“ He’s thought out,” Robert Verdi said. “He’s not. He’s not. He’s not.”
It was a gray Monday afternoon, and Mr. Verdi–the shiny-domed stylist, yappy Metro Channel fashion commentator and kill-’em-with-kindness host of the Discovery Channel’s abode-improvement show Surprise by Design–sat on the concrete steps outside the G.M. building at 59th and Fifth. He was looking at guys.
A wide-bodied mid-management drone walked by in an open-collared blue shirt and navy pants.
“ He doesn’t care,” Mr. Verdi said.
Then came a middle-aged bronzed man in a blue blazer, designer jeans and black Prada sport shoes. Straight outta St. Tropez.
“ He looks great,” Mr. Verdi said, sounding relieved. “He actually ironed those jeans.”
He was an exception. For every homme the 34-year-old Mr. Verdi declared fashionable, there were six or seven unmitigated disasters. This was actually a good ratio. Mr. Verdi estimated that 90 percent of men have no idea what they are doing, clothes-wise.
A flabby red-haired man in a white shirt and gray trousers froze on the sidewalk. “ Brownbeltblackshoes,” Mr. Verdi whispered.
A young-turk C.A.A.-agent type strutted by in a black crepe suit.
“Suit doesn’t fit,” Mr. Verdi said. “It’s a weird length. It should be a little longer. He needs a long suit, and they lengthened the sleeves, but the jacket body is too short. His trousers are definitely too short. He looks like Charlie from My Three Sons.”
If you felt, as many do, that New York was a fashionable town compared to, say, any place besides Paris and London, Mr. Verdi’s examination was depressing. This was the eve of Fashion Week, and he was dressing the men of this town down. Way down. It wasn’t just the dumpy fanny-packers and Jets jersey-wearers. Everyone seemed wrong. Worse, he was blasting strangers for stuff you’d proudly worn a thousand times.
It felt like the time you got to college and your roommate stomped on all your favorite bands. All you believed to be true and unique wasn’t.
“ He doesn’t care,” Mr. Verdi said again, this time at a man in a tattered pair of shorts.
But it was easy to criticize. A better question was: Could the average man’s fashion sense be elevated–or were we all hopeless? Women had that preternatural instinct and no shortage of stylistic guide points, from magazines to celebrities to honest friends. Men, on the other hand, were lost. They shopped alone and didn’t talk to their friends about clothes, they couldn’t tell MiuMiu from a muffler, and God forbid anyone ever complimented them on a pair of pants–they’d wear them for 30 years.
Mr. Verdi–who’s made a name for himself telling humans specifically what not to do–conceded that men were hard to train. Partly it was their priorities: Men simply didn’t care enough about clothes to spend time shopping, much less carefully weigh trends and looks. Partly it was money: The average man would rather spend $500 on a Palm Pilot than a good pair of shoes. And then, considering “the average man” was really just code for “the average heterosexual” (not that gay men didn’t have their own fashion foibles, Mr. Verdi said), there also was the old, pathetic prejudice: Many straight men think dressing up makes them look gay.
It was dumb but still true.
“Men think fashion emasculates them,” Mr. Verdi said. “They think that attention to grooming is equated with feminine qualities. That’s where men get led down the wrong path. They are taught to get dressed up on special occasions: Sundays, for a wedding, for an event, maybe Christmas Day. But to a certain extent, dressing up for them just means ironing your pants. I wish that men would have more fun, would roll the dice more and be more playful.”
It seemed insane: Guys who’d think nothing of buying a FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FUCK shirt on St. Mark’s Place still worried about sending the wrong message with a patterned print. This staunch macho-ness seemed retro, out of sync with every other trend in men’s grooming. Today’s man cares more about his skin and nails and hair and overall cleanliness than ever.
“Putting moisturizer on isn’t anything that anybody knows you can see,” Mr. Verdi said. “And nothing you have to admit. But putting a pink Oxford on …. ”
What grated Mr. Verdi most, besides men’s marsupial penchant for ramming 50 pieces of crap in their pants pockets–he really detested that–was the sameness of it all. This was strange, considering how much fashion had diversified and democratized itself. Men have more clothing options than ever: A walk down Fifth Avenue could lead you into a hundred different stores, selling everything from bespoke shirts to three-quarter nylon pants to Seattle SuperSonics wristbands. There were dizzying amounts of colors and patterns and fabrics, and a lot of it was affordable.
But men still wound up looking the same–and because contemporary tastes had gone more casual, they looked worse. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had been dethroned by the Man in the Shitty Blue Shirt and Khakis.
“You know what I’ve been noticing?” Mr. Verdi asked. “The guys that look best here are the guys in uniforms. The U.P.S. guy. The Crate & Barrel guy who just walked around the corner had a great uniform on. The policemen, the firemen.”
A short man walked by in a navy suit with pants fluttering at his ankles.
“This guy looks great,” Mr. Verdi said.
But the pants?
“He makes it work. They’re too short, but it’s his effort. He clearly wanted it that way; he told the tailor, ‘Make them shorter.’ It wasn’t the tailor’s decision. He put his mark on it.”
Mr. Verdi himself was wearing a vintage leather coat–“This is something Huggy Bear would have worn”–a purple Valentino T-shirt, Diesel jeans and cloggy chocolate Birkenstocks. He wore a pair of silvery Yves Saint Laurent glasses and a Cartier watch. He recommended owning several watches.
He recommended original cuffs. “I hate the inch-and-a-quarter cuff, prescribed by all tailors all the time,” he said. “It just collects dust. When I go to have my trousers cuffed, I ask them to put a three-inch cuff on it. They roll their eyes, so I say, ‘Four-inch cuff.’ I want it to look like a cuff.”
But Mr. Verdi knew that men often didn’t want to look like they had decided anything. That is the conceit of the new-model grunge proliferating among young, lean New York males these days: tiny vintage T-shirts, jeans, Chuck Taylors, long, matted hair. It’s caring just enough to make it look as if you don’t. Walk down Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side or Bedford Avenue, and you’ll see them: guys trying to look like Jack White of the White Stripes–or, judging from their expertly faded T-shirts, competitors in the 1982 Falmouth Road Race.
Mr. Verdi thought our location on 59th had something to do with the poor performance, though. “There is a difference in the way men dress in Chelsea than they do in the East Village than they do on the Upper East Side,” he said. “What we’re seeing right now is this generic, nondescript guy who doesn’t really care about fashion.”
But no, tourists weren’t to blame. An unkempt man–clearly a local–walked by in baggy tan shorts and a T-shirt. “This guy certainly doesn’t care.” Mr. Verdi shook his head. “Carrying his violin with socks in Birkenstocks!”
Mr. Verdi was born in Maplewood, N.J. As a teenager, he sold jewelry in Manhattan, getting his stuff picked up by Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. He attended F.I.T. and worked retail at the Bloomingdale’s in Short Hills, advising well-moneyed suburban men and women on what to wear to graduation parties and weddings. They were rich, but not exactly fashion-forward.
“You can teach men and women what looks good on them,” Mr. Verdi said. “But if you leave them there, they will always be there.” Mr. Verdi speculated that all the people he advised at the Short Hills Bloomie’s are probably still wearing the clothes he told them to buy more than a decade ago.
Eventually, Mr. Verdi wended his way into television. On air he’s funny and approachable, not at all an intimidating fashion evangelical. In addition to his work for the Metro Channel’s Full Frontal Fashion (among other Metro duties, he hosts a segment called “Where D’ya Get That?”) and the Discovery Channel, he is planning a pilot for his own talk show. Meanwhile, he continues his work as a kind of personal stylist and fashion guru to celebrities and other well-heeled clients.
His phone rang. “ Megan!” Mr. Verdi exclaimed. It was Megan Mullaly, who plays Karen, the decadent society lush from Will & Grace. Mr. Verdi was helping Ms. Mullaly assemble her outfit for the Emmys on Sept. 22. “Hi, girly! I’m good, honey, how are you doing? … Oh my God, don’t do it! … Are we going to meet up and go to Edmundo? … I have a phone call out. I am waiting for him. Do you want me to send a few things up? … Shoe size? … All right.”
Mr. Verdi closed his Nokia. “She’s a class act!”
Ms. Mullaly was an exception, too. Later, over a lunch of salad and gnocchi at Fred’s, Mr. Verdi lamented celebrity fashion. Celebrity mistakes have become a kind of cottage industry these days; magazines and television shows love ridiculing the tragic frocks worn by film and TV stars.
The casualties were easy to explain, Mr. Verdi said. “Celebrity handlers are so busy kissing ass that nobody says, ‘No, Mariah; no, J. Lo.’ If somebody says to me, ‘Do I look fat in this?’ and they do, I say ‘ Yes.’”
There are celebrities who know fashion, even in Mr. Verdi’s usually antiseptic trade, television. David Letterman is one, he said. “I think his suits are impeccably well made, and you can see that on TV. That’s all custom tailoring. He found his look, and it’s effortless and always strong.”
Matt Lauer? “Nice guy, the guy next-door, the frat guy with a good job who has been a little more exposed to things he might not have otherwise been forced to take note of. I like that he’s not trying to hide losing his hair. As a person who has been there, he is rolling with it.”
Mr. Verdi stabbed a gnocchi. “I think Stone Phillips is one of the best-dressed men on TV,” he said of the Dateline NBC anchor. “He actually has style. This is a man who you know shops for his own stuff. He is not depending on stylists. He’s a man who really knows his body. He knows his strengths, and he’s confident enough to experiment with color and pattern.”
“When I watch him, I think, ‘Oh my God, he looks so great,’” Mr. Verdi said. “He gets it. He understands fashion, likes fashion. I think it’s all very tailored and traditional and masculine, but it fits him well. He’s not only in navy or in black; he wears other colors–olive greens, weird browns, taupes. He’s not scared of patterns. He’ll wear a big windowpane on a jacket.”
After lunch, Mr. Verdi walked across Park Avenue and up East 60th to the mothership Bloomingdale’s. There his friend, cartoonist Marisa Acocella, was assembling a series of windows celebrating Fashion Week. Lining the windows were caricatures of New York fixtures like restaurateur Silvano Marchetto and Page Six’s Richard Johnson. Mr. Verdi was depicted seated in an ascot and had a big white bubble over his head saying, “THINK RED, VREELAND WOULD HAVE LOVED IT.”
“It’s great, Marisa,” Mr. Verdi said. “ Fabulous.”
“Robert’s the fashion pundit of the future,” Ms. Acocella said.
That future better get here soon. Behind Ms. Acocella and Mr. Verdi, there they were: swarms of men in oversized pants with inch-and-a-quarter cuffs and untucked blue shirts and brown shoes with black belts.
It looked bad for men and will probably get worse.
Wasn’t there anything that could be done?
“I think Stone Phillips should write a book,” Mr. Verdi said.