Fashion is one of the few arenas in which men have always had significantly fewer choices than women. But suddenly, discerning men have at least two opportunities women have never had: to dress like an outdoors magazine or to dress like a university.
Harvard has entered into a deal with Wearwolf Group to produce Harvard Yard menswear, a line of preppy, plaid-heavy shirts, pants, shorts and jackets that wouldn't look out of place in a Rhode Island Ralph Lauren outlet but might look a bit much on campus in 2009. Field & Stream magazine, meanwhile, has partnered with the Otto Group, an enormous German mail-order and e-commerce company, to create Field & Streambrand clothes. "Wear Your Passion," Field & Stream's website commands. It contends you can wear its khakis, jackets and shirts everywhere field, stream or office.
The Harvard line caused quite considerable head-scratching in fashion and academic circles when it was announced in August. Naturally, there was snickering on Yale student websites, but that subsided after Harvard asserted that the money was going to fund scholarships for low-income students. What better reason to monetize its élite status than to admit students from outside the élite?
"The Harvard label is just another way to do preppy merchandise," says menswear-fashion expert Robert E. Bryan, author of American Fashion Menswear, a new book on the history of male dressing. "Except that maybe Harvard gives it more authenticity because that's where the real prepsters go." Authenticity was also the holy grail for Bryan Griggs, who designed the line for the Field & Stream brand and says the clothes were inspired by his travels through Wyoming's Grand Tetons.
Authenticity, of course, sometimes needs to be enhanced by a dollop of artifice. "Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean do a lot of great things," says Griggs. "But they still sell pants with elastic in them. This is more modern." So while Field & Stream brand has a checked wool shirt, it's cut slim "so you won't end up feeling like a lumberjack." Bryan believes the search for authenticity is echoed elsewhere in the clothing business. "It's foremost a reaction to the frivolous buying spree society has been on for the past few years," he says, noting that other old-school unsexy but rugged American brands like Woolrich, Pendleton and Red Wing Shoes have become fashion darlings this season. "People are looking for something with a secure footing, with history."
Of course, this being the fashion industry, none of these ideas are exactly new. In 1999, 222-year-old Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., licensed its name to an Italian firm, which emblazons it on college-athlete-inspired T-shirts and sweatshirts, complete with fake school crests. National Geographic beat Field & Stream to the punch, launching menswear in 2005. And neither of them is even the most unlikely fashion patron. Kenny Chesney's a designer now, selling his Blue Chair Bay line in three locations in the South.