On Monday, Sept. 29, a few hours after the stock market’s initial sickening plunge, Stefan Miljanic, founder of the New York men’s wear label Gilded Age, was hard at work in his showroom on East Fourth Street.
“I think fashion is a reflection of the times, and in times like these, people seek comfort,” said Mr. Miljanic, a native of Montenegro, who was surrounded by his turn-of-the-century-America-inspired designs. “They seek things that are known and recognizable, that are a part of their past. There’s something in the air that kind of tells us to look at our values and consider what’s truly American.”
This fall, as downsized Wall Street employees shed their suits in droves, men’s fashion is fortuitously embracing the blue-collar lifestyle—a rugged, idealized version, at least. In addition to Gilded Age, labels like Engineered Garments, Operations and Rag & Bone are taking their cues from the clothing of the working-class man: selvage denim, distressed fabrics, canvas, chambray and lots of utility pockets.
At the city’s upscale department stores and boutiques, you’re as likely to find old American standbys like Woolrich jackets and Red Wing boots as you are the latest from Marc Jacobs. Buffalo plaid (think lumberjacks and moose hunters—hello, Todd Palin!) seems to be the pattern of the season, and the flannel shirt, perhaps last considered a fashionable garment when Kurt Cobain was still alive, is once again ubiquitous.
“It’s a direction a lot of guys are taking right now,” said Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the men’s wear design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The Carhartts and Woolriches of the world, people are really responding to them.”
In a time of extreme economic turmoil, perhaps it makes sense that designers are veering away from “metrosexual” skintight jeans and button-busting shirts—let’s let men be men again! And with the populist rhetoric of the presidential race constantly beaming through our televisions and Web browsers, it feels somehow right that men’s fashion is falling in line with what “everyday fellas” might find appealing.
“There’s something stylish about the idea of punching the clock and feeling like the average American man,” said Randy Goldberg, editorial director of the men’s style blog Kempt.
Canvass clothing stores and you’ll find renewed interest in old American brands that are better known for their practicality than their chic.
“Who would have ever thought that fashionable guys in New York City would be buying Red Wing boots?” said Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, of the century-old blue-collar footwear that his division started carrying last month. “We can’t keep them in our store!” Red Wing, whose chunky boots have been spotted on actors Jason Schwartzman and Dylan McDermott and the singer Justin Timberlake, also has a new partnership with J. Crew, and is in talks to collaborate with Ralph Lauren (the silver fox of working-class style), a spokeswoman for the company’s lifestyle division said.
In 2006, Engineered Garments’ Daiki Suzuki, who has been at the forefront of the contemporary work-wear movement, started designing for Woolrich Woolen Mills, a high-end collection by the Pennsylvania outerwear company founded in 1830. The line is a big hit at the downtown men’s boutique Odin, which started carrying it this season.
“We’ve definitely gotten the shocked response of, ‘Wait, you guys are selling Woolrich?’” said Thomas McEntee, Odin’s general manager. “But the customers are really into it.” He noted the looser, more relaxed fit of the clothes. “It’s a very anti-skinny-jeans moment.”
In September, Odin’s East Village offshoot store, Den, showcased Engineered Garments’ fall collection, accenting Mr. Suzuki’s designs with bags and blankets by little-known American work-wear and outdoor brands like Estex and Duluth Pack.
“At the moment, the world seems to be going through a transition that might not work to everyone’s advantage,” the Japanese-born Mr. Suzuki put it delicately in an e-mail, “and because of these trying times, people gravitate to more authentic, tried and true ideas.”
For Michael Williams, 29, a partner at a marketing firm who lives in Manhattan but grew up in Cleveland, this kind of clothing represents a return to his Rust Belt roots. “For a long time, guys just wanted to be like the rock star or the CEO,” said Mr. Williams, who (like seemingly almost everyone) blogs about style on the side. “I think that on a larger scale this signals that people are interested in being middle class again … you know, just wanting to have a nice home in a good neighborhood.”
Of course, most of today’s work-wear-inspired clothing doesn’t exactly come at middle-class prices. A Woolrich Woolen Mills Buffalo plaid button down (one of Odin’s hot sellers) that Mr. McEntee showed The Observer was $179. (A similar shirt at J. Crew’s new men’s boutique in Tribeca was priced at a slightly more modest $98.) At Barneys, a simple cotton chambray work shirt by Engineered Garments goes for $180, and the label’s black cotton trouser is priced at $240. Flannel shirts by Gilded Age also are sold at upward of $200; Mr. Miljanic’s jeans will run you anywhere from $298 to $598, and his jackets from $498 to $995.
Guys like Thomas Rogers, a 24-year-old Brooklyn resident, who want blue-collar threads minus the burning holes in their wallets, go the more recession-friendly route: secondhand shopping.
Mr. Rogers, one of numerous young men spotted in a Williamsburg bar recently sporting no-frills flannel, said he’d bought the red-and-black Buffalo plaid shirt at a thrift store. The reason he approves of work wear?
“It’s one of the few acceptable ways for Williamsburg men to assert their masculinity,” he said.
—Additional reporting by Glenna Goldis