This exclusive interview with fashion editor, journalist and author Robert E. Bryan was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in New York July 2010
My personal style through the years has always been filtered through my deep appreciation of the classic menswear that existed between the great wars. Consequently, I try for a very put together look, whether dressing up or down…. though some would say too put together. I don’t relate at all to the too contrived idea of wearing jeans with everything, even formal attire, as a shortcut to looking “hip”. That concept lost its edge long ago. And when I look in the mirror, I am more likely to ad one accessory than take one off.
As fashions changed through the years I adapted in my own way, all the while wearing almost nothing but clothing from 1930-1960. Yet I wore it in such a way that people often thought it was contemporary, or even avant-garde. For instance, in the 1970’s the fashion folk believed my 1940’s suits were the latest thing from Armani 10 years before the film Wall Street made them a cliché. And when narrow lapels, skinny ties and plain front trousers became fashionable in the late 90’s, I adapted by wearing a circa 1960 JFK look, which everyone now calls Mad Men.
What was the greatest influence on the choice of your career?
Truth be known, I didn’t really choose a career…. I fell into it. I had been a history major in college and had considered becoming a lawyer, but after one year in law school, I decided I hated it and moved to New York City with no clear idea what I wanted to do. While I had many interests, fashion was certainly important to me, because of my love of old movies, my recent immersion in Ivy League style at the University of Virginia and the excitement of Mod and Flower Power fashions. As it turned out, an employment agency sent me to Abraham & Straus (“What’s that?” said I), a department store chain in Brooklyn and Long Island, where I joined the management trainee program, eventually becoming assistant buyer in the Groove Shop. In other words, we sold bell-bottoms, “body shirts” and Nehru jackets. Next came a stint as market representative at the May Corporate buying office and from there I went to Fairchild Publications as the fashion editor of Men’s Wear Magazine, finishing my career as Men’s Style Director of The New York Times. And that is how I “chose” my career.
Who are three designers (of any era) that to you define classic timeless taste in menswear?
Without doubt the designer who has always promoted, “classic, timeless taste” is Ralph Lauren. No surprise there. Starting in the 1970’s he began reviving 1920’s and 30’s style (then trendy), most obviously with the 1974 film The Great Gatsby. Since then he has continued to mine that era for a wide variety of fashions, many of which seem completely contemporary. For instance his Black Label and active sports lines are both modern and classic and always tasteful.
Michael Kors, while not so devoted to prewar style, has reinterpreted old school fashions for the contemporary world. He clearly loves old money resorts from Palm Beach to Nantucket, the men and women who vacationed there and the classic styles they wore…. but with a dash of 1970’s spice.
More recently, Tom Ford, formerly the flamboyant showman of Gucci, has shifted his gaze to the 1930’s as seen through the prism of chic 1970’s European menswear. Talk about old money and new money for that matter. Ford has set out to dress a modern day gentleman who wants the best of everything from silk dressing gowns to chalk striped, double-breasted suits, regardless of price.
Name eight items including footwear, suits, outerwear, and accessories in your opinion a man must own.
Needless to say, there are far more than 8 items that a well-dressed man should have in his wardrobe. Of course it makes a difference what kind of man we are talking about and what his particular needs are, say a man who works on Wall Street versus a man who works in Silicon Valley. So I will just list a few favorite items of mine. A. Blue blazer B. Gray flannel suit C. Khaki cotton suit D. Both a blue and a white cotton oxford button-down collar shirt. E. Gray flannel trousers F. Both white and black LaCoste polo shirts G. Brown oxford wingtip shoes H. An elegant fine watch…not a chronograph I. Classic trench coat
How do you view forward fashion for men?
Forward fashion worn by the right men can be a good thing. That man is probably younger, in good shape and has the confidence to carry off more extreme fashions. Then too, I have always distinguished between extreme fashions that are flattering and those which make a man look just plain ridiculous. Forward fashions keep things interesting, give the fashion world something to talk about, promote sales and hopefully inspire changes (however subtle) through out the market place. For instance, Thom Brown’s shrunken suits looked cute on young guys, like a little boy who had outgrown his suit, but absurd on anyone else. However, the idea of the slightly shorter jacket spread to even the most conservative corners of the tailored industry creating a refreshing new look for everyone. Then too, some styles that are considered forward, like full cut, pleated pants in the 1970’s were actually a return to the classics.
What do you think of the flood of so-called “Street Style” where anyone grabs a camera and becomes a so-called blogger often without discretion or an eye for quality?
Of course the concept of covering street style goes back at least to the 1920’s when Men’s Wear Magazine photographed trend-setting men at fashionable resorts like Palm Beach, Newport and Saratoga. True, Men’s Wear employed experienced fashion journalists to comment on what was worth watching. As you say, today there are a broad range of “bloggers” posting pictures of people they feel reflect what is happening in fashion, or at least have some kind of personal style. Though some of the most widely watched “bloggers” don’t really know much about men’s wear, (as you can tell from their comments), I still feel it’s interesting to see what even the untrained eye finds notable. Obviously all of this visual input will be confusing to the average man, but that is the price we pay for living in the “information age”.
If you could go back to any era, which would it be? Moreover, why would you prefer that particular era?
By this time, it is obvious, if I could return to visit any era, it would be that golden age of men’s wear between the wars. No question, the 1920’s and 1930’s were the highpoint of men’s style. Just look at that style icon for the ages, the Prince of Wales, the images in Apparel Arts or Esquire Magazine, or look at the films of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper to name only the most obvious examples. The clothing was vibrant, alive, colorful, functional and most importantly, extremely flattering. Everyman could look like a movie star, even those who could only afford Sears & Roebuck. And this classic look could be worn equally well by all man, from college boys to mature gentlemen. Even beyond clothing, it was an era (despite depression and fascism) of great innovation in all fields: jazz music; the Bauhaus; streamlined design; Surrealism etc. etc.
It is 1970 and we are meeting in Rome for a private party hosted by Luchino Visconti. What are you wearing? In addition, whom do you want to meet?
Naturally it is a warm summer afternoon garden party, so I am wearing a tan linen, peaked lapel suit, with a white linen shirt, black silk knit tie, black polka dot handkerchief, and black and white spectator shoes. I definitely want to meet Dirk Bogarde, Marisa Berenson and Bjorn Andresen who will be appearing in Visconti’s upcoming film, Death In Venice, a personal favorite of mine. I am sure a few other great Italian directors of the era will drop by, hopefully Fellini (perhaps the greatest of all), elegant Vitoria de Sica and experimental Antonioni. Certainly actors Marcello Mastroanni and Sophia Loren will be there and from the international set, perhaps Alain Delon (so great in Purple Noon), and David Hemming (the height of Mod in Antonioni’s Blowup). By chance, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward (a hero of mine) would represent the older set of café society, along with legendary photographers Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon. From the world of fashion, can think of none better than Valentino in his prime and Karl Lagerfeld (recently infatuated with the trendy Art Deco style). And just to mix things up, unexpectedly, the Rolling Stones fly in to perform a set with Marianne Faithful applauding from the sidelines.
Robert E. Bryan is the former Men's Fashion Director of The New York Times and author of the recent book from Assouline publishers, American Fashion Menswear.
The above interview with Robert E. Bryan 2010 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.