could spot quality.” Mrs. Garnett, who grew up in Jamaica when it was a colony, also infected her un- Superfly son with a certain snooty Anglophilia. “She loved English style,” he said.

Though Bobby chooses to style himself like an extra from The Cotton Club , you are under no such obligation. He has a vast selection of tailored basics at incredibly good prices: e.g. Palm Beachy lightweight jackets for $50 and British Army jeep-mechanic jackets, circa 1940, for $45 to $60. Calling all manbag lovers! Bobby also has a great selection of satchels and military bags for men, $25 and up.

Re fall 2003: The upcoming men’s designer collections are much more promising. Prada redeemed itself, with Carnaby Street prints and mod coatees ruling the runway. Who doesn’t love a coatee?