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The fashion for fauxstalgia

Why men in 21st-century New York dress like 1950s forest rangers

Luke Leitch | November/December 2015

We all have our limits, and 72 hours spent in the same set of clothes when British Airways lost my suitcase en route to New York proved to be mine. I had already been through several stages of loss; from breezy credulity that I would, as promised, be reunited with my luggage to surging, white-knuckle rage at having to endure a looped version of “The Flower Duet” by Delibes on Spanish guitar on hold to a helpline that never delivered any. The BA website was more obliging, suggesting that I could bill up to £1,100-worth of “essentials” to the airline. That seemed like an oppor­tunity both to find catharsis through consumption, observe cool, Manhattan millennial man in his natural environment and kit myself out like him.

Two Hands is a widely Instagrammed Australian-run café on the fringes of both Chinatown and Little Italy – thus very New York. Inside its painted brick walls the crowd contemplates cutesy clouds of cotton wool that hang from the ceiling as they eat their Açaí bowls and drink whimsically named juices from jam-jars. The majority of women there wore versions of New York’s staple female uniform of the moment: layered Lycra and Nikes designed to give the impression that they were freshly emerged from a Soul­Cycle workout. Yet their dates had an altogether more workmanlike air. There were beards, there were plaid shirts, and there were tattoos. Guys tapped on $1,000 MacBook Airs in between checking their $500 iPhone 6s wearing Carhartt carpenter’s trousers and baseball caps. The overall impression was a carefully mixed cocktail of grunge and garage mechanic, without the slightest smear of grease.

I went straight to Filson. Although this Seattle-based company opened its first New York store only in May, it has been in business since 1897. Initially it specialised in provisioning Klondike-bound gold prospectors with boots, blankets and other essential cold-weather gear. When that market evaporated, Filson settled into catering to all the needs of the outdoorsman: fishing gear, thick “tin cloth” jackets for loggers, woollen shirts, long johns and knapsacks stitched from densely woven cotton and bridle leather. For more than a century Filson chugged implacably on, as reliably unspectacular as a John Deere tractor. Through catalogues, and then recently a website, it sold these guaranteed-for-life, American-made garments to the type of man who leaves long reviews assessing the garments’ suitability for shovelling snow, shooting things or climbing tele­graph poles.

Filson’s 21st-century gold rush started when an emerging urban generation began to prize its unreconstructed ruggedness for reasons more aesthetic than practical. It opened a shop behind Carnaby Street in London, a new factory in Idaho, and then made its Manhattan debut.

In Filson’s New York outpost the walls are lined with axes and cotton tote-bags emblazoned with line drawings of gun dogs. Display cases bustle with thermos flasks, copper kettles and nickel-plated screw-top canisters designed to keep your matches dry. According to the manager, they sell as many as ten of these a week to young Manhattanites. I bought a $285 waxed, breathable bomber jacket – a hybrid of Western shirt and 1920s car-coat – and a $245 work-bag made of similar material designed in collaboration with the photographer Steve McCurry.

Alongside Filson at the vanguard of the vogue for old roughneck brands is L.L.Bean, a Maine-based catalogue business whose rubber and leather “Bean boot”, a design originally made for duck hunters which resembles the slightly awkward offspring of a pair of Timberlands and some wellies, is now so popular that there was a 100,000-customer waiting list last Christmas. Fjallraven, a Swedish equivalent of Filson, has long been internationally popular for its boxy Kanken knapsacks, but now boasts a New York store as large as Filson’s that confoundingly displays camping gear in its window but is thronged with facially hirsute young professionals. Shinola, a newish watch and bicycle brand owned by the same holding company that bought Filson in 2012, has found huge success thanks to a USP that sees it assemble Swiss-made components in downtown Detroit to produce timepieces that look as if they originally belonged to a 19th-century railroadman. The sneaker company New Balance has broadened its niche by emphasising both its fugly 1970s design aesthetic and its admirable position as the only mass-market sports-shoe manufacturer to produce its items in the United States and European factories (as well, of course, as in Asia). Then there is Herschel Supply Company, a six-year-old brand that sells hundreds of thousands of “Little America” haversacks – cheap nylon bags specifically designed to look as if they’ve been in an attic since the 1950s.

Herschel does extremely good business at Urban Outfitters, a highly successful retail curator of twenty­something obsessions since the 1990s. At a Broadway outpost I descended past the racks of newly popular-again vinyl to a menswear section thronged with faux utilitarian items in order to buy $400-worth of brand new, Indian-made clothing pretending to be second-hand American army surplus.

By now, my rage with the airline had been quenched by the wedge of receipts with which I intended to present it. And I found myself walking down one of the most fashionable shopping streets in one of the world’s most sophisticated mega­cities dressed like a colour-blind fly-fisherman freshly returned from the Vietnam war – as were many of the men flowing around me. The cod-psychologist in me would cast this line: millennial man favours clothes that emanate ruggedness and physical function because his life lacks both. His new love for the Luddite look is a plaintive reaction to an existence cushioned by technology, in which the only thing a man has to hunt regularly is a power socket to recharge his phone. That once-defining masculine attribute – brute strength – is redundant, yet clothes and bags like Filson’s honour its hold on his psyche.

Later that evening, BA’s snail-like courier service finally delivered my case. I slipped back into the deconstructed tailoring of effete European man, fired up my MacBook, and hit the airline with a devastating salvo of receipts.

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