If you think camouflage is just the stuff of old beat-up military uniforms and cheap thermals lying around dusty army-navy shops, you’re missing out on the biggest hiding-in-plain-sight trend in cutting-edge menswear this fall.
Camo, as fashion folk say, has been re-colored, overdyed, abstracted, digitalized, blown up, downscaled, juxtaposed and, yes, fetishized on designer runways and in luxury-accessory showrooms the last few seasons and shows no sign of letting up.
It’s getting a boost from young celebrities — crooner Justin Bieber wore a Dolce & Gabbana camo tee on the Teen Choice Awards red carpet in July, while co-host Kevin McHale of “Glee” was clad in camo skinny jeans from Naked & Famous Denim. Hip-hop artist and music producer Swizz Beatz chose a camo print jacket, also by Dolce & Gabbana, for a recent event in New York.
June’s continental runway crawl of spring 2013 men’s lines began in Florence with a reinvigorated Valentino collection from designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli that was grounded in an array of extravagant leather camo jackets created by an intensive heat-bonding process. And it ended in Paris, where Dries Van Noten presented a full-throated ode to camo in the most delicate of fabrics — silk, voile and lace.
“Camo is for men what animal prints are for women. It’s as much of a classic. And it’s just as loaded,” Style.com men’s critic Tim Blanks said when asked about camo’s enduring popularity. “Like Dries hinted at a few weeks ago, its military connotations make it unambiguously masculine — so it remained uncompromised when he translated it into fabrics that you’d associate much more with women’s wear, couture even.”
For some, the pull of camouflage is not nearly so prosaic even when it’s their signature, as it is for designer Mark McNairy, whose Woolrich Woolen Mills’ collection and Mark McNairy New Amsterdam line have a cult following of spiffily dressed men in the U.S. and Japan.
“I think as a kid my infatuation with clothing started with GI Joe,” McNairy said, adding that he’s sure camo will always be a part of his work. He used the print on a slim cargo pant that was the first piece for his New Amsterdam line. More recently he designed a backpack in a camo print strewn with white daisies — “I guess you could see it as war and peace,” he said.
But he’s also enthralled with the camouflage pattern as a piece of art. “Because it started with the woodland, it always looks like a painting to me,” he said. Playing on that vein of natural abstraction, McNairy built his geeky-meets-the-great-outdoors Woolrich fall collection around an anorak, duffle coat and vest in a digital camouflage blanket fabric, which he didn’t realize at first viewing was an archival pattern from the ‘70s.
Similarly, Opening Ceremony features its own collection of walking coats and slim trousers in a cotton-twill camo that looks as if it’s reconstituted ink spots, bleeding into each other, in the traditional brown, olive and khaki.
And at Hermosa Beach-based Monitaly, a favorite of heritage-obsessed fashion insiders, designer Yuki Matsuda offers playfully re-colored camo in a knee-bucklingly heavy napped wool walking jacket, utility pants, vest and either regular or bow tie — shown together as a suit of sorts that bowled over the menswear crowd in January when it was shown to buyers at Florence’s Pitti Uomo fashion trade show.
A couple of months later, the camo obsession of former men’s style consultant and Internet street-style savant Nickelson Wooster (he’s since been named men’s creative director for JC Penney) was on view at Las Vegas’ Project trade show, in an installation created with Japanese clothing firms.
The cool girls are getting into camo too — like model Hanne Gaby Odiele backstage at Valentino’s couture show in a camo flak jacket over her ladylike pleated skirt. Thakoon Addition’s sweet shirtdress and Current/Elliott’s skinnies are in stores now, and the pattern plays in upcoming resort collections, including a fierce camo trench from L.A.'s Kelly Wearstler.
The word “camouflage” is from the French camoufler meaning “to disguise,” possibly influenced by the term camouflet, defined as a snub or a whiff of smoke blown in a sleeper’s face. That element of impudence is seen in the camo pieces from a number of swanky men’s shoe and accessory purveyors.
“Camo is very iconic due to its inherent irony. It’s either cheap trailer trash or high-end avant garde, and having that polarity makes it really unique and timeless,” said shoe designer Matthew Chevallard. With two boarding-school classmates, he started his Milan-by-way-of-Miami shoe company Del Toro to offer that aristo staple, handmade-in-Italy velvet evening slippers.
Now on sneakers and suede brogues, Del Toro’s unusual camouflage variations have emerged as a company signature, especially after a special-issue collaboration with style blogger Grungy Gentleman.
Jimmy Choo continues its splashy foray into men’s shoes with the cheekiest variation around, a camo pattern that on closer inspection reveals, as they put it, “burlesque silhouettes.” It’s featured for fall on seemingly every accessory iteration — high-tops, drivers, briefcases and portfolios, wallets and iPad cases, a belt and a dashing scarf.
As critic Tim Blanks put it: “I think part of camo’s enduring appeal for designers is that such butchness cries out for sly subversion. And God is in on the joke — ‘camo’ self-corrects to “camp” on my Mac.”
Camo can put some bite into a preppy wardrobe. “Properly deployed, it kind of knocks the ‘precious’ out of it all and adds a nice macho element. Plus it’s the one print guys are universally comfortable with,” designer Michael Bastian said.
For that more trad-than-bad crowd, consider a Japanese take on the preppy button-down in camo patchwork from Hamilton 1883 for Project Wooster, a slim camo khaki from Levi Dockers or classic Converse Jack Purcell kicks in a washed camouflage canvas.
Even ultra-respectable Church’s shoes is in on the act, with a handsomely understated brown suede lace-up boot on a sly camo-patterned rubber sole.
For sneaker fans, Creative Recreation’s also way big into the pattern, on its often-seen-around-L.A. classic Velcro-strap kicks as well as a hybrid sneaker-wingtip style.
In the end, Esquire magazine senior fashion editor Wendell Brown advised, camo is probably best applied sparingly: “You want it to be the accent, not the main event.”