When new acquaintances ask what I do, their eyes flick up and down my scuffed sneakers, well-loved jumbo cords and moth-kissed sweater before clouding over with inevitable confusion. A more sensitive soul might regard the effect that my clothes have as grounds for professional self-doubt. But not me. After all, isn’t football full of incisive pundits who have never scored a goal? How many respected political editors have ever stood for office, let alone won? And do theatre critics get appointed because they craft brilliant plays? You don’t have to be a clothes horse to write about fashion.
But there is one time of year when the comfortable elastic of the psychological waistband that holds up this justification for my lack of dashing personal style suddenly cinches like a too-tight pair of jeans: best-dressed season. For 2018 I nominated the Gucci designer Alessandro Michele to British GQ for its list (he came in 10th). Then I interviewed Charlie Heaton – the handsome young English actor who plays Winona Ryder’s son in Netflix’s 1980s redux horror series, “Stranger Things” – for a cover story naming him as the winner of Italian GQ’s list. He revealed a recently acquired fondness for high-waisted trousers, a long-held reluctance to wear anything that isn’t black or grey, and was generally charming.
The men who top these lists are invariably youngish, handsomish and successful in fields like acting, sports or that baffling modern profession – celebrity. There is usually a rising politician and a royal chucked in for good measure. The clothes of these types are an extension of their public persona, and sometimes even part of their income stream too. Their reasons for dressing well are boringly instrumental.
I have long craved a masculine style icon to champion who dresses fantastically despite convention, not because of it – someone whose choice of clothes reflects their brilliance in other fields, who looks as remarkable as they are without attempting to appear more remarkable than they are. And – eureka! – I think at last I’ve found him.
A few weeks ago I met up with Paul O’Neil, the head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing. His job is to sift through the archives of the United States’ most venerable denim brand and decide which items to reissue or redesign. After running me through a collection for 2018 based on 1940s surf culture, O’Neil paused, gestured at a box, and said he had something extra special to show me.
Inside the box was a brown leather jacket with delicate white stitching and olive-green detailing. This handsome, high-waisted cossack jacket – almost a jerkin – was, said O’Neil, a soon-to-go-on-sale, limited edition replica of an item Levi’s bought at auction for £110,500 ($149,700) at Christie’s in 2016. The reason for such a price? Its owner was Albert Einstein. He bought it shortly after coming to live in the United States in 1935, and wore it as an all-purpose, any-occasion piece of outerwear.
Since style and substance are so rarely married, it seems at first counterintuitive that the 20th century’s greatest geek chose to wear such a fantastically cool jacket. Yet in Einstein’s case the two are inextricable. Just as his famously wild hairstyle grew out of his reluctance to waste time at the barber’s shop, so the jacket was an expression of his philosophy of low-maintenance style. He was a pioneer mankle-flasher 80 years before it became all the rage, because he believed socks to be both inessential and prone to developing holes. That jacket was a long-lasting, all-purpose solution to the one question Einstein didn’t want to spend time asking himself: what shall I wear today? “The idea”, wrote Leopold Infield, a contemporary at Princeton, of Einstein’s fashion theory, “is to restrict his needs and, by this restriction, increase his freedom.” Einstein would never have made any “best-dressed” lists in his day – he didn’t even wear ties, for heaven’s sake. Yet it was his dedication to systematic nonchalance that lent him such unmistakable elan. Which is why – despite fiercely disagreeing with his views on socks – I nominate Albert Einstein, menswear’s greatest unsung genius, for the Coolest Chap Ever list.