Menswear and Masculinity: A Conversation with Tim Nguyen of Something Bespoke
Tim Nguyen is a long-time friend of mine and founder of the fantastic menswear blog Something Bespoke. Tim was the 2014 winner of Houston Fashion Blogger's "Best Male Blogger," and he also knows more about Thom Browne than anyone I've ever met. A few weeks ago we started a conversation on Facebook about the really feminine looks we saw coming out of menswear at NYFW. We decided to really get into the details of the conversation and share something long form, and Tim was kind enough to answer a bunch of my questions.
SC: Alright, so let’s talk menswear/masculinity. And since your One True Love is Thom Browne, let’s start there. Did Thom Browne get you into menswear, or did menswear get you into Thom Browne? What do you love so much about the brand?
TN: Thom Browne is actually my second love. My first love and what got me really into fashion is traditional suiting. I’ve always shown an interest towards dressing well and when I think back to the defining moment of what got me into fashion, I vividly remember opening the November 2005 issue of GQ with Orlando Bloom in a beautiful camel coat.
My progression into Thom Browne was very natural because I was looking for a way to have fun with suiting but I didn’t want to go full on #menswear and peacock every day. The TB aesthetic is very rebellious to me because seriously who wears their pants that high and hem short with cuffs that big? On top of that the jackets are ridiculously cropped with a high buttoning point to compliment the pants so high they look like they are halfway up your chest.
Overall the brand is just very fun and unique. When I first started wearing it I would feel bad about myself because people were laughing at how short my pants were and how my shoes clacked. Nowadays I really enjoy how jarring the look is to normal people and the reactions I get when I walk by people although now cropped pants on men is becoming increasingly more common.
What are your thoughts about FW’15?
Honestly it shocked me. I was getting really bored of everything that Thom was putting out the last couple years and this show revived my love for the runway offerings. Going full black was something I did not expect at all since Thom’s previous seasons have all been earthy or gray tones for his FW shows, it’s never been this dark. One thing that he does really well is his manipulation of fabrics and patterns. Sure the suit may look basic but if you look in super close you will see subtle little whales and turtles in the fabric.
His women’s RTW FW’15 is the first time I’ve seen him do a women’s line complimentary to his men’s.
Would love to hear you expand more on that.
Ever since Thom launched his women’s line, each season has had a distinct theme completely separate from his men’s line. I wonder if he’s making them the same theme to help jump start his women’s line which is rumored to be going under a huge expansion. It’s smart because it helps him consolidate his time and efforts into one idea.
I feel like in a lot of ways (and with a few stylistic exceptions) the main historical trajectory of traditional suiting has been about emphasizing certain masculine characteristics, like broad shoulders and a squared silhouette. And what I always loved about Thom Browne was that his designs feel like such a fun twist on that, like this idea that you could turn that traditional masculinity on its head and be very playful and light. At the same time, though, I think menswear is still working very much within this dichotomy of “masculine”/”slightly less masculine.” I think what I mean is, there are degrees of masculinity but more rarely overt femininity, although I could be wrong.
You are on the dot with traditional suiting. It definitely cut in ways to make a man look more masculine that’s why there are so many “a suit is like lingerie” posts on tumblr. They appeal to those who want to look like the ideal man.
In society right now outside of the fashion world there is a lot of taboo when a man dresses feminine. For example cuffing your pants or hemming them shorter than the norm is looked down upon for men by the masses because they look like capris and we all know that only women are allowed to show ankle. Personally, if you asked me five years ago if I would be wearing SLP 15.5cm denim I would have probably said hell no but today I almost feel like these jeans aren’t slim enough.
A lot of designers recognize that people have only slowly started to accept more traditionally feminine color, patterns, and silhouettes on men so you are starting to see it trickle into their shows. Take a look at Thom Browne’s SS14 show, one which is commonly mistaken for a women’s show because of the red lipstick and very feminine dress like coats.
It’s designs like this that are really pushing the envelope of what people are used to. Even for Thom this is fairly new because if you take a look at his older collections they are all masculine even though he is using his cropped look.
I love that he uses red lipstick - that’s like so cliché "traditional femininity". I’m always kind of disappointed that we don’t see more guys wearing makeup. So with regards to the designs, do you see a social commentary here, or only an aesthetic one?
I am leaning towards social commentary because if you really take the time and look at the collection it is very very feminine. Thom took something that is traditionally very manly, which is the military and warped all the jackets with princess cuts, something you only see done in women’s clothing. At the same time what this also does is great sharp and strong shoulder lines which is also traditionally masculine.
What do you think it means that we’re increasingly seeing men in more “feminine” clothing?
I think what's happening right now is the idea of what masculine and what's feminine is changing. The line between the two are becoming more and more skewed and this is thanks to a lot of designers, magazines and other influencers across the board. I mean and this isn’t only reserved to men in more feminine clothing. It’s also women in more masculine clothing as well. The whole “boyfriend cut” movement is really taken hold on top of that you have awesome influencers like Esther Quek who is known for her masterful use of twisting traditional menswear.
So to touch on the question that got us into this in the conversation in the first place [on Facebook], I kind of feel as though womenswear has already done a ton of play with masculinity and femininity - in my opinion, because it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to play as man than a man to play as woman. And we were discussing that maybe menswear actually has this very cool creative opportunity right now to push the envelope. Can you comment more on that?
Menswear for the most part has always had pretty set in place rules when it comes to how a man should look. I mentioned GQ magazine earlier and whether a person loves it or hates it, it’s hard to deny that it is influencing how men dress. They may not be the most fashion forward publication but what they do a really good job of is taking trends from the runway and then packaging it for the general consumer. Slowly but surely they mold the minds of people to accept different trends like fitted shorts for men that are above the knee or even something as simple like men wearing pastel colors. As more and more men adopt these styles it opens up their eyes further towards other trends that they probably would not have been open to years prior.
I definitely don’t see the mainstream male consumer buying up skirts to wear out in public any time soon but the fact that there are men doing it is something really fascinating. It will definitely be interesting to see what designers come up with to challenge the marketplace. After trying the princess cut blazer from Thom Browne’s SS14 I could definitely see myself buying it.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think you’re right that the “aesthetic ideal” comes down to basically, 1) what will currently sell in the context of the cultural zeitgeist, 2) Personal taste. And I think so much of these changes in menswear are coming because more and more men are in a place to say, “I think I’m feeling a little feminine today,” or whatever. It’s so cool to me that now that’s a thing that will sell - even if, as you say, it’s slow coming. Like GQ is made fun of by half the population for being “gay” and the other half for being “super basic”. (I actually really like it cause I like pretty pictures haha.) But people in Montana aren’t running around in Rick Owens or whatever.
I actually really like flipping through the pages GQ, Esquire and Details. Sure most of it is targeted towards educating a more newbie consumer but it’s always interesting to see how they approach it. I wonder how long it will be till I run into another dude fully decked out in Thom here in Houston.
I’m not an art or design student in any way and I may be getting in a little over my head with this one, so call me out on this if I’m totally wrong. As much as I’m curious about reinterpretation of tradition, I think it still kind of creates a weird implication that clothing and aesthetics are somehow...scientific. I’m thinking of like, “The Golden Rectangle” interpreted on the body. If, traditionally, womenswear has been cut to create something beautiful on a woman’s body, and feminine menswear is just reinterpretation those silhouettes for man’s body, then to me that implies that there must be some sort of aesthetic universalism. I know there are a lot of exceptions, like "antifit" design, etc. So I'm speaking very traditionally here. Does “good design” highlight specific attractive points on a human body, like the curve of hips or the broadness of shoulders? Or is that ultimately cultural?
Traditionally clothing and aesthetics are very scientific. If you are a designer trying to make it big in the marketplace then your clothes need to sell. And how do you sell it? By creating items based on a formula where the most people will want your garments. “Good design” is always very subjective because really what is good? All “good” is at the end of the day is someone’s opinion. “Good” can be how an item is cut, how the patterns are, what the item is made out of, etc. That answer will vary person to person.
For myself, I use clothing as a way to express myself. So a good design is something that will help me do that. I know that’s not a concrete answer but that’s because it’s pure emotion which changes depending on my mood. “How do I want people to think of me today?” Is a thought that sometimes runs through my mind when I am picking out what I am wearing for the day. For someone else good design could be how it makes their ass look in the pants or how the fabric forms to their biceps. It really does vary person to person.
Last question, and you can feel free to answer this in as much or as little detail as you like. What’s your personal relationship to the way you dress and masculinity/gender roles/all that stuff?
The easiest way for me to describe this is to mention that I have 3 different styles. One of course is my Thom Browne stuff which I do purely for fun and the art aspect. The other two are traditional suiting and casual. If it was socially acceptable in Houston for me to wear a suit everyday I probably would but it’s not that’s why I have my casual clothes which normally consists of a solid colored tee, jeans and a pair of sneakers.
Honestly, I don’t really think “does this look masculine or feminine on me?” anymore. I’ve reached a point where none of that really matters because why should it? The only reason it would matter is if I actually cared about the opinion of the people who are judging me for wearing pants that look like man capris. There is a quote that says “don’t take advice from someone you wouldn’t trade places with” and that goes along with people’s opinions too. What they say or think shouldn’t matter unless they have more knowledge on the subject than you do. If someone came up to me and told me that my cuff was .25 inches too small, heck yeah I would take that advice otherwise who cares.
I want to thank Tim again for getting into this discussion with me - I had a lot of fun thinking about this. Ultimately, I'm curious if feminine menswear will mean simply a reinterpretation of the physical ideals that we currently emphasize (an example would be daily use of contouring makeup to emphasize the jaw line); or if we’ll see more of a shift in what actually gets emphasized in the first place. Are we still trying to make The Ideal Man in different colors and fabrics? We'll see what happens, I think, but if there's a paradigm shift in menswear anywhere, Something Bespoke will be the first to know.