Back in the early ’80s, Barneys, my longtime employer, organized a series of customer focus groups. The time seemed right. It was a period of rapid change. “Casual Friday” was the big news on Wall Street, and the men of America were struggling to adapt. Lacking the Italian tradition of spiffy sartorial informality, American blokes plunged into crisis, to mention nothing of plunging into a lot of seriously tragic clothing: baggy Dockers with belt pagers, excruciatingly naff golf shirts and top-siders and white tube socks. Confusion reigned. It seemed like the perfect moment to take the pulse of our male customers and find out what was, and was not, informing their fashion choices.
Our research revealed something rather shocking: The main preoccupation for men when shopping for casual clothing, or suits and coats, was not glamour, fashion, or style. The overriding concern of all our sampled dudes was a fear of “getting it wrong.” Those male shoppers of yore, the poor darlings, lived with a veritable sword of Damocles hanging over their combovers. They believed in the existence of a mysterious set of edicts that governed the dressing of the male body. Failure to obey would result in certain death. The notion of “getting it wrong” came up so often in our research that we started incorporating the phrase “get it right” into our advertising. We even took out copyright protection on this comforting command.
Time marched on. By the turn of the century, the alta kakas in the naff golf shirts had retired or kicked the bucket. The aughts saw the arrival of the metrosexual revolution and a vanquishing of that strange preoccupation with getting it wrong. There followed an explosion of self-expression, style, fashion, VIP bottle service, male vanity, and peacocking. Dressing impressively, creatively, or interestingly no longer suggested perversion, inversion, or execution by firing squad. It was the right of every man. Prada and Tom Ford stitched up Hollywood actors. David Beckham wore a sarong. Trey Parker wore a plunging printed chiffon gown to the Oscars. Teeth were whitened. Man jewelry jangled. Man bags dangled. Freedom reigned. Freak flags flew.
Then, just as a whole new generation of lads was starting to let down their guard, along came the sulfurous, satanic peanut gallery of social media. The hypercritical thumbs-up/thumbs-down ethos of the internet brought back the notion of getting it wrong and sent all but the bravest of dudes scurrying off into the undergrowth. Here the terrified men found like-minded souls and splintered into groups. Tribes were formed.
Back in my early Barneys days, getting it right was more a matter of details: side vent or center vent? Two buttons or three? Cuffs or no cuffs? Brown shoes or black? But getting it right, in its current incarnation, has become all about tribe membership. In today’s fashion landscape, tribes are the name of the game. Joining a tribe—a tribe that resonates with your tastes and worldview—and embracing its rules is now the only way to experience that feel-good got-it-right sensation.
Peeved at the thought of having to conform to group expectations and tribal lore? Petrified that your identity is going to be squashed? Worried that you will never be able to figure out which tribe to join? Relax and grow a pair. It’s not that big a deal.
There are, at this particular point in time, only five tribes from which to pick: the Perverse Prepster, the Arty Ninja, the Dedicated Follower of Satin, the Statham, and the Schlub. I guarantee that you, the ordinary man in the street, will fit comfortably into one of these categories. But how will you know? Over the course of this series, when you encounter the tribe that best resonates with your essence, you will experience a frisson in your follicles and a distinct tingle in your chakras. Ready. Set. Prepare to tingle.
First up: The Perverse Prepster.