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Men's Spring Fashion Issue | Cover Story

Men at Work ... and Play

April 07, 2002|PETER MCQUAID

We live in a land known for its excesses of freedom, but that doesn't mean it's easy to describe the look of the Southern California man. The way he dresses depends on what he does, where he lives and his self-perception. In the article below, we assess the impact of Casual Friday in the land of the laid-back. Elsewhere in this issue, Laker forward Rick Fox talks about style--and basketball. Plus, we share secrets of the watch- obsessed and offer up a few thoughts on accessories for guys.

The birth of Casual Friday seemed so innocent. The first signs of the trend appeared in the early '90s--decades after the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had become, by popular agreement, a symbol of all that was rigid and wrong with American masculine aspiration.

The old economy of corporate America began to look longingly at entrepreneurial America and its minions, increasingly awash in what appeared to be money. They looked at their own boardrooms and gray-paneled fattening pens and gray-paneled workforce--which was being lured to the new economy not only by what appeared to be barrels of money, but also by an atmosphere (and dress code) reminiscent of a Montessori pre-primary class--and gradually began loosening their collars. Then, on Sept. 26, 1997, the New York Stock Exchange decreed a day of freedom--the first day in 205 years to have allowed informal dress on the trading floor--to be known henceforth as Casual Friday. From Wall Street to Wilshire Boulevard, the mandate was to dress down--for better or for worse.

But who knew that this fashion Zeitgeist would have so profound an effect on the American male? Talk to the movers and shakers in fashion retailing and the men who keep them in business, and you can come away with the impression that nothing--not the Women's Movement, the Green Party, Iron John--has had as dramatic an impact on men as the seemingly innocuous words, Casual Friday. Consider, for instance, the tone of the recent pullback at Lehman Brothers. The New York-based financial powerhouse recently canceled its Casual Friday policy, citing the need for a return to tradition and stability in these uncertain times. In other words, in the face of a national crisis, a guy's just gotta feel more comfortable, more sure of his place in the world, in a three-button wool number with French cuffs and some Allen Edwards lace-ups.

Perhaps clothes really do make the man.

So what are we to think of the Southern California man, denizen of a place reviled worldwide for its excesses of freedom? It depends on whom you ask. How we dress in the Southland, and the choices we make, have as much to do with our jobs as how we perceive ourselves, from our upbringing to our current milieu and class--in the Marxist sense of the word.

It also depends on what side of town you live on.

David Geffen and Steven Spielberg's uniform of jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps may signal power in Hollywood on any day of the week--as in "I don't have to dress up, I'm important no matter what I wear." But in the rest of town, the Friday dress code is still up for grabs. Is it enough to merely signal you know what you're doing rather than actually dress to impress? For 29-year-old Diallo Marvel, an art director at the advertising firm TBWA/Chiat /Day in Los Angeles, success is signaled subtly.

It's a typical Friday in the office. Interrupted mid-meeting, Marvel is wearing a pair of vintage Pumas, Abercrombie & Fitch jeans, "baggy, but not bunchy at the bottom," and a white T-shirt under a blue button-down. One attendee is shoeless.

"Creative people are not held to the same standard as corporate," he explains. "Clients want creatives to use their brains. Clothes aren't what they expect you to think about."

Here, what plays on a Friday is no different from the rest of the workweek. But the dressed-down men at TBWA/Chiat/Day have learned a lesson women have known for years, one we'll call the Lesson of the Birkin bag. Available (at times) at Hermes, the Birkin bag is a large, stitched-leather tote. It costs $5,000, when you can get one, since there's an 18-month waiting list. It looks smashing with jeans and a T-shirt, telling the world on behalf of the carrier: "I may be wearing jeans, but mistake me for some middle-class Hausfrau at your peril." The message is pure L.A.

And there you have it, gentlemen. Throw a Yamamoto shirt over those ratty jeans, or slap a Rolex on that wrist with your old Trojans T, or some Tod's loafers under those sweatpants, and voila! You've sent a message no three-piece suit can deliver.

"A lot of creatives wear really nice shoes or a really nice shirt," Marvel says. "They'll wear one fashionable and high-end item that says, 'I'm fashionable, but I'm not gonna scream it.' "

Just don't try anything funny on Fridays at Washington Mutual in Los Angeles. At least not if you work in Peter Villegas' office.

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