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The Report

How The Men’s Workwear Trend Took Over The City

Why urban-dwelling men are wearing utility-inspired clothing

  • New York, February 2018. Photograph by Mr Adam Katz Sinding

It used to be easy to, at a glance, differentiate the man who was on the clock at a building site from the man who was merely on his way to get his mid-morning macchiato. But lately, stylish men in urbane centres of cultural influence have taken to dressing like they’re welding rebar at 50 storeys, even as they’re moored deskside at the genteel offices of their creative consultancies.

The men of New York’s SoHo, London’s Shoreditch and LA’s everywhere now walk around looking like they’ve stepped out of Mr Irving Penn’s “Small Trades”, his portraits of skilled workers in London, Paris, and New York around mid-century: a taxonomy of soot-caked boiler suits and gashed leather aprons and rubber galoshes slopping muck. Our workwear, of course, is decidedly crisper: pressed and polished and pitch-meeting ready – and dispossessed from the type of work to which the clothes nod.

Since the 1990s, elements of workwear have bled into streetwear’s conduits, especially in New York, the genre’s fountainhead. Timberland boots, always intended for heavy lifting, were co-opted as an essential piece of the New York street-level uniform, as immediate a marker as a pair of Jordan 1s or Polo Sport T-shirt, namechecked in verses by outer-borough champions like Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and Mobb Deep. The association was clear: work boots from Timberland and double-weight jackets from Carhartt, with their protective bulk and heavy footfall, called to a kind of symbiotic grit. If you were dressed in workwear, you must have a good reason, even if that reason wasn’t entirely manual labour. The calluses of the workman’s hands were internalised, like the callousness of the street, a psychic medallion of faith and fealty. This was true across the country, too, where skaters knocking around makeshift asphalt parks prized Dickies’ double-knee cotton-nylon trousers, a staple of factory workers since the 1920s – not because they helped in landing tricks, but because they held up when the tricks didn’t. Nothing announced an earned level of ruggedness like an impermeable cut of duck canvas.

The through-line from Detroit rail yard to style expression cuts cleanly through pop history: from Mr Tupac Shakur donning a knit cap that spelled out “THUG LIFE” with a capacious indigo canvas Carhartt chore coat to the Beastie Boys pairing a joyous nihilism with Ben Davis jackets, and up to the present moment of freethinking celebrities appearing on red carpets in luxury safety harnesses better-suited to electrical linemen. Others, including the designer Mr Willy Chavarria, effectively skirt this continuum, trafficking in blown-out shapes and heavy corduroy outerwear that reference New York and Southern California street life and finds style icons in parcel-shipping workers.

Softer expressions exist, too, as in visvim, which divines studiously distressed brushed cotton field jackets and denim chore coats, or the Parisian label Bleu de Paname, which turns out polished versions of the country’s historical bleu de travail — literally “blue work” – moleskin and cotton drill coats issued to the country’s railroad workers. The LA designer Ms Holly Jovenall’s BILLY is planted in the hardy style of her house farmer father: wide-leg trousers cut from lightweight denim or cotton twill and weighty, flannel-lined weathered cotton-canvas jackets.

Meanwhile, the legacy brands have recently recognised their new adherents and begun catering to them directly, marketing to lifestyle rather than utility. Carhartt identified its fashion bona fides in 1989, granting an import license to a European distributor of American-made clothing, the seed which soon became the youth culture omniverse coyly called Work In Progress. Since 2011, WIP has kept a storefront in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, a few doors down from Supreme, where one can pick up an organic cotton barn coat for $285 in a clubby shop perfumed with palo santo. Dickies does something similar with its Construct line – its silhouettes tweaked into soft pastels.

Like all else, the workwear-streetwear industrial complex has become robust enough to invite designer collaborations. The late line from Mr Adam Kimmel and the still-thriving A.P.C. each produced their own interpretations of Carhartt’s codes: pocket-pocked canvas coats and hardy carpenter pants. Vetements’ entry, a thousand-dollar oversized cotton-twill number, literally wears its reference point on its welt pocket, which is printed with the word “workwear”. Mr Junya Watanabe, whose denim patchwork fantasias were already finding purchase in a ribald splicing of workwear textiles, has presented several collections of Carhartt admixture: Mr Jackson Pollock-splatter painter-striped jackets; refined versions in rivet-studded navy. Then, more recently, there has been Mr Watanabe’s collaboration with Canada Goose, resulting in a down parka with reflective tape across the chest, a garment that gives the wearer the hi-vis panache of a member of an emergency road crew.

Perhaps no one has mined the subliminal signifiers of workwear more cannily than Mr Heron Preston. Mr Preston’s 2016 Uniform, a ready-to-wear collection produced in conjunction with New York City’s Department of Sanitation and presented in the Department’s brutalist Spring Street Salt Shed, consisted of tote bags, which didn’t stray far from the reflective vests they came from, and T-shirts in hazmat orange and screen-printed with official insignia. (The collection, incidentally, was not without conceptual precedent. In the late 1960s, performance artist Ms Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” confronted masculine and feminine conceptions of work and labour and led her to become DSNY’s first and only artist-in-residence.) Mr Preston’s own collaboration with Carhartt WIP includes twill shackets trimmed in reflective tape. Worn with the designer’s Nike co-branded, safety-goggle-indebted grapefruit-tinted sunglasses, you would be OSHA-approved to log a few hours on the machine shop floor.

Workwear, of course, like any other school of dress, is a semaphore. In the same way that athleisure can signal the virtue of physical activity without the escalated heart rate, workwear transmits the somewhat dusty moral function of labour without worrying about the dissolution of a manufacturing economy. This is probably the reason we’re not yet wearing upmarket medical scrubs (though not for lack of trying). The further society moves away from its reliance on blue-collar work, the more permissible – and nostalgic – workwear fashion becomes.

Whatever works for you

  • Beams Plus Cotton-Canvas Bib Overalls

  • Heron Preston + Carhartt Oversized Corduroy-Trimmed Distressed Cotton-Canvas Jacket

  • Junya Watanabe Grosgrain-Trimmed Checked Wool Gilet

  • BILLY Wide-Leg Cotton-Canvas Cargo Trousers

  • Bleu de Chauffe Jamy Leather-Trimmed Regentex Ripstop Backpack

  • Red Wing Shoes 8138 Moc Leather Boots