Trend: American Workwear

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I became a fan of the “Americana workwear” clothing when I first walked into Drinkwaters in Cambridge sometime in the winter of 2003. At the time I didn’t know Gary Drinkwater by name (though I had already met him while he was working at Stonestreets,) but I gotten a mailer. I was particularly interested in a brand called ‘Engineered Garments” that I’d never heard about but had been mentioned on a blurb on the store in a free local magazine.

I thought that the brand was brand new. In fact, it had been available in Japan (Engineered Garments is the New York branch of the Japanese company Nepenthes) since 1999, but FW2003 was its first season outside of Japan. In any case, I was very impressed by the line, the accessories especially (I ended up buying one of the brands boiled wool canoe bags with bridle leather trims, and now own three of their belts, including one Engineered Garments made for Styleforum,) and by the philosophy behind the line. The idea was to make pieces true to the original manufacturing standards of the work, military, and outdoor gear from the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, Daiki Suzuki, the designer behind the line, has had many pieces made by the original manufacturers.

In the line, there are moccassins made by Russell Moccassins, canoe bags by a family-owned business in MA whose name I have since forgotten, and belts made by a traditional English leather goods company. In any case, the timing was perfect, as “Americana” was sweeping across the US (though even in the SS04, I still got blank looks from store owners when I asked for the brand.) Fast forward a few years and brands that take their inspiration from rural America from the turn of the century are lining boutique shelves. Rogues Gallery, Barking Irons, and Engineered Garments take up prime floor space in fashionable boutiques such as Odin and Steven Alan in New York and M.A.C. (Modern Appealing Clothing) in San Francisco, as well as in big name specialty shops like Barney’s Co-op..

The trend, which emphasizes rugged clothing that might have been worn by dockworkers, but is generally re-cut for a much smaller, urban guy, has had its failures, like the short lived Greige, but it has been more marked in its successes, like Rogues Gallery, Rag&Bone, and Engineered Garments (interestingly, only Rogues Gallery is designed by an American).

I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that urban guys are drawn to the reassuring warmth and honest heft of this type of clothing. It’s easy enough to see that grey herringbone hunting jackets are easier to wear than acid green suits. Looking at the lookbook for Engineered Garments for Fall/Winter 2007, I wish that it were October already. One picture shows a vest worn over a corduroy jacket the collar up. The AC in my office is cold, and this picture makes me feel like I would be very comfortable even in the dead of winter in those heavy workman’s fabrics.

At the same time, most of the most popular brands are more American Gothic than Little House on the Prairie. And the websites and lookbooks have a dark, muted, often vaguely sinister tone to them. Barking Irons, for example, calls us back to the crime-ridden slums of turn-of-the-century New York City. This darker feel keeps me comfortably distanced from the happy, summer fun guy in L.L. Bean and J.Crew ads, whom I naturally distrust. The man probably plays 36 holes a week and knows at least one woman named Muffy, and I can’t deal with that. Truthfully, he probably shops at Stuart & Wright too, same as me.


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Fok-Yan Leung can be found discussing men’s style at Styleforum.net.