Fashion, Style

Now’s the Time for Men’s Fashion

photo by Julio Donoso: Corbis

photo by Julio Donoso: Corbis

Now’s the time – this is the name of the new Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit at the AGOJean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time (through May 10, 2015) marks the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in Canada and features close to 85 large-scale paintings and drawings from private collections and public museums across Europe and North America.

Basquiat’s legacy might be as deep in menswear as it is in art. Even as a budding graffiti artist in the 1980’s, Basquiat inherently knew fashion was what the man tried to sell you, but style is what you did with it. His style aesthetic was realized during his poor childhood and struggling artist days in New York. According to the blog On this Day in Fashion, Basquiat’s clothes were “a hodgepodge of preppy thrift-store finds, an old college T-shirt and jeans or a loose-fitting frock in bold African fabric.”

It worked. As his success grew, his taste grew into Armani suits, albeit paint-splattered. That worked more.

“He looked like a combination of a fashion model and a 19-year-old Bowery bum.”

Basquiat’s look was admired and copied by many during his life, one that ended far too early at 27 from a heroin overdose. “He looked like a combination of a fashion model and a 19-year-old Bowery bum,” said curator Diego Cortez, who got Basquiat into the PS1 show “New York/New Wave” in 1981. Posthumously, his influence on fashion is resurrected and examined every few years and for good reason. Basquiat was a renegade from the streets who breathed authenticity. A stylish, bilingual, mixed race, heterosexual, black Latino artist from New York whose inner circle included Andy Warhol and Madonna? You can imagine today’s hipster trading their left sleeve tattoo to rub elbows with Basquiat.

Basquiat in 1985 photo by Lizzy Himmel (AP)

Basquiat in 1985 photo by Lizzy Himmel (AP)

The Business of Fashion notes that in the US, men’s apparel sales grew 5% in 2013 to over $60 billion. Sure, that’s the kind of revenue Apple generates in a single quarter, but it’s nonetheless impressive when you consider that’s more revenue than womenswear brought in during the same period, and on par with other “fluff” industries such as the entire US sports market. We’re talking BIG business.

Fashion is finally catering to the man, but that doesn’t guarantee they are getting style, too. Style is kind of like a good singing voice – you either have it or you don’t. If alive today, Basquiat would have been hounded by the paparazzi as much for his personal style as his visual artistic nobility. In death the Basquiat brand has collaborated on timepieces, skateboards and sneakers featuring his art. Today’s corporate brands love a real life Basquiat.

The fashion world is working at light speed to embrace menswear. Until recently menswear designers were lost on the women’s calendar or showed their collections in London or at Pitti Uomo. Toronto’s own Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*) debuted last August to fill this void, and will return with fall 2015 collections on February 25th. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) will kick off New York Fashion Week: Men’s this July 13-16th with the spring 2016 shows.

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You have to respect a market segment that’s shown such phenomenal growth without the same kind of  support from the fashion industry. Meanwhile, one thing hasn’t changed in fashion: if you want style, it’s still on the streets. Do you know a modern day Basquiat? Let me know, I’d love to profile them.