NEW YORK (AP) — Now that the cool-guy uniform — skinny jeans, layered Ts, tailored vest and stylish scarf, all in shades of gray and black — has reached every mall in the country, the trendsetters who started it have moved on.
And they’re going somewhere that few others can: They’re going geek chic.
This means adopting pieces that can be downright nerdy on almost everyone else, but transforming it with confidence and a good eye to make a bow tie the hippest thing around. Think Justin Timberlake — he’s the geek-chic role model cited by fashion experts.
His company in the sweater-vest club include Chuck Bass of “Gossip Girl,” Joe Jonas and The Killers. It’s like they all discovered the clothes from Don Draper’s “Mad Men” 1960s’-era closet in a vintage shop in Brooklyn.
They’re making a sort of anti-fashion statement, fashionably, says LeAnn Nealz, chief design officer of American Eagle, which is going forward with the look for fall. “It’s for the guy who wants to be different, but it’s cool looking. These are guys who might have a beard or put Clark Kent glasses on. … It’s a preppy geek, very Thom Browne-ish, but I think the celebrities interpreted it and made it more accessible.”
She adds: “I think it’s funny to them. Guys don’t have as much to play with in the fashion realm so that’s what can be fun and interesting to them.”
Nealz is right to point to designer Browne as an early adopter. He’s considered a very influential menswear designer — long a champion of the skewered preppy look — but with ideas so far ahead of the curve that the general public needs a few years to get used to them.
Now that the collective eye is used to it, some of his styles don’t seem so crazy, but more mainstream stores and designers also have toned them down and added elements of mass appeal, says Tom Julian, author of “The Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style.”
And, Julian adds, knowing that all the department stores are now carrying gingham shirts, for example, takes away the scariness for those on the fence (himself included).
The timing is right for a new striking menswear look, he says, which hasn’t seen much change since Ed Hardy brought in bold embellishment in the early 2000s. “Is it part of the political shift?” trend analyst Julian wonders. “You don’t want to look super jazzed up now. There’s some safety and stability in the ‘Mad Men’ and Kennedy era, and now it’s being done with a touch of humor.”
Geeks might be best known for their smarts, but some savvy tastemakers recognize the sartorial wisdom in their clothes, notes Brian Boye, fashion director at Men’s Health magazine.
“Also,” he adds, “for the past few decades, the term ‘geek’ seems to have undergone a change in meaning. Where it might have once been seen as a negative, geeks are now cool, if still bookish. Examples — The Geek Squad and Geeks on Call are the saviors of our electronics and computers. And many people self identify as geeks: theater geek, movie geek or history geek, for example.”
“It’s more hip to be square,” agrees Scott Norris, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of national retailer Men’s Wearhouse.
For Norris’ mainstream customer, the look is more subtle, but there certainly are sweater vests and argyle aplenty.
From there, you’re just a wingtip’s step away from plaids, short-sleeve dress shirts, short pants (maybe Bermudas?!), Converse canvas sneakers and horn-rimmed glasses.
Notice these are all classic American sportswear pieces?
“So many pieces are forever timeless,” says “Mad Men” costume designer Janie Bryant. “Every 20 years or so — the cool group did this in the ’80s too — go back to them.”
They’re items that were never trendy but have had a presence in almost every decade of the 20th century. Still, you can’t quite pluck these things from the attic. There’s more of an art to wearing them: Silhouettes should be slim and attitude should be big.
And, Bryant adds, getting a tailor to make sure the fit is perfect would help.
The safest way to test-drive geek chic is a black cashmere sweater vest, she says, but if you really want to look like you know what you’re doing, make it an argyle vest and wear a collar-up shirt with the tail hanging out.
“If you’re worried about it, you’re probably not the guy to wear this look,” adds Brian Spaly, founder and creative director of Bonobos, a trouser company that boasts a rainbow assortment of colors and even seersucker. “If you smile and not take yourself too seriously, it works.”
Spaly sees a freedom in this style that isn’t allowed by anything considered a must-have look. “This way, you’re wearing things because you like them. You see that it might take an older, educated guy to know what he likes and be comfortable in it. Teens can’t be comfortable with their jeans slung so low but they don’t know better.”
He envisions the “geek-chic” guy as a 25- to 40-year-old “who doesn’t want to wear Dockers ever again.”
Julian says, however, it takes more than the right demographic to hang out the nerd shingle. You need to consider the message you want to send. “The Pee Wee Herman look might make a statement, but in my ad/marketing world, I’d just be known at ‘The Pee Wee Herman guy.’ Even if you want to wear it to the nth degree, you have to pull it back.”