Peacock revival

Think that worrying about clothes is just for girls? Think again. A new wave of dandies is making fashion truly a man's world.

You might like to keep your moisturiser in a zebra-print holdall. Or perhaps a spare sequinned sweater, since that transparent voile shirt does not look too warm, not even with a bolero jacket over it. Best perhaps to wear the floppy-brimmed hat and the white patent mac, just in case the evening turns chilly. Advice to a teenage girl? In fact, all of these clothes have been key pieces from designer menswear collections over recent seasons. Few of them may have actually been sold but the point is clear: not only are designers increasingly provocative in their take on what men might wear, but arguably men have not been so interested in dressing for effect, rather than function, since the definitive dandy Beau Brummell was dismissed in the early 19th century by Thomas Carlyle as being no more than "a piece of boudoir furniture, a cleverly contrived tailor's dummy".

Indeed, rather than being astounded by the pains of Ignatious Joseph, a hotelier turned modern dandy and elite shirtmaker, you might well share them. "I had a passion for good dressing and would have died an unhappy man if I had stayed in the hospitality industry," he says. "I had to wear a grey suit, white shirt, black shoes and socks for 15 hours a day. And it was agony. "It's clear that a new generation of men, like me, want distinction in their dress - more flamboyance, without becoming kitsch."

Certainly, if over the past century a love of clothes among men has typically been confined to niche groups often outside mainstream society - in Britain the teds and mods, in the US the zoot-suiters, in France the Beat intellectuals of the Left Bank - now it is commonplace. The European menswear market is the world's biggest, accounting for 41 per cent of global sales by value, and is now worth some $98bn (Dh360bn) annually. It grew by just under one per cent between 2007 and 2008 - not a lot perhaps, but meanwhile womenswear sales dropped 3.5 per cent.

Last year only 16 per cent of men said they were spending less on clothes than in the previous year, according to a report from Mintel, and that with a recession on. Those men's magazines that espoused a more laddish sensibility, uncomfortable with the idea of men taking an interest in clothing, have gone into terminal decline. But the style magazine market is abundant with ever more specialist titles celebrating style heroes old and new and catering to what Christian Barker, editor of one such title, Singapore's The Rake, calls "the renaissance in male peacockery".

He adds: "That might be surprising at a time when everyone's supposed to be tightening their belts, but the same was true of other times of economic difficulty. The 1930s and 1970s were both periods of flamboyant male dress. And that's back again now." It is sweet relief perhaps from the dominant if inexpressive trend of the past 10 years: the stylish but ultimately sober suit. Rather, men today are interested in looking good in every aspect. According to a report by the trend analysts The Future Laboratory, male enthusiasm for spas is on course to match that of women within three years. And a Heineken study has found that a slim majority of men, 52 per cent, now believe it is important always to be well-dressed.

"There's a new competitive edge to men's dressing now," adds Nick Sullivan, the style director of American Esquire. "You don't dress to fit in, but you wear something because no one else is. The judgement of style is based on quality luxury, accessories - things that men used to not bother with." Such an advance in attitudes has come through evolution rather than revolution, suggests the menswear designer Joe Casely-Hayford, who recently relaunched his own line. Tellingly, Casely-Hayford has also been hired by traditionally conservative establishments - the likes of the Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes and now the UK's John Lewis Partnership - to revamp their menswear offerings.

He suggests that through the internet and blogs, fashion-fascinated men have been given both an education and reassurance that they are not alone; niche interests have flourished. Certainly broadband has also made the unsociable, hunter-gatherer approach men take to shopping easier too, especially for those who live outside the big cities where more directional fashion brands have tended to focus distribution. A recent survey by the management consultants Accenture found that more men now prefer to shop online than on the high street (the reverse is the case for women).

"But the influence of new world powers, notably Russia, China and India, has also pushed menswear into the ascendant too," Casely-Hayford argues. "These countries' men have a less subdued taste and seek a more powerful visual statement. They also have huge buying power, one of global influence, so designers have been somewhat forced to respond by creating a new aesthetic that is less the understatement we've all become used to seeing men wearing. Menswear is no longer womenswear's poor cousin."

More broadly, a generation shift has also seen young men especially embrace colour, pattern and plays on proportion for the first time in some 20 years, which in turn has sparked a revived creativity in design and, again in turn, encouraged art schools and fashion colleges to revamp their menswear courses. Small wonder, then, that menswear is now not only drawing the interest of established global brands with a commercial interest in operating menswear lines - the likes of Marni and Emanuel Ungaro, both of which have launched men's lines in recent years - but also that interest in it is allowing more local men's brands to go global. Tween, for example, owned by the huge Damat Group, has been a well-known menswear brand in its native Turkey for a decade, but last year it revamped itself as a more directional line and started international distribution.

"It's easy to impress women with fashion - they're born to shop and adaptive to the idea of frequent change," suggests Tween's creative director Gunes Guner Isik. "But you have to convince men that a fashion is right for them. The market is more challenging for brands and just a few years ago the likes of Tween would have struggled. But the demand is such now that it can't be ignored. There's as much if not more money to be made in menswear as womenswear."

The new market is drawing the interest of fast-fashion high-street giants and younger contemporary designers alike, to the extent that next month sees the launch in London of a new menswear-only show called Stitch, complete with Vision, an area dedicated to showing 32 emerging menswear designers. Even those already established in womenswear are dipping in a delicately pointed toe: Phillip Lim, Roland Mouret and Matthew Williamson, for example, are launching capsule collections this season, as Gareth Pugh did last season. The award-winning British designer Carolyn Massey has bypassed womenswear altogether.

"When I decided to launch with menswear there was a time when I thought I'd shot myself in the foot," she admits. "But I feel more and more vindicated in that choice every season. Men's fashion is not only more progressive and contemporary now, but there are more men willing to explore the choices that gives." The tailor and designer Richard James adds: "I think men feel liberated, not only in their choice of menswear - and even suits are lighter, sexier and more wearable now - but through the wearing of it.

"What we're seeing is a subtle but important change of attitude that the fashion business is responding to: men are becoming less label-driven and more style-driven. They're ready to embrace some eccentricity again, to do their own thing, even if it is maybe a bit nutty."

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