On the runways of the fashion capitals and on the streets of Silver Lake, Venice and Brooklyn, designers and young guns alike are staking out a new frontier: a post-metrosexual ruggedness that's all about woolen vests, chambray shirts, crisp-legged denim and manly man belts. Oh, and sporting the kind of facial hair usually seen on a box of Smith Brothers cough drops.
Call it Modern Maverick: Western style rendered as cool rather than as costume. Swaggeringly butch with a self-aware wink, this fashion leap from retro to antique conjures mythic representations of masculinity from the late 1800s to the Depression: the gunslinger; the riverboat gambler; the Gold Rush millionaire; John Steinbeck's fabled Okie, Tom Joad.
"Men have become much more interested in fashion, grooming and fitness. They have explored their feminine side. Now they can experience their masculine side in a style that is rooted in American menswear," says New York designer John Varvatos, who recently showed a fall '07 collection called American Dustbowl.
Unlikely though it may seem, this new look pays homage to the basic business dress code while still maintaining an outlaw stance. The complete ensemble comes with meticulously groomed 11 o'clock shadow or full facial hair topiary, a departure from the scraggly look of grunge and the natural grizzliness of the gay bear subculture.
The archetype has been rumbling through the cultural landscape for a while now, says Mark Simpson, a writer who coined the term metrosexual. It's been popping up prominently in the HBO series "Deadwood" and in the wardrobe of rocker Nick Cave, also screenwriter of the 2006 cult western film, "The Proposition."
The phenomenon runs rampant through the rock scene, manifested by the White Stripes' Jack White (particularly during his Raconteurs incarnation), the prairie-rock group Arcade Fire and the get-up that the Killers' Brandon Flowers wears in the video for "Read My Mind." The bewhiskered New York artist Damon Snow has become something of a poster boy for the style.
"The look is cinematic," Simpson says, "and seems influenced by the more flamboyant hired guns in spaghetti westerns, who look menacing but always end up writhing in the dust, ruining their frock-coats."
It also takes its cues from turn-of-the-last-century bohemians and bourgeoisie — seen in such recent films as "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" — and from the ongoing revival of Victorian imagery now so pervasive in the graphic arts that it can be found on paper shopping bags at Trader Joe's.
The elegance of 19th century gentry, the dandy part of this fashion equation, has been pretty much played out, even codified in "The Affected Provincial's Companion, Volume One," a book optioned by Johnny Depp for the big screen.
A more wild, Wild West
DESIGNERS have learned that lesson over the last several seasons, ditching the Edward Gorey-esque heaviness of Victoriana for a more masculine Americana.
"Cowboys are a lot easier to handle than Jack Skellington from 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' " says Bill Mullen, a stylist in New York.
The spring '07 collection of the Tokyo-based label Number (N)ine summoned the Robert Altman western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" by way of Guns N' Roses. New York's Rag & Bone rocked rolled-up denim and farmhand suspenders. At the fall '07 menswear collections in Milan, D Squared mixed cowpoke and punk. In Paris, Jean Paul Gaultier used models with big sideburns and Snidely Whiplash mustaches. The L.A.-based Trovata sent out a model dressed like the son of a prosperous dry goods merchant and Varvatos mixed vests with pinstripe pants, cuffed denims and a Mod parka.
"It's rustic with an elegance that is not overly thought out, inspired by a time when everyone wanted to dress up but didn't have the money to do it," Varvatos says.
The influence extends into street-wear labels, where the crossed-pistol, "barking irons" design has become a popular logo. Paul Frank made it an integral part of its fall collection, putting it on everything from zipper pulls to toiletry kits.
In Los Angeles, the style feels organic. An antidote to well-worn fashion statements, it is neither as in-your-face as punk — which has lost its rebel cred now that it's a mall rat commodity — nor as slightly cheesy as the lounge lizard "Swingers" look. It has roots in rockabilly and cow punk and branches through this town's vintage car and clothing collectors. Musicians, such as the members of Oliver Future, are drawn to the classicism of the look, which references legends like Johnny Cash.
The band's bassist, Jesse Ingalls, could pass for a member of the "Little House on the Prairie" family: He wears a Sunday-go-to-meeting thrift shop jacket and vest over jeans. Guitarist Sam Raver achieves a Bret Maverick look with stubble and a black Kenneth Cole jacket over a black shirt. Dressed in a velvet pinstripe blazer and carrying a silver flask, vocalist Noah Lit acknowledges a debt to "Deadwood" star Ian McShane's character: "This is my best Al Swearengen look."
The band, recent transplants from Austin, Texas, to Silver Lake, favors "Wranchers" — a tight polyester model of trousers made by Wrangler.