On the runways of the fashion capitals and on the streets of Silver Lake, Venice and Brooklyn, designers and young guns alike are staking out a new frontier: a post-metrosexual ruggedness that's all about woolen vests, chambray shirts, crisp-legged denim and manly man belts. Oh, and sporting the kind of facial hair usually seen on a box of Smith Brothers cough drops.
Call it Modern Maverick: Western style rendered as cool rather than as costume. Swaggeringly butch with a self-aware wink, this fashion leap from retro to antique conjures mythic representations of masculinity from the late 1800s to the Depression: the gunslinger; the riverboat gambler; the Gold Rush millionaire; John Steinbeck's fabled Okie, Tom Joad.
"Men have become much more interested in fashion, grooming and fitness. They have explored their feminine side. Now they can experience their masculine side in a style that is rooted in American menswear," says New York designer John Varvatos, who recently showed a fall '07 collection called American Dustbowl.
Unlikely though it may seem, this new look pays homage to the basic business dress code while still maintaining an outlaw stance. The complete ensemble comes with meticulously groomed 11 o'clock shadow or full facial hair topiary, a departure from the scraggly look of grunge and the natural grizzliness of the gay bear subculture.
The archetype has been rumbling through the cultural landscape for a while now, says Mark Simpson, a writer who coined the term metrosexual. It's been popping up prominently in the HBO series "Deadwood" and in the wardrobe of rocker Nick Cave, also screenwriter of the 2006 cult western film, "The Proposition."
The phenomenon runs rampant through the rock scene, manifested by the White Stripes' Jack White (particularly during his Raconteurs incarnation), the prairie-rock group Arcade Fire and the get-up that the Killers' Brandon Flowers wears in the video for "Read My Mind." The bewhiskered New York artist Damon Snow has become something of a poster boy for the style.
"The look is cinematic," Simpson says, "and seems influenced by the more flamboyant hired guns in spaghetti westerns, who look menacing but always end up writhing in the dust, ruining their frock-coats."
It also takes its cues from turn-of-the-last-century bohemians and bourgeoisie — seen in such recent films as "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" — and from the ongoing revival of Victorian imagery now so pervasive in the graphic arts that it can be found on paper shopping bags at Trader Joe's.
The elegance of 19th century gentry, the dandy part of this fashion equation, has been pretty much played out, even codified in "The Affected Provincial's Companion, Volume One," a book optioned by Johnny Depp for the big screen.
A more wild, Wild West
DESIGNERS have learned that lesson over the last several seasons, ditching the Edward Gorey-esque heaviness of Victoriana for a more masculine Americana.
"Cowboys are a lot easier to handle than Jack Skellington from 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' " says Bill Mullen, a stylist in New York.
The spring '07 collection of the Tokyo-based label Number (N)ine summoned the Robert Altman western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" by way of Guns N' Roses. New York's Rag & Bone rocked rolled-up denim and farmhand suspenders. At the fall '07 menswear collections in Milan, D Squared mixed cowpoke and punk. In Paris, Jean Paul Gaultier used models with big sideburns and Snidely Whiplash mustaches. The L.A.-based Trovata sent out a model dressed like the son of a prosperous dry goods merchant and Varvatos mixed vests with pinstripe pants, cuffed denims and a Mod parka.
"It's rustic with an elegance that is not overly thought out, inspired by a time when everyone wanted to dress up but didn't have the money to do it," Varvatos says.
The influence extends into street-wear labels, where the crossed-pistol, "barking irons" design has become a popular logo. Paul Frank made it an integral part of its fall collection, putting it on everything from zipper pulls to toiletry kits.
In Los Angeles, the style feels organic. An antidote to well-worn fashion statements, it is neither as in-your-face as punk — which has lost its rebel cred now that it's a mall rat commodity — nor as slightly cheesy as the lounge lizard "Swingers" look. It has roots in rockabilly and cow punk and branches through this town's vintage car and clothing collectors. Musicians, such as the members of Oliver Future, are drawn to the classicism of the look, which references legends like Johnny Cash.
The band's bassist, Jesse Ingalls, could pass for a member of the "Little House on the Prairie" family: He wears a Sunday-go-to-meeting thrift shop jacket and vest over jeans. Guitarist Sam Raver achieves a Bret Maverick look with stubble and a black Kenneth Cole jacket over a black shirt. Dressed in a velvet pinstripe blazer and carrying a silver flask, vocalist Noah Lit acknowledges a debt to "Deadwood" star Ian McShane's character: "This is my best Al Swearengen look."
The band, recent transplants from Austin, Texas, to Silver Lake, favors "Wranchers" — a tight polyester model of trousers made by Wrangler.
"You can play, pass out and wake up in them," drummer Jordan Richardson says, "and they never wrinkle."
American legacy look
MICHAEL PARADISE, co-owner of the Stronghold, a Venice retailer that stocks the Made-in-the-USA clothing integral to the look, sees past the current frontier fashion vogue to a more lasting legacy.
"There was a time when American clothing was made in America," says Paradise, a former fashion director for North Beach Leather who dresses like a 1930s swell. He revived the Stronghold label, a Los Angeles blue jeans manufacturer from 1895 until World War II. The store also stocks classic goods such as Pendleton blankets, Stetson hats, White's boots (a Spokane, Wash., cobbler since 1898) and Filson "tincloth" jackets.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Chrisso Collins, the 28-year-old Australian designer of Parballe, a T-shirt line produced with bullet holes in it, dropped into the Stronghold, trying on a pair of $335 herringbone denim jeans. Bryan Ray Turcotte, a 39-year-old music supervisor for the film industry, rolled in with his wife and their 1-year-old son, Ford, who was wearing vintage Levi's with a hefty cuff.
"I've been collecting denim for 20 years, since I was a teenager picking through vintage clothes at American Rag warehouse," says the bearded Turcotte. "I've been through everything, gabardines and wing tips, but this style just makes sense."
He slipped his son into a pair of tiny railroad stripe coveralls priced at $285.
"I try to dress him like a kid," he says, fighting the impulse to buy the outfit — for now. "But don't these suit him?"
HOW THE WEST GETS DRESSED
The antique Western look has already its share of homegrown outfitters:
At Topo Ranch General Store, Alex Kump offers L.A. casual wear with a Western swing: snap front cowboy shirts and cattleman pants (both $88) and T-shirts imprinted with steers, bucking broncos and shooting irons ($24). Topo Ranch General Store, 1219 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; (310) 270-8140.
At The Stronghold, things are decidedly more serious. Decked out with antique furnishings, bordello-style floral carpeting and a Sears Silvertone wind-up phonograph, the store taps into the Angeleno denim fetish. It also has the barber shop classic after-shave Bay Rum, along with vintage eye wear, timepieces, ties, bags and historic brands and products. The Stronghold, 1625 Abbott Kinney Blvd.; (310) 399-7221.
Signature pieces of the look — vests, old-school denim, farm-boy suspenders, belts and boots — can also be found at well-stocked vintage stores including:
American Rag, 150 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 935-3154.
La Bamba, 2222 E. 4th Street, Long Beach; (562) 433-9112.
Kowboyz, 8050 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 653-6444.